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The current engineering director of Network Rail, with whom I have had conversations, accepts that lighter weight trains could make a difference. It would be a great prize, which Ministers might like, if one could run, for example, 40 rather than 24 trains an hour. I hope that they will take seriously the proposition that, if one used trains that can speed up and slow down more rapidly—of course, signalling changes would also be required to deal with that, but they could be made within the system budgets; it would be much cheaper than building new track—a big improvement in the railways could be achieved. My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth and for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) pointed out that under this Government the railway is going in the opposite direction—unless one lives at a terminus or near a large principal station on a main line, all the expensive works may lead to a deterioration in the service because the fast trains may not stop in one’s town or city. The fast trains occupy much track space and time because they need good clearances for a long time for safety reasons
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as they belt along the main line route. If there are not enough bypasses or additional railway track, they clutter the track and reduce the frequency of the more mundane commuter short-hop services, which may be more important to a good travel system.

I hope that the Ministers will consider, in the investment programme, the balance between the glamorous, fast services to a few major cities and the important daily services that people in Rugby, Macclesfield, Wokingham and all the other places represented in the House this evening need. Those services are also needed to provide a greener and better alternative for people’s travel plans.

Our debate rightly focuses on the unacceptable events over Christmas and new year. Even Ministers agree that the delays were unacceptable and that a mistake was made. They say that they need a further period of reflection and inquiry to discover the mistake. Most of us believe that we know what the mistakes were from what we have read and seen. The statements and apologies made so far imply that the events were caused by a management failure by Network Rail.

I do not believe in public hanging or crude prose, which some people might believe to be appropriate in the circumstances. Far from it. I believe that we get the best out of people through incentive and motivation. However, when errors are so big and their impact is so great, there must be a penalty. I believe that it should be a financial penalty on senior management rather than, “There, there. Please make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The Government say so often—there are many examples in recent weeks—that they will learn the lessons. I have heard nothing in the debate so far, especially from the Secretary of State, that makes me believe that she has learned any lessons. She has learned no lessons about how to get value for huge sums of public money; how to control a so-called not-for-profit independent private company, which is a creature of the state; how to choose good people and persuade them to do a good job; or how to turn an incompetent Government into a competent one.

I want to live in our great country and enjoy its facilities. I am afraid that so many facilities that the public sector owns are not well run. There is an aura of incompetence about them. When the Minister sums up, he will use all the buzzwords and buzz phrases that are on the pager or in the briefing, along with the civil service line to take, followed by—if ministerial briefings still contain it—“defensive”, for when a Minister is under pressure or things are getting bad and, over the page, “Now you’re on your own. Bad luck.” We want to go beyond that. It would give me great pleasure if the Minister said, “A lot of what you said is sensible and we will try to work out a better way of employing top managers at Network Rail.” It would be wonderful if he said that the Government would work much harder to get discipline over spending £3 billion a year of Revenue subsidy and several billion of investment and break down the high level outputs into management units that make sense and can be built into people’s incentive packages. It would be good if he said that the Government would reconsider the programme’s balance because they did not want to end up with people in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London being happy but those in Rugby, Kenilworth,
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Wokingham, Macclesfield and so on were not being happy because their services had been worsened by the hugely expensive investment programme.

My hon. Friends on the Front Bench tabled a fairly narrow motion because the anger of the country is currently focused on what went wrong at the weekend and over the long Christmas and new year holiday. However, there is also a strong feeling in the country that we would like to be greener—in some circumstances, travelling by train is greener than using other means—but the service needs to be accessible, friendly and feasible. We do not feel that the railway industry is ours, except when it needs someone to pay the bills, and we do not feel that, managed by the effectively nationalised monopoly of Network Rail, it is customer friendly. Apart from events over the Christmas period, it does not appear to look to a future of frequent services, lower fare packages and opportunities to use the trains that people want.

I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to reflect a little more on the mismanagement, realise that it was not a one-off and that it will happen again unless there is some fundamental change in the Government’s approach to railway management.

