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Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the plans for new capacity platform extensions to reduce overcrowding at stations in south-east England will include Reading station in my constituency? It is the second busiest station in the country outside London.

Can my right hon. Friend offer any hope at all about an upgrade for the Great Western line which, according to the document, is likely to occur at some time in the far mists of the future? Like me, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who speaks for the Opposition on transport matters, represents a Berkshire constituency and she knows that electrification in Berkshire has been

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denied on the ground that it is too windy in Cornwall. What hope can my right hon. Friend offer my constituents about an upgrade for the Great Western line?

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend is right to point out the significant increase in capacity and use that has taken place at Reading station. As a local Member of Parliament, she has been a fierce advocate for improvements in the quality of service from Reading.

The upgrade of the Great Western main line is addressed in the strategic plan, but it is one of those long-term projects that will take time. However, the good news in the plan is that the work is beginning to ensure that we will be in a position—if the plan is deemed to be value for money and feasible—to give it the go-ahead and to be implemented towards the end of, if not slightly beyond, the 10-year plan.

A number of improvements for platform extensions have been proposed. About 60 stations will be covered by that provision, and I will write to my hon. Friend specifically about the position in Reading.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): The Secretary of State will know that the proposed Central Railway project will have a significant impact on the ability of the Chiltern line to deliver the improvements promised in the strategy. Can I take it that the absence of any mention of Central Railway in the document means that that project will not figure in his or the SRA's future strategy?

Mr. Byers: Detailed consideration is still being given to the Central Railway proposal, so it was too early to be able to say anything specific about it in the strategic plan.

Negotiations are almost concluded on the renewal of the Chiltern franchise. I agree and hope that they will be concluded in the very near future. I know that it is one of the routes that has offered a good service to the travelling public, so we must ensure that we can build on that service. At the moment, it is one of the most reliable in terms of punctuality and lack of cancellations. We must ensure that it retains that position as one of the premier franchises in the country.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a great shame that the Prime Minister declared in 1997 that the railways were not a priority for this Government? Those of us who campaigned for a separate rail authority for Wales and Scotland feel very badly let down by the content of the statement. According to the Wales Transport Research Centre, the proposed investment is one fifteenth of what would be required to upgrade and improve services in Wales.

This is a bad day for Wales and Scotland. I do not know anything about busted pigs, or whatever the phrase was, but this statement is unlikely to save the Secretary of State's bacon.

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman has had an hour and 18 minutes to think of that one, although I do not know whether it was worth the effort.

I understand from personal experience the need for good rail travel in Wales and I am the first to accept that it is not good enough at present. However, when people have had an opportunity to consider the details in the plan,

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they will see that, through the new franchise and through the vale of Glamorgan proposals, there are initiatives that will make a real difference. As I said in my statement, this is not both a start and an end; it is a beginning and we will need to build on it for the future. That is very important. If there are issues in Wales and more investment is needed, they can be addressed in the Welsh Assembly, as I am sure they will be.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, in 1997—let us be clear about this—the priorities were to get our public finances on to a sound footing to ensure that we could subsequently have long-term investment. That is needed more in transport than in any other area. It is no good having a one-off splurge of investment in transport that lasts a year or two. It needs year-on-year investment and that will be delivered through the strategic plan.

The people's priorities in 1997 were education and health, which were delivered.

Bob Russell: And getting rid of the Tories.

Mr. Byers: As well as getting rid of the Tories. It was recognised that, to improve education and health, we had to get rid of the Tories. The people did that, but their priorities were education and health. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is right to point out that the priorities now are not just education, health and fighting crime, but transport and the railways in particular.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): I welcome the statement, but does my right hon. Friend accept that although Virgin's new trains may come some day—it has been promising them for a long time—it is not reasonable for passengers to continue to travel in carriages that are dirty, badly maintained and falling apart and with decrepit buffet bar equipment? Does he agree that Virgin should not fail to maintain equipment while waiting for new rolling stock?

Mr. Byers: Obviously, operating companies need to deliver on their obligations under their franchise. I understand my hon. Friend's concerns as a representative of a north Wales constituency. However, there will be improvements as a result of the strategic plan and the new franchise proposals for Wales and the borders, which will cover north Wales. She is right to point out that old rolling stock is being used on too many routes, but there are plans to replace it. There is also an obligation under existing franchise agreements to keep it in a fit and suitable condition.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): With the midland main line running down one side of my constituency and the east coast main line running down the other, the Secretary of State is more than welcome to bring his fighting talk to my constituents at the next general election, in whatever capacity he serves. Indeed, my constituents would count it as a double whammy if he were Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

On returning to work the other week, my constituents who commute from Bedford faced a rise of more than 25 per cent. in car parking charges. I do not think that they are alone in that. Such an increase is hardly

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encouraging for commuters, and it does not encourage people to leave their cars and get back on the train. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that car parking at stations, and the problems attendant on car parking around stations, which is a problem on the other side of my constituency, will be a serious priority for consideration in his strategic blue-sky vision for the railways of the future?

Mr. Byers: Blue-sky thinking is not something in which I indulge; I would much rather get on with the nitty-gritty of delivering. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the state of car parks, which he voiced on behalf of his constituents. The hon. Member for Maidenhead dismissed the improvements that we will see in 1,000 stations. One of those improvements will be to car parks. We will not just improve toilets, which seem to obsess the hon. Lady, but provide better lighting and CCTV, and ensure that proper information is given to the travelling public, which is badly needed.

All those improvements, and car parking is among them, will be made to 1,000 railway stations. Although they are particular improvements, they form only a small part of the overall plan. I know that much has been made of it, but well over £60 billion is being spent on railway investment. The fact that a few hundred million is being spent on improvements to 1,000 stations gets the balance about right.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Given the Secretary of State's acceptance that transport is essential to regional economic regeneration, what role does he see for the North West Development Agency and the north-west regional assembly in securing improvements for transport in the north-west? Is he aware that the Central Railway project will be very much welcomed in the north-west?

Mr. Byers: I am aware of support for the Central Railway project in the north-west and other parts of the country. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), a good deal of detailed work is going on in respect of the Central Railway proposal. I agree with my hon. Friend that a good, effective and efficient railway system is crucial for regional economic regeneration. It is significant that in relation to the consultation on the new franchising for the trans-Pennine franchise, the SRA said that it will speak to and consult not just the passenger transport authorities in the areas affected but the regional development agencies and regional assemblies as well.

It is important that we ensure that all those with a relevant interest feel that franchises are being developed in a way that reflects their own priorities. In the discussions that we had last year about changing the franchise process, I was struck by the fact that the franchises had not been used to drive up standards and deliver for passengers, and that that had taken place in a sort of secret garden world, where there had been no consultation about what might be achieved. I hope that we can move away from that and ensure that organisations such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend will be involved in the future.

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