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Transport

Volume 580: debated on Thursday 8 May 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Taxi and Private Hire Industry

1. What representations he has received on his proposed reforms to the regulation of the taxi and private hire industry. (903888)

The Department undertook a targeted consultation in January with the intention of seeking immediate reactions to three proposed taxi and private hire vehicle measures, for inclusion in the Deregulation Bill. Our position on the measures is clear: they are liberalising, cost-saving steps that will benefit many thousands of small businesses and customers throughout the country.

I must tell the Minister that drivers in Sheffield have expressed grave concern to me about his proposals. They fear that these rushed changes, which will allow minicab operators to subcontract bookings to other operators in a different district, could result in drivers working hundreds of miles away from their home licensing authority, and that our licensing authority in Sheffield would be unable to carry out effective enforcement. Does the Minister share those drivers’ fear that the changes will put the public’s safety at risk?

No, I do not. In fact, I believe that the changes will give the public a better service. For example, if someone rings a private hire vehicle company and all its vehicles—or, perhaps, all its disabled-access vehicles—are occupied, it will be able to call on another company from across the border to fill the gap. People will get the service that they want, and I do not believe that safety will be compromised at all.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that if his proposals are implemented, someone who gets into a minicab will not know whether it has come from the company that he or she telephoned, will not be able to assume that the person driving it is licensed to do so, and will not even be able to assume that the car itself has been passed as okay to carry passengers in his or her own town or city? Expert opinion after expert opinion has warned the Minister that all this could put passengers’ safety at risk. Why does he feel that he knows better than anyone else?

I do not accept those criticisms. The fact that a company is registered across the border in another local authority area does not mean that it will not meet the standards that apply in that local authority area. This is about more flexibility and a better service for people using private hire vehicles.

East-West Route

2. What consideration he has given to extending the proposed east-west route from Oxford to Bristol or Cardiff. (903891)

Passenger train services that could use the east-west route could be extended to Bristol. However, additional capacity on parts of the Great Western main line is likely to be required to accommodate the additional services.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Before long, we shall start to look at the specifications for the next Great Western franchise, and services along that route could stop at a reopened Corsham station. Given the importance of our ambitions for Corsham in the strategic economic plan, how should we go about including those services in the next franchise?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend’s aspiration to reopen Corsham station, which closed in 1962, even before the Beeching cuts. We are reopening 45 miles of the Oxford to Bedford line, and I believe that the long-term aspiration is to extend it to Peterborough, which would possibly include reopening Corsham station. However, when it comes to aspirations, I think we are looking at the next decade.

New Rolling Stock

In the coming years, passengers will see significant increases in the amount of rolling stock on the railways, thanks to the Government’s investment. More than 3,100 new carriages will be in service by the end of 2019, including new rolling stock serving the Thameslink commuter routes north and south of London, new Crossrail trains from Reading through London to Essex and Kent, and new intercity express programme trains serving the east coast, Wales and the south-west.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the biggest investment in our railways since the Victorian era, but may I beg him to spend just a little of that money on some new rolling stock for the Derby to Crewe line? People are currently unable to get on to trains to travel to Uttoxeter race course before the race meetings start, and we are seeing crowds struggling to get on to trains after the meetings have finished. Just a little of that money would be welcome in Uttoxeter.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning a line that goes through my constituency. As one who has regularly caught the train from Crewe to Derby, I understand the point that he is making. It is, of course, up to East Midlands Trains to look at the way in which the line is serviced, but I hope that we shall see an upgrade in the not-too-distant future.

What plans has the Secretary of State to modernise rolling stock in the north-west, especially on the South Fylde line, in conjunction with station modernisation?

One question asked of me quite regularly is what has been the biggest change since I was first appointed to the Department for Transport 25 years ago, and I have to say to my hon. Friend that one of the biggest changes is the demand for more and more rail services. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss the particular services in his constituency and how we can best meet the increasing demand we are seeing right across the country for railway services.

Investment in rail is welcome, but what new steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that when individual lines are electrified, appropriate rolling stock is available immediately?

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport makes an important point about the commitment the Government are making to electrification. I will not remind her of the figures on electrification over the 13 years that her party were in government—it was some 10 miles, I think. We are planning to do 880 miles in this programme of rail electrification and modernisation, and she is absolutely right to say that we have got to make sure we get the rolling stock in line and in order as well.

