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East Coast Main Line

7. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): What progress he is making on increasing the capacity of the east coast main line. [34466]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The award of the east coast main line franchise to the Great North Eastern Railway provides for substantial increases in the number of services provided, along with opportunities for extensions to the electrified network.

Mrs. Riordan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that if we are to encourage more people to use the railways, we need to provide better services and to increase capacity, especially on the east coast main line? That would enable thousands of people from the north to access the most popular routes, and it would not only protect the environment, but help to boost local economies, such as that of Halifax.

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. Under the new franchise that has been awarded to GNER, there will be about 65 services from Leeds to London each weekday, which is approximately one every half hour. Additionally, GNER is committed to working with the
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Department and Network Rail to examine electrifying the line between Leeds and the east coast. There have been improvements at Grantham to cut down the number of delays of trains coming from Skegness and the east coast. King's Cross station is due to be developed further to allow for greater capacity, and much further north the Scottish Executive plan to enlarge Edinburgh Waverley station. On top of that, I except that further improvements will be made to ensure that the line, which is one of the main arterial railway routes in the country, can carry more passengers.

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): One improvement we could make to increase capacity is to introduce better planning and management of timetables. The present timetabling arrangements act as a block to alternative providers on the east coast such as Grand Central, which wishes to provide a direct rail service from Sunderland through Hartlepool to London. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to scrutinise timetabling arrangements to free up capacity?

Mr. Darling: First of all, long, bitter experience after privatisation tells us that timetabling must be realistic. There have been far too many cases, especially following privatisation in the mid-1990s, in which too many services were put on to a network that could not sustain them, with the result that there were more delays. We had to take action to try to ensure that timetables are more realistic. Secondly, the Government have to take a view on the effect that new operators on the east coast main line have on the passenger loadings of existing services, and the subsequent effect on any subsidy that is payable or, alternatively, the premium payments to Government. Grand Central railways has submitted an application to the rail regulator, and it is his job to decide whether it can gain that access. I understand that he is likely to make his decision in February next year.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend commend Hull Trains on providing extra services on the east coast main line, mainly to Selby and Hull, without any public subsidy whatsoever? Does he agree that the interest of GNER, the dominant operator, should not be used to frustrate other operators such as Grand Central railways, which would offer innovative services from York to London similar to those offered by Hull Trains from Selby and Hull to London.

Mr. Darling: I am very impressed by my colleague's new-found enthusiasm for competition on the railways, as it has not always been evident. Hull Trains is the only example of an open access operator running services between Hull and King's Cross. That service is extremely popular, and when we published our White Paper on rail development we said that we hoped that it would continue. However, it should be borne in mind that GNER will pay a great deal of money to the Department, which will thus be available for investment in the railways. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), we must have regard to the impact of any new operator on the amount of money coming into the railways. The railways need to be operated as a whole, and, if new services start to operate,
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we must look at the implications for other services before reaching further conclusions as to whether anyone else should enter the network.

Ports Policy

8. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): What plans he has to develop a policy on ports. [34467]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Existing policy is set out in "Modern Ports", published in 2000. In "The Future of Transport" White Paper, the Government committed to review the ports policy framework. We will issue a discussion document early next year, and set out policy later in 2006.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. When he issues that discussion document, will he look in particular at the strategic national role of container ports? Will he look at the role that ports play on both their land and seaward sides as well as the strategic access to ports, particularly for container traffic, provided by our rail network?

Dr. Ladyman: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that I shall do so. The review will be wide-ranging, and it will take into account all aspects of port capacity and the economic benefits that the nation derives from it. In considering trans-shipment, we must look at both economic benefits and environmental issues.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) about the importance of a proper national strategy for the development of trans-shipment hubs? I declare a constituency interest, as there is an advancing project at Scapa Flow in Orkney, which I commend to the Minister. As there is a clear overlap between devolved and reserved responsibilities, will he work closely with Scottish Executive Ministers to ensure that we achieve a strategy that is right not just for the United Kingdom but for the whole of northern Europe?

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's points. The consultation will have to be national and we will need to involve the devolved Assemblies in the consideration. We must look at all the issues as openly as possible. The economic impact of the operation of our ports is unquestionable. We must maximise it and at the same time take account of the environmental and social issues.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend remember the Prime Minister's visit to the port of Dover in April, at a time when the Conservatives were advocating the privatisation of publicly owned ports? Does he recall the Prime Minister telling reporters from the Dover Mercury and Dover Express:

Does my hon. Friend agree with those wise words?
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Dr. Ladyman: Far be it from me ever to question anything the Prime Minister has ever said. I recollect that at the time I closely associated myself with those very comments, and I do not see why I would resile from any of them now.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): This may be my last appearance at Transport questions: I can confirm that the Opposition have a new Leader—the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). Given the significant impact on the regional economy caused by each individual decision to build or expand a port, does the Minister accept that the absence of a co-ordinated ports policy leaves his Department's efforts at joined-up government all at sea? Does he further accept that pursuing separate inquiries into each application—£45 million and seven years wasted at Dibden bay—is the worst possible arrangement for both the industry and individual campaigners, and leaves their future in deep water?

Dr. Ladyman: I take it from my parliamentary neighbour's comments that he did not vote for the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), but if that is his last contribution, let me give him some reassurance. The Government have a well thought-out policy on ports. We take account of market pressures. Our proper planning consultation process, which allows us to make decisions, has served us well over many years. However, we believe that certain aspects of the way we plan port capacity and take those decisions could be improved. That is why we are carrying out a review. Many of the points made by the hon. Gentleman will be fed into that review, and I have no doubt they will be taken into account when we produce our new ports policy later in 2006.

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