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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 July 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Carlisle Railway Station

1. Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): What representations he has received on the number of birds killed at Carlisle railway station. [83847]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): We have received no representations about the number of birds killed at Carlisle railway station, though I am aware that some have become trapped in roof netting and have subsequently died. Network Rail tells me that work is due to take place later this year in an effort to resolve the issue.

Mr. Martlew: May I apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend for having to table that question? For three years many other passengers and I have been trying to get Network Rail and Virgin to take away the netting on the station. At present there are 40 dead birds decomposing on the netting. The starlings and pigeons get in and cannot get out. At this time of year, they are being roasted to death. Is it not ridiculous that it takes a parliamentary question to get action on the matter?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend is a great advocate for the west coast main line development and takes a great interest in all the happenings at Carlisle station, including those involving birds. The situation is clearly unacceptable. Network Rail and Virgin are working together and hope to do something about it later this year. It is possible that something could be done to remove the dead birds and deal with the netting and access in future, but it is a particularly difficult area to deal with because of the nature of the station. Hopefully, action can be taken in August to resolve the problem.

Road Congestion

2. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What plans he has to tackle road congestion; and if he will make a statement. [83848]

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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government’s strategy is based on three elements—first, sustained investment, adding road capacity where appropriate; secondly, making the most of the existing network through better management; and thirdly, in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government are exploring the scope for developing a national scheme for road pricing.

Philip Davies: Saltaire roundabout is probably the most congested part of the whole of the Bradford district and is the responsibility of the Highways Agency. The Highways Agency, with Bradford council, has done a joint study on what could be done to alleviate the congestion there. Given the importance of Saltaire as a world heritage site, will the Secretary of State ensure that the money is available to put in place the recommendations made by that joint study?

Mr. Alexander: I appreciate that the Saltaire roundabout on the A650 suffers from congestion. It is certainly the case that the Highways Agency and Bradford council are working together to find a solution to address both safety and congestion concerns in relation to the roundabout, and I hope to be able to announce the outcome of that work and decisions on funding in the autumn.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I welcome the announcement this week of £42 million of investment in the Greater Bristol bus network, which will play a major role in freeing up the roads and easing congestion in the centre of Bristol. Can my right hon. Friend advise me about the progress of the road pricing pilot, for which Bristol is always working on a bid?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend recalls the recent announcement, which is only one part of the £1.7 billion that is provided for buses annually by the Department. We are working with a number of local authorities, including the authorities in Bristol, looking at the pilot projects for road pricing. In recent days I met representatives of one of the other local authorities to hear directly of their plans, and I can assure my hon. Friend that a number of local authorities are moving forward in anticipation of bids being received by the Department in the course of next year.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Given that the Minister acknowledged that road pricing schemes can cut congestion, what plans do the Government have for a potential toll road on the M11 between London and Stansted?

Mr. Alexander: We are not at present planning a toll road, as the hon. Gentleman describes it. On paper, road pricing can lead to significant cuts in congestion, but we are maintaining our approach to targeted investment on our road network in the meantime.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Since I live only a few hundred yards from Saltaire roundabout, I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I was becoming a little hopeful because the island there is weed-strewn instead of being planted, as it usually is, so I had hoped that alterations would be made there. Is that not the case?

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Mr. Alexander: I do not feel qualified to comment on the specific detail that my hon. Friend has observed while passing the roundabout, but I am happy to note for the record that the A650, to which both my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) have referred, has already benefited from the £47.9 million Bingley bypass, which opened ahead of schedule in December 2003.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Last month, I pressed the Secretary of State to give some detailed answers about how his planned road pricing pilot will work, but he chose not to do so. May I press him about the overall principle of his policy? I heard what he said to the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy), but is he still planning a major single pilot project of his proposed national satellite-based road pricing system in an area such as Greater Manchester, the west midlands or Bristol in about 2010? Is it still Government policy to launch such a scheme on a national basis in about 2015?

