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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The Government recognise the importance of local railway lines to the communities that they serve and seek to support their development, primarily through the implementation of the community rail development strategy. The Department has recently published a review of the progress that we have made in implementing it.
Mrs. Dorries: I am lucky to be here to ask this question because the 13.08 from Harlington in my constituency was severely delayed. Given the house-building targets that are being imposed on Bedfordshire, does the Under-Secretary agree that additional investment in rural and branch railway lines is needed now to increase capacity and frequency and to deal with the current problems, to which I can testify today, as well as what we will face in future? Do we not need the investment now?
I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in an earlier answer. The Government currently spend £88 million a week on investing in the railways. That is a record sum. It is noticeable that Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen have not announced a single penny of extra investment in their transport plans. Until that happens, I will not take lessons and
Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): The Under-Secretary will agree that rural and branch lines are no use without stations to serve them. I raised with his predecessor the question of Kenilworth station, which does not yet exist, even for such a big town. Now that the business case is available and positive, will he join me in doing all he can to ensure that Kenilworth gets that vital transport link?
Mr. Harris: I am more than happy to discuss Kenilworth or any other non-existent station with the hon. Gentleman, provided, of course, that there is a business case. That must include partnership agreement with not only Network Rail but private sector partners.
Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Government have announced plans for thousands of new homes throughout the country, but there is a genuine concern that the transport requirements, and whether the railway network can support that growth sustainably, have not been considered. On 26 April, together with Transport 2000, we launched a campaign to protect disused railway lines from development. On the same day, my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) wrote to the Secretary of State, asking him to impose a two-year moratorium on the sale of land on former rail routes, establish an independent study and introduce long-term protections as necessary. Exactly what does the Secretary of State intend to do?
Mr. Harris: It is the responsibility of British Rail Board [Residuary] to safeguard any disused land that may conceivably be used for railway purposes in the near future. That is done on a case-by-case basis and I am not convinced that it would be helpful or even necessary to produce a list of lines that could at some point in the future perhaps be reopened. That would not be particularly helpful.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Certain rail fares are regulated by the Government. Those include season tickets and full-fare singles and returns in and around London and other major cities. Regulated fares are monitored to ensure that train operators comply with the limits set for those fares. Other fares are a matter for train operators.
Following that answer and the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) and the Secretary of
State, will the Minister tell us whether the Government are resisting pressures from rail operators to reduce the times when saver tickets are available?
Mr. Harris: The Government, along with the rail industry, are looking into a new structure to make fares on the railways much more sensible and easy to understand. However, the hon. Gentleman will understand that regulated faresthe fares that most people travel onare actually 2 per cent. cheaper today in real terms than they were 10 years ago.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend realise that fares on the rail system from Tamworth to London have gone up remarkably in the past three years? Does he believe that it is due to the near monopoly of Virgin Trains on that line and does he believe that having more operators on it would provide more competition and reduce fares? How can we make that possible?
Mr. Harris: I am not aware of the details of my hon. Friends question, but I would be happy to look into them. However, I repeat my earlier point that regulated faresmost commuters and rail passengers travel on either discounted or regulated faresare actually 2 per cent. cheaper in real terms than they were 10 years ago. My hon. Friend will understand that if we were to extend the regulation of rail fares, it would mean an increase in subsidy from the public purse. That would mean a consequent reduction in the amount of public money available for other services.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): Well, I think that we have just heard the death knell of the saver ticket. When the Department signed the latest round of franchise agreements, were Ministers aware that commitments to increase premium payments to the Government were based on an assumption of sharp increases in unregulated train fares?
Mr. Harris: The amount of premiums that any rail company wishes to pay to the Department for Transport is a matter for that company at the bidding stage of any new franchise. The fares increased by South West Trains in the past few weeks are not regulated fares. The Government have no plans to extend their regulation and I am not aware that the hon. Gentleman has a policy to do so either.
Chris Grayling: Do not Ministers check the financial assumptions in the agreements that they sign? The Secretary of State is always telling us that there are only two sources of funds for the rail industrythe taxpayer and the passenger. Is the Minister honestly telling the House that Ministers did not realise that when they signed up to the increased premiums, they were also signing up to deals that would mean big fare increases? If he is saying that, I think that people will not believe him.
Franchises are let on a competitive basis and each train operating company is entitled to put forward its own proposals for the franchise over whatever period it will cover. Regulated fares are limited to a 1 per cent. increase over inflation in any one year, but unregulated fares are not subject to that
kind of limit. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the Government should regulate those fares, I would be very interested to hear the details of that proposal.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend made careful comparisons between fare levels on continental state-owned railways and those on our privatised railways? If so, has he drawn any obvious conclusions?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but I have to say that the difference between British and European fares is very often exaggerated. He will be aware that the level of general taxation in this country is significantly less than that on the continent. The prices that passengers pay per kilometre in most European countries are very comparable to those in this country.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): None. The provision of baggage handling services at UK airports is governed by the EU ground handling directive 1996, which aims at liberalising the provision of ground-handling services through the introduction of competition.
John Barrett: Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with British Airways regarding the sale of BA Connect and the resulting outsourcing of baggage handling operations, which many of its staff feel amount to BA abandoning Scottish airports and their staff?
