HC Deb 02 July 2003 vol 408 cc130-8WH 3.30 pm
Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the important matter of the standard of rail links to Shrewsbury. According to the computer records in the House of Commons Library, there has not been such a debate for at least 25 years, and possibly longer.

I am pleased that some of my Welsh colleagues, including my hon. Friends the Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öumlpik) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), led a delegation today to the Secretary of State for Wales to discuss the condition of the railways connecting with Shrewsbury. I hope that that will be considered jointly with this debate, that Ministers will begin to work together closely to enforce a better understanding and that that will start to bring about real improvements for rail links.

Lembit Öumlpik (Montgomeryshire)

Is my hon. Friend aware that we called primarily for the support of the Secretary of State for Wales in creating an hourly service from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and integrating the rail and bus links? Will he support a campaign to consider integrated rail transport from Shrewsbury to the west?

Mr. Marsden

Absolutely. We have, over the centuries, had our differences with the Welsh, but now we are working closely on a range of different issues, especially on the local hospital in Shrewsbury, which serves the people of mid-Wales. Similarly, the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth line is important but under-resourced and does not provide enough services for local people.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

The hon. Gentleman said that that line was under-resourced but he will know that the National Assembly for Wales has pledged a considerable sum to it. The difficulty seems to be somewhere in the Strategic Rail Authority. I am sure that he will join me and other hon. Members in ensuring that what the Assembly has pledged comes through, so that his constituents, and mine, get the better service that they deserve.

Mr. Marsden

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In fact, I was going to deal with that in my speech. I understand that the Welsh Assembly, which is putting its money where its mouth is, pledged £2.5 million, yet the problems seem to reside more on the English side. I am a regular user of rail services; I have seen them at their best and worst. On Monday of this week, I travelled down on a Virgin Trains service that was some 35 minutes late into Euston, which was not untypical. That is the heart of the matter. People want fast, efficient and cost-effective services, but they are not getting them at the moment.

National Statistics has demonstrated that train travel has risen by 20 per cent. in the past decade—that is great—but there has been no significant track expansion, train passengers are typically being delayed on one in five trains and the length of those delays has increased. That information comes from the Strategic Rail Authority. Although the cost of motoring is proportionately the same as it was in 1974, the cost of rail services has risen by some 80 per cent. All in all, British rail users are paying some of the highest fares in Europe, but they are not receiving the services that they should have.

I am a great fan of history. I was interested in finding out where the first railways went in Shrewsbury and throughout Shropshire. In 1835 the small Ffestiniog Railway proposed an alternative port in Morfa Nefyn for Irish-bound traffic from Wolverhampton. Shrewsbury was one of the obvious stopping-off places on the way to that peninsula. Unfortunately, the Admiralty in London decided that the new port was not required and Shrewsbury did not get its important station.

In 1839 there was another proposal to run a line from the west midlands to the Mersey. That line would have gone through the town. By 1844, there was still no agreement, as the North Wales mineral railway thought that any new scheme would affect rail traffic on the Wrexham to Chester line. So it went on, until Royal Assent was eventually given to a link between Chester and Shrewsbury on 30 June 1845. A year later, links to Wolverhampton, Hereford and Stafford were agreed to.

It is curious that, throughout history, there is a certain repetitive theme. I looked back at the report of the proceedings of the Select Committee on the Shrewsbury, Oswestry and Chester Junction and North Wales Mineral Railway Amalgamation—I am sure hon. Members will be familiar with them—and found that the Select Committee had discussed a proposal for such a railway. Mr. Ellicombe, the agent for the Bill, was cross-questioning Henry Robertson, who went on to become a Liberal Member of Parliament for Shrewsbury in 1862.

The questions that were posed included:

"Do you consider that the proposed consolidation of the Companies would be of great advantage to the public?"

Mr. Robertson said:

"I think it would be a great advantage to the public…it would be much better in the hands of one Company than in the hands of two—it would produce a quickness and greater regularity and would tend to the advantage of the public."

