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Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab):
Earlier this year, we heard an apology from the Conservative party for rail privatisation. Was my right
hon. Friend as surprised as me that the speech madeby the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) included not one reference of regret for the Transport Act 1985, which stripped passenger transport authorities of the powers to regulate bus services and decimated services in places such as Greater Manchester?
Mr. Alexander: Yes and no. I was not surprised that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell chose to sit on the fence. However, it might be a long time before we get an apology. The Conservative spokesman has asked the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire(Sir George Young) to advise him on restructuring the Department for Transport. In case hon. Members have forgotten, the right hon. Gentleman was, of course, the Secretary of State for Transport who rushed through the sale of Railtrack and cost the taxpayer millions of pounds. Despite the public protestations and apologies that we have heard from Conservative Members, I am not sure that they have learned many lessons, as I shall make clear when I speak about rail.
Ms Gisela Stuart: As the Secretary of State is talking about the railways, may I entice him to give a commitment that the Government will fully support the Birmingham gateway project, which will allow us to rebuild New Street station?
Mr. Alexander: If I am not able to give such a pledge this evening, let me at least offer some words of encouragement. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), visited Birmingham New Street station last month with Network Rail and saw the need for improved facilities. In the months to come, in the context of the high-level output statement that we will be making next summer, we should be able to make a specific announcement on the facilities in Birmingham.
Under Labour, we now have the fastest growing railway in Europe. More than 1 billion rail journeys are made every year. Just last Monday, Network Rail published its interim results, which show that punctuality is at a seven-year high, that more than£1 billion has been slashed from the costs of running the railway, and that continued high levels of investment are making a difference. Passenger numbers are up by 40 per cent., and freight has grown by 60 per cent. over the past 10 years, while safety is improving. As a result of the sustained investment that we are putting into the industrywe are spending some£88 million a weekwe have already replaced over40 per cent. of rolling stock since 1997, which has made our fleet one of the youngest in Europe.
Will the Secretary of State tell me how the number of rail passengers will increase, given that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has instructed that fares on the Hayes line should go up by between 50 and 75 per cent. and that that should start
in Januarybefore any service improvements have been made and before the introduction of the zonal system in London?
Mr. Alexander: I assure the hon. Lady that we support the zonal fares system. I think that the system has won widespread support throughout the capital because of the simplification that it offers. If any Conservative Front-Bench spokesman wishes to take this opportunity to put on the record their opposition to zonal faring, I will be very interested to hear them, as will many commuters in London.
It is against the backdrop of sustained investment that, for the first time, the Government will next year publish fully costed and independently agreed proposals for rail for the next five years. Those proposals will be set in the context of an even longer-term framework. In contrast, we are now beginning to discover just how little the official Opposition have learned from the botched privatisation that they inflicted on the railways. Far from apologising for rail privatisation, the Conservative party has in fact learned nothing from it, as we can see from its latest so-called strategy document that was published last week, which includes plenty of warm words about integrated organisations. Just as the Tories botched rail privatisation in the 1980s by fragmenting the network, they are now apparently proposing a further fragmentation by breaking up Network Rail. The party that broke up the rail network now proposes new plans to fragment the railways further. Its message to the public seems clear: Sorry we took a mallet to the railways. Do you like our new mallet?
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I am grateful for the help that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is giving to secure the direct rail link between Shrewsbury and London. However, there are still a lot of problems relating to the maintenance of the railway. Network Rail and the train operators each blame the other for not taking responsibility for maintaining our station. Will the Secretary of State give clearer guidance on who should do what regarding the maintenance of railway stations?
Mr. Alexander: Of course, joint control centres between train operating companies and Network Rail have been established in recent years. The hon. Gentleman makes a genuine and heartfelt plea for improvements to his constituents service, but I struggle to see how the scale of expenditure cuts proposedby his Front-Bench colleagues would help the Conservative partys endeavour to solve such problems at any point in the future.
Chris Grayling: When the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), a former Secretary of State with responsibility for transport, said that one of the weaknesses of rail privatisation was the lack of an interface between track and train, was he wrong?