Does the Secretary of State agree that there is great potential for the rolling stock for High Speed 2 to be built by Hitachi in my constituency in the north-east of the England, creating hundreds of direct jobs and thousands in the supply chain, and is he aware that Hitachi built the original bullet train almost 50 years ago?

I am indeed aware of what Hitachi is doing in the north-east and I very much welcome the Hitachi foreign investment into the north-east and its decision to base its world headquarters here in London. It is a great sign of confidence in the way that the Government are attracting inward investment into this country. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right about the investment opportunities that HS2 offers, not just in terms of rolling stock but right across the whole railway piece. There will of course be a competition and I have no doubt that it will be matched by Bombardier and other companies.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although deep cleaning and refurbishment of rolling stock is important, there is a pressing need for new rolling stock on the commuter line from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street, and can he tell the House whether having new rolling stock could be a condition of the long-term franchise from 2016?

I hear the representations my right hon. Friend makes to me now, and has made to me on many occasions privately, about the desire for new rolling stock on that line. It will be something I will want to consider when we look at the franchising agreements we will put forward.

The £5 billion project to electrify the Great Western main line has been hit by flooding, bats on bridges and lengthy road closures which have crippled businesses in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. What guarantees can the Secretary of State offer the House that the electrification work will be completed by 2017 when those new intercity express trains will be ready to run?

The points the hon. Lady makes about forward orders and the fact that that new rolling stock is due to come on board by 2017 with the electrification of that line are very important. I have every confidence that Network Rail will rise to the challenge to deliver what it has set out to deliver in the rail investment strategy. Quite often attacks are made on Network Rail, but I think we can all stand back and think of the remarkable way in which it managed to re-establish the line through Dawlish and the work it did working almost 24/7.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but it was his Department’s mismanagement of the Thameslink rolling stock contract that meant it took two full years to close the deal with Siemens. That project will finish three years late in 2018 and our colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee said last October:

“We are sceptical that the programme will be delivered by 2018 given the delays in awarding the contract for new trains”.

On Thameslink we could have new track but no trains, and on the Great Western line we could have new trains but no track to run them on. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that this is no way to run a railway?

I simply say to the hon. Lady that this Government have announced the biggest investment programme in the railway industry that we have seen in this country and I am very proud of that. Of course there will always be problems. I think the Thameslink programme was actually Thameslink 2000 so it has overrun—that is certainly true—but at the end of the day we are going to get a far, far better commuter service for all the people in the areas served by that line.

Successive Governments have short-changed East Anglia. As somebody who uses the rail service from Colchester to London Liverpool Street, I ask the Secretary of State, on behalf of my commuters, to include Greater Anglia in his roll-call of those companies that will get new rolling stock.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s representations. The simple fact is that we are seeing massive investment in rolling stock, and there are demands for even greater such investment, but that has to be balanced with the investment that we are seeing on the tracks. As I have said, we are embarking on a new round of spending on the railways, with some £38.5 billion by Network Rail plus the investment in rolling stock as well.

Rolling Stock (North of England)

The Department has recently agreed terms with Northern Rail for the introduction of electric trains between Liverpool and Manchester. Northern Rail will be able to transfer additional diesel carriages on to trains operating on other busy routes in order to relieve the crowding further. TransPennine Express has seen capacity increase with the introduction of the new Class 350 trains.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the rolling stock on Tyne and Wear metro is undergoing refurbishment, but that is little consolation to the residents of Washington who do not even have a station. Nexus has recently outlined plans for three stations in Washington as part of an extension to the metro network, and the North East local enterprise partnership has agreed to undertake the business case. Will the Secretary of State commit his officials to working closely with both parties to ensure that the business case is as strong and compelling as it can be?

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. The Newcastle metro has been running for some time and is now undergoing a desperately needed upgrade. There is no doubt in my mind that the original metro regenerated areas that had been in serious decline. We are always looking at ways in which we can best expand those services. I am more than happy for those conversations to take place.

