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House of Commons

Tuesday 19 June 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): If he will make a statement on funding commitments for railways up to 2015. [143380]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): In July the Department will publish the high level output specification, which will set out what we expect the railway industry to deliver in the years to 2014. It will be accompanied by a statement of funds available, setting out the funds that we expect to make available to the industry over the same period.

Siobhain McDonagh: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Streatham to Mitcham Common is the longest line of track in London without a station, and that although I have been campaigning for 10 years for a station in Mitcham, the campaign for the Eastfields halt goes back to the 1930s? Does he share my delight that Network Rail intends to build a station there, and will he do everything he can to ensure that it is introduced at the earliest possible date in December?

Mr. Alexander: I am fully aware of the tireless efforts of my hon. Friend in relation to a new station at Eastfields. She has a reputation in the House for her efforts on behalf of her constituents, and I know that the matter is of particular concern to a number of commuters, who are keen to see a new station on that route. She is right to recognise that ultimately a decision rests with Network Rail. I understand that there have been constructive and positive conversations with Network Rail, and I urge her to continue those conversations.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is interesting that the Secretary of State says that the decision about a new station rests with Network Rail. Last Friday I had a meeting with Network Rail to discuss the new station in Corsham in the light of the very helpful letter that I had from the Secretary of State for Defence, who said that he was keen that the station in Corsham should open. The Network Rail
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people said that it was nothing to do with them—it was a matter for the Government or the regulator, but they were not quite certain which. Will the Secretary of State clarify whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that the new station in Corsham would be a good thing, and if so, who will take the decision to reopen it?

Mr. Alexander: With the greatest respect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I doubt that the terms of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers suggest that the decision is one for the Ministry of Defence or the Secretary of State for Defence. I am happy to look at the correspondence and we will be back in touch with him.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): When considering future rail investment, will my right hon. Friend take a particular look at west Yorkshire and especially the lines that run through New Pudsey, Horsforth and Guiseley in my constituency, bearing in mind the relatively low level of investment per person on transport in Yorkshire and Humberside?

Mr. Alexander: I am aware of the importance of rail services not just in one region, but in every region and nation of the United Kingdom. I am happy to give the assurance that we will consider the needs of every part of England when we publish the high level output specification in due course.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State consider the service given to rail passengers on a Sunday? Does he think it is acceptable that most train companies offer appalling services on a Sunday, which take far longer than any other train journey during the rest of the week, and charge the same price for them?

Mr. Alexander: Of course it has been the case historically that significant engineering work has often been undertaken on a Sunday. It is right to acknowledge that as lifestyle, retailing and leisure patterns change, there are greater expectations of the network on a Sunday than was the case in a different era. I am sure Network Rail is aware of that, and I will make sure that the point is made to it, in light of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any moneys paid into the public purse by rail operators are ring-fenced for use within the franchise area where the moneys were raised, for further improvements to the franchise and the benefit of passengers?

Mr. Alexander: There has been some misapprehension on these issues in much of the commentary. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks, which is that the money received from the franchise is ring-fenced in the budget of the Department for Transport. It is part of the ongoing sustained investment which accounts for about £88 million per week on Britain’s railways at present.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Given the threat of climate change, is it not time the Government got serious about high-speed rail from Scotland to London to get people out of planes and into trains?

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Mr. Alexander: With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, it is about time the Liberal Democrats got serious. If she was serious about looking at high speed trains, she might recognise that there is a correlation between speed and energy consumption, and therefore that the easy assumption that in every circumstance a high speed train is the pro-environment choice does not bear scrutiny. These are serious matters. We are considering them in the Department and we will bring forward our recommendations at the time of the high level output specification in the summer.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend talk to his Treasury colleagues to ensure that the East London line extension is completed—not only phase 1 which is under construction, with the operator announced today, but phase 2 to Clapham Junction, which requires another £75 million under the comprehensive spending review?

Mr. Alexander: Many Ministers are keen to speak to the Treasury this week. I am happy to pass on the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): I am sure the House is aware of the reports that this is likely to be the last occasion on which the Secretary of State stands at the Dispatch Box for Transport questions. May I offer him my thanks for a constructive relationship over the past few months and wish him well for the purges that we expect on the Government Benches next week. Can he tell the House, though, whether Britain’s trains will be more or less overcrowded by 2015?

Mr. Alexander: First, I know that in the rail industry as in other walks of life, forecasting is an inherently challenging and difficult business. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman is in possession of information that I am certainly not aware of as we look ahead to the events of next week.

Let me deal with the substantive point, however. We have already recognised in the high level output specification discussions the centrality and importance of greater capacity on the railways. That is why I made it clear in March that as part of that statement this summer, 1,000 extra carriages will be provided for the country’s railways. At the same time, we are looking at a range of measures on infrastructure, such as platform lengthening, for example. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that capacity will be one of the central challenges that the high level output specification will address.

Chris Grayling: It is a shame that the 1,000 extra coaches will not be with us for another seven years.

The Government are receiving higher premium payments from train operators, because they in turn are passing on substantially increased fares to passengers—increases that are well above the rate of inflation. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment today that all the extra money raised from passengers in that way will be spent on tackling the overcrowding crisis on our railways?

Mr. Alexander: Let me address both the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. First, he has suggested once again that the 1,000 extra carriages will not be available for a number of years. Let me correct that
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misapprehension, which I am sure is inadvertent, by confirming that carriages will be available on the network by the end of next year, which is 2008 rather than 2014.

Secondly, reflecting the earlier answer that I gave, we recognise that the premium payments that came in under the franchising system form part of the rail budget. I have already made it clear that one of key priorities for the rail budget in the years ahead will be capacity.

