The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells): There have already been significant improvements. New rolling stock was recently introduced between London and Gloucester, and in May 2003 the number of Paddington to Gloucester trains was roughly doubled. In addition, the new Thames Trains franchise, which was announced in December, will have consequent benefits for routes between London and Gloucestershire.
Mr. Robertson : I thank the Minister for that reply, although I must say that people in Gloucestershire who travel to London might not recognise the improvements he describes. I spoke to the Strategic Rail Authority only this morning, and it told me that there is no certainty of improved services until 2006. I understand that the SRA will not advertise the new franchises until next year, yet there is an urgent need to improve rail transport between Gloucestershire and London. Furthermore, the link with Ashchurch station, which opened only recently, has been made almost worthless by the reduction in services from that station. Many people who live in Gloucestershire choose to drive to London because of the inadequacy of the rail services.
Dr. Howells: I am very much aware that, owing to a timetable overhaul involving the SRA, Network Rail and the train operator, Virgin CrossCountry, trains bound for Tewkesbury stopped calling at Ashchurch station last September to effect an improvement in the poor timekeeping of Virgin's cross-country services. The most recently published figures show that the subsequent improvement in the percentage of trains arriving on time has been about 20 per cent. Ashchurch retains a very good local service to Gloucester and Cheltenham, as well as to Cardiff, Worcester and Birmingham.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the Thames Trains franchise during his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), as the company provides important services to Gloucestershire and to Worcestershire. I am also glad that the new franchise has been awarded to First Great Western, which will result in a substantial improvement to services in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, but does the Minister agree that the only way to ensure that such an improvement is provided is to increase significantly dual-track sections on the Cotswold line, which still suffers from very long sections of single track with consequent unreliability for all passengers using it?
Dr. Howells: I certainly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, as the issue has long been a bone of contention with passengers. He knows, however, that laying four tracks is not inexpensiveit is a very, very expensive thing to do
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Any changes to rail links between London and Gloucestershire affect the main Great Western line and, indeed, Thames Trains services, as the Minister pointed out. Does he agree with the SRA that changes currently proposed to those services will bring improvements for passengers on both long distance and local services?
Dr. Howells: That has to be the ideal objective for the SRA in anything that it does in detailing the new franchise. I should like to see improved services for people travelling over all distances on a line that I use every week. I know of the problems that people have suffered along the line and I very much hope that the recent improvements will continue.
Mrs. May: The Minister refers to the ideal for improvements along the line, but of course the changes proposed by the SRA will be far from the ideal. The changes that the authority is making on the Great Western line mean slower trains to places such as Slough and Bourne End, no single-stop services to London from Maidenhead and Twyford and, for some
Dr. Howells: The hon. Lady will not be surprised if I say, no, I do not recognise that. I am sure that she will knowif she was open with us, she would say sothat the problem is her Government's appallingly botched privatisation of the railway system, which we are still trying to repair and into which we are putting a lot of money.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): We have an excellent record of supporting rural bus services. Since 1998, rural bus subsidy grant allocations have totalled more than £200 million. This year's allocation is £48.5 million, which supports more than 2,100 rural bus services throughout England. We have also supported some 250 projects, totalling £89 million, through the rural bus challenge.
Norman Lamb : I thank the Minister for that response, but may I remind him that, in Norfolk, Countryside Agency funding for a number of valuable dial-a-ride services is coming to an end? In some cases, it has already come to an end. The county council has failed to plug the gap that has been left, so a number of schemes are on the brink of being lost. What action is he taking to secure sustainable funding for these very important schemes, which an awful lot of elderly people, especially those in rural areas, rely on absolutely?
Mr. McNulty: First and foremost, that is a matter for Norfolk county council and the Countryside Agency. The hon. Gentleman has been in touch with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to express those concerns, but he will know that Norfolk's rural bus subsidy grant allocation this year is £2.4 millionthe largest in the countryand that Norfolk has also received rural bus challenge funding for six projects totalling £2.3 million. The RBC currently provides £276,000 for the flexibus project in North Norfolk.
The hon. Gentleman raised this issue in an Adjournment debate last July and said that he would write to me to secure a meeting. The letter requesting that meeting arrived on 24 December, so I congratulate him on his speed and would say simply in response that I am more than happy to meet him and anyone else from Norfolk to discuss matters further. However, first and foremost, much of what he raises is for the county council and DEFRA, but I am happy to meet him.
Mr. McNulty: That is certainly a view, and I am more than happy to discuss it further with my hon. Friend, not least in terms of the amount it would cost. We will shortly announce another package of rural bus challenge funds, including kickstart funding, but we are clear that the bus is central to an integrated transport solution to social exclusion in rural and urban areas, not least for the elderly.
Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con): Even before the announcement of local government funding, Lib-Dem controlled Somerset county council announced that it was considering cutting its subsidy for buses by up to a quarter, despite the fact it is a rural county. How does that accord with Government policy?
Mr. McNulty: Happily, it does not accord with Government policy. Of course, the Lib Dems in Somerset probably have a different policy from Lib Dems in the neighbouring counties and districts. Absolutely nothing that the Lib Dems do or say accords with Government policy, which is why they will for ever remain a rump in the House and we will remain in government.