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19 Jun 2007 : Column 1225

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): As someone who has campaigned on this issue for 10 years, it is good to hear that it has now reached so-called GRIP 3, which will be known to my hon. Friend if to nobody else in the House. There is some optimism. However, I would like to know that there is a degree of transparency in the process. As the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) says, this redoubling is greatly needed in Gloucestershire, and indeed in other parts of the region, so it would be nice to know that Network Rail will take advice from MPs and other interested parties to ensure that it gets a full view of the benefits that the upgrade could bring.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to express concerns about the transparency of such decision making. Network Rail consults extensively throughout the industry. I would recommend that he visits its website to get the latest on the precise identity of the consultees on this particular business plan. If he wishes to write to me, I am happy to pass on his concerns to the chief executive of Network Rail.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): May I add my support to my colleagues from all parties in Gloucestershire on this important proposal? The redoubling of the line from Swindon to Kemble will deliver benefits in my constituency as well as those of my neighbours. Does the Minister agree that with passenger numbers on the railway network as a whole at their highest since the 1940s, such measures to increase capacity should be given the highest priority by Network Rail?

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s congratulations to the Government on their success in growing the network over the past 10 years. I would caution him and other hon. Members who have spoken on this issue by pointing out that the severe constraints on track capacity to the east of Swindon mean that although the work, if it goes ahead, will help to improve the reliability and performance of through services, it will be a much greater challenge to increase the number of services through to London.

Private Roads

4. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If he will take steps to encourage local authorities to bring private roads to adoptable standard. [143383]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): Local authorities already have the power to bring unadopted roads up to the standard required for adoption. It is a matter of priorities for each individual authority to decide whether to do so, and there is no further role for central Government.

Natascha Engel: As my hon. Friend is aware, coalfield communities are disproportionately affected by unadopted roads, of which Derbyshire alone has 700. Will he agree to meet local authorities from coalfield communities to find finally some strategy to deal with that problem, which is not going away?

Dr. Ladyman: I certainly do know about the problem, because my hon. Friend has worked hard to ensure that Ministers are aware of it and of the specific
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issues. Of course, one of the ministerial team—these matters are usually dealt with by the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—will be delighted to meet her. Our ability to get involved in this is limited, but we can help to try to identify the various opportunities for funding such schemes of which my hon. Friend’s constituency can take advantage.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): The Minister says that this is nothing to do with central Government. When the new town corporations handed over the overspill London new towns to local councils, many roads were not adopted, and local authorities simply do not have the money to put those roads into the state that they should be in for public use. As it was the Government’s fault when those agencies did not do their job properly, can we look into the problem again to see whether there is any central money to solve it?

Dr. Ladyman: Local authorities might take advantage of various sources of funding for such schemes. The Department for Communities and Local Government offers several opportunities through regeneration funding. The local authority can use its own local transport plan funding, the integrated transport block and revenue support grant. It can even consider the possibility of using private finance initiatives and neighbourhood renewal funding. There are opportunities for local authorities to deal with this. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to us, we will enumerate them and he can get his local authority working on an opportunity to put the problem right.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Wakefield is a coalfield community with more than 200 unadopted roads. As my hon. Friend knows, the legislation that governs adoption is outmoded, requires unanimity from householders and is normally defeated because of apathy and the cost to those householders. They wish to resolve difficulties only when there are problems with sewage or street lighting. Will he liaise with Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that, as we embark on a programme of house building, we do not allow any more unadopted roads to be built on private estates and that, if they are built, planning agreements cover the costs of maintaining them in perpetuity and their adoption?

Dr. Ladyman: I will pass on those views to my colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government. My hon. Friend makes a good point and any new housing developments should take such matters seriously and ensure that the problem does not get worse.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend take it from me that he cannot pass the buck in the way in which he appears to have done? It is his Department’s responsibility that many people in my constituency and in Kirklees cannot get an unadopted road made up. May we have some leadership from him on the use of recyclable aggregate, which can often be used to make up the roads economically? His comments do not sit well when I have to face a Kirklees council that is run by the Tories with Liberal Democrat support, and it has to wait for a Labour Government to get its road done up.

