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Ruth Kelly: I have had the opportunity to visit Derby station and the right hon. Gentleman makes his case with passion. Today’s White Paper commits the
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Government to £150 million for 150 medium-sized stations. There is also other funding available for stations that do not qualify as the top 150 priorities. It is for Network Rail, together with the train operating companies, to decide what the priorities are and I am sure that he will continue to make his case to them.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to Thameslink, which serves my constituency and is the line on which I have commuted for 38 years—perhaps I should declare an interest. The £5.5 billion for Thameslink contrasts rather markedly with the £200 million committed to rail freight. Will she give further thought to more substantial investment in rail freight, particularly on strategic routes? That would not just take traffic off our road, but might take freight traffic off fast main line passenger routes and free them up for faster and more frequent passenger trains.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to the importance of freight and the need to deliver a strategic freight network that will allow the use of freight rail services to increase over the next seven years. The Government’s £200 million will really help that process. There are those who argue that we should have dedicated freight lines—I think that he is one of them. The issue for the Government is how to make the best value-for-money investments while delivering the objectives. I understand that not only do strategic dedicated freight lines cost a significant amount of money, they do not maximise the potential to relieve congestion on the busiest routes, because they do not alter the peak hours commuter congestion periods on passenger lines. We have to target our money appropriately to make the best use of it, but of course we keep the issues under review.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Seven years ago, in the 10-year plan, the Government said that they would bring forward schemes to ease bottlenecks, particularly in the west midlands. Will the right hon. Lady look carefully at the rail service and facilities improvement plan generated by my borough of Walsall, which highlights the Stourbridge-Walsall-Lichfield line? It connects Walsall with Stourbridge and thence the south and south-west, and with Brownhills and Lichfield for connections to Yorkshire and the north-east. The former Strategic Rail Authority in its land use planning guide cited the line as a potential capacity provider to ease congestion across the west midlands rail network. Anything that the Secretary of State can do to bring forward the revival of the Brownhills-to-Lichfield line, and so on, would be mightily welcome.

Ruth Kelly: I will of course look at any proposal that an hon. Member puts before me, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to think about the potential costs of any improvements that he may suggest, because, ultimately, they have to be funded either by the taxpayer or by the fare payer—or we will be unable to deliver the investment. I have yet to hear a plausible exposition of an Opposition policy that would enable greater investment in capacity.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I warmly welcome the proposal to invest £425 million in Reading station, but will my right hon. Friend please make sure that the beneficiaries of that investment are not just passengers who live to the west of Reading, but those on the inner commuter lines of First Great Western? In my constituency, for example, three years ago there were 10 fast trains to Paddington during the morning peak; now there are four.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes her case well. I can assure her that the very significant investment at Reading station will have implications for her constituents, and I expect the reliability of trains on those routes to improve as a result of it.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I, too, welcome the investment in Reading station. It will certainly improve services to the west as, absurdly, the bottleneck means that the fast train to Bristol is frequent held up at Reading, even though it is not even meant to stop there. However, will the Secretary of State consider bringing forward investment in and around Bristol Temple Meads station? Resignalisation of the lines in the area will enable the underused branch network around the city, including the Severn Beech line, to be expanded, and the line to Portishead to be reopened. That would reduce significantly the number of cars coming into Bristol city centre, and the carbon emissions that they cause.

Ruth Kelly: The Government, in conjunction with Network Rail and the train operating companies, always take seriously questions to do with whether a rail line should be reopened, whether extra carriages should be added to a particular service or whether a station needs to be enhanced to deliver improvements. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has cleared his plea for more money with his Front Bench, as I do not yet understand how the Liberal Democrat sums add up.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Whether it is for reasons of economic efficiency, global warming or simple traveller comfort, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to give priority to investment in the railways over the next seven years and beyond. I do not want to reopen the debate about the devolution settlement, but she has considerable influence in Scotland and I put it to her that the provision of a modern rail connection into Glasgow and Edinburgh airports has to be a priority. Will she use her good offices to encourage the Scottish Executive, the railway interests and BAA, the airports’ owner, to make that investment?

Ruth Kelly: I am afraid that I cannot give my right hon. Friend that assurance. He knows that those issues are for the Scottish Executive and not Westminster politicians—

Dr. Strang: What about the airports? Aviation is a Westminster responsibility.

