30 June 2008

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I should like to start, Mr. Speaker, by thanking you very much for giving me the opportunity to raise the subject of dualling the Swindon to Kemble railway line. I welcome to the debate my constituency neighbours, the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), and the Minister, who is in his place. [Interruption.] Ah, yes. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who is on the Treasury Bench, too.

Two railway lines run through my constituency. In the north, the Cotswold line passes through via Moreton-in-Marsh, and in the south is the Golden Valley line, which serves Cheltenham via Kemble to Swindon, where it joins the Great Western main line to London. Both lines have been blighted by unacceptable delays, and although improvements have been made in recent years, the delays continue to frustrate regular commuters and infrequent travellers alike.

One key factor behind the continued delays is that long sections of both lines are single track. The fundamental nature of the problem is that, self-evidently, only one train can pass on any single section at any one time. The section of single track on the Golden Valley line is located between Swindon and Kemble and is 12.5 miles long.

In April, I, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), met representatives of Network Rail to hear their business case for the schemes. The meeting was held in advance of the release on 5 June of the Office of Rail Regulation’s “Periodic review 2008: Draft determinations”, which defines Network Rail’s funding allocations for 2009 to 2014. Although there was some positive news in the ORR’s report in that the green light was given for the redoubling of the Cotswold line, it was decided that, apparently, the improvements to the single-track section between Swindon and Kemble on the Golden Valley line do not conform with current Government priorities. Obviously, that was a huge disappointment, which the hon. Member for Stroud and I expressed in a meeting with the ORR on 12 June; it is also, of course, the reason why we are all here tonight.

At this juncture, I hope that the Minister will note that although both lines pass through my constituency, their two closest stations are still about 30 miles apart—a journey that would take nearly an hour by road. The lines are used by completely separate sets of commuters and serve completely different regions of the country. Therefore, any claim that the two are connected in the county of Gloucestershire for funding purposes is completely fallacious. On the Kemble branch, delays and cancellations are frequent. The infrastructure cannot support an hourly timetable; delays are regularly exported from the line and Network Rail believes that significant demand from both passengers and freight is being suppressed because of those limitations.

I should like to highlight what I consider to be a matter of importance regarding the ORR’s decision not to allocate funding for this scheme. I have received, via two constituents, correspondence from the ORR. I think it erroneous, so I hope that the Minister will listen carefully. The letter, which has been sent to my constituents, states:

“With regard to the Swindon to Gloucester line, Network Rail has determined that it does not need to redouble this route in order to achieve the requirements of the Government’s High Level Output Statement (HLOS) for the period 2009-2014 and so has not put forward this scheme for funding under our present review of its outputs and charges”.

The Minister may be interested to know that I had a meeting with senior Network Rail representatives on Thursday and I asked them whether what that letter said was really true. They came out with this important statement:

“Whilst this is correct in terms of the Capacity Metric, it is incorrect in terms of the Performance Metric.

The scheme was identified by Network Rail as contributing to the delivery of the HLOS performance metric, over and above the schemes that are required to deliver the HLOS capacity metric.

We confirm that the scheme was put forward to the ORR within the Network Rail HLOS Submission for funding as a performance scheme.”

I hope that the Minister will reprimand the ORR and ask it not to send out misleading information to my or anybody else’s constituents.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I, too, wrote to the ORR and its reply to me slightly contradicts the one that it sent to my hon. Friend. It specifically said that it felt that the scheme would have gone beyond the performance and capacity requirements specified in the Government’s high level output specifications, and that that was why it had chosen not to fund it. Effectively, it said that it can meet the Government’s requirements without implementing the scheme; effectively, it was blaming the Government rather than itself for not funding the scheme. It would be helpful if the Minister could clear up the discrepancy.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Clearly, this is a matter of contention. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not mention him at the beginning because he was not in his place, but I am delighted that he is here. No doubt the Minister will wish to clear up the issue that my hon. Friend has raised.

As I have said, Kemble station on the line is in my constituency. There are 18 daily Swindon-bound trains, of which eight terminate at London Paddington, and 18 Gloucester-bound trains, 17 of which continue to Cheltenham Spa. Passenger use of the station is on the rise; in 2006-07, the numbers were up 17 per cent. on those for 2004-05.

As the current single-track alignment is mainly centred, it does not allow for a simple redoubling of the line. However, Network Rail has noted in a letter to MPs through whose constituencies the line passes that the scheme

“offers value for money and wider benefits to the operation and performance of the route and wider network”.

What is really important is that in its assessment, Network Rail estimates that the scheme has a benefit-to-cost ratio of 9.96, which puts it in the category of offering very good value for money—better value for money, in fact, than some of the schemes that are proceeding. There are a number of reasons for that, and I should like to put them to the Minister. First, the scheme will provide for a reduced journey time, due to simplification of the layout at Swindon. The constraint of the current single-line operation will be removed, which, when combined with an increased capacity on the line, will allow for four trains per hour in each direction.

Secondly, a redoubled line would offer a diversionary route for trains from a number of routes, affecting a great many regions. It would allow trains travelling to or from Wales to bypass the Severn tunnel when it is out of action due to maintenance, and it would provide a diversionary route for freight traffic travelling from Southampton to the west midlands and for trains from the south-west to the north of England, which is the preferred diversionary route. Thirdly, a redoubled line would provide much greater route flexibility, which has knock-on beneficial effects for several regions.

