George Freeman responds to debate on transport infrastructure

8th October 2019
George Freeman responds to a debate on transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire and highlights road investment in the area and the Government’s particular focus on improving rail reliability. 
 
George Freeman MP speaking in Westminster Hall, October 2019

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate. May I say how nice it is to have the chance to respond to him, knowing that he is one of the most assiduous representatives of his constituency and is highly respected across the parties? It is a shame that no Opposition Members are present.

I am pleased to respond to the debate as the new Minister for the future of transport, with a new mission from the Prime Minister to focus on the challenges of disconnection, decarbonisation and digitalisation, and bring a new urgency to the Department’s focus on place-based solutions that put the people and places we serve before the convenience of infrastructure providers. As my right hon. Friend said, we need to ensure that services are working for the people who rely on them and are ultimately paying the bills.

As we all know, well-planned transport infrastructure is critical to the health, wealth and wellbeing of our communities. Bedfordshire is an historic county and an important one in strategic transport terms, with key roads such as the A1, the A5 and the M1 running through it, along with a number of key rail routes; it is also home to Luton’s international airport. Across the transport modes, the Government are making several key investments to help to drive sustainable economic growth. Before I come to them, however, let me deal with my right hon. Friend’s specific points.

On rail, I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised. I would like to offer some explanation for the performance issues that are affecting my right hon. Friend’s constituents. I know that the railway stations in the towns of Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey are vital pieces of public infrastructure. Whether people use rail services to commute to work, to visit family or for any other reason, it is crucial that they can rely on receiving a service that is reliable and frequent. That is why, since joining the Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my other ministerial colleagues and I have made the bread-and-butter issue of the reliability of rail services our No.1 priority.

Let me be very blunt: recent performance on the Great Northern line has not been good enough. Over the past year, we have seen 8% of services on average being cancelled or delayed by 30 minutes or more. That figure is a lot worse than that for the vast majority of other train-operating companies, and the situation has been exacerbated in recent weeks by a series of significant infrastructure issues, including issues with overhead wires, track failures, falling trees and a broken-down train on the key Thameslink route near Blackfriars last week.

I absolutely understand the frustration that passengers must feel when these issues arise; as a rail user, I share it, as does the Secretary of State. That is why he recently met the chief executives of GTR and Network Rail to make it clear to them that improving the reliability of services in this area is vital. Although this does not excuse poor performance, I am pleased to note that GTR held an event at St Pancras last night, allowing passengers to speak directly with the company management, and I will put on the record here that I look forward to hearing the outcome of that meeting.

Notwithstanding those incidents and the urgent need for them to be tackled, I do think that we are seeing some positive signs more generally on the franchise. I know that many of my right hon. Friend’s constituents use the Thameslink service from Bedford, where we have seen significant improvements generally to performance over recent years. Over the past 12 months, about 85% of Thameslink services arrived within five minutes of the schedule. The year before, the percentage was 83% and the year before that it was 79%, so the service is getting better. However, I acknowledge that incidents such as the impact of the May 2018 fiasco and the August power cuts have impacted passenger trust, and we have to sort out this situation to restore that trust.

My right hon. Friend mentioned stop-skipping, and it is without a doubt hugely frustrating for passengers to see the train that they were supposed to board go past without stopping, or for the train that they are on to go past the station at which they had planned to get off. For this reason, the decision to miss out a call is not one that operators should take lightly; it should not be routine.

Skipping stations is one method that operators can use to allow the rail network to recover from disruption. Operational staff take the decision to miss out a stop by balancing the impact on those passengers who are directly affected against the wider impact of allowing the service to continue. Skipping stops helps operators to avoid the knock-on impact that delayed services can have on other services, but if it is not managed proactively, delays can spread quickly across the network and affect hundreds more passengers. There is sometimes a misconception that operators take the decision to miss out stops to manipulate their performance scores. That is not, and absolutely should not be, the case. Any service that misses out a stop is counted as a part-cancellation for the purposes of the performance benchmark that the Department uses to hold operators to account. If train companies exceed that benchmark, they will be subject to financial penalties. Personally, I would like to see more of that money going to the passengers who are affected, but that debate is for another day.

What is absolutely crucial in these situations is the attention that is paid to the poor passengers whose journeys have been disrupted, and communication is vital. We should not have situations where, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, passengers are stuck for long periods with no information about the options to complete their journey. Part of my portfolio is dealing with disconnection, and that is an example of disconnection between the train-operating company and its passengers, who have paid for a service, and one that is completely unacceptable, particularly in a digital age, when communication should be so much easier. I completely understand the frustration of passengers about such situations and I continue to press the rail industry to improve their processes, to make sure that we get this right, and I will pick it up following this debate.

Going forward, and notwithstanding those concerns, we should also speak about some of the positive things that we are seeing on the railways in my right hon. Friend’s area. The Thameslink service from Sandy, Arlesey and Biggleswade, which was introduced last year, now provides weekday passengers with two direct trains per hour to the heart of London. I am pleased that, from December onwards, the current Saturday service to King’s Cross will transfer to this route, providing passengers with a much wider range of direct destinations.

