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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): In view of the source behind the observations of the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), I am sure that they will be listened to seriously. The points that he raised, particularly in relation to the sad accident that involved one of his constituents, will be taken seriously.
I originally intended to speak on local matters. Having listened to the hon. Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), however, neither of whom is currently in his seat, I think it is appropriate to make some observations about the argument between the Opposition and the Government. Those speeches were similar and addressed the same issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) commented earlier on Conservative Members' antipathy towards the Mayor of London. We all have our own opinions about the present incumbent, but Conservative Members have overreacted in basing a large part of their opposition to the Bill on their fears about what the Mayor of London might do.
The role of central Government is the second issue that divides us. The hon. Member for Spelthorne put it more robustly, but the hon. Member for South Suffolk made the same argument; the more the Government are out of the railroads, the better the railroads will be. That argument may or may not be true, although I reject it, but the question is this: who created the problem in the first place? It was not this Government; they did not allow many years of underinvestment in the railway system or create a botched privatisation system, the consequences of which we are still trying to recover from.
I have to say to Opposition Members, in a spirit of great friendship, that if they intend to sustain their opposition to the Bill through Standing Committee and beyond, they will need to find a better set of arguments, because on the basis of what they have said today, they simply do not have any. It is opposition for opposition's sake.
The Government, rightly, wish to ensure that we get for value for money in our expenditure and that what is spent is invested wisely in the network. My interest in the Bill relates particularly to the Merseyrail electrics network, a unique system in the United Kingdom. It is local, segregated and electrified, and constitutes a regional metro system.
In July 2003, Merseytravelthe passenger transport executive for Merseysideand the passenger transport authority took over responsibility from the Strategic Rail Authority for letting and managing the contract to provide passenger services on the Merseyrail electrics
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network. I should say a few words about Merseytravel, particularly its chief executive and director general and its chair. My hon. Friend the Minister, who is preoccupied elsewhere in the Chamber, knows very well Neil Scales, the chief executive and director general of that esteemed body, and is also very familiar with the work of Councillor Mark Dowd, who is its chair.
The Government had enough confidence in those involved to let them have this unique arrangement. They have proved in many ways how capable they are, and it is a tribute to them and to the authority that the Government allowed them to go ahead on that basis. Merseytravel accordingly awarded a 25-year contract to Merseyrail Services Holding Company Ltd.Merseyrailwhich is a joint venture between Serco, NedRailways and Merseyrail itself. That marked a new era in the provision of local rail services on Merseyside through the creation of a long-term and genuinely locally controlled public-private partnership between the public transport authority and the train operating company. The confidence that the Government showed in Merseytravel and Merseyrail has proved well merited.
Since these new arrangements have been in place, performance on the network has been transformed. It is currently operating at more than 94 per cent. PPM, which, I am reliably informed, stands for passenger performance monitoring; whatever it is, we have achieved 94 per cent. of it. Punctuality and reliability are at record levels and, according to the latest Strategic Rail Authority figures, Merseyrail is the best performing train-operating company on the UK mainland. Next January's fare rises are one of the lowest in the UK mainland and are pegged to the level of inflation.
Mr. Howarth: I hesitate to say that Councillor Dowd might have been aware of who was travelling on it; I am sure that that was not the case. Every system has its failures, and it is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman was caught up in one of those. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it is the best-performing train service in the UK, and I am sure that he is as proud of it as I am.
The experience of the Merseyrail electrics network demonstrates the benefits of enabling local people to deliver local solutions to local issues. That is entirely consistent with the objectives set out in the White Paper. Full local decision making will place overall responsibility for the railway infrastructure, alongside overall responsibility for passenger services, in the hands of Merseytravel. That transfer will ensure that this unique local railway is locally controlled and can deliver further improvements to the community on
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Merseyside that uses it. The people of Merseyside will therefore benefit from local people taking local decisions for long-term and day-to-day management of the entire segregated network. Merseytravel will ensure that local solutions to local problems are provided quickly and properly; indeed, it has a long track record of doing just that. The result will be a more efficient service to passengers with greater accountability and responsibility, as well as reduced operating costs.
Although the transfer is technically possible under the existing legislationindeed, it took placeit would be prudent for the Government to include in the Bill a reserve power to ensure that Ministers can be satisfied that all railway infrastructure is managed as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) argued for seat belts in trains. He has a case, and it should be investigated. However, all the research and evidence shows that seat belts work well in cars because they are attached to the frame of a vehicle, which provides their strength. That is less applicable to coaches, because seat belts tend to be attached to the seats, and someone involved in an accident can find themselves attached to a seat that is itself moving. I suspect that there may be a similar problem in trains. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) observed, in a train many people will be standing. Last time I went on the train between London and Reading well over 100 people were standing until Reading, when they started to thin out a bit. In that situation, one is likely to be hit by a flying passenger or an object such as a bicycle, so there are wider issues beyond seat belts to be considered.
When my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) was shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions in the last Parliament, he thought that the issue of passengers standing should be dealt with, and suggested for starters that they should not have to pay a fare as they had not got a seat. If one does not get a seat on an aircraft, one does not travel, but on the railways one pays the full cost and has to stand in the aisles. Many people greeted his suggestion with horror. Nevertheless, we must consider the wider issues of people standing and of bags in corridors. Some trains are so crowded, partly because of the success of privatisation, that getting out of them can take a while even in normal conditions, let alone in an emergency or an accident.
Does my hon. Friend accept that although the hon. Member for Teignbridge gave a thoughtful answer to my question, it raised a problem, for did not he suggest that either far more seats should be provided, which would be an extremely expensive and long-term enterprise for any Government, or all carriages should be all-seater in the interim in any case,
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which would serve only to exacerbate passenger frustration and the length of the delays that people experience?
Mr. Syms: The hon. Member for Teignbridge made a thoughtful contribution that doubtless reflected the genuine concerns of his constituents. However, his questions raised even more questions about the way in which we manage the railway and whether there should be more seats or more cars added to trains. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister heard his comments and will consult his civil servants about what can be done.
We tend to concentrate on first principles and I am sure that a few unreconstructed Members would like to revert to the nationalised rail structure. The railways in Britain were a great private sector success. We have heard much about fortunes made and lost and that certainly happened in the mid-Victorian era. The private sector ran the railways for 100 years before it was decided to take them into public ownership. Apart from the ideological concerns of the then Labour Government, it happened because the railways played a major part in our economy in the second world war. They were heavily used and needed massive investment, and it was believed that the public sector would be better able to provide the investment for them to grow in the post-war years.
As many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), said, decades of under-investment under British Rail caused the railways' problems. However, if one considers the matter, it is inevitable that a publicly owned railway system, in which the investments are measured against education, health, foreign aid and everything else in the public sector, will be affected by investment rationing. I remember talking to a Minister in the first Thatcher Government of 1979 who worked at the Department of Transport. That person said that, when the Government came to office, any capital investment in British Rail of more than £250,000 had to be referred to the Secretary of State. That was 25 years ago and £250,000 would be some millions today. Nevertheless, that was essentially the cost of a station refurbishment and it had to be referred to the political masters. No railway can run in the long term if politicians deal with that amount of detail.
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