Fourthly, another key cause of delays on the line is the age of the tracks, which need regular repair. The current single line limits the amount of work that can realistically be scheduled. A redoubled line would allow track work to occur more rapidly while maintaining a viable service.

Fifthly, First Great Western has written to me firmly expressing its support for the improvements and has commented that the scheme

“makes passive provision for a new station to serve the rapidly expanding North Swindon Area—helping reduce congestion and the broader environmental impact”.

The station at Moredon will be vital in working towards achieving the Government’s aspirations on community sustainability in this area.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I happily give way to my neighbour.

Mr. Drew: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that one thing that would help those of us who desperately want the redoubling to take place would be the publication of all the investigations that have gone on into this piece of line? There is a need for transparency that would help the arguments. We always seem to be there, or thereabouts, and then we fail at the final hurdle. If we got the information, at least we could have an open debate on the merits of the case.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the Minister will have heard what he said. I hope that we can have an honest and open debate and that the Minister will make available to Members of Parliament any information that he has, perhaps through parliamentary questions, and we can get it out into the public domain in that way.

Sixthly, the Golden Valley line is key to the new inter-city express programme— the IEP—from 2015 onwards. The IEP represents the high-speed train—HST—replacement and is designed to provide additional seating capacity and operational performance. Without redoubling, we will not be able to see the full benefits of the IEP.

Finally, there is the possibility of the developments resulting in a saving. The closure of the Minety level crossing box would result in savings of approximately £300,000 per annum.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I congratulate my neighbour on securing this debate; he has my complete support. Does he agree that another environmental benefit of the redoubling taking place would be that many of the journeys that commuters take from towns such as Cheltenham Spa to Swindon to avoid the unreliable service would be improved because they would be able to take the more reliable service that would result?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I entirely agree with my neighbour. I will come to that later.

I turn to the beneficiaries of this scheme. Where necessary, I will quote from a report from the Minister’s Department of May 2007, “South West Regional Planning Assessment for the Railways”, from which he will note that many of the aspirations listed are tied up with this 12.5 mile stretch. If—and it is a big if—there are no delays on the line, one can get on the 7.21 at Kemble station and be at London Paddington at 8.40, putting residents well within the magic figure of being two hours from the capital. The report notes:

“Fast, frequent and reliable connections to main city centres and on longer distance routes (particularly to London, the Thames Valley and Heathrow) will be critical to maintaining and improving the South West’s economic competitiveness”.

As Members here know, but the Minister may not, the south-west is a rapidly growing area. Gloucester is seen as a highly desirable town to live and work in, and it has been estimated that an extra 15,000 houses will need to be built in the town by 2026. That is complemented by the estimated 22,000 to 36,000 new jobs that are being created in Cheltenham and Gloucester in the same period. In Swindon, the population is estimated to grow by nearly 30,000 between now and 2026. In other words, between the three major towns and cities, we are looking at a growth in population of about 50,000 between now and 2026. Unfortunately, taking Cheltenham and Gloucester specifically, I cannot think of many other towns within two hours and 100 miles of London so poorly served by rail connections.

This scheme has the backing of the Gloucestershire county council, The South West of England Regional Development Agency, the regional assembly, the district and urban councils and Gloucestershire’s MPs—as can be seen by their presence here tonight. They all recognise the clear need for joined-up thinking from the Government in matching the transport infrastructure of the region with the expansions proposed by the regional spatial strategy.

On 21 April this year, I called an Adjournment debate on another travel-related matter in my constituency, that of the road improvement scheme on the missing A417/419 link, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris) responded in that debate also. He will know from that debate that road congestion in Gloucestershire is building considerably. Studies for much of Gloucestershire paint a bleak picture of congestion on the roads. Given the anticipated population growth in the area, and the increased focus on the environment and reduced car usage, rail could provide a key part of the solution, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) indicated.

I have produced a comprehensive list of the benefits that can be gained through a redoubling of the Swindon to Kemble line, and the Minister will have noted that it closely correlates with each of the nine key development objectives for the railway listed in his report, from which I have been quoting. Having shown the clear need to make this improvement, I would like to finish by highlighting the imperative of time. If the Swindon to Kemble redoubling does not feature in the ORR’s funding priorities now, it will not feature again until 2014 at the earliest, because by 2010, we will see the massive redevelopment of Reading station, the Crossrail development and, perhaps, the recently announced proposed development of high-speed tracks throughout the country. My concern is that the budget, equipment and manpower for this scheme will not be in place if it is not scheduled by 2010.

If the Swindon to Kemble improvement is not made now, it is likely that it will be delayed not just for five years but perhaps for another 10 or 20 years. Given that Network Rail estimates the cost of this scheme to be just £38 million, there can be few schemes in the country that offer such sustainability and connectivity, or which ensure regional economic growth for such good value for money, as I stressed through the indices I cited earlier. I hope that the Minister will cheer up the constituents of all my colleagues here tonight, and of others in the south-west, by assuring me that he will press the ORR to reconsider its decision.

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