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7 Nov 2006 : Column 226WH—continued

12 noon

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): North-east Wales and west Cheshire is one of the fastest growing areas in the UK, and it has historically had a low usage of railways and a high usage of motor cars. The result of the combination of those two factors, growth and the lack of public transport is a serious congestion problem. The potential for growth in the rail services and systems of the area is reflected by three proposals. The first is the Wrexham-Shrewsbury-London line, to which the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) referred. I fully support his comments, and I am working hard to take the scheme forward.

Secondly, there is a proposal for a new electrified service on the Wrexham-Bidston-Liverpool line, to be run by Merseytravel. That service could be extremely important to the commercial and industrial future of both north-east Wales and west Cheshire. We have industries such as General Motors at Ellesmere Port, Airbus at Broughton and Deeside Industrial Park Ltd, all of which are currently served not by public but by private transport. The result is a severe, developing congestion problem that must be tackled.

The third proposal is for a further development of the Shrewsbury to Chester line, particularly at the north end. Services would be improved between the commercial centres of Wrexham and Chester by the addition of stations at places such as the Chester business park and Rossett. That would facilitate much better commuter travel between the two centres. There is currently serious congestion difficulty on roads in north-east Wales and west Cheshire. I have been commuting in the area for 20 years and I have seen free-flowing traffic grind to a halt.

I was very taken by the speech by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), particularly with his description of trying to work our way through developing the transport system as being like “knitting fog.” That is how I see our approach to transport. The current franchising system is intended to manage the existing service. It is bad at improving the public service, considering the potential for new development and carrying it out. I recognised the hon. Gentleman’s point about the difficulty of taking such projects forward.

Daniel Kawczynski rose—

Ian Lucas: I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman has had his say and I want to be brief.

I hesitate to counsel my hon. Friend the Minister on further structural reform, because I know it is an ongoing sore, but there is a real need to consider how to take new projects forward. Members of Parliament
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can do so much with their resources and knowledge, but we recognise that there are possible services—I have mentioned three in my constituency alone—that could be carried forward. We wish to do so, and there are strong cases for it environmentally, as we have heard, and economically. If we do not develop the transport services in my area, the local economy will ultimately suffer.

I am pleased that under this Labour Government we are managing success. The economy has expanded, but we need to manage that expansion environmentally. We have a system that looks backwards at keeping existing services going. We need a much more constructive, imaginative and facilitative system that enables us to improve transport services in the communities that we represent.

12.5 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on initiating the debate, and other hon. Members on their contributions. Some excellent points have been made. The debate is timely because of the publication over the weekend of the Select Committee on Transport’s report on rail franchising and because we are promised a transport Bill in the forthcoming Session. I hope that that Bill, as well as doing something about bus re-regulation, will address the issues that hon. Members have raised.

I wish to set out a few things that Liberal Democrats think important and in particular draw attention to four points made by the Select Committee that are pertinent to those made by hon. Members. The Government say that they support competition, yet they appear to consider open access operators—the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned one—a threat to stability. They hail the growth in passenger numbers, yet they do not provide a long-term strategy and investment to increase capacity. We are promised a Government report in 2007 in which they will set out their long-term strategy, but I hope that the Minister will explain today the direction in which they are travelling. They want co-ordination, yet they continue to operate a system of fragmentation, as hon. Members have said. Finally, they want the private sector to invest, take risks and innovate, yet they prioritise price above all those factors. There is a role for the private sector in the railway industry, and for companies to continue to expand and develop it they need longer franchises than they currently get.

I pay tribute to the Government’s record of investment in the past few years, and the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), used to say that the investment was £88 million a week, which is not to be sneezed at. We must look forward, however, and consider what needs to be addressed. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned freight. I was disappointed at the end of last month that the channel tunnel rail company made it difficult for freight trains to travel through the tunnel. I went up to Trafford Park in Manchester to watch one of the last few freight trains that will be able to operate through the tunnel.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I support the hon. Gentleman’s view on freight and was interested in what the hon. Member for Luton, North
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said about the channel tunnel rail link, but the Government have the contract with the channel tunnel rail company. It is the Government who are failing to get involved and sort out the contract so that freight can continue to move through the tunnel.

Paul Rowen: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will consider the matter. It is clear that companies will not be able to afford the prices that are being set, which will mean not less traffic on the road but more. I agree with the hon. Member for Luton, North that we need investment in a freight line that runs down the centre of the country.

Kelvin Hopkins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman on rail freight. Does he agree that the matter is even more critical now that the channel tunnel is about to be forced into bankruptcy? Putting fewer trains through it will make it even less viable. We need thousands of tonnes of freight going through it every day.

Paul Rowen: I agree. It is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and I hope that the Minister will do so.