6.10 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): There is no doubt that the rail industry in the UK is challenged by its own success. The 40 per cent. increase in passenger numbers that we have witnessed over the past 10 years and the projected continued growth in numbers is something that the rail industry in general and the Government need to respond to positively. I am delighted that the Government have indeed responded positively, with the White Paper recognising the need for continued investment in the railways, both in the short term, through the provision of longer carriages and longer platforms to accommodate them and the renewal of many outdated stations in order to make the facilities that they provide more fitting for the numbers being carried, and in some of the major projects in which the Government are investing, such as at Birmingham New Street station and in Reading, as well as Crossrail, which we debated comparatively recently, in which £16 billion is being invested.

All that is welcome, but there is no doubt that hon. Members in all parts of the House were angered and disappointed by Network Rail’s performance over the Christmas and new year period. However, it is important to put that into context. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) talked about Railtrack, the predecessor organisation, having been—I think I quote him correctly—“rudely terminated”. However, there were few in this Chamber or elsewhere who shed tears at its termination. Whatever one thinks of the overall effect of the rail industry’s privatisation—whether one thinks, as I do, that the whole thing was botched and resulted in fragmentation, or whether one thinks otherwise—there are few who mourned Railtrack’s passing or who, having looked at the performance of what replaced it over the past few years, would fail to see Network Rail as a significant improvement. That said, I and all right hon. and hon. Members would acknowledge that the experience of rail passengers over recent weeks is intolerable and must never be repeated.

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I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who spoke for the Opposition, to see what alternative she would offer to Railtrack, alongside the criticisms that she made, many of which I agreed with, some of which I did not. What we heard was no credible alternative. We heard a call for reform and repeated calls for more accountability for Network Rail, but no credible alternative. She was challenged by a number of hon. Members on the Labour Benches to produce such an alternative, but consistently failed to do so.

To give credit to the right hon. Member for Wokingham, he at least offered an alternative. As I understand it, he offered an alternative that would integrate the operator of the track with the operator of the trains at a regional level. That is at least an alternative, although one may debate whether it is a credible one. However, we did not hear any alternative at all from the Opposition Front-Bench spokeswoman. It would be interesting to see whether we shall hear such an alternative in the time remaining. I would happily give way if an hon. Member on the Opposition Front Bench sought to offer one.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): The hon. Gentleman may not be mindful of the fact that Merseyrail Electrics has indeed proposed such an alternative, but it has so far been regarded rather dimly by his Government.

Sir Peter Soulsby: As I have already indicated, I am firmly of the opinion that the arrangements that the Government have put in place for Network Rail are a dramatic improvement on what preceded them and that they have performed very well indeed, despite the lamentable failures of recent months. However, I repeat that we have not heard any alternative to that, to go alongside the criticisms that we heard from those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Similarly, we heard criticisms from Opposition Front Benchers and others to do with the effect of fare increases on the fare payer, but again, the Opposition signally failed to offer any credible alternative to funding for the railways or investment in them, other than through the fare box or the taxpayer. They suggested that there was indeed such an alternative, but failed to identify it.

Norman Baker: I hope that when the hon. Gentleman reads what I said, he will agree that I set out an alternative and indicated where the money would come from.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Indeed. I recognise that such an alternative was put forward from the Liberal Front Bench; I was referring specifically to those on the Conservative Front Bench, who consistently failed to identify such an alternative, despite being challenged by Labour and Liberal Members. It is the Conservatives’ motion that we are debating and it is they whom I criticise for failing to provide any credible alternatives, to go alongside the criticisms that they have levelled.

In general, Network Rail has delivered. It faces an enormous challenge in meeting the Government’s ambitious programme of renewal for our railway infrastructure.
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We are undoubtedly at a time when rail is again seen as a mode of transport for the future. We were all heartened by the enthusiasm generated by the completion of St. Pancras and the linking of High Speed 1 to the station, as well as by the potential for the benefits of that to be fully exploited. Many of us also feel considerable frustration that the Government cannot as yet commit to further high speed lines throughout the UK, to take advantage of the enthusiasm generated by St. Pancras and the linking of High Speed 1 to it.

