HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc136-41
2. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

What representations he has received from Network Rail about the future organisation of the railways. [166170]

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

In the course of the rail review, my Department has received representations from a wide range of people in the rail industry, including representatives of Network Rail.

Mr. Grogan

Given the Government's commendable view that what matters is what works, why not leave the franchise in the hands of South Eastern Trains, which has improved punctuality dramatically since the demise of Connex? To secure two public sector comparators, why not make a similar arrangement for the northern franchise area?

Mr. Darling

While I am always the first to welcome an improvement in performance, I must tell my hon. Friend that the performance of South Eastern Trains has improved by almost the same amount as that of the other south-east operators. It does not necessarily follow that the fact that the Strategic Rail Authority is currently running the franchise has led to the improvement; it is also due to Network Rail's improved performance.

During the review I have made it clear that I consider the principle of both public and private participation in the industry to be important and beneficial. Apart from anything else, the private sector brings in almost as much money as the public sector. Although Connex was undoubtedly a supreme example of a bad franchisee, there are many good private sector operators, and some are an awful lot better than British Rail was. It is not necessarily the case that the private sector is bad and the public sector is good.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

To assist in the debate about the future organisation of the railways, is the Secretary of State in a position to tell us more about what powers he intends to devolve to the Scottish Executive and other regional bodies? Is he impressed with the contribution of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland—it has enjoyed great consensus—which has suggested that perhaps the solution to the Scottish railway problem is to devolve all powers to the Scottish Executive?

Mr. Darling

I suppose that it follows from the hon. Gentleman's philosophy that, as he does not like England, he would not want railway lines going beyond the border. If he thinks about the logic, let us suppose that Scotland were responsible for all mainline track. Correspondingly, the English attitude to upgrading track in England would be to stop investment at Newcastle and probably at Preston, because it would not be worth going beyond that. The fact is that we have a national railway network, and Scotland benefits from that. For example, when the east coast main line collapsed at Dolphinstone outside Edinburgh three or four years ago, Network Rail was able to step in and do something about that immediately, because although the sums needed were large, they were not for Network Rail. I reject the idea of balkanising Britain's railways, although I understand that that is entirely in tune with the nationalist philosophy.

In relation to devolving further powers to the Scottish Executive, we are considering that as part of the review. I made that clear on 19 January, and we are continuing to discuss with the Scottish Executive and others how we do that. We are also discussing that in relation to the Welsh Assembly and some of the English passenger transport executives.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)

I would not want to balkanise the railway system in any sense. I am sure however, that my right hon. Friend is aware that about £750 million is spent on rail in Greater Manchester. The vast proportion of that money is for local rail services not national rail services. Would it not be sensible, in any future reorganisation, if the proportion of money that is for local services were handed over to the passenger transport executive, so that it could make rational choices to improve the rail system, and rational choices between heavy and light rail and the bus system to provide a better integrated transport system in Greater Manchester.

> Mr. Darling

I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I see that a small part of the recent Transport Committee report on the railways suggested that we should do just that. As I said in my statement on 19 January, one of the things that I want to consider is being able to give more responsibility to PTEs to choose between, say, rail, light rail and bus services. There are far too many areas in which people regard rail as a free good, and they do not make sensible choices between other modes of transport. As I said a moment or two ago, in reply to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), devolving power, not just to Scotland and Wales but to the English PTEs, is an important element, because when looking at Britain's railways, it does not follow automatically that heavy rail is the solution for local transport. Indeed, Greater Manchester, with its metro system, is a very good example of an alternative to heavy rail having been highly successful.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con)

The Secretary of State has just confirmed the importance of private sector investment in improving the railways. He has said in the past that the train operating companies have brought innovation to services, which was lacking. Will he now confirm that his future reorganisation of the railways will maintain the access to the fare box that has enabled train operating companies to compete and innovate in the interests of passengers?

Mr. Darling

It is important that the right incentives and rewards exist to enable private operators to be confident in investing in the railways and to get a proper return for doing that. As the hon. Lady will know, the whole point of the review is to look at all the options and to make sure that proper incentives and rewards exist. Let us be in no doubt: I am determined that we should maintain the present system in which there is substantial private sector involvement in the railways, as the railways as a whole will be better for that. What is lacking at the moment, however, is a coherent system of management to enable the railways to be run properly, which the review will also set out to achieve.

Mrs. May

The current system of management of the railways is the one that this Government set up when they established Network Rail and the Strategic Rail Authority. Following the reorganisation that led to Network Rail, the Government announced a series of performance benchmarks for improvements on the railways. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the key benchmark of improving punctuality and reliability has been missed in eight out of the last 10 quarters, and that with reduced services, such as stations closing in Kent, longer journeys for commuters from Maidenhead and Twyford, and cuts in cross-country services, passengers are beginning to ask whether the Government are capable of delivering any improvement on the railways? Is not the spirit of Dr. Beeching alive and well in the Department for Transport?

