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7 Nov 2006 : Column 219WH—continued

Ms Katy Clark: Has not the hon. Gentleman simply illustrated the point about the fragmentation of the railway that I was trying to make earlier? Different companies are involved and that allows one to blame the other. Another problem is that of fines. If one company is not performing its task, that will not
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necessarily affect or matter to it, but it might affect someone else. Does he not agree that the fragmentation of the railways is most unhelpful?

Daniel Kawczynski: I agree that there is a serious problem of a lack of responsibility for certain maintenance of railway stations, and that is why I am asking the Minister to address it. I shall give her an example. Arriva says to me that anything above 6 ft—I should know about this because I am 6 ft 8 in—is the responsibility of Network Rail but anything under that is its responsibility. The council also owns a bit of the railway station—a bridge going into the town. Both Arriva and Network Rail constantly say to me, “That is not our responsibility. It is their responsibility.” That is appalling, because the customers and the station suffer. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point.

Some stations in the west midlands are beautifully maintained, for example, Wolverhampton. Network Rail and the train operators seem able to work well together at Wolverhampton, where the facilities are extraordinary: it has bowls on the platform that are specifically for pets; it has flowers; the station is always painted; there is no graffiti. If they can do it in Wolverhampton, why cannot they do it in Shrewsbury? They also do it well in Hereford, which is a similar-sized city to Shrewsbury. We want more common standards on station maintenance.

Finally, I want to discuss ticket prices. I come to London every Monday, returning on Thursday. I am desperate to keep my travel expenses as low as possible, unlike certain colleagues, particularly my predecessor—the former Liberal Democrat, then Labour, then Liberal Democrat Member, or was it the other way round? We will not go into that. I try to buy my tickets for a specific day and time, because that makes them so much cheaper and a fraction of the price of the most expensive ones. Sometimes, if one is delayed, one goes on the train and a huge penalty is imposed. I want to have a go at Virgin Trains for the huge differences in the prices that it charges for tickets from Wolverhampton to London. It is unacceptable and outrageous that, if someone needs a flexible fare to London, the company tries to fleece them for about £188 for a return ticket.

Dr. Pugh: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unacceptable that the average Virgin train, certainly from Liverpool, consists of 50 per cent. first-class carriages, forcing standard-class passengers to suffer cattle-truck conditions? Does it worry him that a subsidy might be issued to Virgin to extend its trains and not convert some of the first-class carriages to standard class?

Daniel Kawczynski: I agree. The service from Wolverhampton to London provides a huge number of first-class carriages, most of which are empty, and people in standard economy class are wedged into crowded carriages. I am not a great fan of Virgin—I want to put that on the record—and I would like to hear the Minister’s views of its treatment of customers, the overcrowding in standard class and, more importantly, its fleecing with first-class fares.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair: Order. I ask hon. Members to restrict their comments to five minutes, so that everyone who wants to speak may do so.

11.41 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), because I grew up in Shropshire and spent many hours hanging around Shrewsbury railway station waiting for trains. In the days of British Rail, there were direct trains from Shrewsbury to London, but privatisation fragmented the service, which is largely what I shall speak about today.

Everyone now recognises the value of the train system, and everyone knows that the combination of Beeching and Buchanan in the 1960s destroyed much of our huge railway network. Ten thousand miles of track were destroyed by Beeching, and Professor Colin Buchanan persuaded the Government and local authorities of the day to destroy town centre after town centre and build roads through them. We are now paying the price for that, and it is up to us to ensure that the current mood in favour of railways continues and that the necessary investment is made.

Because of privatisation of the railways, there is often a lack of co-ordination in train journey planning. To be frank, the ticket-pricing system is mad. Railway nerds who read Rail magazine, as I do, will know that Barry Doe produces “Fair Dealer” every month in which he goes through the complicated business of how to find the cheapest ticket from London to Aberdeen and so on. He obviously spends a lot of time looking at a computer screen and works it out for himself, but most people, when they want to buy a ticket to travel, do not want to go on a computer first. I look to the Minister to ensure that a simplified ticket system is introduced so that it is not only the people who have hours to spend looking for a ticket who can find a reasonable price. Everyone who wants to travel should be able to find that.

Why are people who buy a ticket on the day of travel always penalised? Some people who have to travel do not always know that the day before and they are heavily penalised. We end up with busy trains in the morning from London and other big cities full of business men who get tax deductible expenses, and the rest of the population must wait and travel later when they can afford to. I hope that the Minister will look into that.

Network Rail has recently published its programme of investment in the railway system for the next few years. It is an impressive document and a vast amount of investment is taking place. I pay tribute to the Government for the welcome amount of money that they have put into capital investment in the railway system.

