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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 January 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Midland Main Line

1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What date he has set for the full electrification of the midland main line. [250986]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Electrification is advantageous on heavily used parts of the rail network. Electric trains are lighter, quieter and produce less carbon dioxide. In my statement to the House on 15 January, I announced that, commensurate with the timetable for procuring the new inter-city express fleet, I intended to make a decision on electrification of the midland main line north of Bedford later this year.

Mr. Bone: Last month there were four dewirements on the west coast main line, causing havoc to the service, so will the Government learn from previous electrifications and build a scheme that is of a high standard, and not on the cheap? Otherwise, when the wind blows in Derbyshire the trains will stop in Wellingborough.

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept for a moment the implication of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks—that somehow the improvements to the west coast main line were done on the cheap, or that the failures that occurred over the new year period were attributable to the upgrade. Indeed, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is generally a fair-minded man, will look at the evidence that demonstrates that a number of different problems arose, that they were all caused separately, and that they were not in any way related to the upgrade programme. I will certainly send him details of the investigations that resulted, but if he accepts what I have said, he will recognise that the proposals to electrify both the midland main line and the Great Western main line do not need to suffer from any particular problems of the kind that have been suggested as being associated with the upgrade of the west coast main line.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): In anticipation of the decision on full electrification of the midland main line, will the Secretary of State look at ways in which Network Rail could be persuaded to reverse its current catastrophic decision to cut back on track maintenance? In the face of decisions announced by
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Corus, will he look at ways of bringing forward the replacement of track, to give us the basis for a genuine rail infrastructure for the 21st century?

Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that there is no basis for suggesting that there is any cut in the quality of track maintenance by Network Rail. It is something that the Government, and Network Rail, take extremely seriously, not least in the light of relatively recent tragedies. Maintaining the safety and security of the line is absolutely fundamental right across our railway network.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The chief executive of Network Rail has accused the Government of being short-sighted and betting on the wrong fuel, as the UK has only 39 per cent. of its current network electrified—the lowest proportion of any major economy in Europe. Why do the Government continue to invest pretty much all their money—notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s earlier comments—in diesel trains, which are high in pollution, when there are alternatives, such as electric trains, that would be good not only for the economy but for the environment?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, that was a very odd question to ask in the light of the statement that I have made and the answer that I just gave to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). The reality is that we are looking hard at electrification, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman has just set out. To try to make a criticism out of the announcement that we have just made is, if he will forgive me for repeating the word, very odd indeed.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to electrification. Does he accept that the electrification of the midland main line will bring by far the best cost-benefits of any electrification scheme, and does he also agree that it will bring enormous benefits to the east midlands region, particularly to Leicester—and to Nottingham and stations further north?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have promised myself that in future I will always refer to the Great Western line before I refer to the midland main line, but the case for both is equally strong.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It sounds as if electrification of the midland main line is going to be many years away, but my constituents in Kettering cannot wait that long for the train service that they need and deserve. Will the Secretary of State take steps to improve line speeds on the midland main line before electrification, so that Kettering’s inter-city status can be returned to the town?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this across the Floor of the House before. I recall mentioning on that previous occasion that there will be an improvement in the service from Kettering, in terms not only of the journey time but of the service, including one service that actually starts in Kettering, to ensure that where there are difficulties, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will have first choice of the seats on that train. I hope that he will join me in welcoming the improvements that the new timetable will bring for his constituents in and around Kettering.


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Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): On 15 January, the Secretary of State said to the House:

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will also consult the Committee on Climate Change, because electrification of major parts of our network is long overdue, and it will have climate change implications? Will he please consult the committee on this matter?

Mr. Hoon: I had not planned to do so specifically, not least because, for all the reasons mentioned so far this afternoon, electrification is generally reckoned to have positive climate change benefits. The proposed electrification would reduce the amount of carbon emitted, and, while it is true that only about 1 per cent. of carbon generated by public transport is emitted by railways in the first place, that small contribution would nevertheless be an improvement.

