HC Deb 28 March 2000 vol 347 cc30-6WH 11.56 am
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Perhaps you could give me guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to whether I shall be allowed an extra four minutes, or whether we shall have to stop after precisely 30 minutes?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

I am happy to help the hon. Lady. We can continue the debate until 12.30 pm. The hon. Lady has therefore gained a little time, and I am sure that she will wax lyrical for as long as she sees fit.

Dr. Starkey

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I shall demonstrate that the reopened east-west rail link would be a critical and strategic addition to the national rail network; that it would be crucial to relieving congestion on both the road and rail networks; that it would encourage sustainable economic regeneration; that it would be widely supported; and that it could be delivered quickly and would be excellent value for money. However, Government action is required now to ensure that it goes ahead without further delay.

I speak not only on behalf of my constituency, but as the chair of a parliamentary group that contains 30 Conservative and Labour Members of Parliament representing constituencies along the route. I am grateful to those members of the group who are here today. A significant number of other hon. Members—including the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), who has just left—have sent me notes to say that they wished that they could be here to support the debate, but that it clashed with other commitments.

The east-west rail link would run from the east coast ports through either Ipswich or Norwich to Cambridge, Bedford, Bletchley—which is in my constituency—Oxford, Swindon and connections to the west of England. The core of the route, from Cambridge to Oxford, was closed to passenger services in 1968, and to freight in the 1980s. The closures were untimely, as they occurred just before the development of Milton Keynes and the growth of Bicester, both of which would probably have sustained the route and averted its closure. Some of the route remains open; for example, an excellent, though rather slow train service operates between Bedford and Bletchley. The Oxford to Bicester section was also reopened a few years ago. Almost all the track bed remains, although there is a nine-mile gap to the east of Bedford.

My first argument is that the link would provide a critical and strategic addition to the national rail network. The east-west route would provide an orbital route round London connecting all the main rail radials emanating from London and would maximise network capacity by connecting the east coast and west coast main lines. Hon. Members will be aware that there is virtually no spare capacity in the south of England on either of those main lines, so an east-west rail link would provide additional flexibility in the network. It would provide opportunities for both passengers and freight and would allow freight from London to the north to be rerouted, avoiding the east coast and west coast main lines, so it could relieve congestion on other parts of the network around London by diverting some existing services to the east-west route.

The route is crucial if congestion on road and rail networks is to be relieved. I have described its effect on relieving congestion on the rail network. It would also provide a realistic alternative to the current road network, linking town centres across England from east to west. The cross-country road alternatives are not particularly good and anyone who has used them knows that. They are not direct, there is little dual carriageway and some stretches have a poor safety record. The A420 from Oxford to Swindon is popularly, or unpopularly, known as the road of death because of its record of road traffic accidents. Furthermore, many town centres are heavily congested, so journey times from town centre to town centre are much higher. A direct east-west link is an attractive alternative. It would help to achieve a transfer of passengers from the road network to the rail network and it has been estimated that it would save up to 100 vehicle kilometres every year.

It would also encourage sustainable economic regeneration. The Milton Keynes, Northampton, Bedford triangle has been designated an area of substainable major growth. Cambridge, with its high-tech industries, is also under heavy development pressure, as are other sites along the route, including Norwich. The east-west route would make those locations transport nodes in a network from which passengers could go north, south, east or west without having to use the most congested parts of the network. It would allow new settlements and housing developments to be built along the east-west route, with employment, shipping and schools linked by rail instead of just by road. It would serve an estimated additional 400,000 new homes along the route. A feasibility study has shown that regeneration linked to the east-west route would create around 10,000 jobs and it can be calculated that taxes paid on earnings and other economic benefits would return £80 million to the economy.

