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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 9 January 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Woolas.]

9.30 am

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I went to my local railway station in Wokingham yesterday morning to prepare for this important debate today. I did so, yet again, more in hope than anything else, as I come from a part of the country where strikes are already badly affecting the service. I did not leave home as early as usual and arrived at the station car park at 9 o'clock. It was almost empty. I went through the usual routine of discovering that the car park ticket machine would not take my money. I had to go elsewhere to buy a ticket to make my car parking legal and I waited for a long time for a train that was delayed by nine minutes; one of the few services still running.

The station is a mess and needs reconstruction. There is no proper or secure parking, and it is difficult to get a bus in and out of the station. There is no proper transport interchange and, at the morning peaks—especially for an hour and a half after 7.40 am—there are only three trains to London from a place only 37 miles west of the capital. Many of us want to come to London, but when the trains are running, the services are crowded and difficult to get on.

If the Government were serious about wanting a better railway and transport system, Ministers would get on the trains and see what we all experience daily when we try to travel on the trains. They should start to spend the large amounts of money that they are talking about making available practically and positively to make a real difference.

I have proposed a plan for my local area that could be more widely used. The plan includes the improvement of traffic access to the station by a new link road to the main road; a mid-rise car park with security cameras and supervision; commercial development to help pay for the other property changes needed in the area; a bus interchange with bus services geared to the train times; and a new station. The current station does not have proper waiting facilities. One has to stand out in the rain, the cold and the wind that we often experience in winter. The plan would also include moving the station down the track, because it is too close to a principal road into the town. For safety reasons, the level crossing barriers must stay down much longer than would otherwise be needed. That increases the traffic jams in the town and makes it even more difficult to get to the station.

The Government say that they want an integrated transport policy. I am in favour of an integrated transport policy if that means simple things, such as being able to drive to a station, park, buy a ticket and get on a train in reasonable time. The Government seem to be fixated by how long it takes to carry out certain rail

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journeys once a passenger is on a train. My constituents and I are interested in point-to-point journey time from the place we start from to the point at which we want to arrive. That is not usually from station to station. While the Government are claiming that they want to try to sort out the mess on the railways, they and many Labour and Liberal Democrat councils throughout the country are making it visibly more difficult for people to use the trains by impeding road access to stations and by failing to make the connections between the motorist and the train that are needed if train usage is to build up in the way that we would like.

The Government would be well advised to look at capacity on the tracks and the trains. The commuter railways are the most likely railways to be successful; the railways are—or could be—the best at moving a large number of people at approximately the same time on busy and otherwise congested routes. The Government should ask why there is so little capacity on commuter railway links into London and the other big cities throughout the country. There are both short and medium-term answers to the current capacity constraint. Building new track is likely to be problematic in all but the most obvious bottlenecks. Interest groups will make the same objections to new train lines as are made to new motorways; often with good reason.

Now that the Government have taken control of so much of the railway system, they should examine options such as longer trains and platforms, double-decker trains—which will require some bridge-raising—or new technology that will enable more trains per hour to use the same piece of track. At the moment, using steel-on-steel technology creates a safety constraint because it necessitates long braking distances and long separation of train from train. During the morning peak time, if one flies over congested parts of the country in a light aircraft, one can see massive congestion on the roads, with buses, lorries, coaches and cars bumper to bumper because they can approach each other closely. However, railway tracks are largely empty. They are punctuated by a few trains, which are separated, for obvious safety reasons. The Minister needs to consider the technology used.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Following privatisation, one of the main successes was that more people and freight were travelling by rail. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the whole thrust of the Government's 10-year transport plan is in jeopardy because more than 50 per cent. of investment was to be private? That would have alleviated the problem of lack of capacity for commuter trains and freight. Where does he think that the Government will find the investment that the private sector would otherwise have made before the demise of Railtrack?

Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend is quite right, and I was about to talk about money. We need massive sums of private investment throughout our transport system. When people are free to invest, they invest large sums of money. Last year was a record one for car purchases, which is a sure sign that people feel that they have to make their own transport provision. Of course, they cannot buy their own road space. They have a problem because the Government has a monopoly on road space

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and does not supply enough of it. People are willing to spend a lot of money on their own flexible transport system. As my hon. Friend says, we are about to undergo the same experience with the railways.

Investors would be happy to invest in decent means of conveyance along railway routes in and out of our major towns and cities, but that is currently blocked by indecision, or by wrong decisions taken by the Government. For example, my local train company would love to spend more on new trains, but agonising negotiations on its franchise renewal have taken far longer than they should have done. Investment has been put on ice by the Government's inability to cut through difficulties and conclude negotiations. That they have constantly changed policy and intervened directly and indirectly via the Strategic Rail Authority undoubtedly complicates the matter.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the users are prepared to spend a lot of money on our railways? It is especially true of the commuters he mentions; commuters from Chippenham spend £3 million per year. In that context, would he support the activities of the largest commuter organisation ever known, the British Rail Advisory Group, run by my constituent, Mr. David da Costa? He has suggested a strike by rail users on 1 March. Only by withdrawing our support for the railways on 1 March can we make it plain to the Government what they would be losing if they did not have us.

Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend draws me down a dangerous road, or railway line. I sympathise with the aims of that worthy organisation. I hope that the Government and the railway companies would want high-level discussions with my hon. Friend's constituent and his group to avoid the need for direct action. I share the frustrations of his constituent and many of my own. I try to use the railways whenever possible, but I find it increasingly difficult to do so because of the problems that I have identified.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Does my right hon. Friend recall the Deputy Prime Minister saying almost five years ago that, within five years, this country would have a train system of which we would be proud? Bearing it in mind that we have 16 weeks to go until we reach the end of those magical five years, what chance does my right hon. Friend think the Deputy Prime Minister has of achieving his ambition?

Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend makes his point in a delightfully mischievous way. I share his fear that we will not see a transformation within the next 16 weeks; the record so far is of continuing decline and disastrous decisions. We know that the Deputy Prime Minister had to be taken off the case, and we read from authoritative sources that the current Secretary of State is about to go the same way. I note that, after his long holiday in India, he does not have the time to be with us this morning; that is a great pity, in view of the strong interest from a wide range of Members.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): My right hon. Friend referred to the delay in taking decisions about

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refranchising. I draw his attention to the fact that it is now some 15 or 16 months since M40 Trains was selected as the preferred bidder for the Chiltern franchise, which everyone accepts is one of the best-run railway franchises. We still have not had a decision, which has added to the uncertainty and the delay in investment. Is it not time that we had some decisions from the Government?

Mr. Redwood : My hon. Friend makes another effective point, with which I entirely sympathise. I hope that the Minister will try to lift some of the fog and gloom from railway policy. He could tell us his deadlines for the important franchises that are out for competition or negotiation and whether the franchise holders will be given a decent length of franchise to make long-term investment worth while. He could tell us whether the authoritative briefings in the press that the Government are seeking a major amalgamation of the train companies are correct. If those briefings are correct, how will they be carried out in relation to the existing pattern of franchise award and negotiations? Will the move be another cause of delay and disruption? How will the amalgamations be carried out against the strong competition policy? That is largely driven by often sensible rules from Brussels that mean that it would be difficult for the Government to do all the pro-monopoly and cartel work that they might like to do on this subject, as well as some others. It is time that we had some answers, because we need more investment by the train-operating companies.

More important, the Minister owes it to hon. Members to tell us about the Government's timetable for getting Railtrack back into operating shape and into the private sector, which I believe is their intention. The Minister speaks on behalf of a Government who say that they want a private sector Railtrack in the form of a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. Will he give us a timetable for when we will know more about that bid, when the documentation will be sent to potential bidders and when the deadline will be for interested parties and consortia to bid for such interesting and potentially valuable assets?

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the only benefit that commuters in my area are seeing is the batch of splendid new trains that was ordered the week after Connex won the franchise under the previous Conservative Government; the one positive and immediate fruit of privatisation? The Deputy Prime Minister may have been thinking of the fact that it took five years to build those trains and others like them up and down the country when he promised a better railway system within five years. It is no good having the best trains in the world unless some of the concerns that my right hon. Friend has rightly set out about Railtrack are met. The trains need decent tracks to run on.

Mr. Redwood : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support and glad that he has given yet another example of how privatisation worked in its early years before this Government decided to do it enormous damage by the wrong kind of regulation and the wrong kind of bankruptcy. We now learn that the Government believe that £4.5 billion should be made available to the railway

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industry, on top of the £34 billion in their 10-year transport plan. Will the Minister confirm that and place on record for the first time how much of the 10-year plan money is destined for railway track, as opposed to other railway spending? Will he tell us how much money is destined for Railtrack and its successor-in-title in the next three years?

That is the minimum of information that we should expect in the House of Commons and that the Government will have to supply to their company limited by guarantee and any other bidder interested in Railtrack. I do not understand why it is such a secret. We all know that they will have to disclose that information. It is impossible for commercial interests to compile a sensible bid and come up with a decent view on whether Railtrack, in its current shape, has positive or negative value to them without knowing what the flow of Government subsidy into the organisation will be.

The decision to bankrupt Railtrack was taken by the Government who had it in their power to negotiate and do a deal with the Railtrack that was then in existence. We all know that that company was going to receive public money and that there was the negotiation over how much it needed in view of the regulatory constraints imposed upon it. I can guarantee that it will now be a lot dearer. The Government will have to put a lot more money into the successor-in-title to Railtrack than if they had done a sensible deal with Railtrack, instead of deciding to put it into receivership on 5 October.

We are now three months on from the receivership. We are no clearer about how much money is available and what sort of bidders might come forward. We know no more about how a not-for-profit company can raise private capital. It is quite an unusual concept to raise private capital without profit or dividends to distribute to reward the people who make the investment. One presumes that it will be bond-financed and that the short-term cost of capital of the company limited by guarantee will be higher than the cost of capital of a for-profit, equity-based company because bond finance is carried out at higher interest rates than equity finance raised at dividend yield. It would be interesting to hear the Minister's latest thoughts on those important issues.

It is also a great disappointment to many of us on the Conservative Benches that the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), the Deputy Chief Whip, is not here. We read in The Guardian—how could it possibly be wrong?—that the Deputy Chief Whip is now the main agent of running the railways. I refer, of course, to the Government Deputy Chief Whip; the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), is assiduous in his duties and understands the importance of railways. I can quite understand why the Government Deputy Chief Whip is not here. He is obviously embarrassed that his secret activities have found their way into The Guardian. Will the Minister confirm the 10 Downing street line; that The Guardian has made up this story and the Deputy Chief Whip is not attempting to fix the difficult industrial relations problems of the railway?

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Given the severity of the problems he describes, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is pitiful that out of the more than 400 Labour MPs, just two are present for the debate?

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Mr. Redwood : It is noticeable that there are not many here. Many Labour Members are deeply embarrassed by the state of the railways and do not wish to have to hear again just how bad it is. Perhaps many of them have not been able to get here yet this morning because the trains are so appallingly bad. They are now taking to the inadequate roads.

Mr. Brazier : My right hon. Friend is quite right to put that charitable interpretation on the matter. After all, yesterday's Evening Standard told us that out of 55 London Labour MPs, only one could be bothered to come to a debate on the tube. Perhaps the others were stuck on the tube.

Mr. Redwood : Their embarrassment on this matter is understandable. However, I want to transcend party politics and make a plea to the Government; the money that is being put towards transport investment now should come forward rapidly but sensibly. It should be applied to making real improvements, which means buying the equipment needed to do the job. Nothing can really move on the railways at a satisfactory pace or in a satisfactory way until the Government make a series of decisions. They must decide how they will get Railtrack out of administration more quickly and into the private sector again, as they claim to want to do. They must decide how they will agree franchises of a suitable length with a reasonable number of train companies so that that uncertainty can be cleared away and they can get on with providing the private investment.

I hope that the Minister can give me an assurance that nothing in the current structure of the SRA and the receivership would impede the plans that I have suggested, which seem to have been generally accepted in my area, for a new station, a transport interchange and all the rest. Much of that can be paid for out of private investment and development gain, but we need a favourable wind from the SRA, the Government and the receiver, as Railtrack has an interest in the development. The main mover will be South West Trains. I trust that its franchise will soon be sorted out and it will then be fully committed to the scheme.