Kelvin Hopkins: I strongly support what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he accept that the money might have been better spent if the railways had been in public ownership, given that the cost of track renewal has increased by between four and five times under privatisation?

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Jeremy Corbyn: Indeed. Track renewal costs were high. Setting up Network Rail has ensured that the industry is now led by engineers rather than accountants, which is an improvement. The problem lies with the train operating companies and their relationship with it. When Richard Branson paraded his new Pendolino train to Manchester and said how wonderful the service was, he was praised, but the reality is that millions of pounds of public money went into building the infrastructure for that train to run on and his company can make a lot of money from running it. The train operating companies should be brought back into public ownership so that the public receive the benefits of the improvements, instead of those benefits being siphoned off by shareholders.

As I said, I welcome the impressive rail investment programme, but the Government must address the issues such as the reopening of disused railway lines. I tabled a question for the Secretary of State for Transport in which I asked:

The reply I received was:

Private Eye paraphrased that answer with the two-letter word, “No.”

It is not for the industry to determine future outputs; it is for the Government to set the scene of the level of railway operation that they want and the investment that they are prepared to encourage in it. In that way, many of the disused railway lines can be reopened. There are many that I could mention, but I shall quickly mention the need for the east-west line to be developed. In an intervention, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) called for the protection of existing railway corridors, which is important. We look to the Government to call in any planning application that proposes building over existing track, even if it is disused, to protect it for the future. The reopening of the Bletchley to Bicester line would be part of that, but many other lines should be reopened—for example, the Wisbech line should be reopened beyond March. I pay tribute to the Scottish Executive for their preparedness to fund the reopening of part of the Waverley line; I hope that that goes all the way through. We need such developments.

I represent a London constituency where there are some interesting developments. There is massive investment in public transport in London and London overground railways are being developed, but why, in the development of London overground lines and the east London line, must a train operating company be called in to run it? Why can it not be run by the public in the same way as Transport for London runs the rest of the system? Can the Minister give me any encouragement on the transfer not just of rail operations to Transport for London, but of some stations?

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made about station management. Finsbury Park station in my constituency
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is a classic example. The building is owned by Network Rail; Transport for London and London Buses operate there, and the British Transport police have an office there. When everyone finally agrees to come to a meeting, someone cancels the day before so the meeting does not happen and we go round the circuit again. We need better co-ordination.

The Government have done well in their preparedness to invest in the railways system. They also did well in establishing Network Rail in place of the failed Railtrack. However, we want rail operations and the train operating companies to be returned to public ownership, and a real preparedness to go further with investment to ensure that many disused lines are reopened, so that we have the sort of rail network that this country needs and deserves. We have a great opportunity given the current mood, which has shifted away from our congested roads to cheaper and more environmentally sustainable rail transport.

11.49 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing this important debate. I did not agree with every detail of his speech, but I certainly agreed with the broad thrust of his interesting speech. It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), and I echo what he and others have said about protecting the corridors that are currently closed.

Recent Government policy has been to increase the cost of rail travel, which is already far too high, in order to reduce or hold down passenger numbers. That is particularly true of rail services into London, and the policy has pushed people on to the roads, which is mindless. It makes much more environmental and economic sense to increase peak capacity, thereby increasing the number of rail users and reducing the cost by the usual price-volume economic model. It is not rocket science, so I do not know why the Government continue to follow their policy of recent years. Some of my constituents have to travel into and out of London every day to work. Benfleet and Canvey Island in my constituency are part of the London commuter belt. Benfleet has the most used station on the C2C line, and it suffers particularly as a result of that policy.

Although I accept the need for major blue-sky schemes throughout the country, one of the quickest and easiest ways to increase capacity as we must would be to maximise the use of existing infrastructure and rolling stock. I have three examples of how that can be achieved. First, we should extend platforms so that we can run trains with more carriages. Doing so is easy, provided one obtains the various permissions needed, it is quite cheap, it can dramatically increase train capacity and it can enable more people to be transported into and out of London at peak times. Secondly, we must examine the old signalling. The C2C line needs investment in signalling to run more trains during peak hours. A little investment in signalling on the approach to London would enable C2C to run more trains each hour during those key periods.

Thirdly, and slightly more controversially, we should make small but strategic additions to the main lines. We should build spur lines and loops to existing tracks, and new stations to serve large communities. Many
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communities are without stations, but their people use the rail service. Canvey Island has 44,000 people, and 3,000 of them have to travel off the island to get on a train to travel to London to work each day. Only 600 people a day use the terminal at Shoeburyness on the same line, so we could afford a new station on Canvey Island, with a spur line linking it to Pitsea down Canvey way. It would be quite cheap, it would make a lot of environmental sense, and it would help to regenerate the community of Canvey Island.

