The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Next year will see the introduction of 51 new trains on the TransPennine Express franchise at a cost of £250 million. Northern Rail has a franchise commitment to review fleet deployment each year to minimise overcrowding. The Department will continue to work closely to secure improvements in services in the light of increasing rail patronage in the north-west.
Mr. Jack: In the light of the Secretary of State's positive answer, may I ask him to add to his shopping list of new capacity the ability for Virgin Cross Country services operating through the north-west to ease their overcrowding, through the use of the six non-operational Midland Mainline Meridian trains? Will he also discuss with Northern Rail the opportunities it may have for a little modest capacity investment in services around Manchester? Will he assure me that an investment appraisal of those projects will be carried out?
I am hopeful that a solution will be found to the problem of the trains that are currently not being used. They were originally ordered to serve a different route. As for routes into Manchester and Leeds, some of the new trains introduced by TransPennine Express will increase capacity, especially at peak hours. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, two or three weeks ago I announced changes in franchises, which will mostly affect Midland and Central train services but will also affect the Virgin Cross Country service.
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We want to ensure that we can increase capacity when that is necessary. The review of the Northern Rail franchise, which we said would be carried out two years into the franchise, should prove helpful. It is encouraging that more and more people are using the trains now that we have put some of the difficulties of the past few years behind us.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to point out that the number of people using public transport is increasing in the north-west, but there is a problem. What can my right hon. Friend do to alleviate the difficulties on the line between Blackpool and Manchester Victoria and Manchester Piccadilly? It is dangerous because the trains are always so overcrowded, and that is not acceptable. Either there should be more trains, or the trains should be longer.
Mr. Darling: As I said a moment ago, improvements are planned for the train service in the north-west generally, but I am aware of some of the difficulties affecting trains to Manchester Piccadilly. I visited the station recently, and I know that the problem of access to two platforms in particular has existed for some time. I hope that Network Rail and the train operating companies can sort something out, because if we can encourage people to use trains rather than cars, that must benefit everyone in the north-west.
Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): One of the causes of train overcrowding in the north-west, as in the rest of the country, is the problem with leaves on the line. It may sound amusing, but it causes delays costing Network Rail millions of pounds. Will the Secretary of State encourage Network Rail to proceed with its experiments involving a company in my constituency, Laserthor? I have given him notice of this question.
Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right. Leaves on the line may be a subject for mirth in the newspapers, but three years ago there was a series of bad delays because of a sudden leaf fall. I am bound to say that the train companies were not terribly well prepared, and the delays lasted for a week to 10 days. Since then Network Rail has removed undergrowth from near the lines, and there has been much more investment in equipment to clear them, including laser jets. That has reduced the delays caused by leaves on the line.
It is encouraging to note that because a number of measures have been taken, trains are much more reliable than they were, particularly in the autumn, when leaf fall causes delays. I hope that the trains are equally prepared for the coming winter, whatever it happens to bring.
Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton)
(Lab/Co-op): About 20 million passengers are trying to use transport infrastructure in the Greater Manchester system that does not have the necessary capacity. The north-west rail campaign is highlighting the congestion around the Manchester hub. There may well be a short-term and a long-term solution, and I should be interested to hear how the Secretary of State intends to improve the situation in both the short and the long term.
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Mr. Darling: I have already listed some of the short-term improvements that will be made, and, as I have said, some of the new trains that will be introduced under the TransPennine Express franchise will provide additional peak-time capacity on the route to Manchester. As for the longer term, my hon. Friend knows that I was in Manchester a couple of weeks ago. On that occasion I had some useful discussions with the passenger transport executive about what we could do to improve transport in Manchester generally. That will include improvements in bus services, light rail and heavy rail, as well as road improvements.
If Greater Manchester is to continue to be one of the top 50 cities in which people choose to invest across Europe, we must have a transport system that backs it up. That applies to other areas as well. We have suffered from decades of under-investment in transport, and the consequences are there for all to see. Over the past few years, we have doubled transport spending. Now we need to ensure that that level of spending is maintained and not cut, so that we can establish a transport infrastructure that helps people to travel around Greater Manchester and other areas.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): In recent months, the Secretary of State has referred frequently to fast rail and to double-decker trains, which could play a part in reducing train overcrowding in the north-west. Can he confirm how the Chancellor will fund these proposals, how much funding is available, and whetheras the man widely touted to be the Chancellor's successorhis heart will really be in arguing for this investment?
Mr. Darling: Let me deal with the more serious of those points. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, so I have to give him credence for having one serious point. Transport spending has doubled in the past few years and as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government set out such spending for the next 10 years, which shows transport's continuing rising profile. Indeed, we are spending more on transport than the Liberal Democrats promised to do during the last election. We will continue to put that money into the railways, into roads where doing so is necessary, and into other forms of public transport.
The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that the Chancellor and I asked Rod Eddington to carry out a study into this country's long-term transport and major infrastructure needs. That work is well under way and the study will be available next year. The hon. Gentleman has asked to meet Rod Eddington, and I am sure that he will accommodate that. It is important and in the country's best interests to get cross-party consensus on our continuing to invest in transport. There is no way that we can compete with the likes of China and the far east if we do not have a transport system that enables people to travel not just in this country, but abroad, and which enables us to import and export goods. It is vital that we maintain such investment.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): Proposals for new or reopened stations are primarily matters for Network Rail. Any submitted business case for a new station at Kenilworth would be given due consideration based on its merits.
Jeremy Wright: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he accept that a traffic-congested town such as Kenilworth, which has 23,000 residents, ought to have a station? If he does receive a properly argued business case, will he join me in asking the Government to give their full support to that project, which would provide a huge transport benefit to the people of Kenilworth?
Derek Twigg: As the hon. Gentleman made clear, we have yet to receive such a business case. When we do, we will consider it in the light of value for money and of the various benefits that it might offer.
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