Luke Hall – 2023 Speech on Train Services in South Gloucestershire

The speech made by Luke Hall, the Conservative MP for Thornbury and Yate, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2023.

I am grateful to have secured this debate. The ability to move around for work, to travel to see friends and family or to have access to local services such as schools and hospitals is vital. For many people in South Gloucestershire, public transport is fundamental to the way we live our lives. That is why I have campaigned relentlessly to get South Gloucestershire moving and improve local transport infrastructure. We have had some fantastic successes in this respect: we opened the park and ride in Yate this year; we scrapped the Severn bridge tolls; we reopened the right-hand turn from Heron Way on to Kennedy Way; we reinstated bus services to Southmead Hospital, and so much more. However, there are some areas where progress simply has not been quick enough. I have called this debate to highlight the difficulties that South Gloucestershire residents continue to face with local transport, particularly over train services.

For a number of years, I have been campaigning to increase the frequency of train services from Yate to Bristol and Gloucester from hourly, as they are now, to every half hour. At the moment, these trains are often only two carriages long and at peak times they are already full, with passengers travelling between major urban centres such as Bristol, Yate and Gloucester. People living in Yate, Chipping Sodbury or any of the surrounding areas are often restricted from using train travel because the services just are not frequent enough to be viable or because of overcrowding on the services.

It is clear there is substantial local demand for this increase in frequency, with recently released figures showing passenger numbers have doubled on the Yate to Bristol line from 68,500 to more than 177,000 a year. South Gloucestershire generally is seeing high levels of housing growth, with more residents in the community, more cars on the road and more people moving and travelling for work. Yate itself has become a hub for inward investment around the west of England. It is a thriving place for people to live, work and raise a family. It is home to major employers, with staff travelling from right across the region to the town. It is vital that the transport infrastructure is in place, connecting residents and commuters to local jobs and allowing residents of the communities in and surrounding Yate to travel to South Gloucestershire and the surrounding areas. I would like to put on the record my thanks to Toby Savage, the leader of South Gloucestershire Council, who has done a great job in pushing for some of these extra services, supporting them through his good officers on the council, and putting his all into this campaign.

Increasing the frequency of these services from hourly to half hourly would make a huge difference to the community, and has widespread support from everyone involved. I conducted transport surveys across South Gloucestershire, where there is significant support for making this change. One of the barriers we have faced to increasing the frequency to half hourly is the need for track works to be carried out at the Bristol East junction at Bristol Temple Meads, as I raised frequently with the previous Secretary of State. I have been grateful for the support of the Department for Transport and the Minister’s predecessor, and for the £132 million plus that was invested to make that change happen and get the project to where it is today, allowing local decision makers to increase the frequency if they can. Increasing the frequency to half hourly is a key part of phase 2 of the MetroWest project, run by the West of England Combined Authority with the DfT, and is fundamental in connecting the areas surrounding Yate.

Network Rail and the local operator, Great Western Railway, have stated that they are keen to expand their timetable to accommodate these extra services. However, despite being such a critical part of the vision for the region, we have had serious delays in implementation. There were initially plans for half-hourly services to be delivered from December 2021—clearly, it is now early 2023 and they are still not in place.

In November, we had confirmation of the new timetables up to May, but we still do not have the half-hourly services. I have raised that time and again with Great Western Railway, which has explained that due to the backlog that built up during the pandemic and high sickness levels, it has not had the crew ready to operate the additional services that we all want to be delivered. Clearly, it has now been nearly a year since all covid measures expired in law, and even longer since the social distancing guidance expired, but the substantial training backlog is restricting the roll-out of services that are fundamental to accommodate growth across South Gloucestershire.

GWR has also confirmed the positive news that it has now submitted the timetable bid for the extra MetroWest services that it will run from Bristol to Gloucester, which includes the Yate station, in May 2023. That is currently with Network Rail’s timetable team as part of the validation process that it has to go through. The last thing that anyone wants now is a situation where, in May 2023 at the next set of timetable reviews, staffing levels are still not where they need to be so the service is stopped from being delivered again.

I have been offered assurances from GWR’s managing director, who has been clear that his team have identified the rolling stock required for the extra trains and that the training will be in place for May. There are also provisional plans for the service to be funded by the West of England Combined Authority for three years after it is operational, as part of an agreement with GWR.

Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his fantastic campaign to get South Gloucestershire moving. Does he agree that the proposed new Brabazon station on the Filton airfield site will help connectivity across South Gloucestershire by serving that new town as part of phase 2 of MetroWest? If we can work with the West of England Combined Authority and South Gloucestershire Council to get that expedited and built quickly, it will help residents across South Gloucestershire.

Luke Hall

I thank my hon. Friend for that clear point, on which I completely agree. Connecting areas such as Cribbs Causeway with Yate is also hugely beneficial for the many people in Yate and the surrounding area who work in the Filton and Bradley Stoke constituency and in the wider South Gloucestershire area. He is right to champion that and I completely support him in that quest.

The total proposed funding commitment for this project so far from the West of England Combined Authority is almost £3.9 million, which is hugely welcome. I understand that that is planned to be submitted to the combined authority committee and the joint committee on 27 January as part of the MetroWest phase 2 funding request. As we await the outcome of that, I thank all the local authority leaders across the west of England who have supported the new service in principle, and the West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris for his support and helping us get to this stage in Yate.

I ask the Minister: what efforts are being made centrally to drive recruitment in the rail industry? Staffing shortages are beginning to hold up essential improvements to services such as the Yate half-hourly train service. My understanding is that the extra services have now also been submitted as part of GWR’s annual business plan to the DfT; I would be grateful for any update that he can provide on the process for signing that off at his end.

It is important that the rail industry should not be cutting costs at the expense of already approved timetable improvements in the south-west—many hon. Members feel strongly about that—so I would be grateful if the Minister could outline his thoughts on that. Will he meet me, Network Rail and GWR to discuss the support that the DfT can offer to ensure that the proposed half-hourly services can go ahead in May, which would mean that the Government could secure that vital return on their investment in the Bristol East junction?

Getting half-hourly service patterns in place is critical to enabling the opening of Charfield railway station, which is a separate project but is equally important for unlocking some of the roads and for connecting towns across South Gloucestershire with the wider region. It was opened in 1844 and was a vital hub prior to its closure in 1965. Plans are advanced to rebuild and reopen a new Charfield station in the heart of the village and there was a 12-week consultation that closed last year. It will be a hugely important development if it goes ahead; the application is currently with the local council. The importance of getting the Yate services must not be understated in terms of the wider impact on the surrounding railway network and helping us reduce congestion.

Yate is continuing to grow, but the current train services are too infrequent, with too few carriages. Delivering on the pledge to introduce half-hourly train services between Yate and Bristol and Gloucester is vital. It will improve access to local public transport, take cars off the road, cut journey times, and reduce emissions. The demand is there, and we have the local support; I hope the Minister will assure residents in south Gloucestershire that these plans are firmly back on track.