Regulated Rail Fares

2. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): What the average percentage change in the price of regulated rail fares has been since 1997. [250987]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): A comprehensive fares index is published by the Office of Rail Regulation in the “National Rail Trends” yearbook, and is available on the ORR website. Until 2008, regulated fares were below accumulated inflation. The average increase in regulated fares on 2 January was 6 per cent.

Mark Hunter: I note the Minister’s reluctance to put a specific figure on the increase. According to research that we have conducted, since 1997 regulated fares have increased by a staggering 43 per cent.—way above inflation—while unregulated fares have increased by an even higher rate. As we know, just this month the Government allowed an inflation-busting 6 per cent. increase in regulated fares. Does the Minister not think it is about time the Government committed themselves to a freeze in regulated fares to help hard-pressed commuters and other rail travellers?

Paul Clark: That would obviously bring into question the funding required by train operating companies, thus involving another funding commitment. We must make a decision on the basis of the priorities. The hon. Gentleman referred to an “inflation-busting” increase, but that increase was linked to the RPI in July plus 1 per cent., which is the working cap that we have imposed on operating companies. At the end of the day, we must decide whether to continue to invest in high-speed equipment, new rolling stock and associated requirements to improve reliability, or to give subsidies to private companies.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): While my constituents are concerned about the fare increases that they face, Southeastern Trains has also announced a number of job losses. When I arrive at the station each day to catch my train, the barriers are invariably open. People are worried about money being frittered away as a result of
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a lack of enforcement in the rail service. I mentioned the problem to Southeastern Trains, but the situation has not improved since I did so. We need to ensure that train operating companies are operating efficiently, and that job losses do not result in a reduction in service.

Paul Clark: My noble Friend the Minister of State has raised those issues with Southeastern Trains, and will continue to monitor the position. I entirely agree that job reductions should not lead to any loss of reliability, punctuality and safety, which are core concerns for us.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Not only are my constituents suffering as a result of increased fares, but Southeastern Trains has reduced the number of carriages on many trains, which has led to serious overcrowding. What discussions has the Minister had with Southeastern about that reduced level of service, and about when my constituents can expect to be able to travel in comfort and safety?

Paul Clark: As the hon. Lady will know, operating companies—including Southeastern—take account of the need to put rolling stock to the best possible use, and changes in timetables have involved adjustments to achieve that. We continue to monitor the changes introduced recently in the network.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware not only that our fares are among the highest in Europe, but that public subsidy for the rail industry has tripled or quadrupled in the last 15 years. The costs of track renewals and maintenance have risen by four and five times. Is that not something to do with the catastrophic failure of privatisation, and should we not bring the whole industry back into public ownership?

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. In a recent Adjournment debate in the House on rail fare increases, it appeared that Opposition Members had forgotten exactly where we were vis- -vis the number of operating companies that we have, and our requirements in relation to private companies. Substantial investment has gone into the rail system, which is why we have record levels of punctuality and reliability—and why, of course, we have had a 50 per cent. increase in passengers using the rail system, which is good news.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Does the Minister not understand how angered rail passengers are by an increase in fares that is way above inflation, at a time of deepening recession? He seems to be a little complacent about that. Is not one of the reasons for the increase his Department’s policy of extracting premiums from train companies to operate concessions, forcing an unfair ticket tax on passengers? When will he give a fair deal to passengers and remove the unfair ticket tax? How does forcing up rail fares help to tackle climate change?

Paul Clark: No increase in prices, for whatever reason, is welcomed, and we recognise the clear pressures on train travellers. But, invariably, as some fares have reduced because of the capping system that we have put in place, some have gone up. If we were to introduce a freeze, we would then need to spend more public funds on those rail companies. That would be another subsidy taking
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money away from rolling stock improvements, increased main line electrification programmes and schemes such as the £8.8 billion west coast main line. We must recognise the requirements, and that there are only two places that the money can come from—the taxpayer or the fare payer. It is question of getting the balance right between the two.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My hon. Friend will agree that a downside of people paying more for their tickets on the Manchester to Blackpool line is that the passengers at Adlington have seen a reduction in service. They were not consulted, although Greater Manchester passenger authority was. People who know the country recognise that Adlington, in my constituency, is in Lancashire. Why have people there not been consulted? Why are we not getting value for the price increases, to ensure there is no reduction in service? Will my hon. Friend personally look into the matter?

