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I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will she confirm that some of the money will support local authorities such as County Durham, which is developing plans to improve bus services in the
area? Following the publication of Putting Passengers First, how quickly is her Department likely to respond to restructuring bids?
Gillian Merron: My hon. Friends supportand that of her local authorityfor Putting Passengers First is extremely welcome. I am glad to hear that County Durham is working with operators to improve punctuality and services. It can also start to prepare the ground for community transport being given a greater role. I encourage my hon. Friend to support the authority in responding to the consultation on the draft road transport Bill. I look forward to meeting a delegation and would be happy to discuss my hon. Friends points.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is the Minister aware that my constituents in Newport, Shropshire have to take up to three buses to visit Princess Royal hospital as out-patients? Does she agree that that is unacceptable, and will she undertake to meet me and a delegation from the hospital to discuss public transport to and from the Princess Royal so that elderly people in particular do not suffer from having to make such long journeys?
Gillian Merron: I am happy to agree to such a meeting, as the hon. Gentleman has requested. Of course, Putting Passengers First is all about providing the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years since deregulation under the Conservatives. It is rewarding to see that the Opposition now admit that they got it wrong, but I would indeed be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): First Group, Stagecoach, Arriva and other bus companies are increasingly ripping off the public purse. They withdraw from ordinary routes in order to get subsidy on routes that are perfectly viable and they put up fares to get extra money out of the concessionary fare system. In that context, I welcome Putting Passengers First as a way of tackling that problem. The passenger transport executive group has estimated that the proposals would take
Gillian Merron: It appears that the question, if not the process, was too long. If my hon. Friend is referring to Quality Contracts, the estimate is some 14 to 20 months, but we are working closely on that with stakeholders, including PTEs. We will publish a draft timetable alongside the road transport Bill.
Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Why will the Minister not support direct Government payments to bus companies to cover the cost of free bus journeys for the elderly to ensure that no local authority or PTE area is short-changed?
The extension of concessionary fares to cover 11 million people who are able to have free national off-peak travel is a very welcome Government policy. I am keen to ensure, as are all parties, that we have the right system of reimbursement. We are working with all the relevant people to find the right way forward.
My interest is in ensuring that those 11 million people all benefit from the £1 billion of Government investment and free off-peak travel and that they can get out and about.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): The bus pass scheme has transformed the situation for many elderly people in my constituency, who are delighted with their ability to roam. Would my hon. Friend please make a special effort to ensure that new powers are given to traffic commissioners so that they can insist that the companies getting large subsidies actually deliver value for money? That would be a nice change, and we would all be delighted by it.
Gillian Merron: I am, as always, delighted by my hon. Friends informed support of Government policy to help older and disabled people up and down the country. I agree about traffic commissioners, who will have a greater opportunity to bring local authorities as well as bus operators to account on issues of punctuality, which are of great importance.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government set out in the December 2006 pre-Budget report how we intend to take forward the recommendations of the Eddington study, taking account of transport's wider economic, social and environmental objectives. In the coming months, the Government will review their strategy, processes and delivery on transport in the light of the Eddington and Stern reports. We will provide a detailed response to the Eddington study alongside the comprehensive spending review later this year.
Tom Brake: Eddington states that two priorities for transport policy should be expanding airports and relieving congested and growing city catchments. The Government are quite keen on the former, but less so on the latter. Can the Secretary of State confirm when a decision is going to be taken on what must be the best example of a project to relieve a congested and growing city catchment areaCrossrail?
Mr. Alexander: I would not entirely accept that characterisation of the Eddington study. Eddington had three principal concerns: first, the challenge of growth cities; secondly, inter-urban connections; and, thirdly, global gateways, which include our ports as well as our airports. On the substantive point that the hon. Gentleman made, we continue our support for Crossrail. There has been real progress with the Bill and we have made it clear that a decision about Crossrail will be made in the context of the spending review.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab):
Yesterday, Sir Rod Eddington indicated at the Select Committee hearing that by 2014 the west coast main line would be running to full capacity and that there is a business case for a high-speed line, but the fact is that there is a lead time
of 10 years. When will the Minister announce that there is going to be a new high-speed line on the west coast?
