Saturday 23rd April 2016
Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon
The main challenge facing the far south-west of England is peripherality. We are a long way from anywhere. It is that what partly helps to keep us such an attractive area – we do not want to be Birmingham-by-the-Sea, after all!
The answer to our peripherality challenge is connectivity, world class connectivity – road, rail and air links, as well as superfast broadband.
That, sadly, is where the problems begin, especially in relation to rail. Decades of under investment have left us trailing behind many parts of the country. In addition, we have very specific challenges: Brunel decided to build our inter-city line along the vulnerable south Devon coast line at Dawlish. We also have challenging gradients in our region that slow us down.
We are well served by two major franchises: Cross-Country, who run services to the Midlands and North, and GWR, who run our crucial routes to London. The train operators run a good service, but are constantly challenged by the Victorian track that remains in the ownership of Network Rail. Much of that track has hardly been upgraded for fifty years or more.
But at last, progress is being made. As ever, our darkest moment has heralded a potential new dawn. Television images of the train line hanging over a stormy sea at Dawlish in February 2014 galvanised the government and local people, alike. The Peninsula Rail Task Force has been formed, representing all local authorities in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, and the Local Enterprise Partnerships and the private sector. Regional MPs have rallied behind that unusual outbreak of unity, and upgrading our vital rail links with the rest of the country has become our cause celebre – acknowledged to be the local issue on which we will be judged in the general elections in 2020.
A 20 year plan is being thrashed out by the task force in conjunction with the Department of Transport, Network Rail and GWR. A draft has been produced and the final version must be finalised by this June, in time for its contents to feed into the Network Rail funding settlement for 2019-2024, known, ‘gloriously’, as Control Period 6. That plan will include ways to reduce journey times between London Paddington and Penzance, improvements to ongoing resilience concerns at Dawlish and elsewhere, lay the ground work for the Okehampton Line to be part of our railway infrastructure and tackle the pressure points on capacity within our region. It will form the basis for spending bids for the next generation. Furthermore, it will provide the blueprint against which our LEPs and local authorities can bring forward strategic upgrading, if they can find the resources to do so.
Work continues on the plan on a weekly basis. In particular, GWR are funding a detailed study into how journey times can be reduced over the next few weeks. Innovation will be the key there. We will not have electrification for some time, but bi-modal trains may well be able to receive some electric boost for Devon hills with the right technology in place.
At last, we have a government that realises the importance to this region of investment in our rail infrastructure. The colossal capital programme at Reading station, recently completed, has removed some of the obstacles to faster journey times. All of our trains from the West Country go through Reading. We look forward to the new Hitachi trains joining our network in 2018, which will represent the largest investment in new rolling stock for a generation. Detailed work is going on to look at the prospect of a direct rail link to Heathrow Airport, which might be our single biggest boost to long-term economic investment.
The long-term plan is taking shape, but we take nothing for granted. At the moment, with all but one seat in our region occupied by a Conservative MP, the government has every incentive to listen to our clear voice on this our utmost priority. That may not always be the case, however, and so we need to make hay while the sun shines. Also, there is a need to itemise – not just a long-term plan but also incremental advances, especially in the next four years.
As British Rail used to say: we are getting there!