Previous Section Index Home Page

Ruth Kelly: I, too, agree that it is important that we have correct and reasonable fare increases for individual journeys. That is why we have capped regulated fares at 1 per cent. above the rate of inflation for individual franchises over the period in question. If the hon. Lady took the trouble to investigate the average cost per kilometre, or per mile, which I know
8 Jan 2008 : Column 175
my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich prefers, she would find that the average cost per mile of travelling by rail is pretty much exactly the same now as it was in 1997.

The hon. Lady makes the reasonable point that we need to simplify the structure, and make it easier for people like her to understand what the appropriate rail fare is. I am committed to making sure that that happens in the future.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The right hon. Lady seems to make light of the fare increases. Constituents travelling from east Kent to London are paying infinitely more for a worse service with bad timekeeping. May I invite her to join me on an early morning train from Thanet to London? I will endeavour to guarantee her personal safety.

Ruth Kelly: I have no need to join the hon. Gentleman on his commuter journey. However, I can tell the House that I am committed to more capacity on our railways, to ensuring that the necessary investment goes in and to protecting passengers from rail fare increases through a cap on regulated fares in order that they cannot rise, per franchise, by more than 1 per cent. above inflation. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that 80 per cent. of all fares are either regulated or on a discounted ticket?

Mrs. Dunwoody: Would my right hon. Friend repeat the question that she asked? If the money is not to come from the taxpayer or from the fare box, where will it come from? That is the point that the House has to address. Massive investment in rail can come only from the taxpayer and it is time that we all accepted that.

Ruth Kelly: I certainly accept my hon. Friend’s point. It is right that the Opposition should wake up to the fact that there are only two real sources of funding for the railways: the taxpayer or the fare payer. If the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet is proposing that fares should be held down, and that the taxpayer subsidy should be reduced, only one interpretation can follow, which is that she and her party are committed to slashing investment in the railways.

Norman Baker: I agree with the point about funding, and we have identified ways of raising funds from public money, which I will set out. However, I say to the Secretary of State that the truth of the matter on fares is that since her Government have been in power, rail fares have gone up by 6 per cent. in real terms, and bus fares by 8 per cent. in real terms—this information is from a parliamentary answer—while the cost of motoring has gone down by 10 per cent. That is a long-term trend that has actually slowed under this Government, but we have to recognise that rail and bus fares are going up while motoring costs are going down, which is contrary to what is necessary to tackle climate change.

Ruth Kelly: Regulated fares have not risen in real terms since 1997. There have been some increases, especially in open first-class and premium fares, but 80 per cent. of people travel on a regulated or, indeed, discounted ticket.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 176

Mr. MacNeil rose—

Ruth Kelly: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make progress.

It is essential to invest the extra £10 billion to which we are committed in the period from 2009 to 2014, and to ensure that the 1,300 new carriages and the longer platforms are provided and that the major station and network upgrades at Reading and Birmingham New Street and the renovations at the 150 stations that are due to be renovated happen.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ruth Kelly: No, I must now finish my comments.

We are not complacent. Recent events clearly show that Network Rail has much more work to do. Once we are in possession of the rail regulator’s conclusions and the results of Network Rail’s investigations, we will be in a position to determine what, if any, steps need to be taken to prevent a recurrence. I greatly regret the difficulties that passengers experienced in the past couple of weeks, but I ask hon. Members not to lose sight of the enormous improvements that we have made to our railway.

Unlike the Conservative party, the Government have learned the lessons from Railtrack, as we were forced to pick up the tab for the Conservative party’s failure. The Government took the tough decisions and are making the sustained investment necessary to improve the railway. We can be trusted with its future.

4.36 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for her courteous welcome to me in my position on the Front Bench.

I do not need to rehearse the impact on passengers of the fiasco over Christmas and the new year because both other Front Benchers adequately set that out. However, the late notice given to the train operating companies has not been mentioned. The companies that operate from Liverpool Street were made aware only at midnight that there would be no trains the following day. With the best will in the world, it is difficult for a train company to arrange for alternative transport on buses and coaches when it is given almost no notice of Network Rail’s failure to complete engineering works. The way in which Network Rail did not integrate with the train operating companies needs to be factored into the Office of Rail Regulation investigation.