That said, there is now undoubtedly not only a challenge, presented by increased usage of the railways, but a considerable expectation that the improved services will be delivered, that the infrastructure will continue to be improved in order to enable that to happen and that Network Rail is the only credible way of ensuring that that takes place. Network Rail has much to be proud of, in how it has delivered for the passenger and on behalf of the people of Britain, and how it responded to the Government’s agenda. However, it undoubtedly also has much to learn from the events of recent weeks. One can only hope that the investigation that the Government have instigated into those events will enable them to learn for the future and to deliver, as I hope we all expect they will do, in the months and years to come.

6.18 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): I want to make a brief contribution. Oddly, I want to put in a small word of praise for Network Rail—I say “oddly”, because there are plenty of negatives that I could mention, such as delays and costs on the west coast main line, as well as the lack of interest in Lime Street station, Liverpool’s main rail terminus, in the city’s capital of culture year. I could also mention the muted support for the Merseyside dock expansion and the unforgivable opposition to the vertical integration of Merseyrail, as well as the extraordinary salaries paid to Network Rail’s top executives. I want to park all that and be positive, although not simply because Network Rail is currently spending £6 million on Southport railway station.

As a former member of the Select Committee on Transport, I recall the demise of Railtrack and the ensuing chaos. For years after that, all we got was retrenchment and battening down the hatches. Anyone who approached Network Rail in those days with a suggestion for rail would get a lecture about bringing down costs and running existing track efficiently—in fact, about mere coping. In those days, a business case for rail expansion was viewed as a contradiction in terms—an oxymoron, something best left to the dreams of anoraks. Now, however, as a result of the rail utilisation strategies—I believe I am the first to mention them—Network Rail has moved. It has done so ever so tentatively, but it has moved, and on to the front foot. It seems to recognise that small-scale improvements and small adjustments to networks can add functionality, capacity and utility to the rail system, bringing with them passengers, profitability and environmental and economic gain. It will probably cost less than the small change from Crossrail—I welcome the fact some of my fellow victims from Crossrail are in their places today—and will in all probability deliver huge gains for the region.

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In Lancashire, for example, the rail utilisation strategy revealed desperately poor connectivity between the Preston city region and Merseyside, yet lines from both conurbations arrive in the modest town of Burscough, which has separate stations, unlinked by rail, half a mile apart, severed by Beeching and simply missing a curve. Were this in London, such connectivity would have been delivered decades ago, but because it is in the north-west, it is a struggle to get it done. At least now, however, Network Rail has conceded that there may be a case for such improvements: that is progress, that is new, that is to be applauded. Real applause will follow if the Network Rail, the operators and the transport authorities follow up the words with the money and actually do something.

I want it put on record that Network Rail is slightly, if tentatively, on the front foot. It is thinking ahead a little and talking of growing the railway, so it is not all bad news.

6.21 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am pleased to contribute briefly to this debate and delighted to follow the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who made a succinct but constructive contribution, based on his knowledge of his area. I commend him and I also wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) who, in a very long but worthwhile speech, made a huge contribution to the debate. He assessed the position of our railways over a number of years and put forward some firm propositions about how to run a more effective railway service than we do now. I happen to agree with my right hon. Friend. I believe that we need to put track and rail together and go back to the regional railways that we used to have before nationalisation. That would create co-ordination and an identity that would dramatically improve the morale of the UK rail network. I also commend my right hon. Friend for the frank way in which he expressed himself, making a very positive contribution to a debate that could easily have been wholly negative and destructive but has turned out to be positive and helpful. I hope that in his reply, the Minister will display the same constructive approach.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) focused most of his remarks on Rugby because he knows the area well. I happen to know it, too, as I served on the Warwickshire county council for six years and I lived in the area for five years.

