HC Deb 28 October 2003 vol 412 cc161-74 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Alistair Darling)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about the changes to the way in which railway maintenance is carried out, following Network Rail's announcement last Friday. This is the first available opportunity to keep the House informed of those developments.

The Government are investing very considerable amounts of money to renew Britain's railway, making up for decades of under-investment. Indeed, we are doubling investment over four years. However, as I have said before, for every £1 spent we must ensure that there is £1-worth of benefit to the railway and to its passengers. Controlling cost and improving performance, as well as ensuring a safer railway, are therefore essential.

Following the collapse of Railtrack, Network Rail was set up last October to maintain, renew and operate the rail infrastructure in the best interests of the travelling public. It was set up to bring robust management to the problems inherited from Railtrack.

Network Rail has reviewed its business and identified two key issues that need to be addressed: cost and performance. To help to achieve both, Network Rail is convinced that it needs to establish clear lines of responsibility and accountability for maintenance work, including repairs and upkeep of the track, signals and other infrastructure. It was also concerned to establish consistent high standards of rail maintenance across the rail network, alongside continued improvement in trackside safety standards.

The company has carried out a thorough review of the rail maintenance arrangements set up when Railtrack was privatised. It concluded that the maintenance contract structure created unnecessary cost. Contractors carrying out routine maintenance operate on what is known as a cost-plus basis, which gives them little incentive to cut costs or to respond to problems quickly.

The system has also resulted in enormous variation between different contract areas. Network Rail found that there was a substantial difference between unit costs for maintenance work carried out by different companies in the same part of the country. Different ways of doing things between contractors made it hard to standardise processes and achieve much-needed efficiencies. Current contracts also provide little incentive to respond to incidents quickly and get the network back up and running.

Throughout, Network Rail found considerable management duplication, and complex reporting lines and inspection procedures. In the light of its analysis, Network Rail decided last week to take direct control of all core maintenance.

By next summer, Network Rail expects to have complete control of all maintenance. It will be able to assess its assets and determine what work is carried out and when it is carried out—and it can focus on achieving high standards and cost control, as well as having clear lines of accountability. Maintenance will be carried out by a permanent work force, with more than 18,000 staff transferring to Network Rail over the next year.

Network Rail has said that it expects to cut costs substantially through more efficient working, contributing to a saving of up to £300 million a year within three years.

Network Rail will continue to use contractors to carry out renewals, upgrading lines or, for example, installing a new signalling system—areas where there is a competitive supply market. That work is typically carried out on a project basis, making use of a specialist work force. As with major roads projects such as motorway construction, it is suited to competitive tendering.

The issue is not about private companies working on the railway; rather, the issue was the nature of the contracts set up by the then Government at the time of privatisation. Network Rail is determined to control costs, to improve performance and to ensure that the very large sums invested in the railways are used to the best possible effect—something that Railtrack conspicuously failed to do.

Those changes by Network Rail to take rail maintenance in-house, coupled with the new franchise arrangements for train operating companies that the Strategic Rail Authority is putting in place, establish a strong basis for the rail industry to control costs and improve performance. The challenge now is for Network Rail, the SRA and the whole rail industry to work together, with the structures that are now in place, to deliver the improvements that passengers rightly demand.

The House will also want me to say a brief word about the problems in relation to renewal work on the west coast main line last week, carried out by Jarvis plc. Network Rail informs me that Jarvis had been carrying out work on new track in the Cheadle Hulme area when it became concerned that the work had not been carried out fully. That is a very serious matter. Network Rail is getting the work redone, and it has launched an investigation into what happened. It has said that, when it has the full facts, it will decide what further action needs to be taken.

We paid a heavy price in every sense for a botched privatisation. We are putting that right. The Government, through the SRA, are providing strategic direction. Network Rail is getting a grip on the problems that it inherited. The Government are spending substantial sums to tackle the legacy of under-investment in the railway. The steps announced by Network Rail last week are designed to bear down on cost and to ensure that money is properly and effectively spent, as well as to improve performance.

I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I commend the Secretary of State on his statement and thank him for his characteristic courtesy in letting me have a copy in advance.

