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17 Feb 2011 : Column 381WH—continued

17 Feb 2011 : Column 382WH
5.19 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, and I, like everyone else, congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), on securing this debate on such an important issue.

It has been a good debate, and we have at times been in danger of breaking out into a bit of cross-party consensus, which is extremely unusual on rail. It has been enlivened by references to Trotskyism and Leninism-the first time I have seen such elements enter into a debate on the railways. Everyone has recognised the crucial importance of our transport networks in general, and our rail network in particular, to our future economic prosperity, and to our ambition both to address environmental concerns, including those about climate change, and to deal with congestion on our roads by providing a viable alternative to the lorry and the car.

The coalition has pledged to cut the deficit and also recognises that securing growth is vital, which is why in the comprehensive spending review the Chancellor placed a priority on transport spending. As many Members, particularly the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker), have acknowledged, transport projects can generate wider economic benefits many times their cost. I very much welcome the generous acknowledgement by my predecessor as rail Minister, the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris), that the anxiety about a Conservative Government slashing spending on the railways has not materialised. Rail emerged from the spending review in a far stronger position than most people had expected, and that was acknowledged also by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard).

We have had to take a difficult decision on fares and I, of course, wish that that could have been avoided, but without the three years of RPI plus 3 increases, we simply would not be able to deliver the vital capacity improvements that passengers need. To make the sums add up, we had no choice but to ask passengers to pay more, but we are absolutely confident that passenger numbers will continue to grow. I was surprised that the Select Committee Chairman asked whether we were committed to new capacity and whether we expected growth to continue, because we are embarking on one of the most ambitious extra-capacity programmes in the history of the railways. That demonstrates our confidence that passenger numbers will grow, and our commitment to relieving overcrowding, which, as she rightly highlights, is a major concern.

Mrs Ellman: Do the right hon. Lady's statements mean that she gives a categorical commitment to delivering the rolling stock as promised, and will she include in the conditions of future franchises a requirement to look at the health and safety implications of overcrowding?

Mrs Villiers: I will, in a moment, outline the Government's commitments on extra rolling stock. Health and safety is a matter for the Office of Rail Regulation, which takes on board all such factors in its decisions on safety in the rail industry. There has been a significant improvement in safety on our railways over recent years, and we need to pay tribute to the fact that they are one of the safest forms of transport.

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In response to the hon. Member for Glasgow South, we do not at the moment have any plans to reintroduce the flat cap. Affordability is the concern, but we will keep the matter under review, and see if it becomes more affordable in the future.

The improvements that we have promised are extensive, and over the next four years the Government propose to invest £30 billion in transport, £14 billion of which will support capital maintenance and investment in our railways. Major projects that we are funding include high-speed rail, Crossrail, Thameslink, Birmingham New Street and the tube upgrades. In answer to the question that the hon. Lady asked about carriages, we expect there to be about 2,100 new carriages on the rail network by 2019, of which about 1,850 will be additional capacity, and I shall go into a little more detail on carriages in a minute.

Kelvin Hopkins: Will the right hon. Lady look into the fact that more than 100 mark 3 carriages could be available immediately? We would only need to have new bogies to cope with the gauge difference with Ireland. The Irish need the money, I think.

Mrs Villiers: It is open to the train operators to lease additional capacity if they so wish, and they may well be interested in exploring the option that the hon. Gentleman outlines.

Substantial work is under way on the strategic freight network, and I have repeatedly paid tribute to the work done on that by the previous Administration. I emphasise that rail freight plays a really significant part in our strategy for reducing carbon emissions and relieving congestion, and that is why the coalition has prioritised investment in projects such as the Felixstowe-Nuneaton gauge clearance.

The hon. Gentleman would like to see a dedicated freight line. I know his enthusiasm for that project and am always happy to engage with him on it, but the freight industry as a whole prioritises the projects in the strategic freight network, rather than a dedicated line. If the hon. Gentleman can make the case for going ahead with something like that in the future, I and my colleagues will of course be prepared to listen.

