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Trains (Overcrowding)

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 19 June 2007

We will work 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 July, will include a commitment to 1,000 extra carriages. They will be targeted at the most congested routes on the network.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, in places such as my constituency, where junction 21 of the M5 is badly congested at peak hours, it is essential to have a high quality commuter rail scheme and that, for stations such as Worle, where there is bad overcrowding, we are moving in the wrong direction, with reduced rather than increased services? Will he make a commitment to people who wait for trains at Worle station and elsewhere in north Somerset that some of the resources that he mentioned will be targeted at the severe rail congestion there?

Doughty though the hon. Gentleman is in defence of his constituents, I doubt whether he would expect me to preannounce such specific elements from the high level output specification, which will be before the House in only a few weeks.

Let me make the general point that there has been sustained investment in our railways in recent years, in contradiction to literally decades of under-investment that we previously experienced. Transport Ministers used to claim that we had the most efficient railway in Europe. I regret that, all too often, that was code for the fact that money was not spent on maintenance or capacity, and we are therefore trying to catch up. That is why there needs to be additional capacity in the fleet and why we have announced 1,000 extra carriages. That is why we want sustained investment in the network and why it is sensible to present all the proposals at the same time in July. That is exactly what we will do.

Does the Secretary of State recognise that an announcement of the funding for the Reading station upgrade in next month’s high level specification output statement would contribute significantly to reducing train overcrowding on the Great Western main line?

I know that my reply will disappoint my hon. Friend. I passed through Reading station only last night when travelling back from Oxford. Much as I would like to assure him that, on the basis of outrageous congestion that I experienced, I will make an immediate announcement, I fear that I will disappoint him because I cannot make such an announcement at this stage and the station was remarkably quiet when I passed through it.

In all seriousness, my hon. Friend has made clear to me the concerns of his constituents about the high level of usage of Reading station. He has brought a group to the House of Commons to present his concerns directly to me and I assure him that we are mindful of them as we prepare the high level output specification.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Chelmsford has a significant commuting population and that railway journeys on One railway are unacceptable in respect of overcrowding during the rush hour? What specific and detailed advice can he give about how One railway can reduce the overcrowding and ensure that my constituents can travel to work as members of the human race rather than as cattle?

Obviously, there are steps that individual train-operating companies can take, whether it be train lengthening, with additional capacity being provided by additional carriages, or platform lengthening to facilitate those additional carriages, but there are specific requirements on specific routes. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it would not be the right response simultaneously to suggest that we can have lower fares, a higher level of investment and lower taxes. Ultimately, there are two sources of funding available for the network: one is the rail fare and the other is the taxpayer. That is why the Government have, over many years, seen sustained investment in our railway, but we recognise that more needs to be done on capacity, which will inform the high level output specifications published this summer.

But surely my right hon. Friend—like me, he is a regular traveller—will understand that there are safety implications from the overcrowding of our trains. Is it not now possible in the modern age to restrict the numbers on trains, just as we restrict the numbers travelling in cars, planes and boats? We should restrict the numbers travelling on our trains because we are now reaching the point at which it is becoming unbearable. That problem really should be addressed by restricting the numbers that are allowed on our trains.

Of course, safety on our railways is a matter that we keep under constant review and there are appropriate bodies to advise us on the technical requirements of improving the safety regime on our railways. As to my hon. Friend’s point about what other steps can be taken, I made it clear back in March that we are making provision for an extra 1,000 carriages, which will go some way towards addressing some of his concerns.