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Challenging the government over the electrification of the Great Western route

On Tuesday 22 November members of parliament from across the political divide challenged the Rail Minister Paul Maynard over the government’s shocking decision to delay four electrification projects that are part of the work along the Great Western route.

I am particularly dismayed by the halting of two projects directly affecting Bristol – the electrification of the Great Western line west of Chippenham, and the electrification of Filton Bank (Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads).

Here you can read my speech (slightly shortened during the Westminster Hall debate) and – at the bottom of the page – watch the clip of my contribution.


Thank you Mr Chair and my thanks to the Honourable Member for Bristol North West for securing this important debate.

Mr Chair, my constituents in Bristol West are as perplexed as I am to learn two weeks ago that the much needed and long-awaited electrification of the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol is being postponed.

The works were initiated by the last Labour government, who rightly recognised that investing in infrastructure is a vital duty of government to support economic growth. Since then the Coalition and subsequent Tory governments have paused, then unpaused, and now paused these works again.

As recently as June 2015, the then Secretary of State 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”. Mr Chair, I ask the Minister – what’s changed?

Similar uncertainty has been meted out to other regions – such as the Electric Spine and Midland Main Line. In fact, in June, when the Secretary of State was confirming support for the Great Western line electrification he was at the same time introducing a pause on the Midland electrification.

I would like the Minister to consider the following:

  • The coalition government committed to this plan in 2012.
  • The cost is a fraction of the cost of other railway infrastructure projects such as HS2 or Cross Rail.
  • We have already put up with delays to train journeys for work so far.
  • The National Audit Office has given warning that the planning for this project leaves much to be desired.
  • Changing to electrification from dirty diesel will give huge benefits for air quality – necessary to prevent the thousands of premature deaths each year from people breathing polluted air.
  • Infrastructure is one of the most important contributors to improved productivity.

Mr Chair, this leaves me with a few questions to put to the Minister and I would be grateful if he could answer these today:

  1. Where’s the government’s commitment to a Western Powerhouse?
  2. Will the West of England devolution deal end up having to cover the cost of the electrification project?
  3. What answers does the government have for passengers who are currently stuck with journey times that are routinely longer than those in the 1970s, when it was possible to travel from Bristol Temple Meads to Reading in an hour, and to London in 90 minutes?
  4. Where’s the sense in suspending the work, when so much of it has already taken place?
  5. How does the Minister answer the Bristolians who have been given the idea that we aren’t worth bothering about?
  6. How does the Minister square this postponement with the government’s stated commitment to improving air quality, something my constituents in Bristol West care deeply about as we are breathing in polluted air every day?
  7. When will the government sort out a coherent, reliable plan for infrastructure investment?

 You can watch the full hour-long Westminster Hall debate here: http://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/b40e8348-9893-4ba9-b1a6-19ca1d6baec4?in=16:45:00


You may also like to read the letter, co-signed by my fellow Bristol MPs Karin Smyth and Kerry McCarthy, that I sent to the Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling shortly after the government’s announcement:

Dear Secretary of State,

We are shocked by this week’s decision to defer four electrification projects that are part of the programme of work along the Great Western route – in particular the two projects directly affecting our Bristol constituencies. These are: a) the electrification west of Thingley Junction (announced as the line between Bath Spa and Bristol Temple Meads, but effectively the greater distance between Chippenham and Bristol Temple Meads); and b) the electrification of Filton Bank (Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads).

The decision seems short-sighted, to say the least. The Department for Transport’s vision is for a ‘transport system that is an engine for economic growth’ and one that improves ‘quality of life in our communities’. As you’re aware, Bristol’s economy is strong and we are one of the few areas outside London that are net contributors to the national economy. Our rail connections to London are an important part of our success and a half-finished electrification project threatens our economic growth. What’s more, in an approaching post-Brexit world, we need to battle to make ourselves as competitive as possible. That means investment in new infrastructure and good transport.

We’re aware that Comptroller and Auditor General Amyas Morse has this week referred to the modernisation of the Great Western main line as a ‘case study in how not to manage a major programme’; and we know this week’s critical report by the National Audit Office has highlighted how delays to the electrification programme will cost the Department for Transport up to £330 million. But the overall cost of £2.8bn for this challenging electrification programme is a small fraction of the cost of HS2 (£56bn) or Crossrail (£15bn), for example. This decision to defer work on an already antiquated part of the railway network sends out all the wrong messages to the people in the West, already dismayed with the government’s lack of ambition with major infrastructure in our area.

We also fail to see the logic of pulling the plug on a project when passengers have already endured huge disruption already, and considerable work has already been done west of Thingley Junction – over £50m to prepare the Box Tunnel for electrification being just one example.

The wires to power new trains were due to reach Oxford this year, with Bath and Bristol next year. Network Rail has now suggested that 2024 may be a possibility. It’s an overrun of such spectacular proportions that you can forgive many of us in Bristol for questioning whether the work will ever happen.

Until then, trains will have to run on old-fashioned diesel for much of the journey between London and Bristol Temple Meads instead of quieter, faster, cleaner electric power. We are

therefore unimpressed by assurances from Great Western Railway and the Department that you will find ‘different ways to provide the benefits promised to customers’.

We have many other questions and concerns prompted by this decision. They range from the Filton Bank enhancement project; to the promised additional services between Temple Meads and Paddington; to the cascading of rolling stock from the Thames Valley to the West of England area. What are the revised times for journeys? Will it really take less time to travel by train from Cardiff to London than from the centre of Bristol to the capital? 

We’re sure others will press you for answers on these and many more. We simply ask you to reverse this decision, committing to deliver the upgrades on the Great Western main line as planned.

Yours sincerely,

Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West

Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East

Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South

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