Debate on Thursday 9th January 2014: from Hansard.
Inter-City Rail Investment
As well as London, the eight largest English cities have city deal status and another 20 are being agreed at present. I want to talk about rail travel between these city regions, especially those journeys that do not involve London. My speech will not be about HS2, except in passing, partly because that subject has already been aired at length, but also because journeys between the 29 city regions involve 465 possible trips, only 13 of which are directly covered by HS2. Those figures do not include Welsh or Scottish cities, but I am sure other Members may wish to comment on them.
If we look at past priorities for inter-city rail investment, we see that there has often seemed to be an assumption that the only thing people want to do when they get on a train is travel to or from London. Research shows that prioritising transport heavily on connections to a capital tends to suck economic activity into that capital. As Chris Murray, director of Core Cities, observed recently, this over-concentration is bad for the national economy in the long term. In contrast with other developed countries, such as France and Germany, the UK remains one of the most economically centralised countries in the world. The vast majority of significant companies and other institutions are headquartered in and around London…
…The Government have a stated aim to rebalance the economy and I believe that inter-city rail investment can play a pivotal role in that endeavour. Others share my concerns. The former Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, said recently:
“There are literally dozens of rail and public transport projects urgently needed across the country that would make a significant economic and social impact.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 October 2013; Vol. 748, c. 1228.]
He also commented on the cuts to other inter-city services that accompany the HS2 proposals, including loss of service from Stoke, Stockport, Coventry and Wilmslow, and long journey times to Carlisle. The Institute of Directors reports that 80% of its members support increased investment in the existing inter-city network….
…With excellent assistance from the House of Commons Library, I have conducted research on all the journeys between the English city regions, comparing fastest rail journey times against road miles as the best indicator of the actual distance between them. Many interesting facts emerge. The fastest journey times from nearly every single city region are on the lines to London. Average speeds range from 63 mph from the south coast to well over 100 mph from many other parts of the country.
For journeys between cities outside London, however, the overall fastest miles per hour speeds are in the 20s, and many are in the 30s and 40s. Fastest journeys can involve absurd dog-legging through London—for example, Cambridge to Sheffield, Ipswich to Newcastle and Swindon to Leicester—and journeys between the 29 key city regions can involve as many as four changes. Those figures are the consequence of past investment focused on hub-and-spoke systems based on London, and of under-investment on other routes, which has helped to concentrate economic and administrative power in the capital.
The record of the previous Government was poor, with too much micro-management but only nine miles of electrification investment. Fares went up by 66%, but subsidies went up £1.7 billion as well. Journey times are slower than they were 15 years ago, and 61% of UK businesses are concerned that the UK’s transport infrastructure lags behind international competitors.
I welcome the steps that this Government are taking. A good example of the work needed is the Milton Keynes to Oxford route. At 22 mph, it is one of the slowest possible journeys, so the Government’s decision to revive the east-west route to join those two city regions is very welcome and will provide the connectivity to help release potential. However, the Milton Keynes to Cambridge route, at 24 mph, will remain one of the slowest in the country. Other examples of very slow connectivity are the routes from Leicester to Coventry, Bournemouth to Bristol, Southend to Ipswich, Sunderland to Darlington—I could go on….
…My area of the north-east has good journey times to London, but very poor journey times to other places. Is it right that it takes longer to get from Darlington to Manchester on a single train than it takes to get to London? The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was stunned recently when he discovered how long he had to spend on the train when travelling from Liverpool to Darlington. Ironically, he was making the trip to be present at the inauguration of the new inter-city train factory at Newton Aycliffe, which is hugely welcome in my part of the world….
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales). I was pleased to hear him say that we should talk about something other than High Speed 2. The money being spent on it is an issue in the far south-west, but we also have a lot of common concerns with his constituency. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate, which is important to my constituents and those of other Members who are in the Chamber.
I have lost count of the number of times that I and other Members with seats in the south-west have raised concerns about the need for investment in our inter-city services and improved resilience. Yet again, extreme weather is causing pressure, so we need that investment, but we keep getting batted away by London and Whitehall….
