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Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Let me make a plea. Clearly, many right hon. and hon. Members want to ask a question. If both questions and answers can be kept briefer, more may catch my eye.

Mr. Byers: I will do my best, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The role of the regulator can be changed only by this House and the House of Lords, not by any unilateral action taken by the Secretary of State.

I have made it clear that Railtrack was the failed privatisation. Some aspects of privatisation have brought improvements, and those are referred to in the strategic plan. We must be very robust in ensuring that we are as

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tough with the private sector if it fails as we would be with anyone in the public sector, where we rightly take action.

The Thirsk-Newcastle situation is a good example of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) about people not delivering on their franchise. It is a clear illustration of a company with a railway franchise not delivering on its obligations. I hope that when the Strategic Rail Authority considers that franchise replacement it will examine very carefully the extent to which Arriva has delivered on its obligations.

The problem with train drivers has come about because of the short-term approach to the industry, with more than 1,000 drivers lost at the time of privatisation and the failure to invest in drivers over the past few years. Arriva has left it very late in the day to realise that a train needs a driver. It is not rocket science. It is pretty simple and straightforward, and all the franchise operators need to recognise their obligation to deliver on their obligations.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): The Secretary of State will agree that the SRA started weakly. Is he satisfied that the new management will make it a success? Can he give a guarantee to all the people who live in the conurbations of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Greater Leeds and Greater Newcastle that one of the next key objectives will be to get the new franchise issued for that area, so that services can be upgraded?

Mr. Byers: I believe that the SRA with Richard Bowker as the new chairman will be a different body from the previous one. At last, we will have an SRA that has a strategic plan, which we did not have before today. On the specifics of the trans-pennine franchise, I hope that speedy progress can be made. People not only in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York and Newcastle, but those in Sheffield, Bradford and what one might call the outlying areas, including Hull, Blackpool and the Lancashire towns, will benefit from that franchise. It will make a huge difference. It is important that we use the franchising process as an opportunity to raise the standards and improve the quality of rail provision in all parts of the country.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The private sector company Virgin is making a massive investment in new trains on the west coast main line. However, to deliver any extra capacity on that line, it must be able to run 11 trains an hour. The current capacity is nine trains an hour. When will we be able to have 11 trains an hour on the west coast main line?

Mr. Byers: As the right hon. Gentleman may be aware, discussions are taking place between Railtrack, the SRA and Virgin about the details of the west coast main line update. As I said in my statement, the new management of Railtrack is revealing a depth of mismanagement of the project that is breathtaking in its failure to deliver. Details of that will no doubt be made available in the near future. I spoke to Sir Richard Branson on Friday about the west

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coast main line and his commitment is clear. As the right hon. Gentleman said, Virgin has made a huge investment in new rolling stock.

Michael Fabricant: That's a private sector company.

Mr. Byers: Absolutely. That is the private sector doing well and investing. The private sector in the form of Railtrack failed to deliver, and that is why the distinction needs to be made. The privatisation that was Railtrack failed on the west coast main line upgrade. The private sector company Virgin, which is investing its own money, deserves a licence operator that delivers. That is why I make the distinction between some private sector companies that do well and some that do not. I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that we want a west coast main line that is working well, that can shorten journey times and increase capacity. I know from my experience of using that route that it is a well used one. More people want to use it and they will do so, when the new rolling stock goes in and after the upgrade that is so badly needed.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Is my right hon. Friend aware that when the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) was asked on this morning's "Today" programme what her party would have done, she said that in 1997 it would have begun to re-examine the structures of Railtrack. As Railtrack came into being only in 1996, is not it clear that the Opposition's commitment to and belief in Railtrack is as specious and shallow as their commitment to a properly integrated public transport system?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his actions with regard to Railtrack and on highlighting the need for proper training structures in the railway industry. I welcome the establishment of the National Rail Academy, but will my right hon. Friend make part of every franchise the requirement that train operating companies make a proper commitment financially, and in their beliefs, to the funding of such an academy, so that we can begin to tackle the serious shortage of drivers and skilled platform staff?

Mr. Byers: I missed hearing the hon. Member for Maidenhead on "Today" this morning.

Glenda Jackson: It was a treat.

Mr. Byers: That is why I am sorry I missed it. I hope that the BBC can provide me with a recording so that we can think about the pearls of wisdom that often come from the hon. Lady.

On training, I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomes the idea of a National Rail Academy. She is right to point out that there is an opportunity to use the franchising process to ensure that the train operating companies make their contribution. The franchise for the midland main line does precisely that; it is the first time that a commitment to training has been a requirement in a franchise agreement. The SRA needs to consider making that a part of every franchise that it will let in the coming period.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): As the Secretary of State said, 70 per cent. of the investment in

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the plan is directed at London and the south-east of England. Out of 17 major identified projects, 11 are in London and the south-east. Indeed, London and the south-east get twice as much space in the document as the rest of the country put together. Is the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Transport for the whole country or Secretary of State for Transport for the south of England with regional appendages?

Just before that ringing bit in the statement about vague aspirations, long on rhetoric and short on delivery, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the lack of a rail link to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports; yet page 101 of the document does not give a specific commitment, but merely refers to an options appraisal study. So lest he be accused of vague aspirations, can the Secretary of State say whether there will be a rail link to Scotland's two major airports by 2010—yes or no?

Mr. Byers: I am responsible for all passengers. As 70 per cent. of passenger travel takes place in London and the south-east, it is no surprise that more than half the document addresses issues to do with those areas. However, I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to page 99, which deals specifically with the ScotRail proposals and gives details of what will be achieved. As I said in my statement, many of these proposals are priorities that are being addressed by the Scottish Executive and the Strathclyde passenger transport executive. That is the crucial point—these bodies will be working together.

I believe that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive will address the issues to do with Edinburgh and Glasgow airports. They are working on developing capacity—[Interruption.] My colleagues in Scotland will answer the specifics. They are also working on developing opportunities for rail links with Edinburgh and Glasgow airports.

I know that the hon. Gentleman had some doubts about whether to go to the Scottish Parliament or stay here, or whether he was going to retire. As a great advocate of devolution, he should realise that the point of it is that the Scottish Executive have the opportunity of being involved. I was pleased today to have the opportunity in my statement to address the real issues affecting rail travellers in Scotland. I ask people to look at page 99 of the document by way of example to see the real improvements that will come to rail passengers in Scotland.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As one who cannot claim to be a great advocate of devolution, may I ask my right hon. Friend what is the time scale regarding the urgent problems of training, not only in Scotland but throughout the rest of the United Kingdom? The academy to which he referred in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) is fine as far as it goes, but what hope for training can he hold out for the here and now?

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