No one has mentioned the impact on freight traffic of the overrun of engineering works. If we want to increase freight on the railways—the Government seek to do that—we must bear it in mind that predictability and guaranteed delivery times are as important for freight traffic as they are for passengers. Perhaps the Secretary of State knows that freight customers had to be told that depots at Daventry were effectively isolated by the west coast main line works and their overrun. That is especially bad for supermarkets, which rely on freight movement being on time 24/7. The impact on freight therefore also needs to be taken into account.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 177

If Network Rail’s failures were to continue—I certainly hope that they do not—that would lead to freight going back on the roads and perhaps to the Secretary of State returning to the air to get from the Manchester area to London. That would be a retrograde step. It is important that the ORR investigation takes all those matters into account and ensures that a remedy is found. The public at large and the freight operators are entitled to a railway that is safe, clean, fairly priced, cost efficient and predictable. We are getting there in some respects, but not on overrunning engineering works.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) referred to an episode at Portsmouth. If she had wanted to do so, she could have gone back to Paddington in 2003 when the mainline station remained closed during the rush hour because of overruns. There are several instances of overruns in recent years. On each occasion, they have led to significant disruption for individuals and, indeed, the economy. Individuals who contacted me in the past few days include self-employed people who lost much money as a consequence of an overrun. Had they known a couple of days earlier, they could at least have planned an alternative way of getting from A to B, which they could not do, because of the late notice given by Network Rail.

We need to move towards a seven-day railway. The number of engineering works, whether they overrun or not, has been increasing in frequency over recent years. It used to be the case 15 years ago that engineering works were the exception rather than the rule. Now hardly a weekend goes by when there are not significant engineering works up and down the network.

Dr. Ladyman: Could that have anything to do with the fact that 15 years ago there was a Tory Government who were not investing in those engineering works?

Norman Baker: It is certainly the case that Railtrack’s failure to deal with engineering properly has made a huge catch-up necessary. The Conservative spokesperson mentioned the words “rail” and “track” quite a lot, but seemed to avoid mentioning Railtrack at all, even though it is quite an easy word to say.

Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman not admit that if the Government had come to an agreement with Railtrack, we would have a much cheaper and more efficient solution than the bodged nationalisation that those on the Government Benches have brought forward?

Norman Baker: No, I do not agree with that. To be fair, some elements of privatisation worked better than others. As a matter of fact, train operating companies have been reasonably successful. However, the creation of Railtrack was a complete fiasco, with the setting up of a body that naturally wanted to prioritise money for shareholders in a monopoly situation. The way it did so was to spend as little as possible on maintaining the network. I welcomed the creation of Network Rail, which was a Lib-Dem proposal—one of the ones that the Government nicked, dare I say, along with many others, including independence for the Bank of England and so on. Nevertheless, Network Rail is a much better solution and we are happy that it was created.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 178

Let us move towards a seven-day railway. Some of the engineering works, whether they overrun or not, are frankly unnecessary. I have been in dealings with Network Rail—I mentioned this in an oral question to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), in December—about the works that took place over one weekend last Easter between Lewes and Three Bridges and between Brighton and Three Bridges. The whole network, comprising two branches, was shut for two days. There is no way that Network Rail could have been working on that entire stretch for two days. There are places such as Haywards Heath where it is perfectly possible to turn trains round. What Network Rail does is purely an administrative convenience. It gets a possession order for as long as possible, in order to ensure that works do not overrun if at all possible, and in the meantime passengers are sent long distances by bus, when it is quite possible for works to be planned more adequately, making that alternative unnecessary.

It is also the case—I want the Office of Rail Regulation to look into this—that some of the rules that apply to possessions are archaic. It is time we examined whether there are excessive rules governing how works are carried out on the railway. I am conscious that safety must be the first priority for the rail network, but—

Mr. Drew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I will just finish this point and then I will allow the hon. Gentleman to come in, particularly as he was not allowed to do so earlier.

Other countries in Europe allow single-line working where there are double tracks, whereas Network Rail rules insist that the whole track is taken out of service. Other countries allow temporary points to be installed, with a 20 mph cross-over, but Network Rail does not allow that. A great deal of traffic that is taken off the railways for engineering work could move if some of those archaic rules were abandoned.

Mr. Drew: I was trying to be helpful to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) earlier, as I will now show. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem that has not been discussed, but should be, is the acute shortage of railway engineers in this country? A number of my friends are railway engineers and sometimes they despair. The problem obviously relates to the previous Government, but my Government have not really done enough to deal with it. Much of the reason for our problems, along with the acute contractualisation in the industry, which causes its own difficulties, is to do with the fact that, on occasion, there are insufficient railway engineers to conduct a proper safety case.

