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Topical Questions

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 19 April 2012

Last month we published the rail Command Paper setting out how we will reduce the cost of running our railways so that we can end the era of above-inflation fare rises for passengers. We have also kicked off the consultations on how best to bring fares and ticketing on the railways into the 21st century and to give local communities more power over local services. We also, as we have already discussed, set out our bus strategy, including new funding for low carbon buses and smart ticketing. Users of the Humber bridge have finally begun to benefit from the lower tolls that this Government have introduced.

When my right hon. Friend announced HS2, she assured the House that a fair property and blight deal would address any blight caused by HS2 and reassure property owners. Many people in my constituency have been trying to sell their home for up to two years but are without access to a compensation scheme. What can I say to them to reassure them? Will she reconsider the prospects for a property bond, which would be the only way of ensuring that the property market works normally?

I assure my hon. Friend that I recognise the impact that plans for High Speed 2 are already having on individuals, communities and businesses along the line of route. That is why we will shortly consult on a package of measures that will help property owners. It is an important step for the Government and enables those affected or interested to respond to the consultation and help shape Government policy. She talked about a bond-based property purchase scheme. I assure her that I am committed to making sure that the package is fair.

The minutes of the Whitehall meeting between Addison Lee chairman John Griffin and the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), now the Secretary of State for Defence, on 13 October last year record that the then Transport Secretary said that

“he was interested to listen to the views of someone in the industry”

about opportunities to bid for plum Government chauffeur contracts. Given the cash for access scandal hanging over her Government, will the Secretary of State say whether she or her predecessor had any other private hire firms on the sofa pitching for business? Or do people get that chance only if they pay enough to become a premier league donor to the Tory party?

If the hon. Gentleman’s proposal is that one should not be able to speak to any organisation that gives money to one’s party, it will certainly free up a lot of time in the Labour party’s diary. Labour Members could cut out all those union meetings. The bottom line is that this Government and my predecessor and I have always approached all our meetings with absolute propriety, and that is the case on this matter, too.

T4. The Minister will be aware from her answers to my written parliamentary questions that the Labour party spent no money and completed no track work for the northern hub during its time in government. I am sure that the House welcomes the Ordsall Chord as the down payment on the northern hub, but can she assist those in the Chamber who might be frustrated by the lack of progress on how the new infrastructure projects, such as electrification, impact on the delivery of the northern hub? (103853)

It is right that the Government are making considerable progress on the northern hub, in contrast to our predecessors—not just the Ordsall Chord but north trans-Pennine electrification, improving the Hope Valley line and other improvements that will benefit Manchester, Sheffield, Bolton, Preston, Rochdale, Halifax and Bradford. I acknowledge that there is more to do, and the remaining elements of the northern hub will be carefully and seriously considered when we make our decisions on the next high-level output specification railway control period.

T2. I apologise for raising again the issue that I raised last month without getting an answer. Two years ago the Government inherited an in-principle agreement from the previous Government for the tram train pilot scheme in Sheffield. The scheme is not about rolling out multi-billion pound expansion across the country at this stage. A simple pilot could determine whether what works in other countries works here. When will we have a starting date? (103851)

We are very supportive of the concept of a tram train pilot, and I am in regular discussions with officials in the Department, Network Rail and colleagues elsewhere in Government such as the Treasury. We have to get this right because it is an important project. We have to get the specification right to ensure that it works. We inherited a position where not much work had been done, and we had to start from a very low base, but we are making progress and I hope to make a further statement shortly.

T6. Officials in the Department are considering the Greater Bristol metro rail campaign’s four-track bid for high-level operating strategy funds. Does the Minister agree that, if successful, the four-track system at Filton bank would unlock an essential local railway line for more regular local trains serving popular residential and business locations? (103855)

I am very aware of the project and I recognise its benefits, and officials at the Department for Transport are working with Network Rail and the local authorities concerned. It looks to have a fairly positive business case and we will consider this alongside all the others put forward this morning that could be funded in railway control period 5.