Bus Services

2. Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): If he will take steps to improve the quality of bus services. [143381]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): Last month the Government published a draft Local Transport Bill for consultation. It includes proposals to provide the necessary powers for local authorities to improve bus services, as set out in “Putting Passengers First”.

Ms Smith: The proposals have been broadly welcomed in south Yorkshire, even to the extent that last Friday, almost 100 bus users turned out on the wettest day for 35 years to discuss the measures with the Secretary of State. Does my hon. Friend agree with me and those bus users, however, that the measures in the Bill could be improved by giving local authorities the right to introduce the quality contract without having to go to an unaccountable body?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend is indeed an effective campaigner, as has been mentioned before. Indeed, I know from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that her work last week to promote a better deal for bus passengers by bringing them together with my right hon. Friend was extremely valuable. I congratulate Sheffield city council and the passenger transport executive on signing up to a voluntary quality partnership that will mean better bus services.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the draft Bill does indeed provide for better working partnerships between authorities and operators. It will give more powers to local authorities where needed, and it is important that where quality contracts are proposed, they are properly scrutinised, because they are for the benefit of all, and it is important that we ensure that they are in the public interest.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Does the Minister recall that on 21 May 1997, when the Prime Minister first answered Prime Minister’s questions in this Chamber, he promised the House that the Deputy Prime Minister, who then had responsibility for transport, would be carrying out a review on the question of bus regulation? Since then, we have progressed as far as having a draft Bill. During that time, however, the cost of travelling by bus has increased by 15 per cent., while the cost of travelling by car has fallen by 9 per cent. Does the Minister think that the Prime Minister should be satisfied with the progress that her Department has made in the course of the past 10 years?

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Gillian Merron: I am quite sure that the Prime Minister is very pleased that we now have the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years and that we have a balanced package of measures in the Bill, which is basically about ensuring better services for bus passengers. In particular, I want to draw the attention of the House to the fact that, just last week, provisional figures were published showing that there has been a rise of 85 million bus and light rail passenger journeys, and that 80 million of those additional journeys are made in the English non-metropolitan areas. That shows that bus patronage is on the rise, due in part to the concessionary travel provisions introduced by the Government.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): If we are serious about tackling road congestion, there needs to be a meaningful role for park-and-ride, linked into strategic and key bus services. Given that fact, what discussion is my hon. Friend’s Department having with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that that essential element is included in its transport innovation fund bid for Greater Manchester?

Gillian Merron: Discussions are under way on the TIF bid, which is to deal with congestion. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members are aware that I recently had the honour of opening the new GMPTE offices in Manchester, and its commitment to improving bus services, tackling congestion and working for the people of Greater Manchester is commendable.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Minister, or her successor, visit Kettering to discuss local bus services with local residents and to be briefed on the remarkable 23 per cent. increase in bus patronage in the past four years?

Gillian Merron: I am sure that I would be absolutely delighted to visit Kettering. Areas up and down the country have experienced great success in passenger growth. The Local Transport Bill is all about spreading good practice and making sure that the benefits are available, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State saw for himself in Oxford yesterday.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): I urge my hon. Friend to make sure that the new powers in the Bill are coupled with the continuation of the Government’s kick-start programme, which in Newcastle has given us a new, high-frequency bus corridor, the X47 in the north-west of the city, that has attracted thousands of new bus passengers. Sadly, however, the Liberal Democrat council in Newcastle failed for many months to carry out its part of the deal, which was highway improvements to support the scheme.

Gillian Merron: That is disappointing, if not unsurprising, news from my hon. Friend. The important point about kick-start funding is, as I am sure that the House is aware, that bus funding has almost doubled in real terms since 1997, which includes the kick-start programme. I cannot make a commitment today, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will put the matter under review.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Government spend much of their time demonising the deregulatory provisions of the Transport Act 1985. If those provisions are so evil, why have the Government not included re-regulation in the draft Bill?

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Gillian Merron: What an interesting question. We have had an apology from the Opposition about rail privatisation, but we have had no such apology about their action on buses. The draft Local Transport Bill, which I hope that the Opposition will support, will introduce a new regime that will put passengers first and deliver better punctuality. That will mean the further development of the community transport sector and the implementation of quality contract schemes through effective partnership working. The Bill is not about returning to the 1980s; it is about looking forward and providing bus travel not only for those who do not have a choice, but for those who do.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Since rail passengers have got an effective way of complaining if they do not get good service, is there a particular reason why bus passengers do not have the same provision?

Gillian Merron: I assure my hon. Friend that we are strengthening the role of the traffic commissioners, who are also being included in the assessment of quality contracts to use their expertise and time to best effect to improve bus services.

Rail Services

3. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with Network Rail on improving the track between Kemble and Swindon. [143382]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I am aware that the Swindon to Kemble section is single track and that that limits the number of trains that the route can accommodate. Network Rail’s business plan 2007 states:

However, that remains a matter for Network Rail to progress.

Mr. Robertson: I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but we need to hurry up that improvement. Some 220,000 people live in Cheltenham and Gloucester alone, and many more people in the area use the trains. There is a direct train only once every one hour 52 minutes; on many trains, people have to change if they want to go to London, a journey which can take as long as two hours 36 minutes; and an open return often costs £139. That is a very poor service between an important area of the country and London, so we need that improvement. Will the Minister redouble his efforts in persuading Network Rail to take on that project?

Mr. Harris: For every Conservative Back Bencher who complains about not enough money being spent on the rail network, their Front Benchers complain that we are spending too much. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the line but, as he will know, it is currently served by 18 trains in each direction every day—a level of service that would be envied in many other parts of the country. However, it is entirely up to Network Rail to decide if and when to spend money on the project, and how much.

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