The question was then asked:

"Would a considerable expense be saved by working one line in connection with the other?"

The answer was:

"No doubt great expense would be saved."

There are echoes through time, but clearly we have not learned from what has gone before. Then, as now, there was great competition between companies, and that means that we do not always get the services that we should have.

Later, the Beeching reforms devastated the branch line. Then, British Rail was privatised by the Conservatives and was smashed into 120 pieces. That ended the strategic planning of our railways and destroyed the precious knowledge and expertise of local British Rail staff. In short, Shrewsbury has been an important railway hub for the Marches and mid-Wales for more than 157 years. Local people are proud of that history, but they despair of the current situation.

Recently, Liberal Democrats in Shrewsbury and Atcham carried out a survey. We asked 200 people at Shrewsbury railway station what they thought of the services. Some 90 per cent. thought that privatisation had had a negative impact on the railways and that, in particular, rail services had got worse under Labour since 1997. Some 58 per cent. thought that there simply were not enough trains running.

There is a bureaucratic nightmare of responsibility and accountability that means that we fail to bring about the improvements that we desire. To give a small example, an argument has raged about who is responsible for lights on the footbridge over Welshpool station. The platform belongs to Wales and Borders Trains and the footbridge belongs to Powys council. The two cannot agree. The Welsh Assembly has earmarked £2.5 million to improve the Cambrian line; however, we cannot get the Strategic Rail Authority to agree to that work, so nothing has happened.

As the chairman of Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth rail users association, Gareth Marston, said:

"What we have had since privatisation is a fragmented and dysfunctional system which is cost inefficient. What we need is a vertically integrated system like most other European Countries have, who manage to run much more efficient services than our own. What we must be looking to do is undo the damage that the 1993 railways act did.

We are not looking for a blank cheque, we are just looking for existing funds to be spent on improving services rather than an inefficient structure and legal wrangles."

As the rail regulator said in a recent report, Network Rail's spending is out of control. There are fewer and less reliable trains, yet passengers have to pay a lot more. I shall take the example of the journey from Shrewsbury to London. I am pleased that the price of a saver return ticket has been held down. Since 1997, it has gone from £30.50 to £33.70, a rise of just 11 per cent. That is good. However, that ticket is very inflexible and, for business people, getting that ticket at short notice is totally impractical. However, a standard return has risen from £70 to £115, a 64 per cent. rise. The first-class fare has risen from £97.50 to £184, a whopping great rise of 89 per cent. in the past six years.

I accept that performance has improved on some services and that since the various train disasters, there have clearly been some improvements. Nevertheless, Wales and Borders Trains has a punctuality rate of only 84 per cent. against a target of 92 per cent., and Central Trains has a punctuality rate of 82 per cent. against a target of 91 per cent. If we look behind the arbitrary targets, we realise that they distort what the public and the passengers desperately want. One interesting fact is that only 35 per cent. of people think that Central Trains deals satisfactorily with the delays. The poor commuters have been rewarded with the worst train performance, endless delays, cancellations and a deteriorating service.

I should like to have the Intercity routes back. It would be a great challenge to any Government to agree to that, but they are very symbolic. We briefly recaptured them in a Virgin Trains experiment, but they immediately died a death. We need vision, better management and cash put into the railways to make them succeed; to get people out of cars and back on to the trains. It amuses me slightly that the Deputy Prime Minister said way back in 1993 that Intercity was being cut back to maximise revenue. He lamented that Blackpool and Shrewsbury might be next, and that several areas might be removed from the network service. He said that that was wrong. He was right then. What are the Government going to do about it now?