T3. Will the local transport Minister give us an assurance today that, despite Government Members’ statements, there will be no planned changes to the concessionary fares scheme? (103852)

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has kicked me upstairs to the House of Lords, but I will try to give him an answer. There are no planned changes to the concessionary fares regime. It is in place and will be in place for the rest of this Parliament, and we are determined to ensure that pensioners benefit entirely from the arrangement.

T7. Last summer, Network Rail closed the barrow crossing at Downham Market station and said it would consult local residents and councillors about the new crossing. A few weeks ago, I heard that a new crossing is to be built by July this year with no consultation with local councillors and residents. Will the Secretary of State look into this and secure a meeting with David Higgins for me and local councillors so that Network Rail can be held to account? (103856)

I will follow up the issues that my hon. Friend raises. I know that Network Rail has been keen to do what it can to improve level crossing safety, but I recognise the concerns that she raises today and we will have them followed up and make sure that a meeting happens.

T5. Is the Minister aware of the problems being caused to passengers travelling from Liverpool by rail to London on Saturday 10 May for the FA cup final at Wembley with no prospect of a return train until two days later? Will the Minister get the relevant authorities, Virgin, Network Rail and the Football Association, round the table and bang their heads together until common sense prevails? (103854)

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have already been on the case. The underlying problem that we are trying to solve is the fact that the FA cup was planned to start at 3 o’clock but will now start later at 5.15 pm. I have spoken with Sir David Higgins of Network Rail and Virgin, and with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the timing of the FA cup. It is difficult to change the Network Rail work, which is really important for maintenance and safety and has been planned for 18 months, but Virgin has said that it plans to put on longer trains on the Sunday to ensure that fans have a good opportunity to get back. We all recognise that when the FA cup starts at 5.15 pm and generally the last train back to Liverpool is at 8.10 pm it will always be a stretch for fans to get there.

T9. I am all for improvements in public transport, but the tram works in Broxtowe are causing widespread disruption to residents, and last weekend the Wilkinson store in Beeston closed, with no alternative premises. Does the Minister agree that when deciding routes, wherever they are in the country, it is imperative to work with local people and local businesses? (103858)

I agree with that general proposition and am aware of my hon. Friend’s concern about the extension to the Nottingham tram route. Ultimately, especially these days, when we are looking to devolve more decision making to local authorities, it is for them to decide the best way forward, and I am sorry that she feels that the local authority has not taken account of all shades of opinion.

T8. Do Ministers accept that when railway stations are left without staff, the travelling public, particularly women, feel insecure using them? Will they give an absolute guarantee that staff will not be taken out of stations when that would put the public at any kind of risk? (103857)

In deciding the rules on ticket offices, it will of course be important to consider carefully how best to deploy staff in a way that keeps passengers safe and secure, so the issues the hon. Gentleman raises will be an important part of our thinking before we decide whether any changes need to be made.

T10. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Virgin Atlantic, Gatwick Airport Ltd and the South East Coast ambulance service for their professionalism when assisting passengers following the emergency landing of flight VS27 earlier this week? (103859)

Yes, I will. I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks and praise for the staff of both companies and members of the emergency services who responded to the emergency landing at Gatwick on Monday. It is obviously too early to speculate on what exactly caused the incident, but it is now being investigated by the Department’s air accidents investigation branch.

Current electrification schemes for a better railway agreed under the previous Government will hopefully yield lessons on how to improve engineering processes and should make electrification of the midland main line and the important scheme for the Wrexham to Bidston line, which runs through my constituency, a better prospect. What early lessons has the Department learned on how to improve engineering for electrification?

Sir David Higgins has come up with some great ideas exactly along the lines the hon. Lady mentions, which could considerably reduce the cost of delivering electrification. However, it is still expensive and still has to be affordable, so we will have to look at priorities.

Has the Secretary of State now calculated the cost associated with increasing the motorway speed limit to 80 mph and the increased number of casualties expected as a result of such a measure?

We would quantify the pros and cons of any move to 80 mph as part of the consultation we would publish, and obviously an impact statement would also be needed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we want to reach an informed conclusion on this policy area and will announce our next steps shortly.