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Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that he was absolutely right to take decisive action against Railtrack and that that is one of the reasons why the Tories squeal like busted pigs every day he comes to the House? [Hon. Members: "Busted pigs?"] Yes. Will he bear in mind that in the next 10 years, there is half a chance that one of the railway operating companies may suffer the same fate as Railtrack? My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that a company may fail to meet its commitments, but it may fail all together. Will my right hon. Friend have the resolve to do the same with that company as he did with Railtrack? Is there enough money in the 10-year plan for him to carry that out?
Mr. Byers: It would be inappropriate to try to speculate about the position of individual train operating companies. They have had some difficulty because of the nature of the franchises that were awarded under the Conservatives when they were in office. I do not know if my hon. Friend had certain Opposition Members in mind when he talked about busted pigs; there are probably several to choose from. The important thing is that the decision to place Railtrack into administration was taken by the High Court because of that company's inability to pay its debts, or potentially to pay its debts when they became due.
Since then, it is interesting that there has been a political outcry because, for the first time under this Government, the Thatcher-Major legacy of privatisation has been rolled back. That is what the Conservatives find so offensive. They are offended by the fact that one of their creations, Railtrack, has been taken into administration by the High Court. That is the problem for the Conservatives.
In reply to my hon. Friend, the strategic plan shows a real way forward. It is a pragmatic approach, not based on political dogma, but on a way of achieving real improvements for the travelling public.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Secretary of State has again whinged on and on about Railtrack. If it was such a disaster, why did his Government include Railtrack in the windfall tax when they came to office? Why after nearly 18 months did they take yet more money out of the company in September 1998? If it was such a disaster, why did they not insist that the money that the Treasury robbed from it was invested in the company?
Mr. Byers: This is a new line from the Conservative party. We are now being told that in 1998 the Treasury robbed Railtrack. Remember that Railtrack paid £700 million in dividends to shareholders during its period of privatisation. During the summer, it came to the Government asking for more money; indeed, we paid money under legal procedures to bring forward £1.5 billion at the beginning of October. Three days later, it paid £88 million in dividends to shareholders yet again. That showed Railtrack's priorities.
The problem with Railtrackit was the fundamental flawwas that it tried to serve two masters: its shareholders and the travelling public. However, in the end, its legal dutyits legal priorityhad to be to the shareholders; the directors in a quoted company had no option. They had to put the interests of shareholders first. As a result, the travelling public suffered.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I will resist asking a question about the west coast main line, as my right hon. Friend has agreed to come to a meeting of the all-party group tomorrow. I wish to refer to the mention in the plan of the National Rail Academy, a proposal on which I have been working for two years with partners in north Cumbria. Is it not a fact that we have a skills shortage involving up to 60,000 people on the railways? If that academy is not set up quickly, all of the proposals in the document will fail because there will not be the skilled workers to do the job.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of investing in skills and training for the railway industry. There is a chronic shortage of drivers; that is at the heart of some of the industrial disputes that we are seeing in parts of the country. There is a lack of skilled signallers, engineers and general support staff. We need investment across the board in the railway network, and the lack of skills is a direct consequence of the industry's short-term approach in the past. When people have had an opportunity to look at the strategic plan, they will see that our proposals are for the short and medium term, but they are also about long-term planning for the future. Part of that is investing in people and developing
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Is the Secretary of State aware that overcrowding on some commuter lines into Londonincluding Kent commuter lines, such as my local line from Orpingtonis now so grotesque that Connex South Eastern is contemplating removing the toilets from trains to squash in more people? Is he aware that, in the plan, there is nothing about new coaches that we did not already know and next to no detail about specific measures to deal with overcrowding? On the contrary, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, the plan contains delays to these schemes about which we did not know. For the commuter into Londonwho is, as the Secretary of State has said, the backbone of the economyis this not hope postponed?
Mr. Byers: The plan states clearly the time at which delivery will take place and at which there will be implementation. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the frankly unacceptable overcrowding on many services on London commuter routes in particular, as well as in certain other parts of the country. There is a plan to extend platforms so we can run longer trains. Waterloo will be covered by that, as will other main line stations in London and more than 60 in the south-east. That will make a real difference, but those improvements should have taken place years ago.
Mr. Byers: No, not just five years ago, but 20 or 30 years ago. They are now at last beginning to take place. The crucial thing about the strategic plan is that, in clear language and with a specific timetable, people will be able to see the dates at which they can expect the improvements to take place. There will be no more hiding. I said earlierOpposition Members did not like itthat we can have grand visions and great aspirations but, in the end, we must have specific commitments. These are the specific commitments on which we will be judged. We are not running away from them; this is what will be delivered.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): My right hon. Friend is right to identify lack of investment and privatisation as the main underlying causes of our difficulties. Is he aware that everyone who has the future of the railways at heart will welcome his statement today, including the reference to planned investment in Edinburgh Waverley? Does he accept that part of the problem with the structure is the degree of fragmentation introduced by privatisation, and the large number of private operators? Is it his intention to use the franchise process to reduce that fragmentation?
Mr. Byers: My right hon. Friend, who studies the industry and transport closely, is right to say that the two problems faced by the industry have been the lack of investment and the failed structure as a result of privatisation.
Richard Bowker, the new chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, makes a clear commitment in his introduction to the report. He says that he wants to use the franchising programme to achieve simplification and move away from fragmentation. He says:
London's main line stations provide a good example of that. Where there are competing franchises, individual platforms are often allocated to a particular operator, so a train may have to wait five or 10 minutes to pull into a platform even though a platform allocated to a rival operator is free the whole time. That happens a lot in Liverpool Street, as the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) may know, and as I know from personal experience when I come back from visiting my mother.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the Secretary of State finally put aside his criticisms of privatisation? If he is truly presenting the report, let me refer him to pages 48 and 52, where there is a ringing endorsement for both passenger and freight volume increases since privatisation in the 1990s. Will he take this opportunity to agree with that endorsement?
I have a simple question for the Secretary of State. When is a train not a train? When it is a bus service offered by Arriva between Thirsk and Newcastle. Will he take this opportunity to deplore the six-month removal of train services on that route by Arriva Northern?
The Secretary of State says that the investment planning programme for British railways is at the top of his agenda. Does he accept that the single most damaging action that he took was to remove, through his power of direction, the Rail Regulator that the Government introduced when they first came to power? Will he assure us, in an effort to encourage private investment in the railways, that he will guarantee never to remove the Rail Regulator's powers in the future?