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Topical Questions

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 2 December 2010

Since I last answered Transport Questions, I have confirmed that Thameslink will go ahead in its entirety and announced £900 million-worth of rail electrification projects and 2,100 new rail carriages. I have also announced the sale of a 30-year concession on High Speed 1 for £2.1 billion.

Since the last Transport questions, I have corrected the Minister with responsibility for roads: there have been 27 collisions at Elkesley on the A1 in the past five years. When will the Minister press the button to start this scheme, which is designed and ready to go, so that we can save lives by building the bridge at Elkesley?

The hon. Gentleman knows that road schemes are evaluated on a cost-benefit basis. Accident figures are one of the factors taken into account and built into the analysis, but we will always look at the cost-benefit analysis—the overall benefits that the scheme will bring, compared with the costs—and all schemes have to be looked at fairly and objectively in the light of the limited funding available.

T2. Prodrive is one of the most cutting-edge and significant companies in my constituency. It does excellent work on automotive engineering, including producing a new generation of Mini rally car. What are the Government going to do to make it easier for rallying to take place on roads in the UK? (27873)

Legislation dating from the 1930s restricts rallying, time trials and races on highways in the UK. An Act of Parliament would be required to change that. We are looking to deregulate the position so that if local authorities want to hold rallies, time trials or races, they should be allowed to do so.

The winter resilience review commissioned by the previous Government has produced its final report and recommendations, yet the country is in chaos, with passengers forced to sleep at stations, freezing all night on broken-down trains or getting trapped in their cars, all at a cost to the economy of up to £1.2 billion a day. Why are not the findings of the review being implemented? The public do not want the Secretary of State to announce another review by the person who has already set out the blueprint for improvements. They want him to get on and implement the recommendations and improvements. When is the Secretary of State going to get a grip?

First of all, the hon. Lady fails to recognise the scale of the weather event that is occurring. It involves a significantly bigger snowfall than the one that occurred earlier this year, which gave rise to the events that caused my predecessor to commission the review. The findings and recommendations of the review have been implemented, and I have asked David Quarmby to come back and audit their implementation so that we can see the extent to which they have been consistently implemented and whether there are any lessons that we can learn from the last few days. I hope that the hon. Lady will support that approach.

T4. Thousands of my Harlow commuters have been braving the weather to travel on the Harlow to London rail line. They have suffered a 30% increase in train overcrowding in recent years. Will the Minister look at the economic benefits of upgrading the West Anglia main line? (27875)

As my hon. Friend will know, 176 additional carriages are due to be delivered to the Greater Anglia franchise next year. That will assist with overcrowding overall. In regard to the upgrading of the line, I have said in response to other questions today that we are prepared to look at proposals for further network enhancements as possible investments for control period 5, which begins in 2014.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the answer given just a few minutes ago by the road safety Minister is probably the worst answer I have heard in this House in 31 years? Professor Richard Allsop, an acknowledged world expert on transport safety, says that 800 people will die because of the Government’s policy on speed cameras. Is the Secretary of State going to just sit there and let that happen?

No, and I completely reject the analysis. As the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), has said, speed cameras are useful additions to the road safety armoury in some locations. It is for local authorities to decide whether they wish to continue with speed camera operation. I hope that they will act responsibly and carefully in making those decisions.

T5. The Secretary of State is right to consider the introduction of automatic number plate recognition technology at the Dartford crossing to ease congestion. Given that the crossing makes some £45 million a year, would it not be better to consider the effect of how the new technology improves congestion before increasing toll charges to help fund a new crossing? (27877)

My hon. Friend has campaigning for many years to get the tolls removed from the Dartford river crossing, but we need the investment not only for vehicle recognition, so that we can have free flow coming through and the realignment of the road, but for the preliminary work for the new crossing.

In the Secretary of State’s response to the resilience review, he stated that he was dissatisfied with previous performance and the level of disruption and that it would be sorted in time for this winter. What went wrong? His response just now was not good enough. It is not good enough just to say that there has been a bit extra snow.

Let me make this clear: when we have extremely heavy snow and extremely low temperatures, there will be disruption to the transport system. The question is not about whether there is disruption. The question we now have to ask is whether anything could or should have been done that was not done. If there is anything, we will learn the lessons from that.

In the events earlier this year, the problem was that local authorities and the Highways Agency had inadequate supplies of salt and grit. We have more than adequate supplies of salt and grit and we have new equipment out on the strategic road network. Six runs per day across the strategic road network have been going on over the past 48 hours. The strategic road network, with one or two specific exceptions, is open and operating today.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when he will be able to give further details on any impact the extension of High Speed 2 to Manchester will have on existing rail services, including those from Manchester to Euston, which make an important stop at Macclesfield? (27879)

My hon. Friend is right to observe that the introduction of HS 2 services in 2025 will of course change the nature of operations on the west coast main line. It will create additional capacity on that line and provide the opportunity for more trains that stop at more places, which is one of the demands that we regularly receive, and it will also create the opportunity for more freight paths and thus more transfer of freight from road to rail. The precise detail of service patterns will have to be decided when the franchise for west coast main line post-2025 is let.

Instead of all these reviews about the weather, why does not the Secretary of State get on the phone to the Tory councils in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and tell them to get the gritters out?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that gritters on the strategic road network, which are operated by the Highways Agency, have been out and have been carrying out the planned number of gritting runs.

The hon. Gentleman says he is talking about villages. One thing I have asked David Quarmby to do is to consider the response of local authorities, whether they have uniformly implemented the recommendations in his review, which reported earlier this year, and what lessons have to be learned. I shall make public David Quarmby’s findings, which we expect to receive in a couple of weeks’ time.

May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore today’s report from the Select Committee on Transport on the North review in the same way as the report ignored conclusive evidence that reducing the drink-drive limit would save lives? Instead, will he bring forward proposals to reduce the drink-drive limit from 80 mg to 50 mg?

I have not seen the conclusive evidence that the hon. Gentleman speaks of, but I have seen various opinions in this area. I have not yet read the Transport Committee’s report but I have to say to him that I am a little surprised to hear him, as a member of that Committee, urging me to ignore its report and findings. Part of our democratic process is to have our debates in the Committees and to get behind their findings and reports when they are published.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress following the consultation on the safety at street works and road works code of practice? More than 500,000 people are working on the highways unprotected, and we need new legislation to be able to get new jobs, which could be based in areas outside the south-east.

I am happy to say that we are having discussions in the Department with relevant bodies outside, including the roadworks community, to work out how best to go forward and ensure that we get the balance right between improved safety, where that is appropriate, and not loading inappropriate costs on business.