Ruth Kelly: Where airlines have a particular responsibility, it is clear that there are commercial decisions that also need to be made.

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Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Like other hon. Members, I have been lobbying on my constituents’ behalf in respect of the First Great Western main line, so the news about the improvements at Reading is very welcome. Will the Secretary of State say when they will be completed, and update us on other important improvements, such as increasing capacity at Oxford and improving access to Paddington? Finally, what is the prospect of getting a station at Grove?

Ruth Kelly: It is remarkable how representations from Opposition Back Benchers differ so profoundly from what Front Bench say. Opposition Back Benchers have welcomed what is in today’s White Paper, and even added to the proposals by asking for more investment and capacity improvements, but I have yet to hear those on the Front Bench make a credible proposition about how they would fund the improvements. We have set aside more than £425 million for Reading station in the control period from 2009 to 2014. That will deliver significant improvements for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The proposals in the White Paper will be widely welcomed, but is my right hon. Friend aware that, for Londoners, the test of the rail strategy will be what happens with Crossrail, which has been promised for so long? We know that the Government are committed to Crossrail and that the necessary legislation is going through, but the project’s credibility among Londoners will depend on their being able to see concrete funding plans. When Crossrail is in place, perhaps we can move on to Crossrail 2, with the underground being taken all the way from Hackney’s glittering spires to downtown Chelsea.

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is right that Crossrail is incredibly important to relieving overcrowding at some of London’s busiest stations and on the tube, and that it could make a real strategic contribution to passenger movements across London. The Crossrail Bill is going through the process of being considered by the House, but in the meantime it is right that the Government work with the private sector to try and make sure that the project is affordable and properly financed.

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): The very welcome refurbishment of Chester station has commenced, and in the past 12 months there has been a 30 per cent. increase in the number of passengers using the station. However, that has highlighted the real need for additional car parking there. Many of my constituents drive to Crewe or Runcorn to catch the train, so will my right hon. Friend look at trying to speed up the provision of extra car parking?

Ruth Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Chester will benefit significantly from the proposals that I have set before the House. She mentioned car parking, an issue that is being raised with increasing regularity across the country as demand for rail services increases. On the whole, such issues are dealt with by Network Rail in conjunction with the relevant local authority. I am sure that she is making her representations to those bodies directly, but of course I am happy to pass them on.

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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that for the first time in many years, my constituents in Worcestershire can plan their journeys to London and Oxford with complete confidence, because the railway line is closed, thanks to the floods? Will she use this respite period to put pressure on First Great Western to improve its abysmal level of service, and on Network Rail to improve its infrastructure and maintenance work on the line, and to bring forward as quickly as possible the business case for the redoubling of the line between Worcester and Oxford?

Ruth Kelly: I assure the hon. Gentleman that as recently as last Thursday, First Great Western met my hon. Friend the Rail Minister. First Great Western has an improvement strategy in place. I hope to see it commit to delivering on its franchise agreement, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other Members of the House would welcome that.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the statement and the reiteration of support for the railway network. Will the Secretary of State say something about reopening the many closed railway lines in England, and the possibility of reopening enough routes to allow an east-west line to be formed? That has long been campaigned for, would not be expensive to introduce, and would mean a huge improvement to passenger and freight networks. Will she give us some hope on the question of when that might happen?

Ruth Kelly: I have to tell my hon. Friend that those are predominantly issues for Network Rail. It has the necessary planning powers in place to put aside disused rail lines for future growth purposes, if it thinks that that is the right thing to do. It considers proposals on a case-by-case basis, and I am sure that it will have heard my hon. Friend’s representations.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): I notice that the statement said that there is to be a welcome focus on passengers, and a greater involvement with future franchises. Given the unhappiness with the First Capital Connect franchise, will there be any revision or renegotiation of franchises about which people are deeply unhappy?