The daily commute of many of my Saddleworth constituents is akin to that of sardines travelling in a can. On top of that, we now know that some of Northern Rail’s diesel stock may be transferred to TransPennine Express to supplement the gap left by the TPE stock transfer to the Chiltern Railways. What guarantee will the Secretary of State give my constituents that that transfer will not happen?

What we have set out to do is match, where we possibly can, the growing passenger capacity with the availability of the railway network. As I have pointed out, a huge amount of new rolling stock is coming on line in the next few years. I therefore hope that we will be able to relieve some of the initial problems that the hon. Lady has mentioned.

I hope the Secretary of State will agree that Northern Rail has some of the worst rolling stock in the country on its lines, and I hope that that is something he will address. I hope he will also agree that the Airedale and Wharfedale lines are some of the most congested on the railway network and that they need additional capacity. What is he doing to provide better and longer trains on those lines?

I think I have just been setting out in the answers we have given the huge amount of investment that we are making in the new rolling stock that are coming on to our railways. I hope my hon. Friend’s frustration will not continue in the longer term.

Given the loss of nine trains already to the south of England, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that more trains cannot be taken from TransPennine Express or Northern Rail during the direct award period before the franchise is re-let in 2016?

I understand very much the case that the hon. Lady makes for the services in Bolton, and I am keen to see those services improved and increased. As a result of the huge amount of money we are spending on investment in the railway sector, her constituents will get a far better railway in the future than they had under the previous Government.

A14 and Weekley-Warkton Bypass

6. If the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport will visit the sites of the proposed junction 10A on the A14 and the proposed Weekley-Warkton bypass, and meet representatives of Kettering borough council to discuss those proposals on 23 May 2014. [R] (903896)

I thank the Minister for his positive response. Thousands of new houses are being built in and around Kettering, so these two projects, which will cost a total of £60 million, are vital not only to unlock £1 billion of economic development under the Treasury Green Book rules but to prevent the town of Kettering from grinding to a halt because of all the extra traffic.

I think that my hon. Friend found out that I was due to be in Corby that day to open a new road, so I will be able to combine the two visits. This is a £40 million to £50 million scheme to which we have no policy objections, but as it will unlock potential development for up to 5,000 houses and improve access to the business and energy parks, I think that it is only fair that those who stand to gain—that is, the developers and the local authority, through the new homes bonus—should pay some of the costs.

When the Minister is in north Northamptonshire, will he ensure that his visit to Kettering does not eat into the time he has with us to celebrate the opening of the new Kettering to Corby link road? In my dealings with the Minister I have found him to be an even-handed and fair-minded man, so will he acknowledge that because of the lead-in, this project is very much a result of the work of the previous Labour Government and of Phil Hope, the then MP for Corby?

I would just add that this Government have tripled investment in roads, whereas I seem to remember that in 1997, when the Blair Government came to power, there was a moratorium on building roads. I look forward to coming to Corby. I think I will be calling in at Newark on the way home.

A1 (Dualling)

7. What progress his Department has made on its study of proposals to dual the remaining single carriageway sections of the A1. (903897)

The A1 north of Newcastle study is one of six studies to identify and fund solutions to a number of notorious and long-standing hot spots on the road network. The next working group takes place on 21 May to discuss the evidence review stage, after which the study will consider the potential investment options before making its recommendations later this year.

Since the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a firm commitment a year ago and the Transport Secretary has given the scheme his strong personal support, can he get a move on? At the moment, with all these studies, it feels a bit like being stuck in slow-moving traffic on the A1.

I think we are making progress. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned in his question the fact that the Chief Secretary is involved. If the Chief Secretary and the Transport Secretary are of one mind on this, I very much hope that we will be able to make some progress.

What accounts for the delay between the tentative announcement of yet another study and the setting up of the study? What is left to be studied of this much-studied question? Will the Transport Secretary confirm to the House that the study is but a prelude to the commencement of the actual work?

I think I will look at the wording of that when I see it in Hansard. This is an important road and a lot of work has already gone on to widen the A1, as well as a lot of work that is being undertaken at present. We are now talking about the area north of Newcastle and it is important that when the works are being carried out, measures are put in place to deal with the environmental consequences and the objections that people might raise.