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Dr. Ladyman: I am sorry that my hon. Friend is cross with me, but there is little scope for central Government in the matter. It is for local authorities to decide how best to use their resources. We can make a variety of resources available to them, including regeneration funding and neighbourhood renewal funds. I am told that some local authorities have even used the home zone scheme as a way of moving matters forward. If the Liberal Democrat or Tory-controlled council to which my hon. Friend refers genuinely intends to resolve the problem, it has the mechanisms at its disposal.

Trains (Overcrowding)

5. John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): What steps he is taking to reduce overcrowding on trains. [143384]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): We will work to increase capacity through the franchising process and in other ways. In particular, I announced on 14 March that the high level output specification, to be published in July, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted at the most congested routes on the network.

John Penrose: Does the Secretary of State agree that, in places such as my constituency, where junction 21 of the M5 is badly congested at peak hours, it is essential to have a high quality commuter rail scheme and that, for stations such as Worle, where there is bad overcrowding, we are moving in the wrong direction, with reduced rather than increased services? Will he make a commitment to people who wait for trains at Worle station and elsewhere in north Somerset that some of the resources that he mentioned will be targeted at the severe rail congestion there?

Mr. Alexander: Doughty though the hon. Gentleman is in defence of his constituents, I doubt whether he would expect me to preannounce such specific elements from the high level output specification, which will be before the House in only a few weeks.

Let me make the general point that there has been sustained investment in our railways in recent years, in contradiction to literally decades of under-investment that we previously experienced. Transport Ministers used to claim that we had the most efficient railway in Europe. I regret that, all too often, that was code for the fact that money was not spent on maintenance or capacity, and we are therefore trying to catch up. That is why there needs to be additional capacity in the fleet and why we have announced 1,000 extra carriages. That is why we want sustained investment in the network and why it is sensible to present all the proposals at the same time in July. That is exactly what we will do.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State recognise that an announcement of the funding for the Reading station upgrade in next month’s high level specification output statement would contribute significantly to reducing train overcrowding on the Great Western main line?

Mr. Alexander: I know that my reply will disappoint my hon. Friend. I passed through Reading station only last night when travelling back from Oxford. Much as I
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would like to assure him that, on the basis of outrageous congestion that I experienced, I will make an immediate announcement, I fear that I will disappoint him because I cannot make such an announcement at this stage and the station was remarkably quiet when I passed through it.

In all seriousness, my hon. Friend has made clear to me the concerns of his constituents about the high level of usage of Reading station. He has brought a group to the House of Commons to present his concerns directly to me and I assure him that we are mindful of them as we prepare the high level output specification.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that Chelmsford has a significant commuting population and that railway journeys on One railway are unacceptable in respect of overcrowding during the rush hour? What specific and detailed advice can he give about how One railway can reduce the overcrowding and ensure that my constituents can travel to work as members of the human race rather than as cattle?

Mr. Alexander: Obviously, there are steps that individual train-operating companies can take, whether it be train lengthening, with additional capacity being provided by additional carriages, or platform lengthening to facilitate those additional carriages, but there are specific requirements on specific routes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be the right response simultaneously to suggest that we can have lower fares, a higher level of investment and lower taxes. Ultimately, there are two sources of funding available for the network: one is the rail fare and the other is the taxpayer. That is why the Government have, over many years, seen sustained investment in our railway, but we recognise that more needs to be done on capacity, which will inform the high level output specifications published this summer.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): But surely my right hon. Friend—like me, he is a regular traveller—will understand that there are safety implications from the overcrowding of our trains. Is it not now possible in the modern age to restrict the numbers on trains, just as we restrict the numbers travelling in cars, planes and boats? We should restrict the numbers travelling on our trains because we are now reaching the point at which it is becoming unbearable. That problem really should be addressed by restricting the numbers that are allowed on our trains.

Mr. Alexander: Of course, safety on our railways is a matter that we keep under constant review and there are appropriate bodies to advise us on the technical requirements of improving the safety regime on our railways. As to my hon. Friend’s point about what other steps can be taken, I made it clear back in March that we are making provision for an extra 1,000 carriages, which will go some way towards addressing some of his concerns.

Passenger Focus Report

6. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on the recent report by Passenger Focus on levels of rail passenger satisfaction. [143385]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The spring 2007 results from the national passenger survey show that there has been a small but disappointing decline of between 1 and 2 per cent. in rail passenger satisfaction in the last year. That needs to be viewed in the context of the steady improvement in rail passenger satisfaction experienced over recent years.

