Huw Speaks on Great Western Railway Routes
On 9th February Huw spoke during the Great Western Railway Routes debate in the House of Commons chamber. Huw questioned the Transport Minister on the completion date of the electrification of the London Paddington to Swansea route to be told, “I am sorry, but I do not have that completion date”. Speaking in the Commons Huw said, “We are going to have to wait for our Christmas presents, and that is not good enough” following on “let us have this project on time, at the same time as everybody else.”
Huw’s Speech on Great Western Railway Routes
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris), whose stirring speech I thoroughly enjoyed. Let me also commend the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) for securing the debate, which I think will prove very useful.
The Great Western Railway is important to me, because, along with my Welsh colleagues, I use it regularly. I have used it for the last 15 years, and, if I am fortunate—I am assuming nothing—I may be using it shortly to travel back in that direction for the final time as I head down to the Welsh Assembly. It all depends on the electorate. However, as others have said, the railway is critically important not just to politicians who travel back and forth to work and to represent their constituents, but to the economies of the areas involved. As we heard from the hon. Member for Newton Abbott, the GWR will provide great GVA if we get it right.
I must thank the GWR for getting me here almost on time. I apologise to the hon. Member for Torbay for being a couple of minutes late; that is because part of my journey was on a coach. Fair play: the company ensured that the coaches were running, and managed to deal with the traumatic weather. I thank it for sorting that out for me, and for all the other passengers. However, it raises the issue—regardless of electrification—of run-of-the-mill resilience. Too many parts of our existing railway stock have a fluctuating ability to deliver the timetable that we need. All too often there is a shutdown, and even if it lasts for only two or three hours, trains back up in the wrong places, and the timetable has to catch up with where the rolling stock is. No doubt, following today’s debate, GWR, Arriva Trains Wales and the branch lines will be shuttling stock to try to catch up after the delays.
Kevin Foster: I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but does he agree that we must ensure that the rolling stock that we have is correctly specified? Cross-country journeys connect parts of south Devon and, sometimes, south Wales on the route to Birmingham, and some trains have not been not specified to go along a piece of track that a wave might go over.
Huw Irranca-Davies: That is a very good point. I hope that what has been said today will be noted not just by the Minister, but by train operating companies and infrastructure companies. I hope that they will act on the suggestions that have been made by Members, so that their services can work better for commuters and other passengers.
Several Members on both sides of the House have drawn attention to the importance of the spine of the network to all the branches that flow from it. It is not just to do with high-speed links or electrification. I travel here from Maesteg, where I live with my family—it is north of Bridgend, up the Llynfi valley—and I am fortunate that we still have a branch line there. Thank goodness that, at the height of the Beeching cuts, there was local opposition and strong-minded leadership in the Labour authority, and people fought and said that they would be damned if that line would close. They managed to keep it open, and nowadays it is a tremendous success. That route from Maesteg down to Bridgend, and all the way up to Chepstow and beyond, is a very popular route and we need to go further. We talk about travel-to-work areas. The people in my constituency travel down from Maesteg and from all the valleys I represent to work in Swansea, Bridgend and Cardiff, and they need good reliable and affordable transport in order to do that. We are fortunate that we have that in the Llynfi valley and we need to keep it that way.
We are also fortunate that we were able to open a new station on the Great Western mainline spine. It is rare to see that happen nowadays. The station at Llanharan, between Cardiff and Swansea, was closed in the ’60s under Beeching, but after a fight lasting more than 40 years, we were able, along with local Assembly Member Janice Gregory and local councillors Geraint Hopkins, Roger Turner and Barry Stephens, to reopen it. It has had great benefits, with more than 2,000 homes being built in the area and possibly another 2,000 on the way. The station has been an economic boon to the area. People want to come and live there because it is not just a place along the Great Western spine route; it now has a station. The point has been well made that we must ensure that we do not bypass communities when we deliver the electrification and the mainline spine; we also need to connect the spine to the communities.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman seems to have neglected to mention the role played by Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Transport Minister in the Welsh Government at the time, and a member of my party.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Ieuan Wyn Jones played a good hand in that campaign, and so did Andrew Davies, the Economic Minister at the time. His officials were telling him that the economic case for the station did not quite stack up, but he told them that it would when they saw the 2,000 new homes and the new schools that would come in as a result. My goodness, he was right. When I travel through the new station now, I see scores of people using it at every hour of the day as they commute to Cardiff for shopping or visiting relatives or to go to work. It has been a tremendous success, and we need to think more about these projects alongside the electrification.
Another critical aspect of using the spine along the Great Western railway is to ensure that it also connects to the south Wales metro. I use that name deliberately; I am not talking about the Cardiff Bay metro. This needs to be a genuine south Wales metro. In my area, linked to the Great Western line, we have the Llynfi line that was protected all those years ago, but we also have three valleys that have no connections to rail links at all. They need to be linked in to the First Great Western line when it is electrified and delivering faster services. That link might take the form of light rail, or perhaps good coaches and buses operating to the right timetable to enable them to make the connections at the right times of the day.
That kind of thinking has to happen, and representatives of Bridgend County Borough Council, under the leadership of Mel Nott, are now sitting down with the Welsh Government to work out how to join those communities that have no rail links to the Great Western spine, so that people in those communities can get to work and go to meet their friends and so that elderly people there can socialise with friends who live further away without having to get an expensive taxi.