The route would pass through Bletchley in my constituency. It is an old railway town which has suffered decline since the expansion of Milton Keynes. It has a high unemployment rate with poor health and lower incomes compared with other parts of Milton Keynes. There is a substantial amount of empty office and shop space. However, the moment is now right for the regeneration of Bletchley, because central Milton Keynes is becoming fully developed and developers are starting to look elsewhere. Bletchley could become an important secondary centre, but the east-west route is crucial. Bletchley would be the crossover point of the east-west route and the west coast main line. New settlements along the east-west route would look to Bletchley for work and shops. It would allow full exploitation of the tourist potential of Bletchley park, which is next to Bletchley railway station and was the wartime setting for the decoding of the Enigma codes, which made a huge contribution to the victory against fascism in the second world war.

The east-west route is widely supported. Plans for the route have been developed and sustained during the past five years by a consortium of 35 local authorities, controlled by a variety of political parties. This is a cross-party issue and I pay tribute to the work of that local authority consortium over the years in ensuring that the feasibility study for the east-west route was carried out, putting their money behind the idea and ensuring that the business case for the route was well and truly demonstrated, even if it is not entirely recognised in some places.

The east-west route is a crucial element in the local authorities' transport plans. It has been endorsed as a priority project in draft regional planning guidance for the south-east and east of England planning organisations. It has also been incorporated in the strategic plans of the new regional development agencies for the south-east and east of England, both of which have now become members of the consortium pushing the route and are keen to be involved in partnership promotion.

As I have said, the scheme is supported by a parliamentary group, which I chair, with 30 members representing constituencies along and close to the route. We all have a different constituency argument for stressing its importance, but all the arguments together make the overall case. The route has many things going for it, the last of which are that it can be delivered quickly and is excellent value for money.

Technically, the Bedford to Oxford section, with the Aylesbury link, can be delivered quickly. The track bed already exists and simply needs upgrading to allow travel up to 75 mph. That would be a huge, immediate advantage to my constituency, as the existing Bedford to Bletchley route is hardly any faster than it was 150 years ago. With increased speed, it would become a much more attractive alternative. No statutory powers would be required to open this section, so there is no need for a process under the Transport and Works Act 1992 or a public inquiry. The western end of the project has pre-qualified for the rail partnership fund, which is administered by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority.

The second phase, from Bedford eastwards, would take longer because of the nine-mile gap in the route. There has been considerable discussion in Bedford about whether the route should go through the centre of Bedford or round the outside. That matter has now been resolved, after an exceedingly heated public debate, and there is general support in Bedford for the inner route, serving the town centre. However, that will require a process under the Transport and Works Act 1992 because of the need to fill in the gap.

Several train operating companies are seriously interested in bidding to run services along different sections of the east-west route, which brings me to the funding mechanisms. There has been some confusion about the appropriate funding mechanism. Orignally, the local authority consortium was advised by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising that it should pursue funding on its own, without the involvement of a train operating company. It is now being advised by the shadow Strategic Rail Authority that such involvement is fundamental to a successful bid. At the same time, the franchise replacement process has added complexity to the issue.

One of the train operating companies is including the west phase of the east-west route in its franchise replacement bid; another is including the full route in its submission. The two companies are running on different time scales, with only one in the first tranche of franchise replacement. As part of the franchise replacement process, the train operating companies will not only bid to run services along the route, but intend to put some of their own money towards the capital costs that would enable the route to be brought into operation.

The Government, and to a lesser extent the rail passenger partnership, have created the mechanisms of franchise replacement to persuade the private sector to invest in the national rail network. The east-west route provides an excellent opportunity, with a number of private train companies seriously interested in putting their money into the system. However, the window of opportunity is very small. Once the franchises have been re-let, there may be no further opportunity for 10 years. The councils and Members of Parliament who support the route cannot afford to let that opportunity to benefit the people and the communities that they represent to slip through their fingers.

The east-west route is in line with Government transport policies and priorities and with their planning priorities. It could be an early demonstration of the benefits of that policy, but the Government must ensure that it goes ahead.