Mr. Darling

We must admire the hon. Lady's brass neck, if nothing else. There is probably limited value in going back over old ground about who is to blame for what. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] All right; just for one moment. I remind her that Network Rail was set up because Railtrack, the creature of privatisation, was an abysmal failure. Virtually no one in the country remains in that small and select band, the friends of Railtrack, but she is one of them. As she ought to know, performance is gradually improving across the network. She mentioned cross-country trains and was critical of the decision to thin the services. As a result of that service thinning, reliability has gone up dramatically. The problem was—[Interruption.] I will tell the hon. Lady what was happening. Railtrack oversold the space on the railways, with the result that they became congested and timetables became unreliable. That was a direct result of privatisation and the failure to have a coherent management. If the hon. Lady wants to go into the next election defending the privatisation of the 1990s, let her. For our part, we will go into the election with a reorganised railway which makes sense and which works. I remind her that, last year, Britain's railways carried more passengers than at any time since the 1960s.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I gently remind the House that I have an Order Paper to get through and I could do with some help? We are on question No. 2 and it is a quarter to 12.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South) (Lab)

In his future discussions with Network Rail, will my right hon. Friend raise the plight of Northampton commuters and make sure that promises made by rail operating companies when they come looking for public expenditure are kept post-expenditure? Ten years ago, trains from Northampton to London took less than an hour. We have now had 10 years of disruption. The west coast main line is still not finished and the rail operating companies are promising us longer train journeys and fewer trains. When will Northampton get more fast trains and shorter journeys? When will the promises made by operating companies be kept?

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the problems and, in view of your instruction, Mr. Speaker, I shall be brief. I shall get my hon. Friend the Minister of State to write to my hon. Friend about that issue.

3. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

Which rail projects outlined in the 10-year plan he expects will not be completed by the end of the 10-year period. [166171]

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

The plan set out investment for both the public and private sector over 10 years and substantial progress is being made. Delivery of projects depends on a number of factors including controlling costs and improving performance.

Chris Grayling

The Transport 2010 document is a work of fiction in many parts. At its launch, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it presented an ambitious vision of what we could achieve by 2010. Has the Secretary of State seen the map on page 48 of the new rail projects to be opened by 2010, on which virtually no work has even started and there is certainly little chance, if any, of them being completed by 2010? Does he now regret the promises made by the Government? What does he plan to do to ensure that some of the projects are completed any time soon?

Mr. Darling

One way of ensuring that these projects are delivered is not to have a Conservative Government, who would be committed to £600 million of cuts in railway expenditure. Let me give two examples from the map to which he refers. One is the channel tunnel rail link, the first high-speed railway line to be built in this country for 100 years. The first phase is now open and there are more passengers going between London and the continent. Another example is the west coast main line, a project that was in complete ruins under Railtrack, the friends of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). It is now having £7 billion spent on it and most of the first stage of the work will be completed this year. It will take half an hour off the Manchester run and, when completed, will take nearly an hour off the Glasgow run. Those are two good examples of what investment in the railways can bring under a Labour Government.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend continue to endorse the importance that the 10-year transport plan places on the role of major ports as transport hubs, and as vital to our international trade? Does he continue to endorse the improvement of rail freight use to those ports as a key element of freight strategy? In the light of the decision, announced by the Government this morning, on the future of Dibden bay and the expansion of Southampton port, will he give additional priority to the upgrading of the rail link between Southampton and the west midlands to ensure that Southampton freight can travel efficiently on the rail from the port to its destinations?

Mr. Darling

Yes, it is important that we improve rail links between our ports and other parts of the country. I understand the disappointment that my hon. Friend will have felt at the decision on Dibden bay, but I am sure that he will accept, in the light of the inspector's report and the overwhelming environmental difficulties there, that the Government's decision is right. I say to him and to the House that that decision was made on the individual application. There are other applications for port developments in other parts of the country, on which the Government will decide in due course. The decision on Dibden bay was taken entirely on the application's own merits, and those alone.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

As the MP who represents Dibden bay, I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead). It is only a pity that the Government did not think about upgrading the railways in that connection from the outset. I congratulate the Government on their decision on Dibden bay, in a classic case of David outwitting Goliath. We thank the Government for listening to our community, for observing the environmental safeguards and for taking the right decision today.

Mr. Darling

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will tell his constituents of the many gains that a Labour Government have brought to them, of which this is, apparently, one. On the hon. Gentleman's point, protecting our environment is crucial, but most Members accept that it is also important to ensure that we have adequate port development throughout the country. Where that port development is situated will depend on a range of circumstances, many of which are being considered in inquiries that are currently under way, or are about to get under way. As I said, that particular decision was taken on its own merits, and one cannot read anything wider into it.

On the more general point, the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that rail links between ports and other parts of the country are important. I am pleased to say that the railways are carrying more freight than they have done for a long time, which perhaps indicates the success of investing in railways.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)

I welcome the Strategic Rail Authority's decision that the channel tunnel rail link domestic service will stop in the Medway towns, but does my right hon. Friend understand my concerns, and those of my hon. Friends in the Medway towns, at the SRA's proposals to reduce the number of fast services to Victoria and to reduce services to Cannon Street? If the Thames gateway is to meet all our ambitions, we must have increased rail capacity. Will my right hon. Friend talk to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the SRA to ensure that there is joined-up government between the SRA, the ODPM and the Department for Transport so that we get the rail services in Medway that we need for the future?

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the continuing debate and controversy on the Kent services, and we must come up with a solution that is workable as well as affordable. The consultation is still under way, but I am very aware of the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (LD)

Can the Secretary of State explain why the safety radio system, GSM-R—Global System for Mobile Communications for Railway—has been delayed for a second time? It is vital for signallers and drivers. Will he assure the House that that delay will not affect safety or reliability, given that from 2006 the existing system will be prone to interference from other users using the same frequency?

Mr. Darling

Network Rail is injecting a dose of reality into the project that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Far too many rail projects that were got up during the last few years when Railtrack was around were totally unrealistic in terms of feasibility, affordability and deliverability. The project is being examined closely to ensure that it is realistically planned and has a better chance of being delivered.

On safety, I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that the train protection warning system is now fitted on all the track where it is supposed to be fitted, so drivers have communication. I am satisfied that the effort that Network Rail has put in has been right and has not compromised safety. We spend a lot of time and money ensuring that our railways are as safe as they can be, and the TPWS has gone a long way towards achieving that.