My office has received a number of submissions from the different rail users associations. The Shrewsbury to Chester rail users association has made various points. It wants to see improved connections by advancing the time of northbound trains; to have more accurate information from Network Rail and real-time train information; to re-open stations at such places as Baschurch, Whittington, Weston Rhyn and Rossett; and to include the Shrewsbury to Chester link as a trans-European network route to give it the strategic designation that it deserves.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The hon. Gentleman has touched on some stations in my constituency. Is he aware that I have had numerous meetings with the various authorities, and with Councillor David Lloyd of Gobowen who is celebrating 10 years of the re-opening of Gobowen station next Friday? All that we are asking for on our patch is an hourly clock-face service running from Shrewsbury up to Chester so that people know when the trains go. More trains will get people off the roads. We saw a 20 per cent. increase in users last year because of the improved timetable.

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said earlier. We are exasperated by the bureaucratic delays. The Welsh franchise was promised to start on 1 March 2002, but it is still not up and running. Through the hon. Gentleman, can I ask the Minister when that will happen? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that we had a promise of £250,000 to get the Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury link up to 90 mph five years ago, and that that still has not happened?

Mr. Marsden

Because of the shortness of time, I shall simply say that I totally support what the hon. Gentleman has said. I hope that the Minister will address those specific points.

Other rail users associations have reiterated key points. Mr. G. Atkinson from the Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton rail users association has said that there are

"no through services from the local stations direct to Birmingham New Street except the 07.10 from Shrewsbury, which means passengers having to change at Wolverhampton on an important commuter route"

and vice versa on the way back, where there are no direct trains through except the 21.07. Why would people take the train when they do not have the basic flexibility to get on to railway services that they want? The association calls for:

"A co-ordinated timetable between the two operators"

and says:

"Timetable posters at stations are incomplete and difficult to relate to"

each other. Further, there is no proper consultation on timetable changes:

"This year bus times at Telford were six minutes too early to meet the first train".

So it goes on. Gill Wright from the Heart of Wales Line travellers association has highlighted the under-utilisation of the rail services from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth, and has called for:

"1. Devolved government for the West Midlands to assist in the management and strategic overview of the railways.

2. Vertically integrated franchises operating on a not for profit basis

3. Need to replace unsuitable rolling stock not designed to be run on a scenic, tourist route—poor visibility, and lack of space for cycles and bulky luggage."

There is a need to increase Sunday services, which are now down to one a day. The demand is there in a tourist area, but it is simply not being met. There are so many knowledgeable and willing people, constructive in their approach, who want to help to make the situation better. I hope that the Minister will take that spirit on board when he addresses those points.

The Minister should appreciate that there is criticism but above all people have affection for the railways as a symbol of the success of the country and believe that we could have a great railway system once again. We need timely and reliable train services through capped investment costs, value-for-money services, an integrated approach to information from operators and helpful, friendly staff who want to exceed customer expectations instead of coming up with excuses for trains being delayed or cancelled.

Liberal Democrats will reduce the number of franchises to increase efficiency. We will cap costs through in-house contracting. We will introduce a national railcard to give a third off fares, and introduce minimum standards for stations to increase security. We will increase integration with other public transport options such as the successful pilot scheme "plus bus" in Birmingham and invest an extra £2.3 billion above what the Government have pledged. The money will produce line-speed improvements from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and reduced journey times on the Shrewsbury to Chester line. Investment of £4.5 million is pledged under the Liberal Democrat national plans.

I hope that the Minister addresses my points in a good, constructive spirit. Is he willing to meet a cross-party delegation of Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and nationalist Members to find a way forward? There is a lot of good will, and many people are prepared to make the process work. I thank the Minister for his time.

3.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) on securing the debate and on the level of detail he has gone into on the assorted railway lines that go in and out of Shrewsbury. As he said in his little history lesson, Shrewsbury remains an important hub in that part of the country. I am not surprised to find that this is the first debate on Shrewsbury rail links for some years, if not the first ever. Until the hon. Gentleman said that Shrewsbury was represented by a Liberal in the 1840s, I was going to say that it had been represented by Tories for ever and a day because they could not care less about railway links.

