HC Deb 01 April 2003 vol 402 cc784-9
7. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If he will make a statement on the future level of train services to Macclesfield and Stoke following the upgrade of the west coast main line.

8. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

When he expects upgrades to the west coast main line to be completed; and if he will make a statement. [105790]

9. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

If he will make a statement on the upgrade of the west coast main line. [105791]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The Strategic Rail Authority will shortly be publishing its final west coast plans. This will give full details of progress with the project to date, the time scales for completion, and the future service levels. The line through Macclesfield and Stoke will be the principal London-Manchester route.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am grateful for that reply. Is the Secretary of State aware that Macclesfield is one of the major profit centres on the west coast main line? The line is due to close on 17 May for the best part of five months. If the people whom I represent in Macclesfield and the surrounding area are to benefit, will the right hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that Macclesfield will benefit from increased rail services, once the upgrading has taken place, and that Macclesfield station will be improved? Also, will he guarantee that rail travellers will get value for money? Most are concerned about service reliability and not about train speed.

Mr. Darling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point—reliability is absolutely essential. The line will indeed close for a period of just over four months from May. The alternative would have been for two years' interruption, so the big saving in terms of frustration and delays will be the reduction of a two-year period to one of four months.

The hon. Gentleman is right, too, that passengers will see the benefits of the improvement. For example, the London to Manchester journey time will be down by 30 minutes by 2004 and the Glasgow to London journey will be down by an hour two years later. The SRA is planning to increase the frequency of services on several routes. The key to all this is that spending the money that is necessary—and frankly long overdue, since the line was last the subject of a major overhaul in the late 1960s and early 1970s—will lead to improved reliability, with better track, better signalling and, on many routes, new rolling stock coming on to the main line. All in all, that should provide a more reliable, better service than we have at the moment.

Michael Fabricant

The Secretary of State will be aware that two lines of track that run through my constituency are to be increased to four lines of track. The construction period will affect 320 homes in Armitage and Handsacre and 150 homes in Lichfield. During that period, what sort of recourse do my constituents have if they wish to complain? How can they improve conditions if the noise becomes too great or if a 14-week construction period is extended to 28 weeks or 30 weeks? What hope can the Secretary of State give them that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel?

Mr. Darling

I can tell that the hon. Gentleman has been rehearsing his question all morning. He raises a perfectly reasonably point.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

He always does.

Mr. Darling

Not always.

The SRA and those responsible will make every effort to ensure that the work is carried out as expeditiously as possible. No doubt if the hon. Gentleman's constituents are aggrieved they will come first to him and he can then approach the Department with any difficulties that he may have. In relation to specific measures, it might be better if I write to him, as he knows exactly what the position is.

Ann Winterton

Will the Secretary of State accept that although rail travellers from my constituency are indeed looking forward to more reliable services after the upgrade of the west coast main line, they are also looking for better information and better integration of cross-country services to link into what I still call Intercity trains stopping at Stoke and Macclesfield?

Furthermore, is he aware that Congleton station is a positive disgrace? It is very inhospitable, and it needs CCTV and a good paint. We need some money spent on it, rather as money is being spent on the up line at Stoke-on-Trent and the down line in the constituency of my hon. and ancient Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton).

Mr. Darling

It must have been a difficult breakfast this morning.

The hon. Lady makes a fair point. I was on that line recently. I agree that there is a need to improve a number of stations on the west coast main line. That will take time. The Government are committed through Network Rail to spending some £10 billion on doing up that line, which is on any view a very considerable investment.

I agree with the hon. Lady's comments about information. Train companies can—and to some extent are already beginning to—do an awful lot more to provide better information, not only in respect of passengers travelling on their own trains, but about the services that they connect with. As I have said to the industry on many occasions, the technology is there—it is not rocket science nowadays. Passengers rightly expect to be treated as customers rather than as hapless victims of the system. The hon. Lady is absolutely right in that regard.

Claire Ward (Watford)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the information about the upgrade of the west coast main line. Although I welcome it, I hope that it will not be at the expense of commuter services. Draft timetables are now being produced. May I seek an assurance that we will see improvements in the frequency of train services from my constituency into London, and that money will be available for the upgrading of train stations and the extension of platforms to ensure that we are able to benefit from these new services?

Mr. Darling

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The whole point of the SRA strategy—not only on the west coast main line but on other lines as well—is to improve capacity on existing track. Upgrading of signalling and some changes that have already been made at Euston station will allow more services to run. As I have said, the SRA plans to publish its final proposals for the west coast line fairly shortly. At that stage, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be able to see precisely what is proposed. I agree that intercity services are very important. In particular, London commuter services are of the utmost importance if we are to bear down on congestion levels in the city.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern over the reductions in cross-country services on the west coast main line—including reductions in the Glasgow-Bournemouth service that will affect my constituency? The main problem on the cross-country services is overcrowding. However, my main concern—and, I hope, that of the Secretary of State—is over the introduction of the pendolino, or tilting train. It appears that there is only one service between Euston and Manchester. Is the Secretary of State confident that such trains will be introduced on time and on budget?

