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12.30 pm

Dr. Gibson: With the leave of the House, I thank all those who have spoken so confidently and well about what I am trying to do. The Bill would be valuable to the people whom we represent, and I appreciate the support given to it. I hope that the speech made by the right hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. MacGregor) was his last. This is the second time that I have had to compliment him, and I should not want to have to do so again.

Mr. MacGregor: In my youth, there were, on the variety boards all around the country, several farewell appearances from someone called G. H. Elliot, the chocolate-coloured coon. I must warn the hon. Gentleman that I may repeat that process.

Dr. Gibson: That might be quite enjoyable.

The principle of the Bill, which appears to have been accepted, is that the National Lottery Charities Board should consider short and long-term money and benefits. I accept that the technicalities need to be hammered out in another arena, but the additional flexibility that the Bill will give to the board will enrich its work and be much appreciated by all the people who pay their pounds every day of the week to support lottery funding. I thank all those who have turned out to support the Bill. I cannot wait to get into Committee, though my haste has nothing to do with the date of the general election. Sooner or later, we shall go into Committee, and I hope to see all those present today on that occasion.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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Railways Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

12.32 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Railways Act 2001 would sound very grand, though many hon. Members would like such an Act to be passed in a more radical form than my Bill. Many would support a Bill that would take Railtrack back into the public sector, but, because it is a private Member's Bill, the aim of my Bill is much more restricted than that. That said, it is a good Bill all the same.

My Bill would set up an inquiry that

It adds that that inquiry should look into alternatives to the existing structure, and that its results should be placed before both House of Parliament within two years.

We need that because there is great concern throughout the country that Railtrack--any reference I make to the rail infrastructure refers to Railtrack--is failing to deliver in so many ways that we need to seek alternatives.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It is customary for the promoter of a private Member's Bill to hold discussions with the Government on their attitude to the Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman share with the House the result of any such conversation with the Government? Does he believe that he will have their support for his Bill?

Mr. Martlew: The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait to hear the Government's reply for an answer to that question. I am conscious that he was one of those who pushed the privatisation of Railtrack through. I hope that he will have time to apologise to the House before we rise this afternoon.

The reason for the Bill is that the railways are in a mess. There is no doubt about that. We have almost a wartime service throughout the United Kingdom. If we had criticised the planned privatisation of the railways when we were in opposition by predicting that there would be speed restrictions throughout the country and that the railway infrastructure would fall apart, we would have been accused of scaremongering. When the Conservative Government introduced the Bill to privatise the railways no one believed that things would end up so bad.

My Bill asks the Government to prepare a report on the current ownership, control and management of the rail network and the alternatives. In my constituency, the fact that the railways are not working to anything like their former efficiency is a disaster. It is impossible to travel from London to Carlisle, do a day or half a day's work and come back on the same day. Yesterday, I went up to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the serious problem of the foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. It took me six hours to get to Carlisle. I had to catch a train two hours before I needed to. During that time, I could not do work that I would otherwise have done. It then took me six hours to get back. That was not so bad because I was on the sleeper. My father used to drive steam trains on the west coast main line, and train journeys took that time in his day.

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I wrote to various organisations and interested parties about my Bill. I can put on the record some of the responses. I received one from the chief executive of Great North Eastern Railway. He wrote a thoughtful letter that was critical of Railtrack, but said that all that was needed was that Railtrack should appoint a first-class chairman. I do not accept that that is all that we need, so I was a little disappointed with that response.

I wrote to the managing director of Virgin Trains, Mr. Chris Green, a man whom I admire greatly. If we had more professional railwaymen like him in charge, we would not have the problems that we have today. He did not agree with my Bill and specifically opposed the option of giving the Government a golden share. He went on to list the things that were wrong with the railways and Railtrack in particular and how they should be put right. He said that things had to change and various adjustments had to be made to the system because it was not working.