The Opposition are also hugely concerned for the long-suffering UK taxpayer, who has been paying so much for so little across the board since 1997. So if the announcements really amount to a much better bargain for the taxpayer, no one will be more pleased than us, but simply asserting that those changes will save money is not good enough. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government's record is that every single act of interference, reorganisation or new structure that they have created has generated more cost, more bureaucracy and much lower value?

The Secretary of State says today that those changes will save £300 million a year, but we have heard all this before. When his predecessor announced the creation of Network Rail in the first place, he said that his creation would produce a railway system that is united and not fragmented". Above all, he said that Network Rail was designed to be more efficient than Railtrack, with lower…costs."—[Official Report, 24 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 582.] The result, however, has been very different. In the words of The Times, Network Rail cost the taxpayer twice as much as Railtrack and yet has delivered an 80 per cent. poorer performance. Will the Secretary of State concede that he cannot blame the contractors for that? They are the same people, doing the same work for Network Rail as they did for Railtrack. It is his Government's creation that has utterly lost control of its costs and is now lashing out to find someone else to blame. The only prediction made by the previous Secretary of State that has come true is the prediction that Network Rail would be a not-for-profit company. Will the Secretary of State confirm that, with losses running into the billions, there is no chance of Network Rail defying its instructions to avoid a profit?

A few months ago, as the Secretary of State will recall, the Opposition did not criticise Network Rail when it chose to take a few of the rail maintenance contracts in-house. It said then that it wanted to be able to compare private and in-house capabilities. We agreed that that was sensible. So why, just months later, are there to be no private sector comparators at all? Why has it broken its word, given categorically in private and public, that it absolutely would not take all contracts in-house? Why, for the second time in two years, has a Secretary of State come to this House to announce an act of expropriation, planned at dead of night, acted on without consultation and forced through without regard for previous arrangements and understandings? Why, once again, are shareholders seeing their assets confiscated, their business destroyed and their investments sharply reduced in value, all without much, if any, compensation? Last time round, the Secretary of State at the time was forced by City pressure to provide compensation in the end to Railtrack shareholders at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds to the taxpayer. Will the taxpayer end up paying extra compensation to the shareholders of the rail maintenance companies this time? Given that his predecessor was proven categorically wrong when he repeatedly ruled out compensation, why should anyone believe any assurances that the present Secretary of State makes on that point today?

Is not the truth that in 1997 our rail system was very far from perfect, but it was self-financing? It had the largest amount of new rolling stock on order for a generation; it was expanding rapidly; and it ran many more trains on time then than now. Under this Government, the rail industry is set to consume over £5 billion a year of taxpayer's money; has the smallest number of forward rolling stock orders in more than 20 years; has had to scrap the majority of its expansion plans; and does not plan to get back to 1997 levels of punctuality until 2010 at the earliest? Is not today's announcement absolute proof that this Government do not have a clue how to deliver value for money, and are simply taxing and spending and failing? On the railways, as in so many other areas, Labour isn't working—again.

Mr. Darling

I find it curious that the hon. Gentleman started by welcoming the statement, but as he went on and on, he told us more and more why it might be better to go back to the old days of Railtrack and the botched privatisation that his party left us.

In relation to railway costs, over the last few years, especially since the time of Hatfield, it has become glaringly apparent that successive Governments have not invested enough in the railway infrastructure in this country. If I may illustrate that to the House, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the previous Government started the privatisation, British Rail used to reckon on having to upgrade or replace about 500 miles of track a year. In the run-up to privatisation, because investment dried up, that renewal figure dropped to about 300 miles a year. After privatisation, it dropped to 200 miles a year. It is therefore not surprising that trains and track operators are now encountering the difficulties of lines that were not maintained properly.

Unfortunately, this country must meet those bills, and must ensure that the railway network operates efficiently. What is equally clear, however, is that we need to do that at a cost that can be justified. I have made it clear on many occasions that the railway industry must cut its costs—that is the central point of the Network Rail decision. The contracts that were set up—not even by Network Rail, as they were imposed by the last Tory Government—provided that maintenance work was to be farmed out to companies on the basis that they decided what to do, when to do it, and that it was done on a cost-plus basis. Those companies could therefore decide what they did and send the bill to Railtrack, as it then was, and it would then have to be met. That is not an efficient way to run the railways. Therefore, in relation to the hon. Gentleman's complaint about getting costs under control, the whole structure that was set up in relation to Railtrack and rail maintenance following privatisation did not work. That is why Network Rail was right to change it.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say that the proposal was an idea that had been planned overnight. Network Rail took over in October last year. For the last few months, it has publicly been looking at the nature of these maintenance contracts. The hon. Gentleman rightly refers to the fact that three contracts were taken back in-house because Network Rail wanted to find out what was going on. It found out that the unit costs of doing work could vary dramatically—by up to 60 per cent., I am told—in similar parts of the country, and that work was not being done in the way that it would expect. In other words, the company—Railtrack—was not being well run. Of course it makes sense to change that.