Waterloo to Weymouth Line

8. What steps his Department is taking to improve journey times and passenger capacity on the Waterloo to Weymouth rail line. (903898)

There are no specific improvements to journey times and passenger capacity currently planned on the Waterloo to Weymouth line. However, the rail investment strategy requires additional capacity into Waterloo to meet extra demand of 9,700 passengers in the morning peak period by 2018. This could benefit the Weymouth line.

I thank my hon. Friend for that rather disappointing response. Will he explain why we are going to spend a fortune in taxpayers’ money speeding up the journey times between London and Birmingham when those journeys are already 50% faster than those between Southampton and London?

In every part of the country that I travel to, I am told that there are capacity constraints, but there is no simple solution to the problem. I am aware that the journey time from Christchurch into London is two hours and 10 minutes, which is longer than my journey from York to King’s Cross. Of course, the problem is often that faster services have fewer stops. For example, the fastest train on this line does not stop at Christchurch.

More people now travel through Waterloo in three hours every morning than through Heathrow in an entire day, but train services to the south coast remain painfully slow, as has been mentioned. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking into ways by which travel times, particularly to Portsmouth, can be reduced and services speeded up, because it is affecting business investment in our region?

As additional capacity is provided at Waterloo, which is the busiest station in the country with almost 100 million passengers per year, that will allow more flexibility further afield, but this is part of the problem of addressing the tremendous increase in passenger ridership that has occurred since privatisation.

HS2 Skills Academy

In January, the Government announced its intention to set up a new high speed rail college to boost the development of railway and engineering skills across the UK. In March, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched a consultation to identify the location for the new main site. Responses are currently being assessed and we intend to make an announcement of the preferred site later this year. The college is expected to open in 2017.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me, though, that to show the country that HS2 is also about rebalancing the economy, it is vital that the academy is built either in the midlands—please—or even further north?

We saw at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time a number of bids, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), who is not allowed to ask me a question today on this issue. So the bids are coming from far and wide, and I am very pleased about that.

12. May we make a bid for the new skills academy to be located in the west midlands, preferably in the Coventry area? The Government promised to publish a jobs and skills strategy for high-speed rail last July. It is almost a year and nothing has been produced. Can the Secretary of State give us a date when it will be published? (903903)

Let me deal with whether the academy should be in Coventry in the west midlands. Of course, the west midlands is a very large area. From Coventry to Wolverhampton to Birmingham, all those areas are making bids for the college and I am very pleased about that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) is saying that Stoke-on-Trent is in the west midlands. It is in the west midlands government area, but I am talking about the old west midlands metropolitan areas, which he may sort of remember.

The skills academy is vital so that we ensure that HS2 is built by skilled British workers. Notwithstanding the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley) and the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), where better to build the skills academy in the geographical heart of the country, at the centre of this project, than in Nuneaton?

I had a very interesting visit with my hon. Friend when I went to Nuneaton station, when he made the case for a number of extra services that he would like to see calling there. I understand his bid for the academy. I am slightly worried as I am not sure what we will talk about on HS2 when we have made a decision on the location of the academy

One thing I think we will talk about is the review of connections between HS2 and the continent, which the Secretary of State announced almost two months ago. When does he envisage that review being complete?

I hope to be able to update the House further on those proposals later this year and on the work that the Department is doing, which is at the moment being led by Sir David Higgins.

Is the Secretary of State aware, though, that if the station goes ahead in the east midlands at Toton, businesses will relocate from the centre of Derby and Nottingham around the Toton area, and also a new conurbation will be built, which will effectively join up Derby and Nottingham and denude both their city centres?

I am not sure that I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We need to ensure that development takes place in the whole area around where the new stations are going to be, and that there are infrastructure interconnections with those areas. But it is fair to say that, on the second part of the route—from Birmingham to Manchester and from Birmingham to Leeds—we are out to consultation, and those consultations are being considered at the moment.

I agree that the HS2 skills academy should be located at the centre of the project, which is right on Curzon street, on the east side of Birmingham. Is there any more information that the Secretary of State would require to convince him that that is the right location?

A number of people are making bids and the hon. Lady is but one of them. She is absolutely right about the importance of Curzon street in this project, which I think will be of great benefit to Birmingham. I look forward to discussing these proposals further with Sir Albert Bore, who is leader of Birmingham city council.