Paul Clark: I am always willing to listen to right hon. and hon. Members and to look into matters of concern. Passenger Focus is very much at the heart of giving a stronger voice to passengers.

Mr. Hoyle: Just say yes.

Paul Clark: I have already said yes to the request. Passenger Focus is there to help represent the concerns of passengers across the board.

Ports (Rating System)

3. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government since December 2008 on the effects on the operation of ports of recent changes to the rating system and the backdating of rates due. [250988]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I have discussed this on several occasions with the Minister for Local Government, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and other ministerial colleagues. Officials in the Department for Transport have also had discussions on the matter with officials in the Department for Communities and Local Government and other Departments.

Peter Bottomley: I am glad that the Minister takes this seriously. In ports around the country, operators are threatened with closure and workers are having their jobs threatened by a retrospective £33 million extra impost. Will he talk to the operators and the ports about whether the Government will adopt the Treasury Committee’s idea of bringing in the new rating system and values in 2010, rather than backdating them so many years to 2003?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I cannot give an undertaking to meet the businesses, on the basis that I am the Minister responsible for shipping and I meet the port authorities; indeed, I have a routine meeting with UK Major Ports scheduled for tomorrow morning. I know that colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Treasury, and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have been
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engaging with the business community in ports. A fast-tracking system was put in place to allow challenges and appeals to take place, and the Government announced that we would put in place the opportunity for interest-free payments to be made over the next eight years to ease the pressure on businesses and ports.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Shipping is badly affected by the global economic downturn. Will my hon. Friend press the Treasury to withdraw the backdated bills for businesses in ports, to prevent those businesses from being pushed into bankruptcy at this very difficult time?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am not in a position to ask the Treasury to withdraw the requirement on businesses in ports to pay their fair and equal sum of rates to local authorities. What we have done, however, is spoken with, and made representations to, ministerial colleagues and, as I explained to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) a moment ago, we have agreed with them a mechanism to allow such businesses to challenge and appeal where they feel that they have not been dealt with fairly—and, where the rateable value is appropriate, we have tried to make sure that there is a fair and equitable way for them to pay over a longer term.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Since Christmas, on the Mersey, Thomas Nichols Brown has gone bust and Stanton Grove is tottering under a £2 million rates bill, and on the Humber, DFDS is sacking staff. The Minister has acknowledged how difficult the trading environment is. When will he tell his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that a large part of this money has gone back as an unexpected windfall to port employers, and that it is quite wrong to pretend that the contractual arrangements between port employers, who were warned in advance about this situation, and their tenants is purely a private commercial matter?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I am advised that UK Major Ports and the British Ports Association refute the suggestion that money has gone to them and that they are in some way obliged to pay the money back to businesses in ports. They say categorically that that is not the case, and they have demonstrated that in discussions I have had with them. This matter is still live: there will be another Adjournment debate tomorrow morning—a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall—which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends are looking forward to. This matter is still under review, therefore, but the Government have listened to representations, and we have put in place mechanisms to try to do whatever we can to assist businesses in ports, and we certainly recognise the important role shipping plays in the UK economy.

West Coast Main Line

4. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the cost to the economy of disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period; and if he will make a statement. [250989]


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The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Network Rail has apologised to passengers and businesses for the disruption on the west coast main line over the new year period, which was the result of separate incidents. Disruption on the railway does have economic consequences, which is why we are committing record levels of investment to increase capacity and resilience. The economic impact of the improved west coast main line is a very positive one, cutting journey times and allowing 45 per cent. more long-distance trains out of Euston.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. In his latest newsletter, Tony Collins, chief executive of Virgin Trains, says of the delay in the implementation of the new timetable:

Of the disruption over the new year, he says:


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