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The Committee said:

30 Nov 2006 : Column 1313

but asserted that what was needed was an improvement in performance rather than the use of percentages to tweak the figures. It concluded:

I should be grateful if the Minister responded to those comments, because the current targets clearly do not work.

The Institution of Civil Engineers also criticised the PPM, saying:

We really do need another measure of success.

Many Members have mentioned increased travel costs. It is now cheaper to fly from London to Barcelona than to travel to Bournemouth by train. It is also cheaper to drive by car to Bournemouth than to go there by rail. That is not an incentive for people to leave behind their cars. On the standard of service, as Members have said, the trains are more overcrowded, and nothing is being done to tackle that problem. The Government made huge promises in their 10-year plan, which I shall come to later; unfortunately they have been left wanting.

In a recent report, the CBI commented that 63 per cent. of the UK transport network will get worse in the next five years unless there is major investment. It goes on to say that an astonishing £300 billion is the minimum investment needed to deliver the required improvements to the transport network over the next decade. That would be an astonishing commitment, but that figure is also an astonishing indictment of the current state of our infrastructure.

Mr. Martlew: First, will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is advocating that more public money should be spent on infrastructure—and therefore taxes put up? Secondly, does he accept that a lot of the problems in our infrastructure were caused by 18 years of Conservative Government?

Mr. Ellwood: I opened my remarks by saying that we are where we are. We can go back in time and talk about those 18 years, but we can also go back and discuss what Labour Governments have achieved with the rail network. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree that there has been a lack of investment by a series of Administrations compared with that made by our continental colleagues. That is the bottom line.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s other question, the money must come from a combination of a public and a private partnership, but he will have to wait a little longer to find out the detail of what the Conservatives propose on that because, despite the turmoil on the Government Front Bench, we are not expecting a general election just yet.

Clive Efford: I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman is promoting a public-private partnership. He does not, therefore, support the position of his
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Front-Bench team that there should be a laissez-faire attitude and that the private sector should dictate.

Mr. Ellwood: I will not be cornered into saying whether there should be public or private money and where it should go. The point is that large sums need to be spent. There are different aspects of the rail network and there are different methods by which we can improve its services. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has outlined the general scheme. I am saying that there are many ways in which we can move forward with the sum that the CBI suggests needs to be spent. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the party he represents is in government, and that therefore it is his Government’s responsibility; they are in power and in charge at present.

In its 1997 manifesto, Labour promised to

In 1998, a White Paper on integrated transport policy was published; we do not hear much about that any longer. In it, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

That was said in 1998, but I have not seen a huge amount of improvement since then.

The next big initiative from the Government was the new deal for transport. In July 2000, a 10-year plan was published, and the Deputy Prime Minister claimed:

The 10-year plan promised that £180 billion would be spent over 10 years. It also promised a 50 per cent. increase in use measured by passenger kilometres, an 80 per cent. increase in rail freight, improvements in service quality, more punctual and reliable trains, less overcrowding, installation of new traffic safety systems, modern trains and more attractive and secure stations, and modernisation and increased capacity on the west coast and east coast main lines. I could go on and on. The litany of comments that have come not only from Opposition Members but from Labour Members shows that those plans have been left wanting.

What a shopping list we had from the Government, and what a set of promises—and five years later, what a huge disappointment. As early as May 2002, the then Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions stated that

That was the Government’s own Transport Committee commenting on that issue.

Mrs. Dunwoody: It is a House of Commons Select Committee, actually.

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Mr. Ellwood: I stand corrected by the Chairman of that very Committee.

We also need to look at some of the other targets. Halfway through the plan, the Government’s transport targets have been shown to be unachievable and have been watered down. They are now considered not targets but “aims”, and the target of a 50 per cent. increase in rail use has been abandoned.

A subject that has not been mentioned much is violent crime on our railways. There were 9,748 cases of violent crime on the railways in 2004, the most recent year for which I could obtain statistics, which is an increase of 12 per cent. on the previous year. That is another concern that the Government must address.