Mr. Alexander: I am in regular dialogue with British Airways and I was of course aware of the decision regarding BA Connect. I should perhaps declare an interest, in that a number of my own constituents have been affected by the changes that the hon. Gentleman has described, not least because they work at Glasgow airport. As I understand it, the airline is now in formal consultation with trade union representatives about the future of existing employees, but this is primarily a matter for the company and its employees.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that baggage handling services have changed hands. Will he use his good offices to ensure that the companies that are now responsible for baggage handling give their staff the proper training that they require? Given that baggage is often accompanied by people, will he also ensure that the people carrying the baggage are treated in an appropriate way, especially at security checkpoints, where the treatment can sometimes be impersonal and intrusive?
Obviously, all of us would wish for people to be treated with respect and dignity. The information that has been provided to me today suggests that British Airways is offering existing
employees a choice between transferring to Aviance UK at Edinburgh under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, alternative employment with BA with relocation packages where applicable, or voluntary severance, and that there will be no compulsory redundancies.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I have the honour, in common with many other right hon. and hon. Members, of representing the Commons on the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe and NATO, so I have to use airports a lot. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that, despite his good efforts, baggage handling in the big British airports is really quite lamentableoften worse than in some third world countries. It is not his fault, it is not BAAs fault, it is not the airlines faulteveryone seems to pass the buck. Will he set up a working party to look into this, to ensure that all the security lanes are properly used and that baggage is delivered to customers at roughly the same speed as it is in Europe or the United States?
Mr. Alexander: I am not convinced by my right hon. Friends proposal. He is a committed pro-Europeanhe clearly uses a number of European airlinesand I would be surprised if he were to ask the British Government to deviate from the terms of the EU ground handling directive of 1996 which, as I said in my original answer, seeks to improve services through the introduction of competition.
Mr. Mackay: That is exceptionally good news. As the Minister will be aware from the various Adjournment debates in which we have both been involved, this measure is absolutely essential. After the tragedy on the M25 the weekend before last, in which a commercial vehicle was involved in an accident leading to the death of six passengers, it is also long overdue. I congratulate him on bringing it into effect at last.
Dr. Ladyman: I thank the right hon. Gentleman. I do not usually get thanked by the Opposition; this makes a welcome change. Obviously I cannot comment on the causes of that particular accident until it has been thoroughly investigated, but I have no doubt that retro-reflective tape will reduce the number of accidents. The regulation will come into effect on that date all across Europe as well.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): May I congratulate my hon. Friend? I told him that those on both sides of the Chamber pressing for this measure would not go away, and we have not. If we can now get it brought in as a matter of urgency, everyone will gain. I hope that he will acknowledge that this has been a worthwhile campaign.
Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend has been campaigning long and hard on this issue, along with my hon. Friend from one of the Bolton constituencies which escapes me for the moment. I congratulate them on their endeavour and I promise to continue to work to ensure that the measure is implemented according to the given time scale.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The number of rail passenger journeys grew by 35 per cent. between 1996-97 and 2005-06. In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made, and the number of rail journeys increased further in 2004-05 and 2005-06.
Gordon Banks: I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that each of those journeys reinvigorates a local economy as well as addressing our climate change responsibilities? What more can he do to get people off the roads and on to the railways, so that my constituents will be able to receive the full benefit when passenger transport services return to my constituency in Clackmannanshire later this year?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his assessment of the importance of transport links to local economies. The regulation of rail fares in his constituency is a matter for the Scottish Executive. In regard to getting people out of their cars and on to the railways, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make an announcement in July on the high level output specification, which will for the first time allow the Government to specify exactly what they want to buy from the rail industry in terms of performance and capacity, and exactly how much will be spent on that. We are extremely optimistic about the future of the railways in Britain.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): While I welcome the figures given by the Minister on the increase in passenger journeys, is not it in the interests of both passengers and franchisees to increase the length of the rail franchise? When he has regard to who the next franchisee on the east coast main line will be, will he ensure that there is competition between the three providers of the main franchises between London and Scotland?
Mr. Harris: This debate has been aired in the House on several occasions. I understand the arguments for longer franchises, but a conclusive argument in favour of longer franchises has not been made. There are benefits to the current regime, under which most franchises are between seven and 10 years long. In relation to the inter-city east coast franchise, a competitive process is under way, and deliverability, rather than price, will decide who wins that contract. I am sure that her constituents will find that no less of a service is provided by the new Great North Eastern Railway franchise than is the case today.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): What would the Minister say to the First Great Western official who told me that it is not sensible to have a major destination with a high-speed 40-minute train journey from London? Over recent years, First Great Western has reduced the number of fast services between Slough, a major draw for investment into the UK, and Paddington. What can he do to make First Great Western realise the impact of its policies on our economy and on inward investment in Britain?
Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has spoken on several occasions of her unhappiness with the First Great Western service received by her constituents. I understand her concerns. The Department for Transport is determined to ensure that First Great Western meets the franchise commitments to which it has signed up. I have regular meetings with the management of First Great Western to make sure that the service on that franchise improves. I am confident that, working together with Network Rail, a better service will be received by customers in future.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Despite a large increase in passenger journeys from Wolverton train station, its passenger facilities have not improved. Shortly before the last general election, the Government trumpeted a £2 million package of improvement for the station. Unfortunately, since then, that package has been reduced to just £400,000. Will the Minister explain why that reduction has occurred? Will he at least consider allowing the package to be spent over a longer period of time, so that the station does not lose it in six months?
Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not have detailed information about that case to hand. I would be happy, however, to write to him with more details. He will understand that part of the Governments record investment in the rail network is in improving stations. I understand the impatience expressed by Members on both sides of the House when their stations are not attended to. Given the record amount of money being invested by Network Rail in infrastructure, however, I would hope that his and other stations will receive attention in due course.
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