It is for that exact reason that joint control centres are being established to ensure that Network Rail can work effectively with the train operating companies. The hon. Gentleman should keep
pace with the changes that have taken place, rather than reading speeches made by former Secretaries of State.
John Barrett: Will the Secretary of State comment on the lack of enthusiasm for high-speed rail linksin the Eddington report, bearing in mind the opportunities that they would offer for the future of this countrys rail transport system?
Mr. Alexander: A characteristically costed view from the Liberal Democrats. Mr. Eddington[Hon. Members: Sir Rod.] Sir Rod Eddington struck an appropriate balance by recognising that when one considers the strategic view of Britains transport needs in the decades to come, one should not start with a modal solution, but say, Where are the networks and what are the opportunities for improving them? That is the context in which we will take forward our analysis of the case for a high-speed rail line in the months ahead.
Mrs. Ellman: Will the Secretary of State give a commitment to invest in our railways to deal with increased demand? Does he accept that the problem has been caused by the Governments success in growing our economy and turning round the disaster of Tory rail privatisation?
Mr. Alexander: I concur absolutely, as does Sir Rod Eddington when he recognises that we are dealing with the symptoms of success. We have brought stability not only to the rail industry, following the Conservatives botched privatisation, but to the economy. The stability of the economy is the basis on which we are able to secure investment. The fundamental difficulty for Conservative Members is that they cannot will the ends without willing the means. They are ideologically determined to impose tax cuts and massive public spending cuts, yet their record of economic stewardship suggests that they would not be able to run the economy, even if they were minded to put in place the kind of investment that we have seen in recent years.
On the roads, our approach is to provide better real-time information for road users, to strengthen the management of the existing road network, to target investment where it is warranted, and to work with local authorities on road pricing pilots to tackle congestion in local areas. In a recent debate in the House, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary responded to his shadow by declaring:
consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.[ Official Report, 23 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 708.]
That phrase came to mind during a single paragraph of my opposite numbers speech when he said not only that we needed decisive action, but that he wanted
slower action on road pricing. That does not sound like the most consistent policy that I have ever heard from the Conservative party.
More than 1,100 traffic officers are now deployed across the motorway network to help to assist traffic flow after accidents and incidents, and the national traffic control centre and the seven regional control centres monitor our motorways to keep traffic moving and congestion to a minimum. However, with nearly33 million vehicles now on our roads, compared with 26 million in 1996, and given that the number of cars has gone up by about 60 per cent. in the past 20 years, a position of simply building more roads is not tenable.
After decades of neglect and underinvestment, the Government have tried not just to right the wrongs of the past, but to build a transport system that is fit for the challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century.
Paul Rowen: The Secretary of State has not mentioned light rail. Given that his predecessor cancelled several such schemesManchester Metrolink is the only one that is going aheadwill he tell us the future that he envisages for light rail?
Mr. Alexander: Again, the hon. Gentleman should keep up to date. Not only did I give the go-ahead for £450 million of investment for the Manchester Metrolink, but we have taken forward proposals on the extension of the Nottingham trams. It would be probably be helpful if he would keep up to date with the announcements that come out of the Department.
Our policy is to build on the firm foundations of the greatest period of macro-economic stability this country has enjoyed for generations, by contrast with the shifting sands of the slash-and-burn economicsof the Conservatives. Now, our challenge, in the words of Sir Rod Eddington, is to deal with the symptoms of successthe symptoms caused by the longest sustained period of economic growth in our history. We shall introduce plans to pilot road pricing, to give us the evidence that we need on the role of road pricing in tackling congestion. We shall continue the sustained investment that has turned our railways from being the sick man of Europe under the Conservatives into the fastest growing railway in Europe. We shall work to ensure that every part of the country has the ability to deliver public transport services, including bus services, that are right for their communities.
I am grateful for the Oppositions tactical decision to give me the opportunity to outline the Governments approach to sustained investment, effective management and planning for the future. I commend the Government amendment to the House.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The main thrust of my comments will relate to the Eddington report, which is an interesting piece of work, and to the Governments record on transport after some nine and a half years in power. However, it would be remiss of me not to make some reference to the motion that stands in the name of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) andhis right hon. and hon. Friends, which is a quite remarkable piece of work.
