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Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Congratulations, Mr. Speaker.

Many trains are now moving slowly through my constituency. It is startling to my constituents that, the day before the crash, trains were hurtling through Shenfield, whereas a couple of days afterwards, everything ground to a halt. That suggests that Railtrack knew about the specific problems there.

We must come to terms with the fact that, because more people and freight are travelling by rail, demands and strains on the track are much greater. What is considered reasonable for inspections in the context of declining stock is not reasonable in the context of growing demand, especially for heavy trucks, on our system. Does that not emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made about the need for a clear inquiry into rail safety maintenance?

Mr. Prescott: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He made a strong point. Indeed, it is one of the reasons for the terms of reference that I gave to the Cullen inquiry. I wanted the inquiry to examine not only a particular incident, but the management and safety cultures within our railway system. That is happening now.

I am sure that many people have realised that trains which were travelling at full pelt are now moving at only 20 mph. Railtrack has a responsibility to implement such policies and to maintain safe track, whether the speeds are 70 or 20 mph. I am concerned about the management procedures. Why are trains that were travelling at full pelt--presumably drivers were not told to travel at a slower speed at Hatfield--now travelling so slowly in areas where there are concerns about safety? It is about management. I think that the Rail Regulator's complaint is that the management was not adequate. I do not know--it is a matter of public comment by the regulator, and Railtrack has entered into the debate. I prefer to wait for the inquiry to give these matters full consideration and to report.

The hon. Gentleman has made a fundamental point for the Health and Safety Executive to consider when examining the Hatfield tragedy. It also involves the entire management of the railway, which Lord Cullen is addressing.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): I add my congratulations, Mr. Speaker--it is lovely to see you in the Chair.

As my right hon. Friend knows, my constituents and many Members use the line in question and GNER trains. I am pleased that he has announced that the inquiry will be wide ranging and will feed into Cullen.

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After the disastrous privatisation of the railways--everybody agrees that it was disastrous--and the 18 years of Tory neglect, will former Tory Ministers be giving evidence to the Cullen inquiry? Will they be brought to account for the mess that they undoubtedly made of both the railways and privatisation?

Mr. Prescott: It is not for me to answer for the Opposition. Lord Cullen is taking advice from all parties. Indeed, the Opposition have given advice, but I do not know whether that was before their change in policy. Everyone should give advice to Lord Cullen on these fundamental matters. I believe that he is about to make the sort of changes necessary to improve safety on the railways that he brought about in North sea oil operations.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I add my congratulations, Mr. Speaker. All Scots will take immense pride in your elevation to the speakership.

I think that this is the first disaster that GNER has suffered. It has had an outstanding record of carrying passengers on the east coast main line through York and the Vale of York. I understand that there have been reports that the Eurostar carriages that have been added to the operation may have contributed to the higher incidence of broken rails. Will the Cullen inquiry have an opportunity to look into that?

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why railway disasters are treated differently from aviation and maritime accidents? Would this be a good opportunity to invoke the same procedure for rail disasters as for aviation and maritime disasters?

Mr. Prescott: On the latter point, the hon. Lady makes a sound suggestion, and one that I hope Lord Cullen will consider.

The Government and the Opposition will be giving evidence on how we might implement a more comprehensive and consistent method of dealing with safety between the different transport modes. The Select Committee has made strong recommendations on this matter recently.

As for Eurostar, any train going on to the track must go through a safety procedure. As I understand it, the Eurostar carriages have not made any difference. However, the inquiry will be considering these matters, and it is proper that it should do so.

As I waited for my train on Sunday night, I read GNER's punctuality figures. The tragedy occurred on its rail network but punctuality was about 80 per cent. There does not seem to be much of a conflict there.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): Many congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but it is of major concern that Railtrack appeared to know that there were problems along the Hatfield stretch of line but seemed unable to force its contractors to carry out remedial work. Although my right hon. Friend will want to see the outcome of the various inquiries, will he seek some immediate assurances from Railtrack that it will put in place management systems to follow up identification

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of a problem where work is not being carried out and where it knows that if it does not take action there will be serious safety implications?

Mr. Prescott: I agree with my hon. Friend. As to whether Railtrack knew about the safety implications and whether contractors failed to carry out the work, that is for the investigation to determine. However, as I have said, it is clear from the correspondence that has been published by both the Rail Regulator and the rail inspectorate that there was conflict of some kind and that they were constantly pressuring Railtrack to carry out improvements in those areas. Nevertheless, the issue is best left to the Health and Safety Executive.

What I have to assure myself is that between now and that inquiry, everything is done to make every part of that railway as safe as possible and to prevent the sort of tragedy that happened at Hatfield. Of course, if there is a breach of safety regulations, there are penalties. Indeed, the ultimate penalty lies with me. If there is a serious breach by Railtrack and it fails to carry out its responsibility under its licence, I can remove that licence.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Congratulations and best wishes, Mr. Speaker, from another in the league of unsuccessful candidates.

In the short term, how quickly does the Deputy Prime Minister think money will feed through in repairs and improvements to the affected sections of the east coast main line track, bearing in mind the impact of the necessary delays and many train cancellations on the business and working lives of the north-east and the Borders, which have become used to an extremely good train service?

Mr. Prescott: Extra resources are immediately available in those areas. However, now that the Rail Regulator has given his report, the Strategic Rail Authority has to produce its strategic plan showing the order of priorities. That involves discussion with Railtrack, which is now under way. I hope that we will be able to get the report shortly from the SRA. The right hon. Gentleman will then clearly see the programme of implementation.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the Transport Committee report on rail safety that expressed serious concern about the management, control and monitoring of subcontractors employed by Railtrack? We all welcome the Strategic Rail Authority withdrawing the franchise from Connex, but, given that Railtrack is a monopoly controller of our infrastructure, and given the Government's decision to put £5 billion into Railtrack, how does my right hon. Friend envisage the public interest, safety and public accountability being ensured by Railtrack and its operation?

Mr. Prescott: With regard to the amounts of money that are being made available out of our 10-year transport plan--£15 billion is being made available, with £5 billion going into the track itself--the Rail Regulator has made it clear that he would like the money to be spent in that particular way as part of the licence, and intends to have

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an accountability and monitoring system to ensure that it is. The Select Committee was critical about contracts. I assure my hon. Friend that that is one way in which we are thinking of toughening up the whole operation to ensure that there is accountability in that area. After all, Railtrack has an obligation to maintain a safe railway. My job is to ensure that it does, and I intend to toughen up very much in that area.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that many thousands of constituents who use the railway are generally very satisfied with the services that they receive from GNER. Were they to be asked, they would give it a strong vote of confidence, but clearly they no longer have confidence in the state of the rail track. They want to know how it can be that Railtrack knew that the track was damaged in some way and substandard, yet the train was allowed to travel at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

The Deputy Prime Minister has made many reassuring statements to the House, which I am sure will be helpful, but can he unequivocally state that there will be no question of any train operator being penalised and fined for delays on the railway if those delays are caused by having to reduce speeds over defective rail lines?

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