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17 Dec 2002 : Column 721continued
Mr. Darling: It is important that the transport plan, and everything that the Department for Transport does, has regard to our environmental obligations. That is one reason why the Department is keen to support and
Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what impact the proposals will have on the midland main line to Leicester and beyond, which has improved so much since privatisation? What impact will it have on the Leicester to Hinckley and Birmingham line? Does he not feel a deep sense of humiliation coming to the House this afternoon as a Labour Minister and presenting policies that reduce subsidies to railways, which his party has always gone on about as being so important? Is it not disingenuous to ignore the transport achievements that took place under Conservative Governments, such as the conception to completion of the M25 motorway system?
Mr. Darling: Nothing in principle; I just did not quite follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's question. The central point, I think, is that we need to maintain investment to improve the quality of services, and we will need to maintain investment in both road and rail. We do, however, need to control costs. If he asks me whether I have difficulties about controlling costs, my answer is no. Had the last Conservative Government had some regard to controlling costs, they might not have embarked on the privatisation of the railways in the way that they did. Without doubt, that contributed significantly to costs getting out of control in far too many cases.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my right hon. Friend accept that part of the way in which we ought to measure the 10-year plan is by how far it reduces the need and the desire of people to travel? Part of that is making sure that people can live and work much closer together, and the other part must be enabling people to walk or cycle to work. What is happening to the money to be spent on making it more attractive for people to walk and cycle?
Mr. Darling: On the latter point, it is important that local authoritiesmostly, they are responsiblepay particular attention to creating environments in which people feel safe when they want to walk or cycle to work. That is happening in a number of towns and cities, but more can be done. In relation to my hon. Friend's more substantive point, I understand the argument that we should try to locate people and their place of work closer together. During the 1970s and 1980s, many transport planners and town planners felt that that was possible.
I agree with my hon. Friend's first point, however, in relation to the attractiveness of public transport. I cite the west coast main line, which I know affects him and his constituents. There is no doubt that if, for example, we ask someone travelling from Manchester to London why they do not use public transport, we must be able to point to a reliable, frequent, clean, safe train service as an alternative. The west coast main line will go a long way to providing that, as willgiven that we are in praise of Virginthe new electric tilting trains, which will come into service next year. I understand that, yesterday, a train went to Manchester in just over two hours, which is a significant improvement on the current service. There will be improvements in years to come, but I do not shrink from the fact that we face a significant long haul to accomplish the changes that we all want.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): What allowance has the Secretary of State made for potential cost overruns in his plans, as he will be aware that, yesterday, the cost of the public-private partnership contracts went up by #300 million?
Mr. Darling: The position is that we make provision for the likely costs. It would be a big mistake, however, to build into our budget provision for cost overruns, as that would be an open invitation to people at large to come and get us. That is certainly not our policy, although it may be the policy of the Liberal Democrats.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): In an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), my right hon. Friend said that the rail academy had been set up. The reality is that the project is stalled in the Strategic Rail Authority at present, and there is great concern that it will be downgraded and even abandoned. There is a massive skills shortage on the railway, and without that rail academy we will not meet the 10-year plan.
Mr. Darling: I have seen the letter that my hon. Friend wrote to me about this subject, and I am about to reply to him now. I told my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that it is planned to set up a rail academy, but it will not physically be situated in Carlisle or anywhere else. It will simply be a means by which we can enable more training to take place in different places up and down the country. It will not be like a university that is situated in one place. However, I plan to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) to set out the position fully.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I was interested in what my right hon. Friend said about the importance of building capacity. How many local transport plans contain proposals for reopening old lines or building new railways?
Mr. Darling: In some cases, there is an argument for reopening or building heavy rail, and we talked about Crossrail earlier. In other areas, heavy rail may not be the solution. For example, much of Manchester's light-rail metro runs across lines previously used by heavy rail. I would not sign up to the proposition that heavy rail is always the solution. However, when local authorities are considering that option, they need to come up with a proposal for paying for it and must ensure that the sums add up.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): My right hon. Friend has rightly focused on costs and on the need to get a grip on them and force them down. It is instructive to compare the costs in BR days with those of today. Rail infrastructure costs have trebled in less than 10 years, and the cost of replacing a mile of railway line is now #1.5 million, compared with #350,000 under BR. The contracting culture and privatisation have caused the problem. Will he not accept that we must, in all practical terms, look to public ownership of the railways once more?
Mr. Darling: That would be one way of spending quite a lot of money. My hon. Friend's point about rail costs increasing is true, but it is over-simplistic to suggest that it is all due to the fact that contractors are used. We have to spend more to replace railways because an awful lot of them were built by our Victorian forefathers. They were maintained in the BR days, but are now coming up for wholesale replacement.
The hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) has left the Chamber. He was briefly in the place occupied by the Scottish nationalists but has now been replaced by a Welsh nationalist. However, I told the hon. Gentleman that the structures on the highland line that were collapsing were built by the Victorians. The problem is that not enough money was spent on them over the years. Therefore, we now have to spend more per mile to replace them than we would have done if we were simply conducting routine maintenance or even renewals 30 or 40 years ago.
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Will my right hon. Friend accept that what has been said about busesvery little indeedwill not be that well received by average punters in what is laughingly called a bus shelter in Hemel Hempstead or Kings Langley? They often wait for an hour or more with absolutely no information about when, if ever, they will see a service. Much of the time, services are summarily withdrawn.