The kindest thing that I can say about the motion is that it is long on analysis, but rather short on solutions. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are right to identify road congestion as a major problem for our transport network, and they are right to identify the capacity problems experienced by our railways. They would have been right to identify the problems of declining bus use outside London, and it is remarkable in every sense of the word that they did not do so. It is quite remarkable that the party of Polly Toynbee has nothing to say about the mode of transport that is most widely used by the poorest in society.
It is also remarkable that the born-again environmentalists on the Conservative Front Bench do not make a single reference in their motion to the Stern report. I have to tell the Secretary of State that the same fault can be seen in the Government amendment. The Liberal Democrats recognise the contribution that transport makes to carbon emissions, and we believe that to attempt to read Eddington on its own, without some reference to Stern, is a sterile effort.
Although the Conservatives do not have much to say about what they will do or would do in government, they could say an awful lot more about what they did. If our trains are failing, it surely has more than a little to do with the way in which our train system was privatised. If our bus services are failing, it has more than a little to do with the way in which they were deregulated in the 1980s. If our roads are congested, that is surely a result of the Conservative Governments view that we could build our way out of congestion. The Conservative position on road user pricing as outlined tonight is quite the most remarkable piece of work of all. It reminded me of the maidens prayer, Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I take it that the hon. Gentleman has carefully read the Eddington report. He might have touched on the section about bus services and deregulation, where Sir Rod notes that there has been a 50 per cent. decrease in operating costs and
considerable innovation in the bus market following deregulation, including improvements in bus fleet, variable bus sizes, out-sourcing of maintenance, smart ticketing and the introduction of parttime working arrangements for employees in the sector.
Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman cannot get away from the fact that since bus deregulation, bus use, which is highest among the poorest in our society, has consistently decreased. There was something almost distasteful about the glee with which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell spoke about bus use now beginning to decrease in London.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) suggested that profitability has increased, but of course it does if after deregulation bus services only run on the cherry-picked profitable routes. What about service to passengers?
The hon. Gentleman points tothe crux of the matter. I am not advocating a return to the pre-1986 position and I doubt that anyone in this House is. However, the way in which deregulation was
carried out by the Conservative Government left no scope for local accountability. The passenger transport executives and the passenger transport authorities have been stripped of any meaningful power, which has had a severe impact on their standing within their communities. It is to that level of local accountability that we wish to return.
Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree with my summary of the intervention by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), which is that the operation was successful but the patient died? As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) says, buses account forthe vast majority of passenger journeys, yet the Conservative spokesman did not mention them. In west Yorkshire, seen passenger journeys have decreased by a third100 million passenger journeysand fares have increased by 50 per cent. Routes have been chopped and changed and pared down to suit the interests of shareholders, rather than the needs of communities.
Mr. Carmichael: What we are seeing is the different attitudes to bus services. I see tremendous value in terms of economic regeneration, the environment and social inclusion in investing in bus services and giving meaningful support and accountability to local communities in their provision. Let us not forget that Baroness Thatcher said that any man over the age of30 who used a bus to get to work should consider himself a failure. She has been silent on her view of men over the age of 30 who go to work on a bicycle.
Mr. Carmichael: I made it clear that we are not saying that the position pre-1986 was perfect. We are saying, however, that there has been a removal of investment and of local accountability. The hon. Gentleman seemed to be preaching that people in Birmingham should be the ones who decide on road user pricing. Why should bus services not be treated in the same way?
The one point of agreement between us and the Conservatives is on the starting point of Rod Eddingtons report: 2015. There is a need for immediate action to tackle the crisis in our transport system. We accept that the Government have invested in our transport infrastructure, and that is welcome. We acknowledge the improvements that have been made, such as on the west coast main line. However, their record after nine and a half years is less than impressive. Rail delays have doubled since 1997, people feel less secure on our transport systemonly 7 per cent. of stations were awarded secure statusand under the Labour Government the real cost of motoring has actually decreased while the cost of travelling by train or by bus has increased.
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