HS2 is obviously critical to my constituency’s development and also to the national interest. As the newest Member in this place—just—may I ask the Secretary of State to explain to me, in order to assist my development, where the Prime Minister and his AWOL colleagues were for those vital votes in the House last week?

Once the hon. Gentleman is in the House—it does not matter how long he has been here—he has the equal authority of any other Member. He is trying to play on the fact that he is the newest Member of the House, but he is treated the same way as any other Member as regards questions. He did remind me that the proposed route for HS2 would go directly under his house, so he does have a direct interest. There has never been any doubt about the Prime Minister’s commitment to this project. Indeed, his name is on the Bill. The only person who had doubts about the project was the shadow Chancellor, and I was very glad to see that he voted for the Bill last week.

Spare Parts (Rail Network)

Rolling stock spares are a matter for the train operators. They are required to have arrangements in place to maintain their leased trains so that they can deliver the performance level defined in their franchise agreement. I am aware of the specific problem of replacement wheels on my hon. Friend’s line.

Services on the Felixstowe to Ipswich line were disrupted for a number of reasons, one of which was the lack of availability of wheel sets around the entire network. I recognise that this is a matter for the rail companies to sort out themselves, but I hope that the Department can have a word with strategic partners, including with leasing companies and manufacturers.

Abellio Greater Anglia is well aware of the problem and has given us assurances that it is on top of it. The bad weather not only caused flood damage to some units, but caused a number of cases where brakes locked up and caused flats on the wheels so, instead of being able to re-profile the wheels perhaps six times during their life at 150,000-mile intervals, some of them were damaged beyond repair, which meant that there was a short-term shortage of those components.

Another important part of the rail infrastructure is the overhead wire system. When will the Minister take action to ensure the improvement of overhead wires on the east coast main line to avoid disruptions to services, of which I am sure he is well aware, given his journeys to London?

As somebody who uses the east coast main line regularly, I am aware that we have regular problems with overhead lines. If a line is brought down by a fast moving train, it can take some considerable time to repair. That is in marked contrast to the performance of High Speed 1, where we had no disruption, despite the bad weather over the winter, and we can expect similar very high levels of performance from High Speed 2.

Pedestrian Crossings

13. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the amount of time allowed for pedestrians to use pedestrian crossings. (903905)

Local councils are responsible for setting pedestrian crossing timings with reference to the guidance walking speed of 1.2 metres per second. The Department is conducting a review of traffic signing legislation, and once that is complete will consider the need to update the guidance.

Having rushed across many roads to get here in time for this question, I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he carry out that review as quickly as possible? The legislation has not been looked at since the 1950s and a recent review suggested that three quarters of elderly people struggle to cross the road before the signals change. Will he please look into the matter urgently?

I certainly will. We are reviewing the situation. The green man is an invitation to cross. When the green man is extinguished, there is still time to cross. The updated puffin crossings have movement detectors, which allow extra time to be given. We are looking at other types of crossing as well, which will further improve the situation.

Potholes

In the 2014 Budget, the Government announced a £200 million pothole fund for the financial year 2014-15. Some £168 million is being made available to councils in England, including up to £10 million for London. This is enough to fix over 3 million potholes. The fund is a competition, and bidding guidance was published on 24 April detailing how local authorities can submit their bids to the Department for Transport by 22 May. This is in addition to the £4.7 billion that we are providing for local road maintenance in this Parliament.

Medway council has filled nearly 4,000 potholes in just over 10 months, so it will welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. However, Medway has also been affected by the emergence of sinkholes, including one at Rainham Mark grammar school. What are the Government doing to address the emergence of sinkholes across the country?

I am aware that a number of sinkholes appeared across the country during this year’s severe winter weather, including those that my hon. Friend has mentioned. The Government have been working, and will continue to work, with the British Geological Survey on sinkholes. It is important that any lessons learnt are shared with local authorities and other transport operators to ensure that our infrastructure has greater resilience against future severe weather events.

Residents in the Queensbury, Northwick Park and Preston wards in my constituency would be very grateful if part of the remaining £50 million from the fund could make its way to the potholes in their wards. They would be even more pleased if those roads with extensive potholes could have a complete surface repair, because they are fed up with seeing potholes repaired one year and then having to be re-repaired the next winter. The money should be spent on solving the problem comprehensively, not addressing it in a piecemeal fashion.