I have four requests, about which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will reassure me. First, I ask the Government to recognise the local, regional and national benefits of the east-west rail link. Secondly, I ask them to support the consortium's initiative in seeking to work in partnership with the private sector to develop major rail infrastructure schemes. Thirdly and most crucially, I ask the Government to instruct the shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies to deliver the east-west route in consultation with the consortium, which includes Railtrack, via the franchise replacement programme, or a combination of franchise replacement and the rail passenger partnership, with a commitment from the shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies that the west end of the route will be operational in three years and the complete scheme in five years. If my hon. Friend says that she cannot instruct them to do so, I ask the Government to give a clear political steer that that is in line with Government policy and is how those policies should be achieved.

Fourthly, I understand that Rail Property Ltd. is trying to sell some of the sites that are essential to the reopening of the route, especially land near Bedford St. Johns station. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to instruct Rail Property Ltd. to suspend its efforts in marketing those sites until the east-west route has been reopened, when some of them will no longer be able to be marketed. I hope that my hon. Friend can give me those assurances, so that I can pass them on to other hon. Members who support the east-west rail link and the councils that have worked so hard to try to achieve what would be a jewel in the crown of the Government's transport policy.

12.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) on securing this debate, which provides hon. Members with an opportunity to consider the potential of an east-west rail link. She and other hon. Members in the region have worked strenuously to assist the consortium, and she has put her case with characteristic comprehensiveness and clarity. I hope that I can deal with most, if not all, of the points that she has made.

As my hon. Friend has said, the railway between Oxford and Cambridge was closed to passenger traffic in the 1960s, apart from a short section between Bletchley and Bedford. The section between Oxford and Bisector Town station has been reopened to passenger services. Freight services between Cambridge and Bedford also ceased in the 1960s, and those between Bicester and Bletchley in the 1990s. The possible need for an east-west rail link, which would provide an alternative route for freight and passengers to complement and relieve the A14 trunk road, has been discussed several times and is clearly an acute issue for people in the region.

Proposals of varying complexity have been formulated, the most extensive of which is to link Felixstowe and Bristol. However, as my hon. Friend has said, the pivotal sections of line are those from Cambridge to Bedford and from Bletchley to Bicester. Those sections are closed and, as she has said, the track has been lifted in some places.

We in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are committed to examining the feasibility of the east-west rail link, but it is important that a clear business case is made for such a large and expensive proposal before it is considered for public funding. I understand that the funding gap for the total project would be about £70 million. Possible ways forward include a phased approach to the scheme or a partial reinstatement. Those proposals have been discussed with the Department and the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. A separate proposal has consequently emerged involving the line from Oxford to Bedford. That would entail the reopening of the Bicester to Bletchley line and some improvements and upgrades to the existing track and infrastructure—the so-called western section proposal.

In order to encourage further investment in the rail network, the Government have provided the franchising director with additional funds aimed at supporting new investment proposals that produce wider significant benefits for both integration and modal shift. Most of that money, as my hon. Friend recognised, will be distributed through the RPP scheme. That scheme is designed to encourage and support innovative proposals at regional and local level that develop and encourage rail use and promote integration with other modes, such as those that increase accessibility for disabled people, and more generally improve the attractiveness of rail both to existing and new users. Support for those projects will enhance the quality of services offered by local and regional rail.

RPP bids are assessed on five key criteria identified in our paper "A New Deal for Transport". I will not go into those in detail, but it is important that each bid is judged on the basis of its impact on the environment, on the safety of the network and on the local and regional economy. Consideration should also be given to accessibility for disabled and other people to the network and the integration that would flow from the scheme, both in terms of local and national policy frameworks.

I am pleased to announce that a bid has been received under the RPP scheme for the reopening of the Bicester to Bletchley section of the east-west rail link. That bid has pre-qualified for further detailed consideration. That is the first hurdle. At the moment the franchising director is awaiting submission of a formal bid and business case in support of the proposal. That is necessary so that the bid can be formally assessed against the criteria that apply under the RPP scheme.

