Previous Section Index Home Page

Norman Baker: Up to 40. There are currently more than 100, but the number needs to be reduced. What we need to recognise is that the present arrangement does not work, and this is an interesting idea which may provide an alternative. If there are other alternatives let us hear them, but the status quo clearly does not provide accountability, and in that respect the Conservative motion is right. In fact, having read the motion I think I agree with it, and I have come here to recommend to my colleagues that we support it. The
8 Jan 2008 : Column 181
hon. Member for Chipping Barnet has done her best to persuade me not to support it, but I think that, on balance, I will stay with her when it comes to the vote, because it criticises Network Rail in a way that I believe is right.

A wider problem, on which I intervened in the Secretary of State’s speech, is the capacity of the network. Although “Delivering a Sustainable Railway” makes many useful points and the Government have been moving in the right direction on rail in recent years, I think that they have flunked in one key respect: they have not grasped the nettle and acknowledged that network capacity needs to be increased far more than the White Paper suggests. By sorting out Gatwick airport and providing a bit of signalling here and a couple of extra lines around a station there, the Government have bought five or 10 years and nearly 15 per cent. extra capacity. The trouble—or the benefit, if you like—is that, as the amendment says, the railway is carrying 40 per cent. more passenger traffic since 1997, and the volume is increasing every year. Even if all the improvements identified by the Government were brought onstream in sufficient time, they would not cure the problem within five or 10 years.

The Secretary of State says that decisions can be made in a number of years’ time, in phase 2 or whatever she calls it, but that will be too late. The lead-in periods for major infrastructure projects such as reopening lines or building a high-speed line are such that even if the Secretary of State or her successor decides in 2012 or 2015 to go ahead with a major scheme, it will be another 10 years before it is introduced. In the meantime, it will be impossible to meet the demands caused by overcrowding. The Government ought to anticipate the decisions that will be needed now, rather than waiting for overcrowding to become even more chronic.

Mr. Leech: Does my hon. Friend agree that the £10 billion investment proposed by the Government is far less than is required to make such massive improvements in the railway industry?

Norman Baker: The Minister seems keen for an answer to that question, and, unlike the Conservatives, I will give him one. We have a future public transport fund consisting of an extra £6.5 billion, which recognises that money can come from a climate change charge on internal flights, from the auctioning of landing slots and from the introduction of a transport development levy on heavy goods vehicles. We know how we will pay for improvements that are above and beyond what the Government propose. The Government’s scheme has been costed, but I do not think it goes far enough; our scheme has been costed, and goes further. I shall leave the economic analysis there, in the context of the three parties.

We all need to grasp the importance of growing the network, and, as the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich has said, that must involve public money in one way or another. There is no alternative; we cannot PFI it. Even now, however, the Government are reluctant to acknowledge that the network must grow. There is still a mindset that holds that money spent on roads is investment and money spent on rail is subsidy, which is why it is still easy to get roads built in this country—although the Government have cut the
8 Jan 2008 : Column 182
programme significantly—but not so easy to get railway lines reopened or stations opened. The hurdles for rail projects are still far higher than those for road projects. If we are to take climate change seriously, let alone congestion on the network, we must change the mindset in the Department for Transport and in the House more generally.

For 20 years—here I am making a local point—I have argued for the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. It is a no-brainer in economic, social and environmental terms. Network Rail is on board, as are all local councils led by all parties and MPs representing all three parties. The Government, however, are largely being weak and unsupportive. Ministers have offered warm words in support, but there has been no action from the Government. I do not wish to be over-harsh but that is the reality.

Mrs. Villiers: I asked a parliamentary question about this matter and it was clear that the Government had no plans to re-open the line.

Norman Baker: They have no plans to put any money in. They would be very happy if someone else did all the work and found the funds. That is not the approach they take to roads, but it is the one they take to railways. That alternative mindset needs to be changed within the Department. I happen to think that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South, who has responsibility for railways, is quite good, and I hope that he has influence within the Department.

There are problems at Birmingham New Street, where the apparent solution is to deal with the passenger waiting area rather than with the fact that the station needs more track and greater capacity. That is no proper solution, but there is not even a solution of that nature at Manchester Piccadilly. Major bottlenecks around the country are simply not being dealt with under the Government’s plans.

