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Transport (Nottingham)

6. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with Nottingham city council on transport issues in the city. [198105]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport met Nottingham city council when he launched the Nottingham express transit system on 8 March 2004. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Transport also met members of the council during a visit to the city on 6 September this year.

Mr. Allen: I hope that the Minister herself will come to Nottingham and take the brand new tram system from Nottingham station. I shall meet her in my constituency with a tandem to take her back to town along the new cycleway and walkway along the River Leen. I hope that we will be able to talk about the pedestrianisation and the workplace parking scheme that the city of Nottingham is discussing. But before that happy day, will she commend the intelligent and innovative work that is taking place throughout the city of Nottingham on transport matters?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Give me your answer do. [Laughter.]

Charlotte Atkins: I should be delighted to visit Nottingham, North and, indeed, to get on a tandem, so long as I am in the driving seat, and, of course, to use the tram. First-year patronage is likely to be just over 8 million passengers—a considerable success—so congratulations to all involved. Their dedication and hard work have secured the success of that ambitious project, and I am sure that it will make a real difference to the people of Nottingham.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): When the Minister takes up the invitation from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) to go to Nottingham to discuss transport issues with the city council—[Interruption.] I am being anticipated. Will she ensure that she discusses with the city council the expansion of night flights from Nottingham East Midlands airport? One of the things that concerns me and will no doubt concern the hon. Member for Nottingham, North is that the maps that are being used
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to persuade the people of the Nottingham area about the good sense of the airport's proposals are inaccurate and do not properly display the flight path. A further matter that she should discuss with them is the expulsion of aviation fuel from the aircraft that use Nottingham airport, which may be causing dairy cattle to become sterile as a result of their ingesting the expelled fuel. [Hon. Members: "Come on!"] This is a matter of huge environmental importance not just to the people of the city of Nottingham, but to those who live in the surrounding area. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: The question was in good order.

Charlotte Atkins: The airport is clearly not in Nottingham, but this is an issue for the airports authority. I will certainly take the issue up with the authority, but it is not a matter for me or the Secretary of State. It is not a designated airport.

Noise Disturbance (Plas Derwen)

7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): If he will meet the chief executive of Network Rail to discuss noise disturbance to residents of Plas Derwen, Abergavenny, from the nearby railway maintenance plant. [198106]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): Under the terms of its network licence enforced by the independent Office of Rail Regulation, Network Rail is obliged to secure the efficient and economical stewardship of the network in accordance with best practice. The operation and development of facilities at Abergavenny sidings is an operational matter for Network Rail, and I understand that it has offered to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further. I wish him well with that meeting.

Mr. Edwards: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When he meets Network Rail's chief executive, will he tell him that my constituents find the noise of the double tamper locomotives sited at Abergavenny unbearable through the night? They feel that the guidelines, which were agreed with Carillion and other contractors, are not being followed and that the plant could be better sited at Pontypool. Will my hon. Friend ask Network Rail to look into the issue and ask that its chief executive meet me, because I have repeatedly asked to meet him?

Mr. McNulty: As I understand it, Network Rail notifies local residents and the environmental health officer at Monmouthshire county council in advance whenever night work is planned at Abergavenny sidings. Network Rail endeavours to implement measures to mitigate the effect of its operations. In the first instance, I suggest that my hon. Friend meet the Network Rail regional manager, who has offered to meet him. I will be happy to receive a response from my hon. Friend about the success or otherwise of that meeting. Then we might take matters further.


8. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What projection he has made of a change in passenger rail journeys between now and 2015. [198107]
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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Strategic Rail Authority in its strategic plan that was published in 2003 forecast an increase in rail passenger mileage from 2001–02 to 2010–11 of between 25 and 35 per cent. Last year the railways carried more then 1 billion passengers—the highest total since 1961.

Norman Baker: It is welcome to see a projected increase in rail usage, but is the Secretary of State convinced that the present network can cope? The route utilisation strategies are welcome and will buy perhaps five years' extra usage on the railways for increased numbers, but is there a medium-term strategy to increase capacity on the network, or are we going to be driven back to the old British Rail policy of pricing people off the trains?

Mr. Darling: We are increasing capacity. For example, the upgrade of the west coast main line, which is about halfway through, is substantially increasing capacity and, every year, improvements are being made to the lines to allow more trains to run. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will do whatever we can. Obviously, in the longer term, there will be some quite big decisions for Governments to face up to, both in terms of what we need in the network and, equally important, how we are going to pay for it.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that a problem with increasing the passenger capacity is the number of freight slots that are allocated and that get in the way of increased passenger slots? Does he also accept that the new high-box containers mean that more slots are required for the same number of freight movements? Has his Department investigated this problem, particularly as it relates to passenger movements and the ease of freight traffic? Has he in mind any measures that might alleviate it?

