HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc709-12
8. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

If he will make a statement on the availability of power on the rail network. [93536]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The Strategic Rail Authority has put in place measures to ensure the upgrading of the power supply to accommodate the new trains for services to the south and east of London.

Tom Brake

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Will he confirm the report in this week's Public Finance, which says that the SRA—in other words, the taxpayer—will have to pay hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation for new carriages being left in sidings due to a power supply shortage? What services will have to be cut to pay for that compensation? Finally, will he confirm that the power supply shortages have led to the delay in withdrawing the less safe mark 1 carriages?

Mr. Darling

It might help if I explain the position to the hon. Gentleman and the House. The power supply on the lines to the south and east of London should have been upgraded some years ago. This is another Railtrack legacy that we have to deal with. The power supply was put in on most lines in the 1930s, and a bit more work was done in the 1960s. It should have been foreseen years ago that the new rolling stock would not be able to run efficiently on the existing power supply. That is being remedied, and the SRA and Network Rail will spend about £1 billion over the next few years to upgrade supply.

At the moment, we think that between 300 and 500 trains will not be able to be introduced according to the proposed timetable—towards the end of 2004—but they should be in service by mid-2005. The SRA and Network Rail are getting to grips with the problem, and the money is going in to ensure that the trains can run as they were designed to run. I am afraid that this is yet another example of a problem that Railtrack should have seen and done something about years ago.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

My right hon. Friend said that there are too many trains on the old track, but he knows that we have new track in Kent—the channel tunnel rail link. When he comes to decide where those trains will stop, will he ensure that they stop in Thanet, which is one of the poorest areas of Kent, and the Medway towns, which are the engine for the regeneration of the Thames gateway? Never mind the offers of imported beer made during the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (James Purnell)—if the Secretary of State makes the right choice, he can have the finest ale, which comes from the garden of England.

Mr. Darling

I see that, at least among Labour Members, there is a growing tendency to offer strong drink in return for additional rail services. As my granny would have said, that is not always the best way to take key decisions. The SRA is looking at what domestic services could be increased and improved when the channel tunnel rail link is continued. I understand perfectly, as my hon. Friend has raised the matter with me on a number of occasions, the desirability of improving the service, particularly from north Kent to London. The SRA is considering that, so he perhaps ought to offer a drink to it as well as to Ministers—we never know what might happen!

Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

Is it the case that operators such as Connex South Eastern can deal with the problem of lack of power supply only by running the new trains in what they describe as a degraded fashion—slower than they should be run?

Mr. Darling

It is true that if the power supply is not of the strength needed, it affects the operation of the trains. As I said to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) a few moments ago, the difficulty is that Connex, which ordered the trains, and Railtrack, which was responsible for the network, ought to have seen the problem so that it could have been dealt with far earlier. As it is, I expect that the majority of the new rolling stock coming on to the service will be able to run until the end of 2004. The 300 to 400 trains that would otherwise have come on to the line will come on by mid-2005.

The fact is, I am afraid, that because Railtrack did not do the work when it should have been done, the standard of service was inevitably not as high as it should have been. Unfortunately, that remains the case. There is no shrinking from the fact that, until the power supply is fully upgraded, trains will not run as they should.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

Any 10-yearold boy playing with a train set knows that two engines on the same electric line run at half the speed possible for just one train. Why did not the rocket scientists who run Connex and who used to run Railtrack notice that? Is my right hon. Friend certain that the time scale for putting new power into the south-east will be as short as possible?

Mr. Darling

I certainly hope that it will be. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that there were too many people in Railtrack who did not spend enough time thinking about what was happening on the track but who were over-concerned about the possibilities of property development. It is an indictment of the previous Government that the company that they set up to run this country's rail network was focused not on running the railways but on how much money could be made out of property development.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

A moment ago the Secretary of State said, "Whatever Government are in power, the railways need to be managed properly." The fiasco that he has just described will take place next year—seven years after this Government took office. Is he really saying that it has nothing whatsoever to do with him? Is this the "not me, guy" Government?

Mr. Darling

Actually, I was agreeing with what the hon. Gentleman said just before Christmas, when he published his long-awaited railway policy. I heard him on the "Today" programme at about half past six in the morning when he announced it. What he said bears repetition: The fruits of increased investment"— and I thank the hon. Gentleman for the acknowledgement— are often overshadowed by the problems that continue to beset rail infrastructure. It should be acknowledged that Railtrack failed to get to grips with these problems. That is a welcome admission that Railtrack did not live up to the expectations of those who floated the company in the mid-1990s. As I have told the House on a number of occasions, the SRA and Network Rail are getting to grips with the problem. The Opposition were extremely critical only a few months ago of those bodies, but I note that the same policy document to which I have referred already makes it clear that it is now Conservative policy to support Government policy on Network Rail. Thank goodness those bodies are getting to grips with the problem, as that is the only way in which we are going to improve the quality of services for passengers in the south-east of England who have suffered far too long from inadequate services, overcrowding and lack of reliability. Those problems are now being addressed.

Mr. Collins

Since the long-term applicability of the right amount of power to the rail network clearly depends on predicting accurately the level of passenger and freight demand, will the Secretary of State answer the important question dodged earlier by the Under-Secretary about the axing of rail freight grants? Instead of saying what that grant will be this year, will the right hon. Gentleman say what it will be next year and the year after?

Mr. Darling

The £40 million applies to next year as well. The SRA is constantly looking at its budgets to ensure proper cost control. That is right, and it is something that the SRA will continue to do throughout its lifetime. Cost control is another thing that Railtrack let rip. One reason we face problems with investment is that Railtrack had no idea about how to control costs. The SRA continues to support rail freight, not only through grants but because the charges on rail freight are slightly less than on passenger trains. All sorts of measures are being taken, including, for example, increasing capacity for freight on the west coast main line. The Government are committed to getting more freight off the roads and on to the railways.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman, in his new Conservative party policy, has accepted what is happening to some extent. We now have better management, and one other ingredient—sustained money going into the railways. The Government will double the amount going into the railways between 2001 and the end of this Parliament. That is essential. When the hon. Gentleman next comes to look at his policy, he might also want to reconsider the Conservative policy of cutting spending by 20 per cent. That would be devastating.