Mr. Alexander: With due respect to my hon. Friend, one of the intriguing features of the discussion about the high-speed train line is the number of hon. Members who presume that it will stop in their constituency. In fact, Sir Rod Eddington gave a searching critique of the case for a high-speed rail line in the course of his report. We have a separate manifesto commitment that we will give consideration to a high-speed rail line and we are reflecting on the recommendations and the insights in relation to the high-speed rail line in the Eddington report at the moment.
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Is not our distance from getting anywhere near Eddingtons recommendations on dealing with commuter congestion demonstrated by the fact that Southeastern trains is reported in last nights Evening Standard to be proposing to weigh commuters as they get on to the trains serving my constituency, to see just how overcrowded the trains are? Will the Minister come to my suffering and physically challenged constituents aid with an announcement of significant capacity enhancements on the London commuter network?
Mr. Alexander: I note with civility that the hon. Gentleman did not note any interest before making the observation. He really should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. As hon. Members can imagine, I took some interest in that story in the Evening Standard. The suggestion was that one of the train operating companies is weighing carriagesrather than individual passengers. Perhaps he will be relieved to hear that. It is, however, fair to say that there is a real challenge in relation to capacity in the south-east and across the network. That is why we have announced the 1,000 extra carriages and why it will be one of the key priorities for the high-level output specification. [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) suggests that there will be no new carriages until 2014. That is simply untrue. The first of the carriages will be available on the network by the end of next year.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): One of the central parts of the Eddington report was the importance of supermarkets and their distribution networks. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend shares my concern about the behaviour of Tesco in my constituency. On the day that it announced £2.5 billion of profits, it is cutting the terms and conditions of staff, threatening derecognition of the union and telling staff that unless they sign a new contract they will be sacked. Will he tell Tesco to go back to the negotiating table and resolve the dispute?
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): Sir Rod Eddington said that unless national road pricing was in place by 2015 there would have to be a substantial increase in inter-urban road building. Are the Government going to have national road pricing up and running by 2015? If not, what are they going to do?
Mr. Alexander: As I have stated many times at the Dispatch Box, the position remains that we believe that the right way forward is first to have local pilots, developing local solutions to the congestion challenges in local communities. On the basis of the facts that emerge from those local congestion charging experiences, we will be able as a country to make a judgment on the merits of a national system of road pricing.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The March 2006 target of 85 per cent. punctuality and reliability was met with performance reaching 86 per cent. by that date. Since then, the Department for Transport has been working successfully with train operating companies to create the conditions for further improvement. Punctuality and reliability on the railway are now at 88 per cent. on average.
Mrs. Moon: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, but I have to tell him that punctuality and reliability are not words that my constituents in Bridgend use in relation to First Great Western. I know that that is true among the constituents of my colleagues along the whole of the south Wales corridor. What meetings is the Minister having with First Great Western, and will he please press it to start to improve its reliability and punctuality?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend knows that I have raised First Great Westerns performance with the company on several occasions. It accepts that its performance following the production of the December 2006 timetable was not acceptable. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the recovery plan that has been drawn up jointly by First Great Western and Network Rail to improve performance. I assure her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to apply any pressure necessary to bring about the improvements in performance that we wish to see.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): In terms of distance from London, the train service to Gloucestershire is one of the worst in the country. To improve the reliability and punctuality of the serviceagain, it is operated by First Great Westernwould the Minister support an increase in rail capacity when that is put to him by Network Rail? The company has feasibility money to dual the line from Swindon to Kemble and from Oxford to Worcester Shrub Hill. Will the Minister support those proposals when they come before him?
