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Rail Subsidies (Consultants)

5. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What consultants he has employed to advise on subsidy for rail services; what the terms of reference are for this project; and if he will make a statement. [51245]
 
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): Consultants are employed to advise on replacing rail franchises on a case-by-case basis. They typically assist in drawing up invitations to tender and in evaluating the bids received. This will involve understanding the level of subsidy or premium payable in each case.

Tony Baldry: Does the Minister agree that someone who wants to travel from Banbury to Oxford by rail to go to work, or someone who wants to travel from Bicester to Oxford by rail to study is no less deserving of rail subsidy mile for mile than a long-distance commuter? If there is to be a debate about rail subsidy and which services the taxpayer subsidises will it be an open and transparent debate, not one that simply closes local lines?

Derek Twigg: A great deal of subsidy is still paid to the railways—£87 million a week is spent on them, with improvements in reliability and more passengers voting with their feet and using the railways. The hon. Gentleman may be referring to the recently published closures guidance, which we were required to produce under the Railways Act 2005 to replace the Strategic Rail Authority closures guidance, which will cease to be produced when the SRA is wound up. We want to ensure that the railways expand and that more people use them. There are no plans for wholesale station or line closures. More people are using the railways, and more investment is being made in them. This is about a growing railway, and we want to achieve a better, more efficient railway.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) asked about the service between Bicester and Bletchley and the spur from Aylesbury to Bletchley. Does my hon. Friend agree that in assessing that section of rail, account should be taken of the Milton Keynes-south midlands growth area, the additional housing around Aylesbury and Milton Keynes, and the contribution that that section of rail will make to facilitating that housing development and encouraging the people who live in those houses to travel by rail, instead of adding to the burden on the road system?

Derek Twigg: As my hon. Friend knows, I went to Milton Keynes to announce a significant investment in Milton Keynes railway station to ensure greater capacity, taking account of the growth in housing. I am sure she will agree that that is an excellent scheme, which is benefiting from community infrastructure funds. It will allow improvements in capacity and in rail services generally for people in that part of the country.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): In view of the continuing support that the Government have given to rail services in rural parts of the United Kingdom, will the Minister assure my constituents that he will liaise with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that a rail line under threat that goes through my constituency will receive increased support to ensure its continued maintenance for commuters using the line?

Derek Twigg: It would be best if the hon. Gentleman spoke to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but I will pass on his comments.
 
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Bus Regulation

6. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): If he will extend bus regulation as it applies in London to the rest of the country. [51246]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): As part of the preparation needed to implement a road pricing scheme, I am considering ways to make it easier to run bus services by mutual agreement. We are discussing with the Office of Fair Trading how this can be done, consistent with competition law.

Tony Lloyd: I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's helpful remarks. He is aware that when people from a city such as Manchester travel to London, they are often amazed at how comprehensive the bus service is. They compare it with the post-deregulation period in Manchester, where bus services have been withdrawn from the estates and other areas where people live, and they draw the conclusion that we need re-regulation to ensure that we get back to the kind of bus services that London has and other cities expect. Can my right hon. Friend help us with that?

Mr. Darling: I think I can. As my hon. Friend knows, my Department and I have been in discussion with the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority, among others, about how we improve public transport, particularly bus services. The problem is that it is not possible for representatives of a local authority and two bus companies to sit down and reach an agreement about the adequacy of the bus service, matters of fares and so on. If we are to achieve greater demand management and introduce road pricing and other measures, there must be such an agreement. If we are to say to people, as in London, "Don't take your car, but get on to public transport", the public transport must be available in the first place. I am not satisfied that the present system of dealing with buses deals with that. I have said before that I do not want to go back to the pre-1986 legislation because that had its own problems, but I think we can make a quantifiable change in the way in which bus services are provided outside London. That is what we are discussing, and I hope to have something further to say in the not too distant future.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am sure other right hon. and hon. Members will be as flabbergasted as I was to hear that the number of bus services in the north-west traffic areas increased, according to parliamentary answers that I have received. That certainly is not the case in south Manchester, where we have seen the systematic removal of services over a number of years, including most recently the service to Manchester royal infirmary on a Sunday. Does the Secretary of State agree that tougher regulatory control would allow the PTA to direct bus services where they are most needed, rather than where the bus companies can make the most profit?

Mr. Darling: Bus services and routes will change from time to time, depending on passenger demand, but the changes that I am proposing will make it easier, provided that they are implemented with other measures
 
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to reduce congestion, to ensure that bus services run where they are needed. As I said a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd), if we want people to use the bus, we must ensure that there is an adequate bus service. However, bus services, like any other public service, will change depending on what people want.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Although I welcome my right hon. Friend's response, may I ask whether he is aware that Stagecoach Manchester has told me that it wants the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to have more powers, not least to co-ordinate in a stronger way the bus network and to tackle congestion, which is having a detrimental effect on services, particularly in south Manchester? Given the discussions that his Department has had with the GMPTE, can he advise me as to what powers he will look at providing it with specifically to tackle traffic congestion?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is as much in the interests of bus operators as of everybody else to ensure sensible management of the amount of traffic going through the streets of Manchester, as well as other places. That is why the Greater Manchester passenger transport authority is currently looking at the measures that it needs to take over the next five to 10 years to reduce the amount of traffic coming into the city and improve public transport. We are working closely together to achieve that. In terms of bus services, it will be possible to deliver such improvements only with the powers that will be necessary to ensure that buses are running where they are supposed to be running, as they should be if we are to persuade people that they should leave their cars at home. We discuss these matters not only with the Greater Manchester PTA, but with Stagecoach and other bus operators.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Does not the fact that bus usage in London since the mid-1980s has risen by almost 60 per cent., whereas in the rest of England and in Wales it has fallen by almost a half, show that the London model, which combines public planning on routes, fares and timetables with competition for specific contracts, has been a huge success, while deregulation has been a disaster?

Mr. Darling: The position varies across the country. The hon. Gentleman is right that London bus usage has increased dramatically, but he should bear in mind two things. First, the Mayor of London has deliberately introduced measures such as the congestion charge and others to encourage people to leave their cars at home. Furthermore, through the support of central Government, the Mayor is spending more than £400 million supporting those bus services. In other parts of the country, such as Brighton, York, Oxford and Cambridge, where bus companies and local authorities are working well together, there has also been an increase in bus patronage. What I have been referring to is further measures that are important and indeed necessary if we are to see an increase in the use of buses, particularly in larger conurbations such as Greater Manchester or in the west midlands, where I
 
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believe that we need to do more to reduce congestion on the roads and improve public transport. As I said in reply to the previous question, I am determined to ensure that we have a pilot for a national road pricing scheme, and improved public transport is an essential part of that.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Local authorities spend a great deal of Government money seeking to increase bus use by designating bus lanes, building bus shelters, improving disabled access and traffic management systems and running information systems. However, that works well and increases bus use, which has happened in York, as my right hon. Friend said, only if there is a good partnership between the local authority and the bus company. Does he agree that it would be helpful if bus companies were to consult local authorities when they intend to raise fares or change timetables, rather than just inform them?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. If public transport is to work, co-operation is needed with everyone who can make that possible. There really is no excuse for bus companies and local authorities not talking to each other.


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