|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
John Thurso: I certainly agree that new capacity is needed. The biggest challenge that the Secretary of State for Transport will facewhoever it may then bewill be the lack of capacity. Indeed, many are saying that the east coast main line will run out of capacity by approximately 2015. However, I have a slightly different solution from the hon. Gentleman's. I would take the fast trains off the existing network, put them on a dedicated high-speed line and create a fast intercity connection, particularly on the north-south route. The capacity that such a removal of high-speed trains would deliver could then be used to create more freight lines and, indeed, more passenger lines.
Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should also consider maximising the slots set aside for freight, which often has to compete with an increasingly overloaded passenger network in some parts of the country, through strategic methods such as upgrading lines and planning properly the interface between freight and passenger routes? Should not a key part of any strategic view of the future of rail be such an integrated view of freight and passenger travel?
John Thurso: I believe that a critical indicator on which the success of the Government's changes will be measured is whether that capacity for rail is maintained and maximised in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested. I agree with him on that.
I have no doubt that the railways face considerable challenges in the years ahead. Quite apart from the investment needed to catch up on decades of under-spend, new investment will be required over the years. As I said, the east coast main line is forecast by many commentators to reach capacity by 2015. We will need new solutions and other areas will have similar problems. One day, I hope that we will accept the need for a dedicated high-speed rail network.
The Bill provides the framework in which a genuine and much needed long-term strategy can be put in place. That is why I and my hon. Friends will support it.
6 Dec 2004 : Column 949
However, it is for the Secretary of State and his Department to live up to the expectations created by the Bill. For the sake of future rail passengers, I sincerely hope that they are achieved.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak after the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) because I have always wanted to say the name of that constituency, which is such a wonderful title.
The Bill is important, but small. If we choose to criticise certain aspects, it is not because we fail to regard it as a positive assessment of the real problems that the railway industry faces. Rather, it is because we want to tell the Government that they are doing pretty well, but ask them if they can please do a little bit better.
It is important to understand that some of the problems arising are not new, but need a bit of new and lateral thinking. It is essential for the Government to provide very firm leadership. The Strategic Rail Authority did not provide it and in the new round of franchises, we must be quite clear about what passengers want, what efficiencies are needed and what changes are necessary.
I hope that the Secretary of State will look closely into what is happening in the centre of the railway system around Birmingham. It is a sort of central node, yet the organisation of the services is, frankly, not working. People experience great difficulties there, but an opportunity exists now that much of the rolling stock and diesels have been freed up and are available to run longer services; from the south-west to the north-east and from the south-east to the north-west. By using those trains and providing an hourly service, we could begin to sort out some of those difficulties and provide a much higher standard of service for customers.
When one gets beyond the day-to-day determination of what is needed for the various franchises, it becomes clear that the Railways Bill, which has some useful parts, is worrying in one or two small details. I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me if I highlight one of them, but I will not be doing the sort of rant about local government personalities that we have heard from Conservative Front Benchers tonight. When I hear determined attempts to make Ken Livingstone into a bogeyman, I wonder whether he has some arrangement with Conservative Members, by which they give him all that free publicity and build him up in a way that, undoubtedly, he warmly welcomes. If they could tell me what the arrangement is, perhaps I could make a contribution and they could demonise me in the same way. I am sure that it would improve my chances of re-election.
There are some real problems with the franchises. I want to comment briefly on those who are choosing to suggest, for reasons that I do not understand, that the next round of franchises will be greatly influenced by personalities and the relationship between various personalities and various political parties. Whatever one says about granting franchises and whatever one's view of companies' abilities to run the franchises that they take over, I do not think that anyone has seriously
6 Dec 2004 : Column 950
suggested that those decisions were taken on the basis of the popularity or otherwise of the management of the companies concerned.
Yet the rumour is now gaining considerable weight within the eastern region. A case is already being built; if there are any difficulties with GNER, they will be due entirely to the fact that the Labour Government are not prepared to allow certain people to take over certain franchises. That is so bizarre. Usually, I would not bother to comment on such things, but it is important to make it clear once and for all that if we are to retain a franchise system, it will be done simply on the basis of efficiency and value for money for the taxpayer and the passenger.
