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Ruth Kelly: I can tell my hon. Friend that I invited Network Rail to carry out a wide-ranging study, without constraint, of where future demand might emerge on the railway, and where there might be need for extra capacity. As my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know, it takes a long time between thinking about and planning for a new line and constructing it, as with Crossrail, so Network Rail is carrying out a study with a wide scope of where extra demands might materialise and how plans can be put in place in case such a scenario arises.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): High-speed rail lines from London to the continent have benefited the economy of the south-east of England. When will we see the network completed to Glasgow?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman from month to month tries to make the case for high-speed rail to Glasgow. I have not set my mind against high-speed lines; it is right that Network Rail should consider all the options, particularly how the need for extra capacity might be met. If extra capacity is needed and a new line needs to be built, it must consider whether that line should be high-speed. I do not suggest, as the hon. Gentleman sometimes does, that there is necessarily a huge carbon advantage from high-speed rail. For instance, if a high-speed line were to run between London and Manchester or London and Glasgow, one might expect a carbon advantage, but not the scale of advantage that some hon. Members sometimes suggest.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. Friend aware that people in Yorkshire very much want a high-speed service to the major cities of this country, not just to London? Is she also aware that recently at weekends some conspiracy between National Express and Network Rail has sealed off the northern region from the rest of the country through the disruption and damage done to the timetable?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend will know that there is huge investment in the network at present, including an extra £10 billion allocated to invest in capacity over the five-year period to 2014. Clearly, from time to time there will be disruption on the route, some of which may be unavoidable as a consequence of the upgrading of the line. If it is not unavoidable that is clearly unacceptable, and I am sure my hon. Friend will make representations to Network Rail, as indeed shall I on his behalf.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady understand that it is not much fun standing on a platform and a high-speed train sucks you off because of the turbulence— [ Laughter ]—or whatever. The important thing is that the train should stop, so will she bear in mind the fact that high-speed trains should go not just from major centres of population to other major centres of population but, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) said, to some of our great cities, including the great city of Lichfield?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is of course right; it would not be much fun, but nor would the train be very high speed if it were to stop at every station. Clearly, there is a trade-off between reductions in journey time and the number of stations where trains stop, but I am sure those issues will be taken into account.

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Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware of my support, and that of many of my hon. Friends, for the reopening of the Woodhead line over the Pennines. Will she give us an assurance today that the economic benefits to the north of such a link will be given serious consideration as part of the study being conducted by Network Rail?

Ruth Kelly: My right hon. Friend the Minister of State assures me that she has met both National Grid and Network Rail to discuss precisely those issues. A freight study is being carried out to assess whether the Woodhead tunnel might be needed in future to carry freight trains, and there could of course be passenger benefits, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) has ensured that the issue has been put on the table, and I can assure her in response that it is being studied seriously.

Rail Network

6. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): What change there has been in the length in miles of the rail network in England since 1st May 1997, excluding the channel tunnel rail link. [216859]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): I am advised by Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation that the information is not available in the form requested. Since 1997 the channel tunnel rail link has opened, and there have been no significant closures over this period. However, we have committed to investing £10 billion in increasing capacity over the next five years, which at this stage can be done most effectively by investing in additional rolling stock and improving the existing network.

Paul Holmes: Is not the likely answer zero if the channel tunnel rail link is excluded, and is it not astonishing that the Government can spend £11.5 billion building 405 miles of major new road network, yet not put any money into extending rail? Given that the rail network will approach maximum capacity in the next few years, what plans do the Government have to expand the network and provide capacity beyond 2014?

Ruth Kelly: I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s argument is completely misleading. If we want to put extra capacity on the railway, the most important thing is to lengthen platforms and invest in new carriages. If we want to increase capacity in the road network, the most important thing is to widen roads or turn the hard shoulder into an extra running lane. However, when we look at the facts on investment, we see that last year alone an extra £3.5 billion was invested in rail capacity and just over £1 billion in roads. There was nearly three times as much investment in rail, so I do not think anyone can accuse the Government of starving the railways of investment.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of miles available for the passenger network is reopening existing freight lines for passenger transport? She will be aware of a number of such schemes nationwide, but will she look again at the considerable potential for passenger use of the heavy
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freight line that links Leicester and Burton? Will she support the feasibility work being done on a line that could take a significant number of cars off the congested roads of Leicester and Leicestershire?

