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Does the Secretary of State understand that members of the Lichfield commuters club—and, indeed, other commuters up and down the west coast main line—feel that with increased fares they should be getting increased service? Where does the buck stop? When will the Secretary of State—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is pushing his luck now.

Mr. Hoon: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his question. I am told that he chairs “a small but influential group of rail users”. I trust that that small group consists of more than one member, but—

Michael Fabricant: I invite the Secretary of State to our next dinner.

Mr. Hoon: I would be delighted to visit Lichfield.

Michael Fabricant: It is being held here, in Dining Room B.

Mr. Hoon: Even better. It appears that the hon. Gentleman’s “small group” is a very small one indeed. Nevertheless, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss rail services in Lichfield, and I agree that it is important that reliable services are maintained from Lichfield, and also along other parts of the west coast main line. That is precisely why we committed so much funding to its improvement, and why we continue to monitor the developments. We hope—indeed, we expect—that his constituents will have a safe reliable journey along that line.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said earlier that it was not the quality of the upgrade that was the problem, but is it not a fact that the real problem, not just on the west coast main line but throughout the country, is the poor quality of maintenance on our railways? This is because there is a skills shortage, from project management to technicians. What are the Government going to do to improve the skills on the railways?

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Mr. Hoon: I made it clear earlier that we will not, in any way, allow compromises to be made on safety—and that applies specifically to maintaining our railway network. It is vital that passengers and staff on the railways should have complete confidence in the equipment that they use. My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of maintaining and improving skill levels, and that is why the Government are committed to an extensive programme of apprenticeships to ensure that we have the necessary skills for the future, not only on the west coast main line but across our rail network.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The refurbishment of the west coast main line should have been cause for great celebration, but in focusing almost solely on reducing long-distance journey times, it has been an unmitigated disaster for intermediate towns such as Milton Keynes and Rugby. I welcome the fact that we are trying to get people off aeroplanes, but will taking an extra five minutes simply to stop in Milton Keynes really stop people taking the train?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that this was solely about long-distance journey times, because it was also about increasing the capacity on the line: some 45 per cent. more services can travel on the line as a result of the capacity improvements. That is fundamental to passengers up and down the line; it means that many more direct services from different destinations can be organised, alongside the stopping trains that travel up and down the west coast main line. It is about both improving journey times and increasing the capacity on the line.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is right to emphasise the fact that the Government have played their role in the upgrade of the west coast main line. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) points out, Network Rail has let the travelling public down badly through poor maintenance and the disruption to services. Will my right hon. Friend examine the quality of Network Rail’s senior management? Perhaps he does not wish to comment on that in the House today, but will he take a view as to whether the incentives that they regard as essential ought to be coupled with disincentives when they get things so badly wrong?

Mr. Hoon: I have regular meetings with Network Rail’s senior management, and I assure my hon. Friend, as I assure the House, that safety, reliability and maintenance are matters that are pursued on a regular basis. We will not allow them to slide.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Is not the real reason why it takes so long for the west coast main line to recover from disruptive incidents the fact that when Labour created Network Rail, Ministers left it accountable to nobody—not to the regulator, not to the train operators and certainly not to the passenger? Is it not time to reform Network Rail so that its management have to be accountable to a more effective structure than the toothless membership that they themselves appoint?

Mr. Hoon: I find the hon. Lady’s remarks curious, given the sad history of Railtrack, for which her party, in government, was solely responsible. My predecessor created Network Rail to deal with the complete failure of Railtrack, over which she and her Government presided.

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Mrs. Villiers: Will the Secretary of State also agree that we can increase resilience on the west coast route and reduce the impact of disruptive incidents by building a new high-speed line from London to Manchester? Will he back our promise to do that? Why did his Department’s 30-year strategy for the railways contain no place for high-speed rail? Why does the high-speed rail proposal that he put forward when he made his Heathrow announcement consist of little more than warm words and a distant aspiration for a line that might get as far as Birmingham, but no further north?

Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Lady might one day eventually find out, being in government and taking decisions involves rather more than scribbling on the back of an envelope—which was pretty much what the Conservative party’s proposals for a high-speed network consisted of. I have been writing on similar envelopes for a very long time—since I was a small child. The reality is that developing a high-speed rail network, which is what we set out, requires a great deal of detailed work, and that work is under way. We have formed a company, which has an influential non-executive chair. That is the kind of work that is necessary; it is not about scribbling on the back of envelopes.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My constituents depend significantly on the west coast main line, accessing what is generally a fast and reasonable service at Tamworth and Nuneaton. But when they arrive in Euston, they get off the train to find a tired and tatty shopping centre that masquerades as a rail hub. When are we going to do something about that? Surely a more impressive Euston might be able to help with the other problems occurring further up the line. [Interruption.]