Personally, I would like to see much tougher conditions and quality of service written into the franchises. I am sure that the Secretary of State is not only alive to that possibility, but wants to ensure that it happens in the next round. We cannot allow the sort of interpretation of "flexibility of programming" whereby if an efficient and timely service cannot be run, bus substitution or some other cheaper way of providing a service is viewed as acceptable to assist the overall finances without consideration of what that means for the passengers. I am afraid that bus substitution is no substitution for an efficient and competent service.
Jeremy Corbyn: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that bus substitution is no substitute; indeed, it often ends up driving people away from the public sector altogether. However, is she concerned about the possibility of the community rail initiative going in that direction, with the Devon and Cornwall branch lines, for example, being viewed as appropriate for bus substitution? That would be rather similar to what Beeching did for many of the Norfolk branch lines, as it resulted in fewer passengers using either bus or rail transport.
Mrs. Dunwoody: The Secretary of State knows that the community rail partnerships are capable of producing really high-quality services. The combination of the needs of local people with the desire to provide a good railway system often improves not just the stations, services and passenger information, but even the quality of ride.
I sincerely believe that the Secretary of State wants to develop that and I do not concur with any suggestion that it is all about some hidden attempt to cut services. I know that my right hon. Friend will not expect us to sit quietly here, should there be a move, even by default, towards such a policy. He and I both know that using taxpayers' money well means providing what taxpayers want, which is continuing community involvement in railways and continuing provision of links between smaller railway lines and the main lines. We all know what happened in the past when, for one reason or another, those lines were discontinued. I am quite convinced that the Bill is not a back-door way of cutting community services. Indeed, I hope to see them developed and improved under the Bill.
However, I do have some concerns. I hope that the Secretary of State will make it quite clear that the rearrangement whereby safety becomes the responsibility of the Office of Rail Regulation should
6 Dec 2004 : Column 951
not be regarded by anyone as a cost-cutting measure. It will, I hope, produce a high level of safety, and we should not assume that it will be a cheaper service to run. I think that it will, in fact, be cheaper because it will be much more efficient. By definition, that should mean not having the same overheads, but it must be made clear to the people concerned that it is not a means of spending less on safety. We are seeking a higher standard and we want to maintain it across the network because we happen to think that that is how it should be in the future.
What will determine that will be the quality of the staff in the new office and their experience. Network Rail could undertake much of its own safety work, in the way that British Rail did, because of its particular involvements and the experience that it will build up. However, we need assurances from everyone that that particular development will not be regarded as a cheaper approach. For example, £578 million was spent on the installation of the train protection and warning system, but safety is not only a question of an immediate response to a problem, but of long-term value for money. That is essential. I also hope that the Transport and Works Act inquiry into the extension of the railway in the west midlands will be made available in due course, because it will have an impact on major lines.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to streamline the rail passengers committees, which will be an improvement. No matter how genuine and hardworking the individual members of those committees are, the structure is unwieldy. The passengers do not know where to go to complain, there is no clear line through which to answer complaints and many hon. Members have had to undertake inquiries that would be best left to the committees. I hope that the streamlining will include the provision of a reasonable advertising budget, so that in the future no one need be unclear about where to go to obtain redress for what are real problems.
I should have liked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of state to address the issue of rolling stock. We have already debated the untenable position of rolling stock companies or ROSCOs, which will walk away with large sums of money. Can my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that ROSCOs will be asked to contribute to retaining the rolling stock industry in the United Kingdom? That would be a source of great comfort. It is frightening that at a time when the taxpayer is at long last committing large sums to rolling stock, including improving general carriages, the work will go to overseas companies.
The companies, sensibly, have made strong efforts to produce the responses that the Government want, but we are losing jobs in the rolling stock industry very quickly. Once the expertise is lost, it cannot be regained easily or speedily. However, we know that we will soon need more and more new contracts fulfilled, and I want to see them fulfilled in the UK.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|