HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc138-9
2. Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

If he will make a statement on trends in the number of people using trains. [85780]

The Minister for Transport (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

The Government welcome the marked upward trend in the number of people using trains.

Mr. Coaker

We all welcome the increase in the number of people using trains, but will my right hon. Friend do all she can to support the increased use of local trains? In particular, will she support the work of Nottinghamshire county council and Nottingham city council on the Greater Nottingham area rail development strategy, which is designed to get more local people to use local trains, rather than clogging up the city's roads as they go in and out of town?

Mrs. Liddell

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I applaud him for raising the issue. In his area, the Robin Hood line has been greatly welcomed, but we must see that line as the beginning of the story, not the end. The use of local rail links fits in well with the Government's integrated transport strategy, so I commend the Greater Nottingham rail development strategy and look forward to its implementation.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I draw the Minister's attention to the figures published today by the rail franchising director on the punctuality and reliability of services. It is one thing to have increasing numbers of passengers, but those figures show that reliability and punctuality are declining among many rail providers. Is that the future of public transport and of trains under the Labour Government?

Mrs. Liddell

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that was made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister during the rail summit: as the number of people travelling by train increases, it is important that overcrowding does not become a factor that inhibits the quality of service to passengers. When the rail franchising director considers the renegotiation of franchises that my right hon. Friend announced at the summit, such factors must be taken into account. Ultimately, it is the performance and efficiency of the rail network and the quality of the experience for passengers that are important and must be taken into account.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position? I am sure that she will do extraordinarily well. Does she agree that the increases in train patronage, constraints on road building and the escalator in taxation of polluting fuels provide a virtuous environment for private sector investment in rail infrastructure, rolling stock and track? Will she use her position to put pressure on the industry to put greater investment into capacity, so that people can make greater use of trains in an environmentally sustainable way?

Mrs. Liddell

Given such a gracious welcome to my position, it would be churlish of me not to agree with my hon. Friend. However, I do agree with him that it is important to improve the quality of the experience of those using public transport, so that public transport becomes a viable alternative that is both attractive and efficient. Road users and users of public transport want services to be improved, because if we ease congestion and improve public transport, everyone gains.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I join in congratulating the right hon. Lady on her appointment—although some of her colleagues could be forgiven for thinking, "No Labour Transport Ministers for 18 years and then three come along at once."

May I admonish the right hon. Lady for having been a little coy about the dramatic 25 per cent. increase in the number of passengers using the railways since privatisation? After two years in power, and no new money, no decisions taken and no legislation, exactly what role have the Government played in that dramatic increase in the number of rail passengers? Is it not about time that the Government started taking decisions that will enable Railtrack to allocate £27 billion to investment and renewals, instead of carping against Railtrack and undermining its share price and its ability to invest?

Mrs. Liddell

May I also take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities at the Dispatch Box? It is interesting to note that the Leader of the Opposition has split the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and that two shadow Secretaries of State are required to match up to my right hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman talked about three Transport Ministers arriving at once. The Secretary of State for Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid), and I attended the same school, so that is perhaps a measure of the effectiveness of our education.

Since this Government were elected, the focus on public transport has been second to none, particularly in relation to rail transport. The fragmented system that we inherited, including some quite bizarre contracts that were signed when the Conservative party was in government, has left us with the challenge of ensuring that our rail transport system is the best in the world within 10 years. At the end of the day, the passengers will decide whether to use the railways. As a new member of the Department, conscious of the achievements that have been made, I commend its work to the House.