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John Thurso: Both new clauses would place a duty on the Secretary of State to publish information or reports. However, they are relatively narrow, in that they concentrate on the financial side of his responsibilities.

New clause 5 deals with rail efficiency and the performance of Network Rail. In passing, a minor criticism is that it does not go far enough. By concentrating on Network Rail, it leaves out a large part of the rail system—the train operating companies, the ROSCOs—rolling stock companies—and so on.

New clause 6 relates specifically to a register of assets. I have no difficulty in supporting the new clauses, because they point the way to one of the deficiencies in the Bill. As the Minister knows, I support the Bill and the principle that the SRA should be abolished, because
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it is right for the Government to take strategic responsibility for the railway. However, under the present arrangements, the SRA is under a duty to report on the matters mentioned in the new clauses and on a range of other matters. That report is made available to us. In the transfer of duties from the SRA to the Secretary of State, the duty to report has been lost, and the new clauses are intended to restore it.

3 pm

I am sorry that new clause 4, which I tabled, did not find favour with Mr. Speaker, because it would have fully addressed the requirement to publish the strategy and to report on progress on it. That may be something for the other place to consider.

New clauses 5 and 6 are requests for the publication of information and my colleagues and I are happy to support them. However, I wish that they contained an additional requirement to publish the strategy. The travelling public, as I said on Second Reading, need to see where they are going in the long term and what mileposts should be met along the route.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I support my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) and new clause 5, which calls for the publication of annual rail efficiency report by Network Rail. I should probably declare a small personal interest at this point, inasmuch as the chairman of Network Rail, Mr. Ian McAllister, is a constituent of mine, and I have written to him on the issue that I wish to raise this afternoon.

I wish to back the suggestion for a specific efficiency report, because a good number of my constituents are commuters. Many of them work in the City of London and travel into Liverpool Street station each morning. The efficiency of Network Rail is of considerable importance to them, not least because there are now important capacity issues on the Liverpool Street line. Network Rail, and Railtrack before it, has undertaken work to upgrade the line, both in terms of signalling improvements and initiatives such as lengthening some of the platforms at stations to facilitate the operation of 12-carriage trains, which are obviously more efficient. We also now have the combined franchise, operated by the 'one' group, which has led to some improvement in the co-ordination of services in and out of Liverpool Street, although the new timetable is taking a while to settle down.

Important physical constraints must be faced, however, including a narrow entrance, or neck, in and out of Liverpool Street station, so that it is comparatively difficult to run many more trains in and out, especially during the morning and evening peaks. Incidentally, if we are to see much expansion in house building in the Thames gateway area, that restriction will be an increasing problem, because at least some of the people who will live in those houses will want to commute into London. Ministers will have to be conscious of that.

Mr. Mark Field: Does my hon. Friend agree that the potential for increased capacity at Fenchurch Street station—used by the constituents of other south Essex Members, if not by his, to come into central London—
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is also limited. I therefore recognise the issues that he raises about the potentially large increase in housing capacity in the Thames gateway region.

Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend raises an important point. I commuted into Fenchurch Street for some eight years, so I am familiar with that station. It, too, has a very narrow neck. It will be therefore a serious challenge to bring in additional trains from the east of London, because only so many trains will physically fit into so much space. Ministers will have to consider that situation seriously, as will a future Conservative Government.

Speed restrictions still apply in some areas of the track at times, and further upgrade work—especially on some of the bridges, which can be particular choke points in terms of speed restrictions—would probably prove cost-effective in helping the trains to run more smoothly and efficiently. In addition, if we are to have an annual report specifically about efficiency, one area that it should cover is time lost to engineering works, especially when scheduled engineering works take place over a weekend but overrun into Monday morning. The track is opened again later than scheduled, so services during the Monday morning peak are disrupted. I have experienced that myself on several occasions in the past year when travelling to the House.

In a letter I received from Network Rail in November, the company admitted that six such overruns had occurred in the previous nine months, including at least one occasion when the line could not be released until past 9 am, with predictable consequences for commuters struggling into work. Greater effort may be required from Network Rail to try to prevent what should be an avoidable problem that is largely under its own control. They are, after all, the company's works. If Network Rail were required to report on the matter specifically every year, in a way easily accessible to commuters, it might help to focus minds on the problem.

In fairness, I should say that Network Rail has already undertaken some initiatives to try to address the situation, so it is not as if it has ignored the difficulty or pretended that it does not exist. Nevertheless, the problem persists on occasions and greater effort needs to be applied to try to eradicate it. I am grateful for the opportunity to put those points on the record and I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on the issues, which are of great interest to my constituents.

Mr. McNulty: I shall start with a few points arising from the contribution by the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). We fully accept and understand, as we have said repeatedly, that the railways—and other transport dimensions—need the infrastructure commensurate with the developments that are coming in the gateway, in north Kent and south Essex. Clearly, that will have a knock-on effect for assorted London terminals in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), such as Liverpool Street, which will have to be factored into the mix.

From the Kent perspective—I know that the hon. Member for Rayleigh could care less about that as an Essex Member—the channel tunnel rail link and other
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changes to the integrated Kent franchise will assist matters and, although they are meeting some resistance, they will redress the balance somewhat in terms of the numbers of trains going into Cannon Street, Fenchurch Street and St. Pancras. The changes are causing some disquiet among Kent commuters who have taken trains into Cannon Street for ever, and we will have to take into account how they will be affected.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned overruns. Engineering works need to be signed off only when it is safe to do so, and sometimes that means a couple of hours overrun with all the knock-on effects on the network. It is a fine balance, and Network Rail is getting better at it, but I cannot say that it will never happen again. In some cases, the safety considerations outweigh whatever delay and disruption may occur at that crucial time for commuters on a Monday morning. Safety must remain the key focal point.

Mr. Mark Field: In view of the cost implications of finding land in central London at Fenchurch Street station or Cannon Street, does the Minister think that we should have hubs in Finsbury Park, Stratford—which, in a sense, is already a hub—or the other side of London Bridge station, to provide larger capacity? Should we have new or enlarged stations outside the central zone stations that already exist? If so, is that the sort of initiative that should be replicated in other large cities, where the sheer cost and inconvenience of developing existing stations in the centre means that it is wise to consider areas in the suburbs for development?

Mr. McNulty: I think the answer is yes to some extent, but clearly it is dependent, whether it is in central London or elsewhere, on the existing hub and network reality as well as the potential for developing things further. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members know that we are seeking to overcome precisely such difficulties at Birmingham New Street. There will be a reconfiguration, once the channel tunnel rail link is up and running by 2009, in terms of the balance between the King's Cross/St. Pancras complex and a number of the channel tunnel rail link stations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As and when Thameslink 2000 is taken forward—perhaps the 2000 should be in inverted commas; I do not know—much of the real work there that will have a profound impact particularly on the southern commuter lines will be around the viaducts and bridges of Borough and the throat into London Bridge, and that will have serious ramifications in terms of enhancing capacity and efficiency.

So a number of things can be done. Finsbury Park, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is a mini-hub already and by the end of this work we shall have a very substantial hub at Stratford, with 10 or 11 lines going into it. If we are moving on to developments similar to those at Stratford, if there is an opportunity to make them transport hubs if they are close to but not in the centre—almost suburban but not quite; the hon. Gentleman will know what I mean—we should avail ourselves of that opportunity.

That leads me neatly to new clause 6 rather than new clause 5, and I will deal with both in detail after I have given way.

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