I wish to mention something that has not yet been raised: the need for a high-speed rail link between Scotland and the capital. Currently, 97 per cent. of all traffic to the capital from Scotland uses air. It is clear that such a line would be important in getting people to switch and as part of our attempts to address climate change. Speed will be of the essence. If we are talking about a long-term plan, we need to ensure that the line is built, but there are rumours that the Eddington report has gone cold on that. I hope that that is not the case, because if every other developed country that is serious about rail can have a fast rail link, why not this country, which invented rail?

I finish with two points. A number of bottlenecks need to be addressed, such as at Birmingham New Street and platforms 12 and 13 at Manchester Piccadilly. Addressing them would do much to alleviate the concerns that hon. Members have raised. We also need longer trains and longer platforms, but that will not happen unless the train operating companies receive longer franchises. I hope that the Minister will consider the points that I and other hon. Members have made.

12.11 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on instigating this debate and, once again, the prisoners of the Crossrail Committee on their good work. It is good to see them here this morning. It is clear that Britain’s transport infrastructure will face almost unprecedented pressures over the next 25 years. Forecasted growth in the number of cars is far greater than what we can possibly provide for by building more roads. That means that we shall need a modern, efficient railway system that can face up to the challenges that will confront the network.

As was mentioned, the rail network now carries more passengers each day than before Beeching, which saw the wholesale closure of half the network. The current figures are an astonishing achievement that would have been thought laughable 15 years ago. On top of that, there has been a reversal—although not great enough—of the trend in freight, with at least
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some freight moving from road to rail. That has happened since privatisation, but that is not what we are here to discuss, which is the challenge of the future.

The future challenge for the railways, for both passenger and freight, is capacity. It is difficult to see how the next decade can be anything like as successful as the previous one unless the policy is orientated to ease the constraints on capacity. According to Network Rail, the TOCs and industry commentators, passenger numbers are estimated to grow by some 30 per cent. between now and 2014. However, the Office of Rail Regulation says that no growth in the number of passenger train kilometres travelled on the network between now and 2014 is expected, which in layman’s language means no more space for passengers.

Daniel Kawczynski: With all the new people using rail services, does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important for the Government to ensure better access for disabled passengers at stations? For example, there is no opportunity for disabled people to get on to the platform for the service between Shrewsbury and Chester, which has been mentioned.

Stephen Hammond: I agree with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on getting Shrewsbury mentioned a record number of times in a debate.

We can all do the maths. All that we are seeing adds up to more and more passengers, on more and more overcrowded trains, with a constant upward pressure on fares to try to take the sting out of overcrowding. I am concerned that neither Network Rail nor the Government seem to be prioritising the challenge, and I should like briefly to comment on their roles.

Network Rail seems to want more and more money. Earlier this year it asked the Government for another £7 billion of investment, over and above the cash that it had already received. In total, Network Rail wants nearly £1.5 billion more to run the railways than the independent rail regulator thinks it should have. There are only two places from which that money can come—the taxpayer or the travelling public. The Government are talking of allowing huge fare increases, which seems to be facing the capacity challenge with a policy of pricing people off the railways. It is all very well for Network Rail to ask for more money, but earlier this year it said, both privately and publicly, that its priorities were repair, maintenance and replacement. Not once was there talk of an increase in capacity.

Through this control period and the next one, Network Rail has been given some aggressive targets to drive down costs, which indicates an element of previous profligacy in that organisation. However, it is also interesting to see the start of some change. The route utilisation strategy shows at least a recognition in Network Rail that capacity is the key driver, although there is no time scale for implementation of that. Given the length of lead time and payback time, we need Network Rail to accelerate and to prioritise that programme.

The Government interfere too much in the railway. It makes no sense to have them writing timetables. A comment was made earlier about the privatised railway
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and Railtrack running trains into a buffer. The first timetable that was written by the Government for the First Great Western franchise had two trains on a single track heading towards each other at the same time until First Group pointed that out. It also makes no sense for the Government to be the key driver of procuring new trains, which is the reason for a number of the problems in the south-west London commuter network.

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman talks about procuring trains, but is it not a fact that some of the biggest costs are the vast rental costs that are charged by the ROSCOs—the rolling stock leasing companies, which are essentially the banks—to the train operators? The costs sometimes amount to 30 per cent. every year of the value of the trains and stock, which can themselves last for 20 to 30 years.

Stephen Hammond: Some element of the leasing structure is undoubtedly problematic, but as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, part of that is driven by the length of franchise in this country, which fails to allow the TOCs to invest in a way that they might otherwise want to. It is madness for franchises to be so tightly specified that the TOCs have little incentive to invest or to innovate.

Ian Lucas: Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that very long franchises might prevent the imaginative development of railways?

Stephen Hammond: No, I do not see any evidence for that. Innovation and investment are much more likely. I see no problem with the infrastructure either, because we could operate a full repairing lease, as we have elsewhere, so I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman’s point.