It is interesting that when the hon. Gentleman was listing all the people for whom he felt sorry, not once did the word "passenger" cross his lips. That speaks volumes about the Tories' attitude to the railway. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did."] We all listened to what he said. He seemed more concerned about the fate of Railtrack than about passengers who use the railway.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's criticisms of the railways, we are replacing more track than has been replaced for many years. For example, the west coast main line is being completely—[Interruption.] It is being redone because it has not been properly maintained since the 1960s. Yes, the Labour party was in power for part of that time, but the Tory Government did nothing about it for 18 years.

The hon. Gentleman had the gall to say that forward railway orders were the lowest they have been for some time. We are replacing nearly 40 per cent. of all rolling stock within a five-year period, which never happened under the Tory Government.

Mr. Collins

Tory orders.

Mr. Darling

Tory orders indeed! The work that is being done on the railways is only possible because this Government have agreed to spend public and private money amounting to £180 billion over ten years. Money is going into the railways and we are confident for the future of the railways. The announcement is designed to ensure that money is spent to give the best possible benefit to passengers and taxpayers generally. The measure will put in place proper management for the railways to replace the mess with which the last Tory Government left us.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I must say to my right hon. Friend that his statement is very good news. It is the kind of news, which happens every once in a while, that you do not have to spin. It is so self-evident that it is a good idea—so much so that the RMT chief, Bob Crow, is on board, Transport 2000 is acclaiming it and every passenger who was interviewed said that it was great news. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will probably say the same thing. If my right hon. Friend needs any help to accelerate the process, may I tell him that since he stood up, I have gathered 25 signed letters to ask him to keep the momentum going? Well done.

Mr. Darling

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support, although I shall resist the temptation to say much more in case we fall out. I very much appreciate what he says. I can only assume that the Conservative Benches are so thinly attended because Conservative Members are away writing their own letters.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in sending me a copy of the statement. It has been patently obvious that the arrangements that were put in place for the maintenance of the railways since privatisation were wholly botched and completely inadequate. Contractorisation has been a failure. I therefore welcome the statement, and Network Rail and the Government's recognition of a need for change. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is no doubt that the recent spate of incidents on both the railway and the tube have not only proved that point but, critically, severely damaged the public's confidence in the rail network?

Although I welcome the statement and its implications, I have several serious concerns. Given the nature and speed of the decision, can the Secretary of State assure us that the threat of legal action by contractors will not lead to bloated pay-offs to contractors for shoddy work? Does he agree that it is imperative that a culture of safety first be restored to the railways? Given that Network Rail's deputy chief executive conceded that culture change was a serious problem, what can the Secretary of State do to ensure that the change takes place? How will the Government help to restore the public's confidence because we still have the safest railways in Europe and it is vital for that confidence to be restored? The Secretary of State stated that a saving of £300 million will flow from the changes, so will he assure the House that that saving will be spent on tackling the maintenance backlog to which he rightly referred, and not lost on other cost rises? Finally, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, the travelling public deserve a safe, reliable and affordable transport system, but the greatest of these must be safety.

Mr. Darling

No one would doubt that safety is paramount. Safety, and the culture of safety, ought to be in with the bricks. It is not an added extra and should be taken as a given, as it is in the airline industry. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's more general points, our overground and underground railways suffer from the same problem of decades of under-investment. Many, although not all, of the problems that we encounter are rooted in the lack of money for the railways, which meant that they were not properly maintained and renewed. I am not making a party political point. Successive Governments have been at fault. No doubt Gladstone was a bit remiss as well. However, the public have every right to have confidence in the railway system. It is a safe form of transport—safer than cars and some other modes of travel. We are renewing and improving it. There are no quick fixes, but it will get better year on year provided that we keep up the investment and, crucially, provided that the industry gets a grip of costs. Costs got out of control under Railtrack. They need to be got back under control so that for every £1 we spend we get a £ 1-worth of benefit.