I intervened on the Minister at the beginning of the debate to ask how much rail freight is going through the channel tunnel, and he agreed that it is important that we increase the amount of such freight. The channel tunnel has the capacity to push through some 10 million tonnes of freight a year, but it is averaging about 2 million tonnes. That is testament to where we are in our attempt to get freight on to our railways.

Colleagues will agree that every time that we overtake a lorry on a motorway, we wonder why on earth such goods are not being transported by rail. The reason is our existing capacity. An inter-city train charging along the west coast main line, for example, requires 8 miles of free track in front of it, because that is the necessary stopping distance. As a result, any freight or other commuter train is shunted out of the way. If we are to increase the amount of freight on our railways, there is a fundamental requirement for more track.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 79 per cent. of people identified transferring freight from our roads to rail as the priority for the Government in tackling congestion on our motorways—more than twice the percentage who advocated a reduction in roadworks, and more than four times the percentage who were in favour of building more roads.

The Government have a huge responsibility so far as our rail network is concerned, particularly given the challenge of climate change, to which reference has been made. I agree with many of the points that have been made today. One Member raised the question of a north-south link. Travelling to Europe by train is a very competitive alternative to doing so by plane, but the same is not true of travelling within the UK. If we want to travel to Manchester, Newcastle or even further north, the plane is the faster option that wins every time. A north-south link is imperative if we are to open up the north. I come from the south-west, which is hugely overdeveloped in part because businesses do not feel that they can locate in the north, given the lack of transport connections to the south.

There are also other imaginative ideas, such as double-decker trains. To use such trains, we would have to rebuild some of our tunnels, which are far too low to accommodate them. However, that is the sort of vision that we must have if we are to have a proper 10-year plan, instead of simply taking seats out of trains to tweak the figures. We should also consider investment in signalling, as has been mentioned, and examine the timetables.

The rail system is far from adequate. It is unable to meet the challenges of the 21st century and the
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demands of a growing customer base, and it is unable to take advantage of the nation’s desire to go green. It is also unable to meet the existing targets without ripping out seats, and it is not as integrated as it should be; indeed, it is fragmented. The nation wants a simpler, integrated structure that is safe, affordable and efficient.

5.29 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and I agreed with a lot of what he said, particularly his emphasis on rail freight and the need for extra capacity.

I also participated in a debate yesterday and I apologise to the Minister for his having to listen to me speak twice in two days about the railways; I promise that I will say different things today. Unfortunately, in between the two debates there has been a crisis on the line that I have travelled on for the last 37 years, such that it took my researcher four hours to travel 30 miles yesterday. It took me an hour and a half to get home on what would normally be a 45-minute journey. Sometimes things go wrong and we must seek to improve maintenance standards as much as we can.

There has been much talk about climate change, and rail freight produces one twelfth of the amount of CO2 per tonne/mile of road freight. It would be a fantastic bonus for tackling climate change if we could get more freight on to rail. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that together with colleagues I am promoting the concept of a dedicated freight line from Glasgow to the channel tunnel, which would take 5 million lorry loads off our roads every year, transform the economics of the channel tunnel and provide for double-stack containers and trailers on trains all the way from Glasgow and our major industrial areas to the continent of Europe. It is a massive concept. It would also take most of the north-south freight from the east coast main line and the west coast main line, freeing up those lines for faster and more frequent passenger trains, producing much more capacity. If the east coast main line had some tweaking, such as quadrupling the track with a new viaduct at Welwyn and a couple of bypass loops further north, we could have 140 mph, non-stop trains from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. On the west coast main line, we could have 135 mph trains, which might not be non-stop, but they would provide a very fast service. That would, at least for the foreseeable future, provide sufficient capacity for passengers on the north-south routes and transform journeys between here and the north.

The rail freight line is my most important concern. Because we are an island off the coast of Europe we must be linked in to the European economy more strongly. We need a better freight artery into the heart of Europe and across the whole of Europe. The idea was promoted by Lord Kinnock, when he was the Transport Commissioner, of a rail freight network across continental Europe. It is now going great guns and a 35-mile tunnel is being drilled through the Brenner pass so that double-stack containers will be able to use that dedicated freight line. Freight lines are also being built through the Alps between France and Italy. In the not too distant future, it will be possible to get full-scale freight trains all the way from the toe of
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Italy to Berlin. We have to be part of that network, so we have to use our channel tunnel and have a delivery system—a dedicated freight line—on our side. We call it the euro rail freight route and I hope that hon. Members will hear much more of it in future.

