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Rail Network

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2008

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network; and if he will make a statement. (238594)

6. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network; and if he will make a statement. (238597)

The White Paper on rail set out the Government’s commitment to increasing rail capacity by 2014, backed by investment of some £10 billion. This includes the procurement of an additional 1,300 carriages for operation right across the network; 423 vehicles have already been ordered; and yesterday, we announced proposals to procure a further 200, which will benefit passengers in the Thames valley, around Bristol and on longer distance regional services in central northern England.

Last week, in evidence to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the Minister of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, admitted that the Department’s own forecasting models had failed to predict the significant increase in rail passenger growth. What steps are the Department taking to ensure that those models are improved, and that more accurate and reliable statistics are provided?

We simply did not anticipate the remarkable success of the funding that Labour Governments have put into the railways since 1997. Had we based things on the likely forecast when the Conservatives were in power, we would be managing a very small rail network today. In a sense, I take the hon. Gentleman’s question as a tribute to the success of Labour’s policy on rail. Obviously, we want that success to continue, and that is why we are putting in the extra investment.

Does the Secretary of State support the “In the can” campaign, through which rail users are encouraged to send a tin of sardines to the chief executive of East Midlands Trains because of the gross overcrowding? Or does he think that this tin of sardines would be better presented to him as Secretary of State, for his inaction and complacency?

I am grateful to Conservative Members for thinking about my health and welfare and ensuring that I eat oily fish. Having already received a tin of sardines from one of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues, I suggest that rather than sending his to me, he sends it to an appropriate charity in his constituency.

What proposals does my right hon. Friend have to bring forward new investment in rail to meet the current economic situation?

As I have already said to the House, some £15 billion is set out to improve our rail network, and it will concentrate particularly on capacity. We want to ensure that trains are appropriate and that platforms are of the appropriate length. I have established a group under the leadership of my noble Friend Lord Adonis to consider the question of new lines, electrification and high-speed lines for where they are necessary. A tremendous amount of work is under way at the Department for Transport to ensure that we have the capacity on our rail network to meet likely levels of demand.

My right hon. Friend will have heard it said that the Norwich to London line is second class, going on third class. To top it all, we now hear that there are 314 job losses to be determined—yes or no?—by Christmas. Secondly, the famous restaurant cars—often supported by many of our colleagues and others—are to be taken away. How is that compatible with quality service and with a franchise that says that there should be an ongoing kitchen in every train? How can there be a kitchen without a restaurant attached?

My hon. Friend has been assiduous in standing up for the interests of his constituents in Norwich, particularly in relation to transport and communication links between Norwich and London. I would be delighted to see him and any other Norwich Member with a particular interest in the restaurant facilities whenever that can be arranged.

The Secretary of State will know that it has been estimated that regulated and unregulated rail fares will rise by 6 per cent. and 7 per cent. What assurance can he give hard-working commuters that the issue will not continue to affect them adversely?

I recently met representatives of the Association of Train Operating Companies, and I set out to them that, in making any increases, it was important to take account of the current economic circumstances and the impact on those who regularly commute by rail—not least, those with season tickets. What is important is that some 60 per cent. of all rail fares are regulated and that since 1997 those regulated fares have remained within the overall rate of inflation. That is not to say, however, that we do not take seriously the impact on other fares; I hope that train operating companies will take that into account when setting future fare increases.

I welcome the Government’s previous commitment to the development of Birmingham New Street station, and I read with interest about the transport investment announced yesterday. However, if money comes forward in future, may I ask the Secretary of State not to overlook the region of the west midlands, and Birmingham in particular? It is in the heart of England and part of our manufacturing base, and we need investment desperately.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was at Birmingham New Street yesterday; the investment to be made there will transform the station and make it central to the investment that we are putting in right across the rail network. I hear what she says about the west midlands, which is an important network hub for the United Kingdom. I certainly look to seeing new investment there in the future.

Why has the decision been made not to proceed with the upgrading of the Stroud valley line, which is used to re-route services from south Wales to London when the Severn tunnel is closed? Why should passengers have to wait an extra hour to complete their journey at weekends for the want of a £32 million investment?