I agree entirely. Some councils have shown excellent ways of doing that through a holistic approach, and I commend them for that. I was in Northampton recently to see what the local council has done there. It has taken on board the point the hon. Gentleman makes. I hope that other authorities will do likewise.

Crossrail

The Crossrail project is progressing well. Over 20 miles of tunnels under London have now been completed, which is 78% of all the tunnelling. While focus is being maintained on delivering the infrastructure, work is now well under way on the operational phases, making Crossrail a fully operational railway. Crossrail is on course to be delivered by the scheduled opening date of December 2018 for the central section, with full services commencing in 2019.

I am grateful to the Government for recently correcting the terrible error of the previous Government, who would have stopped Crossrail at Maidenhead, rather than Reading. The local enterprise partnership and local businesses support my view that unlocking Crossrail’s full potential will require some semi-fast services, rather than the slow metro service currently proposed from Reading into London. Will my right hon. Friend support Thames Valley Berkshire LEP, local businesses and me by doing everything he can to deliver the economic boost that the right Crossrail will bring to Reading and the Thames valley region?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on this massive project, which is important both for London and for the outlying areas. I will be more than happy to discuss it with him as we develop the programme and the timetables.

Topical Questions

The House will recall that five weeks ago the HGV user levy came into force. I am pleased to say that in that short period the levy has generated £7.6 million in revenue from overseas hauliers and achieved a mainland payment compliance rate of 96%. Thanks to the actions of this Government, foreign hauliers are at last paying for their use of British roads.

Driver distraction is a major cause of death and serious injury on our roads, and it has been the focus of a leading campaign by the charity Brake. What are the Government doing to work with such organisations to tackle driver distraction? By way of a digression, I was given the “parliamentarian of the year” award by Brake for campaigning on road safety.

I have known of Brake’s work for many years, as one of its founding members was the relative of a victim who died in my constituency. I think that the whole question of driver distraction is important. I am still amazed by the number of people who use mobile phones while driving. In August 2013 the Government increased the penalty for using a mobile phone while driving from £60 to £100. I will look at the matter and review it in due course.

The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) deserves the hearty congratulations of the House, and I feel sure that the award is prominently displayed in his home.

The Government are blocking an EU directive that bus drivers should have disability awareness training. In January, the Minister promised me a review in March, but in response to a later question he seemed to back off that promise. With my letter on this to his Lords colleague at the end of March still unanswered, when will the Government keep his promise to the House and stop letting disabled people down?

I will certainly ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a reply to his letter. I am somewhat surprised that he has not had one already, but I will find out what has gone wrong. As we discussed in Westminster Hall recently, the voluntary approach is working very well with over 75% of drivers having this sort of training, which is important to ensure that disabled people have equal access to all forms of transport.

T3. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to travel on the M1 between Leeds and Sheffield recently. It is a pig of a journey due to a 17-mile stretch of roadworks with a 50 mph enforced speed limit. I recognise the need for those roadworks, but is there any reason why they cannot be done in stages to improve the experience for motorists? (903920)

I have indeed travelled on that section of the M1 and it does seem to go on for ever. However, I am assured by the Highways Agency that doing the work in this way will incur a time saving of two thirds compared with doing it in stages. When we do such work, which includes replacement of steel central barriers with concrete ones, it improves repair time and over the long term will certainly improve road performance.

T2. East Coast’s current operator, Directly Operated Railways, was barred from bidding for the east coast franchise. The Secretary of State presumably welcomes the bid from Eurostar-Keolis, which is largely owned by French state railways. Is it not time to change policy and to allow Directly Operated Railways to bid for franchises? (903919)

There are a number of reasons why it would not be right to allow that to happen, not least because it would be funded directly through the taxpayer. That would put Directly Operated Railways at a great disadvantage compared with other companies in the private sector. The east coast and west coast franchises cannot be compared as they are very different, not least because, at the moment, East Coast runs 155 services a day compared with the 324 services on the west coast line.

