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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 619: debated on Thursday 12 January 2017

Transport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Network Rail

1. What discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on further devolution of Network Rail. (908115)

5. What discussions he has had with Ministers of the Scottish Government on further devolution of Network Rail. (908119)

I met the Minister for Transport and the Islands in the Scottish Government, Humza Yousaf, in October last year. I welcome working together to improve services for rail passengers within the current devolution settlement.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer, but can he explain why the Government are happy to devolve responsibility for maintenance and track operations on the Oxford to Cambridge line, yet they are so reluctant to devolve the same responsibility to the Scottish Government for Scotland?

The point we have consistently made is that there was no recommendation by the Smith commission to devolve the whole of Network Rail to Scotland. The Scottish Government can specify, fund and procure for ScotRail and the Caledonian Sleeper. They can also specify and fund all major projects, and we are devolving the British Transport police. That strikes me as a hefty menu for the Scottish Government to be engaged with.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The Reform Scotland think-tank published a report in November calling for Network Rail to be devolved—perhaps the Secretary of State has read it. The Minister will also be aware that an ever-growing list of people advocate further rail devolution, so will he do the right thing and commit to a date for opening discussions with the Scottish Government on this matter?

Devolution does not just occur within Governments and within Whitehall, and between Whitehall and Scotland. A significant amount of operational devolution is occurring within Network Rail as we speak. A Scottish route within Network Rail that will have much more independence and freedom of action is being set up. I urge the Scottish Government and Scottish Members to engage in that devolution process, not least because the Scottish Government are co-operating with the Office of Rail and Road on the periodic review that will determine the output for control period 6 within Scotland.

A report commissioned by Transport Scotland showed that Network Rail’s original cost estimates for Scottish projects were unreliable. Does the Minister agree that, especially when projects overrun by hundreds of millions of pounds, those who commission the work should have the power to hold Network Rail to account?

I reiterate the point that with the new devolution settlement within Network Rail and the growing independence of the Scottish route within Network Rail, there are ample levers available to Members here and indeed the Scottish Government to influence how the Scottish route director delivers those infrastructure projects.

Why does the Minister feel that Scotland does not need a rail project capability based in Scotland that is accountable to the people of Scotland?

I return to how I started my answer and remind the hon. Gentleman that we had a lengthy discussion about what was contained in the Smith commission. This did not emerge from that commission, so we are not taking it forward.

Southeastern Rail

We will launch the formal consultation on proposals for the new Southeastern franchise in February. I hope that people across the franchise area will participate in it, enabling my Department and the team working within the franchise to make informed decisions about the specification for the next franchise, particularly regarding how we expand capacity for passengers.

Not only are my constituents of all political persuasions disgusted by the manner in which the Secretary of State has politicised this issue, but they have absolutely no confidence in his proposed solution for the Southeastern franchise. A previous attempt to merely involve Transport for London in the design of Southern’s 2009 to 2015 franchise failed because that did not involve its proven concession model for suburban rail services, so can the Secretary of State tell us why on earth he thinks that repeating this failed approach will deliver much-needed improvements for Southeastern passengers?

There has been no politicisation of this discussion. This decision was taken after the Mayor’s business plan was analysed across government, and after discussions with neighbouring authorities and people who know the route. The truth is that the Mayor’s proposals offered no extra capacity for passengers but a whole lot of uncosted, unfunded promises. They also involved a very substantial top-down reorganisation. The approach we have chosen is the same one that we have taken for Northern and in the midlands, which is to create a partnership to develop a franchise that will work for all passengers in Kent and south-east London to deliver the capacity that we need.

I support the Transport Secretary on that. My constituents in Kent are deeply concerned that, for too long, London has acted as a selfish city seeking to benefit itself at the expense of the people of Kent and the other home counties. It is not right for London to act like a “Hunger Games”-style capital seeking to subjugate the districts. We need fair rail services for Kent, Essex and the other home counties, and I urge the Secretary of State to carry on and to uphold his decision.

I assure my hon. Friend that I have every intention of doing so. This is a partnership arrangement that brings together London, Kent County Council and my Department to do the right thing for passengers. It is interesting that the Mayor could offer no proposals to expand capacity on these routes. I intend to bring forward proposals that do offer expanded capacity for passengers on those routes.

