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Rail Network

3. Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): What measures he is taking to improve the UK's rail network; and if he will make a statement. [16812]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The changes introduced under the Railways Act 2005 are allowing the different parts of the rail industry to work more effectively together. That will give passengers a better, more reliable service and ensure that we get the best possible value for the £87 million a week that we spend on the railways.

Mr. MacDougall: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply and congratulate the Government on the tremendous investment in the rail network. Of course, that has resulted in some disruption to the service and to timetabling, for example, and I hope that he can reassure me that he is giving this issue some attention.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right—the Government are spending, as I said, some £87 million a week of public money on the railways, and such spending is bringing in a similar amount from the private sector. One problem from which Britain's railways have suffered—under successive Governments—is that not enough money was spent on them. That is now being put right, which is why reliability is improving. In fact, Britain has the fastest growing railway in Europe, and that is due not only to the money being spent, but to our radical overhauling of the management. We have got rid of some of the contradictions and difficulties caused by privatisation, and Network Rail is now running the railways efficiently in place of Railtrack, which was a disastrous company. It is making a huge difference to the railways, which is why more and more people are now using them.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Will the Secretary of State explain what the point was of spending many tens of millions of pounds on building a railway station box under St. Pancras, given that he then
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failed to authorise the much smaller sum necessary to equip it, so that my constituents can actually use it? They faced months of delay during the blockade, and they are seeing no return on their time and trouble; nor, indeed, are taxpayers receiving any return on their investment. When will the Secretary of State authorise that sum?

Mr. Darling: That is a perfectly good point, and as the right hon. Gentleman knows, given that he is always lecturing us on the use of public funds, the explanation is that we must make sure that we can get the additional funds to fit out that station. That will make a big difference to the facilities available at St. Pancras and King's Cross, and I hope that we can find a satisfactory solution in the not too distant future.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the major bottlenecks on the Great Western rail network is caused by the lack of platform capacity at Reading station? What progress has been made on plans to bring forward the long-overdue expansion of the second busiest station outside London?

Mr. Darling: I am aware of the importance of Reading and of the capacity problems there. My hon. Friend has made representations to me about this and, as I said when we met, we are looking at the matter, although primary responsibility lies with Network Rail, whose station it is and who is responsible for deciding which investment takes place and where. My hon. Friend has a perfectly good point; Reading station needs work carried out on it so that we can get more traffic not just to Reading but to points west and east of it.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): The Secretary of State will be aware that the rail network in Northern Ireland is part of the wider UK network and significant steps have been taken to upgrade our rail network and to purchase new train sets. What discussions has he had with representatives of other regions of the UK, including Northern Ireland, about the upgrading of the rail network with particular reference to the trans-European network for rail and for road?

Mr. Darling: The primary responsibility for that rests at the moment with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I will raise the matter with him. We all recognise that the railway network is as important in Northern Ireland as it is anywhere else in the UK, but investment decisions at the moment rest with my right hon. Friend.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): A journey by train from Doncaster to London takes about the same time as the journey from Doncaster to Manchester. Unfortunately, that speed is typical of many northern railway lines, where the trains find it difficult to achieve 19th century timetables. That is damaging the northern economy. When can we look forward to an improvement to this unsatisfactory situation?

Mr. Darling: The lines running across the country have never been as good as those going to and from
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London. That is to do with the way in which the railway was constructed, as my hon. Friend knows. The answer to his question is a combination of better efficiency on the part of the train operating companies in relation to the northern franchise and making sure that we continue the steady investment in the track. The nature of the track and the historic lack of investment in it are two of the reasons why train speeds are not as fast as they should be. We are undertaking that work, which does take time. It is worth bearing in mind that the railways have been though a difficult period in the last 10 years—from privatisation through some terrible accidents—but improvements are taking place. On many lines, reliability is running at over 90 per cent., something that would have been thought beyond the industry a few years ago. We are making a difference, but it will take time. Sustained investment in the railways is needed and it is important that all of us can sign up to that.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): In terms of our parliamentary procedure, is it not unfortunate that this is about the only question on the Order Paper today that allows us to ask about public policy? According to the Government's own statistics, overcrowding in London and the south-east is getting worse and the Transport Committee has said that it is a serious problem and needs to be tackled urgently. What is his Department doing to tackle growing overcrowding and capacity problems, particularly in the south-east?

Mr. Darling: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I agree that there are many aspects of parliamentary procedure that I would like to see changed but, as Secretary of State for Transport, that does not lie in my hands. Perhaps all of us collectively can one day reach a situation in which these matters can be discussed more effectively. His second point, for which I do have some responsibility, is one to which we have returned time and time again at Question Time. While concern in the past has been about reliability, which will always be important, the bigger question we must ask ourselves over the next few years is how we can increase capacity. The way to reduce overcrowding on trains—whether it be in the south-east or anywhere else—is to increase the number of passengers that can be carried on them. That is part of the work that Sir Rod Eddington is doing for us at the moment. One aspect that he will look into is how much additional capacity can be got out of the system by improved signalling, as signalling in train will allow more trains to run along existing track. Longer trains and perhaps double-deck trains in some parts of the system will add to the available capacity. What is important is that we sign up to the proposition of a growing railway, which is so important to the economy of the south-east as well as to the country as a whole.

Mr. Duncan: The good news is that trains are becoming more popular, but the bad news is that the country cannot cope with it. The Secretary of State has long stressed the need for private investment to help improve the country's rail network. Does he now accept that investor confidence has been damaged by the
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Railtrack scandal and what will he do to ensure that there is no repeat ever again of such a disgraceful catalogue of events?

Mr. Darling: Not really. I listened to what the hon. Gentleman had to say at the Conservative party conference last week—[Interruption.] He may well say that he is glad that someone did. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) certainly read it with interest. I see that the hon. Gentleman has jumped ship and is now backing one of the other contenders. As to Railtrack—

Mr. Duncan: Must try harder.

Mr. Darling: Indeed, the hon. Gentleman must.

As I said earlier, if I look back over the last 10 years of the railways, I see that Railtrack was one of the biggest disasters. It was a badly run company. Its costs got out of control and it did not know what it was doing on the network. When it was finally put into administration by the order of the court, it should have come as no surprise to anyone. I am surprised that the Conservative party—we now understand that it is supposed to be looking forward—still wishes to hitch itself to Railtrack. The only people who still like Railtrack are members of the Conservative party.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the intensive efforts being made by Merseyside local authorities, together with Merseytravel, to ensure that light rail in Merseyside goes ahead. Will he give me an assurance that the Government will not introduce any new conditions for those organisations to meet before a decision for a go-ahead is given?

Mr. Darling: The Government have made their conditions abundantly clear to Merseytravel and its constituent organisations. We have placed an absolute cap on the amount of money that we are prepared to make available. Anything more than that amount has to be met in its entirety by Merseytravel and its constituent organisations.

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