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7 Nov 2006 : Column 213WH—continued

Dr. Pugh: Absolutely. It would be very short-sighted to allow building in places where we will require transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are plenty of quick wins to be had. A classic example of
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that in my neck of the woods is the Olive Mount curve in Liverpool, which is on the menu to be reinstated quite soon. In that instance, we have the absolute stupidity of freight lines coming out of Liverpool dock and fouling up passenger lines. It is crucial to the economy of the area that that is resolved pretty quickly, and it can be done for a fraction of the cost of some of the projects on the stocks in the capital.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): My hon. Friend mentions freight lines. A new freight line has been built, at enormous expense to the taxpayer, from Portishead in Woodspring to the city centre in my constituency in Bristol—ironically, to import cars. It could also be used to reopen the passenger line to Portishead, but First Great Western tells me that under its franchise it is not allowed to argue for an expansion of its existing network. It must simply run existing services. Is not that absurd?

Dr. Pugh: Clearly it is an absurdity, and a petty restriction that the Minister will find difficult to explain.

The problem is not in identifying quick wins, but in getting them on the table. During our debates on the Railways Act 2005, I asked the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, now Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, why there were so many clauses on how to close a railway line and none on how to open one. If people consult Hansard, they will find that he replied, with a trace of irony, that there is no need to have clauses on how to open a railway line because it is perfectly obvious and everybody knows how it is done. In my experience, that is not the case; it is more like knitting fog. Happily, in the same debate, he said that the Department for Transport was involved in an exercise to examine disused curves in different parts of the country to see what can be done with them. I have not seen the results of that exercise or heard any more about that suggestion, but if this Minister knows what has gone on, will he enlarge on that?

The small town of Burscough, which is just outside my constituency, has two railway stations that serve two different franchises. They are separated by only half a mile and a disused rail curve. If it were reinstated and the line to Ormskirk electrified, it would join up two spokes of Merseyrail, to its benefit. It would also considerably enhance and boost services to Preston, Wigan, Ormskirk and Southport, and would cost very little—something in the region of £11 million or less. Merseytravel is doing research on that, as the previous research has been completely outdated and overtaken by changes in statistics.

However, getting the project through would mean cutting across the two passenger transport authority boundaries of Lancashire and Merseyside. It is not automatically a candidate for regional transport allocation—a method that one might wish to pursue—first, because it was not clear in the north-west whether rail fell within the regional transport allocation when it was agreed by the regional assembly; secondly, because the project is of relatively low cost; thirdly, because Network Rail needs to be involved in the act in some way; and fourthly, because it crosses a range of boundaries.

I listened with some interest to talk from Network Rail and, to be fair, from the Department for Transport
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about the funding that is available for growth, but my general experience from one particular project in my area is of bouncing around from body to body, including the DFT, which I have been in and out of from time to time. I went in there as a naive MP, got the maps out and tried to explain to the civil servants exactly what I was talking about. On one occasion, I was asked to go away and construct a business case. I wrote back saying, “I know, generally, what you mean by a business case, but can you give me some samples of business cases already submitted so I can model mine on the most successful of those?”, but I have not received a reply.

Despite the massive, unanimous local support, trying to make progress is like confronting a Kafkaesque environment. I know that we need to get over certain hurdles, but I have never been clear about what those hurdles are or who puts them there. Sadly, I believe that many projects are in a similar, limbo-like situation. There are many quick wins to be had in which progress can be made. Where progress is made, it is often for a series of eclectic reasons, such as a section 106 agreement in the right place, or a local authority being prepared to put up funding. In the run-up to the debate, the Kilbride group drew itself to my attention. It specialises in offering advice to beleaguered MPs such as myself and communities such as mine that are keen to make progress on schemes that do not seem to meet any of the usual parameters.

There is much to be gained from expanding the rail network. A lot of money could be well spent, although we are not talking about huge sums, to bring about economic benefit in the regions, extend capacity and encourage a modal shift. A business case can be made for that, but it is not clear what the path is to bring such schemes to fruition.

Several hon. Members rose—

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. Several hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Back-Bench Members keep their speeches to just over five minutes, everyone should be able to speak.

I repeat what I said about the digital clock: the time at the bottom has stuck at 4.27 for some strange reason, but the time above is the real one. Hon. Members will have to watch that to keep to their time. I call Katy Clark to speak next because she sat through all of the last debate but, unfortunately, missed out.

11.17 am

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my friend, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) who, like me, is a member of the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill. I am well aware that he is making a great contribution to expanding the rail network in Britain.