The Secretary of State’s leaked letter reveals that he reneged on the suburban rail agreement because of his obsession with keeping services “out of the clutches” of a potential Labour Mayor—those are his words. He has put party politics ahead of passengers and clearly prefers to see trains running late than running on time under Labour. Will he now agree to an independent assessment of the proposal by a respected figure outwith his Department, given yesterday’s revelations of conflicting commercial interests, to restore credibility to the process and ensure proper consideration of the needs of long-suffering passengers?

I cannot believe what I have just heard from the hon. Gentleman. He talks about putting party politics before passengers in the week when the Leader of the Opposition said that he would join a picket line to perpetuate the unnecessary strikes on Southern rail that are causing so much damage to passengers. I will not take the hon. Gentleman seriously until I hear him condemning those strikes and telling the workers to go back to work.

Cross-border Transport

3. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers of the Welsh Government on cross-border transport. (908117)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met the Welsh Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Mr Ken Skates. Their positive and useful discussion recognised the importance of cross-border transport and our commitment to deliver improvements, such as the investment we are making in the Halton curve.

The investment by the Welsh Government of £43 million in the Wrexham to Chester line, mainly in England, will lead to a partial dualling of that line by April this year. What more will it take to persuade the UK Conservative Government to match the Welsh Government’s investment by investing in more transport infrastructure in that region, for which an unanswerable case has been made?

The Government are already investing significantly in our rail network—more than at any point since the Victorian era. The Mersey Dee rail taskforce has produced its growth prospectus—Growth Track 360—and it is working with the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). I understand that it is now prioritising its objectives, and we will continue to work closely with it.

The case for reopening the station at Bristol Road, Stonehouse, has been well argued and firmly established. Does the Minister agree that that is exactly the kind of initiative we need to enhance links between Wales, Gloucestershire and the south-west of England?

The Minister mentioned the Halton curve; he will know that it is an important part of the cross-border links between my constituency and Wales. Will he confirm that the project is on time, and tell us the date on which it will be completed?

I will check the latest information and write to the hon. Gentleman, but my understanding is that it is exactly on time.

As the Minister knows, the Operation Stack relief lorry park is vital for cross-border transport links between Kent and the continent. The owner of Westenhanger castle has been actively seeking a meeting with the Department for the past six weeks to discuss accessing the compensation package that he has agreed with Highways England, in return for which he will withdraw his application for a judicial review against the park. Will the Minister urge one of his ministerial colleagues to meet me and the owner of Westenhanger castle so that we can resolve this matter and get on with building the lorry park?

That was a very entrepreneurial question, Mr Speaker. I can certainly confirm to my hon. Friend that the roads Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), will indeed meet him.

The Government could do something about the cross-border position between the Rhondda valley and the upper Afan valley because they still own the tunnel that was used by the train from Treherbert down to Swansea. Will the Government please make sure that I can have the meeting with the Secretary of State for which I have been asking for several weeks to come up with innovative ideas so that this can become a major new cycle track?

I am afraid that my local knowledge of those tunnels has not kept pace with the hon. Gentleman’s. All I can say is that I have heard his point and will take it forward with my colleagues.

Six lines radiate out from Chester, two of which are cross-border lines, hence the “360” in Growth Track 360. Chester is recognised as a pinch point within that railway development, so may I invite the Minister to have his next meeting on cross-border transport with Ken Skates in Chester so that he can see what preliminary work might be done before he presses ahead with the main work?

Transport Infrastructure: Teesside

The Tees valley is benefiting from the Government’s significant investment in transport infrastructure across the country. Most recently, we have agreed to fund the Tees valley authorities to develop their plans for a new Tees crossing and to improve connectivity from Teesport to the A1.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Last week we received the welcome news that Tesco will be basing all its non-food warehousing at its existing centre in Teesport. Given that economic and employment boost for Teesside, will the Minister reciprocate by pledging full backing and funding for the A66 and a second Tees crossing, as called for by the Teesside combined authority?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed to dualling the A66 in last year’s autumn statement. On the new Tees crossing, we have provided funding to take the business case to the next stage. We will happily work with the area’s local authorities. I recognise the importance of Teesport to the local economy and the value that a new Tees crossing would provide, so I am very keen to see that take shape.