Mr. Hoon: There appear to be different opinions about the quality of Euston station, but I assure my hon. Friend that there are detailed plans in hand for refurbishing it. I hope that he will be pleased with the results.

Rail Fares

5. Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): What recent representations he has received in relation to fare increases for rail passengers on rail services operated by First Capital Connect and East Midlands Trains. [250991]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): The Secretary of State has received very few letters on fare increases for those franchises.

Alistair Burt: According to Andrew Long of the Bedford commuters association, the pain of the recent fare increases, which were well above inflation, has been compounded by the reduction in service by East Midland Trains through Bedford at peak times. That throws much more pressure on to the already overcrowded First Capital Connect trains. When can my constituents expect a better service, or are the Government relying on the recession to make trains more comfortable by thinning out the number of commuters?

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Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman should be well aware that there have been increases in capacity to trains serving places such as Kettering, there are faster journey times to Sheffield, and there have been improvements for Bedford. At the moment most of the peak trains consist of eight cars, and he will be aware that we will be able to strengthen the service still further when the first phase of the Thameslink programme is completed by 2011.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): Like many passengers, my constituents accept that sometimes fares will increase, but they want an improved service as a consequence. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the capital refurbishment of Loughborough station— the lengthening of the platform, disability access and the regeneration of the surrounding area—is part of the package that East Midlands Trains has to put together alongside the increase in fares?

Paul Clark: I will certainly take on board the points made by my hon. Friend, and accessibility and reliability requirements are indeed part and parcel of the franchise agreement.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): What representations has the Minister received on behalf of customers of Northern Rail about the recent inflation-busting increase of 6 per cent.? We have some of the most overcrowded trains in the country coming into Leeds, and it is not acceptable to have fare increases without any promise that the overcrowding will be dealt with.

Paul Clark: The underlying intention and main thrust of the Government’s investment programme of some £10 billion is to meet those immediate requirements for increased capacity between now and 2014. That is why we have invested in additional carriages and cars to increase the number available. We have also invested in programmes to lengthen platforms to accommodate longer trains, so that we can meet the requirements of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others who experience congestion and demand on the rail network.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Does the Minister think that those who use East Midlands Trains on a Sunday get a good service for the money that they pay?

Paul Clark: I accept that an improved service at weekends is required, but that will inevitably be the case when there is a major programme of investment to improve the infrastructure of the rail network. The best time for it to be carried out is at weekends—but I appreciate the inconvenience that it causes to the travelling public.

Driving Test

6. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effect of the introduction of the new multi-purpose test centres on the accessibility of driving test facilities to members of the public; and if he will make a statement. [250992]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): The introduction of the new motorcycle test has allowed the Driving Standards Agency to refresh its estate for car and motorcycle tests. Car and motorcycle tests will be delivered from new multipurpose test centres—MPTCs. These are all Disability Discrimination Act-compliant, and offer the public improved facilities such as car parking and toilets. We plan some 60 of these centres, and 39 are already operational. In areas without an MPTC, car tests will be delivered from existing centres.

Mr. Evennett: I note the Minister’s response and thank him for it, but will he explain to learner drivers who are already struggling to meet the costs of learning to drive why the Government increased the cost of the motorcycle test before the new test was implemented?

Jim Fitzpatrick: Very simply, the DSA has to raise money from fees to ensure that it stays even as a trading account. Over the past four years there has been a deficit. The expenditure on the new MPTCs has been spent, is being spent and will continue to be spent, and that money has to come from somewhere. It is appropriate that the user should pay.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Who is going to take responsibility for the botched and chaotic introduction of the new motorcycle test, which is due to come in on 27 April, seven months late? Many young riders will be deterred from taking the test because of the distance that they might have to travel or the fact that in some cases the test will be split in two. Will the Minister answer my hon. Friend’s question about how he has the barefaced cheek to introduce the higher fee from October even though the new test will not be introduced until this April?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I think that I responded to the final element of the question: the money is being spent on the new centres and the DSA has to balance its books. As for who takes responsibility for the delay, ultimately, I do. The decision was taken on the basis of the number of test centres that were available. I did not think that there were enough centres to meet the accessibility criteria that the DSA had set itself in terms of the distance that individuals would have to travel to take their tests. The delay has allowed additional test centres to be completed, and it has allowed temporary test centres to be identified. The coverage will be far greater when the new test regime is introduced later this year.

