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Rail Capacity

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

During the preparation of the rail White Paper, the Government carried out assessments of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network. The assessments drew on work carried out by the rail industry, and the outcome is published in the 2007 rail White Paper “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I associate myself with the concerns mentioned by many hon. Members in response to the last question about First Great Western. Assuming that First Great Western—or its successors—finally gets its act together and starts to deliver a decent rail service in areas such as my constituency, there will still be capacity constraints, particularly in respect of the problems addressed in the western package of Worle junction and Worle Parkway station. Will the Minister undertake to look at those proposals in a favourable light and, ideally, commit the Government to funding them as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman is right in that capacity remains the overwhelming challenge facing the railway industry today, unlike the situation under previous Governments, who faced the challenge of how to stop the decline in the number of people using the railways. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have committed ourselves to arranging the procurement of 1,300 new carriages. Under the indicative proposals in the rolling stock plan, First Great Western is already going to receive more than 50 new carriages; that will be a major increase in the capacity available to passengers, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

The chief executive of Network Rail predicts that capacity on inter-city routes will run out by 2015, yet the Government have told us that they are not going to make any decision on new high-speed rail lines until 2012. Given that it takes a decade to plan high-speed trains, why are the Government being so leisurely?

I am rarely accused of being leisurely. I have to tell my hon. Friend that in terms of predictions for growth on the railways, the figures in the 2007 rail White Paper, to which I have just referred, are robust. Network Rail has signed up to them in the past. There may well be a case for new high-speed lines—certainly for increased physical capacity—on many of our major railway routes at the beginning of the next decade, starting in 2020. However, I do not believe that such decisions should, or have to, be taken earlier than 2012, which year will see the publication of the high level output specification phase 2.

The Secretary of State will no doubt be as pleased as the rest of us that figures show that more and more people are choosing to use trains. However, given the Government’s decision to block extra carriages on the west coast main line, does she have a message for the thousands of people who regularly have to stand on that route, simply because they cannot get a seat?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the Government have attempted to block increased capacity on the west coast main line. The Government have told Virgin Trains that it will not be given an opportunity to re-bid for the franchise without any competitive tendering; otherwise the situation would not be competitive, so I hope that that will be supported by the whole House. However, we have said that we remain committed to extending the Pendolinos by two carriages at some point at the very beginning of the next franchise.

It is refreshing that the Government are prepared to spend so much money on extending capacity, but the reality is that the numbers of extra rolling stock and carriages are not high enough to deal with the problems in connection with the extra numbers of people wanting to use the system. We will have to take decisions rapidly about high-speed lines. Will the Minister not just accept that the issue is not for the next Parliament, but for this one?

What I do not accept is that high-speed lines are some kind of panacea, or that in committing ourselves to building such lines we will suddenly eradicate all the capacity challenges that we face. My hon. Friend is right, of course, that 1,300 carriages will go some way towards alleviating capacity pressures in the next five or six years. The Government will always intend, where possible, to increase the capacity available to passengers. However, let me remind my hon. Friend and the House that the 1,300 carriages are the biggest step change in capacity that the rail industry has seen for decades. They represent a level of financial commitment that no other party has seen fit to equal.

Does the Minister agree that a major constraint on the capacity of the rail network is the capacity of station car parks? Will he have urgent discussions with Network Rail and South West Trains with a view to increasing capacity on the Waterloo to Salisbury line, so that more people who want to travel by train off-peak can do so?

I do accept that when car park capacity is enhanced, more people use the railways; clearly, that is a way of facilitating higher demand. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that car parking facilities are a matter not for the Government but for local authorities, Network Rail and, occasionally, the train operating companies. Nevertheless, his point is well made. I would like more car park capacity to be made available throughout the country, including in his constituency.

Will my hon. Friend consider using the £14 million taken in fines from Network Rail to bring forward the purchase of new rolling stock, as set out in the 30-year plan? In particular, we should ensure that capacity exists in the manufacturing industry to deliver on time the rolling stock on which we have made a commitment to spend money.

That is an innovative idea from my hon. Friend. I can reassure him that the money needed to buy the 1,300 new carriages has been banked, as it were, and has been committed. We are not facing any kind of shortfall in respect of the 1,300 new carriages that we are committed to buy. He might be aware that the Office of Rail Regulation has embarked on a consultation about how the £14 million fine levied on Network Rail will be imposed—whether it will be a fine coming back to central Government, or whether it can be quantified as passenger benefits for those who suffered the most during the new year overruns.

How will it help rail capacity to take £14 million out of Network Rail’s budget? That fine, imposed on a public sector body, can only hit rail users. Would it not have been better to stop the £75,000 bonus to the chief executive, or the 18 per cent. pay rise for the directors?

The hon. Gentleman will be disappointed to be reminded once again that the Department for Transport has no say over whether the Office of Rail Regulation imposes a fine on Network Rail. That should be a matter for the independent rail regulator. The hon. Gentleman’s party has accused this Government on a number of occasions of micro-managing the railways, but again one of them is at the Dispatch Box telling us that that is exactly what we should do. The railways are better run by railway people, not Ministers.