I wrote to the RMT, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and ASLEF. They came back with a united voice; their campaign to take back the track is well known. They believe that the creation of Railtrack and the privatisation of all of the old British Rail has been a disaster. They believe that privatisation and the creation of Railtrack has reduced safety and siphoned money out of investment for profits, and that it has not worked.

I also received a letter from Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, for whom I have great admiration. He said that it was difficult for him to comment on record because several inquiries were going on into crashes. However, he sent me a copy of a letter in which he argued strongly against the regionalisation of Railtrack. He argued that it was not the right way to go.

I then got what I think was a letter from Sir Alistair Morton, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority. It was one paragraph long. I do not want to be over-sensitive, but it was an impertinent letter. I understand that several hon. Members have received impertinent letters from the SRA. I suspect that it will not do it any good in the long term to correspond in that way.

The final response was a two-paragraph letter from Mr. Steve Marshall, the new chief executive of Railtrack. The only defence he offers against changing the system is that further reorganisation of the railways at present would create more disruption. Surely, the chief executive of Railtrack could have made a clearer case as to why we should not have a report into alternative structures for the railway system. However, his sole defence was that it would cause more disruption so we should not consider it.

Most of those responses accepted that something radical needed to be done. Some accepted my Bill, while others opposed it.

What are the options? Transport 2000--a transport charity--commissioned six essays on the railway. The essays were issued last week; anyone who is interested in the railway should read them. I shall not go into them in detail, as I do not want to take up too much time.

The first argued for evolution rather than revolution. The author stated that, yes, there had been problems due to privatisation, but it had resulted in increased investment and more passengers. He argued that evolution rather than major structural change was needed.

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Jimmy Knapp, the general secretary of the RMT, put the case for public ownership. He argued strongly that Railtrack had failed; there were safety problems and we should divert money from the shareholders either to be invested in the system or as profit for the Government.

A third essay argued for regionalisation of the railways based on the German model. That is a difficult idea to accept because we do not have the same structures in this country--we do not have regional government. Such a system would fail and create even more problems than there are at present.

The chairman of the train operators organisation argued that train operators should be given control of the system. I think the reason for that is that, under the original private railway system, the same companies owned the trains and the tracks. However, that, too, is not an option that should be taken up.

An interesting proposal was that Railtrack should become a non-profit-making trust with several stakeholders. I think it was based on the same principle as the Canadian air traffic control organisation. Safety would be given priority and any profits would be ploughed back into the infrastructure. That is a sensible alternative to bringing Railtrack back into the public sector.

The final essay argued that we needed fewer companies. Fewer players should be involved; we should simplify the system and go for bigger and better. Today, I do not argue for any of those options, but that the existing system needs serious examination. My Bill does that.

If I were the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), I should argue that the proposals in my Bill on the SRA are premature. The Government have set up the SRA and it is implementing policies that the Government want to see. To some extent, I accept that argument. That is why my Bill specifies a time scale of two years--that is important. The public--especially the travelling public--are angry about the current state of the railways; they want a commitment from the Government to bring the system back into the public sector although they accept that that will not happen. However, if the SRA solution does not work within two years, a radical alternative will be needed.

There are indications that the SRA is having problems. I read in the press today that one of the retiring members of the SRA has decided that he can stay there no longer and that Railtrack is

That is a very serious statement. I accept that the SRA has not had the time to carry out the work that is needed, but the Minister should consider that if it is no better in two years, a plan B must be ready to be implemented. I suspect that if the Minister accepts the Bill, that alternative will exist.

As the chairman of the west coast main line group, I have great admiration for Tom Winsor, whom I have met on several occasions. He is dynamic, and he wants to make progress, but there is a sense of frustration. He said again, only this week, that Railtrack should meet some deadlines and that he would force it to do so, but when

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asked whether he would fine it, he realised the pointlessness of the situation. If he fines Railtrack, it will have to ask the Government for more public money.

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