Topical Questions

T1. [251006] Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): On 15 January, I set out to the House a series of major announcements on transport infrastructure. That included confirmation of the Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow airport, plans for increasing capacity on some of Britain’s busiest roads and the creation of a new company, High Speed 2, to develop the case for new high-speed rail services between London and Scotland. In recent weeks, I have opened the new third platform at Manchester Airport railway station
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and the new green station at East Midlands Parkway. Both projects will improve journeys for thousands of commuters, reduce congestion on our roads and bring significant benefits to business, as will the newly widened section of the M1 south of Luton, which I officially opened last Friday. Last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), announced new measures to crack down on uninsured drivers by reducing the additional costs and safety risks that they cause. The new measures will help to protect the law- abiding majority.

Lyn Brown: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Constituents have raised with me the safety of our airports following the miraculous events in New York. Will the Secretary of State reassure me about the safety of our airports, in particular London City airport? Apropos of that, has he had any further thoughts about opening a new airport in the middle of the Thames estuary?

Mr. Hoon: If I may qualify my hon. Friend’s remarks to some extent, those events in New York were not miraculous. They were the result of remarkable skills displayed by the aircrew, and we should all pay tribute to them.

My hon. Friend is right, in that all airports must have regard to the risk of bird strike, and each airport is required to have a control programme. That has always been taken extremely seriously, and I am sure that with a little more thought, not least in the light of the history of proposals for airports in the Thames estuary, the Mayor of London might think again about the environmental risks, and the risks of bird strike to aircraft, of siting an aerodrome in that place.

T3. [251009] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): We have regular reports of drivers being led astray by their satnav devices down wholly unsuitable roads and lanes. Indeed, in my constituency there is a low bridge in Templecombe that seems to be hit almost every other week by a heavy goods vehicle, normally driven by a foreign driver who has been told to go down that road by his satnav. Some time ago, we were told that there would be a Government review of satnav devices. Has that now been completed, and are the Government prepared to introduce a route hierarchy into satnav structures, to ensure that heavy lorries do not use roads that simply cannot take them?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am looking for short questions and sharp replies.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): Here is a short answer, Mr. Speaker: the companies that produce the technology are still working on improving satnav performance. Work is also being undertaken to produce a satnav programme for heavy goods vehicles. HGV satnav is under review, because at the start and end of journeys such systems take drivers to the major routes via roads that may not be suitable for heavy vehicles.

T2. [251007] Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the fury over the quality of train services that has existed in
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Northampton since the new timetable was introduced. What assurances can he give my constituents about improvements to the service in the short term? In the longer term, what prospect is there that his strategic rail review and new high-speed rail network will lead to more and faster train services to London, Birmingham and the north?

Mr. Hoon: I was pleased to have a very useful meeting recently with my hon. Friend, at which she put her case on behalf of her constituents in Northampton with her usual determined vigour. I was left in no doubt about the importance of the required improvements that she suggested, and I shall certainly take the matter up with the franchise holder. As for the wider question of capacity, my hon. Friend is right to say that the Government’s programme of enhancing capacity on our rail network will allow for relief on crowded parts of the existing network. They are crowded because of their success, with passenger numbers now equivalent to their levels in 1946. I am grateful to her, and assure her that I shall take her suggestions forward.

T5. [251011] Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last year, 12 airlines failed and thousands of passengers were left stranded abroad. Unfortunately, more airlines will fail this year. People who book through the Association of British Travel Agents, if the operator has an air travel operator’s licence, will be protected and repatriated. However, people who book directly with the airline are left stranded abroad. When will the Secretary of State stop dithering and bring in a consumer protection scheme that will cover all airline passengers?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I can advise the hon. Gentleman that we are not dithering over this. The most recent crash, of the airline Excel, affected 85,000 people, and an investigation is being held into the lessons to be learned from it. People were successfully returned to this country in an operation carried out by the Civil Aviation Authority and others, and we will be making recommendations in due course. The Secretary of State and I have had a series of meetings with a variety of interested parties, and work is well under way.

T4. [251010] Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): The users of the First Great Western franchise have had to endure cancellations and late-running trains for far too long. Despite the entreaties that we have heard from the midlands today, will the Secretary of State assure the House that plans for the electrification of the Great Western line will be given equal priority? Can he give us some idea of when those plans will be brought forward?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall continue with my self-imposed injunction always to mention the Great Western first. I assure her that the economic case for the electrification of that line is strong, and that we shall be looking at it in detail over the course of this year before we make a further announcement.

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