Those constituents of my right hon. Friend who use Bedford station will obviously see service improvements. From December 2020, two East Midlands Railway services per hour will call at all stations between Corby and London St Pancras, providing a big capacity uplift. This, combined with the increased capacity of trains serving the London commuter route, will result in a significant increase in the number of seats, particularly during peak periods, and should release capacity on inter-city services, which will also improve access to and from Luton airport.

Furthermore, I know that my right hon. Friend campaigned passionately for Biggleswade station to receive Access for All funding. Earlier this year, Biggleswade was confirmed as a successful applicant and I congratulate him personally on his leadership in that campaign. Improving accessibility to our railway network is something that both he and I care passionately about. I understand that the plans for Biggleswade are at an early stage, but when the scheme is delivered it will provide an accessible route into the station and between the platforms.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend warmly welcomed the recent housing infrastructure fund award of nearly £70 million for the transformational growth in Biggleswade project, something that he has championed. The funding will provide a new transport interchange at the train station and a replacement bridge over the east coast main line. This is an excellent example—dare I say it, decades late but none the less excellent—of Government funding for transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire, which has the potential to help to deliver up to 3,000 new homes. In addition, GTR is also delivering a £15 million passenger benefit fund, which will deliver £80,000 of improvements at Arlesey, Sandy and Biggleswade stations respectively, as well as at Bedford station.

I am conscious of the time, so I will turn now to the strategic road network. We absolutely recognise the importance of the A1 and its impact on my right hon. Friend’s constituents. That is why, as part of the first road investment strategy, we committed to examining the case for improvements to the A1 between the M25 and Peterborough. Anyone who has driven on that road, as I have, knows the problems on it. Following an initial study, our focus has been on the sections between junctions 10 and 14, where we recognise that the challenges on the route are most acute. Initial work has shown that improvements—including some new alignment, or bypassing—would offer poor value for money on current metrics.

Substantial future local growth, which is coming, could and should change that assessment. Therefore, we expect there will be opportunities to re-examine the case for potential improvements to this section, particularly as proposals for the Oxford-to-Cambridge arc, which I am responsible for, are developed. In the meantime, however, we understand that local partners are taking forward some study work to look at the feasibility of improvements to the A1 in the short term. In addition, in February we also announced a preferred route for the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme. As my right hon. Friend knows, this is a new dual carriageway link between the junction of the A1 and A421, and between the junction of the A428 and A1198.

My right hon. Friend raised the important issue of speed cameras on the A1, and I can reassure him that both the Department and Highways England take the issue of speeding very seriously. I share his disappointment that it was not possible to deliver the previous scheme. I have checked with and am chasing Highways England to ensure that it investigates the possibility of a camera system on this section of the A1, explains to me why the costs have spiralled as they have, and makes sure that it looks seriously to see whether such a camera system is possible. I think that it must be possible to find a way to do it and I will raise this issue with Highways England again following this debate.

I will also raise the issue of congestion on the local road network. My right hon. Friend and I both take congestion very seriously. We do not want to see strategic road work driving up congestion in neighbouring towns and villages, which is why we have made a number of investments for local transport infrastructure projects within wider Bedfordshire. These include providing £2.5 million towards a new Bedford western bypass and £11 million towards the regeneration of Bedford town centre. We are also providing funding towards the A421 dualling scheme that is being led by Central Bedfordshire Council. That is a £22 million investment, which will ease congestion from Fen Farm up to junction 13 of the M1. I understand that Central Bedfordshire Council is also taking forward proposals for a link between the M1 and the A6, with funding from the local growth fund.

Future funding for major transport infrastructure is absolutely key to the Government’s new emphasis on integrating housing and transport, as recent statements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government have made clear. Crucial to that in the south of England is the east-west corridor, which, as I have said, I am now responsible for. It will provide better east-west connectivity across the arc, including in North East Bedfordshire. I will shortly be signing off on the rail routing decision, and I will also push to make sure that, as we build that line, we also consider strategic ways to capture land value and ensure that we are putting money into transport infrastructure, including the strategic roads, so that we have a genuinely integrated approach to road, rail and housing.

I hope that I can reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire that considerable investment is being made in transport infrastructure in his area as part of this Government’s major infrastructure programme. I absolutely hear him on the issues with the railway line, which we are actively pursuing. He made a very good point about rail staffing, which I will pick up on following this debate, and he also made good points on stop-skipping and on speed cameras on the A1.

I think we have just 30 seconds left, so I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I thank him very much for his responses. However, because we have heard many of these responses before, particularly from Highways England—responses about things that will happen, only for everything to get held up because of decisions made elsewhere—can he make sure this time that some of these improvements are made? If they are not made and we have to keep waiting for others’ decisions, once again nothing will happen.

I am delighted to give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. This is my first appearance in Westminster Hall in this capacity and I look forward to picking up on the issues that he has raised. If we cannot show our constituents that we are putting people and place before the convenience of providers, we will not carry their trust with us. This strategic junction in the UK network—A1, east-west, rail and road—is vital and I will happily give him that undertaking.

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