T4. The proposed Congleton link road will help to boost the economy across the east Cheshire region, relieving not only local town congestion, but that along the M6, both of which are frequently described as chronic. It will also improve access to and from Crewe station. Will the Minister consider making Government funding available to fund this vital link road project? (903921)

I understand that the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership has submitted a bid for local growth fund funding to support the Congleton link road as part of its strategic economic plan. We are currently assessing the plans and bids submitted by every LEP in England and we hope to be able to make an announcement in July.

T5. Mr Shah and other wheelchair users in my constituency will be disappointed by the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) in relation to the disability awareness training for bus drivers under EU regulation 181/2011. They tell me that drivers simply say, “Sorry mate, the lift is not working” or “the ramp is not working.” Sometimes they drive by with their thumb down and ignore them. Only 28% of drivers have received such training. When will the Minister get on and act on the regulation? (903922)

I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his assiduity is not in question, but his ability to distinguish between a substantive and a topical question in terms of length perhaps is.

We feel we should take the voluntary route, but I certainly understand the problem. Indeed, one of my noble Friends at the other end of the corridor told me that they sometimes have to put somebody outside to flag down a taxi so that a disabled Member of the other place can then get into it. It is not just about training and awareness; it is about the attitude of taxi drivers, which cannot be instilled through training.

T6. From Gargrave to Embsay and from Masham to Ripon, communities across Skipton and Ripon are concerned about cuts to rural bus services. What more can Ministers do to work with the most rural parts of our communities on buses? Will they look very favourably at North Yorkshire county council’s bid to the sustainable transport fund, which closes later this month? (903923)

As a North Yorkshire Member myself, I am aware of some of the changes to rural bus services that are affecting my constituents as well as my hon. Friend’s. The fact remains that, outside London, 44% of the fare box that goes to bus operators is provided through various subsidies. We need to be more intelligent in targeting the services that people, particularly pensioners, use in rural areas.

Earlier this morning in Westminster, the Freight Transport Association launched its excellent 2014 logistics report. One policy area success that has eluded successive Governments is in the promotion of coastal shipping. What are the Government doing in this regard?

I have not yet had time to read the report as it was published only this morning. The way in which coastal shipping works and links with the rail network is very important, and we need to develop it even further. I had a very interesting meeting yesterday with one operator who is drawing directly from ports into Drax power station.

T7. My right hon. Friend will know that many of the 8,000 miles of roads in Devon are blighted by potholes. Will he therefore join me in congratulating Devon county council on its online pothole advisory system and the efficient way in which it is tackling the problem? May I also press him to consider very seriously Devon county council’s bid for some of the additional funds that were announced in the Budget? (903924)

Indeed. Before the year-end, we allocated extra money to local authorities that they were encouraged to spend on potholes and to show how they had spent it. That will have a bearing on how we allocate the future fund for local authorities that the Chancellor made available in the Budget.

Does the Secretary of State share my profound concern that roadside recovery operators working on our motorways have been instructed that they must continue to work when they have asked for a lane closure, even for safety reasons, but the Highways Agency has refused that closure? This is putting people’s lives at risk. Will he order an urgent inquiry and put an immediate stop to this dangerous practice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. It is the first time it has been brought to my attention, and I will certainly have a conversation with the Highways Agency. Our smart motorways schemes make it much easier to close lanes and move traffic, so it should not be a problem on those sections of road. I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with the reply I receive.

T8. The railway line from my constituency to London is probably the worst in the country for regularity, speed and reliability. May I urge the Secretary of State to persuade Network Rail and First Great Western to take this Cinderella line to the ball at last? (903925)

If my hon. Friend was here at the start of questions, he will have heard a number of Members call for better services in their areas. I think the line that he mentions does get substantial investment as a result of the intercity express programme, and I therefore hope he will get the better services he wants.

Further to his earlier answer, will the Secretary of State update us on links from HS2 to the continent before or after the summer recess?

T10. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome news about the heavy goods vehicle levy shows that this was a long overdue reform that will create a level playing field for UK hauliers? (903927)

The levy has made a remarkable difference. It sends a positive message to foreign hauliers that if they come to this country they have to make a contribution to the cost of maintaining the road network. I am very pleased that we have been able to do this. It has been warmly welcomed by the freight industry in this country.