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Topical Questions

Volume 551: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012

In addition to my recent statements on franchising, last week I announced that passengers will benefit from a reduction of up to 2% in the planned rises in many train fares. That will benefit more than a quarter of a million annual season ticket holders and more weekly and monthly ticket holders. I also announced £170 million for 57 vital road schemes to boost the economy, reduce congestion and improve safety. Earlier this month the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), announced the introduction of new rules better to protect holidaymakers from losing out if their travel company fails, giving UK holidaymakers a simple, straightforward way to know what the financial protection for their holiday is.

Metro in west Yorkshire has commissioned a bus service for the upper Calder Valley, a rural community, which for the past year has been served by an incredibly unreliable and poor service. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether there is a process in place for holding a commissioner to account when they do not take action on poor performance against contracts?

I sympathise with the obviously frustrating experience that my hon. Friend’s constituents are having. I know that he has been in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who leads on the matter in the Department. The Government have provided an extra £10 million of funding this year to help kick-start the development of community transport services in rural areas, and west Yorkshire received £385,000 of that. I am interested in hearing about the experiences of my hon. Friend’s constituents, however, and we will look into the matter.

On Tuesday the Road Safety Foundation, chaired by Lord Dubs, launched its annual report. It stated:

“Simple attention to safety engineering detail has resulted in extraordinary cuts in road deaths and serious injuries”.

Other leading countries in road safety are committed to improving the safety star rating of their national road networks. What emphasis are our Government placing on that?

We place a lot of emphasis on it. I spent a morning a few weeks ago with road traffic officers in the west midlands, looking at how they operate their managed motorways. They have had great success in reducing accidents on the M42 since it has become a managed motorway. Road safety is incredibly high on our agenda, and as I said, we have announced £170 million for relieving pinch points, which I hope will also help safety.

T2. I welcome the Government’s decision to set up a commission on aviation capacity. I hope that it will create a new, innovative solution to capacity needs and realise that a third, fourth and fifth runway at Heathrow is not the answer. May I urge my right hon. Friend to encourage the commission to report as quickly as possible? (123228)

I believe that setting up the commission was the right way to move forward. I hope to be able to announce the rest of the commission’s membership in the not-too-distant future. My hon. Friend will be able to make recommendations to the Davies commission, which will bring interim recommendations to the Government in 2013. Although some people say that it will take rather a long time, it will not take that long once it gets under way.

T3. Given the Department’s abject failure to manage the franchise process for the west coast main line, what are the Secretary of State’s views on the possibility of Transport for London being the franchising authority in future for the London parts of the south-eastern network? (123229)

I am due to meet the Mayor of London in the next few hours, and that may be one issue that he wants to bring forward to me. People will have different views about whether that would be the right way forward.

T6. When addressing the thorny issue of airport expansion, will the Minister look carefully at the huge economic benefits that can be offered at Birmingham airport? Not only is there extensive local support for expansion, but it is an excellent airport. (123232)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He makes a valid point: Birmingham is an excellent airport and I was extremely pleased to be able to present it with the airport of the year award at last Thursday’s national transport awards. On the wider issue, Birmingham, like many other regional airports, has a vital role to play in servicing its local community and pushing forward the growth agenda. As my hon. Friend will be aware, the Howard Davies commission will consider the whole issue of our hub status, aviation policy and airports and no doubt Birmingham will wish to contribute to that process.

T4. The Caldervale line is in urgent need of new rolling stock as the current units are totally inadequate for the 1 million passengers who use Halifax station every year. Will the Minister inform the House when those passengers will get the new trains that they badly need? (123230)

The hon. Lady knows that the northern hub package will certainly improve opportunities for the Calder valley line between Leeds and Manchester Victoria. The high-level output specification announcement confirmed the go-ahead for the Castlefield corridor scheme. She knows that the 2012 Budget set aside a package of measures to increase line speeds and look at the rolling stock.

