HC Deb 06 January 2004 vol 416 cc150-2
8. Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab)

What progress is being made on the upgrade of the west coast main line. [145871]

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

The upgrade of the west coast main line is making good progress and is expected to deliver significant improvements in journey times this year and next.

Tony Cunningham

I welcome that answer, but I hope that the new lines that are being laid in the upgrade are British made. Referring to journey times, does my right hon. Friend appreciate that one of the greatest problems is the greatly extended journey time during the upgrade? There is great suspicion that the reason for that problem has nothing to do with the upgrade, but more to do with avoiding paying the compensation that companies would have to pay for late-arriving trains. Will he look into the whole issue of timetabling?

Mr. Darling

Yes, I will. It is important that there should be realistic and accurate timetables. In relation to my hon. Friend's first point, I think that I am right in saying that most of the steel going into Britain's railways is British. On journey times, he will know that, when the upgrade is completed next year, the journey time to Carlisle, for example, on the west coast main line will be reduced by about half an hour. I am afraid that, in the major works that are being carried out on the line—the first major works in almost 30 years—there will inevitably be some degree of disruption. Hon. Members are well aware of that. I believe, though, that once the upgrade is completed and we have the new trains that Virgin is introducing—a number of which are now appearing on the west coast main line—there will be a qualitatively better service on the west coast than there has been for 30 years.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

I warmly welcome the huge sums of money that have been poured into the west coast main line: my constituency has greatly benefited from that. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that as well as improving the signalling and track, the upgrade must, and should continue to, include, first, car parking at railway stations to encourage people to use rail; and, secondly, the extension of platforms to enable longer and larger trains to be put on to lines to carry people who want to travel by rail?

Mr. Darling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Car parks at stations are extremely important if we are to encourage people to leave their cars and go by train. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the bureaucracy that stood in the way of lengthening platforms. When one looks at that more closely, it is clear that extending the platform by a few feet does not necessitate upgrading the entire station. One or two people thought that it did, which made the whole thing daft.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his general welcome for the large amount of money—some £7.5 billion—that will be spent on the west coast main line. That investment is long overdue. I am grateful, too, that he takes such a realistic attitude towards the undoubted disruption that his constituents have had to endure. I hope that very shortly they will see the fruits of all that work.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab)

As my right hon. Friend will know, I have taken a particular interest in the west coast main line for more than a decade, and we are now at a point where we will see improvements. Yesterday, the first Pendolino train went from Euston to Glasgow. That service will be a great benefit to my constituents. However, will my right hon. Friend comment on the decision not to lay extra track in the Trent valley, which will create congestion and delays on the west coast main line? I understand that that decision was taken after the rail regulator intervened with Network Rail.

Mr. Darling

On the first point, my hon. Friend will know that once the upgrade is completed next year, more than half an hour will be taken off the journey time to Carlisle. I am glad that he mentioned the arrival in Glasgow of the first Pendolino train—I am told that it was eight minutes early, which is a shining example to the rest of the trains going up and down the west coast main line.

In relation to the four tracks through the Trent valley, the regulator, the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail are discussing whether that work is immediately necessary. We are conscious of the fact that, as my hon. Friend will know, Railtrack promised to deliver the project for £2.5 billion, which was a hopelessly, wildly optimistic estimate. At one point, the cost soared to £13 billion. Even at the current £7.5 billion, it represents a very substantial investment, and we are all duty bound to ask ourselves what is necessary to deliver these journey time improvements, bearing in mind the fact that a lot of money has to be spent on other parts of the network, too.

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