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1.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate, which provides an opportunity for the House to discuss rolling stock replacement and train operating company performance--two fundamental components in the provision of a proper railway service for the passenger. It is the Government's clear commitment to ensure that such a service is delivered.

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I shall begin by affording the hon. Gentleman the comfort that he requested with regard to Sutton station. I have made a note of the failure of Connex SouthCentral to respond to his inquiries, and I shall forward his concerns to the company. I have been informed by Railtrack that refurbishment work at Sutton station will begin on site soon and is expected to be completed by April. The work is structural and will consist of repairs to platforms, refurbishing the underside of the bridge, repointing platform edges, re-roofing and painting the steelwork on the canopy of platform 4. I hope that on that issue, the hon. Gentleman feels somewhat comforted.

As I said, rolling stock replacement and train operating company performance are essential for the provision of a high quality railway service for the passenger. We are therefore keen for substantial investment to be made in rolling stock, and welcome the recent orders that have been announced. Since franchising began, a total of about 1,400 new vehicles have been ordered at a cost of £1.25 billion. Train operators are committed to ordering a further 800 vehicles at a cost of approximately £1 billion. In addition, some 4,000 vehicles have been, or are being, refurbished.

New rolling stock orders not only provide more reliable services and better facilities for passengers, but create extra jobs in the rail industry. We want to ensure that investment in rolling stock is a continuous process, and that our great train manufacturing centres will never again suffer an investment hiatus, such as the four-year drought in orders created by rail privatisation. The most recent order for 352 new vehicles for Virgin CrossCountry--worth £400 million--witnessed the entry into the UK passenger market of a new rolling stock company and a new manufacturer.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the safety of mark I rolling stock. It is true that mark I rolling stock, although not inherently unsafe, is not as crashworthy as more modern types of rolling stock. In certain types of train accident, one carriage can ride up over the carriage in front.

The Health and Safety Executive consulted widely last year on proposals that would require all mark I rolling stock to be withdrawn by 1 January 2003, unless it has been rebodied or modified to improve its crashworthiness. If the rolling stock were modified, it could remain in service only until 2007. On 22 December, the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission wrote to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister with formal recommendations from the commission that Ministers make regulations on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the Government intended to announce their views. We are considering the HSC's recommendations and expect to be able to make an announcement shortly. However, before regulations can be made, the HSC must satisfy itself that the mechanism that it is proposing to modify mark I stock to make it safer in a crash actually works. The mechanism, which involves fitting a cup and cone to each carriage to prevent overriding, has successfully completed one test, but a further test is required, which it is intended to carry out on 17 February.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concern about the impact of what he perceived as the shortness of franchising on the Health and Safety Commission's requirements. Train operators are required by their

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franchise agreements to ensure that they have the necessary rolling stock to enable them to meet their franchise commitments and any HSC requirements. Under the HSC's proposed regulations, Connex SouthCentral as well as Connex South Eastern and South West Trains would be required to replace or modify a significant number of mark I rolling stock.

It would be for the individual train operating companies to make the necessary arrangements with the rolling stock companies. The rolling stock market is a competitive one, as evidenced by the new entrants that I mentioned earlier, and there is sufficient manufacturing capacity to replace, modify or rebody mark I rolling stock by the proposed HSC deadlines.

Mr. Burstow: I shall be brief, in view of the time. I am interested to learn that the HSC needs to carry out further tests, and that those will take place in February. In the Hidden report back in 1989, it was recommended that British Rail should undertake research on that matter by 1991. Was that research ever completed and have its findings informed the HSC's recommendations? If the research was not completed, that raises questions about what was done during the 10 years since the inquiry. I hope that the Minister can answer those questions today, or perhaps she will write to me.

Ms Jackson: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about that.

On the performance of train operators, I trust that all hon. Members are aware of the Government's concerns about the performance of the rail industry. We want more people to travel by train, but trains that are constantly late or unreliable, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, do little to encourage people to leave their cars at home. We expect train operators to run services that are consistently punctual and reliable, and we expect Railtrack to meet its obligations to passengers, freight customers and taxpayers to maintain and develop the rail network in a way that offers proper value for money.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave to the Government's proposals for the institution of a strategic rail authority. As I am sure he knows, it is the strategic nature of the investment, quite apart from the level of it, that is vital to improve our railway system.

My right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Transport and I met franchisees and Railtrack on 26 November to discuss our concerns about continuing poor performance. We made it clear that the culture of blame must stop, and that the various parts of the industry must pull together to improve the service to its users. At that meeting, an action plan was agreed to tackle performance problems across our railway. The measures agreed included 800 new train drivers, 500 new vehicles, a joint hit squad to identify and tackle the worst 50 black spots, and a new national passenger survey to find out what passengers think about their rail services and to help measure performance across the network. The actionplan is only the first step in delivering short-term improvements to passengers. We expect year-on-year improvements, starting over the next 12 months, and I am pleased to say that the rail industry has committed itself to that.

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To build on the success of November's meeting, a larger rail summit will be held on 25 February to identify those matters requiring longer term improvement across the network. A wide range of organisations have been invited to attend the summit, including representatives of passenger and freight train operators, Railtrack, rolling stock companies, local government and the rail users consultative committees. The RUCCs have been invited to bring along to that summit rail-using members of the public who are not necessarily members of their committees.

At the February summit, we shall look to the rail industry to demonstrate how it proposes to deliver the year-on-year improvements that were agreed in November. We have been at pains to point out--it is worth doing so again--that this Government will not tolerate poor performance by train operators. It is in all our interests--those of the industry and of the Government but, above all, of the passengers--that performance targets should be met.

We have also made it clear that train operators' performance will be a key criterion when it comes to franchise renewal. Those who perform well will find that we are constructive partners. We are willing to renegotiate franchises, including franchise extensions, where it offers benefits to passengers and good value for money to the taxpayer. Again, those who perform badly will not have a long-term future in the industry.

Mr. Burstow: I entirely agree that we should secure the best value for money and the most effective services possible. I hope that the establishment of a dialogue between Connex SouthCentral and South West Trains and the marketplace for the supply of rolling stock will be explored at the summit, if not before. From discussions that I have had with various people, there seems to be a serious logjam. I hope that the Minister, or the franchising director or the strategic rail authority can act as an honest broker to get matters moving, so that we may be certain that, by 2003, mark I trains will be either replaced or modified.

Ms Jackson: I am somewhat bemused by the word logjam. As I have said, there are new entrants in the rolling stock market, and there is no shortage of capacity in the rail manufacturing industry. It will be possibleto meet all the Health and Safety Commission's requirements. I shall of course bring the hon. Gentleman's concerns to the attention of representatives of the rolling stock and train operating companies at the summit that we propose to hold on 25 February.

Everyone acknowledges that not all the challenges facing the rail industry can be solved overnight. We are under no illusion about the scale of the challenge that we have set ourselves. Passengers want an efficient, reliable and reasonably priced rail service. We are determined to work with the rail industry to ensure that passengers get what they want. The next step in that process will be the February summit.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.


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