Is the Government's stance, as of 10 o'clock today, to remain disengaged from the industrial disruption that we are witnessing which is spreading and getting worse? In view of the close friendships and links between certain rail unions and the Government, could the Government play a role through the Deputy Chief Whip or otherwise? It would be a great pity if our train system were further disrupted as a result of pressures and politics in one trade union. The travelling public deserve better and I hope that the Minister will respond in a similar spirit.

Many hon. Members want to join the debate, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. I could say much more about the lamentable state of our railways and our transport system, but I shall not burden the Minister with yet more questions. I just hope that he will provide greater certainty about the reprivatisation of Railtrack, the new private investment that could then flow and the franchise terms for many train-operating companies.

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9.51 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I shall start with a comment that will please the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). I declare an interest, in that I have five non-profit-making £10 shares in the Keighley and Worth Valley Light Railway company. I am also president of that railway's society. I declare the interest because that railway's future could be badly affected if we do not keep a decent railway system running into platforms 1 and 2 at Keighley station.

I was surprised by and welcomed many of the ideas for improvements proposed by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). However, it is disappointing that the Conservatives could have implemented many of those ideas in their 18 years in office, but did not. They lacked a commitment to our railway system, railway users and the men and women who run it. Proposing those ideas at this stage made the right hon. Gentleman's speech a little empty, although I enjoyed it because I am a rail enthusiast and I agree with much of what he said.

One of the biggest mistakes that my party made was probably to abandon our commitment to renationalise the rail network in the run-up to the 1997 general election. Had we stuck with that commitment, it might have deterred the Conservative Government from privatising the rail network. Preventing them from doing that would have been a good deal for us all. Unfortunately, we backed down, which in my view allowed that Government to go ahead with their rail privatisation policy.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): Will the hon. Lady explain why, under British Rail, passenger numbers remained static or declined over a number of years, and why it was only after privatising the railways that we started to see a steady growth in the number of passengers?

Mrs. Cryer : The answer is extremely simple. The clogging up of car transport and the gridlock in our towns was such that people abandoned their cars in favour of railways. That is why there has been an increase in the number of train passengers. I am delighted that people are abandoning their cars and coming on to the railways. My worry is that the chaos on the east coast main line experienced by myself and by the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) during the six months between late summer and last spring has put people off. Those living in Leeds started to get back into their cars for business trips down south.

Personally, I did not forsake the railways—I persisted—but I had a hard time. I had reached the point where I felt that we simply could not go on as we were with the existing Railtrack organisation. It was putting many of my constituents and myself into great difficulties.

Mr. McLoughlin : This is the first time that I have heard a Labour Member saying that had Labour stuck to its views, privatisation would not have happened. However, if privatisation had not taken place, would we

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not have seen the entire rail network, rather than one section of it, brought to a standstill by unions over the past couple of days?

Mrs. Cryer : That has no bearing whatever. I said that it would have been good to persist with the threat of renationalisation because it might well have deterred the previous Government, whose plans could have been put to naught if we were elected. The Conservative Government would have thought twice and perhaps sought better solutions. They made a dog's dinner of privatisation, as even some Conservative Members would agree, and the travelling public are paying the price.

Hon. Members based above and beyond Leeds well know the problems experienced with Railtrack during the six months that I mentioned earlier. It started with Hatfield; who could fail to be critical of Railtrack about the happenings on that dreadful day? A whole train came off the track when the steel split. I should have been on that train. I do not often thank Robert Kilroy-Silk, but he invited me on his show that morning, so I went to Borehamwood and missed that particular train. I caught a later train at Stevenage.

I must give credit to GNER. Many people stood on that platform not knowing what on earth was going on. Eventually word came through about the derailment, though we did not know that the rail had split. We waited on the platform and a train came within three-quarters of an hour. After such a dreadful incident, it is a great credit to the men and women who operate the railways that another train was up and running in such a short time. That was the beginning of things going wrong last winter.

Miss McIntosh : I remind the Chamber that I am a minor shareholder in Railtrack; I probably own a few more shares than the hon. Lady. She and I would agree that safety must be paramount on the railways. I share her concern about the broken rail, and the Select Committee investigated that further. Can the hon. Lady advise me? Is the dispute with the RMT about pay, or were two union members found to have seriously breached the safety code? If safety is paramount, should they not be disciplined for breaching the code?

Mrs. Cryer : I have no knowledge of the internal organisation of the RMT, so I know no more than the hon. Lady. Breaches of safety should be disciplined because the safety of the travelling public is paramount.

I shall continue with my list of moans about what affects the travelling public in the Leeds area. After Hatfield, things were getting a little better, but then we had the floods, which devastated part of my constituency and had a dreadful effect on the rail network. The train lines from Leeds are like a spider's web. The Airedale and Wharfdale lines serve my constituency, and many of my constituents depend on those lines to commute to Leeds or to London. Many of the problems that we experience are down to Railtrack. It was responsible for the Hatfield accident, and the floods.

Throughout all that, we had the Leeds First improvement project. The work went on and on; well past what we were told would be the final date.

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I welcomed that much-needed project. There are now 16 platforms at Leeds City station. We used to have total gridlock—unusual on the railways—at the west end of the station, and I experienced problems taking the Airedale or Wharfdale lines into Leeds. Trains coming in from the various commuter areas were held up for 10, 15 or 20 minutes, which often meant missing the connection to London. That happened to me several times; it still happens occasionally.

We must deal with all the problems on the railways, because it is important to keep the travelling public on the trains and not in their cars. Three of my six grandchildren suffer from asthma, which I am convinced is related to increased road traffic. Cars are getting cleaner, but that is not the total answer. We must get people out of their cars and on to the trains; even buses would be better.

Arriva has been short of drivers on the Wharfdale line to Ilkley and on the Airedale line, which goes through my constituency up to Skipton. That is another problem of privatisation. The company's drivers were poached by bigger companies. Train services have been cut; in fact, Arriva had to rewrite the timetable completely. It is getting on top of the problem and has done a deal with ASLEF, whereby pay for Arriva drivers will be improved. I am pleased by that development, which will lessen the potential for poaching by other railway companies.