I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman has made his remarks. I should be more than happy to meet an all-party delegation to discuss those matters. I have no difficulty with that. I was a little confused as to whether the supposed £2.3 billion is to be spent in Shrewsbury, or whether it was a national figure. Perhaps he can explain that to me afterwards because I do not remember seeing it in the last Liberal Democrat shadow Budget.

Mr. Marsden

First, I thank the Minister for agreeing to meet the cross-party delegation, and it would be nice if he met representatives of the rail users associations in that area. Secondly, the £2.3 billion is pledged nationally, and £4.5 million is pledged for Shropshire.

Mr. McNulty

I assume that that will be in the next shadow Budget from the Liberal Democrats because it certainly was not in the last one.

Mr. Marsden

It was.

Mr. McNulty

Not in that detail.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Shrewsbury is currently fairly well served by regular direct trains to a variety of destinations including Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Crewe, Liverpool, Manchester, Chester, Cardiff, Swansea, Hereford and the Cambrian coast, including Aberystwyth. There is also one train a day in each direction providing a direct service to London Waterloo. In addition, Shrewsbury acts as an interchange between rail services and local bus services. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I know that many local authorities wish to pursue that. It is not just a question of money; it should not be beyond the wit of the operators to ensure that, when the train arrives, the bus is about to leave just outside, as in the more traditional European model, which sometimes works.

Having said that, I caution people against thinking that everything in Europe is tickety-boo, that everything in the garden is lovely, and that it is only the British rail system that is somehow defunct or deficient. Once one is off the TGV lines in France and crossing the country on provincial or local district lines, one finds that the service is far worse than the worst lines in the British network.

Regular, twice-hourly off-peak services to Birmingham enable passengers travelling from Shrewsbury to interchange with a wide variety of services. The cross-country network is centred on Birmingham and offers links to nearly all areas of the country. Fast, regular and comfortable journeys to London are possible with a change at Wolverhampton. The interchange is simple. Many London trains leave from the same platform at which Shrewsbury trains arrive and are timed to make good connections with rail services to Shrewsbury.

I am not saying that everything in the garden is rosy. It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that things can and should improve, which is why I am happy to meet a delegation. I am pleased that he said that, on the whole, the service is reasonable.

The Wolverhampton to London section of the journey is provided by Virgin West Coast, using air-conditioned, comfortable rolling stock with full catering facilities. The hon. Gentleman will know that brand-new Pendolino trains are gradually being introduced on the route and will provide enhanced comfort and reduced journey times. He will also know that at least £9 billion will be invested in the west coast main line.

Lembit Öumlpik

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty

With respect, I will not. I am a bit of a parliamentary purist and if Back Benchers have not done me the courtesy of giving me notice that they want to intervene, I will not let them. I am more than happy for the hon. Gentleman to whisper to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and for him to intervene.

The direct service from Shrewsbury to London Waterloo is provided by Wales and Borders Trains and travels via south Wales, Bristol and Woking. I fully accept that, although direct, the train takes significantly longer to reach London than travelling via Wolverhampton to Euston.

The service is not part of the passenger service requirement of the Wales and Borders franchise and the SRA has no plans to include it in the passenger service requirement of the new franchise, which it hopes to let later this year, because passenger levels on it are low. In inviting bids for the new franchise, the SRA has sought to protect the existing passenger service requirement, as well as those services in the existing timetable that appear to offer value for money. In addition to passenger service requirements, bidders will be expected to retain the current level of overall mileage. There is no specific requirement to continue providing the Shrewsbury to Waterloo service, although bidders for the franchise may wish to do so.