Norman Baker: That is true. Network Rail told me that one of the problems was the number of people qualified to reinstate overhead electrification lines. There are simply not enough people able to do that. Network Rail should have identified the problem and perhaps allowed a longer period for that work; nevertheless, it is an issue. For a long period of time when Railtrack was in operation, the required investment was not being made and the maintenance was not being done, and sadly some of the skills were lost. They have to be rebuilt for the industry.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 179

What should be done with Network Rail? Clearly there has been a failure. I accept the Secretary of State’s view that we should not prejudge what the ORR decides—I shall not make a comment about bonuses—but the enforcement powers available to it seem to be less than useful on occasion. They are not applied fully or are applied only rarely by the ORR because the public money provided by taxpayers simply gets circulated around. That does not achieve very much. A fine imposed on Network Rail may well make newspaper headlines, but it will make no practical difference to how it operates; in any case, the targets set by the ORR are out of date and need tightening.

Bob Russell: Network Rail is receiving quite a bashing this afternoon—and quite rightly, so far as London Liverpool Street is concerned, a station which directly affects my constituents. However, is my hon. Friend surprised that the Government, in attempting to give a balanced response to the motion, have not pointed out that of the 35 major projects undertaken by Network Rail over Christmas and the new year, 33 were successful?

Norman Baker: I am surprised that the Secretary of State did not make that point but, having said that, I think that my hon. Friend’s point provides little comfort to those who were caught up in the two episodes—at Rugby and at Liverpool Street—that were rather spectacular failures. However, if my hon. Friend wants to remind passengers caught at Liverpool Street that something went right in Glasgow, we will have to see how that works out.

Bob Russell indicated dissent.

Norman Baker: More needs to be done about Network Rail and I would like the Secretary of State to look further into her noble Friend Lord Berkeley’s suggestion in the other place that foundation trust status might be appropriate for Network Rail—similar to what the Department of Health is considering for hospitals. The idea is that hospitals can get interested people—as many as 10,000—to sign up to being on a lower-tier board and that those people can then act as the body that elects a much smaller board to control the hospital. In this case, that arrangement could be applied to Network Rail, with the bonus that Network Rail would not then control who was elected—a point to which the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet referred. It would also bring to an end the current Heath-Robinson arrangements.

Mrs. Villiers: On the structure of Network Rail and following the earlier exchange with the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), I have looked at Network’s Rail’s website on the procedure for the selection and appointment of board members. Paragraph 28 says that public members are appointed by the board on the recommendation of a membership selection panel and later in the document it makes it clear that Network Rail’s articles of association require a majority of members to be public members. Thus, the board has a veto over the majority of members— [Interruption.]

8 Jan 2008 : Column 180

Norman Baker: That is a matter for the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) rather than for me. She is welcome to intervene at some stage to make her point. It is interesting that the Conservative spokeswoman clarifies a point for the Government rather than for her own party’s policies, which, as was mentioned earlier, are not at all clear. Having listened to the opening speech from the Conservatives, I have to say that their policy seems like a destination board on which it is not quite clear at which stations the trains will be stopping. Perhaps we will hear more detail when reviews or reports are discussed at some distant point in the future. What is perfectly clear is that it is inconceivable and inconsistent to argue on the one hand that the Government should do more to bring Network Rail under control while on the other to argue for a Railtrack-type solution, which moves things more into the private sector. With respect, the Conservatives need to sort out which of those directions they choose to follow rather than trying to argue for both sides of the case at the same time. I would ask the Secretary of State, however, to look further into Lord Berkeley’s suggestions about foundation status.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Is the hon. Gentleman as interested as I am in one issue? I believe that the Secretary of State said in respect of last year—or was it for the year ahead—that 30 per cent. cost savings were expected. She talked about percentage figures, so is the hon. Gentleman as interested as I am about what that means financially and what will actually happen to that money?

Norman Baker: I will take that as a rhetorical question, not least because I cannot provide the answer. It is a valid question, however, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it in his summing up.

Dr. Ladyman: Somewhat surprisingly, the hon. Gentleman is making rather a good speech and I agree with quite a lot of it. I also believe that there is something to be said for Lord Berkeley’s suggestion to give Network Rail foundation trust status at some point in the future, but how large would the board have to be to provide the sort of accountability that the hon. Gentleman is looking for?

Norman Baker: This is a tentative proposal and there will be many people with different answers to the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I think that while at least 10,000 people would be needed to own the network, no more than 30 or 40 would be required to perform day-to-day management duties on a board of this nature. However, I am open to suggestions.

Mrs. Villiers: How many people? Forty?

Next Section Index Home Page