People's lives are seriously affected by train problems in the Leeds area. I have received hundreds of letters from constituents complaining about their inability to get to Leeds or to London on the east coast main line. One of my constituents works in a bank in Leeds and has a child minder to look after her two children. She said that a few weeks ago she was unable to give the child minder an assurance about when she would be back to relieve her because she could not be sure that the train from Leeds to Silsden would be running. Such problems emanate from faulty privatisation and are the result of bigger companies poaching staff from smaller companies such as Arriva.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reply to my points. We must achieve an even greater movement of people out of their cars and on to the railway network. I welcomed the comments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham and look forward to improvements such as those he mentioned.

Shipley, the railway station nearest my house, is 220 miles from London. I believe that six trains run each way, every day, from that station to London. I cannot moan about that service, which is excellent. However, Shipley is a bit short of car-parking facilities, which creates difficulties. I am sometimes tempted to drive to Wakefield, where GNER provides ample parking. At Keighley, in my constituency, there is a shortage of car-parking spaces. Providing more car-parking spaces at stations or having linking bus services from villages to railway stations with a good turn round at stations—as happens in the Harrogate area—would encourage people to use the trains rather than their cars.

I, more than anyone, am aware of the tragedies resulting from car accidents. I want less dependence on cars for that reason, as well as their effect on air quality. However, if dependence on the car is to be reduced, trains must be reliable, safe and cheap. If those three

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essentials cannot be achieved, we will be on a hiding to nothing, whatever happens to Railtrack or its successor, and we will not succeed in providing a rail network to be proud of. I am proud of it now, but there are things going wrong. The Leeds area has had a rough deal for the past 18 months, although there has been some improvement and Leeds City station is becoming a wonderful place.

I want assurances from the Minister about some of the matters that I have raised this morning.

10.6 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on securing the debate in such an apposite week. I want to ask the Minister one or two questions about the present dispute. First, will he condemn the RMT for the disruptive action that is causing so much trouble for the travelling public this week? Secondly, if these wholly unnecessary strikes continue, will the Minister and his party sever their ties with that union?

The dispute is only one element of the chaos surrounding the rail network. I suspect that the Minister will talk about the problems that privatisation and the mismanagement of Railtrack have caused, but the Government must take responsibility for the problems on the rail network that their actions have caused. They have got it wrong on several counts. First, they failed to respond quickly enough to post-privatisation growth on the network. In the past five years, there has been an unprecedented growth in the number of passengers, but no action by the Government. Virtually no major enhancements of the network have begun.

In five years' time, the Government will not be able to deliver significant expansion to capacity because they have not started work on projects that can deliver that expansion. The only projects on the stocks at present are phase 1 of the west coast main line, a small widening project on Chiltern, the Leeds City station project and phase 1 of the channel tunnel rail link. That is all. The lot of the travelling public will not improve as a result of those schemes alone.

The Government are determined to take control by over-regulation. They have imposed an increasingly complex regulatory structure that is characterised by hostility between Railtrack and the regulator. There is a huge number of new rules and regulations that the Minister listed in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). In the past few years, 19 new laws have been imposed on Railtrack.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about regulations. Is he brave enough to agree with me that although Lord Cullen made some sensible recommendations about improving safety on the railways, his recommendation on safety regulations was not so successful, as it added complexity when what was needed was simplification?

Chris Grayling : The important point, to which I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), is that Lord Cullen's report specifically stated that, since privatisation, safety on the railways

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has improved, not worsened. We all deplore what happened at Hatfield and Ladbroke Grove, but we must not forget that safety is improving, not worsening.

It is clear that the Government's so-called 10-year plan is not a plan. It is a vague collection of wishes and desires that does not represent the clear strategy that the industry is looking for. The Minister and his Government must address that.

The Government's other mistake, which the Deputy Prime Minister has now admitted, was over-dependence on Railtrack to deliver an investment programme that was far beyond the scope of any public company to deliver. That is coming home to roost. The Government expected too much of one organisation, with the result that they were instrumental in putting the burden of pressure on to Railtrack's management, as we have seen in the past few months.

Turning to the events of last year, it is certain that the Secretary of State did not understand the situation in the industry and was shooting from the hip when he decided to force Railtrack into administration. That ill-thought-out decision has destroyed confidence inside the industry. Railtrack was not insolvent; it was taking on a huge investment programme that required it to continue to raise enormous amounts of capital. To enable it to do that, it needed the Government's confidence and support. The Secretary of State withdrew that confidence and made it impossible for Railtrack to continue to deliver its promises. The Government must accept that their own action was fundamentally responsible for bringing to a halt the investment programme in the railways that might have made a difference to the travelling public in the next few years.

It is also clear that, in making his decision, the Secretary of State talked to no one. The Select Committee heard that he did not speak to the Strategic Rail Authority or to the rail regulator. He did not talk in detail about his thoughts and ideas to anyone in the industry. He made his decision on the basis of consultations within his Department and in discussions with professional services firms and investment banks that would benefit financially from his decision. That decision was regrettable, as a result. The situation was made worse because the Secretary of State has been, at least, inconsistent in his stories about the chain of events leading to Railtrack's administration.

Why does all that matter? Why do we keep pressing the Minister on the situation, his decisions and his discussions? It matters because the Secretary of State made a decision without thinking it through, without taking proper advice and without having a clear idea of what was to happen next. The immediate consequence is that investment has dried up. I shall give an example from one of my two local franchises, South Central. The special-purpose vehicle that was designed to deliver important improvement for passengers is now on the shelf because of the uncertainty in the industry. The situation has had an enormously adverse effect on morale among the Railtrack work force. Does the Minister not understand that many of the shareholders who lost their savings are the same people he expects to

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deliver improvements over the next few years? It is extraordinary that the Government fail to understand that.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I keep hearing Conservative Members saying that we should support Railtrack, but they refuse to tell us how much more money they would provide to support Railtrack. Can the hon. Gentleman give us a figure today, for the record?

Chris Grayling : I simply return the question to the hon. Gentleman. Does he believe that confiscating the assets of railway workers is an appropriate way to encourage proper performance in the rail industry?

