David Cameron has told Parliament the Government will look at “longer-term alternatives” to the crumbling rail mainline at Dawlish as he promised a £42 billion line from London to the North will not be “built at the expense of the Westcountry”.
At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Mr Cameron responded to a campaign kick-started by the Western Morning News warning of the parlous state of the region’s network while public money is to be lavished on the north-south High Speed 2 (HS2) rail link.
The Prime Minister attempted to ease concerns by arguing that fears the Westcountry will lose out is a “misapprehension”. Network Rail has said reinstating the most expensive cross-country Westcountry rail line would cost £700 million – a fraction of the £42 billion to be sunk into HS2.
He underlined how the Government would examine a second Devon and Cornwall rail link against calls to re-route the line, and announced £31 million for rail flood resilience – though the region has been waiting since May last year for cash to be approved.
Also during his weekly grilling, Mr Cameron backed a Westcountry PR campaign to boost tourism once the storm-stricken Dawlish rail line had been fixed, as one MP said “over-sensationalising” coverage was hurting the industry.
Alison Seabeck, Labour MP for Plymouth Moor View, told the Prime Minister that people in the South West were angry at the “excessive cost” of HS2 while they were stuck with a railway knocked out by storms.
Mr Cameron said three times more money than the budget for HS2 would be spent around the country on road and rail schemes in the next Parliament, adding: “I totally understand your concern and the concern of your constituents. I don’t want anyone to be under the misapprehension that HS2 is going to be built at the expense of the west country – it isn’t.”
He added: “While we are working as fast as we can to restore the Dawlish link, we do need to look at longer-term alternatives – and I have discussed this with Network Rail and First Great Western – to see what more can be done.”
Asked by South West Devon Conservative MP Gary Streeter about “finding long-term solutions to providing rail resilience in the far South West”, Mr Cameron committed £31 million to fund ten rail-resilience projects in the South West.
The announcement follows
a Network Rail report in May following last year’s flooding that saw the region cut off twice after floods at Cowley Bridge near Exeter.
A cross-party group of Westcountry MPs this week wrote to transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin complaining about the delay. Improvements include work at Cowley Bridge junction, and strengthening at Honiton and Crewkerne, but the Department for Transport could not say last night when the money would be available.
And after Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay Adrian Sanders blamed the loss of trade on “over-sensationalising” coverage of the crisis, Mr Cameron vowed to take “every opportunity” to help restore tourism in the South West.
Mr Sanders, whose coastal constituency in South Devon is one of the worst-affected regions, asked: “When the crisis is over, will you talk to the Treasury about allocating a sum of money to market the South West to potential visitors and businesses to get the message across that we really are open for business?”
Mr Cameron replied by saying that fixing the storm-stricken Dawlish rail line along the Devon coast would be a good moment to market the region.
He said: “This was a point made to me by a number of businesses that I visited in Cornwall and Devon over the last couple of days, all wanting to see much more advertising and publicity about how Devon and Cornwall are open for business.
“So I will take every opportunity I have to help with that issue. I think when the Dawlish line is restored that will be a big moment to really market the benefits of Devon and Cornwall, where I have been known to holiday myself.”
He also appeared to back three-hour rail services to Plymouth after questioned by city Tory MP Oliver Colvile.
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