T7. Are there any plans in the Department to begin to look at the commercial condition and strategic future of Britain’s smaller ports, such as Fleetwood and Glasson dock in my constituency? (123233)

My hon. Friend knows that the Government’s national policy statement on ports, published in January, designated and underlined the importance of the contribution made by smaller ports. I was delighted to visit the national smaller ports conference in Windermere two weeks ago and to address it. It is, however, for Associated British Ports to promote the commercial opportunities at Fleetwood, rather than the Government.

T5. First, I congratulate Dundee youth council on its “It’s no fare” campaign, which seeks to lower bus fares for young people. Will the Minister liaise with his counterpart in Holyrood in Edinburgh to ensure that apprentices and students can get to their place of work or study for the lowest price? (123231)

I have a great deal of sympathy for that point of view and recognise that there is an issue with access to work for young people and students that needs to be dealt with. That is why I have been discussing the matter with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which is the umbrella body for bus companies, and I am very happy to liaise with colleagues in the Scottish Government and others to try to take it forward.

T8. For completeness, I should declare that my wife works for Google, albeit in a capacity unrelated to this question. Google, Audi, Ford and Volvo are among the firms pioneering driverless cars, which could cut road accidents by up to 90% while freeing up time that could unleash massive productivity gains. Several US states are testing the technology. What action is the Department taking to explore the viability of that innovation in this country? [R] (123234)

The technology for driverless cars is, as my hon. Friend says, advancing very quickly. As the Secretary of State just said, our key priority is safety and I want to ensure that those systems are safe and reliable before allowing them on to UK roads. There is of course great potential for UK technology to be at the forefront of these developments and departmental officials are liaising with leading UK researchers in the field.

T9. In June, the then rail Minister told me that the Government were “making progress on the Thameslink procurement”.—[Official Report, 12 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 67WH.]In August, The Guardian reported that the contract for new trains would be delayed until the autumn, and it is now the autumn. The delivery of new trains for Thameslink frees up electric rolling stock to move north, but any delay puts that in jeopardy. Will the Minister meet me and Merseytravel to guarantee that we will not end up with an electrified line from Manchester to Liverpool but no electric trains? (123235)

Yes. As I know the hon. Lady is aware, significant investment is being made in Thameslink—some £6 billion is being invested, £4.5 billion of which is for the infrastructure and £1.5 billion of which is for the rolling stock. I understand her concerns. My Department and I are working to ensure that the rolling stock is ready for the project and I would have the greatest pleasure in meeting the hon. Lady at her convenience.

Will the Minister confirm that Access for All funding will not be raided to pay compensation to franchise bidders and that the project to build lifts at Chippenham station is therefore still on track?

I can confirm that the Government are fully committed to Access for All funding. It is entirely separate, and will not be “raided”—the verb used by my hon. Friend. I confirm that a further £100 million over the new control period will take even more stations up to the standard that we expect.

To return to the subject of the west coast main line, when the Secretary of State made a statement on Monday, I made him aware of a figure given to me by insiders in the industry that suggested a cost of at least half a billion pounds as a result of this debacle. Has any application to the Treasury for additional contingency funding been made as a result?

British pilots in my constituency are concerned that EU proposals on pilot flight time limitations will weaken the current rules and that, as a result, flying will become less safe. Instead of lowering our standards to harmonise with the EU, should not the EU be raising its standards to harmonise with ours? Failing that, will the Department at least explore with the British Air Line Pilots Association additional safety measures to cover those areas that would otherwise see standards drop?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he will be aware, the Government place the highest priority on safety, both for passengers, and for those who fly and work on our airlines. We are playing a vigorous role in this Europe-wide initiative, and it is for the Civil Aviation Authority to lead. The Government will do nothing with which the CAA is not content, and we will continue to consider the issue as it moves forward.

As a directly operated railway, the east coast main line returned £187 million to the taxpayer last year. How much money will Virgin pay to the taxpayer during the period of extension to its west coast main line franchise?