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Reopened Railways

8. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): How many miles of closed railway in England have been reopened since 1 May 1997. [7341]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Since 1997, 12 miles of railway line have been reopened and some 36 miles have been redoubled. Also, some 27 miles of former railway alignment are now being used by light rail. In addition, stage 1 of the channel tunnel rail link includes 46 miles of new railway line and stage 2, when it opens in 2007, will form an additional 24 miles.

Norman Baker: Twelve miles is pathetic, given the renaissance of rail that Labour promised when it came to power some eight years ago. Many former railway lines are crying out to be reopened, not least the Lewes-Uckfield line in my constituency. The social, environmental and economic case for that is beyond question. The reopening is supported by all three parties, it would close a small gap in the network and provide an alternative to the Brighton main line. If we cannot reopen that line, when will any line reopen under Labour?

Mr. Darling: I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that there is any likelihood of that line reopening in the near future. I mentioned the new railway lines and those that are being used for light rail, but for the sake of completeness, it is fair also to include the nearly £8 billion that we spent upgrading the west coast main line; the improvements that are being made to the east coast main line; the £1 billion we spent on replacing the Southern power supply, which affects trains to the hon. Gentleman's constituency; and the fact that 40 per cent. of all rolling stock has been replaced in the past five years. It simply is not true to say that money has not been spent on the railways: £87 million of public money, which is also bringing in money from the private sector, is being spent on the railways. The hon. Gentleman has conveniently forgotten that that is an awful lot more than the Liberal Democrats ever promised.

Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that we await a date for the Second Reading of the Crossrail Bill, which will open up opportunities for cross-London transport that are currently closed for rail purposes. Can my right hon. Friend give us a date for Second Reading and will he also look again at the case for a station at Woolwich, without which a six-mile section of that network will be closed to passengers from south-east London?

Mr. Darling: I know of my right hon. Friend's interest in the Crossrail project. The timetable is a matter for the business managers and I cannot make any announcement to the House on that today. The Bill has had its First Reading and, if it gets a Second Reading, it will go into Committee, and that is the opportunity for my right hon. Friend to make representations. Substantial representations have already been made in respect of Crossrail. People want major changes and minor changes, but I hope that the process can be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.
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My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to two matters. In relation to London's transport needs, we are making the investment for the future. I remind the House that after years when the railways were starved of investment, when the Conservatives saw no long-term future for the railways, we now have a substantial increase in investment and more and more people are using them.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that calls for the reopening of the Kettering to Corby railway line to regular passenger traffic enjoy popular support in north Northamptonshire? However, in the Government's Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy, published in March, plans for the reopening of that line were described as

Given that Corby is the largest town in western Europe without access to a regular rail passenger service, can the Secretary of State advise the House when plans for the reopening of Corby station will be announced?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the calls to open that particular railway line and many others, but I remind the hon. Gentleman, in the nicest possible way as he is new to the House, that just a few weeks ago he stood on a platform for cutting public expenditure, including substantial cuts in transport, which would have made it impossible to open that line, or indeed any other.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): The Cotswold line running west from Oxford to Worcester is hampered by elements of single tracking along its route—the other half of the track has been closed down. Will my right hon. Friend undertake a review of the impact of that on the efficiency and capacity of services along that important route?

Mr. Darling: As I said in my original reply, double tracking has been restored on a number of lengths of track where that is justified by the passenger traffic. I can make no specific promises about that particular stretch of track, but I would say more generally that although I understand the many arguments for reopening railways, we are spending a very large amount indeed on them and it will not be possible to meet everyone's representations or demands. At least, my hon. Friend stood on a platform at the last election for increasing public expenditure.

Railways Congestion Charge

9. Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): What assessment he has made of the potential impact of congestion charges on the railways. [7342]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): There are no plans to introduce a congestion charge for the railways. As I have said before, pricing people off the railways is not the answer.

Susan Kramer: Does the Secretary of State accept that in my constituency and others in south-west London, above-inflation increases in rail fares, to the point where we pay about five times the amount in equivalent
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European cities, are in effect becoming a congestion charge on rail, as if that policy had been implemented? Would not it be wise to change it?

