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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Government are providing more than £20 million in each of the next two years to support the transfer of freight from road to rail. In addition, we have outlined our proposals to provide increased certainty for freight operators about their rights on the network in the railways White Paper, and earlier today we announced new proposals to secure better value for money from freight grants in future.
The Minister may know of a rather innovative scheme in the Conwy valley to recycle many millions of tonnes of slate spoil for use as building
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material. That will require investment in the Welsh railway line, but also in some lines in Cheshire, so that the material can be taken to the plant to be reprocessed. I expect the Welsh Assembly Government to support the scheme in Wales, and I assume that freight facility grant will be available. Would the right hon. Gentleman be prepared to meet me at some point, along with members of Conwy and Gwynedd councils, to discuss the other side of the investment? This is a very worthwhile scheme, environmentally and economically.
Mr. Darling: I am aware of the scheme, and I am aware that an application for funding was made to the Welsh Assembly Government. The initial application was turned down, because it was felt that too much was being asked for, and I believe that a revised application is now being considered. That is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, not the United Kingdom Government. Obviously any application for grant for the railways across the border would need to be considered, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to consult my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is probably the best person to see. Primarily, however, this is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State commit himself to supporting schemes to improve freight access to and from the port of Liverpool, and will that be part of the plans for "The Northern Way"?
Mr. Darling: I agree that it is important that access not just to Liverpool but to other ports be improved. Each application obviously has to be looked at on its merits, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that the amount of freight now being carried on the railways has increased very significantly in the past seven or eight years. Of course, central Government grants play their part, but ultimately, we want more of these schemes to be self-sufficientin other words, to be paid for by the industry, rather than depending on Government grant to make them work. But we have made it clear that we will continue to provide grantsmore than £20 million will be available this year and nextand such schemes will be looked at on their merits. It must make sense to transport heavy goods and freight by rail if we possibly can, and we want to continue to do so.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Is the Secretary of State aware of the encouraging trend reported in the Strategic Rail Authority's latest "National Rail Trends" document, which shows an overall increase of about 11 per cent. in rail freight during the last reported quarter? Is he concerned, however, that such increase is almost entirely in bulk commodity and actually masks a drop of 12.7 per cent. in other freight? Does he agree that such demand would be best served by the creation of freight villages or rail freight interchanges, and what will the Government do to encourage such development?
I am aware of those figures, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House's attention to what is just one of many achievements under this Labour Government. I look forward to reading his party's manifesto, which will doubtless
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repeat that point, in the not too distant future. I should caution him, however, against putting too much emphasis on quarterly figures; rather, we must look at the overall trend. He is right to say that transport of bulk products such as coal and steel are subject to events elsewhere in the economy, but overall, there has been an increase in the amount of freight carried.
We look primarily to private sector operators to develop freight villages. EWS, for example, whose management is slightly different from that of a couple of years ago, is developing a number of innovative schemes to encourage more business on to the railways and the transportation of more goods. We are supporting such efforts not just through grants, but by increasing the amount and certainty of access available to the rail freight industry, which is making a difference. Overall, the prospects for rail freight in this country are good, thanks to a combination of the Government playing their part through investment in the infrastructure, a bit of grant in aid, and the flair and innovation being shown by some companies. It is precisely such partnerships that we want to develop.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on such investment, but in considering future investment in moving freight from road to rail, will he take into account the huge costs arising from accidents on the A14, such as lorries overturning? Such costs fall mainly on the businesses in my area, because of the resulting traffic congestion.
Mr. Darling: Yes, I am aware of the problem, and the A14 is one of several roads that will receive substantial investment over the next few years. Improvements to the railway from Felixstowe to Nuneaton will also make a difference by providing a more attractive means of transport, which will get some of the traffic out of that part of the east of England. My hon. Friend is right: if we can, we should get freight on to the railway, and where appropriate we want to do so. The important thing is that that means sustaining investment in the railways rather than cutting it, as the Conservatives propose.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): The Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority have been commissioned to examine capacity issues on the Dartford crossing and the level of demand for a rail crossing. They are due to report to the Secretary of State in the coming months. The further steps required to address capacity on this strategic route will be determined in the light of those reports.
I welcome the Minister's reply, but may I urge him to focus on road traffic and a further Thames crossing to the east of Thurrock? Will he discuss with his fellow Ministers whether such an engineering project, which would benefit not just people in south
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Essex and north Kent, but UK commerce to and from the Channel ports, could incorporate a Thames flood barrier, which is needed to protect and promote the Thames gateway?