On a point that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham did not go into in detail, electrification from Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury has been considered, but is not included in the SRA's latest strategic plan. Studies have shown that the case for electrification of railways on a national basis is weak. Previously, it was considered that electrification brought numerous advantages, such as reduced fuel and maintenance costs, as well as rail vehicles with better acceleration, higher top speeds and quieter operation. In the current climate, that is no longer the case. Diesel fuel is much cheaper, so the fuel cost differentials are largely eliminated. The performance characteristics of modern diesel trains are at least as good as equivalent electric units, and although the maintenance costs of electric trains are slightly less than those of diesel trains, when the cost of maintaining overhead line equipment is added, the case for electric trains, a s opposed to diesels, is not sustained.

The priority is to provide additional capacity for both passenger and freight demand while improving the network to enable train operators to deliver significant improvements in the quality and reliability of their services, as passengers expect. Electrification is not necessarily the only way of achieving that. The SRA is much more concerned with outputs and inputs. It intends to ensure increased service standards for passengers.

The notion that there is a bureaucratic nightmare may have been fair in the immediate post-privatisation period but, with all that the SRA has done, it is no longer entirely fair. I suspect that the example that the hon. Gentleman quoted about the footbridge being owned by Powys, with Wales and Borders owning the station—or whatever the configuration was—probably reflects a situation that has existed for a long time; British Rail may once have been involved instead of Wales and Borders. There has always been that degree of bureaucracy at a local level.

The entire purpose of the SRA is to get the strategic overview and strategic planning, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, back into the equation. I admit that it is early days, but since the SRA's inception it has pushed things back in that direction compared with the disparate, disintegrated, bodged job of privatisation that he mentioned.

Mr. Marsden

I accept the Minister's point on the bodged privatisation. It would be helpful if we had a micro-franchise to take Wales and the Marches back into a single unit, and I wonder whether he is prepared to review that situation. A single entity, possibly under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly—although the details would have to be worked out—would mean better co-ordination and management of rail services.

Mr. McNulty

I will undertake to pass that point on to the appropriate authorities. I could review the matter until the cows come home, but given my responsibilities and the way things are, it would not matter. I shall pass that point on because other Members have raised the issue—this is not meant disrespectfully—of peripheral-type areas outside the core inter-city routes. The Shrewsbury area falls betwixt and between the west coast main line and routes in south Wales, and I shall pass on those concerns. I suspect that micro-contract means a macro-substantial subsidy, which may be another dimension to the equation. The point is fair and I shall pursue it and examine it in greater detail.

I contend that the SRA is about drawing the strategic dimension, which was regrettably completely absent in the immediate post-privatisation era, back into the equation.

There are two elements to integrated timetables. First, we must ensure that there is ample publicity and information. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as me that for many travellers, whether they are in the town or whether they are in the city, reliable information is key. Secondly, I also take his point, which is similar to the one about the interface between buses and trains, that the confluence of two franchises and the peripheral nature of Shrewsbury, which I mentioned, means that the timetables should be integrated or, at the very least, that the assorted information from the assorted franchises should be integrated.

I take that point to heart and undertake to examine it in some detail in terms not only of the published timetables at Shrewsbury station but of the timetables that provide information about the other areas that one can get to by a direct service from Shrewsbury, not least of which are Manchester airport, Birmingham airport and London Euston. Many rail franchises hide their light under a bushel because one can readily get from one place to another but nobody knows about it. That is certainly true of overland services in London, and I am sure that it is true in Shrewsbury.

Shrewsbury is an important junction not only between a number of train services but, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, between trains and buses to non-rail destinations. Birmingham, which is at the centre of the cross-country rail network, is accessible by half-hourly services throughout most of the day and allows onward connections. However, I accept the points about some of the difficulties. Passengers travelling between Shrewsbury and London can look forward to an increased service because of the Pendolino fleet—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. I must suspend the sitting for a Division in the House.

Mr. McNulty

If I can just speak for 20 seconds more, I will have finished, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate has been important and I wish the hon. Gentleman well in pursuing the improvements that he seeks. I undertake to help him in the ways outlined in my speech.

3.59 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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