Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 603: debated on Thursday 10 December 2015

Since I last addressed the House at Question Time, Cumbria, Lancashire and the north-west have experienced record-breaking rainfall, which has led to the worst flooding since 2005. It closed the west coast main line, but Network Rail’s orange army has worked tirelessly to restore the service and I am pleased to say that at 14.00 on Tuesday 8 December trains were once again running from London to Glasgow via Preston. Since then, rail services have restarted on all the affected routes. This Christmas, Network Rail will undertake a significant programme of work, delivering the Government’s record £38 billion investment in the railways.

Given the imminence of the announcement, I shall resist the urge to ask about Heathrow and will ask instead what steps the Secretary of State’s Department will take on irresponsible pavement parking in view of the cross-party support gained for the private Member’s Bill that we debated in this House last Friday.

A very useful debate took place last Friday and commitments were given to have further discussions on this important issue. I will ensure that those discussions take place and that we try to address some of the issues. Local authorities already have a lot of powers, however, if they wish to use them.

The closure of roads and rail lines in recent days is a timely reminder of the strain extreme weather events place on transport networks. We all remember the flooding at airports in 2010 and 2013, the loss of the Dawlish seawall and, as the Secretary of State said, the heroic response of Network Rail’s orange army. So will the Secretary of State explain why the Dawlish resilience options report, due last month, has not been published? What assurance can he give that the lessons of previous periods of disruption have been learned?

We always look to learn from experience and that is the case with the Dawlish repairs and the work that has been done by Network Rail to ensure that the line is secure for future use. Excessive weather conditions such as those that we saw last weekend put extra pressure on the network. One of the most important things, however, is ensuring that the network continues to operate safely.

I hope that we do learn from experience. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) had a little go at this, and I am going to give the Secretary of State another chance. On airport expansion, the Prime Minister told this House in July:

“The guarantee that I can give…is that a decision will be made by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2015; Vol. 597, c. 1473.]

Employers have been clear that the Government should bring forward the decision they promised, but fear a further politically motivated delay. Was the Prime Minister making a clear pledge—no ifs, no buts—or are residents who live near Heathrow and Gatwick about to be subjected to yet more blight and uncertainty?

I will not take any lectures from the Labour party on planning infrastructure. Labour was woeful at it and did very little of it. The simple fact is that we now have a Government who are more committed to infrastructure than the Labour Government were for 13 years. The simple fact is that when an announcement is to be made, I will make it in the House.

T2. I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Cardiff last week and discussing electrification, among many other issues. I welcome the fact that this Government are making Great Western railway electrification a top priority. More broadly, what will the bimodal trains mean for Cardiff, Swansea and the south Wales economy? (902619)

I was very pleased to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency with him last Thursday, as well as other areas in Wales. I believe that the upgrades—the new inter-city express programme trains—will be very important because of their bimodal nature. They are undergoing testing at Melton Mowbray and they are very impressive indeed. They will lead to a much improved service for his constituents and those people who live toward Swansea, as well.

T3. Disabled people—particularly wheelchair users and those with sight loss—are finding it increasingly difficult to access public transport, particularly buses. Will the Secretary of State consider encouraging bus companies to give their staff more disability awareness training, and will he also consider the statutory introduction of audio-visual announcement systems in the upcoming buses Bill?


I will certainly give encouragement—not that they should need it—to the bus companies to make sure that facilities for disabled people are available and that their staff know the right way of making those facilities available to them. That is incumbent on all bus companies. As for a future bus Bill, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until it is published.

T5. My constituents leaving for their holidays from Stansted airport would like to be kind to the environment and give the A14 and the M11 a miss, and use CrossCountry trains, but they often cannot do so because the trains run too late for their flights from Stansted airport. Will the rail Minister have a word with the rail regulator to restate the importance of rail and airport connectivity? (902623)

My hon. Friend is right. Stansted airport, along with local MPs, lobbied hard to get that early morning service from Liverpool Street, which stopped people having to sleep at the airport to catch early flights. I will happily discuss this with him and we can have a conversation with CrossCountry.

The committee on the medical effects of air pollution estimates that 60,000 deaths a year occur in Britain because of the effects of air pollution. That is 20 times the number killed in all road traffic accidents. The Government state that they will not achieve their legal limit on nitrogen oxide pollutants until 2030. Is this not a disgraceful situation? What will the Government do to take on Volkswagen, which has been accused of causing 12,000 avoidable deaths in Britain alone by gross deception in relation to its vehicles? What is the Minister doing to accelerate the clean-up of NOx air pollution in this country?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman has not forgotten that the biggest increase in the use of diesel vehicles took place between 2001 and 2010. As I have said in the past, the behaviour of Volkswagen is a disgrace. It must put right what it got wrong. I am having further meetings later today to discuss that with Volkswagen.

T6. Will my hon. Friend provide an update on the availability of funding from the new stations fund? The town of Wellington in my constituency would make an excellent candidate for a new station. There is a great deal of interest in it from business and locals. I am having a meeting tomorrow with those people and it would be great to give them a little more information. (902624)

I am happy to confirm that the Government mad £20 million of further money available for the new station fund in the summer Budget. It is up to local authorities and local businesses to bring forward proposals for new stations. We want them to be rooted in the benefits that they deliver to the local community. I would be delighted to review with my hon. Friend a proposal for Wellington station and look forward to working with her. We would like to get new stations built.