Ruth Kelly: I know how interested in and passionate about the issue of freight my hon. Friend is. I assure him that as part of its new line study, Network Rail is thinking about whether there is a need for a dedicated freight line, which would not only benefit the freight industry but potentially increase capacity for passengers. Also, in the rail White Paper, we allocated an extra £200 million for investment in the strategic freight network. Together, those measures will, I hope, provide much greater reliability for the freight industry, which is incredibly important, and deliver passenger benefits.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): When considering the extra capacity and lines that are needed, particularly for high-speed train services, will my right hon. Friend consider the needs of Northampton and the surrounding growth area, which will urgently need more train services as the population increases in the coming years?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend is persistent in making the case for her constituents in Northampton, particularly on the need for more investment in capacity. I know that Northampton is being considered as a stop for the new inter-city express trains, which would provide substantially more seats than current trains do. I am sure that we will be able to take her representations into account when we decide on the best use of those trains.


7. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): If she will classify the A1 north of Newcastle as a national strategic road. [216861]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): The Highways Agency classified roads in the strategic roads network as national or regional roads in 2005 to support the regional funding allocation process. Roads were assessed against set criteria, and the A1 north of Newcastle was judged to be a route of regional importance. There are no plans to carry out a review of those classifications for the forthcoming round of advice on regional funding allocations.

Sir Alan Beith: Well, is it not time that there was a review of the classification, especially as the regional transport board, the regional development agency and all the local authorities involved think that the A1 north of Newcastle should be treated as a national strategic road? The traffic patterns—the distances travelled—seem to support that view. The Highways Agency itself spent £5.25 million working up schemes before the classification was changed.

Mr. Harris: With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it may be helpful to the right hon. Gentleman and the House if I briefly set out the four criteria. The first is an average daily traffic flow of more than 60,000 vehicles along the length of the route. Secondly, the road must link at least two of the top 20 English cities by population, or link one of those cities with an airport or seaport, or
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with Wales or Scotland. Thirdly, heavy goods vehicles must make up 15 per cent. or more of the traffic, on average, along the length of the route. Fourthly, the road must be part of the European Union’s trans-European transport network. I have to tell him that the A1 north of Newcastle does not meet those criteria.

Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): May I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter in the light of the opening of the second Tyne tunnel, which is due to take place in 2012? The Tyne tunnel road was originally the A1, and the A1 was routed round to the west of Newcastle, but that was some 20 or 30 years ago. May I ask him to reconsider the matter, as some of the information to which he just referred would look entirely different if we considered the future of the trunk road network through the built-up area of Tyne and Wear?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend is right inasmuch as, to quote John Maynard Keynes,

Of course, if the facts change, the Government will look at the matter again, but we have to make sure that the criteria are consistent across the whole country. I advise my hon. Friend, and other right hon. and hon. Members, that simply reclassifying a road does not create any extra resources with which to upgrade and expand it. The amount of money in the pot stays static. Of course, if we have to fund a particular scheme from central resources, that means fewer resources for the regional funding allocation.

Learner Drivers

8. Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): What progress she has made on her plans to introduce a foundation course on safe road use for people planning to learn to drive; and if she will make a statement. [216862]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): The Driving Standards Agency is working with the Scottish Qualifications Authority and other interested parties to design a course that young people and potential employers will value. Our plans are for the qualification to be available in Scotland from this autumn, and then become available in the rest of Great Britain.

Mr. Mahmood: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the overall casualty rates for young people have not changed since the mid-1990s? In contrast, overall, serious accidents and deaths have fallen by over 30 per cent. How does he think the initiative that we are discussing would reduce the casualty figures?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The whole House will welcome the data published two weeks ago by the Department showing that road deaths in the UK fell below 3,000 for the first time since 1926, when records were first kept. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that incidents in which young drivers are killed or suffer serious injury are not falling at the same rate. The learn-to-drive consultation that the Department is running to try to improve the standards of skill for our young
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drivers is very much part of the drive to make sure that those figures keep moving downwards, and we are confident that the qualification will help in that regard.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): How much time will it take for motorcyclists to travel from the Isle of Wight to places where they are tested, and might they not, as an alternative, drive indefinitely on L-plates?