I shall take this opportunity, in the week after the Stern report, to argue the environmental case for an expansion of the railways system. Sadly, because of the huge increase in the use of the car in Britain, all forms of public transport, including buses, railways and trams, are estimated to account for only about 6 per cent. of transport use in Britain. The Government are
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rightly aware that if we are seriously to tackle carbon emissions in this country, something will have to be done about the increasing use of the car. A huge amount of work is being done on road pricing, but even before the Stern report, the Government were setting themselves challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010 and 60 per cent. by 2050. Those targets are ambitious, particularly when one considers car use and the fact that transport accounts for a quarter of all carbon emissions in Britain, with cars contributing a major part of that.

Clearly, if we are to do something about climate change and reduce carbon emissions, it is necessary to consider transport, and public transport in particular. The railways have an important role to play, but the current system simply does not have the capacity to deal with a large increase in passenger use.

Mr. Fraser: I accept the hon. Lady’s point about people wanting to get off the roads and being keen to use public transport, but does she agree that they are often discouraged from doing so because services are infrequent, unreliable and overcrowded?

Ms Clark: Indeed, I do. Another factor that puts people off using public transport is the cost. Many of us are well aware of the cost of using the railways, particularly those of us who live in far-flung parts of Britain and have to travel regularly to London to attend the House.

Daniel Kawczynski: Does the hon. Lady also agree that the complexity of the fares, which has been raised many times in the House, puts people off because they have to trawl through the whole complicated system to find the cheapest fare?

Ms Clark: I do agree, and that complexity has not been reduced by the railways’ complex management and ownership structure. The franchising arrangements do not help to provide the British public with a simple fare structure or the best-quality service. We need to look at a number of issues, including the fragmentation of the railways, which does not help to ensure that the best pricing structures are available for passengers.

There is a strong environmental case for rail, and it is supported by the public. In a recent MORI poll, 64 per cent. of those polled said that they would support increased spending and investment in the railways if that would help to combat climate change. There is also great public support for ensuring that the railway system is not only convenient and available, but priced in a way that makes it an attractive option. Currently, however, even a 3 per cent. increase in the railways’ share of passengers would require about a 50 per cent. increase in demand on the railways. Even a relatively small increase in the railways’ global share of passengers would therefore require quite significant spending and investment in the railways. If the Government’s policy of getting people off the roads and on to the railways and the buses is to be successful, an increase in capacity is needed.

For all those reasons, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues, when they make representations in next year’s comprehensive spending review, to put the strongest possible case for doing
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everything to ensure that we live up to the ambitions of the Stern report, which so clearly outlined the challenges that we face, and to secure adequate investment and funding.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. When there are capacity issues and investment is needed, for example, in re-signalling, one of the most obvious things to do is to look at the number of trains travelling on the line and at its freight capacity. That is exactly what is happening on the line between Cheltenham and Swindon in my area, where we could double the use of the line and solve a lot of the problems. That is the right approach, but there is often no co-ordination. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Ms Clark: I am sure that that is indeed the case. It is important that we look at all such issues, particularly in the wake of the Stern report, which makes it clear that we must take action sooner rather than later. We must look at the organisational and structural issues in the railways industry. The bottom line, however, is that we must make a political decision that the railways are part of our future, and we must put in the investment to ensure that they are the option that people choose.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): On the question of investment in the railways, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lot to be learned from the success of congestion charging in London and the subsequent investment in public transport that it has made possible? Does she agree that making motorists pay a realistic price for using their cars and investing the proceeds in rail is an environmentally friendly alternative for long-distance and community use? We should learn the lessons of congestion charging, which could be a major contributor to investment in rail.

Ms Clark: I agree. I suspect that many lessons can be learned from London’s experience with congestion charging and from the attempts to increase the number of buses and to promote the use of Oyster cards and other mechanisms to reduce the cost of public transport. In Scotland, the policy of free bus travel for pensioners has also been very successful in getting pensioners to use buses as their preferred mode of transport. It is clear that price is a major factor when transport users make their choices, but if the trains are not there, people will not be able to use them, no matter what the cost.

To conclude, there is a strong political case—particularly against the backdrop of the Stern report—for making significant investment to ensure that Britain’s railways provide us all with a service. Like me, my hon. Friend the Minister regularly commutes to Scotland, and he will be well aware that the journey is far lengthier for those who commute by rail than it is for those who use alternatives such as air. If we had the high-speed links that exist in many European countries, however, rail would become a far more competitive option. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has already done since being appointed to his position and encourage him to do all he can to ensure that we get better investment in our railways.