High Speed 2: Costs

I am committed to managing the cost of HS2 and ensuring maximum value for the taxpayer. Total expenditure on HS2 in the period from 2009-10 to 2015-16 was £1.4 billion, of which £450 million was spent on land and property. The rest has ensured that HS2 is on track for delivery, and includes money for developing the scheme design, consulting affected communities, bringing the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill to Parliament and developing HS2 Ltd. Figures for the current financial year will be available in the summer.

The cost of HS2 is not just to the taxpayer but to those it affects. The House of Lords Select Committee on the HS2 Bill has recommended amending it to ensure that HS2 Ltd does not have a blanket power to compulsorily purchase land for regeneration or development, and to provide that it must limit its land acquisitions to what is needed for the scheme, particularly in relation to clause 48. As you know only too well, Mr Speaker, farmers, landowners and communities have been blighted for years by the scheme, and the threat of further compulsory purchase orders is truly worrying. Can the Secretary of State reassure me that he will accept the Committee’s important and very welcome recommendation on clause 48 and alleviate the anxiety of those affected by this project?

First, on behalf of the Government, I thank all members of the House of Lords Select Committee for their work over the past few months. Indeed, I thank those who served on the equivalent Committee in this House, for whom this was a long and arduous task. We are carefully considering the Lords recommendations and we will publish our response shortly. If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I will save my detailed response for that publication, but I am looking extremely carefully at the recommendation to which she referred.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that, with regard to the option to have a station in the centre of Sheffield, there is currently no money to get trains out of the station and north to Leeds, and there is no money to increase the station’s capacity at the southern end to get better connectivity to trans-Pennine trains. There is even no money to electrify the line between Sheffield station and the main HS2 route. Does this not increasingly look like a cut-price option? Will he agree to meet local MPs and councillors, and other interested parties, to discuss these matters?

May I start by wishing the hon. Gentleman a happy birthday? [Hon. Members: “For tomorrow.”] For tomorrow. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), has indeed been involved in such discussions, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that the original proposal for a station at Meadowhall was opposed by the city council, which wanted the route to pass through the city centre. It is in response to pressure from within Sheffield that we have revisited those original plans, but I assure him that those discussions will continue.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the costs of the project need to be kept under control, the economic benefits it will bring to areas such as Long Eaton in my constituency will far outweigh some of the costs that we are talking about today?

This is one of the key aspects of the development of this project, so my hon. Friend makes an important point. What is happening in the area around Long Eaton, and the new development of a station and surrounding facilities at Toton, will make a huge difference to her area. As she knows, we have been discussing how best to make sure that we get the right solution for Long Eaton, but we will continue to work for her constituents to reflect in the final design what works best for them.

Given what will be the eye-wateringly huge final costs of HS2, surely it makes sense to maximise the use of this asset, so will the Secretary of State tell us whether the line will be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week? If not, will the otherwise wasted capacity be used for freight—and if not, why not?

Of course the whole point about HS2 is that it releases capacity on the existing west coast main line for freight. As a result, I see the potential for significant increases in freight across the west coast main line area. As for timetabling, that is a matter for those who decide what is the best commercial proposition for that route, but we expect, and are planning for, very intensive use of the route across a wide variety of destinations, including Stoke-on-Trent.

My right hon. Friend’s last answer worries me slightly. Lichfield suffers all the disadvantages of having the line go through it and no station, because it is too small. I was hoping that he would say that the freeing up of capacity would mean that the west coast main line could have more trains stopping at Lichfield Trent Valley, but is that now not going to be the case, because the line will be blocked up with freight?

No, I think there will be room for both. The benefit of HS2 is that it provides an opportunity for more commuter trains, more intermediate trains and more services to places that do not currently receive them. By taking the fast trains off the west coast main line—trains that go straight up to places such as Manchester and Liverpool—more opportunity is provided for better services in places such as Lichfield and the Trent valley, which the current mix of services makes it difficult to achieve.

Mr Speaker, you and the Minister will remember that when I said that the cost of HS2 would soar past £60 billion I was mocked, but it is now past £60 billion and rising. The chief executive has quit and the people in my constituency would like this folly to be stopped now, with the money—£60 billion and rising—put into saving the health service and into our local government, which is going bankrupt.

I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman but actually the plans for HS2 have been widely welcomed across the north of England. The project will make a significant difference to the economy of his region. The point I would make to him about cost is that one reason why we are spending more money than is spent on equivalent lines in some other countries is because we are spending money on amelioration measures that minimise the impact on the environment.