Mr. Darling: As I said a few moments ago, I do not believe that a congestion charge for railways of the sort that was being talked about a week or two ago is the right thing to do. In relation to trains generally, it is the case that fares have gone up, but although the hon. Lady is a Liberal Democrat I remind her that at some stage someone has to pay for the railways and the money has to come either from the taxpayer or the fare payer, or a balance between the two. That is what we have tried to do. I am sure that over the past three or four years the hon. Lady will have noticed that the South West Trains fleet has been substantially replaced by new trains; unfortunately, again, they have to be paid for.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend remain committed to Merseytram line 1 between Liverpool and Kirby, provided that the issue of costs is addressed reasonably?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend will be aware that I have written to Merseytravel setting out the position. That is another light rail scheme where the costs increased far above what was originally expected. The Government said that £170 million would be available in cash terms to Merseytravel, and that offer remains if the company can cut its costs. I know that Merseytravel is looking at what it might do to reduce its costs. As I have said many times before, light rail can provide a useful way of transporting people, but the costs must be brought under control. Merseytravel was optimistic about that, but sadly when the final costs came in they were much higher than people had thought. Let us see what we can do to try to bring the costs down again, although it is too early yet to say whether that will be possible.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State's clear statement that he will not allow punitive fares to be used to price passengers off the railways, but can he tell the House at the earliest opportunity what progress he has made on drawing up a plan for fast rail links to create the additional capacity that is needed, so that the Association of Train Operating Companies does not need to consider such madcap schemes?

Mr. Darling: First, in relation to fast rail links, as I think I have told the House before, the Chancellor and I asked Rod Eddington to work on a long-term study of our transport needs, which will include high-speed rail links. If we go ahead with those, that will provide additional capacity. However, other measures will be needed to provide additional capacity for the suburban links, especially in London and the south-east. The sort of links to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) was referring would not be met by a high-speed train link. What is needed is a little more imagination. Longer trains could be used; I said the other day that over the longer term, we should look at the use of the double-deck trains that are commonplace in parts of Europe. Many things need to be done, but one of our problems is that more than 1 billion people were carried by rail last year—the highest total since the
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late 1950s. If that growth continues, we shall certainly have to address capacity problems. High-speed links will be part of that, but in relation to commuter services other solutions will need to be considered as well.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State use his good offices to work on the rail operators to re-examine not the congestion charge concept, but the reintroduction of early-bird tickets, which helped a lot of people on low pay to get to work and relieved congestion? It was a retrograde step when those operators decided to abandon early-bird tickets, which were much valued and environmentally friendly.

Mr. Darling: Again, I have said in the House and elsewhere that I think railway companies should do more to encourage people to travel on trains that are not terribly well used at the moment. Indeed, they might take a lesson from the low-cost airlines, which have shown how they can fill aeroplanes at all times of day and night; I think that some of the train operating companies are actually doing it.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): That is a congestion charge.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman says that that is congestion charging; no, it is not. The aim of a congestion charge is to get people off the trains, full stop. Sensibly managing the passenger loads on trains must be a good idea. The hon. Gentleman is, I understand, one of the many standing for the leadership of the Conservative party, yet he is closing his mind to a good idea for managing Britain's railways.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): At the last Transport questions I asked the Secretary of State's sidekick about specific measures to deal with rail congestion, and his answer was mercifully short but woefully inadequate. So I ask the Secretary of State, what specific measures does he have to deal with rail congestion? He has mentioned longer trains, yet earlier today we heard that he does not believe in longer platforms.

Mr. Darling indicated dissent.

Mr. Hayes: Well, longer trains without longer platforms would be an entirely undesirable policy. The Secretary of State has spoken publicly about road congestion and what he plans to do about that, without any assessment or mention of the impact of road congestion measures on rail congestion. His 10-year transport plan says that the Government will deal with overcrowding, yet his Department says that overcrowding may occur. What specific measures is he going to bring before the House quickly, so that we can deal with the urgent problem of overcrowding on our railways?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman, too, stood on a platform for cutting transport spending, so it is a bit rich of him to come along today and ask us what further plans we have for increasing railway spending. But he does have a point, in that what we should all be concerned about—it is encouraging that his hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan),
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who speaks for the Conservative party on transport matters, accepts this—is how we can arrange for more people to travel in future, and for more goods to be transported as efficiently and effectively as possible. That means a sensible policy for ensuring that we manage our roads, and it means increasing capacity on the railways.

A few moments ago, I mentioned to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) some of the measures that I think we need to look for in relation to the railways. There will be other measures as well. But I would say to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) and other Conservative Members that at some stage they will have to come to a realisation that while management can achieve quite a lot, it is necessary to spend some money on the transport system; indeed, the reason that much of our transport has difficulties today is that successive Governments did not spend enough when they should have done. We are putting that to rights now; it is just a shame that the hon. Gentleman did not support us in that at the last election.

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