According to a Department for Transport assumption—this was in The Times, so it must be true—in 2025, oil will be $50 a barrel. That is the Department’s official estimate on which it is basing its policy. I think it is wrong on that and that the price will be rather more than that; indeed, it is rather more than that now. As a consequence, electric-based transport, including rail, will become more financially attractive than petrol-based transport. The Department needs to reassess and amend its assumptions for oil prices. If it does, it may reach a different decision on what its future transport policies should be.

The Department’s current policies mean that the famous Mottram-Tintwhistle bypass—

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Where is it?

Norman Baker: The Peak District national park.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Well done.

Norman Baker: At the same time as that bypass is proceeding, the Woodhead tunnel, which could be used for freight transport, is being used by National Grid to install power lines. Such are the sort of unconnected arrangements that operate in this country.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 183

The Government have identified a number of issues in the rail industry that need to be dealt with and I accept that there are some good plans in the departmental paper. They do not go far enough, particularly in recognising the need to grow the network, but at least they are costed. Any serious party needs to have serious proposals that are properly costed. We certainly do.

4.57 pm

Ms Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): Clearly, the subject of today’s debate is topical and important, because we should be giving extensive consideration to the structure of the railway at this time. The track record of the Conservative party in government was such that it is unlikely that anyone will listen to proposals that might come from it. We understand that the Conservatives might propose horizontal fragmentation of the railways, involving a merger of the train operating companies and Network Rail, but at this stage we do not know.

We do know that, over the past 10 years, we have seen massive investment in the railways in this country, resulting in huge improvements in passenger services. That does not mean that no criticism can be made of the current position or that no improvements need to be made, but it is grudging of the Opposition not to recognise that improvement.

Network Rail was created in 2004 as a not-for-dividend company. Since then, it has been largely successful, and we have seen improvements in the service provided and a decrease in delays. We have to recognise that if we are to see significant investment in the railways over the coming years—and, perhaps, investment beyond that currently proposed—passengers will occasionally be inconvenienced by engineering work. However, we shall have to get on top of the issues that have arisen over the past few weeks and do everything possible to ensure that passenger inconvenience is minimised.

We know that Network Rail has been largely successful in the work it has done. Delays caused by infrastructure have fallen significantly since its creation—and by 28 per cent. since 2004, when it took control. It is far too simplistic simply to rubbish Network Rail.

Some of the problems of the past few weeks have been discussed. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) and I have raised issues that have affected our constituents, such as the problems at Shields junction between Glasgow and Paisley. I was pleased that the Minister confirmed that those specific problems will be looked at and that any lessons that need to be learned for the future will be learned.

I understand that a number of private contractors have been involved in remodelling and signalling work at Shields junction. Many Labour Members are concerned about the problems that arise when many different organisations and companies are involved in such operations. No matter how good the planning, the more operators and private companies that are involved, the more likely it is that there will be communication problems and different interests between different organisations.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 184

That is not a new issue. The Transport Committee has looked at it in great detail. In a 2004 report it recommended the introduction of a new public sector railway agency

The report said, effectively, that the fragmentation of the railways was continuing to cause problems. One issue that we need to look at in the light of the events of recent weeks is whether the fragmentation of the railways and the number of different organisations involved has been a factor in making inconvenience to passengers far greater than it should have been and in causing overruns. I hope that the investigations promised by the Government will look thoroughly into those issues and reach conclusions.

Mr. Redwood: What earthly difference would it have made if Network Rail had owned the trains as well as the track? It was its mistake, and it would still have been as bad.

Ms Clark: As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, delays have reduced significantly since Network Rail took over those responsibilities, which contrasts starkly with the period when his party was in power. We need to look at fragmentation and at whether, particularly in a period when there will be huge change in the railways as significant investment is made over the coming years, the structures that exist and the levels of co-operation are such that they will ensure that the work can be carried out with the least possible inconvenience to the public.

Labour Members would like to see further significant increases in railway capacity. There has already been a more than 40 per cent. increase in those using the railways. Clearly, such increases will come about only as a result of significant further investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, so this is a timely debate. The current set-up, whereby renewal work for the significant upgrading of the railways is undertaken by a wide range of private contractors, is not likely to ensure that the work is carried out in a way that provides either best value for the taxpayer or the best possible service to the public.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady, and I think that I follow the line she is taking. Has she read the derailment report on Waterloo, where services were taken in-house? Exactly the problems that she is outlining were recognised by the rail accident investigation branch as being a major contributory factor, although the work was carried out in-house. Thus, there is no guarantee that taking things in-house will necessarily prove to be the answer that she seeks to the problems.