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11.28 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this important debate.

I believe that Shrewsbury is the only county town—there may be one other—without a direct rail link to London. Dealing with that issue is a priority for me and many of my constituents because we believe that Shrewsbury, as the county town of Shropshire, should have a rail link to our capital city. That is not only because of the opportunities for tourism and business investment, but because of the flexibility that such a link would offer constituents, who would be able to get to London without changing at Wolverhampton.

Let me explain to the Minister what happens to people who live in a county town with no direct link to London. In our case, people have to go to Wolverhampton on Arriva’s trains, which are extremely dirty. Last Monday, I saw one arrive at Shrewsbury station that was so dirty that I could not see anyone inside the carriage. I was amazed that both the inside and the outside of trains could be so dirty. The trains are always late, so people never get their connecting train on time, and desperately overcrowded.

As Shrewsbury’s MP, and being very recognisable at 6 ft 8 in, I always give up my seat.

Kelvin Hopkins: I recognise some of the points that the hon. Gentleman is making from my own train service. Does he consider that they are at least partly the result of privatisation, because profit, and not passenger service and keeping the trains clean, is the main motive?

Daniel Kawczynski: I am trying to focus on Shrewsbury, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. In the old days, when we had British Rail, there were various problems, and in certain cases the situation was even worse. I believe in privatisation, but the Government have the responsibility to regulate train operators to ensure that services are adequate.

As I was saying, I always give up my place on the train, but every Monday I count at least 30 people standing in the carriage. Many senior citizens stand in the carriage from Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton every Monday. In the summer’s appalling heat, standing was unbearable and one could not get away with transporting animals in those conditions. We arrived at Birmingham station on one Arriva train and a poor lady collapsed on the platform. I stayed with her, as did many other passengers, for about 35 minutes before the paramedics took her away. People travel in such conditions between Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Birmingham on Arriva trains, and it is a scandal.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the large number of my constituents who travel on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line have to spend large lengths of time stranded in Shrewsbury because of the problems he identified. They largely derive from timetabling difficulties in respect of Birmingham New Street. On that basis, does he agree that an hourly service from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury would be helpful? As a rail user for the past 20 years, may I reiterate a point made
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by another hon. Member? Some 15 years ago we had a direct train service from Aberystwyth, through Shrewsbury, to London. It was a good inter-city service before privatisation.

Daniel Kawczynski: I made the cardinal mistake of referring to the hon. Gentleman as a Plaid Cymru Member the other week, and I apologise for doing so, because he is a Liberal Democrat. He is right that a direct service from Shrewsbury to London would benefit all his constituents and the many people in mid-Wales who go through Shrewsbury.

I was so frustrated with the performance of Arriva Trains Wales that I invited its managing director, Bob Holland, to come to Shrewsbury to have a look for himself. He agreed to come on the service with me and tour the station. Suddenly, miracle of miracles, the train arrived on time, there was no overcrowding because an extra two carriages were put on the train and a service of teas, coffees and cakes was provided, which was lovely. It was the most pleasurable train journey on which I have ever been. The train arrived in Wolverhampton on time, and it was immaculate. I had a tea, a coffee and a cream bun. Mr. Holland said to me, “Well, there you are Daniel. I don’t know what you’re complaining about. It’s lovely isn’t it?” That shows how out of touch the chief executives of these companies are. Every time they inspect the service, it is all laid on for them, so that they get a totally false perception of what is happening.

Luckily, I and many other MPs who represent constituencies in Shropshire and Wales have been banging on about this for a long time. A company called Renaissance Trains wishes to provide a direct service from Shrewsbury to London, which is scheduled to start in late June or early July 2007. Renaissance Trains currently operates a service from the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency to London, and the company has won national awards for the services that it provides. The trains are good, clean and punctual, and the ticket prices are very reasonable. I am informed that Arriva is trying to make it more difficult for Renaissance Trains to get the franchise because it will take Arriva’s business away. Will the Minister ensure that Renaissance Trains gets every help possible to try to secure the service, so that we do not have to rely on Arriva any more?

Will the Minister explain how railway stations are maintained, because it is important for the railway network? I would like to take him around Shrewsbury station, which is poorly kept and not well maintained; it has graffiti and the buildings are dirty. Shrewsbury takes the Britain in Bloom competition seriously and is a beautiful, historic English town, so it is a great shame that it is blighted by having such a dirty, poorly maintained station. When one goes around the station with representatives from Arriva and Network Rail, they each blame the other and say that things are the other’s responsibility.

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