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Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The National Rail Academy will, in the medium and long term, make a real difference. However, there is a pressing problem now, which is why the strategic plan makes it clear that the SRA will be closely involved in the training organisation for the railways which is already established. The authority may not have played as big enough part as was necessary but that will change. Through that training

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organisation, which has the involvement of all sectors of the railway industry, we will see great improvements in training and the development of skills.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I draw the Secretary of State's attention to page 70 of the document, which says:

That will not happen unless he and the SRA enter into a section 54 undertaking. Will he give that commitment today?

Mr. Byers: What I will do is look carefully at the matter, write to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I think that would be the best way forward.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am absolutely delighted with the statement in the plan that the vale of Glamorgan railway line will go ahead, and that it will do so on time. However, given the timetable and the fact that new franchises are to be drawn up for Wales and the borders, it is unlikely that the new franchisee will be in place before the line is up and running. Will my right hon. Friend ask the SRA to ensure that, in any new franchise bids, new rolling stock is specified by the successful company for the provision of that minimum service on the new vale of Glamorgan line?

Mr. Byers: I am pleased to receive the welcome for the vale of Glamorgan line—linking, as it does, Barry and Bridgend. That will make a real difference and open up passenger services.

My hon. Friend also points out the importance of the Wales and the borders franchise. He will be aware that the chairman of the SRA visited Cardiff—I think it was last week—to talk with the First Minister, the right hon. Rhodri Morgan, and Members of the Welsh Assembly about the franchising. The chairman reassured them about the timing of the letting of that franchise, which will be in the early part of next year in line with commitments that the Labour party has made in Wales. That is to be welcomed. I shall draw to the attention of the SRA the specific point raised by my hon. Friend as to the need for appropriate rolling stock to be in place.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Secretary of State will probably be aware that the summary document refers to the completion of the project to extend South West Trains suburban platforms by 2004. However, the company told me that it is extremely unlikely that that project can be completed before 2007. Can the right hon. Gentleman explain that discrepancy? What reassurance can he give commuters in my area that the project will be completed sooner than the company believes?

Mr. Byers: The point to remember is that, at present, there are heads of agreement between the SRA and South West Trains about the details of its franchise agreement. Negotiations between them are continuing, so we should take what is being said with a little pinch of salt. The point is well made, however, that if we are serious about reducing overcrowding on those London and south-east commuter routes—especially in areas such as the one covered by South West Trains—the extension of railway

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platforms needs to go ahead quickly and as soon as possible. That is how we can increase capacity—adding more cars to each service. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I shall raise the issue with the SRA and South West Trains to try to obtain a firmer commitment. That commitment will come about as part of the franchise negotiations between South West Trains and the SRA.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): There is much detail in the document that I welcome—as I welcome Richard Bowker's commitment to be a railways champion. However, will my right hon. Friend address my concern that the priorities in the programme do not do a great deal to tackle the north-south divide in the economy? One of the important ways to deal with that is by establishing a northern economy whereby people in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, Cumbria and the whole of the north can travel quickly, cleanly, reliably and easily between all their cities, just as people can do in Greater London. Will my right hon. Friend address my concerns as we work through the strategic rail document?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out that there would be a danger if the strategic plan was only about addressing our—real—concerns about commuter routes in London and the south-east. However, the plan does much more than that. When Members have been able to go through the details and to consider, franchise by franchise, the improvements that can be expected—how we expect to use the rail performance fund and the rail passenger partnership fund—they will see that there are a range of opportunities that will lead to improvements for the regional network. I personally believe that the trans-Pennine franchise, which affects my hon. Friend's constituents in Sheffield and links Lancashire with the north-east of England, will make a very real difference, not just to the benefit of the travelling public but to regenerating the economy in those areas.

The important message that underlies the strategic plan is that railways are not just about the convenience of the travelling public; they are also very important to economic regeneration and improving the competitive position of British business. That is not just an issue for London and the south-east, where the economy is doing well; we must ensure that the benefits of a growing economy are experienced by every region, as well as by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that the measures contained in the strategic plan will contribute to achieving those objectives.

Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the Secretary of State agree that the proposals to abolish Anglia Railways will lead to fewer trains serving Ipswich, Colchester and London? Following his observation about strengthening the regions, will he support the proposal to re-instate the direct rail link between Colchester and Cambridge, via the existing Sudbury branch line?

Mr. Byers: Again, on the Colchester to Cambridge link, I shall consider the details and perhaps reply in writing to the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the concern in the eastern region about the proposal to move to one franchise holder. The editor of the Eastern Daily Press last week raised with me the effect that that might have.

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It is important that we use the franchising process to deliver specific commitments, so that, for example, Colchester, Ipswich, Stowmarket, Diss and Norwich will not be adversely affected by any change that might take place. That is particularly important given the discussion about improvements to commuter links. Of course, many people commute from those towns and cities. Although that service has improved in recent years, it can still be improved significantly beyond what has been achieved so far. We need to build on those improvements in the future, which will involve making specific commitments in the franchising process to ensure that those towns and cities benefit from any change that might take place.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at the end of the day, the people whom we represent do not really care very much whether the rail system is controlled privately or publicly? They care whether it is efficiently controlled. I very much welcome the strategic plan, but does he agree that the real challenge and problem that we face is ensuring that the quality of the management that runs the private sector franchise companies and whatever replaces Railtrack is highly effective and includes the best calibre of manager that we can find? There has been a history of poor managers in the railway industry—whether public or private—and this country and the people who work in the rail industry deserve the very best managers to lead them.

Mr. Byers: The dedication and motivation of people working in the railway industry needs to be seen to be believed. What has struck me is that, in a difficult period for people in the railway industry, they have been motivated and committed to trying to improve and provide the best possible service to railway passengers. They have been let down by the structure in which they have had to work, and one of my commitments is to ensure that they have a structure in which they can work that reflects their own commitments as individuals, and we can produce that situation.

Management has not been good enough in the past. That point has been made today by the chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, and it is made very strongly in the strategic plan itself. An effective management must be in control of an industry that is key to the future of the United Kingdom's economy and to the comfort and convenience of travelling passengers and that employs 130,000 people. So changes will be necessary, and we must give the relevant people and organisations the support that they will need to carry out those changes, which will be difficult, but will provide the management that the industry needs for the future.

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