22 January 2020
Harriett Baldwin leads Parliamentary debate on Cotswold Line

Harriett Baldwin leads a Parliamentary debate calling on the Government to back preparation of a business case and structural survey for the redoubling of further sections of the Cotswold Line.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered North Cotswold line transformation.

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted that the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), will respond. I will start by declaring an interest, which is that I am an unpaid vice-president of the Cotswold Line Promotion Group, a fantastic voluntary organisation that has worked relentlessly for decades to improve the North Cotswold line. I am grateful that I have secured the debate so early in the Parliament, and in time for the 2020 Budget, because we have a Worcestershire Chancellor, who truly understands the value of infrastructure improvements in unleashing our country’s potential and increasing its productivity. I believe that the case for investing in the North Cotswold line will be one of the easiest and most convincing ones he will see.

The North Cotswold line, for those who have not had the pleasure of travelling along it, runs from Oxford to Hereford and crosses many constituencies, one of which is Witney—my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) has recently, and conveniently, been appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Transport Secretary. The line also runs through the constituencies of The Cotswolds and Mid Worcestershire, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will seek to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr Pritchard, although, sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) would have to sit here silently, as he currently serves in the Whips Office. It then runs through the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), through my own constituency, and on to North Herefordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) is a keen supporter. It then goes through the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).The North Cotswold line plan is to improve services to Kidderminster—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) is here—and I know it will have knock-on benefits for colleagues in the Oxford area as well. All those colleagues are supporting this debate, even if they are not all speaking in it.

I also wanted to hold this debate now because it coincides with the arrival in the Department for Transport of the strategic outline business case for the North Cotswold line, which has been written by the North Cotswold Line Taskforce. I put on record my thanks to Lord Faulkner of Worcester, for chairing the taskforce, and to all the taskforce members: Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire County Councils, Herefordshire Council, the Worcestershire, GFirst, Marches, Oxfordshire, Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnerships, the West Midlands Rail Executive and the Cotswold Line Promotion Group. They have all done excellent work since the taskforce was set up two years ago.

Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. She has read out a list of a number of those supporting the plan, but I notice that the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership was not involved. Is she as surprised as I am not to see it there, given that its southern part covers those north Worcestershire constituencies that the line to Droitwich Spa and Kidderminster goes through, where this will make a difference? It is a bit remiss of the LEP not to be on that list.

Harriett Baldwin 

The honest answer is that I do not know the background and whether that LEP was approached, or whether my hon. Friend will now be able to tell it about this exciting proposal, which benefits the Wyre Forest and allows services to Kidderminster.

The history of this 86-mile line between Oxford and Hereford represents sharp decline and, now, slow recovery. The lovely, fully doubled line of the early part of the 20th century was reduced to mainly single track in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—perhaps not coincidentally, a time when the whole railway network was in public hands. By the 1980s, there were only two trains a day between Paddington and Hereford.

Thanks to the campaigning of my predecessor, the late Lord Spicer, as well as Sir Peter Luff—the former MP for Mid Worcestershire—and many others, two sections of the track were redoubled between 2008 and 2011. By 2015, a broad hourly service had been achieved. The partial redoubling has also brought some improvements to journey times. Since the December timetable changes, one train per day in each direction completes the London to Worcester journey in less than two hours.

Having looked at a range of options, the North Cotswold Line Taskforce has given unanimous backing for what it calls option 5, a redoubling of four miles of track from Wolvercote Junction, Oxford, to Hanborough station, and the redoubling of five miles of track from Evesham to Pershore. In addition, option 5 includes second platforms at Pershore and Hanborough.

The combination of those elements in option 5 would allow two trains an hour from Worcester to London, additional services beyond Worcester to Malvern, Hereford and Kidderminster, a regular Worcester to London service in less than two hours, and faster services from Malvern and Herefordshire to London, as well as improved performance and reliability.

Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)

The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that those improvements on the North Cotswold line would also unlock additional opportunities in the nearby area? For example, it would be possible to link the line through to the Cowley branch line, and having the additional capacity at Hanborough might make it possible for that station to operate almost as a parkway, which would relieve some of the pressure on Oxford station. It would be a win-win not only along the route, but in many nearby areas.

Harriett Baldwin 

I thank the hon. Lady for her support and, through her, thank Oxfordshire County Council for the support it has given this taskforce. 

I believe that option 5 allows a significant improvement to services around the Oxford area. I will come on to some of the environmental benefits of the scheme. She may well want to call a similar debate at some point in the future on the proposals she is making.

I do not know the details of the proposals the hon. Lady is making, but I do know that the benefit to cost ratio of this scheme is well over 4:1. That is with a cost estimate of just under £200 million for the whole option 5 scheme, including an optimism bias in the cost estimates. The five counties supporting the taskforce, including Oxfordshire, are home to more than 2.5 million people, and their economic gross value added is greater than that of the West Midlands Combined Authority and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. Moreover, they are only asking for half the budget from the Department for Transport.

As I mentioned, there are clear environmental benefits. As train travel increases, it will take cars off the road. Currently, my West Worcestershire constituents travel miles along the congested motorway network just to get to Warwick Parkway and Birmingham International stations so that they can use the Chiltern line and the west coast main line. The strategic outline business case goes into detail on the benefits to the road system, and estimates that 5 million miles of highway driving would be avoided. Indeed, the delivery of the Worcestershire Parkway station—it is due to open any day, and I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to come and officiate at its opening—will strengthen the case for more travellers across south Worcestershire to use the North Cotswold line.

There will be huge tourism benefits, as the line goes through some of the loveliest countryside in the world. It passes the cathedral city of Oxford and goes on to the cathedral cities of Worcester and Hereford. It goes through the heart of the beautiful Cotswolds, near Blenheim Palace and, of course, through the glorious Malvern hills. There will also be huge housing benefits. The scheme will increase the affordability of housing for those working in Oxford, by giving them the opportunity to commute by rail from less expensive areas. In short, it will unleash the potential of the midlands engine and link it to the Oxford-Cambridge arc corridor, connecting it all more reliably, more frequently and more quickly to London, the Crossrail network and Heathrow.

My only ask of the Minister today is that he agree to pay half of the develop stage costs and allow the proposed scheme into the industry’s rail network enhancements pipeline. With that funding, an outline business case and a structural survey can be prepared for 2022. A commitment from his Department of only £1.5 million of the £3 million cost—taskforce members will pay the other half—will enable that progress.

I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister sees how compelling option 5 is in terms of value for money, the environmental benefit and the country’s productivity. The proposals are sensible, modest but impactful, and achievable in the tangible future. When he makes his case to the Chancellor, he will be making it to a friendly Worcestershire colleague, and he will know just how many other colleagues will be pleased by approving further progress on this wonderful train line.