As well as updating the costs of the project, may I urge my right hon. Friend to update the economic benefits to communities such as mine in Milton Keynes, which, as he says, will benefit from a significant increase in commuter and inter-city traffic as a result of the release of capacity on the west coast line?

We will continue to provide information about the benefits of this project, but my hon. Friend is right to say that in places such as Milton Keynes—it is one of our most important growth areas, and it will need more commuter services north to south and east to west—the introduction of HS2 will make it possible to deliver a much better service for his constituents and others.

The Adam Smith Institute has warned that HS2 could end up costing up to £80 billion, which would equate to nine times more per mile than comparable high-speed tracks in France. How can the Government assure the public that the already sky-high costs of this project are not going to spiral even further out of control?

As I said, this is a choice; we want not only to deliver high-quality infrastructure for the future, but to do so in a way that is environmentally sensitive. That means spending money on tunnels, cuttings and things that other countries would perhaps choose not to do. I want to retain a careful stewardship of Britain’s green and pleasant land while delivering what we need for the future, and that is what we are doing.

Access for All

7. What recent assessment he has made of progress on delivery of Access for All projects by Network Rail. (908122)

Since 2014, the Access for All programme has completed accessible routes at 25 stations, with 12 more currently in construction, and a further 52 at various stages of design and development.

The Minister will understand the real anger in Alfreton at the further delays in the Access for All programme at the station there, where many passengers still cannot use the southbound platform. Can he at least reassure them that the station will be prioritised in the next block of funding, so that the improvements are done in 2019?

We had to delay 26 Access for All projects into control period 6, one of which was, unfortunately, Alfreton, because the project there was less developed than others we were considering. Nevertheless, I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am making it clear to Network Rail that I expect the improvements to be delivered early in control period 6, after 2019.

Does the Minister recognise the importance of the maximum number of people being able to use our rail services? Why are schemes such as Access for All seen as expendable?

I certainly do not agree that they are regarded as expendable. We have reached a point at which roughly 70% of passenger journeys are from step-free access stations, of which there are roughly 450 throughout the network. The hon. Lady wrote to me regarding a station in her constituency, and I have asked my officials to look into that more closely to make sure we fully understand what has occurred there. I hope to reply to her soon.

The McNulty report said that the rail industry had to do more to operate efficiently and bring down costs. Will the Minister say what he is doing to persuade the rail industry to do that in relation to step-free access, so that it can be extended to more stations, such as New Barnet?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. When we are looking at improving our accessibility projects throughout the network, we need to ensure that the solutions we come up with are cost-effective but not gold-plated. I am sure that when she was in my role she found what I find now, which is that sometimes projects come before us the cost of which can scarcely be justified and that the same outcome can be achieved much more cheaply.

Confusion and frustration abound in the Lawrence Hill area of my constituency, in relation to step-free access and other disability access improvements to the Lawrence Hill station. Local people have been frustrated by the works there, and rumours abound that they are being cancelled, postponed or just stopped. Will the Minister agree to meet me and visit Lawrence Hill station to talk to local residents about the situation? Preferably, he could clear the matter up right now.

I am not familiar with the exact details for that station, but I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discover what is occurring there.

Rail: Accessibility

8. What progress is being made on ensuring that trains and stations are fully accessible to disabled people. (908123)

We are committed to improving accessibility on the rail network. Roughly 70% of train fleets operating passenger services currently meet modern accessibility standards, with work on the remaining vehicles due to be completed by 2020.

A moment ago, I was engrossed in the answer to the question asked by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), as that issue also affects my constituency. I very much hope that we make progress on the Lawrence Hill and Stapleton Road stations.

On accessibility on trains, the Minister will be aware of the recent case of the Team GB Paralympian, Anne Wafula Strike. It was very brave of her to come forward and speak about what must have been a humiliating experience when no disabled-access toilet was available on the train. What is the Minister doing to ensure that situations like that do not occur and that disabled people are treated with respect?

