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8.12 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am grateful both to the Minister and to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for allowing me to make a brief contribution.

My hon. Friend, who normally speaks loudly and clearly on behalf of Cornwall, has taken a national perspective this evening, so I shall indulge in being rather more parochial than usual. I have one of the most rural constituencies in the United Kingdom, with only 100 yd of mainline railway. We have a branch line of which we are all extremely proud, and we hope that we can keep it, but we do not have a great railway service. Far be it from me to suggest that we should reopen all the lines that used to traverse the constituency, because that would cost a great deal.

Any effort to assist those who live in sparsely settled rural areas to get access to public transport will be along and difficult process. We warmly welcome the Government's commitment to assisting people in rural areas, but access to the main railway network is extremely difficult for many of my constituents. That does not mean that we should not attempt to improve access. Many of my constituents have to travel many miles before they can reach a railhead, but it is none the less important for them to have access to the national and--through the channel tunnel--international rail network.

Cornwall has a high percentage of people who, through age or disability, have no access to cars. Welcome as the Government's commitment to rural public transport is, it would be even more impressive if we had more commitment to those who want to use that transport. There is no contradiction: it is perfectly possible to devise subsidies to support services that will not provide what people in fact need.

That is why we were especially glad that the Deputy Prime Minister committed himself to a national concessionary fare for public transport for all retired people. I hope that the Minister will spell out in a little more detail how that will work and what the time scale for implementation will be.

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The comparatively urban communities that can provide concessionary fares tend to be the ones that least need them, for the simple reason that the distances to be travelled are much shorter, while more rural areas tend to have few or no concessionary fare schemes for the retired and the disabled. It is clearly preferable to subsidise passengers to fill trains--and buses--rather than subsidising operators for the losses that they make through vehicles being empty. I hope that that principle will underline the introduction of the scheme. More detail, please, and as early as possible. Many organisations and individuals feel that the scheme is the right way forward, but it must be introduced urgently.

As my party's Chief Whip, I underline our commitment to say godspeed to any legislation that will improve the Government's strategic control over the rail network: both Railtrack and the operating companies. That is urgent. If, as a result of the shenanigans at the other end of the Corridor last week, there is real progress in other legislation, I hope that the Government will find it possible urgently to introduce legislation to improve public transport.

I know that there are other candidates for any vacant slot in the legislative programme, and I would not want to express any great preference between freedom of information, the food standards agency and the strategic rail authority, but I hope that the Minister will take it from us that we wish her the very best of luck in trying to get the rail legislation into the programme.

8.18 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I entirely agree with the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). The fact that there are so many Liberal Democrats present tonight underlines my party's commitment to rail issues. Excluding yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 75 per cent. of those present were Liberal Democrats, until the most recent arrivals--the figure may now be 60 per cent., and declining as I speak.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: Still no Tories.

Mr. Baker: That is true.

We must consider rail fares as a crucial part of the rail industry as a whole. Rail fares are important for social reasons. Many people who depend on public transport have no access to private motor vehicles, and it is doubly unfair for those--often in rural constituencies such as mine and those of many of my hon. Friends--who cannot afford cars to have to pay over the odds for train tickets.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell said, rail fares have increased dramatically compared with the increase in the cost of motoring over the past 20 years. That cannot make any sense socially or environmentally, as I am sure the Minister will agree. We and the Government want more people on trains and fewer on the roads. It would be helpful if the Government would commit themselves to a target under the road traffic reduction legislation, so that we can know that in a set period, perhaps four or five years, there will be a reduction target for the vehicles on our roads or the mileage that they clock up.

The Minister said earlier this Session that if no action was taken there would be a 9 per cent. increase in vehicles on our roads, or their mileage. That cannot be allowed

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to happen. We must get more people on trains. A key way to do that is to reduce fares--to eliminate some of the problems that have occurred over the past 20 years, when rail fares have rocketed.

