(6 months, 2 weeks ago)Read Full debate
I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) and welcome the opportunity to discuss the important issue of transport in Bedfordshire. I will deal with all the points that he raised. He ended his speech by saying that there were some frustrations for a Minister in the Department for Transport. I have to say that being a Minister in the Department for Transport is a great privilege and honour, and great fun, too, but it would be nice if we could sometimes deliver projects a little more quickly in the United Kingdom. That problem has bedevilled the delivery of infrastructure and, indeed, all sorts of procurement in the UK. But we fully recognise the importance of transport underpinning the economy of our nation. The investment in transport we are making underpins economic growth and investment in social mobility and in environmental improvement—all points the hon. Gentleman made very eloquently in his speech.
It is a while since I last visited Luton, but I recall doing so and I am acutely aware that Bedfordshire is an historic county and an important county in transport terms. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the M1, and there is also the A1, the A5 and a number of key rail routes, and obviously it is home to a major international airport. Transport is critical in ensuring that his communities can work together to secure the local ambitions of a vibrant place to work and live. He also mentioned the important social function of tackling loneliness, which I entirely agree with.
Across transport modes, the Government are making a number of key investments to help drive economic growth through our transport networks. Let me start by talking about the investment in rail. I am aware of how critical rail is to the Bedfordshire economy and transport network, and the number of people who rely upon it for their daily commutes. As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, the majority of services in Bedfordshire are delivered by GTR and East Midlands, and he highlighted the particular challenge in terms of GTR performance last year. I am pleased to say that the service has been significantly better over recent months, although several external incidents have impacted on services over the past few weeks, such as some flooding and trespass on the line.
The performance of Thameslink and, indeed, the entire network in terms of punctuality is absolutely my priority. Officials in the Department are continuing to engage with GTR to ensure that performance improvements are delivered and then sustained, and I have also raised this with GTR and will continue to do so. The entire industry knows, because I have been very boring in saying nothing much else, that I expect to see performance improvements and it basically doing what it says on the tin: keeping to the timetable. That is the rail industry’s key customer pledge.
Since the timetable change of May this year, Luton is receiving an increased weekend service and passengers are seeing the benefits of the Thameslink programme, providing enhanced connectivity for Luton and Bedfordshire, and Luton and Luton Airport Parkway stations will both receive £80,000 from the GTR £15 million passenger benefits fund.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State announced in April that Abellio East Midlands will operate the next East Midlands rail franchise. This new franchise will bring a host of enhanced services and passenger benefits to Bedfordshire. The service is due to start almost exactly one month from today, and Abellio East Midlands will invest over £500 million pounds in the network; this will deliver significant improvements in the quality of trains and stations to maximise and build upon the £1.5 billion investment the Government are making in the midland main line upgrade.
Abellio will oversee the introduction of a brand new fleet of trains to the upgraded midland main line from 2022, which will result in faster journeys over long distances in the peak and introduce new frequent express services from Corby through Luton into London. From December 2020, once the relevant section of the midland main line upgrade is complete, the additional East Midlands services mean that Luton Airport Parkway will benefit from an extra-fast direct, branded Luton airport express service from St Pancras every hour throughout most of the day.
This is in addition to the current East Midlands service and the GTR services, so up to 10 trains per hour will run to Luton Airport Parkway in the peak and a minimum of eight during the off peak, including twice hourly fast and direct express services. This additional East Midlands express service will also benefit Luton station, which will be served by eight trains per hour all day, up from seven, and up to 14 trains per hour during the peak, up from 12. Together, these improved services will improve access to and from Luton airport.
The points that the hon. Gentleman made about the importance of connectivity to airports were absolutely spot on. We obviously wish that connectivity to be increased through the rail network, not through the road network. These improved services will help that objective significantly. He mentioned the consultation that GTR will carry out with Luton and Harpenden passengers, which could indeed see some small targeted changes made to the timetable from December this year. GTR opted to undertake the consultation so that it could fully consider the views of both sets of stakeholders, alongside other factors such as passenger numbers, in making its decision on what represents the best balance of services on the line.
I understand entirely where the hon. Gentleman was coming from on that point, and I encourage him to ensure that all his constituents contribute to that consultation. My focus will be on increasing the capacity on the line so that both communities benefit from better services. The objective is to ensure that we do not have to worry about the allocation of rare slots and that we see the upgrades that will ensure that all communities are better connected.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point about the station at Luton, and I hope that the news that Luton is one of the 73 stations that will benefit from the £300 million Access for All funding available in this spending period has been welcomed. It is part of our inclusive transport strategy to ensure that our railways are open to everyone. I am aware that local partners, including the borough council, have aspirations for a much wider redevelopment of the station. I believe that Network Rail is working with the council to try to ensure that their proposals are integrated and will allow the Access for All phase of the development to commence as soon as possible. However, delivery of the Access for All work can progress only with the co-operation of Luton Borough Council, and I therefore hope that the current co-operation between the council and Network Rail will continue, because the project is long overdue and we want to see it delivered.