Mr. Redwood : It is very clear that if we had given rather less than the Government are now giving to the administrator, Railtrack would have been over the moon.

Chris Grayling : I thank my right hon. Friend for that.

The other fundamentally flawed decision by the Secretary of State last year concerned the franchise round. Within four weeks of taking over his job, he intervened in a process that was close to delivering long-term franchises and a long-term commitment to companies such as GNER, which would then have been able to deliver investment of the kind that the hon. Member for Keighley seeks to improve the quality of the services that her constituents enjoy. The Secretary of State's decision to revert to two-year franchise renewals brought that process to a complete halt. I have been told by rolling stock companies and train operators that it has fundamentally damaged the process of investing in infrastructure and new rolling stock, and that is greatly to be lamented.

Now we see the Government scrambling around in all directions, trying to work out what happens next. On the funding front, I asked the Secretary of State a few weeks ago whether Railtrack's successor will operate within the same budget as that set out for Railtrack for control period 2 over the next five years. The answer was yes. Now we learn that that was not true. In fact, the rail industry will get an extra £4.5 billion that the Government denied to Railtrack, although Railtrack had told the Government that it would be necessary in order to bring the network up to a level of quality that would improve the lot of the passenger.

There is a singular lack of a strategy for the industry. We hope next week to see the Strategic Rail Authority's plan to implement the Government's ambitions. However, even that plan seems to be veiled in confusion. It was drawn up by the previous chief executive of the SRA, who was sacked when the new chairman took over in December. I am not sure whether the plan is Richard Bowker's or Mike Grant's. That may not matter anyway, because John Birt has now been brought in to draw up another plan for transport. It is interesting to note that this is the second time that the Government have brought in a senior television executive to try to sort out our transport infrastructure. It did not work last time, although Lord Macdonald is still a Minister, so why should it work this time? Have the Government considered bringing in experts on transport, rather than television, to help them to deliver their transport strategy?

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We have no clear idea about what happens next in relation to Railtrack. There is no timetable. If we ask questions, Ministers flannel. We do not know if the next owner of Railtrack will be public or private. Ministers have been reluctant to be clear about that in Select Committee discussions. We have no idea who will repay the debt that the Government are running up with the Railtrack administrator under the commercial loan agreement. By the end of the administration period, the administrator will owe £2 billion or more to the Government, and there is no clear indication of where the money to repay that loan is to come from.

We are starting to hear wild rumours about services. Will there be a Beeching 2, whereby we lose rural lines to create extra capacity on the main network? Will there be fewer trains so as to make them all run on time? That would be disastrous for people who are already crammed into their morning suburban trains.

Where do we stand? What can the travelling public expect? On my local line, we were hoping fairly soon to get platform extensions and longer trains as part of the South West Trains plan for its franchise extension; but no, that is on the shelf. The company told me that, given the current hiatus, it is unlikely that the work can be done until 2007. Many other renewals around the network are running late.

Yesterday I asked the Minister a question about when South Central, Chiltern Railways and South West Trains can expect their franchise agreements to be completed. I was told that it would be unhelpful for the Government to speculate. Is it really unhelpful for us to know when our local train companies will get the security that they need to invest in the future of their passenger services? On large projects, it is now impossible for the Government to deliver major investment programmes that will be open in five years' time. It is too late; it cannot be done.

There are other flies in the ointment. The Government are committed over the next few years to implementing the advanced train protection system—ATP—at a substantial cost. Yet people in the industry tell me that it will not be possible to deliver major enhancements to the network at the same time as introducing ATP. What will the Government do? Will ATP come first or second?

Miss McIntosh : During an Adjournment debate that I secured at the end of last year, the Minister had to correct himself and say that he did indeed envisage a role for the independent rail regulator. Can my hon. Friend press the Minister to clarify the role of independent regulation if Railtrack were to remain in private hands?

Chris Grayling : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that the Minister was listening to that question and will be able to answer it at the end of this debate.

During a meeting yesterday with one of the rolling stock companies, I was told that, in effect, orders for new trains have dried up because of the current chaos in the industry. As a result, there will be a hiatus before passengers see the next generation of trains that are crucial to the Government's aim of meeting the growth targets in their 10-year plan.

Mr. Prisk : My hon. Friend and I represent constituencies with a very high proportion of

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commuters, and in many cases it is commuters who are bearing the brunt of what is becoming a second-rate service. My own constituency has witnessed a significant decline in commuter services since September. Is the same true of my hon. Friend's constituency?

Chris Grayling : I have a constituent who keeps a record—he and I joke about it—of the performance of the trains that he catches to and from work. I asked him that very question a couple of weeks ago, and he replied that services have definitely deteriorated since the shambles of Railtrack's being taken into administration.

When will there be a clear timetable for investment in the network? When will the current franchise replacement round be completed? Will the Minister make it clear whether ATP or infrastructure improvements will come first? Bearing in mind the comments of the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), in this week's edition of The Sunday Times, will the Minister explain clearly what progress is being made in getting Railtrack out of administration? By what date will that definitely happen? Will he confirm that the changes will not mean cuts in services in order to deliver better statistics for the Government?

Mrs. Ann Cryer : If bringing Railtrack back into permanent private ownership is so important and the hon. Gentleman is so committed to it, does he also think that it would be a good idea for all of our roads to be privately owned? What is the view of the road hauliers, who are good friends of the Conservative party, and of some car users?

Chris Grayling : As I have said, what the industry needs is a strategy, rather than the current directionless shambles. We look to the Minister and his colleagues to deliver the sense of direction that is lacking at the moment. If the Government do not recognise their mistakes and begin to deliver such a strategy quickly, the travelling public will face a bleak future.

10.22 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is a very rare occasion for a Welsh nationalist to congratulate the former colonial governor of Wales—as the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), was once known—but I am delighted to do so, because the debate that he has instigated is timely. There was almost an even more amazing occurrence, in that he was tempted down the path of supporting a rail strike, albeit of a different kind. However, he did not quite reach that point, so we must be contented with the rare event of a Welsh nationalist supporting a Conservative-initiated debate.