Mr. Alexander: I tested the thesis that the hon. Gentleman put to me at the last Transport questions in a recent meeting with the authorities in Manchester, and I do not recognise his characterisation of the pilots, which we are taking forward with local authorities, given my conversations with the Manchester authorities. The Manchester authorities are pressing forward on the detail of their proposed bid, which they aim to get to the Department by about next July with a view to the Department having reached a conclusion by the following December. Equally, we are already in close dialogue with the west midlands authorities, and we have made it clear to them that they need to come forward with specific proposals for the west midlands. The pilots will, of course, inform our thinking on national road pricing. We want to see them implemented by the earliest possible time scale, which will probably be four to five years. We hope to be able to develop a national scheme by about the middle of the next decade.

Chris Grayling: Given the fact that we are discussing probably the largest technology project ever seen in this country and the central part of the Government’s transport strategy, the Secretary of State’s responses are astonishingly vague, so I shall press him again. When will most people in this country start to experience road pricing? When does he expect to tell us in detail how his proposals will work? And will any national scheme that he plans be revenue neutral?

Mr. Alexander: We hope that the pilots will be operational in four to five years. We face considerable technological questions, which is why we want to gain experience from local pilots to inform our thinking on the national scheme. On the national scheme and revenue neutrality, road pricing involves moving away from the present system of motoring taxation.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the recent report on road pricing by Professor Glaister of the independent transport commission. Professor Glaister has concluded that revenue neutrality will be difficult to achieve and that it is almost inevitable that road
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users in urban areas will pay more than everybody else. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if there is a pilot project in Manchester, it will not be a scheme that effectively transfers taxation from rural areas to urban areas?

Mr. Alexander: Through the local pilots, we want a fair deal for motorists in urban areas, and I discussed that subject with the leaders of the authorities in Manchester when I visited the city last week.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I urge the Secretary of State to be a little less cautious on road pricing. He has outlined three legs of his policy today, of which road pricing is by far the most important. He will be aware that the difficulties that he anticipates have not been experienced by the scheme in Germany. What lessons has his Department drawn from that?

Mr. Alexander: We have looked at the international comparisons—indeed, a study examining the international experience of road pricing has been published in the past couple of weeks. A balance needs to be struck between advancing a national debate and gaining individual experience within the discrete pilot areas, which will cover a significant portion of the population. As we seek to build a national consensus, it is incumbent on us all to engage with the discussions and to gain practical experience, which only the pilots can provide.

Bus Companies

3. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to make bus companies more accountable to the communities they serve; and if he will make a statement. [83849]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): We encourage bus companies to work in close partnership with local authorities and the communities that they serve. That can be done through voluntary agreements, quality partnerships or quality contracts.

Mrs. Riordan: I could give countless examples of how the bus deregulation policy introduced by the Tories is failing the people of Halifax. As part of any policy review, will the Minister consider re-introducing a system of regulation to ensure that buses are run in the interests of local people and not of the profit margins of cherry-picking bus operators?

Gillian Merron: Like many hon. Members, my hon. Friend is rightly concerned about bus services in her area. I assure her and the House that we intend to take a long hard look at the various issues over the coming months to identify the right framework to reverse declining bus patronage outside London. I emphasise that no decisions have been made. Our job is to find the right framework, because local circumstances dictate what works best.

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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Does the Minister agree that one of the reasons for declining bus patronage is that companies such as Yellow Buses in Wiltshire and Dorset are removing their services from the people they are meant to be serving, namely pensioners living in my constituency? Is it not time that we gave the traffic commissioners some teeth to deal with the haughty way in which these bus companies change routes without consultation?

Gillian Merron: In order to change a route or a timetable, a bus operator must give 56 days’ notice to the traffic commissioner and the local authority. There is a specific reason for that—namely, to give the local authority time to replace the bus service if necessary. Of course, local authorities are able to do that if it is the right decision for the local area.

Railway Industry

4. Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): What steps he plans to take to improve further the performance of the railway industry. [83850]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): My Department continues to work with Network Rail and the train operating companies to secure further improvements in performance. Punctuality and reliability is now at 86.8 per cent., the highest level for six years, and continues to improve steadily. The industry has committed to achieving in excess of 88 per cent. by March 2008.

