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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not had any discussions with Blackpool council about investment in the trams. However, officials from the Department have had several meetings with the promoters, Blackpool and Lancashire councils, to discuss their proposals to upgrade the tramway.
Mr. Wallace: Will the Under-Secretary set out a timetable for a decision on any request for extra investment? Will he study carefully any request to deregulate from the rail vehicle accessibility regime, which is imposed 100 per cent. on the Blackpool trams? If there is no deregulation, that could threaten their existence in the long run.
Derek Twigg: Blackpool has said that it needs £16 million over the next three years to keep the tramway running. This issue is being considered as part of the regional priorities exercise that we have carried out around the regions, including the north-west. Ministers are considering those priorities at the moment, and we will make an announcement in due course.
Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)
(Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that Blackpool council had to undertake emergency repairs on the tram track in Fleetwood last year? The only answer to these problems is proper investment, because that tram track carries not only tourists visiting the area but local residentsmy constituentswho travel to work between Blackpool and Fleetwood and who are getting increasingly anxious about the trams' future.
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Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) have been great champions of, and advocates for, the trams in Blackpool. In fact, I recently responded to an Adjournment debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South on the subject. I am aware of the importance that Blackpool places on the trams in regard to its economic regeneration. The matter is under consideration as part of the regional priorities exercise in the north-west, and we shall make an announcement on our decision in due course.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): The most recent assessment of the rail capacity available for trains from Chippenham to London Paddington was made in the Great Western main line route utilisation strategy, which was published in its final form by the Strategic Rail Authority in June 2005.
Mr. Gray: That is an entirely factual response, but the truth that lies behind the Minister's answer is that substantial cuts have been made to rail services in the west country. In Chippenham, we have lost our early morning train to London, the 5 o'clock service. We have also lost any possible connection with Oxford, to which there used to be a direct line. We used to have a service via Didcot, but 18 fewer trains a day now stop at Didcot. We have also lost our west Wiltshire link to Waterloo. The truth is that deep and damaging cuts have been made to our rail services in Chippenham and across the west country, and that is directly attributable to this Government. Does the Minister not accept that, if he puts up the price of a return rail ticket from London to Chippenham to £100 and cuts the train services, people will get back into their cars?
Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman has spoken to me before about these concerns. A consultation exercise has taken place, and our officials will be talking to First Great Western about the results to see where we can make improvements. I must point out, however, that most people in the greater western area are either getting the same service or seeing an improvement in services.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that the cutbacks to rail services in the Chippenham area, and in the west of England as a whole, were specified by his Department in the detailed documentation for the Great Western franchise?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we put part of the base case as part of the invitation to tender and the specification process. If representatives of First Great Western want to come to us with proposals for improvements in services that would not have an impact on the capacity of the rest of the line, we will listen to them and talk to them about that. The key issue here is that, apart from the fact that most people
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are experiencing the same or better services, there will be £200 million worth of investment going into trains and stations along the First Great Western route.
Chris Grayling: I think that that is an admission. Does the Minister realise the consequences for my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and other hon. Members of the Government's decisions to cut back services in many parts of the west country? Last week, I visited a rural station in Hampshire where the train used by local children to get to school is to be axed as a result of the specification that has come from the Minister's Department. How can he expect people to leave their cars at home and use public transport when his Department is taking decisions to cut their train services?
Derek Twigg: Let us be clear about this. We are investing £87 million a week in the railways, the number of rail passengers increased to 1 billion last year, and we now have the youngest rolling stock that we have had for years. In regard to the First Great Western franchise, let me repeat that we are investing £200 million in trains and stations, and most people will experience the same or better services. We shall listen to the results of the consultation, but the key issue is that the Government are investing in the railwaywhich is resulting in improving services and a growth in passenger numbersunlike the Tories, who did not invest in the railway. We are now picking up the pieces after those decades of underinvestment.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): We are keen for local authorities to work together to provide cross-boundary, county or region-wide schemes where that suits local circumstances. Local authorities will have the discretion to work together to provide cross-boundary travel, as they do at present, based on their judgment of local needs and their overall financial priorities.
Mr. Hoyle: Is my hon. Friend aware that there are no such agreements in Lancashire? At the moment, pensioners are able to travel free only within each small district, which goes against the ethos of the Government's provisions. It is wrong that people in Greater Manchester, London and every other major city will be able to travel free across several districts, while free travel will be available only within each district in Lancashire. That is unacceptable. It is not the way forward for pensioner travel. What can the Minister do to end the postcode lottery for pensioner travel in Lancashire to ensure that my pensioners get a fair deal, just like pensioners in the rest of the country?
I am sure that my hon. Friend would be the first to acknowledge that the Government have done their part by making a substantial amount of money available for free travel for pensioners. Other counties have been able to reach agreements that have allowed
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cross-county travel to be provided. I hope that, even at this stage, Lancashire will try to find a way forward to offer the service that is being offered in many other counties.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): My constituency contains two major towns, Wellingborough and Rushden, but they fall into two different district council areas. When free off-peak travel for pensioners was announced, it was welcomed by local people, but they have found that it does not, in effect, apply to them, as they cannot use the No. 46 bus that links the two towns.
Dr. Ladyman: Once again, it is for the two boroughs to discuss how they can work together to provide that sort of service. At present, boroughs work together to make the half-fare concessionary services available. All we are doing is providing additional money so that they can provide free local services. It should not be beyond the wit of local councils to see whether there is a way forward through working together.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that the passenger transport authority in south Yorkshire is using the money that it is getting from central Government, together with the existing money that it is spending on its current discount scheme, to ensure that pensioners get free travel from not 9.30 but 9 o'clock, not merely on the bus but on the tram and train as well, and also on journeys between south Yorkshire and west Yorkshire and some journeys between Sheffield and Derbyshire? Is not that a good example of a Labour Government and Labour local authorities working together for the benefit of pensioners?
Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a good example of councils getting together to provide added benefits with the money from the Government. There is no reason why all those other Tory councils cannot do the same.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I take it from the Minister's answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) that the real answer is that the Government are taking no steps to encourage reciprocal agreements between local authorities. Does not he accept that when many local authorities are struggling to meet the costs of funding concessionary travel, and having to cut existing, local, popular concessionary schemes, that will simply not be good enough?
First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new portfolio, and I hope that he enjoys it very much. How can we, as he puts it, not be encouraging such schemes when we are putting £350 million into making the service available? If councils are not able to work together to make that into a reality, I suggest that people ask questions of those local councils. Such a substantial additional sum of money will provide free bus travel for pensioners all around the country, and he should welcome it as good news.
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Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Following the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), may I reiterate the problems experienced by Lancashire, with 12 district councils and the county council having to reach agreement? There are real problems, if those 13 councils do not reach agreement, about not having a scheme at all. Will the Minister be proactive in leading discussions with Lancashire councils on a way forward to ensure that my constituents can get to local hospitals and shopping centres without having to pay half-fare, which is the existing scheme?
Dr. Ladyman: I find it difficult to understand how the Government can be criticised for putting an extra £350 million into free travel for old people. It seems obvious that councils in Lancashire need to get together and come up with a solution that can meet local needs and the demands of my hon. Friend's constituents. If they are not prepared to do that, I suggest that he reminds people that local elections are coming up soon.
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