Mr. Gray : The hon. Gentleman is referring to the boycott of the railways proposed by BRAG on 1 March. I should make it clear, however, that what is proposed is not a strike, but simply that people withhold their use of a particular service.

Mr. Thomas : The withholding of one's labour or service does indeed constitute a strike; that is what I should want to call it.

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I want to discuss the railway infrastructure in Wales, particularly mid-Wales, in the light of recent events such as Hatfield and the Government's takeover of Railtrack in October. The Cambrian line in mid-Wales is one of the most rural lines in the United Kingdom. Although there might be some hesitation, I could name every rural railway station on it without fear of repetition—aficionados of the panel game "Just a Minute" would recognise the style of Clement Freud—for more than one minute and still not reach Machynlleth. I want to impress on hon. Members that the Cambrian line is a rural line that is absolutely vital to mid-Wales.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I spent a Christmas in Machynlleth, which I understand had the last Welsh Parliament about 500 years ago. Is it possible that the reason why the area is now governed by those other than the Welsh is because nobody could find Machynlleth? It is too far away.

Mr. Thomas : That may have been the last time we had a Welsh Parliament but it was not the last Welsh Parliament; we have one yet to come. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman looks forward to that.

The Cambrian line has a two-hourly service and three trains on a Sunday. There has been no freight for at least seven years since oil delivery to Aberystwyth was taken off the rails, to the annoyance of anyone who now drives there; people get stuck behind tankers delivering oil that was once carried on rail. The clear single-line track that goes from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and up the coast to Pwllheli cannot be improved or deliver more than a two-hourly service unless a number of signalling and loop improvements are introduced.

The plan exists for a £6.5 million investment to improve the line by introducing an hourly service and to improve punctuality. Currently, punctuality stands at 50 per cent. to 60 per cent., so hon. Members can imagine how many trains are missed at connections in Wolverhampton and Birmingham after leaving mid-Wales and how many trains are missed when returning. The number of times that I have caught taxis from Shrewsbury—of course, at the rail company's expense—is an uncomfortable thought. A meeting on Saturday with the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth rail passengers association gave me further anecdotal evidence of how often that happens and how poor punctuality has been.

The good news is that there is a Wales and Borders franchise in place and significant improvements to services have been made by Wales and Borders as the outline franchisee for the whole of Wales. That has been achieved under present arrangements. The difficulty is that without infrastructure improvements, we will never have an hourly service or a proper rail service that the tourism industry, students at Aberystwyth college, general business and the public need in rural Wales. Such an hourly service would sustain, over long distances, the fragile rural communities of Wales.

The money for the £6.5 million plan exists. Although the National Assembly for Wales need not do so, it has pledged a significant part of its transport infrastructure grant; some £2.5 million. The other £4 million has been

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agreed, in principle, by the Strategic Rail Authority, but has been put on hold since October. I wonder whether that date is significant. Since October, Railtrack has told us that it cannot progress with the Dyfi junction loop and improvements on the Cambrian line; not because it does not have the money but because it does not have the engineers.

The Minister seems to agree on that, but train-operating companies have told me that the engineers could be found in private companies. We have also been told that Railtrack is prioritising major systems such as the west coast and east coast main lines; I have major worries about that. These are important UK-wide strategies but the Government face a difficulty because they are now responsible for Railtrack. Should they abandon rural routes in favour of main lines, or maintain a UK-wide and Wales-wide railway system?

Abandoning the Cambrian line improvement project is dangerous because it is the foremost priority for transport in Wales, as the Welsh Assembly has said. If it is improved, we will have proper rural railway infrastructure in Wales. The Assembly said that it was prepared to put in £2.5 million and the SRA said that it would put in £4 million, but we have not had the reassurance that smaller projects such as the Cambrian line will be pushed ahead. The abandonment of that project represents the abandonment of everything that is happening in Wales at the moment.

I press the Minister to look again at what is being done on the Cambrian line in particular and in Wales in general. The 10-year plan from the Strategic Rail Authority is expected in two weeks' time, and it must contain improvements to the Cambrian line in addition to upgrades in other parts of Wales. If that does not happen, a difficult, but ultimately successful, partnership that has been built up between the private sector—the train-operating companies and Railtrack—and the National Assembly for Wales will be abandoned, resulting in the loss of a huge sum of money from our transport infrastructure. Given the money available—there is a question about certain engineering facilities—those improvements must be seen to go ahead.

There has been an 18-month hiatus already, but we still do not have the all-Wales franchise that we were promised. Now there is a further hiatus with regard to a project that was supposed to start in October. That is not the way to run a railway. The Government's announcements indicate that the money and resources are there, but the strategy and management are not.

10.30 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): It is traditional to begin a contribution by congratulating the hon. Member who has secured the debate on securing it, which has always struck me as odd. I should prefer to congratulate the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) not on securing the debate but on his contribution, which was helpful. I also congratulate him on his recent newspaper articles, although I did not agree with all of them. In particular, his article in The Independent was a useful contribution. Like the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), I am conscious that we are debating the state of the railways, and I agree with him that we do not need Lord Birt to tell us their current state; they are in a parlous state, as anybody who tries to use them knows.

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The state of our railways has not been helped in recent days by the unnecessary strike action by the RMT, and I suspect that many Government and Opposition Members agree with me on that point. Frankly, the RMT's leaders are off their trolleys because the travelling public need further strikes like they need holes in the head. If disruption of the type that we have seen during the past few days continues, we will see large numbers of people beginning to drift away from our railways—passengers may protest on 1 March, by boycotting the railways—which will lead to the increased congestion and chaos on our roads to which the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) referred.

We will see the railways moving into decline, and RMT members will start to lose their jobs. Their action was foolish because it created chaos for the travelling public. I am in favour of everyone, including RMT members, benefiting from a successful railway. However, we do not have a successful railway, and RMT members ought to be working as hard as everybody else to ensure that we get one. That said, the hon. Member for Keighley praised many people who work on the railways. I am conscious that morale in the railway system is low, and it is incumbent on all of us to keep saying how grateful we are to the many people who work on the railways who are doing a good job. If we have criticisms, they are of management, and not of those who work on the railways.