I am aware of that proposal. Several criteria have to be satisfied. However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all the schemes to which he refers in general terms are looked at on a regular basis and kept under review.

You, Mr. Speaker, will be aware that for over a decade I have been asking questions about the upgrade of the west coast main line, which, thanks to the generosity of this Government, is almost complete. However, even when it is completed, there will still be a capacity problem in the near future. What plans does the Secretary of State have to build a high-speed line going from London to Scotland on the west coast?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the Government for spending some £8.8 billion on improvements to the west coast main line. That has meant extra capacity and improvements in journey times right up the line and on either side of it, and it has been a considerable success. I recognise, however, that it is important that we maintain capacity levels and see where there are capacity constraints on the network. I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Adonis will take my hon. Friend’s submissions into consideration when looking at possible routes for future high-speed rail links. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is more one route to Scotland.

The Secretary of State’s Department’s projections for future passenger numbers demonstrate that they will be well in excess of the capacity that the Department has planned. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that part of the strategy is to price people off the railways, which is why over the past few years, since 1997, prices have risen 6 per cent. above inflation and only this week we saw 6 per cent. and 11 per cent. increases in regulated and unregulated fares. Why does not he introduce a freeze on rail ticket prices for a year in the same way that the Chancellor has introduced, three times since 1997, freezes on fuel duty to help motorists. Why should motorists be helped and not train passengers?

I accept neither the hon. Gentleman’s premise nor his conclusion. He is wrong on both counts. The assessments of capacity that have been made are in keeping with the extra capacity that the Government will make available in terms of our future plans for the rail network. As I have indicated in response to previous questions, it is important that we not only go on looking to improve capacity—not only at the various pinch-points in the network where there is clearly congestion and overcrowding—but consider the longer-term plans for new capacity, new lines, electrification and high-speed links. I have set that out very clearly to the House and I will go on doing so, at least until the hon. Gentleman starts listening.

I make no apologies for referring to the west coast main line again, as it is a very important artery for Great Britain. The question of infrastructure, particularly the length of platforms, is troubling if we are to have these new locomotives working. I refer especially, again without apologies, to Wolverhampton, where the private developer leading the work has now stopped because of, he says, the lack of the possibility of growing the station in the present economic circumstances. Given the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, will my right hon. Friend ensure that these questions of capacity in relation to station infrastructure are considered carefully and properly for Birmingham and the whole west coast main line, but with a special plea for Wolverhampton?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important issue about his constituency. I said earlier that in looking at capacity constraints, not only the length of trains but the length of platforms is crucial to improving capacity and the ability of our trains to provide a proper service to his constituents and others in the west midlands. I will certainly consider the case of Wolverhampton with a degree of urgency.

The Secretary of State will want to acknowledge that since privatisation rail patronage has increased by 40 per cent. However, in contrast to his answer to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), recent independent research from the Institution of Civil Engineers and the university of Southampton clearly indicates that improvements in capacity have not kept pace with that increase in patronage. Following last week’s unregulated fare increases of up to 11 per cent., many people using the railways believe that the Government’s only strategy for dealing with capacity is to price them off them. Does the Minister not realise that overcrowding plus huge increases in unregulated fares does not represent value for money for the travelling public?

I simply do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said. Interestingly, when someone—perhaps it was the hon. Gentleman—was asked by The Times on Friday or Saturday what the Conservative party’s view was on these fare increases, no answer came. No answer was given on what the Conservative party would do if faced with a similar situation. Unfortunately, that is all too typical of the Conservative party’s approach to the present grave economic circumstances faced by this country and others.

Is the Secretary of State aware—and he probably is not—that one of the trains on the morning peak-time Morecambe to Lancaster commuter service has been taken off because of capacity problems with the west coast main line? We welcome the improvements that the Government have made to the line, which have made a difference, but there are still capacity issues for smaller lines crossing the main line. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss that matter?

My hon. Friend is quite right: I was not aware of that consequence of improving capacity on the west coast main line. I would be delighted to meet her to discuss the issues affecting her constituents.