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Track Renewals

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 14 May 2009

1. How much funding his Department contributed to track renewals in the last five years; and how much it plans to contribute for such purposes in the next five years. (275285)

The Government have allocated some £15 billion to the railways over the next five years. This is part of a total of £26.7 billion that Network Rail has to manage and improve the network over that period. We do not allocate funding specifically for track renewals. It is for Network Rail to decide the level of expenditure on track renewals given its overall funding, which is determined by the Office of Rail Regulation.

The Government are right to invest in transport infrastructure during the economic downturn, but despite having more money, Network Rail this year cut its spending on track renewals, and Jarvis plc, a York-based company that does such work, had to make 450 people redundant. Would it not be better for the Government’s money to be used to improve the railway, not to make redundancy payments? Will the Secretary of State press Network Rail to sign next year’s contracts as soon as possible, so that some of these men can go back to work?

My hon. Friend has consistently and conscientiously raised the position of his constituents, and I well understand why he does so. I appreciate the arguments that he puts forward, and I was grateful to him for coming to see me and raising these matters directly. I emphasise that Network Rail’s total output will remain as previously planned. One reason for rephasing the work is to allow what is essentially new technology to be available in the form of modular sets of points and new equipment that will allow the work to be done more efficiently and effectively. I repeat that the total amount of work will be unchanged by the rephasing.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the condition of the track, and particularly the points system, goes to the heart of the issues concerning the Potters Bar rail crash, which now took place more than seven years ago? I appreciate the personal interest that he has taken in this case, but does he agree that seven years is far too long to have to wait for an inquiry into these important issues?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, which I have taken seriously in the time that I have been in this position. I recognise the anxiety of those most directly affected by the terrible tragedy that took place, and it is important that we resolve that as soon as possible by an appropriate form of inquiry.

I welcome the investment in Network Rail, but is it not time that some urgency was shown in improving Network Rail’s efficiency, so that major parts of the network are not closed down on bank holidays, stopping people being able to travel around the country and forcing more cars on to the roads?

I have regular meetings with Network Rail and I can assure my hon. Friend that that is something that we regularly discuss. Network Rail is in no doubt of the importance of achieving greater efficiency in the work that it does and it recognises the problems that the kinds of stoppages she describes cause to an increasing number of passengers at weekends, when our railway is increasingly busy, so I hope Network Rail will address the matter.

Braintree has seen tremendous growth in the past 10 years, yet there is only a single track between Witham and Braintree. Is the Minister aware of any progress that has been made on what is known locally as the Cressing loop, which is dualling the track between Witham and Braintree?

I am not specifically aware of the particular piece of track, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman once an appropriate answer is available. What I can say to him is that I recognise that there are capacity questions right across our network, which is entirely the result of the remarkable success of our railways in recent years. We now carry more passengers than at any time since 1946, which necessarily means that there are capacity questions, and this Government are addressing them.

The fact is that track renewals under privatisation cost many times what they cost under British Rail, and the work is certainly done no better. Has my right hon. Friend investigated why that is the case, and does it not argue strongly in favour of public ownership as opposed to privatisation?

On every occasion that I do Transport questions, I need to say that I come from a railway family. Since both my parents and my grandfather worked for the railway and were involved in British Rail, I have a natural predisposition to what my hon. Friend suggests. Unfortunately, however, the evidence is against him, and I suspect that if he examined the costs of British Rail he would not find much support for his contention.

Perhaps I should declare an interest as a former employee of British Rail. Network Rail promised a year ago to move towards a seven-day railway, yet we have seen no progress. For example, in Lewes, between 1 January and the end of March, on 11 weekends there were rail replacement buses instead of a proper train service, which is simply unacceptable. Is it not time to give Network Rail an incentive to move towards a seven-day railway, and would it not be a good idea to reduce ticket prices by, say, a third, when there are rail replacement buses?

I am sure that British Rail regretted the loss of the hon. Gentleman’s service, and I hope that he can make a contribution to the future of the railways in his current position. I accept that it is important that we move towards a seven-day railway, and that, as I said in answering the previous question, we find ways to co-operate with Network Rail on weekend journeys, because so many more passengers are using the railway at weekends. That means looking at innovative ways of attracting passengers on to the railway. Weekend and off-peak prices are very competitive these days, but I am confident that his suggestions will be looked at seriously by the train operating companies.