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House of Commons

Tuesday 30 January 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Private business


Broads Authority Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second Time on Tuesday 6 February.


National Trust (Northern Ireland) Bill

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Franchise Agreements

2. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If he will provide for new rail franchise agreements to include a requirement for a maximum time a rail commuter should expect to stand without having access to a seat. [112056]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): Before I answer the question, on behalf of the Government I express the sympathy of this side of the House to the family of Paul Channon, the former Member for Southend, West. He served as Secretary of State for Transport between 1987 and 1989, during which time he had to deal with both the Clapham Junction rail crash and the Lockerbie disaster. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

The Government recognise the pressures faced by many passengers at the busiest times on the busiest routes into work. That is why, in all franchises that we let, we set a target that standing should not exceed 20 minutes and that peak capacity should meet demand. The recently let First Capital Connect and South Western Trains franchises contain commitments to increase capacity. We recognise that demand for rail has increased markedly in the past decade and this summer, for the first time, the Government will publish a fully funded strategy to buy extra capacity where it is most needed.

Mr. Lancaster: May I associate myself with the Minister’s opening comments?


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Given that the cost of a season ticket from Milton Keynes and Wolverton is £3,440, surely commuters can expect to get a seat—something that cannot be guaranteed at the moment. With the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes, they are even less likely to get a seat in future. However, there is one thing that the Minister can do for me. Virgin trains stop to drop off passengers at Milton Keynes during rush hour, but not to pick them up. That is frustrating for commuters, when there are empty seats and it is the last stop before Euston. Please will the Minister look into that matter?

Mr. Alexander: One of the challenges in Milton Keynes is ensuring that there is a sufficient length of platform to accommodate longer trains. I hope that, in the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman associated himself with my earlier comments, he will associate himself with the hard work and campaigning efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), who for many years has campaigned for that extra investment. There is a fundamental connection between the length of the platforms at Milton Keynes and the length of trains that are able to run, with a consequence for capacity.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Another form of access to seats that I have had complaints about from some of my constituents and my city council relates to the lack of properly functioning toilets on many commuter trains and other trains along the south coast. Is it true that the train companies have no requirement to provide toilets on trains? If so, will the Minister take steps to rectify the matter?

Mr. Alexander: I will certainly ensure that I write directly to my hon. Friend on that question.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): On the subject of standing on trains, our local rail service, One Railway, suffers from extreme overcrowding. We are desperate for more capacity on the service, but one of the problems in providing that capacity is the franchise fee that One Railway pays each year to the Department for Transport, which is £50 million. Will the Secretary of State take a look at that franchise fee to see whether the money would be better invested on new rail infrastructure and longer platforms?

Mr. Alexander: I fear that the hon. Gentleman is labouring under a misapprehension. The premium payments by the franchisees do not go back to the Treasury, but are ring-fenced within the Department for Transport rail budget. It is exactly the kind of premium that he speaks of, as well as the sustained public investment, that accounts for the fact that 4,800 new trains and carriages have been purchased over the past 10 years.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Could my right hon. Friend use some of those returns to deal with the situation in relation to First Great Western? It is not just that people cannot get access to a seat; the space that they are expected to stand in is insufficient for a human being. As one of my constituents pointed out to me, under regulation 1/2005 and directive 91/628/EEC, there is a minimum amount of space specified for a pig, a cow or a sheep, but at no point is there a minimum amount of space specified for a person on a train.


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Mr. Alexander: I welcome the opportunity to state clearly to the House that the performance of First Great Western over recent weeks has been simply unacceptable. I have made that point not solely to the House, but directly to the management at First Great Western. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), the Minister with responsibility for rail, has done so too. We have raised concerns on behalf of passengers not simply in Slough, but further west in Bristol. I am glad to say that First Great Western has recently apologised publicly to its passengers. Its challenge is to take the remedial steps necessary to ensure that the new rolling stock, which should already have been available to passengers, is made available. That will have an impact on capacity.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Of course, Ministers today have more direct operational involvement in the running of the railways than they did even in the days of British Rail. In the past few weeks, overcrowding has led to passengers fainting on trains; we have seen commuter rebellions and newspaper campaigns about the raw deal that passengers are getting; and last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), and my office received a letter from a lady in Scotland whose daughter had to stand from Kirkcaldy, the Secretary of State’s spiritual home, all the way to London—a five-hour journey. The Secretary of State has promised us another White Paper. When will the Government actually start doing something to fulfil some of their promises in their 10-year plan on tackling overcrowding?

