You are here:

House of Commons Library

Parliamentary debate 24/10/17: Improving rail links in South West England

Published Friday, October 20, 2017

This debate will take place between 2.30 and 4.00 pm on 24 October in Westminster Hall. The Member who secured the debate is Luke Pollard MP (Lab., Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport).

MPs can find Parliamentary questions, statements and debates on rail in the SW and Plymouth via this link.

Railway Upgrade Plan: Western region

In 2014 Network Rail launched the Railway Upgrade Plan, designed to provide more capacity on the rail network. This programme is scheduled to run until 2019, the end of the current Control Period (CP5). The 2017/18 update to the Plan for the Western region gives an overview of the route and recent investments and improvements, including new rolling stock. It stated that in CP5 (2014-2019) renewals and refurbishment spend on the route will total £1.27bn.

  • Network Rail’s map of the route with its key upgrades is attached at the bottom of the page

The key programmes listed for the South West are:

  • Electrification of the main line from London to Cardiff via Bristol, and to Newbury
  • Bristol Area Signalling Remodelling
  • West of England rail upgrade programme
  • Environmental resilience improvements at Exeter Cowley Bridge and Chipping Sodbury; and between Exeter and Newton Abbot
  • Cornwall resignalling

Great Western Main Line Electrification

By March 2011 the Coalition Government had confirmed its intention to electrify commuter services on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) from London to Didcot, Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff. There were calls to extend electrification further into the South West (e.g. to Plymouth and Cornwall), claiming that it could provide benefits to the South West economy of £100 million a year.

In June 2015 the then Secretary of State for Transport, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, told the House that “electrification of the Great Western line is a top priority and I want Network Rail to concentrate its efforts on getting that right”. Critics argued that the escalating cost of the GWML scheme caused other schemes to be put on hold.

In November 2016 the Railways Minister, Paul Maynard, announced his decision to ‘defer’ four electrification projects which form part of the Great Western upgrade programme. He gave no date for their resumption, arguing that passenger benefits could be provided by newer trains with more capacity, without requiring “costly and disruptive” electrification works. This was followed a few days later by a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), offering a highly critical account of how the Great Western electrification had been managed and highlighting both cost increases and delivery delays. In November 2016 the NAO put the cost of modernising the Great Western railway at £5.58 billion, an increase of £2.1 billion since 2013, with delays to the electrification of the route of at least 18 to 36 months.

Peninsula Rail Task Force

In January 2015, the then Chancellor announced he was working with the Secretary of State for Transport to establish a south-west Peninsula Rail Task Force to develop a comprehensive rail strategy for the region. The Task Force was asked to bring forward their proposals by June 2016, for consideration in the Control Period 6 (2019-24) rail planning period.

In November 2016, the Pennisula Rail Task Force published Closing the Gap, the “South West Peninsula strategic rail blueprint”, and submitted it to the Government. The report outlined the Task Force’s priorities in the short term (to 2019) and medium term (2029). Short term priorities include:

  • investment of £284m in resilience, including commencing the securing of the main rail line through Dawlish and Teignmouth;
  • completion of committed flood relief schemes;
  • introduction of trains capable of operating along the seawall in all weathers;
  • investment of £2.5m in options for the diversionary route East of Exeter;
  • investment of £22m in GRIP 3 options for reducing journey times;
  • increasing frequency to two direct trains an hour from Plymouth to London in the new franchise, reducing journey times by up to 10 minutes, whilst at least maintaining existing services; and
  • work with the rail industry to maximise the benefits of the new trains from Dec 2018 and invest £25m to make our journeys more productive through on board travelling office, media and mobile/Wi-Fi connectivity.

Medium term priorities include:

  • investment of £301m to complete Dawlish seawall and cliffs resilience, the diversionary route between Exeter and Castle Cary and estuary flood protection;
  • investment of £1.5bn to reduce journey times by up to 14 minutes to Penzance, through infrastructure improvements, partial electrification and franchise renewals;
  • investment of £150m reducing journey times and increasing core capacity on the Exeter –Waterloo line;
  • investment of £358m to improve capacity and comfort through new rolling stock infrastructure enhancements and phased opening of the Northern Route; and
  • increase frequency to 2 trains an hour west of Exeter to Bristol and the Midlands

Dawlish line

In early February 2014 a section of the sea wall in Dawlish, Devon collapsed and left the railway to Cornwall suspended in mid-air. Residents of homes on the Somerset Levels were evacuated amid fears flood defences could be overwhelmed. Immediate measures put in place at the time to cope with the loss of the rail line included more domestic flights from Newquay to Gatwick, discounted fares and a replacement bus service.

David Cameron subsequently announced £61 million to help repair damaged roads and build greater resilience into the railways of the south west. This included a £31 million scheme to deliver 10 rail resilience projects including works at Cowley Bridge in Exeter, to improve resilience to flooding. The rail line reopened on 4 April 2014.

As part of the December 2014 National Infrastructure Plan, the Government announced that it would “support Network Rail in its work to improve the resilience of the railway at Dawlish” and “ask Network Rail to examine wider issues surrounding connectivity to and within the south-west peninsula. Specifically, Network Rail will consider alternatives to the current mainline route to the south-west via Dawlish, including an alternative route via the north side of Dartmoor through Okehampton”. This work would feed into Network Rail’s initial industry plan for Control Period 6 (2019-24).

The Autumn Statement 2016 included a commitment of “£50 million for rail resilience projects, including Dawlish”.

Great Western franchise

The Great Western franchise has been run by First Group since 2006, under a Franchise Agreement and two Direct Awards, the latter of which will continue to April 2020. It is intended to deliver:

  • around 3,000,000 additional seats per year by 2018 across the franchise
  • 4,000 more morning peak seats into London every day by December 2018
  • proposals for a brand new fleet of privately funded trains
  • more trains into Devon and Cornwall
  • the introduction of 369 new carriages through the roll-out of new hi-tech Intercity Express Programme trains built by Hitachi
  • faster journeys between Penzance and Paddington and London to South Wales, Oxford and Bristol
  • a £30 million investment to improve stations and car parks, introducing 2000 more car park spaces (plus additional funding from partners)
  • a £3.5 million station development match fund
  • a £2.5 million accessibility fund

There have been reports that the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling, is considering breaking up the franchise by creating a separate Devon and Cornwall franchise; this could give more on-track competition in the West Country. There has been no recent statement on this possibility.

Commons Debate packs CDP-2017-0192

Authors: Emily Haves; Louise Butcher

Topic: Railways

Share this page

Stay up to date

House of Commons Library

The House of Commons Library provides research, analysis and information services for MPs and their staff.