On the regional balance, in making project funding decisions it is important to take account of the needs of different areas. Although the business case for rail investment in the south-east can often be stronger because of the sheer volumes of passengers, assessment of the business case is just one element in the decision-making process and we can, and do, have regard to other factors, including the appropriate balance of funding between different parts of the country. It is worth recognising that improvements in London and the south-east can yield benefits for the economy as a whole, but the north of England will benefit directly from a whole range of programmes that are under way, including faster journey times between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, additional carriages, electrification, station improvements and important upgrades on the east coast main line, as well as the extension of light rail in Manchester and Newcastle, and in the longer term the north will benefit massively from our high-speed rail plans. The tough decisions made in the spending review mean that we are able to
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provide more than £1.5 billion for local authority major schemes in the period up to 2014-15, and that is a larger amount than the average annual Department for Transport spend on such schemes over the past 10 years.

High-speed rail has been a big issue in the debate this afternoon, as ever. My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) spoke with her usual passion and articulacy on her concerns about high-speed rail, and I welcome the input of all colleagues on this issue as it is one of the most important parts of the coalition's programme to improve our railways. Very soon we will start a major consultation on our strategy for a Y-shaped High Speed 2 network, and I can assure the shadow rail Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), that we are committed to taking this railway to the north of England, in two delivery phases. Opponents of HS2 say that it will not have a big impact on the north-south divide, the important response to which is that they should look at the extensive support for the project in the north of England, and also at the rest of Europe, where cities such as Lille have been transformed as a result of the connectivity that can come with a high-speed link to a capital city.

Demand for travel between our cities is expected to increase significantly, and there is an industry consensus that the west coast route will be full to capacity within little more than a decade. The hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys indicated that there was some contention about passenger growth figures, but everyone accepts that there will be significant growth on the west coast main line.

Andrea Leadsom: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs Villiers: I am afraid that I really cannot. I do apologise.

We will face severe congestion and overcrowding on those routes in years to come, unless we act now to begin the process of delivering that capacity.

On the alternatives, upgrades of an existing line, even extensive ones, could deliver only half a new line's capacity benefit and would be more expensive. My hon. Friend asked whether 12-car trains would deliver the equivalent capacity: no, they absolutely would not. The hon. Member for Luton North asked whether new signalling would deliver it, and the answer is the same. We are already introducing new capacity on existing lines, and there comes a point at which incremental changes do not deliver the upgrade needed. Moreover, High Speed 2 will deliver the benefits of capacity released on the existing network, with major benefits for places such as Milton Keynes, Luton, Northampton and Peterborough, and also for freight operators.

I sincerely believe that careful mitigation can address many of the most serious local impacts, and I know that my hon. Friend will continue to fight hard for her constituents, who might be affected by the line. We welcome their involvement in the consultation process on which we are about to embark, to ensure that we get the right answers on high-speed rail and that we listen to the views of people affected by it.

After 20 years of discussion, Crossrail is finally going ahead. I hope that that answers those concerned that High Speed 2 will swallow up all the funding available
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for rail. The hon. Gentleman complained that the Hitchin flyover might not go ahead as a result of the funding pressure on high-speed rail. It is under way, or will be shortly, as it is in an investment programme to which the Government have committed. We have confirmed that the Thameslink programme will proceed in full, despite anxiety that it might not. Some 1,200 new carriages will be delivered, almost doubling the number of north-south trains through the capital at peak times.

On the Derby factory and the procurement of the Thameslink trains, the hon. Member for Glasgow South tempted me to depart from the EU's procurement rules. I fear that I would find myself falling foul of the European Communities Act 1972 if I did, so I will not advocate failing to abide by our treaty obligations, but I can assure the House that bids from UK-based operators will be considered carefully and assessed fairly, objectively and equally.

The Government expect an additional 650 carriages in several of our major cities by 2014. We expect services to be strengthened into Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol-to answer the concerns of the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames)-London Paddington and London Waterloo. In addition, new Thameslink and Crossrail rolling stock will enable the redeployment of hundreds more existing electric carriages, strengthening the case for further electrification of our network. I hope that that responds to the concerns expressed about the quality of rolling stock in the north. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) rightly raised concerns about the quality of that rolling stock and the notorious Pacer trains. We believe that our programme of new rolling stock will help address those concerns.