Mr. Darling: We are both aware of the problem, and we have looked at how we might sort it out. I shall say a word about Southampton in a moment, but for example, a few weeks ago, the line between Felixstowe harbour and central England was upgraded to allow the carriage of bigger freight loads. That was quite a significant investment and it improves access to the rest of the freight network.

I am aware that there is a particular problem in relation to Southampton docks. I had recent discussions with one of the freight operating companies as to a possible way round that. We obviously want to make sure that rail access to our ports is as efficient and as effective as possible. Wherever possible, it is best to move goods over long distances by rail if we can. I know that there is a particular problem in Southampton, and I hope that we can find a way of sorting it out.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): It is good news that more people are travelling by train. That trend has clearly been encouraged by the increased investment in railways that followed privatisation. Does the Secretary of State, however, accept that further increases in passenger numbers will be helped if the privately owned train operators are free to respond to consumer demand,
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but would be hindered if bureaucrats from Network Rail and the Department for Transport or, even worse, the Mayor of London, were given more say over where and when rail services are run?

Mr. Darling: I see the hon. Gentleman has not lost his sense of humour. The increased investment over the past seven or eight years has happened largely because the Government have been prepared to spend more on the railways. I remind him that he has a commitment—no doubt foisted on him by the shadow Chancellor—to cut spending by £1.8 billion. He cannot say that he will increase investment and improve the railways, yet cut the amount available for that. That does not add up, and the Tories' transport policy will remain incredible until the hon. Gentleman sorts that out. I remind him that much of the long-term decline of the railways occurred during the terms of Conservative Governments.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab): The number of passengers in the Medway towns has grown and will continue to grow as the Thames gateway development comes forward. We welcome the £200 million investment in the new bullet trains that will come on stream in 2009. However, my right hon. Friend will know that there is concern that the new timetable running from 2006 that will be announced shortly will show that there will be a reduction in services before the new Eurostar bullet trains come on stream. Does he understand that concern? Can he indicate whether he has listened to our arguments and tell us that there will not be a reduction in services, but replacement train services, for which we have called for several years?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome to the new high-speed domestic services. People in Kent have wanted them for a long time, and although many people doubted that the development would happen, it will. The trains will provide high-speed services from parts of Kent to London St. Pancras. However, my hon. Friend will accept that if we are to provide such services, we must ensure that the existing service pattern is compatible with new services so that the lines do not become over-congested, which would lead to delays building up. The SRA has consulted on those matters and is trying to reconcile the many competing demands. It will publish its conclusions when the invitation to tender for the new franchise goes out. My hon. Friend will have to wait a little longer, although I am reasonably confident that we can probably put the invitation to tender out in the middle of December.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Is there anything that the Secretary of State can do to prevent the asset-stripping of land from railway stations? Frome is the largest town in the country to have a mainline station at which the trains do not stop, but the railway authorities are planning to sell and redevelop the land that was its old goods yard, which is critical to the future development of Frome's passenger rail services. Is that a sensible plan for proper integrated transport use in the future?
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Mr. Darling: I am not aware of the specific proposal, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I shall certainly look at it. The general principle is that Network Rail is encouraged to get rid of land that it does not need because that realises money that can be reinvested in the network. We can all think of countless stations with lines and goods yards that have lain unused for years. If such land could be sold off with the money put into the network, so much the better. I am not sure how imminent the development to which the hon. Gentleman refers is, but I shall certainly examine it, although he must bear in mind the fact that that does not mean that I am making a commitment to do something different from what is proposed.

9. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effects on passenger rail travel of the new autumn timetables. [198108]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Some changes to the timetables were made on 27 September, especially to those of the operators affected by the implementation of the west coast route project, to enable the first benefits of the upgrade to be realised.