Mr. Harris: Of course, the Government are always willing to consider capacity improvements when there is a robust business case. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with more details of the proposal, I will be more than happy to look at them.
Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab):
Given the horrific experience that we have recently been having in Swansea with First Great Western, when the Minister
meets the company will he look for a commitment above and beyond its existing franchise? While the company has the franchise agreement now, I am severely worried about the service in the future.
Mr. Harris: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. She will understand the Governments position: we must have certain minimum specifications. Unlike the Conservative party, we believe that a minimum level of service that must be provided by franchisees should be written into franchise agreements.
I know that my hon. Friend is especially worried about the removal of the 17.15 service from Cardiff to Swansea and the effect of overcapacity on services run by Arriva Trains Wales. She will know that I went down to Cardiff two months ago and travelled on the Arriva Trains Wales connecting services from Cardiff to Swansea. I know that she will be disappointed that I found that there was plenty of spare capacity on those services. However, I will be more than happy to speak to First Great Western to ensure that it meets its commitments under the franchise agreement.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge the great improvement in reliability and punctuality on the c2c line since it was privatised. However, is he aware that some of my constituents were trapped on a train last week for more than seven hours because of problems on the line? Will he look into bringing forward work on the lines signalling and overhead power lines?
Mr. Harris: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the improved efficiency and performance on the rail network. There are inevitably occasions when passengers are inconvenienced, which is always a matter of some regret. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that the record amounts that are about to be invested in the network by Network Rail will lead to a major step change in the improvement of the infrastructure in this country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Journey times on the west coast main line have already been substantially reduced and will be further improved with completion of the west coast route modernisation in late 2008. Stoke-on-Trent is now an hour and a half from London. Before September 2004, the journey took almost two hours.
Mr. Flello: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response. As a result of the fantastic improvements to rail services and times, my constituents can transact business with London. Indeed, Stoke-on-Trent is now an excellent place for business. When my hon. Friend next discusses with Network Rail further improvements to train times along the west coast main line, will he press it on the fact that, after almost 50 years, Longton railway bridge still awaits a repainting job?
Mr. Harris: I know the Longton bridge extremely well, and I am distraught to hear that it has not yet been painted, after all these years. If my hon. Friend wishes me to raise the issue with Network Rail on his behalf, I am more than happy to do so.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Train times from Milton Keynes have actually increased, because Virgin trains no longer stop there during peak hours. As the Minister may recall, back in January I raised the fact that Milton Keynes commuters are upset that although two Virgin trains do stop there, no one is allowed to get on the trains, despite there being more than 300 seats on each train. At the time, the Secretary of State said that the issue in Milton Keynes was the platforms, but that has now been changed, and he has admitted that there is no issue with platform lengths in Milton Keynes. May I finally have an answer on why those two trains stop in Milton Keynes to let people off, but do not allow anybody on?
Mr. Harris: The Pendolino trains do not pick up passengers at Milton Keynes because they are designed not for short-distance commuter traffic, but long-distance traffic. They are not designed as relatively short-haul commuter business services, which are provided by Silverlink and will be provided by the new west midlands franchise.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I congratulate Virgin Trains on the remarkable progress that we have made on the west coast line. With luck, next year we will be back to the times that we achieved in the mid-1960s, when the west coast electrified line was first introduced. The one thing that we have not achieved is a programme that serves the users of the west coast line. There are still too few trains that stop to pick up people at towns such as Tamworth, although many more trains stop at stations down the line that serve smaller populations. Will the Minister look at the way timetables are organised there, particularly as that is where the cross-country lines cross the lines that run from the top to the bottom of the country, which means that a hub station should be created at Tamworth?
Mr. Harris: Work is still under way on the timetables for late 2008 and early 2009, and I cannot make any comment on the service that Tamworth will receive, but I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that the west coast main line modernisation will provide a major economic boost to the whole country and will provide a much-improved service for the many hundreds of thousands of passengers who use that service every year.
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