James Duddridge: I think that the Minister is being somewhat selective in looking at the Passenger Focus survey. What area of dissatisfaction is he most concerned about—dissatisfaction with delays, dissatisfaction with value for money or dissatisfaction with reliability?

Mr. Harris: The passenger survey was undertaken in the context of steadily improving performance on the rail network. The industry is committed to achieving 89.4 per cent. reliability by the end of March next year and 90 per cent. the year after. In that context, with record amounts of public money being invested in the railways, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that investment and not tax cuts should be the priority for the travelling public.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Midland Mainline on its high-quality service and on the very high levels of customer satisfaction that are recorded in the survey? Will he reassure me and others in the east midlands and south Yorkshire area who rely on Midland Mainline services that they will not be unduly disrupted and that the quality of service will not be lost as a result of the new East Midlands rail franchise?

Mr. Harris: It is, of course, the Department’s aim to ensure that when any new franchise is introduced, passenger services continue as smoothly as possible. Inevitably, there will be timetable changes every December for every franchise. The new East Midlands franchise will be in place this summer and the new timetable for the new franchise will be introduced in December 2008. I expect service levels to be an improvement on what passengers currently receive.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The Minister knows that rail passenger satisfaction has improved greatly on the C2C Fenchurch Street service over recent years, but it could be improved even more if uncertainty about the franchise renewal were removed, so that the line could get on with making more investment in rolling stock to tackle problems such as overcrowding. What is the Minister going to do to remove the uncertainty about the franchise?

Mr. Harris: There is an ongoing debate in the industry about the length of franchises; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point that out. However, there is no consensus on how long a franchise should last. I am of the view that the present length of between seven and 10 years is appropriate, and that it does not serve as a disincentive to train operating companies in making the necessary investment. The idea of a 20-year franchise has been mooted, but that would not provide an incentive to improve performance, for example.

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Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that modern well-equipped railway stations contribute to improving levels of rail passenger satisfaction? Perhaps he thought that he could get through an entire Question Time without anyone mentioning New Street station, but I must ask him when he thinks we in the west midlands might get some good news on this project, which is vital for the entire region?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is correct to say that the travelling experience is greatly coloured by whether the facilities at a train station are good or bad. As far as Birmingham New Street is concerned, I would love to be able to give him some cheer, but I shall have to ask him to await the announcement on possible funding for the redevelopment of the station that will be made in due course.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Did the Minister detect any customer satisfaction whatever on the state of the so-called Stansted Express? Seeing the state of our railways must be the most appalling introduction for foreigners coming to Britain. What are we going to do about that smelly, slow and unacceptable route?

Mr. Harris: The right hon. Gentleman understandably takes a close interest in these matters. His indignation would sound better, however, if he had not been complicit in the botched privatisation of the railways in 1993. The fact is that performance on our railways has gone up by 10 per cent. in the past five years, largely because of record investment by the Government in the railway network.


7. Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab): What steps he is taking to encourage cycling. [143386]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The Government are committed to increasing cycling; it is a healthy, environmentally friendly transport mode. We doubled Cycling England’s budget to £10 million last year and launched Bikeability cycle training earlier this year. The six cycling demonstration towns with which Cycling England is working have increased cycle trips by about 30 per cent. in just one year.

Mr. Hamilton: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one thing that helps cycling is better cycle and rail integration—and that that is not helped by the attitude of some rail operators that do not encourage cycles on trains, and of some stations that prevent cyclists from bringing their bicycles into the ticket office?

Mr. Harris: I accept my hon. Friend’s concerns. Since late 2004, the Government have funded about 2,500 new cycle parking spaces at stations. However, there will always be constraints on the ability to accommodate non-folding bikes on trains at peak times. I believe that the train operating companies are the best placed to know where and when pressure on services exists, and they must be free to impose restrictions when necessary.

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Mr. Speaker: I call Rob Wallace. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I have a friend called Rob Wallace. I call Rob Wilson.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that we will become firm friends in a short space of time.

This week I shall participate in Reading’s cycle week, but Reading has a very poor cycle network that is neither safe nor fully integrated. What central funds will the Minister provide to address that deplorable state of affairs in my constituency?

Mr. Harris: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on trying to pin the blame for poor cycle routes on the Government. However, he will know that cycle facilities are entirely the responsibility of local government, using record levels of funds provided by this Government. I suggest that he engage with his local authority on this issue.

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