It is dangerous and unacceptable that hundreds of people must stand when they travel into work—in my case for 40 minutes each way each day. We would not transport animals in that way, so why do we expect my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) to do so? I ask the Minister to consider ways in which we can positively encourage schemes such as the Canvey Island rail spur and station and enable them to be realised. It is an environmental and economic no-brainer. I also call on Thames Gateway London Partnership, a massive quango that should be improving local infrastructure and the economy for our communities, to shift its focus from yet more building to community regeneration. That would be a jolly good start, too.

11.53 am

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow those hon. Members who made fine points and, knowing your interest in railway matters, to see you in the Chair, Mr. Martlew.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on raising the debate. Some important points have been made. I want to be more specific about the Stern report, about the urgency with which we must address the CO2 problem and about what transport, and rail in particular, can do. Statistics from the Department for Transport show that inter-city rail travel emits one fifth of the CO2 grams per passenger kilometre that car travel emits and one tenth of that of short-haul air travel.

We have not touched on the role of the rail freight sector. The grams per tonne kilometre emitted by rail freight compared with that emitted by heavy goods vehicles on the roads is a factor of 10. Rail freight transport emits one tenth the CO2 of road freight transport. Our rail system lacks capacity for passengers and for freight, so we must have more investment.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I want to consider large schemes, and I urge the Government to consider them, too. Some ideas for passenger rail transport are unfeasible. A new greenfield route would be horrendously expensive and it would not be the way forward. Making the best use of existing north-south corridors for passengers is the way to proceed, but to do so we must take freight off those lines and upgrade them so that they can run more and faster passenger trains. To do that, we need a new rail freight route that runs down the backbone of Britain, from Glasgow to the channel tunnel.

The opportunity exists. I am involved in a scheme—I have not a pecuniary interest, but an enthusiasm to drive the idea forward—for a new rail freight line from Glasgow, linking all major industrial areas of Britain
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to the channel tunnel. It would also link to a burgeoning rail freight system on the continent. The scheme would include a large gauge that was capable of taking not only full-scale 9 ft 6 in lorry containers, which are becoming standard, but double-stacked 9 ft 6 in containers on trains all the way from Glasgow to Dortmund, or wherever, overnight.

We believe that the scheme would take 5 million lorry loads off the roads every year, save the Government vast sums of money in road investment and repairs, transform our environment and make a massive contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. It is the realistic way forward. I shall not go into the details of the scheme, because I want to discuss them in another debate, but I urge the Minister to consider a dedicated rail freight system and route that links our industrial areas with the continent, and within Britain, the south, north and midlands and the west and the north-east.

They key factor is gauge. The problem with the east coast main line, and particularly the west coast main line, is that they do not have sufficient gauge to accommodate even 9 ft 6 in containers. Under Railtrack, one of the new breed of railway managers who knew nothing about railways insisted that a container could go on a particular route, the gauge engineer said that it could not. The manager insisted it was taken on a train, and the container smashed into a bridge because it was 6 in too big. That was just one of Railtrack’s many successes before it was wound up and transformed.

Ms Katy Clark: Given that many goods enter this country through our ports, and that much is transferred on to roads, does my hon. Friend agree that we should develop dedicated railway ports where railways take on all freight? It is happening in other European countries, and we must consider it in our long-term strategy.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The scheme that I propose would deal with the continent, not with long distance deep-sea transport by ship. However, unloading freight from ships directly on to trains for delivery to terminals throughout the country, and then on to road for immediate delivery to localities, would be a sensible way forward. It would be additional to—not instead of—the scheme that I suggest. My proposal is to link Britain to the continent, where people are investing massively. A 35 km tunnel capable of taking double-stack containers is being built through the Brenner pass. It is being drilled through rock as part of a scheme that, for freight alone, will eventually link Sicily with Berlin.

People on the continent are taking the matter seriously and we must do the same. If we do not, we will lose out economically. Britain is peripheral to the European economy and we need the new artery to ensure not just that we save on CO2 emissions, but that our economy is part of the European economy. That is particularly important in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Minister is a Scottish Member, and it is pleasing that we have a Minister with professional experience in the transport industry. I know that he will appreciate many
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of the arguments made by transport experts, because he is one himself. Such expertise is not the case with all Ministers. I am pleased that he is in his post and I hope that he will take seriously what is being said.

We can make a massive contribution to Britain’s economy and to reducing CO2 emissions by taking rail freight seriously and investing in a scheme like the one that I have mentioned, going from the central industrial region of Scotland right through to continental Europe, and linking every major industrial area of Britain to the continental economy.

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