Skip to main content

Public Transport

Volume 460: debated on Tuesday 15 May 2007

The Government have provided record and sustained investment in transport and have brought decision making closer to local areas to ensure that public transport better meets the needs of passengers.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. He is right to say that the Government have invested heavily in public transport, yet the perception is still that more needs to be done. What does he propose to do to try to get people out of their cars and on to quality public transport in future, thereby solving some of the problem of our CO2 emissions?

I fully accept my hon. Friend’s suggestion that more needs to be done. That is why we are investing £88 million a week in the country’s railways after decades of under-investment, and why there has been sustained investment in our bus network. In addition, we have brought forward proposals, most recently at the turn of the year in “Putting Passengers First”, to advance the cause of ensuring a better bus service in this country, because although there are communities where buses operate effectively, in too many communities there still is not the standard of service that people want. With regard to both buses and trains, we are seeing real improvements on the back of real investment.

The House debated public transport matters only yesterday, and I am pleased that the Secretary of State acknowledged that there are areas of the country where there is no meaningful public transport at all. He was talking about buses, but clearly there are other forms of public transport, such as taxis and minicabs, that might well be used in areas where the demand is limited, but where the interest in services is great, particularly among elderly people who do not have their own transport. What encouragement will he give to counties such as Cheshire, which has sadly had to reduce the amount of subsidised public transport, because of the reduction in revenue from central Government?

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the reduction of the revenue support grant. It is of course for individual local authorities to determine the level of concession that they offer their residents. He makes a fair point in recognising that in the longer term and in the future, there may well be opportunities, for example through smart ticketing that allows cash to be credited, to consider providing pensioners with facilities that would make a more flexible range of services available, whether that is through dial-a-bus, community travel or taxis. However, those are discussions for the future, as well as for today.

The one form of public transport directly managed by my right hon. Friend’s Department is, of course, the Government car service. Why does his Department require British Government Ministers to drive around in the Japanese-built Toyota Prius, which has two engines and a wasteful manufacturing process, and has to be shipped halfway around the world on boats that pump out emissions, when we could be supporting the environment and showing British industry that we are on its side by using Birmingham-built Jaguars, which use the cleanest diesel technologies in the world?

I am not sure whether that call was “Give him a job” or “Give him a Jag.” My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) is a tireless campaigner for the west midlands, and I once again pay tribute to his efforts. It is fair to recognise that the Government car service has an obligation to consider where we can secure the best environmental technologies, given the commitment that has been shown, not just by the Government but by Members on both sides of the House, to taking our environmental responsibilities seriously. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend on the subject.

More people would use rail services at busy times if there were more seats and more regular services. Will the Secretary of State look into the technology to see how we can get more friction and traction for trains that run on commuter lines, so that we can double the number of trains that use the existing lines? That cannot be done at the moment because there is not the technology.

Perhaps rather unusually, I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Gentleman in recognising—[Interruption.] Perhaps I will live to regret that comment. I join him in recognising capacity as a serious challenge. That is why I announced in March, when we published the high level output specification, that we will specify 1,000 extra carriages for the rail network. However, that is without prejudice to the continuing work that we need to take forward on, for example, considering platform lengthening or the possibility of double-decker trains. The number of trains that we can run on the existing network is limited, but I assure the House that we are seriously considering all options to make full use of that network.

Residents in Paulsgrove in my constituency have had one of their bus services—the 1C—withdrawn by First Bus, but following pressure from residents a partial service has been reinstated, which finishes at 5 o’clock. Many people consider the needs of elderly residents, and the partial service means that elderly residents cannot go out at night, but I was told of the case of a young lad of 15 who used to go to a theatre group and get the bus back late at night, but now cannot go. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should consider the needs of young people for bus transport and try to make them less dependent on their parents’ cars?

Improved bus services benefit all ages in the community. It is right to recognise that in my hon. Friend’s community, in mine and in the communities of many Members, bus services are a vital lifeline. That is why, all too often, following the arbitrary withdrawal of services on which people rely, there is understandable concern and anger in those communities. That is one of the reasons why, last summer, we took a long hard look at bus provision in the United Kingdom, why we published “Putting Passengers First”, and why we are determined to drive forward better arrangements to assure effective partnership between local authorities and the bus operators.

If it is Government policy to encourage greater public transport use, why has South West Trains been allowed to increase its fares at off-peak times by 20 per cent. without any consultation? Does the Secretary of State think that that decision will help the Government meet their policy aims?

The fares at off-peak times, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, are not regulated fares. Although I understand that there was real concern and public interest in the fares that were announced, it is important to emphasise that those are not fares set by Government. The regulated fares, which are set by Government, in addition to the advance purchase discount fares, account for about 70 per cent. of the journeys made on Britain’s railways. Beyond those regulated fares and advance purchase fares, there must be a degree of flexibility for train companies to set prices against other modes of available transport, but I would urge all train companies to act responsibly when considering the setting of unregulated fares.

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the overcrowding on train services in the south-east. We recently had an Eltham to Victoria service cut by two carriages. Such a penny-pinching approach to the provision of services in south-east London is not good enough and will not deal with the congestion on our lines. When my right hon. Friend next meets representatives of South Eastern Trains, will he impress upon them the fact that south-east London is not served by the London underground, train services are essential, and that it is important that we extend the length of our trains, not cut them?

Here in London, particularly south of the river, there is clearly a strong reliance on the over-ground train network, and I will be happy to ensure that in the discussions that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has with officials from South Eastern Trains, the points that my hon. Friend has raised are put directly to them.

Further to the excellent point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), one of the biggest barriers to people using public transport in my part of the world is overcrowding on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines into Leeds. When will the Government start putting right the chronic underfunding of transport in west Yorkshire? In everything done by the Government, west Yorkshire always gets a bad deal.

I am always happy to receive representations, but it is an interesting charge to be put to us by the Conservative party that there is chronic under-investment in the railways of the United Kingdom. As I have made clear, a commitment has been made for 1,000 extra carriages for the network by 2014. It is important that all of us in the House recognise that any party that says that it is possible simultaneously to have lower fares, lower taxes and higher investment is not being altogether straight with the general public.