Jim Fitzpatrick: The multi-purpose test centres have been designed, first, to comply with the European directive on testing motorcyclists and, secondly, to comply with our safety ambition to cut the numbers of motorcyclists who die on our roads. In 2006, there were 599 such deaths; in 2007, there were 588. They are the biggest single category of deaths on the road, and many motorcyclists are victims of other road users. We are trying to make sure that the MPTCs are as close as possible to where people live, and targets have been set. I know that the hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and he knows, too, that we are engaged in that examination.

Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): While I applaud what my hon. Friend said about reducing deaths on the roads, there have unfortunately been several deaths on the A23 in Sussex in the past year. Can he fit what he said about safety on the roads with the closure of both test centres in Brighton and Hove, so that learner drivers must travel to Burgess Hill, not just to take their test, but possibly to familiarise themselves with the roads? The most direct route to that test centre is on the dual carriageway on the unfortunate A23.

Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend raises the question of the journey to the test centre for people who want to take their driving test. Some ADIs—approved driving instructors—spend a lot of time with their trainees on the test course, but we are trying to say that that is not what they ought to be doing. Rather than teaching people how to pass the test, they are supposed to teach them how to drive. Some people will have to travel longer distances, but for the majority, the centre will still be within 45 minutes of their home. We are trying to improve the centres, which will be compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and will be better for staff and examiners. We want to achieve the objective of cutting the number of people killed and injured, which is why we are revising the whole exam course.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am sure that the Minister will agree that some of the safest drivers are older drivers. Will he give the House a commitment that his consultation on fitness to drive will not discriminate against older drivers?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Obviously, demographics are important: we are living to an older age, and we have an ageing population. There is a question mark over people living to a very old age and their ability to drive. We have an arrangement whereby, once someone reaches the age of 70, they have to re-qualify, and there is a three-yearly recertification process. We will consult on that, and on health aspects in due course. At this point, however, we have no plans to change the existing arrangement.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Six times as many young men under 21 as young women are killed on our roads when driving. Young men are the problem, so what are we doing to address that issue?

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Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend makes the same point as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood). Newly qualified drivers, particularly young men, feature disproportionately among those who are killed and seriously injured. The new qualification that we will take into schools and youth clubs will address the culture of being a passenger as well as the prospect of being a driver. It will deal with how someone should act towards other users in a courteous manner, as well as how to deal with peer pressure, because their girlfriend or boyfriend is in the car, or their mates are in the back trying to gee them up. That is very much a matter of trying to make people more mature in their approach to driving, and the qualification about which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr asked is very much part of preparing people for driving. In addition, by fundamentally reviewing the exam, we will test whether people are able to drive, not just manoeuvre a vehicle.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Protecting learner drivers from sexual offenders must be an important consideration for the Department, but two years ago I alerted it to the loophole in the law that prevents the suspension of recently convicted sexual offenders from the approved driving instructors register. That meant that sexual offenders who were driving instructors would be allowed to continue for a further 45 days after conviction, and I was told by the Minister at the time that that serious loophole would be closed. Why has nothing been done during that period? Why are women now at risk throughout the country? The Government have failed to act to close the loophole.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps in future, the hon. Gentleman should be briefer, and he was a bit wide of the question.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Prospective approved driving instructors must provide enhanced-level criminal record checks. Existing ADIs must undergo such checks when re-registering every four years, and the position of driving instructor has the status of a notifiable occupation, so the Driving Standards Agency is informed of convictions. The DSA is seeking a suitable Bill to allow for the suspension of ADIs. The hon. Gentleman has quite correctly drawn attention to the matter and it has been under review. There have been changes, but clearly further matters must be pursued.

Regional Airports

9. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the contribution of regional airports to regional economies. [216863]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): Regional airports generate regional growth, jobs and investment, and we support their development provided that environmental considerations are addressed. Our White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”, invited airports to publish master plans outlining how their future development proposals would help regional economies, and many have now done so.

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