I am glad that the hon. Lady brings up that case. I am sure she shared the same sentiments that I am sure every Member felt on reading that story: it was simply unacceptable. We have made it clear to CrossCountry, through officials, that it was not good enough, and I will reiterate that when I next speak to the company. More importantly, I want to ensure that we meet our target of every rail carriage, including the toilets, being fully accessible by 2020. In situations in which the accessible toilet is out of order, for whatever reason, either that carriage must be taken out of service or, if that would have unacceptable service consequences, any individual on the train who might need the accessible toilet must be made aware of the situation before boarding and thereby have the chance to make alternative arrangements.

Money was secured more than three years ago for step-free access, not only for disabled people but for all people, at Garforth train station. Network Rail has been stalling and delaying. I have secured a commitment to the printing of a poster advertising that the work will happen by May, but may I urge my hon. Friend to speak to Network Rail to get the work done as soon as possible? The money has been in place for three years; delays are not necessary.

I am more than happy to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend. My initial understanding at this stage is that the works at Garforth, as indeed with many on the trans-Pennine routes, are interlinked with the upgrades we are planning on the trans-Pennine network. I am happy to have a further discussion with him.

Last Friday, a disabled wheelchair user, Sandra Nighy, on Southern was left stranded on the train platform in the freezing cold for two hours because there was no one to help her on to the train despite booking assistance 48 hours in advance. She was on an unmanned station, and the trains that passed her by were driver-only with no on-board supervisor. The law is absolutely clear: train operating companies must provide reasonable access for disabled passengers. Does the Minister agree that the failure to do so strips disabled passengers of their dignity and of their right to travel and breaches the Disability Discrimination Act 1995?

I am glad that the hon. Lady raises that case. When I heard about it, my interpretation was that, in this case, Southern had not applied the policies that it said were in place for all disabled passengers. The issue is that the situation was far worse because the lady in question booked through Passenger Assist, so the company had plenty of notice that she was on her way. However, under the unions’ proposals, that train would have been cancelled in the first place and unable to depart.

Access for so many disabled and particularly elderly passengers is dependent on advice that can be had from ticket offices. In that respect, can the Minister give me any reassurance about proposals to close the ticket office in God’s own town of New Milton?

I am not specifically familiar with proposals in New Milton. But I see no reason why we should have fewer people employed in our stations over the coming years, but the roles that they discharge need to be broadened out to involve helping more passengers, not fewer.

Penalty Fares

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of the use of the Strategic Rail Authority’s penalty fare rules 2002 by train operating companies on staff meeting revenue targets; and if he will make a statement. (908125)

Train operators are permitted to use penalty fare schemes to deter fare evasion, while allowing inspectors to apply discretion when dealing with passengers. In December 2016, the Department announced planned improvements to the penalty fares regime by including a new third stage independent appeals panel. This and all existing appeals bodies will be independent of train operators and owning groups.

I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that train operating companies should not be putting their staff under undue pressure to issue penalty fares? Will he commit to look at the rules to ensure that discretion is always an option where appropriate?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend seeks to make. Although revenue protection is very important on our railways, so, too, is proportionality and discretion, hence the changes that I have made not just to the appeals regime, but to the fares and ticketing action plan that I announced last month. For example, those who forget their railcards now have more option to ensure that they are not unfairly penalised. I am more than happy to meet him to discuss his concerns further.

Ticketless travel and fare dodging is one of many issues on the Chase line. I experienced it at first hand when I joined the London Midland revenue protection team last month. The £20 penalty is insufficient to deter fare dodging. Will my hon. Friend agree to review penalty fares, so that they do become an effective deterrent?

I am more than aware of the sterling work that my hon. Friend has done to further the cause of revenue protection by checking tickets on the Chase line, on which I congratulate her. She is quite right that there are concerns within the industry that the penalty fares are set too low. At the moment, I am focusing on reviewing the appeals system to make sure that it is fair and proportionate, and discretion has a role to play. I will keep penalty fares under review.

Wales and Borders: Rail Franchise

It has been agreed in principle that Welsh Government Ministers will procure and manage the next Wales and Borders rail franchise. My Department is working closely with the Welsh Government to ensure the appropriate transfer of the necessary powers. However, I want to make it absolutely clear that, as part of those arrangements, we are ensuring that the train services and stations used by passengers in England are protected and, importantly, treated consistently with those in Wales, both during this procurement process and across the whole life of the franchise.

