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Travel Concessions (Young Persons)

Dr. Phyllis Starkey accordingly presented a Bill to permit local authorities to include persons at or under the age of 25 in travel concession schemes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 April, and to be printed [Bill 82].

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Opposition Day

[7th Allotted Day]


Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.42 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I beg to move,

I shall begin by agreeing with the Secretary of State that the state of British railways is, as he said, "unacceptable". With some justification, right hon. and hon. Members can point to the failure of past Governments to invest adequately in our railways as a possible cause. No doubt that was even true of past Liberal Governments. Past investment has, at times, been lamentable. With justification, many right hon. and hon. Members will also point to the problems of fragmentation caused by aspects of rail privatisation. Criticism may also be levelled, as it was by the head of the Strategic Rail Authority on Tuesday, at some of the management of our railways system—notwithstanding the excellent work done by many railway staff.

The Liberal Democrats accept that past underinvestment, privatisation and some poor management have all undoubtedly played a part in the current rail crisis. However, we have had a Labour Government for nearly five years and it is reasonable to question what they have done in that time to seek to rectify the problems of our railways. Have the Labour Government improved the situation or has it got worse? Public opinion is clear. The YouGov poll in The Mail on Sunday last weekend showed that 70 per cent. of people believe that the situation on our railways has got worse since Labour were elected in 1997.

I acknowledge that not all is bad; for example, there has been an increase in passenger numbers and in private investment in the railways, and the Strategic Rail Authority has been established. However, we also note that between 2000 and 2001 train delays increased by 70 per cent., meaning that, collectively, passengers wasted at least 4,600 years last year waiting for delayed trains. Cancellations increased by 45 per cent. in the same period. There is massive overcrowding—39 per cent. of rail journeys are overcrowded; as I pointed out yesterday, it is somewhat bizarre that the Government have introduced legislation to tackle the overcrowding of chickens but have taken no action to reduce the overcrowding of humans on trains.

The Government have said that they want our stations to be safer. They are right. Train use will not be encouraged if people have to wait in unlit, unstaffed stations at night, if information is inadequate, or if car parks are insecure. However, although the Government announced a secure station initiative in 1998, nothing was done. As a result, only about 120 of the 2,500 railway stations have so far achieved accreditation. At that rate, it will take a staggering 76 years before all stations are deemed safe.

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What about affordability? Britain's railways are the most expensive in Europe—almost the most expensive in the world. In this country, passengers can travel, on average, 55 miles for £10. That compares with 128 miles in France and 806 miles in the Czech Republic for the same amount. Under the ridiculously complex fares structure through which passengers must wade, many of our fares are excessive; yet the Government have made no serious attempt to tackle that problem.

We need a safe, reliable and affordable railway system but we do not have one.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government need to get a grip because the problem affects our reputation abroad? It affects investment in this country and the perceptions of foreign business and our trading partners when they see a railway system that does not deliver. Does my hon. Friend agree that the sooner there is a safe and correct decision on the London underground and the sooner there is investment, commitment and action as regards the rail network, the sooner the City, the business community—the chambers of commerce and the CBI—will feel that they can go back to selling Britain abroad, as they want to do and as I hope the whole House wants them to do?

Mr. Foster: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Despite our criticisms of the current state of the railways, I hope that all hon. Members want our railways to succeed for the very reasons given by my hon. Friend. I certainly agree that not only must we have a quick decision from the Secretary of State on the London underground but it must be the right decision. I very much welcome the suggestion made today by the right hon. Gentleman that he may be more prepared than heretofore to consider alternative proposals—including the one first made by the Liberal Democrats—for a bond issue arrangement for the London underground.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I am sure all hon. Members in the Chamber want the railways to succeed, but would that be helped if passengers took the advice of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten)? On Meridian television, on Sunday at lunchtime, the hon. Gentleman advised people to break the law by refusing to show their tickets to railway staff. Is it right to incite passengers to break the law and to take out their frustration on the hard-working staff of the railways?

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the legal requirement is to have a valid ticket for travel. He will also be aware that many rail passengers are extremely fed up with the current state of our railways and the Government's failure to tackle it. I suspect that on 1 March many of them will find some way—whether through the suggestion of my hon. Friend or in some other way—to make known their concern about the current crisis and to put pressure on the Government. I note with interest and some pleasure that later today the Secretary of State is to meet some representatives of the passengers who are so deeply worried about the situation on the railways.

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. Foster: I will a little later, but I want to make some progress.

As the Secretary of State said just two days ago in the House, we do not have a railway system that is fit for the 21st century. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's candour then, and the candour that he showed earlier today when he was asked why Lord Birt had been brought in to advise on the railways. The right hon. Gentleman's succinct reply—that it keeps him occupied—betrays a great deal.

Even more forthright than the Secretary of State was the Minister for Europe, who told The Spectator magazine that we had the worst railways in Europe. Rail passengers are only too well aware of the problems of delays, cancellations, overcrowding and excessive fares. No wonder they are lobbying the Secretary of State later today.

Sadly, however, some information about the state of our railways is being denied to passengers. The Government seem unwilling to provide some very important facts. Just before Christmas, I submitted some 200 parliamentary questions about the state of the railways. The House may be interested in some of the replies.

I asked, for example, about collisions involving mark 1 rolling stock—the slam-door carriages. The Department answered by suggesting that the information was not available, yet I assure the Secretary of State that it can be found on page 94 of the Health and Safety Executive's annual safety report. The data show that, of the 106 train collisions that occurred in 2000–01, 58 were due to trains colliding with the open door on a slam-door carriage.

I also asked for a regional breakdown of speed restrictions, but the Department again felt unable to oblige. However, discussions with the train operating companies, and the data that they have supplied, mean that we know that the information is available.

I asked also for details of the proportion of track that does not meet minimum required standards. I was told that the information was not available to that level of detail. That was an odd response, as the information can be found in Railtrack's network management statement.

Many of my questions referred to safety improvements. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that restoring confidence in the safety of our railways is crucial. Safety recommendations must be implemented swiftly and the public must be kept informed of progress on implementation.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does the hon. Gentleman share the concern of many people in south Wales about the reports that emerged over Christmas and the new year regarding the condition of the track bed on the line between London, Swansea and Cardiff, which is subsiding? Does he share my concern, with regard to safety, that the Strategic Rail Authority's plan, published

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this week, makes no mention of any work being done on the line in the next 10 years? We will have to wait half a century before that line is upgraded.

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