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Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Secretary of State is always right to draw attention to cost control, and I was in danger of taking him seriously until he mentioned PTEs. He can have cost control or devolution to PTEs, but he has been in the job long enough to know that he cannot have both. More fundamentally, as far as trains are concerned, what remains of the Government's 10-year transport plan?
Mr. Darling: In relation to the latter point, the 10-year transport plan put forward investment of £33 billion of public money, coming to a total of £64 billion when it included private money. The right hon. Gentleman is a former Secretary of State for Transport, although I cannot remember precisely when that was. It must have been
Mr. Darling: Oh no. The right hon. Gentleman put in place a fare structure that he must have known was unsustainable over the long term, as he well knew. He would have welcomed the fact of being able to have more money going into the railways. I think I am right in saying that the time with which he is concerned was precisely that when British Rail and the newly privatised railways did not have enough money being spent on them. However, I agree that cost control is essential, whether that involves Network Rail or a PTE. It does not matter wherecost control is absolutely essential.
John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I welcome the review announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He will be aware that my constituents and I endure one of the worst rail services on record and that, with the termination of the Connex South Eastern contract, we are in the unique position of having a publicly owned railway. I understand that there is a possibility that it may remain in public ownership, albeit not British public ownership, as Danish state railways is one of the potential bidders. For the present, the Strategic Rail Authority runs the service. Would it not be sensible to allow the SRA to gain experience of the problems of running a railway and, if it succeeds in providing an improvement, to extend that policy to other franchises?
Mr. Darling: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but, as I said in my statement, the review will be looking at all aspects of the railway organisation, including the SRA. In relation to Connex, he, along with everybody else, welcomed the end of that franchise, but he would agree that there is still a long way to go before we can say that there has been a dramatic improvement. Again, two things are necessary. One is the money going into the system; the other is proper management.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): May I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider his proposal to devolve more powers and decision making to PTEs? Does he understand that an area such as Worcestershire, which is on the edge of a powerful PTE such as Centro, constantly plays second fiddle to the centre, and our services suffer as a result, while investment decisions to
Mr. Darling: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's general concern, but the point is that there are areas covered by PTEs where more sensible and rational decisions can be taken as between rail, heavy rail, light rail and bus when formulating transport policies. Rail should not be considered in isolation. I understand perfectly well that many areas of the country do not have PTEs. We must ensure that they get their right share of investment and that they get the appropriate services. We are not talking about devolving all decision making, but as about a fifth of rail travel in this country is regional it is right to ask whether, where it is appropriate and where we can ensure that there are no adverse or unintended effects on other services, we might devolve further power to those PTEs. That is certainly something that should be looked at closely.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that 1 billion passengers were carried by rail last year, but as millions of them were standing or squashed together my question is about the relationship between the train operating companies and the leasing companies. Why are there not enough carriages in so many trains? Is it because the rolling stock is not available or because the leasing costs deter train operating companies from putting on a proper service?
Mr. Darling: The reasons for overcrowding vary from line to line. However, one reason why we decided to bring forward investment that will see the replacement of more than a third of all rolling stock was to get more capacity into the network. Indeed, my hon. Friend will know that there are many more commuter trains and there is new rolling stock on the long-distance lines, which will provide additional capacity. No matter whether the investment is public or private, however, there are always questions about how much the railways actually cost. As more and more people use the railways, which we want to encourage, we want to ensure that there is no impediment to getting additional capacityif that is what is neededand to getting trains on the line. We are replacing more than a third of the rolling stock, which will improve trains. Furthermore, the new stock is generally a lot more comfortable than some of the old stuff that is coming out of service.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that vertical integration will be an important theme in the forthcoming review? In his statement, he referred to the fact that he wanted freight operators to have access to the rail network on fair terms, but why has there been a moratorium on freight access grants for the last nine months?
Mr. Darling: The reason is that the SRA has an obligation to manage its budget, and to ensure that if costs increase in one element it considers what it does elsewhere. Freight grants are, of course, still being paid out; the moratorium is on new applications.
Of course, we need to look at vertical integration, but I have to caution the hon. Gentleman: on the west coast main line, for example, where there are 13 train operators, the case for vertical integration may be less well made than where there is only one operator and one owner of the track. Where there are various operators, however, a system is being put in place whereby one person takes day-to-day control of services, so that if there is a problem on the line one person can take decisions about which trains run, which trains may need to be turned around early and so on. When one person is responsible for day-to-day management of the railways, it makes a difference in terms of the reliability of services.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I commend the Secretary of State for his commitment to rail and for his efforts to unravel the disastrous privatisation undertaken by the last Conservative Government. Does he agree that the trebling of subsidies under privatisation, from £1.3 billion to £3.8 billion, is an indictment of Tory policy? Will his review lead to less fragmentation and will he look at public sector solutions such as the successful body Merseytravel?
Mr. Darling: Merseytravel is an example of a line where punctuality and reliability have dramatically improved. However, it would probably be unfair to the rest of the network to compare every aspect of it with Merseytravel, as that railway is fairly self-contained.
On the subsidy, I caution my hon. Friend to this extent: one of the reasons why the amount of money going in has increased is that more services are running and more people are being carried, but a lot more money is being put in for track and train alike. One reason why the money dried up at the time of privatisation was that the then Government's response to the problems of the railway was to pass everything over to the private sector and hope that it would come up with the money or, alternatively, that the whole thing would wither away. That did not happen, however, and, whether for roads or rail, it is important that the Government maintain adequate investment. We are committed to that, although I am not sure whether everyone else in the House is.
Is the Secretary of State's statementunchanged since the end of last weekdesigned so that Richard Bowker keeps his job and Tom Winsor loses his, or the other way round? Has he deliberately failed to pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister, who made similar announcements about the future of the railways, and the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers)? Why has he drawn such a veil over the past six years? To whom can people apply if they want to improve their rail service? He said that the details of individual lines are not for today or the review; but, if I want the Worthing service to run three times an hour, not twice an hour, to whom should I apply?
Mr. Darling: First, I know very well that the hon. Gentleman's brother-in-law runs a railwayand a good railway service at that. In relation to the points he makes about individuals, I am afraid that it is inevitable now that we will read speculation about individuals. Frankly, it is ill founded. I have the greatest respect for Richard Bowker, who runs the SRA. He has done a good job in sometimes difficult circumstances. In relation to the fragmentation to which the hon. Gentleman refers, yes, that is a problem. One of the things that I should like to put an end to is the situation where it is sometimes uncertain precisely whose fault it is if a train runs late or not at all. Indeed, that was one of the consequences of privatisation, for which I think the hon. Gentleman voted.