On confidence, it is worth reflecting on the fact that Britain's railways carry more people today than at any time since 1947, despite a tenfold increase in car ownership. So the railways can be popular. People expect the Government to ensure that the system is in place to deliver better railways.

On two minor points, first, it is for Network Rail to sort out legal action with its contractors. Secondly, on savings, the hon. Gentleman will have seen that Network Rail has produced a range of proposals, all designed to reduce significantly the costs of maintaining the railway. People do not begrudge the money going to the railway system, but they want to ensure that it is properly spent.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Secretary of State will realise that passengers and the general public will be highly delighted by this announcement. It is long overdue. People have found it difficult to understand why the enormous sums of money that the Government committed were wasted by being poured into contracts that were demonstrably not doing the job. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new organisation, Network Rail, will not only maintain high standards, but be used as a benchmark for other parts of the railway industry where it is clear that contractors have been taking on the taxpayer in the most outrageous way and need to be curbed?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right. I said in my statement that this is not about whether contractors should be used, because many of them are involved in the railways and other parts of the transport industry. What is crucial, however, is to get the nature of the agreement right so that we are very clear about what is supposed to be delivered and what we are supposed to be paying for it. We need to ensure that for every £1 we spend on the railways we get £1-worth of benefit. That is what the announcement is all about. Having decided to take the maintenance in-house, it is up to Network Rail to ensure that it runs a tight, efficient and disciplined organisation that shows that we are getting a better deal out of the railways. If it can do that, it will continue to enjoy our support.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Why did the Secretary of State deal with only part of the problem of railway maintenance? Is he not aware that the travelling public are gravely concerned by the deterioration of railway maintenance standards on the London underground system? He mentioned the failure of Jarvis to carry out track-laying work in the Cheadle area. Why is it that Network Rail has to take over that obligation from Jarvis on the west coast main line, yet Jarvis remains, as far as the Government are concerned, happily part of the infrastructure companies that are responsible for maintaining the London underground system? Is it not the case that the railway system run by London Underground is full of contractual complexities and unclear reporting procedures as a result of the public-private partnership, which is clearly not working?

Mr. Darling

I see that since I last replied to a Conservative Member, even more of them have gone off to write their letters. There is only a handful left.

Perhaps I misunderstand the hon. Gentleman, but I am surprised to hear him speak out so strongly against the use of contractors and the private sector. I should have thought, sitting as he does on the Conservative Benches, that he would not be so dismissive. The position with London Underground is different because the nature of the contracts is different. Its contracts with the infrastructure companies specify what has to be delivered. Contractors are paid according to outcomes rather than on a cost-plus basis, which is the basis of the overland contracts let by Railtrack. The only similarity is the lack of investment in both the overground and underground systems. Some £16 billion-worth of investment is going in over the next 15 years. It is just a great pity that that work was not started years ago, perhaps even when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

My right hon. Friend will recall that I spent 19 years working in the railway industry before arriving in the House. I commend him on his analysis and correct interpretation of the industry's history. That stands in stark contrast to the strange view of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, who should probably get out a hit more to see the legacy left by earlier policies. Under privatisation, the railway was designed for failure rather than the success towards which my right hon. Friend is working. Will he commend early-day motion 1808, which I tabled, because it supports the substance of his statement?

Mr. Darling

I shall break my daily habit and read the early-day motion to see what it has to say. My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in the railway industry and he devotes a considerable amount of time to promoting the railways in his work in the House. He is right, of course: the key to a successful railway is money and management. Both must be right. In relation to money, the Opposition's problem is that their tax-and-spend policies do not add up, as they well know. That is why they cannot give commitments on investment in the railways.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle)

I agree with the Secretary of State's analysis and direction of travel. I am concerned, however, that my constituents' experience of Network Rail has been less than encouraging. I refer in particular to its management of the erection of masts and track-side clearance programmes in my constituency, which contains Cheadle Hulme. Is Network Rail up to the job? Will the Government take a clear lead in ensuring that future work by Network Rail is up to the standard that the public expect? So far, the public's experience in my constituency is that Network Rail is not managed well. It needs to be managed considerably better.