Mr. Kidney: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that since the new timetable commenced, rail passengers at Stafford now have fewer inter-city London trains, fewer cross-country trains and inadequate services to Birmingham and Liverpool? Although there used to be three peak-time morning trains from Penkridge to Birmingham, there are now only two, so most passengers have to stand. Is that experience common throughout the country, or have those passengers been singled out for such harsh treatment? Will my right hon. Friend call on the rail companies to make urgent improvements for those passengers?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend and other hon. Members will be aware that over the past two or three years, with the imminent arrival of high-speed trains running on the west coast line, the SRA tried to reconcile that with what was required for local services. It is probably fair to say that although some people were happy with the outcome, others were not. Inevitably, when a service is reduced some people are unhappy about it. We are trying to ensure that we make the best possible use of the new upgraded line. Some trade-offs need to be made. If there is a particular problem, I shall certainly ask the train operating companies to look at it.

We do have a problem with the temporary bus service that runs between Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent. I am not sure whether that troubles my hon. Friend, but it should be resolved next year. It is due to a temporary shortage of drivers on Central Trains. I certainly undertake to consider any other issues.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that the autumn timetable is in disarray, because it seems that the tilting Pendolino trains are forbidden to run at 125 mph as anticipated because the braking systems do not work properly? They are being restricted to 110 mph, which means that the autumn
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timetable will not run on time. Will he investigate with Virgin Trains how long that will last and how the problem arose in the first place?

Mr. Darling: I have already done that. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that the trains have been able to run at 125 mph since this morning. [Hon. Members: "Hurrah!"] However, let me get my retaliation in first for Question Time on 21 December. I know what happened. Modifications were carried out to the braking systems. That type of train has not hitherto run on Britain's railways and inevitably when new rolling stock is introduced problems need to be sorted out. Sadly, the Pendolino trains have had more teething problems than we would like. As of this morning, however, they are supposed to be running at up to 125 mph, though I am bound to say that the one I travelled in last week with the driver was not one of them.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): I welcome the new timetable for One West Anglia services which comes into effect in my constituency in December. It will mean that for the first time since the days of Dr. Beeching, Lowestoft and Beccles have a direct service to and from London. That has happened because the Government combined three franchises into one, so beginning the process of repairing the damaging fragmentation introduced by the Conservatives in the botched rail privatisation. May I invite my right hon. Friend to try out the new service?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight what happens when the railways are broken up and it is left to chance to see whether services run. We are rightly in the process of reducing the number of franchises. The service in East Anglia is much better than it was, although one or two difficulties still need to be sorted out. As a result of the amalgamation of the new service, we can run more trains and improve reliability. That is precisely what the Government intend to continue to do, all backed up by investment that would be cut if the Conservatives ever got back into office.

10. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet representatives of the Health and Safety Executive to discuss the Potters Bar rail accident. [198110]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): The Secretary of State expects to meet representatives of the HSE shortly to hear the conclusions of its investigation into the Potters Bar rail crash.

Mr. Bellingham: I am grateful for that reply, but with all the emphasis on the recent tragic First Great Western train disaster near Newbury, will the hon. Gentleman ensure that the equally tragic Potters Bar disaster is not forgotten? Are the lessons from that disaster going to be learned? Why did he not set up a public inquiry into that disaster?
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Mr. McNulty: The lessons certainly have been learned. The HSE expected to complete its investigation in early November. It has been trying to locate the last witness which, through no fault of its own, it has not been possible to do. So the whole timetable has been shunted on. However, the Secretary of State still anticipates meeting the HSE to discuss its report in early December. Any decision on a public inquiry is predicated on my right hon. Friend's discussions on the outcome of the HSE's investigation.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will the Minister raise with the HSE the fact that, this year alone, eight track workers have been killed—an unwelcome and unnecessary increase? Will he direct the HSE to inquire into what responsibility the fragmentation among maintenance companies bears for the deaths?

Mr. McNulty: Each and every one of the tragic incidents has been raised with the HSE and all are the subject of separate inquiries. However, my hon. Friend is right: we need to learn lessons from each and every incident and to ensure that deaths of railway workers on track diminish as much as all other deaths on our railway network.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I understand that the bereaved families appreciated their meeting with the Secretary of State, but is it not deeply unsatisfactory that they and the travelling public have had to wait more than two and half years for a decision on a public inquiry and that Network Rail has refused to pay anything more than a very small amount of compensation to five of the seven bereaved families, including the family of my late constituent, Agnes Quinlevan? Is it not time that Network Rail recognised the value of the lives lost?

Mr. McNulty: As I said, any decision on a public inquiry is predicated on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's receiving the HSE's report, then determining which direction to take. The hon. Gentleman knows that the HSE has written to the bereaved, the injured and their representatives to inform them of the revised timetable and of the fact that, through no fault of the HSE, it has been unable to stick to the original timetable of which they were notified.


The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

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