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Rail Safety

6. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Why there is no statutory limit to the number of standing passengers permitted in a train carriage. [66806]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): All trains are designed to operate safely and effectively even when fully loaded. Franchise conditions nevertheless require operators to take appropriate steps to deal with the need for passengers to stand.

Dr. Iddon: When my constituent Mrs. Marshall complained about the grossly overcrowded commuter trains between Bolton and Manchester, she received a letter from a customer relations officer at Northern Rail Ltd containing the following statement:

Does my right hon. Friend agree with that statement or does he agree with me that, if my constituents are to be persuaded to give up their cars and travel into Manchester by train, statements like that are not helpful?

Mr. Darling: I agree that the letter could have been phrased more judiciously. I think there are times when some customer relations officers could benefit from further training—and, indeed, benefit from the huge increase in the amount that we have invested in further education to improve people's skills and standards.

As my hon. Friend is no doubt aware, the TransPennine Express group will introduce new trains over the summer. That will increase capacity between Bolton and Manchester, for example—I know that there has been concern about overcrowding on that line—and it also demonstrates that if people are prepared to devote the necessary resources to improving the railways, it is possible not only to carry more people but to cater for the greater number who are leaving their cars and using trains. Who knows? The railway companies might even improve their communications.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Many trains are overcrowded at peak times. All those people have paid reasonably high fares to travel in that way, so why should they be packed in like sardines? Does the Secretary of State recall that concern has been expressed many times about the transport of live animals? I suggest that the transport of people should receive the same attention and that train companies should be required to do something about chronic overcrowding.

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Lady, but remind her that, if we are to increase capacity to meet the growing demand for rail travel, that will mean spending more money on longer trains and longer carriages.

Ann Winterton: What about extra carriages?

Mr. Darling: Extra carriages are highly desirable, but they cost money. At some stage, therefore, the Conservative party will have to acknowledge that we must continue to spend a considerable amount on the railways if we are to see improvements.
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That is not the only thing that is necessary. We can improve the track—which, again, costs money—and we can get more trains running on the line. We can also ensure, by means of better timetabling and better price structures, that those who do not need to travel at peak times can take advantage of lower prices at other times. Our key task, however—especially in the north-west, where the hon. Lady's constituency is—is to make sure that we spend the money that is needed. It cost nearly £8 billion to upgrade the west coast main line. The reason it cost so much is that, during the previous 25 years, hardly any money was spent on it when it should have been spent.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Rail passenger safety is a matter of concern to all of us. That is why my constituents in Dover and Deal are waiting eagerly for the result of the rail inspectorate's report on Shakespeare cliff tunnels, which will allow the provision of a direct high-speed rail link between London and Dover. Has any progress been made?

Mr. Darling: As my hon. Friend has said, a study is being carried out and I suspect that major works will be necessary, given the tunnel's size. I know that he is concerned about this issue, in that he would like the high-speed train link to extend to Dover. I cannot give him a publication date for the study, but I suspect that it will not be published for some time yet. Obviously, we will need to look at it, because whatever happens, it will probably have spending implications.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I listened carefully to the Secretary of State and it is true when he says that he is spending £87 million a week on the railways; indeed, he has increased the rail spending budget quite significantly in the past few years. The problem is that, according to the Office of Rail Regulation, between now and 2014 no new trains will be travelling on our railways—there will be no additional passenger train kilometres—and the Government forecast a jump in the number of passengers of some 30 per cent. Does the Secretary of State appreciate that overcrowding is an urgent issue? What projects does he have lined up, starting within the next few years, that will make a difference?

Mr. Darling: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the ORR must decide shortly—by the summer of next year, I think—in conjunction with the Government, how much money will be spent on the railways in the period to 2014. Alongside that, we will publish a White Paper setting out our view of the additional capacity needed. As he rightly says, we have doubled rail spending in the past few years—a move that was absolutely necessary and long overdue. Perhaps he will tell us now, or when he comes to the Dispatch Box again, whether he is prepared to match us on rail spending. I see from an interview that he gave to the widely respected and widely read Coach and Bus Weekly—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Chris Grayling: Once again, I ask the Secretary of State a straightforward question and I do not get an answer. The truth is that, if we are to make a difference to overcrowding on our railways, we need action soon,
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not White Papers or reviews. We need actual projects with time frames and starting dates, so let me ask the Secretary of State again: what projects does he have lined up, as part of the £87 million a week he is spending on the railways, starting in the next two or three years, that will begin to make a difference to overcrowding?

