Huw Merriman – 2023 Speech on Train Services in South Gloucestershire

The speech made by Huw Merriman, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2023.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on securing this important debate on train services in South Gloucestershire and on his informative and impassioned speech. I recognise his hard work in campaigning to get South Gloucestershire moving and improve transport infrastructure for his constituents.

The Government fully recognise the vital role our railways play in connecting communities and supporting the economy. Taxpayers across the country contributed £31 billion to the railways over the course of the pandemic, demonstrating our commitment to their continued operation. The Government have acted with the biggest intervention in their history to ensure rail fare increases for 2023 are capped at 5.9%, some 6.4 percentage points lower than the retail prices index figure on which they are historically based. This is a fair balance between the passengers who use our trains and the taxpayers who help pay for them.

My hon. Friend talked in the latter part of his speech about the need to get more staffing and therefore more resilience into the railways. While the Government strongly support the recovery of the railway and the increase in passenger numbers, there remains an urgent need for continued modernisation and significant efficiency improvements to bear down on the cost of operating the railway. Part of this modernisation is to improve the speed and efficiency of staff recruitment, and we are exploring options to reduce the amount of time training takes in an innovative way using technology, while maintaining the exacting standards of safety currently in place on our railway.

The Rail Delivery Group’s latest offer to ASLEF—the drivers’ union—opens the door to a more diverse workforce by introducing part-time contracts and more flexible scheduling arrangements. It looks to address inefficient and arcane practices that have long since been phased out of modern workforces. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that that would be a huge step forward for the rail industry and build upon the progress made in recent years.

Moving to my hon. Friend’s specific concerns, South Gloucestershire already benefits from a wide array of train services to areas including Gloucester, Cheltenham, Bristol, London, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, and the cities in Scotland—I could go on. Users of train services in South Gloucestershire have already benefited from the introduction of through train services between Cardiff and Penzance as part of the December 2021 timetable and the reintroduction of through services between Bristol and Manchester.

Now for the news my hon. Friend has been waiting for: I am happy to confirm that, subject to the provision of the necessary funding by the West of England Combined Authority, services between Bristol and Gloucester will be doubled to two trains per hour from the May 2023 timetable change as part of the wider MetroWest scheme. I thank my hon. Friend for helping make this happen and the West of England Combined Authority, which has worked in partnership with officials in my Department and the operator, Great Western Railway, to make this possible. GWR has identified all the rolling stock that it will need for the extra trains and is confident that it will have all the staff training completed in time to introduce the additional services from May. I hope that that provides the assurance my hon. Friend was looking for, but as always—and in answer to his request—I am happy to meet him to understand any further concerns, and to help him make this happen.

Luke Hall

I hugely welcome the announcement that the Minister has just made, confirming that, subject to agreements at the combined authority level, we are ready to go ahead with doubling services in May. It is fantastic news. I thank him for his work and support on that as well as for the reassurance that the announcement will have provided to the whole community.

Huw Merriman

My hon. Friend is kind. The thanks should go to him; I am sure that his constituents will recognise that. He is a dogged campaigner, and I know that he will ensure that my feet are held to the fire in delivering the service. I assure him that I will work with him to that end. I understand the disappointment that services were not introduced in May 2022. Staff training was severely disrupted during the pandemic, which is one of the reasons it has taken a while. I am also delighted to hear that South Gloucestershire Council is developing plans for a new railway station in Charfield to help people to travel more sustainably. It has recently submitted a planning application jointly with Network Rail. I wish all involved the best of luck with that proposal.

Another exciting potential development for residents of South Gloucestershire is the plan to develop the site of the old Filton airfield, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who is at the forefront of the campaign. That could unlock a significant volume of new housing and include two new stations at North Filton and Henbury, which would form part of the Henbury line. A new hourly train service would run between Bristol Temple Meads and Henbury calling at Ashley Down and North Filton and serve the new proposed YTL arena. I understand that the next stage is for a planning application to receive consent from South Gloucestershire Council to build the scheme. My officials stand ready to offer any necessary support to the scheme’s promoters.

Although this is not in South Gloucestershire, significant improvement work continues to be planned for Gloucester station. That will please my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who is not in his place but has had a word with me.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate once again on securing the debate and this additional service for his constituents. I hope that I have reassured him of our commitment to improving rail services to his constituency.