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Rail Services

5. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of rail services since 1997. [76578]

7. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter rail services. [76580]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The rail network has undergone major improvements in recent years. Punctuality on the network is now 86.7 per cent.—the highest level since May 2000. Following the 2004 White Paper, Network Rail is now accountable for performance and for co-ordinating rail industry planning and operational management. My Department holds regular meetings with Network Rail and industry representatives to discuss further performance improvements.

Mr. Devine: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating
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the Labour-led Scottish Executive on improving punctuality and reliability? Only two weeks ago, they announced that they would extend the rail line from Bathgate to Airdrie, ensuring that my constituents have three direct rail routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Mr. Alexander: It is obviously the case that punctuality and reliability are challenges in every part of the United Kingdom, but I join my hon. Friend in those congratulations.

Mr. Love: May I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention the continuing problems with One railway in my north London constituency? In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), wrote to me about the difficulties that had occurred as a result of industrial action on the railways. Since then, very little has improved. Four days ago, my constituent, Ray Knight, received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority, in which it said that it was instructing One

Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Government will undertake a robust review of the franchise agreement to ensure the reliability of rail services in my constituency?

Mr. Alexander: In the first instance, it is for Network Rail, working closely with One management, to try to secure the performance improvements that we all want. There has been a decline in performance in the past year, albeit from a higher base than elsewhere in the country. I understand that 87 per cent. of One services run on time, against a national average of 86.8 per cent. One management has recently been restructured, and performance has shown signs of improvement, but I will ensure that the point made by my hon. Friend’s constituent is passed on directly to Network Rail and, indeed, One management.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Will the Secretary of State consider the future of commuter services in Kent, particularly when the high speed channel tunnel rail link is finished, which will provide many welcome benefits? Can he guarantee that that will not be used as an excuse to cut services, especially to smaller rural stations in my constituency and elsewhere in Kent?

Mr. Alexander: Passenger numbers on the railways have been increasing significantly in recent years. We now have a billion-passenger railway. On the other hand, as my predecessor once remarked, we are not in the business of carting fresh air around the countryside. It is inherent in a confident growing number of passengers that we face challenging decisions at times. We therefore need to consider how we can secure value for money from the network, but that is clearly in the context of continuing to grow the railways.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks) (Con): How will punctuality and reliability be improved by the Secretary of State’s extraordinary proposal to extend
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the Mayor of London’s power to set fares and control service levels to stations such as Sevenoaks, outside the London boundary, where my constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and certainly would not do so if they could?

Mr. Alexander: My understanding is that the services are predominantly within London, but that matter is being consulted upon.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): May I welcome the Minister to his new role? As someone who is quite good at spotting odd cover-ups, let me tell him that all Thames valley MPs of all parties are concerned about the punctuality and efficiency of the commuter service that leads into the Thames valley. The service between Slough and Paddington has become less frequent, and because of the reduction in frequency, it might appear more punctual and more effective. Unless we have an effective rail commuter service into the Thames valley, which is the engine of Britain’s economy, we risk losing much inward investment into the UK.

Mr. Alexander: We continue to invest record amounts in the British railways, but in the context of those rising passenger numbers, it is necessary at times to introduce changes to the schedules that make sense in the context of the differing demands in different parts of the country. However, the improvements that we have seen over recent years are the result not only of more sensible timetabling changes, but of the better integration of working relationships between the train operating companies and Network Rail.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): In order to improve the punctuality and reliability of congested peak-hour commuter services, what action is the right hon. Gentleman taking to replace the present chaotic system of rail fares among the rail companies with consistent and generous incentives for off-peak use?

Mr. Alexander: A balance must be struck, given that there are essentially two sources of funding to the railway: there are funds provided by the taxpayer and there are funds provided by the fare payer. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was previously raised by the Transport Committee, about the present complexity of some of those fares. We are deliberating about our response to that Select Committee report.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that some train companies are almost as creative about their timetabling as they are about their accounts. Will he please look carefully at some mainline services, where the airline habit of adding in minutes to schedules is being used in order to improve the running of trains? The Secretary of State is doing a good job. He has given the train companies the money. Let us make sure we get value for it.