I want to focus my remarks on Macclesfield and I want to take up with the Minister the matter that I raised in my intervention—whether it is appropriate for local services to suffer because of the demand for faster rail services from the major cities and urban areas to London. I asked that question because my own station of Macclesfield is going to suffer. I explained in my intervention that Arriva Trains, which has taken over the cross-country services that were previously run by Virgin Rail, is cutting local services, preventing trains going to Manchester to the north and Birmingham to the south from stopping at Macclesfield because the track is required for the increased number of inter-city trains that will be travelling much faster from Manchester to London. That strategy leaves out certain important profit centres such as Macclesfield.

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Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting and valid point about inter-city services having priority on the railways, but does he acknowledge that not only passenger services but freight services are potentially affected?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Of course I do. I have always believed that freight should travel by night rather than by day in order to allow more passenger services to use the rail infrastructure during daytime. I hope that the system can be organised to allow freight to travel by night, which I hope answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am happy to do so, but I do not have a great deal of time.

Michael Fabricant: I believe that my hon. Friend has until 6.30, but I am grateful to him for giving way. He mentioned the west coast main line and the position in Macclesfield, but does he accept that the same thing is happening elsewhere—in Lichfield, for example, where we are going to have even fewer trains than we enjoy now because of the importance of bringing down vast numbers of people down from Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow? That should not be happening at the expense of important places such as Lichfield and Macclesfield.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Of course, I agree with my very good and honourable Friend. He is making the same point as our hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth. Rugby is also going to have fewer services because many more passenger trains are going to sweep through Rugby, sweep through Lichfield, sweep through Nuneaton and sweep through Macclesfield on the way from Manchester to London. That is letting down the people who are based in important profit centres en route and it is not offering the best or best value-for-money use of our rail infrastructure. The Minister must have an influence over these matters. It is no good saying that it is all up to Arriva Trains or Virgin Rail. By the way, I note that Virgin is very unhappy about losing the franchise in the north-west. Personally, I deeply regret that it has, because Virgin was extremely efficient and provided an excellent service.

Network Rail not only has to provide the signalling and track infrastructure necessary to get trains from A to B and B to C and so forth, as it also has to utilise the available land and ensure, in co-operation with local government, that there is adequate car parking close to or in the proximity of major stations such as that in Macclesfield. I have sought to put Network Rail in touch with the borough council and the county council in Macclesfield in order to treble the parking spaces. If we are to get people out of their cars, as the Government say they want to, not just for long journeys like Macclesfield to London but also for journeys like Macclesfield into Manchester, having more parking spaces will become even more important in the future.

Both the Government and the city of Manchester want to implement some form of toll or a congestion charge, but if there is no capacity on the railways, how
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are my constituents going to get to work in Manchester? The bus services are totally inadequate, so the only alternative to the car is the train, but if the trains are not running as a result of reduced services, all I can say is that it shows how the Government are not joined up at all. They are trying to achieve objectives, but in the process, they are dramatically undermining the ability to change travelling behaviour and get more people onto public transport. In my area of Cheshire, east Cheshire and Macclesfield, public transport is inadequate. Reducing the number of local trains will create even further difficulties.

I shall be meeting the managing director of Arriva Trains in the next 10 days, so I hope that the Minister will take this issue seriously and not send another reply to my letters, saying merely that the fast trains are going to get the automatic right to the track and that local trains will be treated akin to second-class citizens. That is not the way to operate. Will the Minister take this matter seriously?

Rail can answer, in a major way, some of the problems of getting to and from work, but unless we have the necessary number of trains and the necessary capacity on the track and on individual trains—which means longer platforms and more carriages on each train—we shall not be able to achieve the Government’s objectives in respect of climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.

I feel terribly strongly about this. I sometimes travel down by train, although I do not always do so, and I do not share the dislike of cars—almost a phobia—felt by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). People in this country demand mobility, and cars can give it to them. In the countryside, by the way, 4 x 4 vehicles are necessary.

I ask the Minister please to respond to the genuine concern that is expressed about the way in which our rail services are organised. In an era in which the Prime Minister says that he wants a Government of all the talents, I am only surprised that he has not asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham to advise him on rail structure; but I really do want a constructive reply from the Minister. He is a decent guy and I like him. Can he come up with the answer to what has been asked in this debate?

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