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Rural/Community Railway Lines

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

The Government recognise the importance of local railway lines to the communities they serve and seek to support their development, primarily through the implementation of the community rail development strategy.

When will the Government publish their response to the recent consultation on the future of rural and community railway lines? Does the Minister accept that it is vital that there are improved connections between the rural lines which survive the forthcoming cuts and the national network, which would bring increased revenue to offset public subsidy? Would that not be a simple example of an integrated transport policy, which was much heralded nine years ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, although it subsequently appears to have sunk without trace?

I do not accept that. We launched three franchises only last week: new cross country, west midlands and east midlands. They will lead to a 3 to 5 per cent. increase in services. The east and west midlands franchises will be asked to work with and develop community rail. We are thus seeing an improvement to services and an increase in their number as a result of what the Government are doing. Part of the west midlands franchise will be a new hourly service between Birmingham and Manchester that will serve Congleton, which is in the hon. Lady’s constituency.

Will the Minister give an indication of the Government’s thinking on the National Forest line, a passenger service that would be restored to the Leicester to Burton section of the rail network? It seems to tick all the boxes that are necessary, but in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), he talked about a business case. This line has one that is strong environmentally, economically, socially and, dare I say, running through four marginal Labour seats, politically?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, especially his last comment. On business cases, there is a great demand for services and improvements to stations and lines. Although a record amount of money is going to the railway and significant improvements have been made, we have to consider such cases. In the first instance, it is up to the local authority, as the promoter, working with Network Rail to produce a business case. However, my hon. Friend will be aware, that as I just mentioned, last week we published the east midlands and cross-country franchise consultation documents, which set out the minimum service required. We want views from a range of stakeholders, and I am sure that we will hear from him, about what people want. We will consider responses carefully before we make final decisions about the franchise.

Will the Minister repeat the assurances of earlier occupants of his post that neither the Henley-Twyford line nor any other such line will be converted to a community railway without the express support of the community concerned, even though the line runs through solid Conservative territory?

Community rail development obviously has to have the support of the community; otherwise, it does not stack up and make sense. If there is no community support for a line to be designated as a community line, it will not happen. The important point to make is that the more involvement there is, whether it is through the more formal process of community development or from the local community, local business and people generally within particular areas covered by a railway station and service, the better it is. If the line is supported and more people use it, its viability is increased and it makes good business sense. There are, however lots of opportunities without necessarily going down the community rail development route. That said, it is an excellent scheme, but if it is not supported, it will not happen.

In the Minister’s answers to my hon. Friends, he reiterated the Government’s rhetoric that rural, community and light rail are important to them. However, if they really believed their own rhetoric, they would not be closing rural railway lines but increasing their usage, and they would have spent more than 0.3 per cent. of the Department for Transport’s budget on light rail. The consultation that is now happening is leading to the closure of rural, smaller and community rail links. They are surely on the way to ditching another policy. That means another policy will be ditched, another policy will be U-turned, and there will be more problems for the travelling public.

That is a bit rich coming from the Conservatives, who gave us botched privatisation, Railtrack, and years and years of underinvestment in the railway. We have seen record investment in the railway under this Government. I keep asking, as I did earlier, which line we have plans to close. Can the hon. Gentleman let us know?

We have 2,500 stations, and I have opened two or three new ones in the past 12 months; for example, Liverpool Parkway is opening and the east midlands line is being developed. There has been a growth in services as part of the franchises for east midlands, west midlands and Virgin. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s arguments do not stack up.