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Mr. Watts: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way once again. May I inform him that free bus travel for pensioners was not a Liberal Democrat idea? Labour-controlled Merseyside has had a free bus service for pensioners for some years, and when the Liberal Democrats took over Liverpool, they suggested that it should be scrapped.
John Thurso: Ours was the first party to adopt the policy as national policy, and the first party to implement it in national government in Scotland. We are delighted that the Government have followed that lead and will now be introducing it for the rest of the country.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman and those on the Government Front Bench indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation about the provision of free bus travel at peak times. It is all very well for free bus passes to be made available, but there
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needs to be an adequate supply of buses, which there may be in urban areas. All too often, to the damning indictment of the Secretary of State for Transport, that is not the case in rural constituencies such as mine.
John Thurso: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. One of our policies is to do everything possible to continue to support rural transport. There are areas of the country that are extremely poorly served, and I shall come to that a little later in my remarks.
A striking example of transport policy is the concept of the not-for-profit company to run the railways. We proposed in our manifesto at the last election that Railtrack should be made a not-for-profit company. Around that time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) asked the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's questions about that concept, and the Prime Minister replied:
Lo and behold, eight months later Railtrack was gone and we had Network Rail which, as far as I can see, is a not-for-profit company. I look forward confidently to further Liberal Democrat policies being adopted by the Government.
In the magnanimous spirit in which I started this afternoon, let me welcome the announcement in the Chancellor's Budget statement that Mr. Rod Eddington has been charged with drawing up a long-term strategyaccording to The Times today, post-2015for our roads, railways and air travel. As I have often said in the House and outside, it is abundantly clear that one of the most critical tasks for Government is to draw up a long-term strategy for transport. Good transport links are vital to the success of our economy, and it is our economy that drives our transport requirements.
The days when each mode could grow in isolation on a purely predict-and-provide model must be over. Such a strategy is both wasteful of resources and doomed to fail. What we need now is integration and a wise use of resources. Perhaps most important of all is the contribution that long-term strategic planning can make to our climate change goals and to our emission reduction targets. Carbon emissions are a resource that must be used wisely. With transport responsible for about a quarter of the UK's emissions, there is real scope for reduction through long-term strategic planning.
Here again perhaps Liberal Democrat policy can help the Government and Mr. Eddington. The biggest single issue that we face that will have a major impact on the country's finances is the fact that transport lacks capacity. Whether on roads, rail or air, we will need both to manage existing capacity and to create new capacity.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con):
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, and on the question of capacity, the Liberal Democrats pride themselves, in their words, on being an effective Opposition. I am delighted to see him joined by his hon.
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Friend the. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), but where are the rest of his party to support his policies this afternoon?
Let me finish the point that I was making before the hon. Lady intervened. The key must be that resources are used wisely so that modes complement each other rather than compete as they have done in the past. To take the example of the railways, it is estimated that capacity on the east coast main line will run out around 2014. The Liberal Democrats have committed to the principle of a dedicated high-speed rail network, beginning with a north-south route. Such a link frees capacity on the existing network for more freight and local services.
John Thurso: That is a fair question, to which I shall come in a moment. As I said, such a link frees capacity on the existing network for more freight and local services, but very importantly it also provides time-competitive journeys as an alternative to domestic aviation, freeing slots at airports.
I have noted with interest that in a number of speeches that he has made outside this place the Secretary of State has started to talk quite seriously about that proposal, and I am delighted that he is taking the concept seriously. He rightly puts his finger on the critical point, which is: how much will it cost and how can the finance be raised? In order to arrive at the answer to both those questions, a period of due diligence and a feasibility study must clearly be undertaken. The Atkins report, which I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting into the Library, is a sound beginning, but much further work remains to be done. It would be pointless to say that it will cost £8 billion, £80 billion or £800 billion, when one simply does not have a relevant idea. My question to the right hon. Gentleman is that, given that he has now begun to take it seriously outside Parliament, what resources will his Department put into that feasibility study to find out what the benefits are and examine the quite sound business case that is evolving for such a link?
The hon. Gentleman is right that I have said on a number of occasionsI said it at lunchtime todaythat successive Governments have spent a long time fixing the transport problems of the past and we now need to fix the problems that we face in the future, which is one reason why I have asked Rod Eddington to help. He has a lot of experience in this area in different parts of the world. Of course we will devote adequate resources to that, but the point on which I want to press the hon. Gentleman is that some of his Liberal colleagues in Edinburgh have erroneously given the impression that the Liberal party has signed up to build this link. As I listen to the hon. Gentleman, his policy and mine do not seem dissimilar. Both of us say that we need to consider the matter, but a lot more work needs to be done before we can sign any contract.
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John Thurso: I have committed to what was in our motion at the Liberal Democrat party conference last autumn, which is the principle of a high-speed line and to undertaking the necessary due diligence. It would be quite irresponsible for anyone, on any infrastructure investment, to stand up and say, before they know how much it will cost and what the benefits will be, that they will go ahead with it. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that had proper studies been done on the Eurotunnel or the west coast main line we might have had better answers.
Mr. O'Neill: There is a Liberal-sponsored plan to have a railway from Edinburgh to Galashiels, which I understand is about 30-odd miles long and single track. That will cost £150 million of taxpayers' money at present-day prices. Simple arithmetic would suggest that it would be almost as cheap to try to get a rocket to the moon as build a two-line track going 400 miles for trains travelling at far higher speeds.
John Thurso: The hon. Gentleman should know that simple mathematics are not always a help in such circumstances. Very different costs can be arrived at for building TGV track, depending on the basis used for the analysis. I see no reason why sound British engineering companies that we are all proud of cannot at least rival if not improve on the costs in France.
The Secretary of State rightly made the point that we need to be looking at the long term, and he and I broadly agree on that. He also mentioned having fixed some of the short-term problems, but one such problem that really does need to be fixed is the fit-out of the Thameslink box. To have that station fitted out at a cost of £60 million or £70 milliona pretty small investmentwould be a tremendous advantage for those who have had to put up with the blockade of that line for the last year or two. That short-term fix would be well worth it.
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