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Rail Links

3. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): What plans he has to support voluntary and community rail links; and if he will make a statement. [51243]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): The Government encourage communities to support franchised local railway services via community rail partnerships. We recognise the role of voluntary organisations in running independent railways. We will not normally provide direct financial support for independent lines, but will consider working with local authorities to implement specific improvements where they are value for money.

Jim Dobbin: The East Lancashire Railway is a very successful voluntary rail company. It passes through my constituency and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) and for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). However, there is no direct passenger rail link from those areas to Manchester Victoria. Will the Minister consider a joint evaluation with the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority to see whether it is possible to create a link through Heywood that would satisfy, and provide benefits to, the public and all three constituencies?

Derek Twigg: I know that my hon. Friend is a very strong campaigner for improving public transport. A few months ago, I opened a new bus station in his constituency and I know that he also campaigns to try to improve rail links. The East Lancashire Railway is part of a heritage railway that brings in lots of income and visitors to the area. However, on the point about extending its use to mainline services, I must say that we have not received any representations from Manchester or Lancashire about reopening the line for passenger services. However, we will consider any scheme that may be put forward.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): The Isle of Wight railway now has a community rail partnership in place. When the Minister lets the new franchise for the Isle of Wight, will he invite potential bidders to propose as many imaginative schemes as possible? For example, that could include consideration of whether it should be
 
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light rail or heavy rail, the installation of a crossing point at Brading to improve connectivity to Portsmouth and Waterloo and improvements to the rolling stock. We have some of the oldest in the country—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman can drop the Minister a note on these matters.

Derek Twigg: I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. We have gone through a consultation process on the new franchise, and clearly we will examine its results when we consider the invitation to tender. He is right to highlight the importance of community railways. We now have six such schemes throughout the country and there is increasing support for community rail development, so it is especially important to involve the community, whether that is businesses, local authorities or members of the public.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent work that is done by the Penistone line partnership in my constituency. The partnership runs the Huddersfield-Penistone-Sheffield line and last year more than 1 million passengers used its facilities. What is my hon. Friend doing to increase passenger numbers on the railway further and reduce costs to the travelling public?

Derek Twigg: As my hon. Friend says, the scheme is a successful development that forms part of the Government's overall commitment to community rail development. As part of the overall growth in the railways, we want more people to use the line. If we get more of the community involved in supporting the service, including businesses and local authorities, and make the service attractive, I am sure that it will continue to grow.

Road Pricing

4. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on the Government's plans for road pricing. [51244]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): We are working with local authorities and other areas to develop a road pricing scheme that tackles congestion. That will allow us to pilot technology for a national scheme.

Mr. Jackson: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. The Transport Committee has called for a proper evaluation of congestion and its impact on the UK economy. Is such an analysis by the Department in the pipeline, and when is it likely to be published?

Mr. Darling: Numerous studies have made the rather obvious point that the more congested the road system, the greater the disadvantage to the economy. The bigger question to address is what we do about that. Clearly, we need additional capacity, which is why, for example, we completed a major widening of the M25 just before Christmas. We need to manage the road system better, which we are doing throughout the network with, for example, traffic management officers clearing up after
 
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accidents. However, those two measures would not be enough on their own. We need to examine whether it might be better to replace the existing system of paying for road use with distance-based charging. As I have said on many occasions, if we do not do that, we will face total gridlock. We are not short of analysis, but we need to concentrate on solutions that will reduce congestion in the longer term.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): While my right hon. Friend is working on that, are we not making the best the enemy of the good? Many of our motorways are almost urban slip roads around the great cities of Britain, yet we have one of the few motorway systems that involves no charge. Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing in the interim a vignette of £30 to £40 for motorway users, including all foreign cars and lorries that come into Britain, but allowing rural people who do not use motorways not to pay that extra money? Such a simple and practical scheme could be put in place until his all-singing and all-dancing road pricing and satellite in the sky operation comes into being, for which we might have to wait a little after the end of his term of office.

Mr. Darling: Having been here for almost four years, I would not bank on that. I am not sure how much thought my right hon. Friend has given to the matter, but it simply would be neither feasible nor desirable simply to toll motorways if we thought that we would adopt a completely different method of charging for roads a few years later. I have said before that a national road pricing scheme is some years off, but I believe that we can pilot such a scheme regionally in the next five years or so. Simply charging for some roads, but not for others—[Interruption.] I shall come on to the vignette in a moment. Although my right hon. Friend prides himself on his knowledge of matters European, I think that he would find that the Commission would come down very hard on us if we tried to impose something that discriminated against foreign drivers, because the Single European Act is supposed to stop that. The short answer is that I do not think that he is advocating a good idea, but I will be more than happy to discuss it with him afterwards.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The Secretary of State announced that 30 local authorities have expressed an interest in piloting a road-pricing scheme. Will he expand a little on the way in which the Government plan to help those authorities that wish to proceed only on a revenue-neutral basis, or which are concerned about the impact of road pricing on social inclusion?

Mr. Darling: I do not think any of the authorities that have expressed an interest in road pricing have looked at whether it should be anything more than revenue neutral. I announced just before Christmas the funding that was available for seven areas, and later this year I will announce funding for more areas. I have made it clear, however, that we are prepared to provide that funding, because I want to be able to choose, probably next year, a particular area where we can pilot the scheme. Until we conduct a pilot we will not be able to bottom out the technical problems or evaluate how people behave in practice. However, I am proposing to help local authorities to do so by providing funding.
 
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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that organisations such as the Road Haulage Association are extremely concerned about any further increases in road pricing. Has he recently met the association and, if not, would he consider doing so in the near future to discuss its concerns?

Mr. Darling: My fellow Ministers and I meet the Road Haulage Association regularly. It was supportive of our work on lorry road user charging—a form of road pricing—which was included in the national scheme. It recognises that anything that we can do to reduce congestion is of great help to its members. It believes that that means that everyone who uses our roads should pay to do so—I think that that is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr.   MacShane) was trying to make earlier—which would be a far better system in many ways than the current one.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): In December, the Department of Trade and Industry announced that the Government have invested €136 million—according to my calculations, that is about £93 million—through the British national space centre and the Department for Transport in Galileo. Do the Government intend to introduce a comprehensive road pricing scheme for both private and commercial vehicles using Galileo technology?

Mr. Darling: It remains to be seen whether we use Galileo or GPS. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that last year I made the point that many organisations, including insurance companies, wish to provide satellite equipment for cars. Norwich Union, for example, offers pay-as-you-drive insurance. The Government believe that if we can use existing technology or work in partnership with others who do so that would be much better than the Government having to invent a system on their own, as the history of doing so by successive Governments has not been an altogether happy one. Galileo would have other uses besides road transport.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Would it be indelicate to raise the question of the tolling of bridges, particularly the M25 bridge in my constituency, which is road-priced. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that if road pricing for the M25 is introduced the burden of a toll for my constituents in south Essex and for people in north Kent will be lifted, as they subsidise M25 users with their tolls on the Dartford crossing, which is unfair and unsustainable?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is quite right. If we introduced a system of national road pricing the whole question of tolls on that bridge and, indeed, others would have to be considered at the same time.


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