HC Deb 20 July 2004 vol 424 cc139-40
3. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

What recent studies he has made of the possibility of reinstating dual tracking on the Waterloo line from Salisbury to Exeter. [184917]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells)

The Strategic Rail Authority examined the case for dual tracking in 2000, when tendering for the South West Trains franchise. Given the costs involved and current resources, there is little prospect of that work being taken forward in the short term. Our immediate concern is to make the most efficient use of the existing network infrastructure. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's interest, however, because we certainly need to identify the stretches of infrastructure that could most benefit from track modification.

Mr. Swire

I am grateful but depressed by the Minister's reply. We certainly do not need to identify a problem on the Salisbury-Exeter line, as it is already well known. Devon and Cornwall business council and the East Devon chambers of commerce are convinced that the future economic prosperity of the south-west peninsula depends on two things—the immediate dualling of the A303 and improvements to rail, freight and passenger services, particularly on the Waterloo-Exeter line. Exactly four years ago, as the Minister mentioned, the Strategic Rail Authority was approached by South West Trains, which wanted to upgrade the track so that it could deal with speeds of up to 100 mph. Given that 42 per cent. of delays on that line are between Salisbury and Exeter, when will he be able to give better news to my constituents and others living in the south-west peninsula?

Dr. Howells

The hon. Gentleman has researched his subject very well, as demonstrated by the length of his question. However, he has a much better chance of getting a positive answer from the Government than from his Front-Bench colleagues, who want to cut spending on the railways and transport.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con)

This particular line is a success story, but it has a problem with capacity. What reassurance can the Minister give my constituents, who felt at the time when the franchise was advertised that there was a definite commitment to dualling the track? Until the track is dualled, trains will just become more overcrowded and people will go back on to the roads.

Dr. Howells

There is no question but that that is a crucial stretch of railway, but there are other ways of increasing capacity, such as lengthening trains. I give the hon. Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) an undertaking to look at the issue and to talk to the SRA and Network Rail about it. Capacity, as the hon. Member for North Dorset will know, has already increased dramatically—the number of passengers using that stretch of line has grown over the past few years because there are more trains. We can do an awful lot with modern signalling technology to increase capacity, but longer trains might provide the answer in the short term. As I told the hon. Member for East Devon, I am prepared to look at the issue and engage in discussion with the SRA about increasing capacity still further.