…I am sure the Minister will mention the benefits of electrification, but those will not percolate down as far as Plymouth—certainly in the immediate future—partly because of the unresolved issue of the line between Exeter and Plymouth via Dawlish. Any benefits of electrification are decades away, and whoever is in power after the next general election must stop pushing the issue away. That is why we must ensure—as those on the Labour Front Benches have insisted—that High Speed 2 is not some open-ended cheque, and that we keep a lock on how much money goes into it….
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab):…Hon. Members have mentioned some of the corridor routes I intended to speak about, such as that from Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds to York. A modern, electrified fast service linking those great cities would be a tremendous boon to the north. I am obviously not speaking on behalf of Luton here; I am speaking about my interest in railways and in the country in general.
A second electrified route should link York, Sheffield, Derby, Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance, which would provide a real chance for growth, particularly in the south-west, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View said. Those are two important corridors, and I could provide more detail on others. Fast electrified services would greatly benefit the relevant regions….
… I want to focus today on a particular scheme. I have mentioned it before, but I want to re-emphasise its importance. I believe it would be a major advance to upgrade the Birmingham, Snow Hill to London line, which passes through Solihull, Leamington Spa, Banbury and other towns, on which only a handful of trains currently run each day to and from Marylebone. The line also runs directly to Paddington—a much more useful London terminus that links directly with Crossrail and thus to the City. Snow Hill is in the centre of Birmingham and easily accessible to the business district.
There is, however, a much more compelling and exciting possibility for this route. If it were to be electrified, a simple link to Crossrail at Old Oak Common would provide direct passenger services between the centre of Birmingham and the City of London and, indeed, Canary Wharf. Business travellers would have available direct travel from city centre to city centre with no changes required, thus saving time and inconvenience. But there is more: the electrified Snow Hill to London line could also branch off at Greenford to join Crossrail going west, thus providing a direct service from Birmingham city centre to Heathrow. The electrification of that line and those two links with Crossrail would together cost no more than £500 million.
There is still more. The Snow Hill line has a branch at Leamington linked to Birmingham airport, which opens up the possibility of direct, non-stop electrified 125 mph services between Birmingham and Heathrow airports, as well as a direct link between Birmingham airport and the City of London via Crossrail. A journey time of one hour between the airports would be a boon to both of them, making Birmingham effectively a satellite of Heathrow and possibly removing some of the pressure from the growth of passenger traffic there, as well as being advantageous to workers in Birmingham.
I believe that the scheme would be enormously beneficial economically at both ends of the route. It would breathe extra life into the economy of the west midlands, and it would take a bit of pressure off London. It would also be helpful to services going further north. It would be possible to travel to the airport from Birmingham New Street and on to that route directly as well. There are numerous exciting possibilities, provided that the whole line is electrified and upgraded. Even now, it would be capable of 125 mph services, which I think would be sufficient for the journeys to which I have referred.
I urge the Minister, Opposition Front Benchers and Network Rail to give serious thought to my proposal. It is not just my own idea; it is based on detailed advice from experienced railway engineers. It would work, it would be easy to construct, and it would bring great benefits at modest costs. I commend it to fellow Members, and especially to those on both Front Benches….
Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): …Plymouth is the 27th largest urban conurbation in the country and the 12th largest city. That its transport infrastructure is so bad is a bit of a disgrace….
…We desperately need better transport links. The really big issue for Plymouth and the west country is that every time it rains, everybody holds their breath, because we do not know whether there will be enough resilience to allow us to continue to travel from Plymouth up to London following any damage caused by the storms that take place. I urge my hon. Friend to consider an alternative line going north through Tavistock, because that would be very helpful should, at any stage, the Dawlish route fall to pieces. Last year, landslips caused very big problems on the line. Unfortunately, we have also lost our airport. I am afraid that there is therefore a sense in Plymouth that we are somewhat isolated from the rest of the country. Others have been campaigning to try to get Newquay involved. There is great concern about this, and 37,000 people in Plymouth signed a petition to keep the airport open.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green):…Many Members have said that this is not a debate about HS2 and it certainly is not, but I think we should remind ourselves of the amount of money that can be found when the political will is there to invest in our rail infrastructure. I would far rather that that money was invested in the general rail systems on which so many of our constituents depend, rather than what I see as pretty much a massively expensive vanity project that will not deliver the gains that we need….