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24 July 2007 : Column 694

Given that the 2005 Labour manifesto promised us high-speed rail, why are the Government ignoring the Atkins report on high-speed rail that has already shown that north-south capacity around Birmingham will reach capacity by 2014? That presents only a tentative possibility of looking at that line seriously.

I note that the Secretary of State promises better and safer stations from Wolverhampton to Dartmouth. She might be interested to know, from Wikipedia, that no railway has ever run to Dartmouth. The town does have a railway station, but it is now a restaurant. There is a steam railway that runs Thomas the Tank Engine. I make those remarks simply to try to illustrate that there is so much in this report that is clever phrasing: will the Secretary of State be kind enough to tell us what it will actually deliver?

Ruth Kelly: I am also disappointed by the hon. Lady’s contribution. She gave no recognition to the fact that the White Paper will deliver safer, more reliable trains. It targets investment on those lines where overcrowding is worst and will allow passenger demand to grow by 22.5 per cent. over the next seven years, so that 180 million more people can use the train every year—a huge contribution, not only to the environment, but to the economy.

The hon. Lady asks what is new in the White Paper. I can tell her what is new—1,300 new carriages and the major projects, such as £5.5 billion on Thameslink. The hon. Lady went back to the 10-year plan, and I will deal with that. The 10-year plan was launched before Railtrack spiralled out of control as a result of the botched privatisation, which is, as I am sure all hon. Members would now agree, a credible analysis of the situation. Network Rail has now regained control and, for the first time in recent history, we are entering a period in which we can predict safely both a rising number of passengers using the train and significantly funded investments that are deliverable. Of course the rail regulator will assure himself of that before we commit to, for example, precisely where the 1,300 extra carriages will go. There is also the £550 million investment in Birmingham New Street and Reading stations, the £150 million for medium-sized stations up and down the country, and improvements to track and infrastructure across the railway.

The hon. Lady asked two questions about the implications for fares. As a result of Railtrack and the botched privatisation of British Rail, the taxpayer subsidy rose significantly towards 50 per cent. last year. It is right that as costs are re-gripped and taken under control by Network Rail the level of taxpayer subsidy should fall towards historic levels. As a result of the strategy that we publish today, we envisage that that will reduce towards 26 per cent. in line with historic norms.

It is right too to recognise—I hope that the hon. Lady does so—that 80 per cent. of passengers now use regulated fares, which are capped at RPI plus 1 per cent. Some discounted fares are significantly cheaper, even in cash terms, than they were in 1997. Indeed, the average price per kilometre travelled has risen by only 3 per cent. in real terms since 1991.

The hon. Lady asked about the environment. The biggest single impact that we can have on the environment is by providing more capacity for
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passengers to use the railways. The White Paper is geared not only towards improving reliability, but to significant and major investment in delivering greater capacity. The industry has committed itself to come up with carbon reduction targets by next year, and for the next output control period we will set—alongside safety, reliability and performance targets—specific carbon targets and commitments.

The hon. Lady asks about added seats. I have already said, in answer to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), that 100,000 new seats will be added as a result of the significant investment we are making. She asks about freight. We are confident that rail freight will continue to grow over the next 10 to 15 years and that we can use the productivity element of the transport innovation fund as a potential funding stream to enhance the strategic freight network. We are making available an extra £200 million for the development of the strategic network.

The hon. Lady asks about the high speed rail link. Such a link would cost £30 billion and would not be delivered for 20 years, but it is right that we examine the case for it and that we continue to explore options and keep it under review. If we had £30 billion—the hon. Lady may have that much money but I do not at present—there are ways of spending it that will better deliver more, and sooner, for current passengers than a high speed rail link could ever do. If the economics or the environmental calculations change, it is right that we consider them in due course. The railway White Paper and the funding statement will deliver an improved railway for today’s passengers and accommodate an increase in demand of almost a quarter over the next seven years. That should be welcomed.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If my right hon. Friend wants to see the difference between a Labour Government and a Conservative Government running the railways, she should look at the west coast main line. Will the extra carriages announced today mean that each Pendolino train will have an extra two carriages? I am rather disappointed at my right hon. Friend’s dismissal of high speed lines. We have a high speed line that works—from the channel to St. Pancras—so there must be a case for a north-south line, because there will be major capacity problems on the west coast main line by 2014.

