Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in debate on Cotswold line redoubling campaign

22nd January 2020

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls on the Government to back a feasibility study for the redoubling of further sections of the Cotswold line.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaking in Westminster Hall, Jan 2020, Cotswold line

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing the debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for being here to answer our requests.

I have been heavily involved in the Cotswold line redoubling campaign, as it goes through my constituency—Moreton-in-Marsh and Kingham are both very busy stations along the line; the latter is just outside my constituency boundary but is used by many of my constituents—and I have worked closely with my fellow MPs, as my hon. Friend said. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) in his place. Part of the ask of this feasibility study will be to get the redoubling done in his constituency. I will say more about that in a minute, but I am sure that it will benefit his constituents hugely, and all of our constituents, because it will make the whole journey time quicker. It is delightful to see him here.

We have all worked closely with the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, which has been a staunch advocate for this line for tens of years. I pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, to Lord Faulkner for heading up that group. We have had upgrades on this line, as my hon. Friend said; it was redoubled in the early 1990s, as was the line from Kemble to Swindon. That had huge benefits, because it now takes just 12 minutes to travel from Kemble to Swindon, and reduces journey times from Cheltenham to Swindon to London.

The redoubling of the Cotswold line will increase the number of services along the line for the entire journey. Timetable changes in December 2019 were a milestone, because trains on that line now deliver an hourly service throughout the day. The trains are less crowded, with more capacity and, above all, faster journey times. The new timetable has been welcomed locally, but further investment is required to take it on to the next stage—for rail services to meet the long-term needs of the region which, as my hon. Friend said, is growing both economically and in population terms.

Relative to other regions, this is still a slow journey. The journey from Worcester to London, for example, which is 120 miles, has an end-to-end speed of just 57 mph, compared with the speed from equivalent towns such as Leamington Spa, at 76 mph; Bath, at 77 mph; Swindon, at a very fast 84 mph; and Rugby, at 99 mph. This is a slow service at the moment, and much could be done to improve it.

The journey time between Paddington and Worcester Shrub Hill—120 miles—takes between 1 hour 59 minutes and an appalling 2 hours 40 minutes, which is slow when considering that frequent trains throughout the day can reach Oxford from London in just over 50 minutes. The extra bit, which is another half of the journey, takes well over an hour. It is unacceptable that people travelling beyond Oxford are expected to travel on a second-class, slower service, as the train slows down significantly from Oxford.

The redoubling of the line that I worked to secure has improved the journey time, but the faster trains have to slow down through the single-line sections. Suggestions put forward by the Cotswold Line Promotion Group and the North Cotswold Line Taskforce would mean two trains per hour travelling through Worcestershire, the Cotswolds, Oxford and to London. Option 5, as my hon. Friend said, would see further redoubling from Wolvercote to Hanborough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, and eventually a 5-mile stretch between Evesham and Pershore, producing faster journey times of less than two hours between Worcester and London. Minister, that is the ultimate goal; a city of the size, importance and distance from London of Worcester ought to have a rail service of less than two hours.

I am sure the Minister knows—my hon. Friends certainly know—that the line currently operates on both diesel and electric modes. A long-term aim, which would be a game changer, is to fully electrify the line from Oxford to Worcester, but that is not the subject of this particular study. Making the journey faster and more environmentally efficient is most important. I am sorry to tell this tale, but it is absolutely true: I recently caught a very old train from Norwich to Sheringham, and frankly it was like travelling on a moving, polluting factory—the diesel emissions were so bad. The ultimate aim must surely be to phase out all diesel trains in this country. If we want to get rid of the internal combustion engine—petrol and diesel cars—by 2040, we must have a plan to get rid of diesel trains as well.

As my hon. Friend said, the business case for redoubling the Cotswold line is compelling, with more frequent, faster services helping to generate nearly 400,000 new passenger trips each year. An investment of £199 million would have economic benefits of £33 million gross value added per year, and would support 750 new jobs. The operating costs put forward offer efficient rolling stock utilisation, with improved use of the existing fleet and efficient redistribution to match supply with demand.

Such improvements would hugely benefit my constituents who use the North Cotswold line. Moreton-in-Marsh is a growing town that has already seen considerable growth, mainly due to its actually having a station. I recently helped the Fire Service College—a national institution in my constituency—obtain a £500 million contract with the Ministry of Defence to train defence fire and rescue workers, which will help to secure an additional 100 jobs. The Fire Service College critically depends on the Cotswold line.

In addition, as my hon. Friend says, the Cotswolds is an important area of outstanding natural beauty, attracting some 38 million domestic and international tourists a year, generating £1 billion a year for the Cotswolds economy. I might add that that is not only my constituency; there are 17 constituencies in the Cotswolds. For the Cotswolds to be accessible and to retain this industry, it must have strong, sustainable, green transport links that offer an alternative to road-based traffic. For the Government to achieve their targets, as set out in the 25-year environment plan, including meeting the legally binding targets to reduce emissions of five damaging air pollutants and ending the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, more investment is needed.

The Cotswold line improvements will link-in with the Elizabeth line, which is significant to my constituents, as well as those of my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire and for Witney. At the moment, the journey to Heathrow is so difficult that I should think that well over 90% of my constituents choose to travel there by car. However, with an improved Cotswold line, meaning that they can get to Oxford and then Reading, and can then use the fast Elizabeth line from Reading straight into Heathrow, I am sure that more of them will change their mode of travel from car to rail. If we do not keep improving these railway lines and connectivity, many of our roads will simply clog up, which cannot be good for the environment.

Overall, this project delivers very high value for money—my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire mentioned a benefit-cost ratio of 4:1; I believe that the actual figure is 4.46:1, so it is nearer 5:1—and will support economic and population growth, tourism, connectivity to London and other regions, access to jobs and reductions in road congestion. We are talking about enhancing rural but economically competitive areas, such as the Cotswolds, that are currently being restrained—constrained—by the transport connectivity with other areas. Other strategic options such as train lengthening, road investment, platform lengthening and other railway projects in the region would all help to achieve those objectives.

My final sentence will be to repeat to the Minister the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire. We need from this debate only half the cost of doing a feasibility study—a mere £1.5 million. Considering the other requests that will be made, that is absolute chicken feed.

Hansard

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Planning White Papers

I have submitted my responses to the two planning consultations: “Changes to the current planning system’ and “Planning for the future’.

These planning changes are one of the most significant events to affect the Cotswolds since WWII. I think that both papers contain positive proposals, in our case commitments to protect the AONB. The proposal to abolition Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) should speed up the planning process and it is important that the money is retained locally so that the infrastructure can be built at the same time as the development. 

Too often we see a development being built long before the supporting infrastructure, which I know can cause significant issues for existing residents. The proposals to simplify and speed up local plan-making and retaining neighbourhood plans where possible are welcome, in that design codes can be specified so it should be possible to protect our unique Cotswolds vernacular.   

I spoke in the planning backbench business debate on the 8 October and called for a change to the algorithm the Government uses in its planning White Paper which fails to take account of local variations and concentrates all new house building in the south-east and central south of England. 

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