Ruth Kelly: I can tell the hon. Lady that the franchises currently in operation are already delivering benefits for passengers. We hope to improve on that in the coming seven years as we accommodate a massive increase in demand—180 million more people are to travel by rail every year. Of course, as we go forward, we want to make sure that passenger concerns are right at the heart of the franchising process. That is why I intend to make sure that Passenger Focus has more input in specifying the franchises in future.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend go for a truly integrated transport system, and do more about car parking facilities in all stations? I have travelled the length and breadth of the country, and no station that I visit has the necessary car
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parking facilities. Will part of the £100 million, or £150 million, which has been designated for 150 stations go on car parking?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that local authorities ought to have integrated transport plans that take into account not only bus usage, but local train stations, how people access those stations, how links are made, and whether people can drive to the station, leave their cars and use the train. However, it is right that those issues be determined locally, rather than in Whitehall. I am sure that he will want to take up the issues that he raised with his local authority and Network Rail.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State referred to the non-closure of rural lines. Will she give a guarantee of investment in places such as Norfolk, where efficient rural rail links are an absolute necessity?

Ruth Kelly: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There will be no rural line closures in the next seven years. Beyond that, of course, there needs to be flexibility in place, so that we can make sure that rural lines can respond to passenger demand. We are also providing new rolling stock to increase capacity on rural lines, where that is needed.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I add my welcome for my right hon. Friend’s announcement of a £600 million investment to tackle bottlenecks at Birmingham New Street and Reading stations, but may I press her a little more on the Birmingham New Street aspect of the announcement? Will she confirm that the investment is only the first tranche of money, and that it is simply the rail component of a much bigger project that needs to be funded if, at New Street, we are to achieve the benefits that are so vital for Birmingham and the west midlands? How will the project be taken forward, and what will the responsibilities be of different Departments and Government agencies in taking it forward?

Ruth Kelly: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in championing the cause of Birmingham New Street. I know that he and his colleagues have made their case strongly with the Department and others involved in the process. I can confirm that £128 million will be delivered by the Department for Transport for the railway improvements at Birmingham New Street, which are desperately needed. I also know that Birmingham city council has put forward plans for a much more ambitious scheme that would secure regeneration benefits for the area as well. The £128 million that we are pledging today is without prejudice to that larger scheme going ahead. In a way, the message for my hon. Friend’s constituency is that the first hurdle is cleared. We will assess any future scheme on its merits if a value-for-money case can be made.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Can the Minister confirm whether any money for the 154 railway stations is to go to Devon stations, or whether the reference to Dartmouth is a just a misleading
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mistake? Will there be an increase in capacity between Exeter and Waterloo? That will be vital, particularly during the construction phase of Crossrail.

Ruth Kelly: There will be an increase in capacity at Waterloo station, which I think will serve Exeter too. Some £150 million has been set aside for middle-sized stations. Clearly, there will be a process of iteration with Network Rail and other interested parties about where that money is best targeted. Those are decisions rightly taken by the industry, rather than set from Whitehall. I hear the case that the hon. Gentleman has made, and I will happily forward it to those concerned.

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4.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a brief further statement to update the House on the serious flooding that is affecting central and southern England. I apologise to those on the Opposition Front Benches for the short time that they have had the statement in advance, but as I am sure Members will appreciate, the situation is changing rather fast.

Cobra met yesterday evening and again first thing this morning. The most serious issue that we have been facing is the potential flooding of the Walham switching station, which would result in power cuts to hundreds of thousands of people and the potential further loss of pumped water supplies. I am pleased to tell the House that this has so far been avoided, thanks to the heroic efforts of the Environment Agency, armed forces, fire service and others who built the temporary defence around the site on Sunday and who have been working to pump water out since.

Although the Environment Agency advises that the River Severn has now peaked, the weather outlook remains unsettled. This includes the possibility of further heavy rain in the flood-affected areas in the days ahead. Those on the site will continue to do all that can be done to protect Walham, and we have been making contingency arrangements for continuity of essential services and supplies, should the need arise.

I am also able to report that the Castlemeads electricity substation has now been brought back into operation, so restoring power to more than 48,000 properties in Gloucestershire. There remain 223 properties in Tewkesbury without power, and it is hoped to have them reconnected later this afternoon. There are also 134 properties in Gloucester and three in Cheltenham which are without power, I am advised.

However, this emergency is still not over and the River Thames continues to cause concern. There was further flooding in Abingdon last night, but no additional significant flooding in the rest of Oxfordshire is now expected. There will, however, be peak flows during the next 24 to 36 hours further down the river, and flooding in Henley, Reading and other riverside properties to Marlow and Windsor may be unavoidable. The Environment Agency is continuing to make efforts to reduce potential flood damage and an evacuation centre is being prepared in Reading. The Jubilee river has protected several hundred properties in Maidenhead.

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