One of the consequences of the catastrophic floods in Cumbria has been the near-disappearance of the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick, which in effect cuts the Lake district in two. Will the Government consider applying for EU solidarity funding to make sure that we reopen or replace that road imminently so that the Lake district, which continues to be the most marvellous place to spend Christmas and new year, can be reconnected?

I well understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the way his constituents have been affected. I am sure the feelings of the whole House are with them and those in neighbouring areas who are facing chaos in their homes and who, in some cases, will not be able to get back into them before Christmas. We discussed EU funding on Monday and said that we would look at it. I will be looking for more immediate help for his area, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be in Cumbria tomorrow.

T7. I was so encouraged by yesterday’s announcement that two Northern Rail franchises were to receive a massive £1.2 billion boost to rail services, with 500 brand-new carriages, that I would like to ask my right hon. Friend whether that was intended as a signal to the three bidders for the Greater Anglia franchise as to what is expected of them if we are to help the Anglian region to—in the words of the announcement—“realise its full economic potential, ensuring it has a modern 21st century transport system”? (902625)

In the interests of crispness and brevity, the answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes.

The Secretary of State will be aware that under the current proposals for HS2, although the overall journey time to Scotland will be reduced, the journey time north of Crewe to Scotland will actually increase, owing to changes in the stock used. Will he therefore commit to bringing forward a definitive timetable for the proposed further upgrade works discussed with the Scottish Government for north of Crewe?

Some of the issues to which the hon. Gentleman refers will obviously be taken into account at the next planning round for Network Rail, but we are making upgrades on the line now. In fact, over the Christmas period I hope to see some of the improvements being made at Stafford, which will help to increase capacity further up the line.

T8. The creation of the west midlands combined authority provides an opportunity to take a strategic views of the region’s transport needs. Does the Secretary of State agree that it also provides an opportunity for his Department to work with local operators, such as London Midland, to relieve congestion on the Rowley Regis to Birmingham line, which is becoming a big problem? (902626)

Among the franchises announced yesterday was one owned by the German state rail company, DB, so can the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of the ticket fare paid by UK commuters will be used to subsidise the fares of German commuters in Germany?

If a foreign company was to set up in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, would he be complaining about the jobs it brought? I am very pleased that British companies are winning rail contracts to provide services in Germany. I believe that the marketplace works. The announcements we made yesterday represent a seismic change in the service for both the Northern and TransPennine franchises, which I would have thought he would welcome, as nearly every local government leader in the area has, most of them being Labour.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that Farnworth tunnel near Bolton, which has been closed for enlargement as part of the electrification programme, will reopen next Monday, allowing for more and longer trains?

Absolutely. As my hon. Friend and others will know, it is very difficult to do that upgrade work without disruption, and I thank people for their patience, but if anyone doubts that this Government are serious about transport investment in the north and the electrification programme, they just need to go and see what happens on Monday morning when those trains start running through the tunnel again.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, on 29 November 2013 a police helicopter plunged through the roof of the Clutha bar in my constituency. The air accidents investigation branch published its report on 23 October this year and made a number of recommendations, including installing black box recorders in helicopters. When will the Government respond to the report?

The air accidents investigation branch was able to answer these specific questions—indeed, Keith Conradi was in Scotland on the day the report came out—and show that there is nothing to prevent police authorities and local authorities from already including that equipment in helicopters. I am working with the Civil Aviation Authority to determine the next steps in relation to the report, which has to be taken very seriously.

Ah! The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) is looking as happy as ever, doubtless celebrating Arsenal’s quite outstanding victory last night.

As no doubt you are, Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State has already mentioned visiting Stafford, no doubt to see the work at Norton Bridge, excellently undertaken by Network Rail. With the advance of the first stage of phase 2 of HS2, there is the question of the impact on infrastructure, particularly on roads in the area around Stafford and mid-Staffordshire. Will he kindly meet me to discuss that?

I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend. As I said, we are investing a huge amount in infrastructure. Having been in Stafford only a few a weeks ago, I know about the problems he refers to.

Will the rail Minister repeat the figures she gave to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety annual conference this week about the appalling number of suicides on our rail system and the disruption and dreadful impact that has on the victims and on the travelling public?

What I told the conference organised by the hon. Gentleman, whom I commend for his decades of work in this area, was that every 30 hours somebody takes their life on the rail network. That is a tragedy both for the families of the victims and for the drivers and staff, for whom it is a deeply distressing experience, and it also affects those whose travel is disrupted. I commend the work the hon. Gentleman’s group is doing and the work that Network Rail is doing with the Samaritans. We want to see those numbers coming down.

The creation of the local majors fund in the autumn statement is very much to be welcomed. The much needed third crossing in Lowestoft will look to bid into that fund early in the new year. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that the fund will be up and running as quickly as possible after Christmas?

I most certainly can confirm that the fund will be up and running after Christmas. I remember visiting the site with my hon. Friend on a couple of occasions earlier this year. I think the scheme he mentions is a very strong candidate.