Mr. Alexander: The hon. Gentleman is right to acknowledge that there is genuine public concern about capacity. There has been a significant uplift in the number of people using our railways in recent years. He challenges me to name some of the improvements that have already been brought about as a result of investment. Southern Railways’ new trains programme represents the biggest single procurement of commuter trains in 40 years, and some 1,700 old slam-door trains have been replaced by 225 new rail vehicles. The west coast main line delivers 12-car suburban services on the southern end of the route and there is scope for growth in future years. For Chiltern, the delivery of the Evergreen 2 allows more trains to operate into Marylebone. Although there is genuine public concern, it is difficult for the Conservative party to be a credible articulator of that concern when it seems to be saying simultaneously that it wants lower fares and taxes and higher investment. That simply does not add up.

Chris Grayling: The Secretary of State is always ready to boast about the amount that he is spending on the railways, as are the Government in other areas of their activities. However, if I were in his position, I would be asking myself why, although I was spending so much money, the situation for many passengers was still so bad. How will he cope with the official forecasts of more than 30 per cent. growth in passenger numbers in the next seven years? If we already have an overcrowding crisis on our railways, where are those passengers going to travel?


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Mr. Alexander: As I have made clear, we will announce the additional capacity that we will be able to buy in the summer, which will be in addition to the ongoing programme of investment. It ill-behoves the hon. Gentleman to assert that something must be done while simultaneously asserting that fares and taxes must be cut. It simply does not add up for a principal party of opposition that is trying credibly to associate itself with genuine public concern to be willing to talk about the ends, but be unwilling to commit the means.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Although frequency and punctuality on the north Wales coast have improved considerably, there is still pressure on seat capacity. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposal of Virgin Trains to introduce five-car trains to replace larger nine-car trains in 2008 will compound that problem? There is already sufficient capacity to fill the nine cars. Will he assure me that the franchise will provide a full service west of Chester—from Holyhead to London—and that that service will use the prime trains?

Mr. Alexander: There is a misapprehension that franchising agreements prohibit franchisees from adding capacity to services, or putting in place additional services. There are choices for the franchisee to make. In many cases, franchisees want to put in place additional capacity because that generates further revenue for the railways. I know that there is concern in north-west Wales. I have held discussions with colleagues from Wrexham on the matter, and I will certainly consider the points that my hon. Friend makes.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): First Great Western’s advice to passengers who feel unsafe on crowded trains is that they should get off. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has advised us that there is no legal limit on the number of people who can travel on a train. When Labour came to power, one of its first actions was to legislate about the overcrowding of animals on trains, including chickens. Is it not time that the rights of commuters were dealt with in the same way as those of chickens?

Mr. Alexander: I fear that the hon. Gentleman has evidenced the risk involved in writing down a question prior to discussions in the Chamber. I reiterate that we recognise that there is a genuine challenge facing not only the Government, but the whole country, as a consequence of the sustained economic growth that we have experienced over the past decade and the chronic under-investment that was witnessed on the railways over many decades. There are two sources of funding available to address the capacity challenges that we face. In terms of public resources, there is the contribution from the fare payer and the contribution from the taxpayer. It is necessary to find the appropriate balance. In recent years, the net contribution from the taxpayer increased significantly, but we will continue to address the matter and we will bring forward further proposals this summer.

Car Pools

3. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What plans he has to introduce high-occupancy vehicle car-pool lanes. [112057]


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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The previous Secretary of State for Transport announced in December 2004 and March 2006 plans to trial high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the M1, junctions 7 to 10, and at the junction between the M606 and the M62 respectively. We will be monitoring the success of the trials carefully. HOV lanes introduced by local authorities in the UK and highways authorities in other countries have been shown to work well.