Mr. Darling

On the issue of the Virgin cross-country service, as my hon. Friend knows, the SRA has made a small reduction in the number of trains running. There are two reasons for that. When the service was launched last September, no account was taken of the effect that an increased number of trains would have at certain pinch points on the track. As a result, there were holdups and trains did not reach their destinations on time. That, in turn, meant that the return journeys were held up as well. For example, a train leaving Aberdeen and going down to the south-west of England could sometimes arrive several hours late and so could not be on time going back. That is why some of those services have been taken out—to make them more reliable. Because trains have been withdrawn, Virgin will be able to use larger trains on those cross-country routes. It is obvious that four-carriage trains are insufficient to cater for the demand that has been generated. The SRA is ensuring that something that was long overdue on the railway network is put in place—proper management. Money is going in, but proper management is essential if we are to have a reliable train service.

My hon. Friend is right to say that one pendolino is running at the moment. The operators have been running more trains, without passengers, to test the line. [Interruption.] In the past, train operators have been anxious to bring new rolling stock into service very quickly, without first checking whether that rolling stock runs effectively and properly. It is better to spend the time necessary on testing new trains before introducing them into full passenger service. If we did not do that, people would quite rightly start to complain.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

When will the upgrading of the west coast main line to Liverpool take place? What will be the frequencies of services to London, compared with the frequencies on the Manchester-London line? Why was the north western England rail passengers committee bypassed when the SRA decided to cut all cross-country Virgin services from Liverpool?

Mr. Darling

On the last point, the SRA now acknowledges that it should have consulted more with rail passengers groups. A number of such groups have made that point and I accept that it is valid. If we are to have rail passengers committees, they ought to be used. They can be used pretty effectively.

As the hon. Lady will know, there are plans to ensure that Liverpool will benefit from the west coast upgrade. I repeat what I said to our hon. Friend the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) a few moments ago. The SRA will soon publish its final strategy for the west coast and the hon. Lady will be able to see precisely what is proposed for Liverpool services. She will no doubt make her views known then.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

The Secretary of State is no doubt right to say that many businesses, passengers and families from the west midlands, the north-west and north of the border who will be inconvenienced—and I include tourism businesses in the Lake district—take the view that, on the whole, the pain is worth the gain. However, can I press the Secretary of State to give the House two commitments? First, will he take a personal interest in the quality of the alternative bus services that will be laid on when the west coast main line services are suspended? If they prove inadequate, will he ensure that they are upgraded?

Secondly, to pick up on the comment made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), will the Secretary of State do whatever he can to accelerate the introduction of the pendolinos north of Manchester, where they are looked forward to and anticipated as much as elsewhere?

Mr. Darling

On the first point, yes, of course. I am aware that if one is going on a journey and there is disruption on the line, one tends to focus on what is happening to oneself at the time rather than on what might happen in a couple of years' time. However, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the investment going into the west coast main line is well worth it. Once it is complete, the line will be transformed from an ageing, inconvenient and unreliable service to something much better.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I want the pendolino trains to be introduced as quickly as possible, not only to Manchester but beyond. However, it is critically important that there are test runs before the trains are put into full passenger service. Past experience has shown that trying to introduce new rolling stock—and these trains are entirely new for our railway network—sometimes throws up problems that cause disruption, breakdowns or delays, often with extremely unfortunate results. I should like to see the trains in use as quickly as possible, but time spent on getting the service right is time well spent and I hope that, in two years' time, with new trains and upgraded services, people will see a real difference as a result of the massive commitment that the Government have made to investing in the west coast main line.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), is the Secretary of State aware by the threat of Virgin Trains that peak-time trains will not stop at Milton Keynes Central? The consequence would be that commuters from that station would entirely fill the county services at peak times, thereby displacing all commuters south of Milton Keynes Central. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the SRA to ensure that that does not happen?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend has raised that matter with me previously, and I take her point. The SRA will want to ensure that there is enough passenger capacity between Milton Keynes and London, whether with Virgin or Silverlink, so that the overcrowding to which she referred will not take place. I have already taken the matter up with the SRA and will write to my hon. Friend about it. I suspect, however, that the main proposals will be set out in the final west coast strategy, to which I have already referred hon. Members. There is no doubt that the train service, especially from Milton Keynes, is extremely important and I want to ensure that the quality and level of service is enhanced as a result of the improvements that we make.