HC Deb 16 January 2001 vol 361 cc189-93
6. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will make a statement on the progress made by the rail recovery action group. [143969]

The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)

Following the derailment of a train at Hatfield on 17 October, Railtrack instituted an immediate examination of the entire network, leading to nearly 1,000 20 mph speed restrictions being imposed, and requiring 450 miles of rerailing and the replacement of 650 points.

The rail recovery action group brings together the key players in the rail industry to help to get services back to normal. Railtrack has now rerailed 273 miles and replaced 234 points. Of the remaining 421 speed restrictions, only 110 are still at 20 mph.

Passengers have suffered considerable inconvenience, which we all regret. Services are continuing to improve. Twenty-three of the 28 train operating companies are working at or close to normal timetables. Railtrack has given assurances that by the end of the month the network will enable about 85 per cent. of all services to operate normally, and that by Easter the network will be back to normal.

This unprecedented programme has required extraordinary efforts by thousands of railway workers, through the most difficult conditions of floods, snow and sub-zero temperatures. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in thanking them for all their efforts on the public's behalf.

Mr. Fabricant

The House will join the Deputy Prime Minister in congratulating all the engineers and technicians, who have done good work so far. However, he will recall that on 9 November the Government held a summit—he was present, as was the Prime Minister—with Railtrack. He said that there would be a reliable timetable by Christmas. Sadly, that did not happen. We also heard of high hopes for a reliable timetable to begin yesterday. However, less than 50 per cent.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] The House does not like to hear what I have to say, but it is the truth.

It was hoped that yesterday 85 per cent. of services would be working again. Sadly, less than 50 per cent. of them were. Do the Government now set their heart behind Railtrack's commitment that services will be back to normal by Easter, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said? By normal, does he mean that there will be the same, if not better, standards of reliability and punctuality as before Hatfield?

Mr. Prescott

It is true that I told the House and said in public that I supported the evidence given to me and the statements made by Railtrack, to the effect that it would need only three weeks to produce a railway recovery programme. Any Minister in my position is bound to accept that professional advice. We know now that the promise and the recovery programme, followed by a sustainable timetable, can be achieved in normal circumstances only by Easter. I remind the House that normal is defined as 90 per cent. punctuality and reliability. That was called the normal service, which the previous Administration left us. We were working to improve that, and there were some signs of improvement. That was the definition of normal that was given to me by Railtrack, and it is a matter of record.

It is clear that about 23 of the 28 train companies are operating normal or near normal services by now, and certainly will be by the end of the month. Inter-city trains have longer delays for a number of reasons, as I discovered on Sunday night, as those who read the Daily Mail will appreciate. GNER, Virgin West Coast, First Great Western and Silverlink constitute some 1,000 services a day.

There are usually more than 18,000 services a day, and the majority are working to normal standards. The House wants a normal service to be achieved as soon as possible and for services to operate safely. I have accepted the recovery programme given to me by Railtrack and I expect it to deliver on that. If it does not do so, that will be another reflection on its competence. At the moment, however, I give it my full support in getting back to a normal service.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will have seen the statement made by Railtrack yesterday, in which it set out the difficulties that it foresees in meeting its maintenance programme. Will he ask the Strategic Rail Authority and the rail recovery action group to provide practical ideas about whether Railtrack is capable of being the core service for the railway system, as well as about whether we need to find another strategy if the company is not fit for that purpose?

Mr. Prescott

My hon. Friend makes an important point and describes very much what I have been doing. I have been asking the Strategic Rail Authority questions, as it is the body that should advise us on these matters. She will know that the Strategic Rail Authority invited all the operators to submit evidence and it established working groups. It did so on the basis of the statement made by the then chief executive that there was some conflict between the organisation of the railway under privatisation and the running of a safe operating railway. I rejected that assertion and I notice that Railtrack now also rejects it, as do most of the rail companies. The working groups were established to examine the difficulties, provide alternatives and consider how we might present proposals for discussion in the industry.

I shall report back, as will the Strategic Rail Authority, which will provide its strategic agenda and report for the House to consider. Indeed, the Transport Sub-Committee will also be able to take that information fully into account. Many questions must be asked and many difficulties still face us, but we are trying at this stage to achieve a normal working railway. That is what the country wants and it is what we intend to achieve. I hope that the changes that will be introduced by the Transport Act 2000 will ensure that we get a good, modern railway system—something that this country has not had for decades.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

May I preface my question by saying that it does not imply any personal criticism of the right hon. Gentleman? Can he explain why two broken rails at Hatfield—they were on the line to my constituency—have wrecked the entire railway system? Has that happened because Railtrack and the train operating companies did not know that hundreds of rails throughout the country were dangerous—or because they did know that but continued, month after month, to put at risk the lives of thousands of passengers every day?

Mr. Prescott

The House will understand that that is a matter for the HSE, which is currently investigating it. It is clear from the work that is being done that the track might not have been in a proper state of repair, but that will have a lot to do with the record of investment under the previous Administration.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in negotiations with Railtrack, the Government should be negotiating from a position not only of strength and conciliation, but of fear? Does he accept that Railtrack will not improve its performance unless it knows that there is a distinct possibility that the Government are prepared to take the track back into public ownership?

Mr. Prescott

The framework in which we operate is to ensure that the economic regulation of the railways is done by the Rail Regulator. I appointed a new Rail Regulator, whom I believe to be doing an excellent job. Strategic decisions about preparing not only for the maintenance of a good railway system, but for its enhancement, are given to the Strategic Rail Authority, which has been established in legislation and takes effect on 1 February. The regulator and the authority have an active interest, as do the Government as we provide resources to Railtrack.

We are entitled to ensure that a safe railway is being maintained, in line with the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive. We are entitled also to ensure that the railway is working and meeting our 10-year plan, which is a matter for the economic regulator. The plan was established by the Government in discussion with the Strategic Rail Authority and we must ensure that it is implemented. That is the best way forward. As to whether Railtrack is fearful of me, I think that it should concentrate on getting things right.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

The Secretary of State is very ready to tell everyone else what their responsibilities are while rarely taking on his responsibilities. We will hold him to his commitments. However, let me remind him that, two years ago, he told John Humphrys on the "Today" programme: Quality, quality, quality … You will be able to tell in 12 months, John. Yet the Deputy Prime Minister has been responsible for transport for the past four years, and thus for setting up the SRA, appointing new regulators, setting tough targets and hosting all the train summits. However, he is ever ready to blame the industry as soon as things go wrong.

As the railway slides into deeper financial crisis, and the right hon. Gentleman's 10-year transport plan is in tatters, does he deny that he has been in control of rail policy for the past four years? Instead of improving matters, does he realise that he has made the railway a whole lot worse?

Mr. Prescott

More people are travelling by rail than ever before. That was our intention—[Interruption.] Let us wait and see. I thought that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was talking about the last four years. In those years, more people have travelled by rail, more goods have been carried as freight and the railway system has been safer. That is absolutely clear to anyone who looks at the record. The investment that was announced in our 10-year plan was on a scale that had not been witnessed in the House for decades [Interruption.] I can tell the House what went wrong. I shall quote the hon. Gentleman, who said: Certainly what we're happy to concede is that with the benefit of hindsight some of the privatisation decisions could have been improved. What went wrong was the Conservative Government's organisation of a railway system. They are responsible for that. We are introducing and providing the resources, the regulatory framework and a strategic vision. We shall provide a railway that is worthy of this country, rather than the one that the previous Administration constantly cut. We have had to tackle the problems that that caused.