We have made much progress, but there are problems with cost. I raised the question of costs many times in transport questions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he was Secretary of State for Transport. The costs that I have been given for rail maintenance and new track have not been challenged and are horrendous. Before rail maintenance was brought in house, it was suggested that costs had gone up by four times under privatisation. Network Rail said that what was happening was that contracting companies were working strictly to specifications that might not be exactly right. Network Rail would discover a problem on Monday morning and the whole thing would have to be done again. The contracting companies were doing very nicely thank you, out of having to do the work twice. When it was done in house, the corrections were made as they went, by directly employed engineers. The work was done once and much more cheaply.

My hon. Friend the Minister may be aware of the railway engineers forum, at which the keynote address was given by an official from his Department, who said that there is a huge gap between what the Government want to pay for the British rail system and what they are being presented with as a bill. He addressed construction costs and said that, at present, major project expenditure goes 50 per cent. on construction costs and 50 per cent. on other things. He contrasted that with the situation in British Rail days, when the east coast main line electrification took place under Don Heath, the very fine BR engineer, who is now retired. When he was asked what the project management costs were, he said that they came to 1 per cent. of the total, with 99 per cent. of the money going on construction. The Department for Transport official said that, by today’s standards, the project represented “exceptional value for money”.

The solutions that we need can be found in the way things were done in the BR days. I do not say that merely to make an ideological point, but it is clear that cash-limited projects undertaken by engineers directly employed by a publicly owned railway industry did a good job with the money that they had. The cash limits might have been painful and difficult, but they worked and we should return to that system.

Moreover, the people directly employed by the railway industry took great pride in doing the best possible work with the money available. We need to get that motivation back into our rail industry, as opposed to the present contractual relationships. Under the present system, the more contracts and funds that are available, the better contractors like it. It is very difficult to control the associated costs, as is shown by the fact that Network Rail is bringing its maintenance arrangements back in-house. I suggest that we return to something resembling what we had in the past—an integrated rail system with directly employed engineers.

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My hon. Friend the Minister knows what I think about franchising, so I shall not repeat what I said yesterday. However, I urge him to look at the report of the seminar on railway engineering costs of 14 June 2005, when one of his officials made such a telling address about how costs could be reduced.

That is the way forward. If costs are brought down, we will get more for our money, and fares and freight charges will also be cut. Our rail system might then start to look a bit more like the systems on the continent, where fares are much lower. In addition, the travelling public will get a much fairer deal.

We are well into a new railway age, and that is very welcome. I have always believed passionately in the railways and seen them as the future, and it is clear that this House and the Government now share that conviction. There is still a bit of a problem with the Treasury but, once that comes onside, we will certainly be winning.

5.37 pm

Mr. Tom Harris: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond to some of the comments that have been made in the debate.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) strongly criticised the Government for exercising what he called a high degree of operational control. That is an important matter, and I hope that he will bear with me as I set out my argument. If the Government were to abrogate their responsibility to set down minimum timetable standards, does he believe that private rail operators would continue—perhaps for altruistic reasons—to run services on lines that they deemed to be unprofitable? Were the Government to adopt that approach, I am sure that he would be one of the many MPs knocking on my door and asking me to intervene. He would want the Government to do what we are doing already—that is, specify minimum levels of standards.

Earlier, I issued a challenged to the hon. Gentleman. I asked whether, if he were to become Secretary of State for Transport in a future Government, he would commit his party to a completely laissez-faire policy in respect of the railways. I wanted him to say, on the record, whether a future Conservative Government would set those minimum standards. It is telling that he refused to offer that commitment, which means either that he is convinced that private operating companies should be allowed to set any level of standards that they choose, or that he thinks the Government should intervene.

Chris Grayling rose—

Mr. Harris: I see that the hon. Gentleman is ready to intervene. I am very pleased.

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