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Integrated Kent Franchise

7. Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact on
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railway users in Kent of the specification by the Strategic Rail Authority for the integrated Kent franchise. [220408]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): The service pattern that will be introduced in 2009 will improve the speed, reliability and overall capacity of the network in Kent. There will be a 10 per cent. increase in the number of services arriving in London in the morning peak, once the new service pattern is introduced. The franchise specification takes into account feedback from a range of consultations held from February to April 2004, as a result of which several changes were made to the proposals.

Miss Widdecombe: Is the Minister aware that my constituents do not recognise that rosy picture? The reality of the SRA specification will be a reduced number of carriages in peak hours, which will mean more commuters standing for longer, a reduced number of services from Staplehurst to Cannon Street, regardless of the fact that 65 per cent. of early morning commuters want to go to Cannon Street, and a reduction in peak-time services from Barming, East Farleigh and Yalding. All those changes are based on a crazy methodology that assesses usage by ticket collection, even when no tickets are collected.

Mr. McNulty: I am aware of those concerns. I know that the right hon. Lady had great fun at the Staplehurst rail forum meeting on 31 January this year, which has already resulted in 36 letters to me, and I am sure that others are on the way. People have raised their concerns about services from Staplehurst and on the Maidstone East line. During the morning peak, the specification for Maidstone East is 10 trains to Victoria and one to Blackfriars, compared with the current configuration of seven and two, which is an overall increase of two trains. The right hon. Lady and others have raised concerns about the Maidstone East line, and the SRA will review the split of trains between Blackfriars and Victoria and let people know the outcome.

Marden will receive an extra four trains during the morning peak, and the configuration will be changed with more trains to Charing Cross and fewer to Cannon Street, although the SRA has assured me that it will see whether the split between Cannon Street and Charing Cross can be altered. The off-peak specification is for two trains an hour compared with the current three, and the reduction in frequency reflects current and projected loading.

Those concerns are well made, and I shall respond in full to the 36 letters—I assume that more will arrive—in due course, but the SRA will examine the configuration of the London termini.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for indicating that he is prepared to listen to representations on the outcome of the consultation, which was rendered entirely false when the recent document was published. I was consulted directly by the former chair of the SRA on six off-peak trains per hour, two of which would have gone to Victoria. At that time, there was no suggestion that the Victoria service would be cut, yet that is exactly what has happened. During the
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consultation, my constituents and I had no opportunity to comment on that service being cut, so I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend is prepared to listen.

Will my hon. Friend also consult disabled people, who will find it difficult to use those services?

Mr. McNulty: The SRA fully consults the disabled community as well as others.

My hon. Friend is referring to the tail end of consultation. The notion that the SRA's consultation on the IKF was anything other than lengthy and detailed is not fair, but if he has ongoing concerns on behalf of his constituents, I shall certainly examine them and pass them on to the SRA.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): Is the Minister aware that there is real concern that the SRA's views and plans will cause further overcrowding on commuter lines into London, particularly at stations such as Petts Wood, where rush hour services will be reduced significantly? Will he therefore confirm the view expressed by the SRA to the three Bromley MPs—I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in his place—that those proposals are not set in concrete and that the SRA will listen to legitimate concerns and show some flexibility?

Mr. McNulty: As I said to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) as regards services to Staplehurst and on the Maidstone lines, the SRA has already given that indication and will keep the situation under review with a good deal of flexibility. We need to bed in the new franchise at the earliest opportunity and to marry the channel tunnel rail link domestic services with the existing services on the Kent line, but there will of course be that flexibility.

Railways (Corporate Responsibility)

8. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): When he last discussed corporate responsibility with the chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation. [220409]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I have regular meetings with the chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation. We have discussed corporate responsibility, and if the right hon. Gentleman would care to let me know which aspect he has in mind, I would be happy to help him further.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: As I understand it, the Government want to increase corporate responsibility and the liability of company directors, who may in future be additionally liable for corporate manslaughter charges if their companies cause accidents or injury. My question is this: are Ministers and the Government also to be made liable for their acts or omissions which may cause accidents on the railways, or are the Government planning one set of rules for the private sector while protecting themselves against similar liabilities?

Mr. Darling: I hope that the Government will present their proposals on corporate manslaughter in the not-too-distant future. In relation to the Office of Rail
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Regulation, the right hon. Gentleman may be aware that I have had discussions with the chairman of the board. I want to ensure that the rail regulator and his board can carry out their functions without fear of litigation so that they can ensure that we have a safe and reliable railway, but at the same time I accept that, where appropriate, someone who is responsible for certain activities should face up to that. In the meantime, we have made it clear that the Government will indemnify the rail regulator and the board, and a minute to that effect has been laid before the House.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): On corporate responsibility, we should bear in mind that a majority of Network Rail members recently voted to improve its accountability by establishing a members' council to scrutinise this business, whose operations remain largely shrouded in secrecy and which may well be spending considerable sums of taxpayers' money inefficiently. Will the Secretary of State back that call; and if not, is it because he is afraid of what it might reveal?

Mr. Darling: Not really, no. I am aware of the move by several members of Network Rail to establish greater scrutiny. I welcome and support that, because the more questions that can be asked of the company, the better its management will be. Nevertheless, since it took over from Railtrack—the Conservatives are probably the only group of people left in this country who support that company—it has become much more efficient and accountable, and is running its responsibilities far better than Railtrack ever did. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks where is the evidence for that. Let me give him one example. When Railtrack was around, it told us that it could do up the west coast main line for £2.5 billion—that was the back-of-the-envelope calculation that it came up with. By the time that it finally stopped trading, the cost had risen to £13.5 billion for the same amount of work. Now, the final cost is likely to be about half that—about £7 billion—as a result of the increased efficiencies and improvements brought about by Network Rail. So yes, I back what is happening in Network Rail because it is a much better way of running the railway than Railtrack ever was.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Jim Cunningham to ask Question 10.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot have two bites at the cherry. He stood earlier and I called him, so his question is now unstarred. That is the rule of the House.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) was not called because he was called during a previous question. That is the rule of the House.
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