HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc712-3
9. Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)

What plans he has to increase rail investment on the Waterloo to Exeter line. [93537]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

On 6 November 2002, the Strategic Rail Authority announced a new approach to the South West Trains franchise, which excluded infrastructure enhancements on the Waterloo-Exeter route. Towards the end of this month, the SRA will publish its revised strategic plan setting out its priorities for the network.

Mr. Laws

Does the Minister understand how disappointed many people in the south-west are that the SRA should have U-turned on its plans to dual the Salisbury-Exeter stretch of line? Is not it time at least to consider a more limited scheme that might dual particular stretches of track to improve reliability and safety? Given the spirit in which Labour Members appear to go about their lobbying, would the Minister be willing to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) over a cider at Yeovil Junction railway station to discuss how we can get to the bottom of the matter?

Mr. Jamieson

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the SRA has to prioritise its funds for lines where there is the greatest pressure. He has heard today, from Members on both sides of the House and not least from his hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), about the pressure for extra spending on certain parts of the network. The new approach to franchises focuses on improving reliability and replacing some of the slam-door trains.

I should very much enjoy a pint of cider in the west country with the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). As the hon. Member for Yeovil is described as the highly regarded deputy economic spokesman of his party, who has been given the job of cutting £2 billion out of the budget before the election, perhaps he could explain, over that pint, how he will afford some of those improvements in the unlikely event that the Liberal Democrats come into government.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

As Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I am taking an increasing interest in the inducements that are being offered in these exchanges.

The Minister will be aware that the Waterloo to Exeter service runs through important stations, such as Overton, Whitchurch, Andover and Grateley. Is he also aware that when a seven to 15-year franchise was on offer to South West Trains the company was prepared to make substantial capital investments, but that as only a short extension is now on offer it is understandably more reluctant? Will he give an assurance that the SRA will step in and make the improvements to which we were all looking forward?

Mr. Jamieson

I note the right hon. Gentleman's comments, although I notice that he did not offer me any "seducement- to visit his constituency.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but the capital to which he referred was not always available in particular franchises—it was not actually connected to them. I can assure him that we recognise the importance of the line and of those stations, but he must recognise that the SRA, with the available funding, has to deal with the priorities as they stand, including the competing demands from his hon. Friends and other Members on both sides of the House.