Dr. Starkey: May I thank the Minister for that answer? When I was on holiday in California in the summer, I saw for myself how effective car-pool lanes on freeways were in encouraging people to share cars at peak times, instead of sitting in a queue, one to a car. Will he seriously consider the idea of local authorities in urban areas introducing bus lanes that could double up as lanes for car-pool cars? That might be an effective way of reducing congestion at peak commuting times.

Dr. Ladyman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support of high-occupancy vehicle lanes. She is absolutely right to say that they work well in the United States, as they do in other countries, too. We have already done some experiments; local authorities in Leeds and South Gloucestershire have introduced HOV lanes on local roads, in conjunction with a package of other measures, and the lanes have been shown to reduce journey times for commuters significantly. Her idea about the possibility of bus and high-occupancy vehicle lanes is a positive one, and I will make sure that local authorities consider it.

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Are there any plans to give local authorities greater powers to support car-pool schemes, as that would go a long way towards giving people the chance to use high-occupancy vehicle lanes?

Dr. Ladyman: Local authorities already have such powers. In fact, we have just published a traffic advisory leaflet, which explains to them their powers and what they can do, and which sets out evidence gained from schemes in other areas, showing how successful they have been. If my hon. Friend has any concerns about her local authority and wants to discuss those concerns with me, I would be happy to have a meeting with her.

Road Congestion

4. Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): How much funding he has allocated to local authorities for the development of innovative solutions to road congestion for 2006-07. [112058]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Five million pounds has been earmarked in 2006-07, as part of a package of more than £14.5 million, to support initial scheme development by local transport authorities for the transport innovation fund. The support available for TIF schemes to tackle congestion will increase to £200 million per annum from 2008-09.


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Meg Hillier: I welcome that information from my hon. Friend. When congestion charging was introduced in London, there were many arguments about the economic and environmental impacts of tackling congestion. Will my hon. Friend assure me that long-term environmental impacts will be a key part of the Department for Transport’s assessment of any forthcoming schemes? It is easy to pay lip service to environmental issues, but backing schemes that are not universally popular is another matter.

Dr. Ladyman: Of course the environment must be an important part of the issues that a local authority takes into consideration. The primary function of demand management schemes, including the congestion charge, is to control congestion, but within those schemes there are many opportunities to improve the environment for local communities. In London, the Mayor is taking those considerations forward, and other local authorities considering demand management schemes will doubtless also take them into account.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Minister accept that much congestion is created at junctions that have inadequate capacity, and at points where roads cross railway lines? Will he target the money on improving junctions, so that traffic can flow better, as that will bring green benefits, and benefits for business and people trying to get to work and school?

Dr. Ladyman: It is for the local authorities that apply for the money to consider how best they can improve congestion on their local roads. The type of work that the right hon. Gentleman mentions will, no doubt, be one of the options that they will consider, but they have to take into account not only options for building, but demand management, because frankly we cannot continue to build our way out of the problems caused by congestion. They will have to bring an open-minded attitude to those serious issues, which is far more than can be said about the taskforce that the right hon. Gentleman leads on behalf of his party. Its big idea for dealing with the problem is to introduce double-decker motorways that would cost £35 billion—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Manchester airport has estimated that the increase in air passenger duty announced at the end of last year will raise £90 million from that airport alone. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the money should be put into public transport and environmental schemes, but would it not make more sense to use it to extend the tram system in Greater Manchester, rather than forcing on the people of Manchester a regressive and unwanted road pricing scheme?

Dr. Ladyman: We have just announced support for the extension of the transport system in Manchester, so my hon. Friend knows that we are indeed investing in the city’s public transport system. The fact of the matter is that we must get realistic about congestion. Thanks to the Government and 10 years of economic growth, the number of vehicles on our roads has increased from 26 million to 33 million. In a small island, we cannot continue to build our way out of the
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problem. Yes, investment in public transport is part of the answer, but I am afraid that in Manchester, just as in every other city in the country, we have to get realistic about demand management, too.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): When the Minister comes to allocate funds to those local authorities, what advice will he give them on levying congestion charges on the 2.2 million vehicles that are not registered or taxed?

Dr. Ladyman: That is one of the key problems that we must identify if we are to move forward. Demand management solutions will indeed help us to identify vehicles that are not taxed, so one of the added benefits of road pricing is the fact that there will be no more people driving around without tax or insurance.


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