HC Deb 30 November 1999 vol 340 cc140-1
9. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What his policy is on supporting rural rail services. [99015]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

We are determined to improve the railways so that they can offer an alternative to the car, not least in rural areas. The new rail passenger partnership scheme will provide additional funding for new or enhanced local and regional rail services that cannot be justified on financial grounds alone.

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but is he aware that the often inadequate service in the west country misses out enormous parts of the rural areas of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall? Is he also aware that the rail service could provide a much fuller contribution to rural public transport? That would require stations to be opened, reopened and refurbished. Who is to pay for that—Railtrack, the rail companies, the local authorities or central Government?

Mr. Hill

The hon. Gentleman will recall that it will be a duty of the new Strategic Rail Authority to promote and develop the rail system. We certainly expect it to pursue that task where rural rail services are concerned. Meanwhile, I am pleased to report that the shadow strategic rail authority has to date received 31 bids for funding under the rail passenger partnership scheme, which should follow through into further improvements in rural rail services.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, as a direct result of the Government's policies, the reopening of rural rail links for passengers is being considered for the first time since 1964? In my constituency, there is a good chance that the Vale of Glamorgan railway line will be just such a service. That will not only provide transport for our commuters and relieve congestion on our roads, but provide direct access to Cardiff international airport and remove pressure from the InterCity line. When my hon. Friend next speaks to the Transport Secretary of the Welsh Assembly, will he tell him that the Assembly will have the full support of this House if it awards a passenger transport grant for that line?

Mr. Hill

Yes, we certainly will.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Does the Minister agree that the opportunities afforded to him by privatisation of the railways open up the possibility of developing the rural rail network? Will he correct the possible misinterpretation of remarks made by his predecessor in office, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)? She seemed to suggest that, in certain circumstances, rural railway lines could be replaced by buses. Will the Minister give the same commitment that we made, when the railways were privatised, that there will be no branch line closures?

Mr. Hill

Let me make it entirely clear that the remarks of my honourable and beloved predecessor on that matter were subject to gross misinterpretation. I emphasise that we have absolutely no plans to replace loss-making rural services with buses. I remind the hon. Gentleman that key services are contractually safeguarded through the passenger service requirements. In rural areas, where services are heavily dependent on subsidy, PSRs are closely based on the timetable that operated prior to privatisation. Discontinuation of services on branch lines can occur only after comprehensive closure procedures have been exhausted. Those powers have been used only rarely; I do not expect that to change.

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