Mr. Jamieson: I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this matter so consistently in the House. He is right that extra capacity will be needed in the next 10 years. The report that we will have in front of us asks, first, whether we need extra capacity, and the answer is certainly yes; secondly, when it will be delivered; and, thirdly, where the new crossing will be, what form it will take and what further measures can be taken at the same time. I can assure my hon. Friend that, over the coming months when the report is available, we will deal with those issues most urgently and seriously.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The Minister's answer is disappointingly ambiguous. Why will he not state unequivocally that the surplus toll paid by motorists on the Dartford crossing will be reinvested in extra capacity and that he will engage the private sector now to use that money for a third crossing?
Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman knows that the excess money goes back into the transport pot and is spent on our 10-year plan. If we took that money out, we would then have to add to the £1.8 billion cuts that the Tories have advocated in their transport plans. That would amount to a substantial cut in expenditure. The hon. Gentleman claims that I am being ambiguous in saying that a report is soon to be published and that we intend to take action in response to it, but I would hardly call that ambiguous. I would say that I am being extremely assertive and decisive.
8. Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): Pursuant to his answer of 21 December 2004, Official Report, column 1642W, on railways, what steps he is taking to secure efficiency gains in relation to (a) investment in the franchise elements of the railways and (b) transferring the Strategic Rail Authority functions to his Department. 
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): In October last year, I announced changes in the franchises as part of improving the efficiency of the railways. Bids for franchises are judged not only on price but on performance, commitments to improve train and crew reliability and operational viability. One of our main aims is to bring costs under control, and all the reforms that we have set out will help to do that.
Mr. Dalyell: Can my right hon. Friend persuade us that the re-tendering process for ScotRail, which amounted to £2.8 million in June last year, but may have risen to £3.9 million now, was better spent on that than on front-line services?
The provision of the rail franchise is a front-line service. My hon. Friend will know that the operator of the ScotRail franchise changed last October when First Group took it over. One of the purposes of franchising is to ensure that we get better value in
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respect of the subsidy paid in the particular case, but we also want better services. I am aware that First Group encountered a number of teething problems when it took over the franchise, but the object is to improve the quality of services.
For the sake of completeness, I should also say that the award of the ScotRail franchise is a matter for the Scottish Executive, even though it is administered for them by the Strategic Rail Authority. Under the new regime, it will be entirely a matter for the Scottish Executive in the future.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): All franchisees have, of necessity, a close relationship with Network Rail. Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the lack of transparency and accountability of Network Rail? What international comparisons, if any, do the Government use to measure the efficiency of Network Rail, and why is progress on making better use of the brownfield development opportunities on sites that are controlled by Network Rail so appallingly slow?
Mr. Darling: In relation to Network Rail, it is an unusual companynot many other companies are structured in the same way. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a choice to be made. Some people advocate the state taking the whole lot over againnationalisation. I am not in favour of that option and, as far as I know, not even the new Conservative party has yet reached that stage. Another option would be to go back to Railtrack, but with the exception of a few Conservative Members, there is not much support for that either. What we have in Network Rail is a private sector company operating in the public interest. As to efficiency, Network Rail is held to account by the rail regulator, which regularly sets out milestones that it has to achieve.
The relationship between Network Rail and the train operating companies is much simpler and more transparent now than it was before I made the changes last year. There will now be agreements between Network Rail and the train operating companies in respect of their operation. Overall, the hon. Gentleman is right that it is important to provide efficiencies in the system. Railtrack completely lost control of its costs and the country paid an extremely heavy price, not just financially, but in terms of reliability. The regime that we have in place now is much more efficient and much simpler. We can point to areas in which there have been substantial improvements in efficiency and reliability, but, equally, there are areas where we have further to go. Above all, it is important to maintain the investment. I say yet again to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that if he insists on cutting nearly £2 billion from transport expenditure, it is bound to come at a cost.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)
(Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that, during the process of transferring responsibility from the SRA to the Department for Transport, the commitment to extend capacity at Bletchley and at Milton Keynes central station will be maintained? The group West Coast Rail 250 will publish a report on
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Monday, in which it will become the latest to make a similar call. I urge my right hon. Friend to make sure that the commitment is honoured.
Mr. Darling: I remind my hon. Friend that my Department will be taking over strategic responsibility for the railways, while day-to-day operations will be a matter primarily for Network Rail. I am aware, because my hon. Friend has raised this matter in the House and with me personally, that there are capacity problems in and around her constituency. We need to see what we can do to improve that. I am also aware that there are continuing problems on the west coast main line in respect of both track and trains. I believe that both sets of problems are eminently capable of being sorted out. I have asked all concerned to sort them out, because that is what passengers expect.
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