That is a very welcome answer from the Secretary of State. We have briefed him about the extraordinary overcrowding on Arriva trains over the past few years, particularly in the summer months—with the windows sealed and a lot of people cramming into the carriages, it has been intolerable. Will he ensure that the next franchise accommodates the levels required for passengers to travel safely and more services from Shrewsbury to Birmingham airport?

I am aware of the capacity issues on the Wales and the Borders franchise and, indeed, on the CrossCountry franchise. One of the challenges, owing to the rapid growth in recent years, is that there are not enough diesel trains to go around at the moment. I had the great pleasure of being at Newton Aycliffe in County Durham for the launch of the first new hybrid train to be manufactured there. That will open up the opportunity for us to deliver significant change to rolling stock across our network, and will enable us to address many of the overcrowding challenges to which my hon. Friend refers.

The Secretary of State will be aware that he decided last October to devolve the cross-border franchise to the Welsh Government, but current legislation does not allow a public sector organisation to bid for the new franchise. Will he think again and allow public sector organisations the ability to bid for the franchise, to allow the public the best possible service when it begins?

The Labour party is keen on renationalising our railways. What I would remind it is that if its policies were implemented we would lose the ability to deliver the new trains that are being delivered right across this country, paid for by private sector investment. What Labour Members are calling for is turning back the clock and having older trains on our network. I am afraid that that is not my view.

Rail Franchising: Public Sector

11. What plans he has for the future role of the public sector as a result of the development of rail franchising policy. (908128)

Franchising has been instrumental in improving the railways for passengers and as part of the enormous growth in rail usage since privatisation 20 years ago. Our approach to rail reform is about delivering an improved service for passengers through better teamwork between Network Rail and passenger rail franchises, and making Network Rail more customer focused by giving more power to its local route managers.

We now know that the Secretary of State is putting politics before the interests of passengers, and he is taking a dogmatic approach by ignoring what could improve our railway system. He has refused to allow the Mayor of London to take over suburban services, in spite of the fact that his predecessor thought that that was a good idea. The public are in favour of public ownership: 58% of people polled by Transport for London are in favour of the Mayor having greater control over suburban services and only 14% support his position. Is it not time that public ownership of our railways was considered by the Government, and are not the public in favour of it?

It is hardly a surprise that Conservative Members for constituencies outside London have doubts about a Labour Mayor inside London running local services, particularly when the Mayor delivered a business plan that did not offer improved capacity and was founded on a lot of uncosted promises. So far from this Mayor, we have seen a fare freeze that was not a fare freeze and a London of no rail strikes with a rail strike last Monday. I do not take the Mayor’s promises at face value, I am afraid. We have taken a partnership approach that also listens to the people of Kent, who are equally important in this franchise and said they should be equal partners with the people of London in designing it.

In 1993, the public sector British Rail withdrew services on the Cleethorpes to Sheffield line, making it a Saturdays-only service, which means that people in Gainsborough, Brigg and such towns cannot get to Cleethorpes to enjoy all that it has to offer. As yet, the private sector has not seen fit to restore that service to six days a week. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers meet me and Members for neighbouring constituencies to discuss the issue?

We are always happy to talk to my hon. Friend, who remains a doughty champion of his constituency, but he is right to make the point that if we turned the clock back 30 or 40 years to the days of British Rail, the debate in the House today would be about line closures, station closures and a reduction in services. Today, the issues are overcrowding due to numbers rising so fast, new stations, improved facilities and new trains. That is the difference between the policies we have followed and the policies Labour Members want to follow.

The Government’s franchising policy lies in tatters, with desperate attempts to retrofit contracts to protect operators’ profits and, as revealed yesterday, National Express taking the money and running, selling the c2c franchise to the Italian state. The Secretary of State’s director of passenger services awarded the disastrous Southern franchise, while owning shares in the company and advising the winner bidder. The country has had enough of these sleazy deals. Is it not way past time for franchising to be scrapped and the UK rail industry to be revitalised through public ownership?

The clock ticks ever backwards. The Opposition do not want inward investment or private sector investment in our railways, but, of course, we still do not hear from them any words on behalf of passengers about the strikes. The Labour party takes money from the rail unions and defends them when they are on strike, no matter what the inconvenience to passengers is. The Opposition are a disgrace. They should stand up and say that these strikes should stop. I will say one thing about the Mayor of London: at least he had the wit and wisdom this week to say that the strikes are wrong. I hear nothing from the hon. Gentleman about the strikes being wrong.

