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Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right. I said in my statement that this is not about whether contractors should be used, because many of them are involved in the railways and other parts of the transport industry. What is crucial, however, is to get the nature of the agreement right so that we are very clear about what is supposed to be delivered and what we are supposed to be paying for it. We need to ensure that for every £1 we spend on the railways we get £1-worth of benefit. That is what the announcement is all about. Having decided to take the maintenance in-house, it is up to Network Rail to ensure that it runs a tight, efficient and disciplined organisation that shows that we are getting a better deal out of the railways. If it can do that, it will continue to enjoy our support.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Why did the Secretary of State deal with only part of the problem of railway maintenance? Is he not aware that the travelling public are gravely concerned by the deterioration of railway maintenance standards on the London underground system? He mentioned the failure of Jarvis to carry out track-laying work in the Cheadle area. Why is it that Network Rail has to take over that obligation from Jarvis on the west coast main line, yet Jarvis remains, as far as the Government are concerned, happily part of the infrastructure companies that are responsible for maintaining the London underground system? Is it not the case that the railway system run by London Underground is full of contractual complexities and unclear reporting procedures as a result of the public-private partnership, which is clearly not working?

Mr. Darling: I see that since I last replied to a Conservative Member, even more of them have gone off to write their letters. There is only a handful left.

Perhaps I misunderstand the hon. Gentleman, but I am surprised to hear him speak out so strongly against the use of contractors and the private sector. I should have thought, sitting as he does on the Conservative Benches, that he would not be so dismissive. The position with London Underground is different because the nature of the contracts is different. Its contracts with the infrastructure companies specify what has to be delivered. Contractors are paid according to outcomes rather than on a cost-plus basis, which is the basis of the overland contracts let by Railtrack. The only similarity is the lack of investment in both the overground and underground systems. Some £16 billion-worth of investment is going in over the next 15 years. It is just a great pity that that work was not started years ago, perhaps even when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government.

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Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): My right hon. Friend will recall that I spent 19 years working in the railway industry before arriving in the House. I commend him on his analysis and correct interpretation of the industry's history. That stands in stark contrast to the strange view of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, who should probably get out a bit more to see the legacy left by earlier policies. Under privatisation, the railway was designed for failure rather than the success towards which my right hon. Friend is working. Will he commend early-day motion 1808, which I tabled, because it supports the substance of his statement?

Mr. Darling: I shall break my daily habit and read the early-day motion to see what it has to say. My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in the railway industry and he devotes a considerable amount of time to promoting the railways in his work in the House. He is right, of course: the key to a successful railway is money and management. Both must be right. In relation to money, the Opposition's problem is that their tax-and-spend policies do not add up, as they well know. That is why they cannot give commitments on investment in the railways.

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): I agree with the Secretary of State's analysis and direction of travel. I am concerned, however, that my constituents' experience of Network Rail has been less than encouraging. I refer in particular to its management of the erection of masts and track-side clearance programmes in my constituency, which contains Cheadle Hulme. Is Network Rail up to the job? Will the Government take a clear lead in ensuring that future work by Network Rail is up to the standard that the public expect? So far, the public's experience in my constituency is that Network Rail is not managed well. It needs to be managed considerably better.

Mr. Darling: As there has been a lot of talk about letter writing, may I suggest that the hon. Lady raises specific concerns about track-side clearance and radio masts with the management of Network Rail—if not locally, then nationally. I am sure that the chief executive will be happy to co-operate. On her central question, most people have been greatly encouraged by the way in which the new management team at Network Rail is getting to grips with the problems it inherited.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a pleasure to hear that a service can be provided at a lower price, and more efficiently and effectively, in the public sector? Does he also agree that the move away from contractorisation is good in the circumstances? Will he say something to the long-suffering passengers on the west coast main line who take four and sometimes five hours at weekends to do a journey that 30 years ago took two and a half?

Mr. Darling: Network Rail is a private company. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is still a member of the Public Accounts Committee, but, if she is, she will know that it conducted an examination of Network Rail.

I fully understand the frustration of people who travel on the west coast main line at the moment. Unfortunately, the very act of maintaining it, improving

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it and renewing large sections of it can be disruptive. I travelled on that line only a couple of weeks ago, and I understand that frustration full well. However, when the first phase of the work is completed at the end of next year, it will cut the running time between Manchester and London to just over two hours and allow four trains an hour to run to Birmingham. When the work is fully completed at the end of 2007, it will take almost an hour off the running time from Glasgow to London. It will make for a far better, more efficient railway. Unfortunately, just as with roads, when one starts maintaining or improving, there is inevitably disruption while the work is carried out.

The other thing is that, as my hon. Friend will know, on large parts of the west coast main line there is new, improved rolling stock, and when the work is completed people will say that it ought to have been done years ago and they are glad that it has been done.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): The right hon. Gentleman may know that reliability on the London-Tilbury-Southend line has been increasing recently, and although that is welcome there are still major problems due to maintenance difficulties on overhead cables, signals and track. Can he guarantee that the reliability on that line will continue to improve, and, if it does not, will he return the maintenance contract to the private sector? Can some of the £300 million savings be spent on providing a new terminus for Canvey Island?

Mr. Darling: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the amount being spent on the railway network is increasing. Some years ago, the London-Tilbury line was having real problems and was a source of constant frustration. It was mentioned on just about every radio programme that I can remember. It is an example of what happens when two things, money and management, are put in. That is what makes a difference to the railways.

As far as the future is concerned, the whole point of Network Rail's announcement is to try to improve maintenance and management so that we can drive up reliability. Make no mistake about this: reliability is improving but it still has a long way to go before people will say that it is satisfactory. Nobody in the industry should be in any doubt that increasing reliability and controlling costs are the two major priorities.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Has my right hon. Friend noted that Network Rail's decision has been widely welcomed by everyone except, it seems, the Tories? Given the decision, is there not now a compelling logic that renewals should be treated in the same fashion, for two reasons? First, maintenance and renewals are vital sides of the same coin, and the effectiveness of one activity has a profound effect on the other. Secondly, those companies involved in renewals are the same private companies that have let us down so badly on maintenance.

Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend, for the reasons that I made clear in my statement. The problem here was not private contractors working on the railway. I am not against that; I do not know my hon. Friend's view on that but I know that some people find it difficult to accept. The problem was the

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maintenance contract. It was cost-plus, which is almost an invitation for a company to say, "Well, I'll go off and do what I want, and I'll send you the bill." It is the sort of arrangement that contractors in other industries can only dream of. Contracts for renewal work are similar to those for building a new motorway. The job is specified, tendered for and contracted for, and the contract sets out what is to be done and what the price is. There is a distinction there.

I made it clear last Friday, when I was asked about these matters, that the partnership on the railways between the public and private sectors is generally a good thing, not least because it brings in substantial investment. If that investment was not available, the Government would have to make up the difference. In addition, I think that having contractors for renewals can work perfectly well, provided that we get the contracts right.


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