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Railways (Overcrowding)

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

We will continue to increase capacity through the franchising process and in other ways. In particular, I announced on 14 March that the high level output specification, to be published in the summer, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted on the most congested routes on the network.

The Government’s announcement of extra carriages for longer trains is to be welcomed, but does the Secretary of State accept that many commuters and other travellers in my constituency are paying considerably higher fares for the doubtful privilege of travelling in the equivalent of cattle class? That is simply not acceptable, for reasons of comfort and, more particularly, safety. When can travellers expect to see improvements?

With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, what is not acceptable is for a party to suggest that it is possible to deliver lower fares, higher levels of investment—

Order. It is not for the Secretary of State to talk about the hon. Lady’s party. He is responsible for giving ministerial replies.

As I was saying, Mr. Speaker, that is not the approach that the Government have adopted. Instead, we have committed ourselves to 1,000 extra carriages. Moreover, it will be of particular interest to people in the Congleton constituency that bidders for the new cross-country franchise have been asked to make proposals for an increase in seating capacity of at least 30 per cent. on key sections of the franchise. In addition, I can assure the hon. Lady that we pay serious regard to passenger safety, that it is a matter of continuing concern in my Department, and that we are continuing to work on it.

Thanks to a very effective local campaign, First Great Western has reinstated much-needed commuter services at Severn Tunnel Junction in my constituency. However, the company has now reduced capacity, which has led to overcrowding. Will my right hon. Friend join me in pressing First Great Western to ensure that passengers can travel in comfort and safety on that route?

I assure my hon. Friend that I have been in regular dialogue with First Great Western in recent months, and that I have impressed on the company that the standards of service that it has provided on those routes under its franchise have fallen below what passengers and the rest of us have the right to expect. Discussions are continuing, and work with the company is under way. It is now up to First Great Western to offer the level of improvement to which it has made a commitment.

How much faith can we have in the Government’s ability to tackle climate change when it will be another seven years—that is, 17 years since the Government were first elected—before full capacity in the most environmentally sustainable system of transport is achieved? What sort of record is that?

I fear that the hon. Gentleman should read his brief from Conservative central office more carefully. If the guidance suggests that the problems that he describes in fact exist, perhaps he should take that up with its authors. Let me share with him some of the recent capacity enhancements that the Government have delivered. For example, the ongoing Great Western high-speed train refurbishments are increasing seating capacity by about 20 per cent. In addition, the Chiltern route upgrade between London, Marylebone and Birmingham was completed in 2005 and is increasing frequency, while the introduction of Meridian Trains on the midland main line in 2004-05 resulted in increased capacity. The hon. Gentleman is right: we recognise that there is more to do, given that more people are using the railways. That is why between February and March 2007 there was 12-car running on the south-west mainline between Southampton and Portsmouth and London Waterloo, why a new service between Kettering and London will be introduced in December 2008, and why new domestic services will be introduced on the channel tunnel rail link between Kent and London in 2009. That is the Department’s ongoing work, and the suggestion that—

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I also thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement of the 1,000 new railway carriages? What might be the effect on that investment of considering breaking up Network Rail?

I have already spoken about our additional capacity and investment in the railways—for example, on the west coast main line. I do not believe it would be wise to break the west coast main line into the 14 component parts represented by the train operating companies that work on the line. The more sensible approach is to recognise that the stability of the industry structure that we have secured in recent years and the sustained investment have not only enhanced capacity on the railway but increased performance and safety.

One way of tackling overcrowding is to increase frequency. In the context of services to Inverness, two things can be done: frequency can be increased between Inverness and London through the east coast main line franchise, and Network Rail can make the necessary investment to reduce journey times between Inverness and Edinburgh to under three hours. Will the Secretary of State use his good offices to support both those outcomes?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that responsibility for many aspects of rail policy now rests with the Scottish Executive; I will certainly undertake to ensure that his comments are passed on.

My right hon. Friend has rightly spoken about the benefits of upgrading the west coast main line. Will he look at ways of ensuring that the benefits of upgrading are felt as widely as possible by improving inter-city rail services between Edinburgh and north-west England, especially Manchester?

My hon. Friend is right in recognising that there have been significant improvements on the west coast main line as a result of the sustained investment in recent years—not only in services operating from the north to Manchester but in services from London to Manchester, where there has been a significant transfer, or a modal shift, from use of air services to use of the train. There are potential benefits to be gained not just on a single route but in many parts of the country as a result of the investment in the west coast main line.

If the Secretary of State really wants to reduce overcrowding on our railways, why does his Department not try to do less rather than more? His Department has more day-to-day control over the railways than it had before privatisation. Virgin Trains wants to operate 11 carriages per Pendolino train and the rolling stock company wants to provide the carriages. Why does the Department not just butt out and let them get on with it?

The hon. Gentleman makes an uncharacteristically ill-informed observation. I can assure him that in the correspondence and discussions that I have had directly with Virgin Trains about its proposals to increase the number of carriages on the Pendolino trains the relationship with the Department for Transport has been constructive and positive. I am confident that we will find a way through in terms of financing.

As for the substantive allegation that the hon. Gentleman levels that there is greater operational control, it is determined by the effective operation of many train operating companies under the present franchising system, which in part explains the fact that record numbers of people now use the railway compared with previous years.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that certain rail operators such as Southern have used overcrowding as an excuse to ban bikes on trains. Will he assure me that in forthcoming strategy documents this will be reviewed? It is obviously of great environmental importance that we tie up bike and rail travel.

A distinction can be drawn between peak-time travel, when pressure on the network is greatest, and other times, but I assure my hon. Friend that the importance of accommodating not only the commuter and business traveller but leisure travellers and those who want to take bikes on trains is recognised.

Last week it emerged that the Scottish Labour party has been holding talks with Network Rail about giving it the right to run track and trains in Scotland. May I ask the Secretary of State, who as you will recall, Mr. Speaker, is also Scottish Secretary and plays a leading role in running the Scottish Labour campaign, whether those talks have his support?

You, Mr. Speaker, can imagine that this was a matter in which I took some interest last week. I was interested in the letter that Network Rail sent to the newspaper that published the suggestions, and I was interested in the comments of the First Minister, who said that he had absolutely no intention of renationalising the railway in Scotland. I can confirm that it is certainly not the stated policy of the Government, for the reasons that I have already outlined. It is for others to explain why breaking up the Network Rail infrastructure into its 14 component parts on the west coast main line would improve safety, performance or reliability.

As the Government always remind us, Network Rail is a private company, so let us be clear: does the Secretary of State support the principle of Network Rail running trains as well in Scotland?

Let me make two points in response to that question. First, as I have already outlined to the House, there is a significant degree of devolution in the rail industry in Scotland as a result of a transfer undertaken by my predecessor in this office. Secondly, on the substantive point, the right focus for Network Rail is to continue to deliver not just the efficiencies secured in recent years but the engineering excellence that has led to higher levels of rail safety and performance than was experienced as a direct consequence of the Tories’ botched privatisation of the railways.

Will the Secretary of State disregard the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman and take an interest in the Virgin Trains proposal for longer Pendolino trains? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the leasing company’s excuse for not taking action at present is a competition investigation? Will he take action to smooth through that problem and get those trains longer as soon as possible?

I assure my hon. Friend that it is not a prospective offer that I am making—I have already been directly involved in discussions with Virgin Trains and have spoken to Sir Richard Branson.