I am convinced that the status quo is not the answer to confronting the capacity challenge. The current system cannot drive the sort of capacity increases that we are looking for. As imposed by the previous Secretary of State but two, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), it has caused structural rigidities, which neither allow decisions about capacity to be taken fast enough nor provide for clarity in the railways as to who is accountable. The separation of the TOCs and Network Rail has meant institutionalised conflict, which has pushed up cost. The current system cannot and will not confront the challenge of expansion. There is an overwhelming acceptance among the railway lobby groups and the chief executives of the TOCs that we need to reconsider the current structure, as imposed by the right hon. Gentleman. It is time for a reconsideration of vertical integration, which is probably the only way of overcoming the structural rigidities in the system.

The current franchise arrangements make increased investment impossible. They are too tightly specified and there is too much Government interference. Chiltern Railways is the only franchise of a longer length—although on a small scale—but it is driving innovation and investment. We need to learn the lessons and consider the length of franchises. I agree with the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) that, were we to examine those franchise lengths, we could
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also ensure that we left room for innovative small operators and open-access operators, and protected the interests of the rail freight operators.

A number of potential schemes have been mentioned. Let me touch on a few that seem to be relatively minor improvements. We need the Government to commit to and force on to Network Rail a scheme of small-scale improvements that could drive big capacity increases in the railways. My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) talked of the needs in his constituency. Let me put to the Minister the following issues: the Maindee curve reinstatement, the Halton curve reinstatement, double tracking from Leamington Spa to Coventry and from Salisbury to Exeter, platform lengthening, extra links at termini and freight improvements at a number of the London commuter stations. Birmingham New Street and Manchester Piccadilly have also been mentioned. The expansion of railways also needs a scheme to make underused and disused railway lines more available for innovative light rail schemes.

I look forward to the Minister’s confirmation that none of the above is going to happen and that the Government will continue to define the franchise too tightly. I look forward to him stating that he is not going to instigate a programme of reform within Network Rail. I shall be interested to hear how he thinks that capacity will be driven up unless there are changes.

12.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on securing the debate, which provides an opportunity for the House to consider the progress made on Britain’s railways, the investment in growth that we are already delivering, and our plans to take that to the next level.

Unfortunately, a couple of hon. Members have now left the Chamber, but it was refreshing to see so many members of the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill come blinking into the sunlight after their long exile—it would not be quite accurate to say self-imposed exile. However, it is good to see so many members of the Select Committee and other hon. Members here today. I shall try my best to answer as many as possible of the points made, but I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I may not be able to answer every single one in appropriate detail as well as deliver my own prepared remarks.

If someone from another country who knew nothing about the British railway system were listening to this debate, they could be forgiven—particularly given the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport—for assuming that the British railway system was under-resourced, underused and under threat. The opposite is the case. Of course there are major challenges, capacity prime among them, but ours is the first Government in generations to have to deal with the problem of increased rail passenger numbers. Many previous Governments would sorely have wanted such a problem.

The hon. Member for Southport started by saying that Beeching’s spirit haunts the Department for Transport today, but he did not clarify what on earth
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that meant. I have to challenge that statement. If he is suggesting any resemblance between the Government’s policies and what Beeching did in the 1960s, I challenge him to go back to his sources.

Dr. Pugh: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Harris: If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I want to get through my speech.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski)—that is another mention for Shrewsbury in Hansard—said that every county town should have a direct rail link to London. Unfortunately, I did not hear that mentioned by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). I wait with interest to see whether that commitment will find its way into the next Conservative party manifesto.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned that seeking to progress infrastructure developments can be a Kafkaesque experience. I understand the frustration of anyone who wants physical growth in the rail network about how slowly the industry moves, and I sympathise. The hon. Gentleman will understand that there are good reasons for that, but I share his and others’ frustrations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Ms Clark) talked about the comprehensive spending review in the context of the Stern report. She also mentioned a high-speed rail link. She was probably not present when I delivered my first response to an Adjournment debate on that very subject. Through the 2005 Labour party manifesto, the Government are committed to looking at the possibility of a high-speed rail link, but that has to be done in the context of the Eddington report, which is due before the end of this year.

Unfortunately, the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) has left his seat after describing the rail service as infrequent and unreliable in an intervention. That is far from the truth. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is not a regular user of the rail service, but as he is not in his position to defend himself, I shall let that stand.

I will be happy to take up the complaints made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham about the state of Shrewsbury station. I understand that the station is operated by Central Trains, not Network Rail, but if there is a problem in getting the station up to specification, I shall look into that for him. If he writes to me, I shall pursue the matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made some powerful points, although he would not expect me to agree with them all. However, I am grateful that he was the first speaker in the debate to pay tribute to the amount of investment that the Government are making in the railways. In the current spending cycle, we invest £88 million every week.

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