Mr. Alexander: I concur with my hon. Friend’s final point about securing value for the investment that has been made. As I say, it is inevitable that there will
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periodically be timetable changes. It is important that those changes are made not simply to slacken the performance, but to reflect the changing demands over time on the network.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the things he could do to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter services is to unplug the national bottleneck that exists at Reading station? Will he finally announce that the funds will be made available?

Mr. Alexander: Discussions are continuing on that. I am aware that in a previous answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my predecessor explained that he had seen the station at Reading, was aware of the difficulties and recognised the challenges that are faced.

Road Accidents

6. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): What progress has been made in reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured in road accidents since 1997. [76579]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Our provisional statistics for 2005 indicate that 32,150 people were killed or seriously injured in accidents reported to the police in Great Britain, which is 33 per cent. less than the baseline average between 1994 and 1998 and 31 per cent. less than the figure in 1997.

Ann McKechin: I thank my hon. Friend for his response and welcome the reduction in the number of deaths and injuries. However, far too many people still suffer death and injury as a result of drink-driving. Does he agree that now is the time to consider reducing the alcohol limit from 80 mg to 50 mg, which would bring us in line with other European countries?

Dr. Ladyman: I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do more to reduce drink-driving. She will have seen the campaign launched by right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about drinking during the summer months and the World cup, and other extensive efforts in education are continuing. However, we are still not enforcing the 80 mg limit as strictly as I would like, and we should put our resources into that before we reduce the level to 50 mg. When we have achieved strict enforcement at 80 mg, perhaps we can re-examine the matter.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): When will the Minister publish the Department’s new guidelines on speed limits in villages? He will be aware that the parish councils and highways authorities believe that the speed limit should be reduced in many villages, but until his Department produces the guidelines, they cannot reduce speed limits for fear that they will have to reverse their decision when the guidelines are issued.

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Dr. Ladyman: We will publish the guidance shortly. Over the next year or two, it is important that all highways authorities use the guidance to review all the speed limits on our roads. Speed limits should be set appropriately—they can be reduced for safety purposes or, where engineering or other improvements have happened on a stretch of road, they can be increased. That is an important part of the deal that we need to strike with motorists, and we must be seen to set speed limits fairly and in accordance with objective criteria.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I was a bit disappointed by the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin). The Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland has recently indicated its support for a reduction in the alcohol limit, and there is a growing body of opinion within the road safety community in favour of that. Will the Minister think again and consider the advantages of reducing the limit in terms of saving lives and reducing injuries on the roads?

Dr. Ladyman: I hear what my hon. Friend has said and acknowledge his interest in the matter. I have spoken to the Association of Chief Police Officers in England, which has expressed the view that it would like to see the level come down to 50 mg at some point. However, there is no point in discussing harmonisation with the level in Europe, because, although most states in Europe specify lower levels of alcohol in their law, they do not enforce at those levels. In this country, we are at least enforcing hard at 80 mg. I have pointed out to ACPO that the police need to put resources into making sure that nobody breaks the 80 mg limit. When we are confident that we are achieving success at that level, it will be time to think about further reducing the level.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): May I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State and the Minister on their appointments? Does the Minister agree that a major problem is the courts’ interpretation and use of laws passed in this House? In my constituency, for example, there is a young man with three convictions: first, he left a boy of five paralysed and was given a two-month driving ban; secondly, he left a 67-year-old woman for dead; thirdly, he stole a car and crashed into a stationary car, which led to a four-month suspended sentence. Working with other Departments, what can the Minister do to ensure that the courts enforce the laws that we pass?