As the Chancellor confirmed in his Budget speech, lines between Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool will be electrified. The redeployment of electric rolling stock to those routes will in turn free up hundreds of diesel units, which will be available for train operators to lease after 2015. In November, the Secretary of State announced that Network Rail will electrify routes on the Great Western main line from London to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury. We expect to make an announcement shortly on the further electrification of that line. We have decided to press ahead with plans to buy a new fleet of trains to replace most of the high-speed trains operating on the Great Western and east coast lines. We have narrowed down the options to two, and we hope to give the House more information in the near future.

The hon. Member for Luton South and others were concerned about stations. We are continuing with the £150 million national stations improvement programme and the £370 million access for all programme, including £2.3 million to be spent on a scheme at Luton.

Gavin Shuker: Will the Minister give way?

Mrs Villiers: I am afraid that I cannot. I have run out of time. Birmingham New Street will go ahead, hopefully delivering economic benefits of £2 billion. Improvements at Reading will address a long-standing bottleneck, benefiting people across the Great Western line.

The Chairman of the Select Committee and others are absolutely right to say that it is crucial to get better value for taxpayers' and passengers' funding of the railways. Reforming our railways and reducing their
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cost is essential. The Chairman of the Select Committee and the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly expressed concerns about the high cost of Network Rail compared with other operators in Europe. We recognise fully the concerns about rail fares. To answer the shadow Minister's question, we believe that we should share the benefits of the reduction in railway running costs that we expect the McNulty review to deliver. They will be shared between fare payers and taxpayers. We are also clear that any changes suggested by the McNulty review must protect freight operators' interests.

There is an important role for open access, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys urged me to make clear, although open access is not necessarily his only hope of direct train services between Blackpool and London. No decisions have been made yet, but it is possible that that might form part of franchised operations.

We are working closely on the northern hub. I recognise that there is a lot of support for it. Dealing with the problems identified in the project would be of great benefit to the economy of the north of England. I cannot give any guarantees today, but it must be a strong candidate for funding in the next control period.

Hon. Members have supported a list of projects. On the Swindon-Kemble line, if there were any spare funding down the DFT's sofa, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham asked, I am sure that Swindon-Kemble would be a good candidate. However, he will appreciate that our rail budgets are fully committed. He made a good point about the improvements to resilience that the project would deliver. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside mentioned the midland main line. There is a strong business case for it, but again, affordability is a concern. I am always happy to talk about Kirkstall Forge, and I look forward to the revised bid, which I believe will be made in September. It is a good scheme with significant benefits, and I hope that one day it will proceed. We will have to see whether it proves affordable, given our budget constraints.

I am grateful for the time allowed me to speak in this debate.

5.36 pm

Mrs Ellman: Thank you for chairing this important and interesting debate, Mr Owen. I thank the Minister for her response. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) acting so effectively in his new position. We have had a constructive debate, and I thank all hon. Members who have participated, including Select Committee members and others who find the issue important enough to have spent time and spoken here. The range of contributions underlines the importance of investment in our railways. Contributions have addressed the importance of investment in local stations, of local services and of developing capacity, whether in local, regional or high-speed rail services. I listened carefully to the Minister's response. She has given some assurances. The Select Committee will be following up the promises and commitments that she made, and will take up the various points raised by hon. Members.

The report that we have been debating was concluded a year ago, but it is significant how highly relevant many of its recommendations and the issues that it raised are
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today. The Select Committee's work is enhanced by the involvement of many Members. I assure all hon. Members here that we will be pursuing all the points that they have raised in our questions to Ministers and others responsible for delivering our services, and in new inquiries. I thank everybody for their constructive participation.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I apologise for coming so late. We were engaged in debate in the main Chamber. When the McNulty report is published, I urge the Select Committee to consider it in detail and give us the opportunity for a further debate based on the Committee's consideration of the recommendations.

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Mrs Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The Select Committee takes rail investment extremely seriously and will give the McNulty report full consideration in due course, along with the Government's White Paper on the future of rail. Value for money in our rail service is intrinsically linked to the structure of rail and is the best way to deliver an effective service in terms of passengers and freight.

Question put and agreed to.

5.39 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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