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17 Dec 2002 : Column 718—continued

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): A paragraph of the helpfully produced statement refers to projects being Xmore tightly managed" and to costs being driven down. Having visited the RMT's quarterly conference in Perth earlier this year, I know that part of the difficulty is that there are fewer and fewer engineers who are capable of tight management. If, over the long term—this is a long-term matter—more rail engineers could be trained, that might solve part of the problem.

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that, especially during the Railtrack period, a

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number of railway engineers simply left or used other aspects of their engineering skills and were not available to the railways. I suspect that the industry will pay a heavy price for that for some time to come. The former Secretary of State for Transport set up the rail academy to try to encourage the training of more engineers. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is imperative that we encourage people into this career. With the right management and the right controls, the railways have a good future and should offer a very good career for someone with engineering skills—either a young person or somebody who is currently working elsewhere. The Government will do all that we can to help the industry to attract such people, because that is its future.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Secretary of State look into a perversity of the punctuality target system? For example, if a train on the Waterloo to Reading service is running late, an announcement is made to passengers that the train will not to stop at up to seven intermediate stations so that it can get to Reading on time, which completely disrupts and messes up their journey. I am sure that that was not intended. Do we not need a different system so that everyone can arrive on time, rather than just the few people going to the terminus?

Mr. Darling: As part of the franchising agreement, the SRA is looking at some of the perverse incentives in the system. It has also announced that the south-west line will be the first in Britain whose management—the day-to-day operation—will be the same for both the track and the train operator. The right hon. Gentleman may recall that one of the by-products of privatisation is that the track is managed separately from the trains, and that we have ended up with the absurd situation in which a train operator could see a fire on the line but could do nothing about it without contacting the track operator. On the south-west line, the SRA is trying out a new system with one general manager. That will be much better because it will begin to tackle one of the fundamental flaws of privatisation—the belief that the track and the trains have no relationship to each other. In reality, they are intimately related, so unitary management will be much better.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): In focusing public money on congestion hotspots, will my right hon. Friend look carefully at the marginal cost of car usage versus the marginal cost of public transport usage, especially when evaluating the London congestion charging scheme? The scheme is expected to generate an operating profit of #121 million next year, which could be set against the cost of public transport systems in the capital.

Mr. Darling: It is clear that the money raised from congestion charging schemes in London or elsewhere must go back into transport improvements. In general, the Government are keen to ensure that public transport is improved, and the Croydon tram scheme is an example. A lot of money was put into the scheme and it is working well. On my hon. Friend's central point,

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if money is to be raised from motorists by congestion charging, it must go back into improving public transport.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): After the privatisation nightmare of the Conservative years, it is hard to believe that things could actually get worse on the railways, but somehow the Government have conspired to achieve just that. Will the Secretary of State explain how the reduction in subsidy and the expected higher fares will attract more people on to the railways? What does he say to the hard-pressed rail users of Scotland who have already been short-changed by the SRA and who now face a further deterioration in their service?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is wrong: so far, the subsidy has not come down. Indeed, we have the opposite problem: many train operating companies are coming to us and asking for more and more money. On behalf of the Government and on behalf of people who pay taxes for such things, I have to say that we must be satisfied that the expenditure can be justified and that the companies need to take far tighter control of costs. In relation to the railways generally, it is worth bearing it in mind that, since 1997, they have carried about a quarter more passengers. Of course, there are problems in the system, which is why we need more investment. The hon. Gentleman represents a Scottish constituency, so he will know that, for example, the line to Inverness has been plagued by problems with landslips and so on. Many of the problems stem from successive underinvestment. That is why we are putting more money into the system, which the hon. Gentleman would be unable to do because of the policies espoused by his party.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): It is not the fault of the people of Sheffield that the bulk of their train services are provided by Virgin Cross Country, with its new trains and their lousy reliability, and Arriva Transpennine, which has pretty awful trains with even worse reliability. I am sure that the people of Sheffield would blame not my right hon. Friend's investment programme but the botched privatisation scheme of the previous Conservative Government. Will he urge the private companies to put things right, as they promised? They may deliver new services, yet Virgin's promised new half-hourly services regularly run up to an hour late on almost every route.

Mr. Darling: When the Virgin Cross Country service was introduced in September, it was generally welcomed because the quality of the rolling stock was a lot better; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) commented on it. That is worth noting, but the problems arise from two sources. First, there have been problems with the reliability of the new trains. Although teething problems are inevitable to some extent—British Rail had them and, I suppose, anyone would have them—sorting them out has taken longer than might have been thought.

The second thing, which is a serious problem throughout the railway network, relates to capacity, particularly in the midlands, where Virgin Cross Country trains encounter other mainline services. That problem arises with a fragmented railway system,

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because, under the present rules, which are about to change, people can say, XI want to run more trains on the railways; I am entitled to do it," without any regard to the knock-on effect on other operators.

Those things are being sorted out by the SRA, but although I accept what my hon. Friend says about the need to improve reliability, which is critical if we are to get more people on to the trains, we need to look at the underlying problems, and they are being looked at. However, it is welcome that those behind the industry want to transform cross-country services, which were pretty lousy in the old BR days, into something better. The difficulty is that we have a wee bit further to go before we can reach that happy position.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): After all the advance briefing and spin, the Secretary of State could not bring himself to say in the statement that the Government have abandoned the central target of cutting congestion. In its place, can he offer this prediction: will congestion be higher, lower or about the same in three years' time compared with today?

Mr. Darling: I would not have described the weekend's press as spin—not from my point of view, anyway. If that is the hon. Gentleman's idea of spin, I can understand why his party is in such difficulty at the moment. I have made no bones about the congestion target. It is hardly spin to tell XNewsnight" in an interview with Mr. Paxman that I did not think that we would hit the target. I was answering the question that was put to me. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) should have asked me that question in the House, but he did not. I do not know why.

I make no bones about the fact that, for the reasons that I have stated, I do not think that the congestion target will be reached in the expected time scale, but the amount of congestion would be spiralling out of control if we had not put such measures in place. Those measures will have a substantial impact on the growth that would otherwise have taken place, so I am being straightforward with hon. Members and the public. When Ministers realise that there is a problem in relation to such things, they should tell the House and the public generally because, frankly, what the public want to hear is not so much the recriminations about the whys and wherefores, but what we are doing to sort out the problem. Unlike the Conservative party, we have a plan, a programme and investment to sort it out.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today and particularly his confirmation that the transport plan involves substantial long-term investment. May I ask him whether he regularly assesses the transport plan's impact on climate change? In particular, does he consider that the review of the first 18 months of the plan that he has announced today will enhance the ability of UK transport to contribute to carbon dioxide emission reductions?

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