Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 501: debated on Thursday 3 December 2009

Since our last Question Time in October, my Department has made a number of significant announcements, including today, about winning bids from a £30 million fund for green buses that aims to encourage and help bus operators and local authorities to buy new low-carbon buses to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We have also made announcements about a further £30 million programme to develop electric car-charging points in six leading cities across the country, and about a review by Sir Peter North of the law on drink and drug driving, for which a report is expected in March 2010.

I am sure that the Minister shares my horror that, this year, the number of children who were killed or seriously injured while riding their bikes has increased by a third. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust has pointed out that four official websites show children not wearing safety helmets. Is the Minister able to tell the House when the report on the effectiveness of cycle helmets will be published?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his track record on this important issue. He moved a ten-minute Bill on this issue, and he is also, like me, the father of young children who ride bicycles. On the research that he referred to in his question, he will welcome the fact that we hope to receive some response by the end of this year about the effectiveness of cycle helmets. I am happy to meet him to discuss how we can move much faster in this important area, because I am as impatient as he is to see progress to ensure that zero young people are injured—or, of course, killed—on our roads as a consequence of riding their bikes.

T6. Will my hon. Friend tell me what conversations he has had with his counterpart north of the border, particularly about the Glasgow airport rail link to Glasgow city centre? That proposal was part of the bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games and helped us to win the bid and be the city that will hold the games. (303689)

My noble Friend Lord Adonis has good relations with his counterparts in the Scottish Government, but this is a devolved matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) might be interested to know that in developing a sustainable transport strategy for the rest of the UK, one of our priorities is connecting the country’s major cities with international gateways such as ports and airports, but it appears that the current Scottish Executive do not have the same priorities.

T2. Since 2007, the Driving Standards Agency has been looking for practical motorcycle testing facilities on the Isle of Wight. My constituents still face a long and costly journey to the mainland to be tested. The EU allows that test to be carried out on the road, so why will the Government not allow appropriate island and rural roads to be used? (303685)

We have endeavoured to ensure that the vast majority of people are within a recognised mileage or distance travel limit of a recognised centre. Of course, I recognise that there will be some difficulties in achieving that and I believe that I have corresponded with the hon. Gentleman on the matter. However, we want a safe environment for the training required to ensure that people are not killed or seriously injured on our roads. It is right that we continue our work to ensure that we have the right centres for that training.

T7. Slough contributes £8 billion a year to Britain’s gross domestic product. Its station is the fourth busiest on the Great Western main line, yet the recent rail utilisation strategy proposes no improvement to our appalling commuter rail service. However, buried in it is a tiny opportunity to connect the Great Western main line directly from the west to Heathrow. Can the Minister please put that proposal higher up the agenda? Unless we have a rail connection to the airport from the west we will lose opportunities to build Britain’s economy. (303690)

The Thames Valley local authority has identified a case for direct rail access to the airport from the west, particularly from Slough, Maidenhead and Reading, but one of the constraints identified by the study was a lack of electrification on the Great Western main line. The Government’s announcement earlier in the summer has had a positive impact on the case for western rail access to Heathrow. We look forward to the local authorities and BAA taking that into account in their further assessments of airport surface access requirements. However, I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to see what we can do to facilitate such a development.

T3. A recent report by the Association of Train Operating Companies identified Wantage Road station in my constituency as one of just seven stations in the country that could be reopened. Will the Minister support me in pressing Network Rail to undertake a further detailed evaluation to reopen the station, with a view to getting it into Network Rail’s investment programme for 2014-19? (303686)

It is primarily for local authorities to give the lead on what local stations are needed for local transport services. We would expect Oxfordshire county council to work with Network Rail and the train operating companies to see what trains could call there. Any station that would require funding from the council would need to demonstrate that it would recover its costs from additional fares. We would then look at taking it into the franchise process.

On question 3, the Minister quite rightly set out the suggested improvements to Manchester and Preston railway stations. They are on the line between Blackpool and Manchester that goes via Chorley, which is known as the misery line because of the overcrowding and undercapacity that exists on it. Does he agree that the line is in desperate need of electrification and the right rolling stock?

When we made our announcement in the summer, we committed to looking at further potential schemes for electrification around the country. My hon. Friend has entirely correctly identified the interplay between electrification and rolling stock on particular sections of track. When those requirements come together, we will get the benefits from having cleaner and cheaper electric trains to replace the diesels that might currently exist. We are still reviewing some of the lines in the areas that he is talking about, and we hope to report shortly.

T4. The Minister may not be aware, but last week I attended a meeting of residents from the centre of King’s Lynn who are very concerned about road safety and the speed of traffic along King street and Queen street, both of which have speed limits of 20 miles per hour. Will he confirm that, under the highways regulations, it is possible to have 20 mph repeater signs, including flashing fibre-optic signs, on such roads? (303687)

One of the issues that we have been looking at in reviewing the road safety strategy has been taking forward guidance to local authorities. We want to allow them to reduce speeds, where they believe that is relevant, in predominantly residential areas. The use of the signs to which the hon. Gentleman has referred is certainly permissible, and they are used.

The Government deserve praise for a smooth transfer from National Express to the new company, East Coast. I would particularly like to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for giving a guarantee back in the summer that the company headquarters would remain in York. Now that he is looking at franchise arrangements for the longer term, will he ask his officials to consider the case for maintaining York as the headquarters in the terms of the franchise put out to contract?

With such an advocate for York as my hon. Friend, I cannot see the officials reaching any other conclusion. I am happy to arrange to meet him so that he can lobby me once again, as he has been doing so effectively since earlier this year.

T5. Given that Ministers forced the public-private partnership on London Underground, will they now call for a report from Transport for London on why so many underground routes are closed every weekend for engineering works, disrupting the plans not just of Londoners but of people from all over Britain and further afield? It is really not helpful to London’s tourism and economic health. (303688)

The hon. Gentleman, who believes passionately in devolution, will know that powers to run the tube have passed to the Mayor of London. He will be aware that TfL and the Mayor are in dispute with Tube Lines about closures caused by signalling changes on the Jubilee line. I will ensure that his comments are passed on to the Mayor, TfL and Tube Lines as soon as possible, and I will report back to him if there are any developments in that regard.

The Association of Train Operating Companies recently said that the risks that it takes on in providing rail services to the public should be reduced. Does the Minister agree that with annual ATOC profits approaching £1 billion from a public subsidy of £1.5 billion, we should be renationalising rail passenger services rather than tinkering with an already wildly generous franchise mechanism?

We have finally got some stability into the franchising system. The National Audit Office commended the Government on the operation of the franchising arrangements. On that basis, it would not be helpful, at a time of record passenger numbers on the railways, to start disturbing the franchising arrangements.

T8. Are the Government concerned at all about driving standards in this country, particularly appalling lane discipline on motorways? Will the Minister consult with that excellent organisation, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, to see how driving standards could be raised, for the personal security and safety of those driving and of others on the roads? (303691)

We always take every opportunity to review the standards and the training provided—they are constantly under review. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that I will start having those discussions with the Institute of Advanced Motorists at lunch time, when I will address its annual lunch.