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Railway Industry

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

My Department continues to work with Network Rail and the train operating companies to secure further improvements in performance. Punctuality and reliability is now at 86.8 per cent., the highest level for six years, and continues to improve steadily. The industry has committed to achieving in excess of 88 per cent. by March 2008.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the huge investment in the west coast main line, which benefits services from London on the important Euro-route to Holyhead in my constituency. He will be further aware that the post-2008 timetable refers to additional through trains. However, there is confusion as to whether those trains will go from London right the way through to the north Wales coast. There is also the question of a maintenance depot in the area, which is vital to improve the railways for the future. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet a delegation of myself and hon. Friends to discuss these important issues?

I am always happy to meet parliamentary colleagues. The scheme in relation to the Holyhead rail depot is being discussed between Network Rail and the train operators but is also being considered by the Welsh Assembly Government. The post-2009 timetable is being discussed by officials in my Department but also by Network Rail and Virgin Trains, with further discussions between the Department, the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities.

What is the Secretary of State’s current thinking on the thorny problem that was described by his predecessor as transporting fresh air around the country?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find myself agreeing with my predecessor that we want to see an expanding rail network. During previous questions in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), posed a challenge to a questioner who suggested that we had secret plans to close a number of stations. We are still awaiting word on what stations Opposition Members were suggesting that we intended to close. None the less, a feature of an expanding rail network would be our ability to take serious decisions reflecting the changing nature of the network given changing patterns of demand in the future. We need to keep all options open, but we have no plans to reduce the number of people travelling on the railways; indeed, numbers have significantly increased in recent years.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we are facing a shortage of route capacity, particularly for freight? Will he look positively at the possibilities for developing dedicated rail freight capacity for the future?

My hon. Friend is right. There has been a 46 per cent. increase in rail freight since 1997, sitting alongside the significant uplift in the number of passengers choosing to use the rail network during those years. We are giving serious consideration to what scope there is for further investment in rail freight. That is why only last month I announced that we would take forward several of the transport innovation fund productivity bids, which included rail freight as one of the considerations.

On average, a £10 fare will carry a passenger 38 miles in the UK, 107 miles in France and 315 miles in Poland. Why is it that, nine years into a Labour Government, we have the most expensive, most overcrowded and least punctual rail service in Europe?

I do not recognise that description of an expanding railway system—indeed, the fastest growing passenger railway in Europe.

I welcome the improvements that have been made in the train services for my constituents, especially the introduction of the new improved high-speed rail link. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the new Virgin lines that have been provided are not guaranteed post-2009? What reassurances can he give my constituents that those services will be not only kept but improved post-2009?

I know that my hon. Friend represents an area that is close to the growth areas, which were so designated by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I assure her that the needs of the growth areas will be considered when we publish the high level output specification next summer.

The biggest problem on our railways today is overcrowding. Lloyd’s corporation has estimated that 60 per cent. of commuters into London travel on overcrowded trains. It is estimated that passenger growth nationally will increase by 30 per cent. between now and 2014, yet there are no plans for capacity increases. The Government’s strategy emerged a couple of weeks ago—they intend to do deals to price commuters off the railways by increasing fares. Will the Secretary of State confirm that his solution to overcrowding is pricing people off the railways?

No, that has never been the Government’s approach. We recognise that capacity will be a challenge in the years ahead. That is one of the main criteria for the high level output specification, which will be published next summer. We must acknowledge that the challenge that we now face on the railways is that of success. More people want to use them, with significantly increased passenger usage in recent years. Few solutions to capacity do not involve a sustained commitment of public investment. It is incumbent on parties that raise capacity to commit themselves to the amount of funding to which Labour Members remain committed.

I saved the taxpayer a fortune by getting a cheap ticket down here from Leeds. However, my connecting train was late and the guard told me that I would have to pay up. I refused point blank to leave the train or pay any more money. [Interruption.] Indeed, direct action. What will we do about the confusing multiplicity of fares, which leads to people becoming victims without realising it?

I know that my hon. Friend has a long history of direct action, although I would not recommend that he engage in such action on the railways now or in the years to come. However, he makes a fair point. Notwithstanding the significant uplift in passenger numbers in recent years, the Transport Committee has identified a genuine problem with the complexity of fares. When one considers, for example, the discount airline carriers, one realises that it is possible to have variable fares and simplicity for the customer. That is why it is important both that the Government reflect on the Transport Committee’s report and, more directly, that the train operating companies recognise that they have a responsibility to tackle the problem, which is a genuine concern for passengers.