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Network Rail

4. Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): If he will make a statement on the accountability of Network Rail. [63714]

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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): As I set out in my statement last week, Network Rail will be accountable to its members as well as to the rail regulator. Its board and management will be incentivised to meet performance targets and its outputs will be aligned to the Strategic Rail Authority's strategic plan. It will also have obligations under its network licence both to its funders and its customers.

Chris Grayling: Is it true that the National Audit Office has ruled that Network Rail should be treated as a public sector body?

Mr. Darling: The position is exactly as I set out when the hon. Gentleman asked the same question last week; nothing has changed. The NAO has said that Network Rail's accounts will appear on the books of the Strategic Rail Authority. That means that the accounts will be transparent and open. Everyone will see where the money is going and how it is being spent; something one could not always say with Railtrack. It seems to be an entirely sensible arrangement, so that we see where the money is going and the benefit coming from it.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): In view of the great skills shortages in the railway industry, will the Secretary of State spell out exactly what requirement Network Rail will be given to make sure that we make up for the great gaps in the key jobs in technical and other areas that we need to build a railway fit for the 21st century?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are skills shortages in engineering across the board, but particularly in transport and the railway industry. The Strategic Rail Authority is concerned about that and is consulting on setting up a national scheme—an academy—to increase the amount of skills available to the industry. As I said to a meeting with the railway industry today, it is important that we as a Government play our part, together with the SRA. It is important also that the industry does more to sell the career opportunities that undoubtedly exist in this important industry.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): How will Network Rail be held to account if, within a reasonable period, Lord Cullen's recommendations on standards and monitoring of maintenance contractors are not in place? Given that, in his speech today, the Secretary of State said that this issue needed to be sorted out, what is he doing to sort it out and what will he be requiring of Network Rail?

Mr. Darling: I have met John Armitt, the chief executive of Railtrack, and I have impressed upon him the importance of making sure that there is end-to-end accountability in relation to the operation of contractors. I repeat that it is not the use of contractors that is the problem, because contractors were used in the British Rail days and, indeed, have been used throughout industry. The problem is that although the processes for checking that someone ought to have done something are often in place, in too many cases nobody actually checks whether the job has been done and done safely. I know that John Armitt is concerned about that and, as I said to the industry today, I want to make sure that Network Rail and

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the other operators are far more firmly focused on the importance of safety and that they make sure that their subcontractors do what they are supposed to do.

I have said today that, later this month, I shall publish proposals for setting up the rail accident and emergency board that Lord Cullen recommended. I am anxious that we have, for the first time, an independent investigative body that can find out what happens and learn lessons as quickly as possible.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Will Network Rail become responsible for the decisions of Railtrack, such as the electrification of the Hastings to Ashford line that it had promised?

Mr. Darling: Network Rail will be responsible for the ownership and maintenance of the track. Under the Transport Act 2000, the Strategic Rail Authority was set up to bring together the railway industry and to provide some coherence in relation to its planning. As I mentioned last week, there are a number of railway projects that the SRA is looking at, with Network Rail and the train operating companies, to make sure that the money that we spend is spent rather more effectively than it is at present.

Among the problems that are striking from the legacy of Railtrack are not only the massive debts but the fact that there are too many projects for which the costs and the scale were not properly examined, resulting in things falling behind. The advantage of Network Rail is that it is completely focused on maintaining and improving the railway network and is there to carry out the objectives set by the Strategic Rail Authority and to ensure that we have greater coherence in the railway system.

If my hon. Friend wants to pursue the specific matter of the route to Hastings, along which I travelled last summer, I will be happy to oblige him, but I do not have time to go into the details now.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Does the Secretary of State share my relief that nobody was hurt in the train accident at Lawford in my constituency earlier this week? Does he also share my concern that, had there been a derailment and a passenger train involved, as in a similar accident at Great Heck last year, there could have been fatalities once again? I welcome his announcement that there will be independent rail accident investigation, which I first called for before the Cullen inquiry reported. How many times will he have to make this announcement before it actually goes ahead? Two Queen's Speeches ago, the Government announced that there would be a rail safety Bill, but we are still waiting for it.

Mr. Darling: As far as I am aware, I have announced proposals to set up the rail accident investigation board only once, and that was this morning. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomed it.

On the accident that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, fortunately it was possible for one freight train approaching the lorry to stop in time, although unfortunately it was not possible to stop the other approaching freight train. It was indeed lucky that there were not more serious injuries and that the lorry driver was away from his lorry by the time that it happened. I am sure that the industry will learn from this case. On

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the broader point, we all consider it important to get an independent investigatory service as quickly as we possibly can.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, for accounting purposes, Network Rail will be treated as a subsidiary of the Strategic Rail Authority?

Mr. Darling: I do not know whether the hon. Lady is hard of hearing or whether she was not paying attention last week. I have today confirmed what I said in my statement last Thursday, namely, that the National Audit Office has decided that Network Rail's accounts will appear on the books of the Strategic Rail Authority. That means that we can see where the money is going and how it is being spent: something that did not happen under Railtrack, which, as far as I know, she still thinks is a good thing—she must be about the only one in Britain who still does.

Mrs. May: Protest as the Secretary of State may, the one question that he refuses to answer is whether Network Rail will be treated as a subsidiary of the Strategic Rail Authority. Its business will be included in the SRA's accounts and its £21 billion of funding will be backed by the taxpayer, but still he tries to spin that it is not a Government body—that it is nothing to do with the Government. Meanwhile, not a penny of that £21 billion has been set aside for real improvements to network capacity and hence to services for passengers. The spin continues: £21 billion of taxpayers' money and no real improvements—is that what he calls a fresh start?

Mr. Darling: I took the trouble to read what the hon. Lady has said over the past few months, and I cannot be the only one who is still none the wiser as to what her policy on the railways actually is. Railtrack could not carry on trading. It had left about £7 billion of debt, it had come to the Government asking for more money, it had asked for a suspension of the regulatory regime and it was asking us to underwrite its share values. No one in their right mind could have thought that that was a viable proposition to keep Railtrack going.

As I said last week, no matter who took over from Railtrack, it would be necessary to provide the finance to take over its debt, to meet the cost overruns and to ensure that there is money to spend day to day on the railways.

Yes, the Government have made sure that the Strategic Rail Authority can provide credit facilities, without which there would be no successor to Railtrack. I respectfully suggest to the Conservatives that it is high time that they cared more about future investment in the railways, rather than trying to go over old ground. Frankly, in doing so they expose the bankruptcy of their thinking, and remind the country yet again that it was the Tories who introduced Railtrack and this botched privatisation, which has left so much mess and damage. It is us who are rebuilding and ensuring that new investment is going into the industry.

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