Albert Owen: The Secretary of State will be aware of the huge investment in the west coast main line, which benefits services from London on the important Euro-route to Holyhead in my constituency. He will be further aware that the post-2008 timetable refers to additional through trains. However, there is confusion as to whether those trains will go from London right the way through to the north Wales coast. There is also the question of a maintenance depot in the area, which is vital to improve the railways for the future. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet a delegation of myself and hon. Friends to discuss these important issues?

Mr. Alexander: I am always happy to meet parliamentary colleagues. The scheme in relation to the Holyhead rail depot is being discussed between Network Rail and the train operators but is also being considered by the Welsh Assembly Government. The post-2009 timetable is being discussed by officials in my Department but also by Network Rail and Virgin Trains, with further discussions between the Department, the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What is the Secretary of State’s current thinking on the thorny problem that was described by his predecessor as transporting fresh air around the country?

Mr. Alexander: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find myself agreeing with my predecessor that we want to see an expanding rail network. During previous questions in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport,
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my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), posed a challenge to a questioner who suggested that we had secret plans to close a number of stations. We are still awaiting word on what stations Opposition Members were suggesting that we intended to close. None the less, a feature of an expanding rail network would be our ability to take serious decisions reflecting the changing nature of the network given changing patterns of demand in the future. We need to keep all options open, but we have no plans to reduce the number of people travelling on the railways; indeed, numbers have significantly increased in recent years.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that we are facing a shortage of route capacity, particularly for freight? Will he look positively at the possibilities for developing dedicated rail freight capacity for the future?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right. There has been a 46 per cent. increase in rail freight since 1997, sitting alongside the significant uplift in the number of passengers choosing to use the rail network during those years. We are giving serious consideration to what scope there is for further investment in rail freight. That is why only last month I announced that we would take forward several of the transport innovation fund productivity bids, which included rail freight as one of the considerations.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): On average, a £10 fare will carry a passenger 38 miles in the UK, 107 miles in France and 315 miles in Poland. Why is it that, nine years into a Labour Government, we have the most expensive, most overcrowded and least punctual rail service in Europe?

Mr. Alexander: I do not recognise that description of an expanding railway system—indeed, the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I welcome the improvements that have been made in the train services for my constituents, especially the introduction of the new improved high-speed rail link. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the new Virgin lines that have been provided are not guaranteed post-2009? What reassurances can he give my constituents that those services will be not only kept but improved post-2009?

Mr. Alexander: I know that my hon. Friend represents an area that is close to the growth areas, which were so designated by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I assure her that the needs of the growth areas will be considered when we publish the high level output specification next summer.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The biggest problem on our railways today is overcrowding. Lloyd’s corporation has estimated that 60 per cent. of commuters into London travel on overcrowded trains. It is estimated that passenger growth nationally will increase by 30 per cent. between now and 2014, yet there are no plans for capacity increases. The
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Government’s strategy emerged a couple of weeks ago—they intend to do deals to price commuters off the railways by increasing fares. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his solution to overcrowding is pricing people off the railways?

Mr. Alexander: No, that has never been the Government’s approach. We recognise that capacity will be a challenge in the years ahead. That is one of the main criteria for the high level output specification, which will be published next summer. We must acknowledge that the challenge that we now face on the railways is that of success. More people want to use them, with significantly increased passenger usage in recent years. Few solutions to capacity do not involve a sustained commitment of public investment. It is incumbent on parties that raise capacity to commit themselves to the amount of funding to which Labour Members remain committed.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I saved the taxpayer a fortune by getting a cheap ticket down here from Leeds. However, my connecting train was late and the guard told me that I would have to pay up. I refused point blank to leave the train or pay any more money. [Interruption.] Indeed, direct action. What will we do about the confusing multiplicity of fares, which leads to people becoming victims without realising it?

Mr. Alexander: I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of direct action, although I would not recommend that he engage in such action on the railways now or in the years to come. However, he makes a fair point. Notwithstanding the significant uplift in passenger numbers in recent years, the Transport Committee has identified a genuine problem with the complexity of fares. When one considers, for example, the discount airline carriers, one realises that it is possible to have variable fares and simplicity for the customer. That is why it is important both that the Government reflect on the Transport Committee’s report and, more directly, that the train operating companies recognise that they have a responsibility to tackle the problem, which is a genuine concern for passengers.

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