Dr. Ladyman: We must work with the courts, the Department for Constitutional Affairs and others on reviewing the sentencing guidelines. The courts need to understand that it is the wish of this House that serious punishments should be issued for such offences. People around the country are fed up with seeing people avoid long sentences, and being given a tap on the wrist for some of the most serious offences that we can envisage. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will support us in our approach.

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8. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with trade unions on employment issues in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. [76581]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The DVLA has ongoing and regular discussions with the trade unions on all issues affecting the agency and its staff, in line with its partnership agreement. The most recent meeting took place between the chief executive and Public and Commercial Services Union officers at national and local level on 1 June, when they were brought up to date with the agency’s resourcing plans to March 2008.

Mrs. James: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, and for the opportunity to meet him to discuss this matter. He is aware that several of my constituents have written to me to say that they do not wish their jobs to be outsourced to a private company, but want to remain within the DVLA doing the job that they are doing very well. Will he ensure that when he next meets the director of the DVLA he will make those representations to him on my behalf and that of the union?

Dr. Ladyman: First, it is important that I stress that no decisions have been made as yet. It is essential that we review these matters from time to time. All the agencies make sure that they are getting the most cost-effective use of the funds and resources that they are given. I am meeting the chief executive tomorrow, and I will certainly ensure that the views expressed by my hon. Friend are made known to him.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): Is the Minister aware that UK British citizens living in Northern Ireland continue to experience problems because their driving licences are not issued by the DVLA in Great Britain, which means that they are being discriminated against as regards penalty points, the recognition of their driving licences and the registration of their vehicles? Will he work with his colleague in Northern Ireland to end that anomaly?

Dr. Ladyman: I am aware of the anomaly, and I am talking to my colleagues in Northern Ireland about it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to provide me with further evidence of the problems facing his constituents, I shall be grateful to receive it.

Rail Infrastructure

9. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What plans he has to improve the condition of railway banks and stations. [76582]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): Responsibility for the condition of railway embankments is an operational matter for Network Rail. Responsibility for the condition of stations is shared between Network Rail
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and the train operating companies. In addition, franchise agreements require the train operators to keep their stations in a clean condition.

Julie Morgan: Is my hon. Friend aware of the amount of fly-tipping and dumping of rubbish taking place on railway banks and land around stations in Cardiff, particularly next to Lisvane station in my constituency, where sewage pipes, fallen lamp-posts, television sets and a whole load of cans are dumped? Things are similar at Llandaff North station.

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend raises important local matters, which all hon. Members know are of direct concern to her and her constituents. Through my discussions with her, I am aware of the instances that she mentions. It may be helpful to say that the land is owned by Network Rail and leased to Arriva Trains Wales, which is responsible for removing the litter and fly-tipped material. I know of my hon. Friend’s considerable efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I will be pleased to assist her further by raising the matter with Arriva Trains Wales.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is the Minister aware that pesticide run-off, which is often a big problem on the rail network and with highways weed control, is often blamed on farmers? Will she work with Network Rail to try to minimise that problem as, despite the fact that the problem is not caused by farmers, it may result in some important pesticides being limited for agricultural use?

Gillian Merron: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. It would be helpful to me, in pursuing the matter, if he gave me some specific examples. As he says, bank maintenance is a matter for Network Rail, which is more than willing to arrange meetings with any Members of Parliament who have particular concerns. I would be happy to facilitate that for him.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the condition of a city’s railway station plays an incredibly important role, as it provides the first impression, and the last memory, for many visitors. Will she therefore join me in calling on the relevant authorities to support my campaign to upgrade Dundee’s Tay Bridge station, which has lain in a neglected state for many years now?

Gillian Merron: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also Secretary of State for Scotland, so clearly he is aware—as I am—of the importance of the campaign. From my experience, I share the view that the condition of stations is important both for visitors’ perceptions and for our constituents who use the stations as residents.

Rail Services

10. Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What funds the Department has made available for extending the rail network over the next three years. [76583]

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