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Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am seeking a meeting with Great Western to put the views of my constituents on rail fares and the lack of a train service to meet their needs. It has been brought to my attention that travel between Falmouth and Camborne and Paddington was faster in the 19th century than it is today. I find that staggering, as I am sure does the Minister. Does she support me in seeking that meeting to make the case for my constituents?

Ms Jackson: I strongly support my hon. Friend in her desire for a meeting with her train operating company. She is right about journey times. Across central London, they are about the same as they were in the 18th century. That is another thing that the Government are committed to addressing and redressing.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned the integration of the various transport modes. I believe that both the train operating companies and the bus providers realise--certainly we have urged them to--that the competition is not with one another but with the private car. That is not exclusively because bus and train companies are often one and the same, although bus companies have invested in train operating companies. As I have had occasion to say before, if they cannot provide high-quality services, and the choice is between sitting in

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an ever-growing traffic jam and standing on a wet, windy pavement or platform waiting for a vehicle that may not arrive, the car will win hands down every time.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: As several bus operators have taken over rail companies, does the Minister agree that it is unacceptable for companies to think that branch line services in particular can be replaced by bus services? There is a tendency in that direction. They clearly believe that there may be profits to be made from doing it.

Ms Jackson: If companies are approaching the matter on the basis of not expanding and increasing services, it is clearly something that one would not welcome. However, I will not say categorically that, in every instance, the best quality of service that can be provided, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas, must be the maintenance of a branch line, when an infinitely better, faster, more modern, more accessible service could be provided by, say, a coach that linked up with the main line.

However, all such proposals must be considered individually; there cannot be a blanket yes or no. That is one reason why the Government have found extra money for two new funds--the investment fund and the passenger fund. They will act as the seedcorn to bring together a partnership comprising several interests to advance a business case that could, for example, revitalise a branch line if custom warranted it.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned passenger transport executives and authorities. The recurring theme that informs Government thinking is the integration of our transport modes. We are looking to local authorities to create integrated transport plans for their areas. Again, we have made a major breakthrough, because they will be expected to submit plans that will take three to five years to complete, and involve budgets that will run for three years. We have got away from the annual begging bowl round for local authorities in presenting their transport plans. The integrated transport plans will have to fit in with the much wider regional transport plans.

I was impressed when I took part in four of the eight meetings between Ministers and the regional authorities by just how much co-operation and partnership is already in place throughout the country. I was impressed by the willingness--indeed, eagerness--of local and regional authorities to work together and to advance policies to produce the transport plans the country so desperately needs. We are talking about integrated transport, which requires that everyone involved should work together in a genuine spirit of partnership.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful for the response that the Minister has just made. May I clarify the issue of subsidies? The huge subsidies that are going into some of the existing passenger transport executives do not equate with the subsidy that goes into a county such as North Yorkshire. Is the Minister saying that resources will be equalised on a regional basis, or shall we still have inequities in grant aid?

Ms Jackson: If the hon. Gentleman is thinking of some of the passenger transport authorities and executives of

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which I am aware--I hope that he will not take it as an insult, but the one that most immediately comes to mind is Greater Manchester--my reply is that we have seen massive investment in rail infrastructure by those local authorities. The hon. Gentleman would call it special grant, but there has to be a balancing of the amount that such authorities have already invested to ensure that the investment gives a return.

We have managed, following the comprehensive spending review, to make available an additional £700 million for local authorities' transport plans. We have also introduced hypothecation. Local authorities will, via congestion charging and a private non-residential parking levy, be able to raise an income stream, which they will be able to use only for improving transport in their area. I repeat that local authorities will be expected to submit plans. They can plan for three to five years with the assurance that there will be budgets. We have got away from the annual begging bowl round.

I trust that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell will forgive me for concentrating in the first part of my speech on the points made by his hon. Friends, many of which were inherent in his speech. I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House, and, indeed, the entire country, that issues surrounding transport in rural areas are central to the Government's thinking. We are well aware of the difficulties in many rural areas. We have taken major steps to address them. This is not empty rhetoric. We have put the wherewithal--money--behind it, to begin to address and redress the issues.

I am sure that the House and the country will agree that the last thing that rail passengers want for Christmas--the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell dubbed some of the train operating companies Scrooges--is news of even more fare rises. But with key fares now regulated by the franchising director, widespread annual above-inflation January increases are now a thing of the past.

However, despite that good news, I remain concerned--the speeches by other hon. Members this evening have confirmed that I am not alone in my concern--that some unregulated off-peak fares continue to increase above the rate of inflation. The growth market in discount fares has not stopped some operators putting up the prices in real terms of unregulated cheap day returns, supersavers and similar discounted fares. The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell gave some detailed information on that issue.

That has happened not only in the south-west but in many parts of the country, which will be of no comfort to the hon. Gentleman or any of his constituents. Basic economics surely dictates that higher fares will not encourage more people to travel by train. Train operators have to consider whether increasing off-peak fares is the best way to attract new rail passengers and fill spare capacity.

The absence of control over unregulated fares is a consequence of legally binding franchise agreements inherited from the previous Government. I regret that there is little practical scope for altering the current arrangements in the short term. However, we have made it clear that, when opportunities arise for negotiating franchises, the new strategic rail authority will ensure that arrangements are made to ensure that train operators structure and market their fares to offer value for money for their passengers, and to reflect the fact that our railway

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is a national network, which needs to be marketed accordingly and in a way that encourages people to switch from car to train.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I should like to raise two issues on which my hon. Friend the Minister might care to comment. The first is the definition of "peak" times, which is a fairly elastic phrase. Secondly, the problem is not only what people pay, but the service they receive. The trains are now a worse-kept secret, and many people use the train only to be put off by the low-quality service they receive--for example, the train is overcrowded, or there is no buffet car. The two problems must be tackled together.

Ms Jackson: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In his own way, he underlines a point made by several hon. Members, which is that there has been a lamentable lack of investment in our railways, not only in infrastructure, but in rolling stock. We cannot drag back the wasted years, but we can, via the strategic rail authority, begin to ensure that investment is not only adequate in termsof amounts, but strategically placed, so that the improvements that everyone wants take place.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Following the points raised by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), would the Minister care to comment on one of the many anomalies resulting from the way in which the rail service was privatised--the role of rolling stock companies? In my part of the world, many trains on branch lines run with only one carriage when there should be three or four. The Minister may correct me, but my understanding of what the service operators tell me is that they have no recourse against the three rolling stock companies that supply those shoddy services.

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