Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Prescott: Certainly, the concern must be to ensure that we have a safe railway system. I am a regular user of the company to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is usually considered that 50 per cent. of the reasons for delay are the fault of Railtrack and that 50 per cent. are the fault of the operators. That varies from line to line and the regulator takes that into account when considering any fines for companies that have failed to meet their targets. We must ensure that the track is safe, that it cannot be used as an excuse for delay and that there is no threat to safety.

I must confess some surprise that, under Railtrack--it was the same with British Rail--there is no register of assets for our railway system. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) will know that from his time on the Railtrack board. It is curious that there is no register, and we have been pressing Railtrack about that for some time. We do not know how many stations there are, how long they are or the state of the track. That makes it difficult now as we talk about areas of concern. We are discussing that with Railtrack, and the Strategic Rail Authority has that as a central consideration.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Congratulations, Mr. Speaker. I should also like to congratulate the men and women who, day in and day out, operate the trains on the east coast main line on behalf of GNER. On the day in question--last Tuesday--I should have been on the 12.10 ex King's Cross to Leeds. Fortunately, I changed my plans and decided to catch the next train that stopped at Stevenage. I was actually on a train leaving Stevenage less than an hour late. That is great testimony to the men and women who operate the railway on that line.

However, I am a little worried about the existing structures. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is prepared to comment on whether he believes that the

24 Oct 2000 : Column 148

existing structures for Railtrack and the operating companies are capable, as they stand, of halting the growing list of tragic accidents on our railways.

Mr. Prescott: The House will support the comments about the railway employees and management who deal with tragedies so quickly. I travelled by train on Sunday--there was a regular one-hour service, even into King's Cross. To deal with the challenge in that way shows tremendous adjustment to change. We all want to thank those people for their efforts. However, like all of us, their greatest concern is to maintain a safe railway system. The fundamental question is whether the system that we have inherited is adequate to maintain a modern and safe railway. In my judgment, the answer is no. That is why I introduced the Strategic Rail Authority and toughened up the regulatory procedures. It is why I introduced the resources to enable investment in modern signalling for a modern railway system and to ensure that we have safe and modern rolling stock. That is what we are doing. I believe that that will make a difference--if I did not, I would not be carrying out that policy.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I add my warm congratulations to you on your election, Mr. Speaker?

Given the recent increasing number of serious incidents--Hatfield, Stafford last Thursday evening and a fatality in north Wales yesterday--involving the clear failure of infrastructure, is it not blatantly obvious to everyone that, with the 150 speed restrictions, Railtrack is letting us down badly? Have the Government given any recent serious consideration to renationalising Railtrack?

Mr. Prescott: The first point is whether I am satisfied that there is a robust management system in place to deal with the difficulties on the rail track. The current evidence, particularly after Hatfield, suggests that it is not as good as it should be. That is what the inquiry will determine. The hon. Gentleman talked about the terrible tragedy on the traffic crossing yesterday. We must have a greater safety culture than there is at present. I have told the House that there has been a reduction in accidents and deaths, but they are always matters of great concern and we should strive to reduce them, and we will.

The hon. Gentleman talked about renationalising Railtrack. We should consider whether renationalising Railtrack would make the railways safer. I gave the figures earlier. Whether public or private, ownership does not necessarily determine whether the rail system will be safer. The facts are there for me to see and I have to make a judgment. The reality is that the culture is not right and has become worse, so we have to make some changes. Lord Cullen is examining those issues, which I have referred to him, and we should allow him to make his judgment on them.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I add my congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker--words that hon. Members from the 1997 intake have never used before. We also had no idea that those clothes fitted a man.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that track in Hertfordshire is the most densely used fast-speed track in Europe? Does he also agree that it should be inspected

24 Oct 2000 : Column 149

more often than track in more outlying areas? Will he ensure that arrangements are made to inspect that track more regularly than it has been heretofore?

Mr. Prescott: I do not want to enter into dispute with my hon. Friend, but most railway people say that Clapham Junction is the busiest part of our railway system. However, his question about whether regular track inspections are being conducted to reduce the number of rail breaks goes to the heart of the investigation. Although I am sure that Railtrack would say that it was conducting such inspections, and although I should hope that the Health and Safety Executive will assure me that Railtrack's current procedures are adequate, that question will go to the heart of the investigation and the inquiries that I mentioned.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that last week, in the other place, Lord Bradshaw, who is a member of the Strategic Rail Authority, argued that there was an obvious tension between a system of penalty payments for delays and investment in track, and which obviously increases delays in the short term? In his statement, the right hon. Gentleman said that the regulator is now convinced that everything is in place to incentivise Railtrack to improve safety. Why does Railtrack need incentives to improve safety? Is it because it is a private company?

Mr. Prescott: Incentives were used by the state operation in awarding contracts, and Governments and others who award contracts offer incentives for jobs to be completed more quickly. Many reasons are given for offering incentives. However, I concede that the argument has been put into the public arena that there may be a conflict between some of the incentives and targets. I am sure that Lord Cullen will examine exactly that issue. I have also specifically asked the Health and Safety Executive to give us its judgment and conclusions on that aspect of contract work.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are reaching the point at which we are pouring money into those millionaire directors' pockets, but they seem to be ignoring faulty lines and all the rest of it? Does he recall the days when we voted against this Tory hybrid monster of a privatised railway? Does he also understand that there is a growing demand among the general public for taking rail back into public ownership? Hon. Members are also getting a bit fed up of handing over money to friends of the Tory party--it has to come to an end. Will my right hon. Friend agree not to rule out the possibility of taking British Rail back into public ownership, as we demanded when we were in opposition?

Mr. Prescott: My hon. Friend will know--I agreed with him at the time; it is a matter of record--that I thought that privatisation of the railways was wrong. In votes, in Committees and in all sorts of circumstances, we opposed the model that the then Government proposed to the House, and we were right to oppose it. I now find myself as the Secretary of State with responsibility for these matters--[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members

24 Oct 2000 : Column 150

will always think that I take a considered view on these matters and seek to justify my view. I have done that in this case.

As my hon. Friend will know, it is Labour party policy not to renationalise the rail system. Why is that our policy? As I argued in conference, we cannot avoid putting money into the pockets of those people. If we renationalised the railway, we would probably have to give them compensation. Although I assume that my hon. Friend would not want to do that, we would have to consider doing it. As the Euro rules and human rights legislation deal with the need to pay compensation, I cannot be free from a requirement to put money into the pockets of people who I do not want to receive it. Additionally, on top of paying perhaps £6 billion in compensation, we would have to wait two or three years to pass the necessary legislation. I would sooner be putting that money into track safety and ensuring that the system works.

As I told the House, the new Strategic Rail Authority, a 10-year investment plan, a new approach to safety and a renegotiation of the franchises will give us a different model. That model will be so successful that the Tories will have to ditch the old model and support the one that we are delivering.

Next Section

IndexHome Page