Ruth Kelly: I hear my hon. Friend’s representations on behalf of the west coast main line. I know how important the project is to him, and the modernisation of the west coast main line will of course continue during this funding period. Precisely where the extra carriages will go will become clearer after negotiations with the industry, which will continue over the next few months. I know, too, of my hon. Friend’s commitment to the north-south high speed rail link. If we had £30 billion we could have funded the equivalent of the west coast modernisation several times over. The issue for the Government is what the best use of that money is today. In future, the environmental or economic calculations may change so it is right that the Government keep the matter under review, but today is not the right time to make a commitment.

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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): While I wait with bated breath for tomorrow’s statement on motherhood and apple pie, will the right hon. Lady tell me what I can tell my constituents who use Wolverhampton station? Precisely how much of the £150 million will be spent on the station? When will it be spent and what will be done with the money? May we have some specifics?

Ruth Kelly: From a sedentary position, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State whispered that we had the motherhood statement last week, so I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman makes the case for Wolverhampton, and I acknowledged in my statement that Wolverhampton should be funded for infrastructure improvements. They are, of course, the responsibility of Network Rail but I understand that Wolverhampton has an extremely strong case.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Labour party in Scotland made proposals for operating train passenger services on a not-for-profit basis. Will the Government consider allowing Network Rail to operate passenger services on a not-for-profit basis, particularly where franchises are failing?

Ruth Kelly: When the railway is entering an unprecedented era of growth, it would not be right for the Government to suggest that the answer to any concerns about railways is to restructure them. Network Rail has never advanced a proposition for running not-for-profit railway services, but if at any time it did so, the Government would consider the proposal.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): In her statement the Secretary of State announced increases in the capacity of the railway system, and the House always welcomes such statements. She said that over the next seven years we will see

Is she aware that I also announced the go-ahead for Thameslink? If she looks at Hansard for 27 February 1996, she will see that I said:

Who has been holding it up?

Ruth Kelly: Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman had his own role to play in failing to deliver Thameslink, but today I can say for the first time that the Government have set the money aside to fund the Thameslink programme. The first improvements should come on before the end of the control period that we have set the funds aside for today, and there will be further improvements in due course.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): May I say how much we welcome the improvements in the west coast main line? Labour Members who travel on it regularly know what a real difference it has made. But in looking at the plan ahead, will my right hon. Friend look at the role of local services, because if we have the extra use on the west coast main line, we need to
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improve local services along the line? It is no use just having an improved Crewe station if we do not have the improved services right the way east-west cross-country. Will she meet the north Staffordshire community railway group, who I met yesterday, to discuss passenger transport, to see how we can develop the investment in local services that are needed in north Staffordshire?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has already offered to meet her and a delegation on this issue. It is important that we develop local services, and indeed rural services where there is demand for those services. This is the first White Paper that I know of that has said on the Government's behalf that there will be no closures on local or rural lines. We have also set aside some of the new carriages to meet increasing demand on those lines if that demand occurs, but my hon. Friend will be very happy to meet her to discuss it.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the works to convert platforms at Waterloo International for domestic use by December 2008 will now go ahead under these plans? Can she also confirm that her Department will now press ahead urgently with the feasibility studies that are required into all other options at Waterloo and its approach routes, to remove all bottlenecks to the use of longer trains, which is the only way to remove the overcrowding suffered by so many on London suburban routes?

Ruth Kelly: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Waterloo is identified as one of the railway stations in London that need significant infrastructure to enhance their capacity. He mentions the feasibility options that could enhance that further. I think it is right that we take time to consider those. I am very happy to meet him to discuss them if that would be useful.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised the issue of regulated, unregulated and discounted tickets, but will she impress on the rail companies the need to use modern technologies such as smartcards and mobile phones for the sale of those tickets?

Ruth Kelly: Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. I understand that the first franchise that will offer the use of smartcards will be delivered in 2009, and following on from that experience we intend to see smartcards introduced right across the network. They have the potential really to simplify the experience for the passenger in the future.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): When will the bottleneck at London Bridge be dealt with?

