The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg):
A strategy for the development of community rail lines was published in November last year. Fifty-six routes have been proposed for designation. Seven pilot projects have been identified, and proposals for four of them are now out to consultation.
24 May 2005 : Column 548
Andrew Stunell: I welcome the Minister to his new role. Is he aware of the serious fears of users of the Hazel Grove to Buxton line that if it is reinvented as a community railway, they will lose out? They already face the use of old rolling stock, a disrupted timetable and overcrowding during peak periods, and fear that the transfer of costs and liabilities to community groups and local authorities would lead to a transfer of blame, not a transfer of resources. Can he guarantee my constituents and commuters that that will not be the case?
Derek Twigg: The community rail strategy can be delivered only through partnership. There has been extensive consultation with industry and regional stakeholders. We have consistently made it clear that there will be extensive consultation on each local line before community rail designation takes place. If we do not get local support for a specific line, it will not be designated as a community rail route.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that community rail is absolutely vital in rural areas because we need to get people out of their cars? With that in mind, will he look at a proper strategy of not only reopening halts, but ensuring that we can operate more trains in such areas? Will he commission a report to determine how that could be done successfully?
Derek Twigg: As my hon. Friend rightly says, community rail is one way in which we can examine how we can improve services generally and on rural railways. The Government's general approach on local rural railways is to work towards making them sustainable in the long term so that they can continue to offer a vital service to passengers and freight, and contribute more to the local economy, as well as meeting Government targets on accessibility.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend keep a close eye on developments on the Wrexham-Bidston line, which goes through Neston in my constituency? Innovative work is going on in the area and there is good will among a lot of people. Will he ensure that his Department gives the line every possible support, because I firmly believe that it can be important for the future?
Derek Twigg: I am aware of the general interest in the project in the region and I shall of course keep a close eye on it. I will be happy if my hon. Friend wants to talk to me about it or arrange for a delegation to come and see me.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)
(LD): May I, too, welcome the Secretary of State's colleagues to the Front Bench and wish his junior Minister a swift recovery and speedy return to the House?
24 May 2005 : Column 549
The transport innovation fund should be a good source of investment for community rail, yet the fund itself and its whereabouts are proving somewhat elusive. Will the Minister tell us how much money has been allocated to the fund, whether that is new money or simply a reallocation from 2004 spending plans, when that funding will come on stream, and whether it could be used for the Manchester tram extension, for example?
Derek Twigg: Can I get one thing correct? The fund is not actually for community rail, but for bigger capital transport projects. I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the details that he requested.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The position remains as I set out in my statement to the House on 16 December last year. The Greater Manchester passenger transport executive submitted proposals for the maintenance and renewal of the Metrolink system earlier this year. I hope to make a decision on that imminently.
Graham Stringer: My right hon. Friend will be aware that the refurbishment in phases 1 and 2 of the system is vital for both the current working and eventual expansion of the system. He will also be aware that a previous Minister of State in the Department told the Transport Committee in March that he would "crack the whip" over officials to get an early decision on the matter. Has the whip been cracked, and can we expect a very early decision?
Mr. Darling: As I said a moment ago, my hon. Friend, and Manchester, can expect a decision soon. Obviously, the small matter of the general election delayed thingsit is generally thought to be a bad idea to announce good news during an election.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer). Will the Minister do his very best to fast-track the implementation of the extension of Metrolink, especially the Rochdale-Oldham link? It is vital for the redevelopment of the new town centre in Rochdale and the development of the Kingsway industrial park, which is coming on stream now.
I am well aware of the benefits that people believe the extension of the Metrolink will bring. As I said, I set out in my statement of 16 December last year the way in which the Government propose to deal with the matter. That remains the position. It has not changed at all. What we said in essence was that the passenger transport executive would be able to work up plans both for the metro and for other measures better to manage traffic within the Greater Manchester area, either from their own resources or from bidding into the transport innovation fund, which, to follow on from the last question, was established by the Government in last
24 May 2005 : Column 550
year's spending review. All the details are set out if my hon. Friend wants to look at them. The idea is that that money is available for big infrastructure changes that would improve the flow of traffic and therefore the economic performance of areas. It is an important step, and I hope that Manchester, along with other areas, will benefit from it.
Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Is the Minister aware that there are speed restrictions on the Rochdale-Oldham line, that £2 million has had to be spent on emergency repairs, and that to make it fully operational will cost up to £60 million? Does he agree that the money would be better spent on the Metrolink line?
Mr. Darling: I am aware that that line needs attention; exactly how much remains to be seen. In my experience of railway finances, whenever anyone looks at a problem, they think of a very large number, double it and then add another few million to be going on with. It may not cost as much as people think.
In relation to the Manchester metro generally, the hon. Gentleman, being new to the House, has probably not had the chance to read in Hansard the interesting debates that we have had on the subject. The basic problem with that light rail scheme and others is that the cost has gone up and up, and we needed to get control of those costs. In Manchester, the cost went from £200 million to £500 million to perhaps as much as £900 million to build the three lines. Clearly, no Government could accept that. We needed to work with Manchester and the promoters of other schemes, which we are doing. When we build infrastructure, it is important to ensure that we have proper control of costs so that we get the maximum benefit out of it.
Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The public in Greater Manchester were uplifted by the Prime Minister's positive words about Metrolink, as I think they will be by the Secretary of State's words today. However, I make the obvious point that it is important to realise that a light rail system is a network, not simply a number of individual lines. I hope that the Secretary of State takes that on board in the decisions that he will arrive at shortly.
Mr. Darling: I am seized of the importance of the Manchester Metrolink, which has been very successful. The problem is that the cost of building light rail schemes has escalated out of all proportion to what we would normally expect. That is partly because those who finance such schemes go off the idea and increase the amount that they charge for them.
Manchester, however, has a quite highly developed transport system already. Obviously, we want that to improve. As I said, it is in a strong position to bid into the transport innovation fund because it is a large conurbation and is important to the whole of the UK's economy, not just to the north-west of England. I hope that Manchester will consider all aspects of its transport and come up with a series of proposals, some of which I hope we can fund. As I said in December last year, that will include the Metrolink.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)
(Con): I do not want to smash our new-found consensus, but there
24 May 2005 : Column 551
seems to be a serious lack of grip on the issue. The Government have kept the people of Manchester waiting and in April, talking of Metrolink in Oldham, the Prime Ministerneedless to say, before the electionsaid:
Well, people did not find anything in it and they are certainly not celebrating. I appreciate that the exact details will come later, but can the Secretary of State at least give us a clue about what he intends? When will the work start? When will it finish? Will it be funded? When can he and I take an initial ride on the completed project?
Mr. Darling: In relation to manifestos, it seems to me from a casual reading of the results that more people found something to be pleased about in our manifesto than they did in the Conservative manifesto. [Interruption.] It seems that the Conservatives did not contest that many seats in the north-west of England. I am not surprised that the consensus broke down after about 20 minutes, which is something of a record.
I set out the position on the way forward for Manchester on 16 December, when I set out a programme of work in which both we and the Manchester PTE are engaged, and that is the best way of resolving the matter. As I have said to the House many times, no Government, faced with a cost that had escalated from £200 million to £900 million, could simply sign a cheque on that basis.
As the consensus has now brokenlet us return to happier timesI remind the hon. Gentleman that he stood on an election platform that included a commitment to cut public spending by £35 billion. [Interruption.] The Conservatives are in complete denial. Anyone who loses an election as badly as they did should at least look at why they lost. One reason is that their sums did not add up, and that is why they did not have a transport policy that worked.