Mr. Darling

As there has been a lot of talk about letter writing, may I suggest that the hon. Lady raises specific concerns about track-side clearance and radio masts with the management of Network Rail—if not locally, then nationally. I am sure that the chief executive will be happy to co-operate. On her central question, most people have been greatly encouraged by the way in which the new management team at Network Rail is getting to grips with the problems it inherited.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a pleasure to hear that a service can be provided at a lower price, and more efficiently and effectively, in the public sector? Does he also agree that the move away from contractorisation is good in the circumstances? Will he say something to the long-suffering passengers on the west coast main line who take four and sometimes five hours at weekends to do a journey that 30 years ago took two and a half?

Mr. Darling

Network Rail is a private company. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is still a member of the Public Accounts Committee, but, if she is, she will know that it conducted an examination of Network Rail.

I fully understand the frustration of people who travel on the west coast main line at the moment. Unfortunately, the very act of maintaining it, improving it and renewing large sections of it can be disruptive. I travelled on that line only a couple of weeks ago, and I understand that frustration full well. However, when the first phase of the work is completed at the end of next year, it will cut the running time between Manchester and London to just over two hours and allow four trains an hour to run to Birmingham. When the work is fully completed at the end of 2007, it will take almost an hour off the running time from Glasgow to London. It will make for a far better, more efficient railway. Unfortunately, just as with roads, when one starts maintaining or improving, there is inevitably disruption while the work is carried out.

The other thing is that, as my hon. Friend will know, on large parts of the west coast main line there is new, improved rolling stock, and when the work is completed people will say that it ought to have been done years ago and they are glad that it has been done.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

The right hon. Gentleman may know that reliability on the London-Tilbury-Southend line has been increasing recently, and although that is welcome there are still major problems due to maintenance difficulties on overhead cables, signals and track. Can he guarantee that the reliability on that line will continue to improve, and, if it does not, will he return the maintenance contract to the private sector? Can some of the £300 million savings be spent on providing a new terminus for Canvey Island?

Mr. Darling

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the amount being spent on the railway network is increasing. Some years ago, the London-Tilbury line was having real problems and was a source of constant frustration. It was mentioned on just about every radio programme that I can remember. It is an example of what happens when two things, money and management, are put in. That is what makes a difference to the railways.

As far as the future is concerned, the whole point of Network Rail's announcement is to try to improve maintenance and management so that we can drive up reliability. Make no mistake about this: reliability is improving but it still has a long way to go before people will say that it is satisfactory. Nobody in the industry should be in any doubt that increasing reliability and controlling costs are the two major priorities.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Has my right hon. Friend noted that Network Rail's decision has been widely welcomed by everyone except, it seems, the Tories? Given the decision, is there not now a compelling logic that renewals should be treated in the same fashion, for two reasons? First, maintenance and renewals are vital sides of the same coin, and the effectiveness of one activity has a profound effect on the other. Secondly, those companies involved in renewals are the same private companies that have let us down so badly on maintenance.

Mr. Darling

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend, for the reasons that I made clear in my statement. The problem here was not private contractors working on the railway. I am not against that; I do not know my hon. Friend's view on that but I know that some people find it difficult to accept. The problem was the maintenance contract. It was cost-plus, which is almost an invitation for a company to say, "Well, I'll go off and do what I want, and I'll send you the bill." It is the sort of arrangement that contractors in other industries can only dream of. Contracts for renewal work are similar to those for building a new motorway. The job is specified, tendered for and contracted for, and the contract sets out what is to be done and what the price is. There is a distinction there.

I made it clear last Friday, when I was asked about these matters, that the partnership on the railways between the public and private sectors is generally a good thing, not least because it brings in substantial investment. If that investment was not available, the Government would have to make up the difference. In addition, I think that having contractors for renewals can work perfectly well, provided that we get the contracts right.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Network Rail's announcement has been widely welcomed in Wales and Scotland, as I am sure the Secretary of State knows. However, there will be some disappointment about what he has just said about upgrading and renewal work, because several projects in Wales, including the Cambrian mid-Wales line, have been on hold for some two years, not because the private contractors or the required sums are not available but because Network Rail does not have the engineering capacity to deal with those developments. What assurances can the Secretary of State give the House and rail passengers that Network Rail's capacity to deal not only with maintenance but with renewals will be sufficient in the forthcoming years?