What is the state of the railways? The Secretary of State, who appeared on GMTV this morning, summed it up by stating, "It is simply unacceptable." He is absolutely right; it is unacceptable, but what will be done about it? To re-formulate the three words used by the hon. Member for Keighley, how are we going to create a safe, reliable and affordable railway? Our current railway system is none of those three things, and we can all cite figures to illustrate that point. One set of figures that I was working on overnight is for delays. They were announced recently as a result of parliamentary questions that I asked before Christmas. An analysis of those figures demonstrates that in the first eight months of last year, compared with the first eight months of the previous year, there was a 70 per cent. increase in delays of five minutes or more on our railways.

Calculated in terms of numbers of working days lost, the figures demonstrate that last year an amazing 3,400 years were lost from people's lives as a result of train delays. Of course, business, too, lost large sums of money because those people were not working. There are many other ways of illustrating the current problem, but what are we to do about it? The real problem is that the Government's solution, which we have heard time and again—the Secretary of State repeated it on television this morning—is the 10-year plan, which is somehow supposed to solve all our problems on the railway.

The 10-year plan is a smokescreen. An analysis of what the Government say that the 10-year plan will deliver shows that it will not deliver very much at all. We are told that it is £180 billion for transport, but if we look at that at a constant price base it is only £157 billion at current prices. If we take away the money that is already spent on public transport—the public resource expenditure, the local council's pay and so on—only £109 billion is for direct investment in the transport

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system. Of that, the vast majority is to come from the private sector, meaning that only £54.7 billion of public investment comes from the Government. Some of that will go on public transport and our road-building programme, so £54.7 billion becomes £32.2 billion for public investment in public transport and less than 40 per cent. of that will go to the railways.

That comes to a staggering £12.7 billion. So of the £180 billion that should solve all the problems, the Government are putting in a staggering £12 billion. That might seem a lot of money, but it is little more than the Conservative Government spent on our railways. Indeed, some analyses show that it is less than the Conservatives spent on our railways. The 10-year plan is not the solution. I want to suggest a five-point plan that the Government could put in place straight away.

First, they could take action to tackle excessive fares by including in the new franchise round a further tranche of fares within the regulatory mechanism. They could also take tougher action on punctuality. I hope that they do not continue with the perverse penalty system. Secondly, they should publish immediately the Health and Safety Commission report showing where we are in respect of the implementation of Professor Uff's and Lord Cullen's recommendations. Have the 41 out of 89 recommendations in Lord Cullen's report that were due to be implemented by 19 December 2001, including improvements to signalling in the Paddington area, been implemented? The Minister knows the answer. It is sitting on the Secretary of State's desk, and I hope that we will be told today whether it has happened. Thirdly, the Government could reduce fragmentation by announcing immediately their plans to reduce the number of train-operating companies. Fourthly, they could simplify the regulatory machinery, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said. Fifthly, they could reform the whole regime and create a simpler structure by putting the rail regulator and the safety regulator into the Strategic Rail Authority, along the lines of the Civil Aviation Authority structure.

The Government could act on those five positive proposals to start reducing the chaos on our railways by sorting out the structure and allowing the experts to come in, and to start to manage the railway service so that it becomes safe, reliable and affordable.

10.40 am

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I did not have the pleasure of hearing the Secretary of State on television this morning. He is especially beleaguered at the moment and it is as if he can do nothing right. I do not want hon. Members to think that we do not agree with some of his actions. I put the Opposition behind the Secretary of State in agreeing with his analysis of the railways. When he was asked on "Newsnight" on 20 December whether the railways had got better since the Labour party came to power, he said courageously, "Of course not. They have become worse."

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on securing the debate and on what we all seem to agree was a thoughtful and telling contribution. He got to the heart of the problem when he talked about the need, and the inability, to increase capacity. He also made some telling points about loading gauge and, implicitly, the need for continuation

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of the west coast upgrade. The Minister raised his eyebrows when my right hon. Friend talked about trying to get trains closer together. However, that is common practice on the continent, and in the channel tunnel Euro 3 signalling is used. As my right hon. Friend knows, the most important thing that we can do to increase capacity is to introduce such signalling on the entire network. At the thick end, that could cost approximately £8 billion to install, and shows why private investment is so important. It also shows the great loss of private investment from the Government's 10-year plans as a result of the Secretary of State's actions.

It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer). I was in Keighley before Christmas and bumped into someone from the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway Preservation Society who spoke glowingly about the hon. Lady's contribution as a vice-president of that august organisation. It came as a surprise that she could write off a 25 per cent. increase in passengers and blame Railtrack for floods and pestilence. Her most telling comment was about Arriva and its desire for additional drivers. Arriva offered more money to drivers, and that is why there is a strike.

The strike is all about differentials. I never thought that we would return to the time of differentials. If we do not like the colour of our waistcoats, we go on strike. If we are not happy that a couple of our union officials have been disciplined because they have been careless with health and safety, we go on strike. We are now striking about differentials. The last time that there was a strike on the railways about differentials, Abba were at the peak of their powers, flared trousers were common, and Ministers used to go around secretly meeting trade union officials. It sounds as if we might be right to return to differentials, because that appears to be the current situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) talked a lot of sense about the strike. I would like to make a contribution. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is here. His constituent is forming a strike—for want of a better word, and it seems to me that the Labour party should show some solidarity. Those hon. Members who are sponsored by the trade unions and railways should return a day's subscription as a way of showing some solidarity with commuters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell was right to point out the £4 billion extra that the Government are having to fork out because of Railtrack. When Labour Members start to tease and ask what the Conservative party would do, they should remember that the Government are putting out more money than Railtrack was asking for. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) talked about the number of taxis that he has had to take from Shrewsbury. At least he can show some solidarity with and understanding for Lord Birt, who is a considerable expert in matters of taxis.

It is now three months since Railtrack went into administration. I remind the Minister that the Secretary of State said at the time that it would be out within three to six months. The Minister responsible in another place said yesterday that it would take many months. What is

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the real position? We know that the Secretary of State's decision is likely to be subject to two court cases—one concerning the shareholders, the other concerning Railtrack. We know that costs are beginning to spiral out of control due to problems linked to administration and that taxpayers are having to foot the bill. The administration is already costing the taxpayer £1 million a day, while fees for advisers are costing an additional £500,000 a day.