My hon. Friend asked whether the bids should include involvement by the train operating company and I can clarify that the consortium was advised at the pre-qualification stage that, while a total final bid would be possible without a train operating company, the involvement of one or more train operating companies would enhance the chances of the formal bid being accepted for funding. That may be particularly important for establishing the business case. When the franchising director receives the formal bid, it will be evaluated against the criteria as outlined and he will make a decision. I understand that new sections of the route would require processes under the Transport and Works Act 1992 to be followed and that could involve public inquiries.

My hon. Friend also mentioned local and regional transport plans. There is obviously considerable local authority involvement in the consortium. Local authorities are required to produce their local and regional transport plans and they should take account of the potential contribution that heavy rail could make to the integrated transport strategy as a whole to improve public transport and reduce car use. In doing so, they need to have regard to the shadow Strategic Rail Authority's developing national rail strategy. If local authorities include the reopening of this line as a priority in their local transport plans it would also enable them to provide financial support as an essential part of the jigsaw. If local authorities include them in their plans it is an important part of the process that hopefully will lead to a successful decision from the point of view of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members.

The franchising director is currently considering the replacement of franchise agreements and is looking for undertakings from companies for continuous improvements for passengers. Improvements in service standards and performance are needed to create an overall journey experience that meets passenger expectations from inquiry to arrival. The director has consulted with user groups and conducted his own national passenger survey.

The franchising director is considering changes to the boundaries of franchising and proposals by train operators for micro-franchising of individual lines and for the extension of the network. We want to see continual improvement and expansion of the rail network, and we welcome all viable schemes that will contribute to the modal shift and to promoting transport that is more environmentally friendly and sustainable. I hope that, under the RPP scheme, the consortium will soon submit a formal bid and business case for the western section of the east-west rail link. If that bid is successful, it will attract further interest and investment in the project.

A rail link between eastern and western Britain has clear economic benefits, and would provide relief for the road connections between the east and west, particularly for the A14 trunk road. We support rail initiatives through the RPP, and we applaud the consortium and our hon. Friends in the region for working towards submitting the bid for the western sector. We have charged the franchising director with assessing all RPP bids against a set of common, published and objective criteria. The formal bid has not, as my hon. Friend suggested, been recieved, let alone assessed against those criteria. Therefore, I can express public support inasmuch as I hope that the consortium will get the bid in. It would, however, be inappropriate for me to say that the bid is wonderful and should be supported, until we have seen and assessed it. That would be wrong, and unfair on other bids that may be in competition with it. I hope that the consortium gets the bid in quickly; we want the matter to progress, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will assist in that.

Another considerable task for which the franchising director is responsible is the replacement of the original passenger rail franchises. He must consider a range of factors, but enhancement of the rail network and the provision of a better service with a greater choice of routes are two important ones. He will review favourably any proposals to add to the existing rail network that are included in bids for replacement franchises, provided that additional public subsidy can be justified on the basis of extra benefits.

The replacement process provides a unique opportunity for reopening new lines. The development of the railway network is an on-going process, and funds such as the RPP will allow the franchising director to consider proposals at any time and to have funding available to support those that meet the relevant criteria whenever they are submitted. Time will not be an issue. The time scales for individual projects depend on the complexity of the project and the timetable for the replacement of franchises, so it is not easy to specify how long a project or a phase of a project will take. If the formal RPP bid for the western secton is successful, I would expect that work to proceed as soon as practicable.

My hon. Friend asked about the marketing of sites. She probably knows that all rail property was subjected to an embargo until three months ago. Any sales are now subject to the approval of the director. I understand that Bedford St. Johns—the station that she mentioned—is not vital to the development of the line because Bletchley to Bedford services currently use Bedford Midland station, although I accept that safeguarding the track bed around Bedford St. Johns is important.

I have applauded the actions of the consortium and I want to see progress, but the ball is now clearly in the consortium's court and further progress cannot be made until a formal bid with a business case is received. I hope that that will be soon.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am giving the Minister for Public Health time to reach her position. There is no need to suspend the sitting as both the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who is initiating the debate, and the Minister are now in their places. We can now move to debate the use of bovine material in non-food products.