Mr. Darling

I am aware that the announcement was welcomed in Scotland and Wales. It is curious that nationalists always have a problem with mentioning England, but the announcement was welcomed there as well. The hon. Gentleman and those who sit alongside him find that when they mention England, something happens to them. It is rather like what happens when Europe is mentioned by Tory Members: they come over all queer.

The hon. Gentleman's central point was a good one. It is necessary for the industry to grow its capacity to do the amount of work that is now being commissioned, and that is true of other industries. After many years of chronic under-investment, we are now putting in money to get improvements on the railway network, and of course that has led to pressures in capacity. I know that Network Rail is reflecting on how it might deal with that.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

I have said to my right hon. Friend in the past that cost increases for renewals since privatisation have been slightly higher than those for maintenance, so I wonder whether he will be revisiting the matter in a few months to tell us about renewals. I also ask him to consider whether this might be a staging post on the way to recreating a publicly owned state railway, comparable to those on the continent, which work so well and put us to shame.

Mr. Darling

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on that point. As I said on Friday, the idea that if we went back to British Rail we would sort out all the problems that we face is not right. Many people in the House, including, and I am not being rude, my hon. Friend, will remember the days of British Rail and the fact that it was deficient in a number of respects.

Mr. Hopkins

That was under-investment.

Mr. Darling

It was not just under-investment; it was its management and, sometimes, its conspicuous lack of innovation for which British Rail could also be criticised.

I do not expect Network Rail to revisit long-term contracts, for the reasons that I stated earlier. Costs have gone up, and I suspect that the point comes back to what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said a moment ago: as capacity in the industry becomes tighter, it is not surprising that the price for which it is willing to do the work will increase. However, we have made it clear to the contractors—I made this point in relation to light rail at the last Transport questions—that the Government's view is not that we will pay whatever it takes, at any price; what matters is that we get the best possible price. In the case of this announcement, we need to be concerned with the nature of the contracts, and Network Rail made it clear that maintenance contracts were inefficient and needed to be changed, and that is why they are to be changed.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Will the Secretary of State focus on the tragic Potters Bar rail crash of May 2002? The train, as he knows, was en route to my constituency; a number of people were killed and many others were injured. Does he agree that the Health and Safety Executive report was inconclusive, so much so that the contractor is still saying that there may have been an element of sabotage? Surely the only way to move forward and clear everything up is to hold a full public inquiry. Why has the right hon. Gentleman turned down that suggestion up to now?

Mr. Darling

The HSE said that it can find no evidence of sabotage in the Potters Bar accident, and so far as I am aware nobody has found any evidence of sabotage. The last HSE report was pretty clear about the cause of the accident, and in the absence of any evidence the question of sabotage does not really arise.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed throughout the country. Does he agree that the way in which the contracts were imposed on the industry fragmented the old safety culture, which is an important ingredient for efficiency in any industry? Does he further agree that the example of the railways would indicate that the country can no longer afford the outsourcing of public maintenance?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend will have heard what I said about maintenance and the fact that Network Rail is going to deal with it, but I will say a couple of things about safety. Understandably, concern has been expressed about safety following recent accidents. In each case, it is important to look at the cause of accident and then decide what needs to be done, but a general point should be made arising from the points made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). The railways are generally a safe form of transport, and we should remember that they are a lot safer now than they were 30 years ago. If we look, for example, at the number of people killed on the railways, particularly trackside workers, who are sometimes overlooked by commentators, we see that safety has been getting better year on year. There are still things that need to be addressed—they are being addressed by the industry—but it is important that we send a clear message to the public. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been some serious accidents—we must look at their cause and learn the lessons—the industry is generally getting safer.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