On top of that, there are many official and unofficial Government advisers. It may interest hon. Members to know that I have been making a tally of the number of people who are advising either the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister. The latest appointment for the Prime Minister has been made today, with Mr. Matthew Elson from McKinsey joining up. Other advisers include Wendy Thomson from the Audit Commission, Geoff Mulgan, who is working on a report on social exclusion and transport, Adair Turner from the CBI, Penny Hughes from Coca-Cola, Nick Lovegrove from McKinsey, and Arnab Banerji from F&C Management Ltd. This is almost like the middle years of Brezhnev, when each secret policeman had another secret policeman watching him.

There is an old joke about succession in Communist regimes and preparing three envelopes. I shall not bore hon. Members with it, but the final envelope contains the name of the predecessor. It seems that the Secretary of State is holding the third envelope, because today The Daily Telegraph quotes a Government source as saying:

Never let it be said that I was not the first to announce a new Government strategy in the Chamber.

There are several questions to which we need answers. In particular, we need clear ideas on how the proposed new company limited by guarantee will be funded. We need to know the level of subsidy because we must ensure open competition in the running of that company, and other companies that may want to bid for the Railtrack business. We need to know where its responsibilities begin and end, and how it will be regulated.

The Secretary of State ran a coach and horses through the regulatory regime when he decided to put Railtrack into administration. When will Railtrack come out of administration, and who will decide where that business will go? Will the European regulations on competition be implemented? We must be sure that our railways recover from the disaster of the past three months.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) on securing the debate on an important and topical matter. I am happy to deal with the points that he and his hon. Friends have made. I read with interest his article in The Independent on 2 January, entitled:

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Nothing that I have heard from the Opposition today would lead me to believe that they had a rational approach.

I was interested to see that the right hon. Member for Wokingham seated himself next to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the Opposition transport spokesman. Who is the authentic voice of the Tories on transport? The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar points at the right hon. Member for Wokingham, confirming that the right hon. Gentleman is the authentic voice.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked about the Chiltern line. The SRA has briefed my officials on the shape of the emerging franchise. The position is being finalised and I expect a formal request for approval shortly, which will be good news for many people.

The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) said that there were only two Labour Members present. I counted five at that time; there were as many Labour Members as Conservatives. Sadly, the hon. Gentleman is not here to hear that; he might read Hansard later, or his hon. Friends may tell him what I have said.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of the current strikes. The Government believes that disagreements over pay should not lead to strikes, especially in vital public services, because they cause great inconvenience to the public and will not contribute to railway recovery. I hope that both sides will get round the table and resolve those matters very soon. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) was advocating militancy and strikes. I look forward to hearing about him sorting out those problems with beer and sandwiches in the North Wiltshire Tory headquarters.

Mr. Gray : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson : I will not give way because I want to respond to several points. The right hon. Member for Wokingham made a point about the £4.5 billion provided for the SRA, alleging that that was extra funding. All the elements of that so-called extra funding have been previously announced and have been public knowledge for some time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke with great clarity and graphically outlined some of the difficulties and the strengths of the rail system in her area. She recognised that many improvements had taken place, and spoke about the integration of buses, road and rail. I can say to her and to the right hon. Member for Wokingham that local authorities have received substantial sums of money for local transport integration. My hon. Friend mentioned staff being poached from one company to another; an issue also mentioned obliquely when the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) spoke about the shortage of staff to carry out necessary work. The Department for Education and Skills has its framework skills strategy and the Strategic Rail Authority has its concept of a national rail academy, both of which should help to address the serious skills shortages.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about the line from Shrewsbury through to Machynlleth, which is vital to the future economic success of Wales, to the

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university of Aberystwyth and to tourism. The Government want progress made on that line as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman articulated the problem; it is a matter not of funding, but of finding people with the right skills to carry out the work. One reason why people may have been pulled away from such projects—only temporarily, I hope—is the massive underinvestment in other parts of the railway system, which has drawn some of the requisite expertise elsewhere.

Does the right hon. Member for Wokingham recognise this scenario:

Mr. Redwood indicated assent.

Mr. Jamieson : I see that he does. So he should, as he made those comments in another article in 1996. There was no Labour Government then; he was talking, after 17 years of Tory government, about a lack of investment. To hear Conservative Members today, one would think that the rail industry was in a state of terminal decline. We heard Mr. Doom, Mr. Gloom and others from the Conservative side.

It would be helpful to hear an alternative viewpoint, so let me remind Conservative Members of some facts, however unpalatable they may find them. In the financial years 1999-2000 and 2000-01, total investment in the railways increased by 29 per cent. Over the past four years, the total length of the railway network increased by 20 per cent. In the four weeks before Christmas last year, record passenger numbers were registered.

One reason why more people are on the railways, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Grayling), is that a million more people are working in this country, leading to more economic activity and greater use of the railways.

Equipping trains with the train protection warning system is proceeding apace, with 33 per cent. of trains already fitted. It is expected to rise to 75 per cent. by the end of the year, with the remainder completed by 2003. Numerous station improvements are also in progress or have already been carried out.

On 19 December, the Strategic Rail Authority set out its revised franchising programme to deliver short and long-term improvements to passengers. It is realistic, reflects the experience of users and strikes a balance between securing early gains for passengers that will make a real difference and longer-term investment. Last spring, the franchising programme was bogged down by delay, inactivity and lack of focus; today it is back on track. The rail industry welcomes the initiative and we now look to the train-operating companies to co-operate with the SRA to deliver improvements and restore public confidence.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham might like to hear what Michael Holden, the Railtrack southern regional director, wrote in a recent article.

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In the dark, cold days of the new year, we look for a little light relief, levity or even uplift, but I never thought that I would read about levitating trains, which the right hon. Gentleman's article mentions. In a breathtaking analysis, he says that steel wheels are heavy, hard and pummel the rails and that there are too many gradients and bends on our rails. With that clear, critical and intellectual analysis, I can see why the Opposition are in such a muddle—

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair): Order. Time is up. I ask all hon. Members who are not staying for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly.

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