The hon. Gentleman has a very good track record of bringing people together to solve community issues on his patch, and I hope that he will continue that work to bring people together on this issue. I will be happy to take up the issue with Network Rail. He asked for urgency, and I am happy to give that undertaking. I will of course keep him updated on progress.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the importance of local roads and congestion, and he pointed out that 54% of his constituents travel to work in their cars every day. As we know, there is congestion in the area, and congestion is a problem that we take very seriously. That is why we have made a number of investments for local transport within Bedfordshire to help to address this issue, and we will continue to invest. This includes £2.5 million towards a new Bedford western bypass and £11 million towards the regeneration of Bedford town centre. We are also funding £22 million towards the A421 dualling scheme that is being led by Central Bedfordshire Council. That £22 million investment will improve journey times and ease congestion from Fen Farm to junction 13 of the M1.
I clearly remember my visits to Bedfordshire during my time as Roads Minister. In fact, there were three visits. Two of those were related to the £162 million investment in the new link road between the A5 and the M1 north of Dunstable. I saw the project twice during its construction, and I know how important it has been in improving journey times and reliability, and in improving the quality of life in that area, because Dunstable was a real bottleneck and the town centre was being made significantly less pleasant than it could be because of the sheer volume of through traffic, particularly heavy traffic. I hope that that construction has helped to tackle that problem.
That project followed earlier investment in Bedfordshire, including the £30 million improvement to junction 10A, which the hon. Gentleman and I both visited. We visited a number of places across the constituency. Indeed, it was my honour as Roads Minister to cut the ribbon to open that new spur to the airport. I will certainly pass on the comments about the M1 south of Luton to the current Roads Minister. The smart motorway network has helped to improve the capacity and predictability of our network. The system has evolved through several iterations since the early days on the M42 many years ago, and the scheme has helped to improve capacity considerably.
Buses are a core part of local transport infrastructure, and bus use in central Bedfordshire has risen by 27% over the past 10 years. The innovative Luton to Dunstable Busway, which my Department helped to fund, has been key in increasing bus patronage in the area, allowing Luton to be reached from Houghton Regis and Dunstable in less than 30 minutes, which puts Luton’s employment opportunities, airport and fast London trains within easier reach.
The hon. Gentleman had some specific questions about bus franchising, which takes us back to the Bus Services Act 2017. Franchising is a significant responsibility, and all authorities must have a compelling case to implement such a scheme. Local decisions to move to franchising must be based on robust evidence and analysis, with the needs of passengers firmly at the centre of a council’s decisions, which can be subject to judicial review. The 2017 Act provided a suite of options, which include partnerships and enhanced partnerships. It may be preferable for local authorities to consider partnerships with bus operators to improve services in their area. Although I am no longer the Bus Minister, I am aware that partnerships have successfully helped to drive up bus usage, and they are also less disruptive, with less risk for the franchising authority—the local council. Several options are available, but I would encourage all councils to start by looking at the opportunities in the different partnership models.
At the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was the importance of Luton airport to the local economy and community, and he made the case for the connectivity required to help it thrive very well. Luton is the fifth largest airport in our country, and air travel is vital across the UK and the EU for connecting people and businesses. The UK and EU have a mutual interest in maintaining closely integrated aviation markets, and both have put in place measures to ensure that flights can continue under any EU-exit scenario, demonstrating a clear commitment to maintaining connectivity. That should give Luton airport’s customers the confidence to book and fly to European destinations however we leave the EU. I am aware of some uncertainty in the press about how dampened demand has potentially led to people redirecting their holiday choices, but the key thing is that we have made great progress and that there will be a clear commitment to maintain connectivity whatever the EU-exit scenario. We want Luton’s customers—indeed, all aviation customers—to book with confidence.
I am aware of Luton Borough Council’s desire to increase the capacity of the airport and that it will be undertaking a consultation in advance of a potential development consent order application next year. As the final decision on the planning application will be taken on its merits by the Secretary of State for Transport, it would be inappropriate to comment any further, but it is good to see people working to improve the local economy and the factors that drive it.
The issue of connectivity to the airport is perhaps the fundamental point, and the hon. Gentleman has requested four trains an hour. In the development of the east midlands franchise there was a public consultation on the question of Luton airport services, and the public were supportive of the status quo, so we did not specify an increase in services to Luton Airport Parkway as a requirement. However, bidders were incentivised to propose initiatives to increase rail access to the airport that would not cause a reduction to existing services.
Passengers will benefit from a doubling of fast East Midlands services to two an hour, both to and from the airport, from December next year, and they will be modern, comfortable Luton Airport Express-branded services. The hon. Gentleman makes his case well, and I will pass on his comments to GTR and East Midlands Trains so that they both consider connectivity to the airport, as he requests.
I hope the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, Members right across Bedfordshire recognise there has been considerable investment in the county’s transport network. I simply urge local partners to identify the best solutions to address their transport problems and to build a robust and compelling case that demonstrates to Government the need for investment in key infrastructure in this high growth, high potential part of the country, delivering benefits for current users and equipping the area for future growth and success.
We have had a good debate that has covered all modes of transport. The only one we have not covered, for fairly obvious reasons, is maritime—[Interruption.] Perhaps I should not tempt the hon. Member for Luton South. There has been significant progress, and I look forward to seeing more progress delivered to improve quality of life and to drive the economy of the constituency he serves.
Question put and agreed to.