It has been exceedingly hard to secure investment in rural rail networks in mid-Wales. A farmer called Mal Phillips has been waiting seven years for bridge improvements, and the local rail user group has been waiting many years for track improvements to achieve a more frequent service. I have heard rumours that the Government might be willing to compromise rural services further to get major investment in other parts of the network, so will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be measurable improvement in investment in rural services, such as the one in mid-Wales, and that we will not have to suffer further decline as the Government seek to improve other services?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman does not have to bother himself with rumours. The proposal is for a more sensible approach to maintenance, such as the one for roads. Motorways, for example, are built and maintained to a different standard from B roads. The Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail and the regulator have been considering whether it is necessary to specify the same standard for rural lines as the one used for lines carrying 125 mph trains and freight every five minutes or so. It is far more sensible to look realistically at rural lines, which are often more likely to be used but do not carry such heavy trains. That brings me back to the central point of Network Rail's announcement last week: we need to manage our railways properly. Unfortunately, after privatisation that did not happen. The Conservatives were sometimes not sure what on earth they were trying to do, so it is not surprising that the solution on which they eventually alighted left us in the mess that we are in.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I welcome the Secretary of State's willingness to intervene in the public interest when the private sector fails to deliver an important public service, but is he satisfied that Jarvis remains the preferred bidder for renewals on the London north-eastern division, given its record of work on our railways?

Mr. Darling

I hate to fall out with my hon. Friend over her first point—as this statement goes on, I note that the glowing praise is fading somewhat—but the decision announced by Network Rail last week was its decision alone: it was not one urged on it by Government. Of course, it kept us informed, but it was its decision—there was no intervention on my part. As for Jarvis, Network Rail will have to decide whom it will contract with, and it will no doubt want to take a range of matters into account. However, Ministers will intervene in that at all.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Like others, I believe that Network Rail's bringing together of maintenance will be as welcome for users of overground services in London as for people who travel in and out of the capital. However, to pursue the question asked by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), may we have further reassurance that inspection of maintenance will be well and truly independent from those who do the maintenance? The best technology in the world can provide ultrasound checking of track, so may we have an assurance that it will be available, perhaps through the Government facilitating a joint purchase by London Underground and Network Rail? May we also have a minimum passenger guarantee about the frequency of safety inspections on the overground and the underground?

Mr. Darling

I shall give a brief answer. I presume that the hon. Gentleman is aware that London Underground is the Mayor's responsibility—he must have contemplated that when he decided to stand for the office of Mayor. London Underground also holds the safety case, and its management and, ultimately, the Mayor will decide what is appropriate.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

The statement is the best news that the railways have had in many years, but will my right hon. Friend look again at bringing the train operating companies back into the public sector? The split between operators and infrastructure that the Tories gave the country is without precedent and is the root of a lot of problems on Britain's railways. Earlier, my right hon. Friend mentioned Gladstone. Is he aware that Gladstone was, in fact, in favour of a publicly owned railway system? In 1844, he tried to nationalise the railways, but could not get away with it because of the reactionaries of the time, whose heirs are now sitting on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Darling

Gladstone's tax-and-spend policy was at least coherent, which is more than can be said for today's Liberal party.

I do not agree with my hon. Friend. The train operating companies will continue to operate as they do at present. However, my hon. Friend does have a point—this was in Network Rail's announcement last week, but it was not picked up very much—about the railway being managed as a railway. It must be recognised that track and train are intimately related. That does not mean that private companies and train operating companies cannot work alongside Network Rail, but a better system of management is being put in place. At the moment, when something goes wrong, there is sometimes an argument between the train operating companies and the network operator about what ought to be done. That will change and there will be a single point of accountability so that if something goes wrong someone can decide how best to put it right.

The railways are receiving a high sustainable level of investment—£73 million a week from the Government, which is attracting a similar sum from the private sector. That is one reason why it would be a big mistake to remove private sector involvement.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Does my right hon. Friend concur that the announcement should not have come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Opposition Front Benchers? Presumably, they attended Transport questions last week, when I asked my right hon. Friend: Is it not now time for Network Rail to take all maintenance in-house?"—[Official Report, 21 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 503.] I have great confidence in my right hon. Friend, but I did not expect such a rapid response. He has denied responsibility for the decision but, if he did have any influence over it, will he accept the congratulations of the House on restoring common sense to rail maintenance and getting rid of market imperfection at its most barmy and dangerous?

Mr. Darling

I was acutely aware when my hon. Friend asked his question that I had to give an answer consistent with my duty to be straightforward with Parliament. The fact that nobody drew anything from my answer is a source of comfort to me. The credit should go to the management of Network Rail, who made the decision. The company is charged with running the railway network properly, and maintenance is, I believe, exactly the sort of thing that it ought to be doing. It is just a shame that we had to endure years of Railtrack before we reached that point.