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Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Network Rail's announcement has been widely welcomed in Wales and Scotland, as I am sure the Secretary of State knows. However, there will be some disappointment about what he has just said about upgrading and renewal work, because several projects in Wales, including the Cambrian mid-Wales line, have been on hold for some two years, not because the private contractors or the required sums are not available but because Network Rail does not have the engineering capacity to deal with those developments. What assurances can the Secretary of State give the House and rail passengers that Network Rail's capacity to deal not only with maintenance but with renewals will be sufficient in the forthcoming years?
Mr. Darling: I am aware that the announcement was welcomed in Scotland and Wales. It is curious that nationalists always have a problem with mentioning England, but the announcement was welcomed there as well. The hon. Gentleman and those who sit alongside him find that when they mention England, something happens to them. It is rather like what happens when Europe is mentioned by Tory Members: they come over all queer.
The hon. Gentleman's central point was a good one. It is necessary for the industry to grow its capacity to do the amount of work that is now being commissioned, and that is true of other industries. After many years of chronic under-investment, we are now putting in money to get improvements on the railway network, and of course that has led to pressures in capacity. I know that Network Rail is reflecting on how it might deal with that.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I have said to my right hon. Friend in the past that cost increases for renewals since privatisation have been slightly higher than those for maintenance, so I wonder whether he will be revisiting the matter in a few months to tell us about renewals. I also ask him to consider whether this might be a staging post on the way to recreating a publicly owned state railway, comparable to those on the continent, which work so well and put us to shame.
Mr. Darling: No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend on that point. As I said on Friday, the idea that if we went back to British Rail we would sort out all the problems that we face is not right. Many people in the House, including, and I am not being rude, my hon. Friend, will remember the days of British Rail and the fact that it was deficient in a number of respects.
I do not expect Network Rail to revisit long-term contracts, for the reasons that I stated earlier. Costs have gone up, and I suspect that the point comes back to what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said a moment ago: as capacity in the industry becomes tighter, it is not surprising that the price for which it is willing to do the work will increase. However, we have made it clear to the contractorsI made this point in relation to light rail at the last Transport questionsthat the Government's view is not that we will pay whatever it takes, at any price; what matters is that we get the best possible price. In the case of this announcement, we need to be concerned with the nature of the contracts, and Network Rail made it clear that maintenance contracts were inefficient and needed to be changed, and that is why they are to be changed.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Will the Secretary of State focus on the tragic Potters Bar rail crash of May 2002? The train, as he knows, was en route to my constituency; a number of people were killed and many others were injured. Does he agree that the Health and Safety Executive report was inconclusive, so much so that the contractor is still saying that there may have been an element of sabotage? Surely the only way to move forward and clear everything up is to hold a full public inquiry. Why has the right hon. Gentleman turned down that suggestion up to now?
Mr. Darling: The HSE said that it can find no evidence of sabotage in the Potters Bar accident, and so far as I am aware nobody has found any evidence of sabotage. The last HSE report was pretty clear about the cause of the accident, and in the absence of any evidence the question of sabotage does not really arise.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): My right hon. Friend's statement will be welcomed throughout the country. Does he agree that the way in which the contracts were imposed on the industry fragmented the old safety culture, which is an important ingredient for efficiency in any industry? Does he further agree that the example of the railways would indicate that the country can no longer afford the outsourcing of public maintenance?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): It has been exceedingly hard to secure investment in rural rail networks in mid-Wales. A farmer called Mal Phillips has been waiting seven years for bridge improvements, and the local rail user group has been waiting many years for track improvements to achieve a more frequent service. I have heard rumours that the Government might be willing to compromise rural services further to get major investment in other parts of the network, so will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be measurable improvement in investment in rural services, such as the one in mid-Wales, and that we will not have to suffer further decline as the Government seek to improve other services?
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman does not have to bother himself with rumours. The proposal is for a more sensible approach to maintenance, such as the one for roads. Motorways, for example, are built and maintained to a different standard from B roads. The Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail and the regulator have been considering whether it is necessary to specify the same standard for rural lines as the one used for lines carrying 125 mph trains and freight every five minutes or so. It is far more sensible to look realistically at rural lines, which are often more likely to be used but do not carry such heavy trains. That brings me back to the central point of Network Rail's announcement last week: we need to manage our railways properly. Unfortunately, after privatisation that did not happen. The Conservatives were sometimes not sure what on earth they were trying to do, so it is not surprising that the solution on which they eventually alighted left us in the mess that we are in.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I welcome the Secretary of State's willingness to intervene in the public interest when the private sector fails to deliver an important public service, but is he satisfied that Jarvis remains the preferred bidder for renewals on the London north-eastern division, given its record of work on our railways?
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Like others, I believe that Network Rail's bringing together of maintenance will be as welcome for users of overground services in London as for people who travel in and out of the capital. However, to pursue the question asked by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), may we have further reassurance that inspection of maintenance will be well and truly independent from those who do the maintenance? The best technology in the world can provide ultrasound checking of track, so may we have an assurance that it will be available, perhaps through the Government facilitating a joint purchase by London Underground and Network Rail? May we also have a minimum passenger guarantee about the frequency of safety inspections on the overground and the underground?