Mr. Darling: We are spending very substantial sums on improving the network to get more capacity out of it and we are making improvements in terms of the amount of money spent on rolling stock. For example, the Bill that will make Crossrail possible is going through the House and there are projects such as Thameslink throughout the country. Unless the hon. Gentleman is prepared to match us on the necessary spending, none of these projects will happen. We have made huge improvements to the railways and it is interesting to note that the Conservatives have both opposed every single penny that we spent in the past and cannot even match us on the money that we need to spend in future.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Although there are problems with the local train service, my constituents do not normally have to face significant overcrowding on trains. However, there are times when they do: when major international rugby matches take place in Cardiff. At such times, many more people travel by train than usual, many of whom are children travelling with their families, which is great to see. We have seen significant changes in recent years. For example, the British Transport police and others co-operate to ensure better throughput of people, so that they can travel safely. Can we not look more closely at ensuring that proper transport services are provided for big international matches, be they in Cardiff or in London?

Mr. Darling: Yes. The short answer is that improvements can be made. I know that there have been difficulties with providing train services for events at the millennium stadium, and I am sure that the railways can do better.

Rail Fares

8. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What assessment he has made of the differences in rail fares between rail operators; and if he will make a statement. [66808]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Regulated fares are monitored to ensure that train operators comply with the limits set for these fares. Other fares are a matter for train operators themselves.

Simon Hughes: Does the Secretary of State agree that a factor that puts people off switching from travelling by car to travelling by train is the very high fares? In some places, fares are nearly 10 times higher than those for comparable journeys on mainland Europe. Moreover, in some parts of Britain, people pay four times as much to travel with one company as others pay to travel the same distance with another company. Will the Secretary of State take a serious look at the issues of cost and confusion and try to establish a proper fare structure that provides an incentive to travel by train, rather than a disincentive?
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Mr. Darling: We need to keep fares under constant review, but given that more and more people are choosing to use the railways, that tends to suggest that they want to use them, are using them and can afford to do so. Indeed, if he compares the prices charged in this country with the rate charged per mile in continental Europe, he will see that many of our fares compare very favourably, and that many are in fact better. He should avoid simply concentrating on the walk-on first-class and standard fares, because many other fares are a lot cheaper than that. When zonal charging is introduced in London, which will affect his constituents, people travelling from one London zone to another will pay the same rate, no matter which part of London they are travelling in. I am sure that his constituents will very much welcome that.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the most competitive rail fares are offered by Hull Trains, the open-access operator that serves Selby, among other places? Does he welcome the rail regulator's decision to allocate three paths on the east coast main line to Grand Central Trains, another open-access operator? That will link some towns and cities in the north-east and Yorkshire to London for the first time, and also offer much more competitive fares for the journey from York to London.

Mr. Darling: I agree that Hull Trains does operate some good services and offer fares that are cheaper than the alternatives. However, I repeat that we must also have regard to the effect that the recent decision in respect of Grand Central Trains will have on Great North Eastern Railway's ability to provide its services, especially the half-hourly service that it wants to provide to Leeds. That is being looked at, and it may be possible to reach an agreement that allows Grand Central Trains to operate and also allows GNER to fulfil its obligations in providing that service to Leeds. It is important to remember that the network has to work as a whole and that it is not possible to look at one service in isolation, although most people using Hull Trains greatly appreciate the services that it provides.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), the Secretary of State revealed that the Government have few plans, if any, to increase capacity, for we all know that Thameslink has no start date or funding. In the past year, however, there have been price rises that passenger groups have described as "eye-wateringly" high. Are not those rises evidence that the Government have only one strategy to combat over-capacity, and that is to price passengers off the railway?

Mr. Darling: No, that is not right. As I said earlier, the range of prices offered on different routes across the network is quite wide. Some first-class, walk-on fares are expensive and have gone up, but other fares are much cheaper in real terms than they were, say, 10 years ago. Then, passenger revenue—the money coming from passengers expressed as a percentage of spending—was at 85 per cent. Today it is 57 per cent., which shows that the taxpayer is paying more now than under the previous Conservative Government.
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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The Secretary of State will have noticed that, to take advantage of cheap fares in this flexible system, one has either to be a computer geek or aged about 13. Will he suggest to some of the train operating companies that they could undertake the revolutionary task of making it possible for people to find out when and how often cheap fares are available?

Mr. Darling: I would not claim to be the sort of expert that my hon. Friend describes, but I did not find it too difficult to discover, for example, that the cheapest return fare from London to Birmingham is £20, to Leeds is £19, and to Edinburgh is £25. On any view, those fares are fairly cheap. It is true that first-class or walk-on fares are higher, but we are trying to strike a reasonable balance between what fare payers must pay and what the general taxpayer must pay. The most important thing is to ensure that we continue to spend the money needed to have more trains and so increase capacity on the track. We will set out our plans in the 2007 spending review. If we are to continue to have a railway that serves the interests of passengers in Britain, we will have to maintain that funding, not year on year but decade on decade.

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