Ms Clark: I agree that simply taking things in-house will not necessarily mean that any problems are addressed. I am making the point that the railways’ fragmentation, as undertaken by his party, as much as their privatisation, has caused so many of their problems. Although I support public ownership of the railways, one of the major issues that we need to address is the impact of fragmentation.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 185

The point that I have been attempting to develop is that we must move back to a unified railway system. We have heard about the significant amount of engineering work over the festive season. That is a quieter part of the year, and decisions have been taken to carry out work during such times and at weekends. If such significant work is to take place, there will be inconvenience, and we must ensure that our structures enable that work to take place.

Norman Baker: Does the hon. Lady accept that although the Christmas and new year period was quieter in terms of numbers, it is the time when people who are not regular customers use the railways? Their experience of the railways was therefore a terrible one, and the business will not grow if people who use the railways once a year experience such things.

Ms Clark: I agree. As someone who used the railways over the past few weeks, I am aware of what the hon. Gentleman describes. People will take a number of factors into account when using the railways, one of which is fares. We must accept that engineering work will need to be carried out at some point, that whenever it takes place it will cause some form of inconvenience to passengers and that this is about trying to ensure that inconvenience is minimised.

I hope that the House will agree that the railways will provide an important part of our transport future. Compared with many other forms of transport they are very environmentally friendly, and we must invest more in technologies to ensure that they become even more carbon friendly. We must do far more to invest to make rail the preferred mode of domestic traffic within Britain, because the reality is that not only are the railways often a slower and, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has said, on occasion, although not always, more unreliable mode of transport, they are often a more expensive one. Indeed, it is often cheaper to get a package flight to the Caribbean than to get a first-class flexible ticket to Scotland.

Passengers will take a range of factors into account when considering whether to choose railways as their mode of transport. We must consider whether the structure of the railways is the most effective way of ensuring that passengers receive the best possible service, and I hope that the House can unite around that. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her undertaking to investigate the events of the past few weeks, and I hope that the Opposition will consider the outcome of the investigations as carefully as they have considered the problems.

5.10 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): It is almost always a pleasure to hear the name of my constituency on the national media, but that was not the case over the Christmas and new year period. All the adjectives that hon. Members have used to describe what happened during that period are justified and I shall not repeat them all.

What occurred was obviously unacceptable. It was a chronic failure of management and, to be fair to Network Rail, it has accepted that. We do not need to argue about whether what went wrong over Christmas and new year was or was not a bad failure of
8 Jan 2008 : Column 186
management by Network Rail: it admits that. The question is in what way it failed and whether we can ensure that it does not fail again.

I agree with the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), who is sadly no longer in his place, that the project was very big, and it is inevitable that things go wrong in such projects. However, it is not inevitable that things should go wrong to such an extent, nor that it should take so long to put them right. That is what we need to focus on when we discuss what happened.

I also agree with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Lewes (Norman Baker) that the explanation that Network Rail has given is, in large part, that it simply did not have enough skilled labour to get the job done, not just around Rugby but elsewhere on the network. I understand that, and it is a reasonable point to make, but we have to ask at what point that became apparent to Network Rail, and therefore when it should have decided to do something about it. When we consider what we definitely know, it is apparent that Network Rail management knew—certainly by 21 December, and probably a long time before—that there would be significant problems in the area around Rugby. However, it is not apparent what, if anything, management decided to do about it. Those are the relevant questions not only for the regulator to address when the inquiry begins, but ultimately for the Government and the Secretary of State to address.

On 21 December, when Network Rail realised that the engineering work around Rugby was due to run into new year’s eve, what did it do? What action did it take? What did it do when it realised that the work would overrun beyond new year’s eve? The management has given me and others the explanation that when they talked to the limited supply of skilled engineers and electricians who had the knowledge and expertise to deal with the overhead lines—which is what needed to be done—they all said that they had made other plans for the new year celebrations. One can understand that to an extent, although it should have been anticipated. However, the line did not reopen until 4 January. What went on in the Network Rail management offices that meant that they did not make adequate provision to ensure that the line opened almost immediately after the new year? One has to wonder whether managers made a clear calculation that the works would inevitably overrun by more than was acceptable and that the company would be fined, but that it would be easier and cheaper to pay the fine than to do what was necessary to get the work done on time. That is what the Office of the Rail Regulator will investigate, and we all—especially the residents of Rugby—look forward to the conclusions of that investigation. It seems to me that we have to ask such questions.

Next Section Index Home Page