Previous SectionIndexHome Page

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and add instead thereof:

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for giving us another opportunity to debate transport, thus enabling me to point out the differences in approach between the Conservatives and ourselves. I hoped that he would devote rather more than the final page of his speech to what the Conservatives would do differently, but one never knows from one day to the next what Conservative policy is, so he is bound to be cautious. In the four years that I have served as Secretary of State, I have lost count of the number of shadow Secretaries of State who have been and gone. I live in hope that we will hear just one idea from one of them about what we ought to do in future.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?
1 Feb 2006 : Column 393

Mr. Darling: I am not going to speak for ages as I usually do, and I should like to deal with the case that has been made. As the Liberal Democrats are doing so well, however, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

Dr. Pugh: I should like to make a specific point. A question that was dodged throughout by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) concerned the Conservative attitude to congestion charging in London, given that the party now has a leader who is a prominent London cyclist.

Mr. Darling: The right hon. Gentleman is on some days, I am sure.

May I start with the railways? I do not want to spend much time revisiting the history of Britain's transport system. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is entitled to ask questions about the Government's policy, but it is worth reminding him where we started. In 1997, we inherited a botched privatisation, and Railtrack, which was the Tories' poll tax on wheels, had lost control of its expenditure. Hatfield showed that it did not have any idea about the state of the network for which it was responsible, and eventually it became bankrupt. When we last debated these matters, the House will recall the damning indictments in the court judgment of the poor state of the track and the incompetence of the people whom the Conservatives had allowed to run our railways. In addition, we faced a period of falling expenditure. In the year before the general election in 1997 not a single new railway train was delivered—the orders had just dried up. Against that background, it is not surprising that we needed to ensure that we did a number of things to improve our network.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the fact that we have doubled spending on the railways and asked where the money had gone. May I give him some examples? In 2004–05, 626 miles of railway were replaced. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the west coast main line. Seven and a half billion pounds were invested in that. New state-of-the-art trains are running on that line, which have cut the journey time to Glasgow by 30 minutes and to Birmingham by 20 minutes, with greater frequency available. The southern region power supply had to be upgraded because Railtrack did not appreciate that new trains could not run off a power supply system that was basically installed in the 1930s. Phase 1 of the channel tunnel rail link was opened, cutting the journey time to Paris by 20 minutes.

Mr. Redwood : That was a Conservative Government scheme.

Mr. Darling: I am sorry to tell the right hon. Gentleman that this Government had to rescue the scheme because the financial arrangements set up by the previous Government had collapsed by 1998. It was therefore necessary for us to put the scheme back on the rails, so to speak, and it was delivered on time and on budget. Phase 2 starts next year. Anyone going to St.   Pancras now will see the results of huge sums of money being spent on the railways, which will bring real benefit.
1 Feb 2006 : Column 394

We have had the biggest rolling stock replacement ever. Almost 40 per cent. of railway carriages have been replaced over the past few years, many of them on the very London commuter services that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell uses and which he mentioned.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Darling: I will give way in a moment.

All that has been done at a time when more people are travelling on the railways than at almost any time since the second world war. There are more than 2,000 additional weekday services than there were in 1996–97. That is another example of how we can reduce overcrowding. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is right—that is the big challenge now. Having brought up reliability from an unacceptably low level of performance in the past, we now need to make sure that we can cater for the additional passengers that we want to carry. Also, we have introduced the train protection warning system across the network.

In London, £1 billion a year is being spent on the tube. The hon. Gentleman should pay tribute to the Labour Mayor who is doing that. The Jubilee line extension and the docklands light railway opened just before Christmas. He mentioned trams. Yes, there have been difficulties with three schemes, but it is worth noting that Nottingham tram, which I opened about 18 months ago, is doing extremely well.

More people are travelling by train, more money is being put in after years of underinvestment and there are more railway carriages—all that seems to me to compare favourably with what we inherited from the Conservatives when they lost office in 1997. Of course, there is more to do. I am about to come to roads, and a similar point must be made in that context, but in the interests of equity I shall give way to the Conservatives before the Liberals.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I am sorry to ambush the right hon. Gentleman, but we have some capacity problems on the Broxbourne to Cheshunt line, which we share with the Stansted Express. Would it be possible for me to write to the Secretary of State and perhaps have a meeting with him or one of his Ministers to discuss ways of getting extra capacity on that line without any additional cost to the public purse—perhaps by getting BAA to make a slightly largely contribution, and possibly letting us share some of its Stansted Express trains?

Mr. Darling: If the hon. Gentleman wrote, I am sure that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), would be happy to meet him. If the hon. Gentleman can persuade BAA to pay for increased capacity as far south as Cheshunt into Liverpool street, I will happily join him, although I am not sure that BAA will accept that proposition—at least, not without some persuasion. However, the hon. Gentleman is right. That is a case of a railway line on which there has been a huge increase in the number of passengers. With the additional housing that we know about, never mind the housing that is coming, plus the
1 Feb 2006 : Column 395
developments at Stansted airport, capacity is one of the big issues that need to be addressed. I shall return to how we do that.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): My right hon. Friend briefly mentioned trams. In Greater Manchester progress has been made, hopefully, in respect of Metrolink, not least through the authority's acceptance of the risk. Did he glean from the shadow Minister's opening speech that a future Conservative Government would write a blank cheque to capital schemes with costs spiralling out of control?

Mr. Darling: I have yet to be persuaded that the Conservatives would spend the same amount as we are spending, let alone more. I shall deal with that shortly. Although I have said time and again that money is not everything in transport, if we do not spend the money, we cannot be surprised if the infrastructure is not there or if it begins to crumble.

The hon. Gentleman began his new position with a flurry of activity on 1 January—I come from north of the border, where 1 January is not the obvious day on which to start such things—including a press release condemning the Government on their lack of progress. That press release, which included the complaint that we had junked a number of road schemes, was re-released on 26 January, which at least shows that it was durable. I was surprised that the press release said that we had junked the A120 Stansted to Braintree road, because that road opened in July 2004. He also drew attention to the A46 Newark to Lincoln road, with which I am not familiar, although I understand that it opened in July 2003.

Next Section IndexHome Page