I, too, will be parochial in this short debate and speak about my constituency. We have had a plan in my constituency for the massive upgrading of the trunk road--the A27--between Lewes and Polegate. I declare an interest, living next to the trunk road and next to the railway line. We live in an old railway cottage and therefore benefit or otherwise from both of those pieces of infrastructure.

The previous Government had a plan to spend £80 million on adding four lanes to the existing two lanes of the A27, without even looking at the potential of the parallel rail line. This Government have said that they are prepared to consider the integration of road and rail, and they must do that. If rail fares can be cut, even if that involves public money, that will help to solve traffic problems far more than spending on infrastructure works.

We must get away from the days when we were told that money spent on roads is investment and money spent on rail is subsidy. That is nonsense. Money spent on rail is investment as well, no matter whether it is spent on reducing fares or on infrastructure. Whether it meets a social and environmental end, helps to move people around or helps the economy, those are the criteria that the Government should use, rather than some artificial Treasury figure created in 1942, in setting out what should be invested in our infrastructure. The Government should not shy away from considering direct investment to reduce rail fares, if that is the most satisfactory way of achieving their integrated transport objectives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell rightly mentioned Connex and what the company has done to certain fares in south London. I have been negotiating with the company in my constituency, and I am happy to say that partly as a consequence of that--no doubt other factors are involved--certain off-peak fares from Lewes, Newhaven, Seaford and Polegate to London have been cut by 25 per cent. That is what we should encourage other train operating companies to do.

On the Carlisle-Settle rail line a few years ago, British Rail used to shut stations, reduce services, increase fares and then say that the line was not economic. After much pressure from the public, BR reversed its policy and started opening stations, marketing the line and attracting passengers, and the line is now a success. Rail companies can improve financial accountability and profitability by cutting fares. That is the message that I have given my local rail company, and I hope the same message will come out of the House tonight.

All the way through my constituency, we have rail lines parallel to roads. It would make a wonderful example for a case study, if the Government were minded to do that. We would be happy to co-operate if such a study were undertaken. The congestion problems on the trunk roads in my constituency could largely be solved if rail travel was made more attractive by reducing fares, introducing new rolling stock and making stations safer. If that is done, there will not be a problem on the A27 or the A26. We must start considering lateral solutions.

I shall mention one or two other matters, to which I hope the Minister will respond. National rail inquiries is not coming up to standard in terms of the number of calls

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answered within the due time--less than 90 per cent., according to the most recent figures. More to the point, it gives conflicting and inaccurate information regarding both the appropriate route for passengers to take and the cost of fares available on particular routes.

What quality measurement is taking place at national rail inquiries? It is easy to measure the speed of response to calls, but who is measuring the quality of the answers given by national rail inquiries? The answers given leave something to be desired. I suggest that quality is being sacrificed in an effort to reach the target of 90 per cent., as failure to meet it could result in a fine. That is not to the benefit of rail passengers.

The powers of the strategic rail authority need to be clarified. We are told that it will be introduced in shadow form or in full during this Session. What powers will it have? What powers will it take away from Railtrack?In my view, it should take away Railtrack's safety responsibilities. What powers will it have over fare levels? How will it interact with the rail regulator, Opraf?

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall mentioned the problems of elderly people travelling. A parliamentary answer that I received from the Minister this afternoon showed that the number of people who have bought a senior citizens railcard has dropped dramatically since 1990, although it has gone up over the past year. The population is getting older, so there should be more, not fewer, people buying such tickets. A disincentive has been applied to that ticket. Presumably, if older people are not buying the railcard, they are either using their cars or not travelling, neither of which is satisfactory if we want to encourage freedom of movement for all sections of society, including the elderly.

I accept that the problems are not the Government's fault because of what they inherited. I hope that they will be tough on the train operating companies where necessary, and perhaps also tough on the causes of the train operating companies, although they are not present tonight. I hope that the Government will introduce the strategic rail authority as soon as possible, give it firm powers and ensure that fares on our trains are cut.

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