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10 Dec 2002 : Column 161continued
Mr. Darling: I agree that transport policy has to be balanced. We have to invest in sensible road improvementsalthough nobody is suggesting that we should return to the widespread motorway programmes of the 1960sbut we also need to invest in public transport. I am glad that my hon. Friend acknowledged that.
I have said on many occasions since I started doing this job that road pricing needs to be debatedit is a subject that people tend to shy away from. There are two problems. The first is whether it is a feasible proposition, as we are talking about nearly 25 million cars, and nowhere in the world has such a proposition been tackled. The second is whether it would be technically possible. I have enough experience as a Minister with large IT projects to be very wary of people who come along and say, XDon't worry, it'll be all right on the night." It does not quite work that way.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): My former pupil, the Secretary of State, has scored good marks on this test. Although I regret that he has not seen fit to build a Salisbury bypass, he has taken the right decision on Stonehenge. The fact that there is to be a deep-bore tunnel will put at rest the minds of many archaeologists, for a start. I hope that we can now speed up the process. Is he confident, however, that the unseemly row between English Heritage and the National Trust over the tunnel can be resolved? I will be happy to oblige if I can help. Can I take it at face value when he says that the A303 east of Ilminster will be dualledand that that will include bypasses not only for Winterbourne Stoke but for Chicklade?
Mr. Darling: I remember that the hon. Gentleman tried to teach me geography for a short time, but I cannot remember whether Stonehenge was included in the syllabus. I am grateful to him for his welcome. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport had a meeting with the National Trust this morning and explained that the Government, having discussed the matter with all the interested parties for some time, have come to the concluded view that a 2.1 km bored tunnel is the right way forward. I very much hope that the National Trust, and everybody else involved, can now accept that and get on with it. Any one who has been to Stonehenge will be amazed that, in this day and age, we still have a busy road
I want to ensure that the rest of the A303 is dualled. We are now asking the Highways Agency to work up proposals. Clearly, plans will need to be developed and planning consents sought, but I want to get on with it as quickly as possible. As the House well knows, because of the fact that there are many people along the route who will want to have their say, getting planning permission can be a complex business.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): The whole House should welcome this major public investment in road and rail. I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend made about the strategic road network carrying about two thirds of our freight, but will he reaffirm the Government's commitment to major investment in rail freight? I am sure that he agrees that rail freight should not be seen as the Cinderella of the railway business. Will he confirm that the Government will continue to invest and to take all measures that they can to get freight off the roads and on to the railways?
Mr. Darling: The Government are determined to ensure that more freight is carried on railindeed, the amount carried on the railways has gone up by about 28 per cent. in the past five years. I certainly agree with the sentiments that my right hon. Friend expresses on rail freight, not least because of the fact that I am speaking at the Rail Freight Group's Christmas lunch tomorrow.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to expanding capacity on both roads and railways; that is sorely needed and it is a good idea. When looking at the need for capacity between the Thames valley and London, will he consider favourably noise-reducing surfaces and noise barriers along any sections of widened motorway that are close to human habitation? On the railways, will he look at better braking and signalling technologies to enable more trains per hour to run at peaks? We desperately need more peak rail capacity, and there is no room for extra track.
Mr. Darling: I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says on improving the quality of road surfaces. As existing roads come up for renewal, different surfaces are being applied to them to reduce noise, and new roads also have surfaces that cause a lot less noise. That makes a dramatic difference for drivers and, importantly, for people living alongside such roads. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, about a month ago the Strategic Rail Authority announced major changes to the franchising system. There will be one franchisee for most principal London stations, which will help to deal with some of the hold-ups that are currently encountered. Also, one objective of the review into railway capacity and making better use of railways is to ensure that we make more sensible use of train timetables. I hope that that, together with the gradual upgrading of signalling, will lead to a system that is far more reliable than the current one.
Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington): May I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement concerning the metrolink extensions in Manchester? As a result, the light rail system will come to my constituency for the first time, saving thousands of car journeys, particularly to local hospitals and to Manchester airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these additional routes will lead to other routes such as that through to Stockport via Didsbury being considered much sooner than would otherwise have been the case? Such routes will be welcomed by all the people of south Manchester.
Mr. Darling: The Manchester metro is an excellent example of what can be achieved by investing in public transport and providing a good alternative, so that people leave their cars at home and travel by metro. I am very glad that we were able to reach agreement with the various councils in Greater Manchester on additional funding to ensure that the three new routes are properly served. If the service works well and is delivered efficiently, I hope that we can move on. Where an existing metro is in place and substantial public investment has already been made, it makes sense to develop it further, if and when we can. However, the most important thing is to ensure that the new investment goes in, and that the new system works as effectively as possible.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Surely the Secretary of State cannot be satisfied that the main strategic road from eastern England to his own city of Edinburgh still has such a long and dangerous stretch of single carriageway. If he rests his case for that on the multi-modal study, why is he so lukewarm about the rail improvements contained in it, and why is Railtrack still blocking the reopening of stations such as Belford, which could take traffic off the road?
Mr. Darling: I am rather surprised to see the right hon. Gentleman on his feet, given the injunction imposed on him by the Liberal Democrats' finance spokesman, who said that they must stick to current budgets. The multi-modal study considered whether the A1 should be dualled to the Scottish border. It came to the view that it should not, but it did agree that a number of improvements were necessary. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned my home city of Edinburgh, and one of the things that may have influenced the study is that the Scottish Executive do not intend to dual the A1 north of the border. If we dualled it south of the border, the odd situation would arise of the road reverting to single carriageway the minute the line was crossed.
In fact, for many people living in Scotland's central belt, the principal route to the south is now down the M74 and the M6, rather than down the A1. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in calling for that road to be improved. It will be improved, and the Highways Agency will keep the whole matter under review in years to come, but I do not want to hold out false hopes, because that would not be fair to the right hon. Gentleman or his constituents. However, he should acknowledge that substantial improvements are on the way for the section to which I referred, and for the junctions, which I hope will be made safer.