Ruth Kelly: London Bridge is one of the stations that has also been identified in the output period, so between 2009 and 2014 there should be improvements in that service too.

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Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I represent the inner-London commuters who get on the trains when the carriages are already full and the seats already taken, so I warmly welcome the 1,300 extra carriages and the 100,000 extra seats. If my right hon. Friend wants to do even more to ease congestion in central London, will she also ensure that Transport for London is funded to proceed with the routes that avoid the centre of London, such as London Overground and the East London line phase 2, which will connect Clapham Junction to the tube system?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes his case very eloquently. Of course, I will consult him and, indeed, other interested parties during the development of those lines.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I welcome much of what the right hon. Lady has told the House this afternoon—in particular, her clear admission that the nationalised railways suffered from chronic under-investment in trains and infrastructure. From that, the House can only infer that she now admits that privatisation was absolutely necessary and that any of the improvements that have occurred in the past 10 years could never have happened without the investment that privatisation brought. Will she now admit that the political interference of the past 10 years, particularly that brought about during the reign of the former Deputy Prime Minister, has held back the progress that could have been made but has not been made in the past 10 years?

Ruth Kelly: I was preparing myself to congratulate the hon. Lady on her wisdom, but I do not think that her comments will have much resonance with the public if she says that the success of the railway was somehow to do with privatisation, rather than recognising the fact that Railtrack lost control of costs altogether and that it was ultimately the taxpayer who ended up footing the bill of an additional £1.25 billion a year before we had to introduce Network Rail to regain control of costs and to start to make improvements in our railway system.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to rural lines, which will certainly please the residents of Barton-upon-Humber in my constituency. With all due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I will fight her tooth and nail to ensure that Cleethorpes gets a fair share of the £150 million for station refurbishment. However, are there any plans to increase the capacity on the trans-Pennine route, which services Cleethorpes?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I hope that she will have noted that Cleethorpes is one of the stations that is likely to benefit from infrastructure improvements, and I am sure that she will continue to press her case over the coming months. It is right that, over the next few months, the Government take time to consider where the investment for that additional capacity is best directed—where the extra carriages will go. I hear what she says about the trans-Pennine express. We will consult the rail regulator, Network Rail and the train
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operating companies to decide where those carriages are best targeted and come back to the House with a plan by January.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): I welcome the extra investment in Cardiff, Reading and Birmingham New Street, which will be very good news for passengers in many parts of my country. However, is there any intention in the White Paper to devolve further powers over the railways to the Welsh Government? In the last White Paper, that happened with Scotland and included responsibility for London to Glasgow and Edinburgh services operating in Scotland. That has not happened in Wales, with the result that 60 per cent. of inter-city services in south Wales, for example, are entirely unaccountable to the Welsh Assembly Government. Will she agree to hold an urgent meeting with the new Transport Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, who, as luck would have it, is the leader of my party?

Ruth Kelly: I am certainly glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the investment in Cardiff station, which will receive £20 million to improve its infrastructure, thus also relieving the bottleneck at Reading station, where very significant investment will transform Reading station’s potential to operate as an interchange and improve the reliability of all the train services in Wales and elsewhere that use Reading. I am afraid that I cannot promise him that I will somehow reopen the devolution settlement today, but I hope that he rests assured that we take the interests of his constituents seriously.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): At least one of the two Reading MPs is here to applaud the Secretary of State for having the wisdom and foresight to announce the long-awaited upgrade of Reading station. It will improve platform capacity, deliver service improvements and help to tackle the chronic overcrowding that is making commuting such a misery on the First Great Western main line, but is she aware that it will also remove the dreadful Cow lane bottlenecks, which are a blockage in west Reading for both motorists and bus passengers? The statement is a win-win for Reading and a win-win for Labour.

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to him. Over the past few months—indeed longer than that: over the past five years—he has championed the cause of his constituents and made a strong case on behalf of all commuters who use Reading station or whose train line depends on Reading station. The £425 million that the Government are committing today will transform the prospects of people using Reading station and will improve the frequency and reliability of trains into London.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Has the Secretary of State had a chance to visit Derby station? If she has, she will have seen that the platforms look like a setting from world war two. When will Derby station be refurbished?

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