Byron Davies (Gower) (Con): You are making some important points. Would you accept that the electrification of the line down to Swansea by the Conservative Government is going to result in greatly increased social mobility for the people of the valleys?
Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that he will support my point that this project must be delivered on time as originally pledged and, hopefully, on budget as well. The hon. Member for Newton Abbot said earlier that too many people think that the south-west ends at Bristol. Well, too many people up here think that south Wales ends at Cardiff. Cardiff is a brilliant city—please go there and visit. Newport had the NATO conference and Cardiff has the greatest stadium in the land, with the only covered surface. Wales also has the best national opera company. Cardiff was third in the top 10 short break destinations in the whole of Europe recently. However, south Wales does not stop at Cardiff. Just beyond that line, there is Bridgend, and just beyond Bridgend is Swansea. Beyond that is west Wales.
So I fully agree with the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies), but I want to say to the Minister today, “Don’t short-change us through these delays.” We have been talking about the economic benefits and we were told that the electrification project would be delivered to Swansea—not to Bristol, not to Cardiff, not to Bridgend, but to Swansea—and we want it to go to Swansea. Let us look at the developments that are happening in Swansea at the moment. There is the SA1 project and the new university campus out at Briton Ferry. These are tremendous jewels in Swansea’s economic crown, and they need to be joined up. South Wales does not stop at Cardiff—brilliant city though that is. It goes way beyond that, and we need this project to be delivered.
I agree with the hon. Member for Gower’s primary point that we need to get the electrification completed, but I hope that he would agree with me that we need to get it done promptly and on time, without the delays that we have been talking about. We have now been told that it is to be put back into control period 6. For those who do not know what that means, control period 6 is between 2019 and 2024, which would mean that the project would not be completed at the same time as the rest, around 2018. So in effect, Christmas will come late for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and for mine. We are going to have to wait for our Christmas presents, and that is not good enough. His constituents are not second-class citizens of this nation and neither are mine. Let us have this project on time, at the same time as everybody else. I know that he agrees with me on this.
Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman is making a very important point. Does he agree that it would be far better if these large infrastructure development projects started in Swansea as opposed to starting in London? If they started in Swansea, you can guarantee they would arrive in London on time and in budget.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I would certainly be reasonably happy with that. I would probably start them from Bridgend and work outwards in both directions, but starting from Swansea would be a good second option.
I was talking about connectivity with the Great Western rail line, and the necessity of delivering the Heathrow link has been mentioned in this regard. Come what may in terms of capacity expansion at Heathrow, that link needs to be made. The journey from South Wales to Heathrow is preposterous at the moment, and that link needs to be delivered. Again, it would provide a major economic boon. It is not only business people who say this—although they do, repeatedly; it is also commuters. It is also myself. I fly from Cardiff and from Bristol, and I also fly from Heathrow. These preposterous patterns of travel need to be remedied, and that needs to be done quickly. These plans have been sat on for years and years.
The hon. Member for Gower has said that the electrification plans are good, but they must be delivered on time. The Welsh Government have made it clear, as have other parties in Wales, that we are holding this Government to their original commitment of delivering it on time and on budget. I would ask the Minister to ensure that, when this is done, full discussions are held with the communities along the routes about the related infrastructure developments that would really benefit those communities. I will give the House an infamous example, from my own constituency. The lovely town of Pencoed still has a traditional level crossing, and it is one of the busiest in the land. It is right in the centre, next to the cenotaph and the shops. When we march there on Remembrance Sunday every year, we have to time our marches to take account of what can be a 15-minute wait while the level crossing is closed. Of course, that happens every day of the week, not just on Remembrance Sunday.
If we have this major investment that will require not only electrical infrastructure but raising the height of bridges and making major structural changes in different communities, I would love to meet the Minister, with Mel Nott from the local authority and the town council, to discuss how we can all work together to get rid of the level crossing and upgrade the bridge which is only half a mile or less up the road, so that we can get two lanes of traffic over it. That would allow us to solve the problem the level crossing causes, as well as drive electrification all the way down the line. Perhaps the Minister would invite me to meet her, along with a small delegation, because we think we can bring something to the table—the town council can, as can the county borough—and we can make this work for those communities as we drive electrification through.
My final point on electrification goes back to one made by the hon. Member for Gower, who represents constituents at the end of the main spine of the line. In case Ministers are confused, I should say that it does not finish there; it goes way beyond that, up into west Wales. For the purpose of this project, however, Swansea is regarded as where the Government originally said they would deliver electrification to. We are not talking about hybrid electrification—half diesel, half electric—variations or something that is late, but about electrification on time.
Regardless of that, at the moment we have been told that because of the delay we have no clear costings—to my knowledge, they have not been done—no clear start date, and thus no certainty. My worry is that this will drift, so I want some more clarity from the Minister today. I would love her to say that this is going to start between 2019 and 2024 and to give a date for delivering the full costings, so that we have a little more certainty that even though this is drifting, it is not drifting into the back of beyond. This is a great project. I wish all south-west Members, including the hon. Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones)—we stare at each other across the Severn estuary or the Bristol channel from our glorious coastlines—well in their aspirations for their areas. But my area needs electrification on time and on budget, so that we can link up all the other things we have been talking about in a cohesive infrastructure for south Wales and on to west Wales.