That does not sound like an hon. Gentleman who imagines that he will be on the Government Benches in the foreseeable future. No wonder he does not want to try to explain away the £1.8 billion cut in spending that the Conservatives are
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promising. Whatever difficulties there may be in funding transport infrastructure or Crossrail, to which I shall come in a moment, it is pretty clear that cutting £1.8 billion from that spending is not the answer.
The Crossrail Bill will come before the House. It is an essential prerequisite before we can design the Bill that we need to work with the private sector because it has very much to be a joint venture. We will do that. Before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited about these matters, I should say that one of my earliest experiences in the House when I was elected in the late 1980s was a Crossrail Bill, which died a death, like so many other attempts to build the system. If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would be careful before going on too much about the failings of the Labour Government in this regard. There has been a long and tortuous process. I think that all of us know that. The difference is that I am more confident now than I have been for a long time that Crossrail will be built. Crossrail is needed by London because of the long-term pressures that it faces. The key is to get on with it. The hon. Gentleman should still reflect on the fact that cutting nearly £2 billion from transport does not help in that regard.
Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Lab): On 15 November the Adjournment debate was set against the background of Crossrail, which had in east London one branch going to Stratford, and on the south of the river a branch going from Abbey Wood to Ebbsfleet. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport yesterday announced that the line would terminate at Abbey Wood and would no longer go on to Ebbsfleet. The only explanation that has been given to me as a Member whose constituency is affected consists of some unintelligible pages from a technical report that has been available for months. Will my right hon. Friend say what analysis has been undertaken over the past 10 days to justify this amputation?
Mr. Darling: I can do that. I can assure my hon. Friend that rather more than 10 days' work has gone into the analysis. There are basically two problems. The voltage of the lines in north Kent is different from the voltage that will power the Crossrail trains. If the trains were to run beyond Abbey Wood, they would have to be capable of running on more than one voltage, which would make them more complicated and more prone to breakdown. If my hon. Friend wants an example of such problems, he should look at the Eurostar trains, which are designed to run on three different supply systems and spend rather more time in the garage, so to speak, than one would wish, and I want to avoid that.The second problem is that at the moment it is intended that 24 trains an hour will run through the Crossrail tunnel, but if the line goes down to Ebbsfleet, analysis of the congestion in north Kent suggests that we will have to reduce that frequency to 18 an hour.
For those two reasons, it was thought best that the line should go to Abbey Wood in the first instance, although we are not ruling out a future extension to Ebbsfleet. It is possible for passengers to cross the platform at Abbey Wood, so I do not think that it will be that much of an inconvenience. What I would say, certainly to all those hon. Members who want to support Crossrail, is that if Crossrail is to be built, it
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must be as simple as possible. The more complicated a railway project is at the start, the greater are the chances that it will run into difficulty. I, like so many others, want to see Crossrail built, but I want to ensure that it is as simple as possible. I am sympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend makes, but those, in a simplified form, are the two difficulties that led us to the conclusion that we reached.
Linda Perham: I rise to draw a line under the matter at this stage. As chair of the all party group on Crossrail, I welcome the Bill, which my right hon. Friend will know is a hybrid Bill, showing the Government's commitment to it. He touched earlier on that in reply to the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Will he confirm that the Bill shows the Government's commitment to finding the funding to realise the project, which will benefit not only people on my side of London but throughout London, and the UK economy?
Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend has done a great deal during her time in the House to advance Crossrail, and, as she says, she chairs the all party group, for which she deserves a great deal of credit. Yes, as I have said, the Government are committed to Crossrail. There will be much more discussion of financing, but I think that there is a determination all round to see the matter through, and from what I recall that certainly was not the case 18 years ago.
I have mentioned investment, which among other things allowed us to sort out the west coast main line, and despite one or two teething problems it is good to see the new trains running at 125 mph. We are renewing nearly a third of the rolling stock in this country, which has necessitated the renewal of the power supply south of the River Thames. I can also tell the House that in the last year, more than 850 miles of track have been renewed. That contrasts with the less than 200 miles a year that were renewed at the time of privatisation. Therefore, people can see that progress is being made.
There is one further aspect of change that was needed in the railways. The railways have paid a heavy price for privatisation and the subsequent drop in investment, so the other matter that needed to be addressed was the organisation and structure of the railways. In January last year, I said that I wanted to review that structure. In July I published a railways White Paper and today we are publishing the Railways Bill. Despite all those who spent many happy weeks over the summer saying that there would not be a Bill, that it was nowhere near ready and that we had got it wrong, the Railways Bill implementing the White Paper has now been published. It will allow the Government to take strategic direction of the railways and have clear agreements with each part of the industry, and it abolishes the Strategic Rail Authority. The office of the rail regulator will be responsible for safety, performance and cost, and there is greater devolution of power in Scotland, Wales, London and the passenger transport executives in
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England. Other changes that do not require legislative change will accompany the legislation, and they will give Network Rail greater powers to allow the track and train companies to operate more closely together. As I have said before in this House, we intend to reduce the number of franchises. We are also taking steps to make sure that freight has greater certainty about its rights on the national network, which the industry broadly welcomes.
On rail, I should bring two other matters to hon. Members' attention. First, the Rail Passengers Council is announcing its proposals today to restructure its organisation to be more focused and responsive to passengers. Secondlyfor those who are anoraksmy Department is announcing a new structure to carry out its rail functions, taking account of the changes brought about by the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority. Because poor Mr. James did not get this far, the Conservative spokesman may be interested to know that about 530 staff are currently employed by the SRA and the Department for Transport rail division. In the new structure announced today, that group will reduce to between 250 and 280 staff, which will be more efficient.
Norman Baker : The Secretary of State said that he recognises the failure of the Conservative party's privatisation proposals in respect of rolling stock companies. Will the Railways Bill address ROSCOsand if not, why not?
Mr. Darling: No, because the situation requires negotiation with those companies rather than legislative change, and the discussions will continue over the next few weeks and monthsnegotiations cannot be reduced to primary legislation. I welcome the general support of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) for the legislation. I presume that he speaks for all the Liberals, although one can never be sure.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The Secretary of State can be sure that I do not speak for the whole of the Labour party. Will he deal with one problem that concerns me before he leaves the subject of railways? The Government intend to have fewer franchisesfrankly, there is currently no competition between the franchisesand for the railways, the bus industry and other forms of transport provision to work together. How will that be possible when the Office of Fair Trading holds reactionary and unhelpful views about how to plan transport services?