Ultra-low Emission Vehicles

Mr Speaker, I waited to rise to build excited anticipation. We want the UK to be the world leader in the take-up and manufacture of ultra-low emission vehicles. Last year, more ultra-low emission vehicles were sold in the UK than in any other country in Europe.

The British built Nissan Leaf continues to be one of the most popular electric cars in the world, but what are the Government doing to support the uptake of other types of vehicles?

Like Cicero, we believe that the good of the people is the chief law, so it is for public wellbeing that we want to see low emissions from all types of vehicles. Just yesterday, I announced the results of the low emission freight and logistics trial, which will see the Government providing no less than £24 million to help place about 300 low and zero-emission vehicles into commercial fleets across the UK.

One rather wonders whether the results of the trial were communicated to the right hon. Gentleman’s hero, Cicero.

The Minister says that he wants to see emissions reduced in all types of vehicles, so will he explain to the House why just 160,000 of the polluting cheat devices in Volkswagen cars have been remediated out of the 1.2 million cheat devices that are currently on the roads in the UK? At this rate of reparation, it will take three years to clean up Volkswagen’s dirty diesel cheat devices.

The hon. Lady is right. Volkswagen needs to do more, which is why I am going to meet its representatives at the beginning of next week to tell them exactly that. I insisted that the company paid £1.1 million, which we received on Christmas eve—I demanded it as a Christmas present—because that was the money that taxpayers had to spend as a result of the emissions scandal.

I am sorry to say that, since Transport questions began, news broke in my constituency that another person has lost their life as a result of a fatal car accident. I hope that the Minister and the House will join me in offering condolences to the family and friends of the victim.

I welcome the fact that the Government will be doing an awful lot more to encourage the use of ultra-low emission vehicles. However, councils such as mine want to introduce a low emission zone, and they will struggle to introduce electric car charging points and new enforcement cameras without planning and regulatory changes. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that these issues will be at the top of his agenda with the Department for Communities and Local Government?

To start with—road safety is a concern of the whole House. My hon. Friend was right to mention the tragedy that he did.

Charging points are vital. One of the great challenges for industry and Government is to ensure that there are adequate numbers of charging points across the whole country. That particularly applies in rural areas such as the one I represent. There may be a need for legislative change to that effect, and we are considering that. We are introducing a modern transport Bill, in which we will address the issue of charging points.

I hold no candle for those businesses that do not do right by consumers or, by the way, by their workers. The actions that have taken place in the United States, which I guess is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to and the actions that are being considered by Volkswagen customers oblige the Government to think again about what further steps we can take, and we are doing so. I have not ruled out a further investigation. I will discuss that with the Secretary of State and raise it with Volkswagen at the meeting I described.

Constituents tell me that one of the barriers to their buying electric vehicles is the complexity and variety of public charging facilities, which require them to carry numerous cards and forms of payment. Does the Minister have any plans to bring some regulation to this market to simplify it and make it more accessible and to encourage more people to purchase electric cars?

Indeed. Was it not Ronald Reagan who said that the future does not belong to the fainthearted? We must be big-hearted and far-sighted in respect of electric vehicles, and that does mean more charging points. We will create a regulatory regime sufficient to provide those charging points and, therefore, to assuage the public doubts to which my hon. Friend has drawn the House’s attention.

Despite all the inducements, only 3% of new car sales are of electric cars. Should the Minister be doing more to encourage liquefied petroleum gas switching or hydrogen fuel cell cars?

The hon. Gentleman will know about our Go Ultra Low campaign, which is match funded by industry, and which is designed to encourage the kind of learning he described. We need to persuade people that that switching is desirable. It is partly about charging points, partly about battery reliability and partly about people simply knowing that electric vehicles can be good for them. We will continue that campaign in exactly the spirit he recommends.

The VW emissions defeat device cynically deceived 1.2 million vehicle owners in the UK, and I declare that I am one of them. I am delighted that the Minister is going to have VW in next week, because drivers in the UK are being tret unfairly compared with VW drivers in the US. In the absence of any action by the Government so far, UK motorists are having to pursue private group litigation against VW. I want the Minister to understand how badly let down UK VW drivers feel because it appears that the Government are letting VW off the hook, although I hope that that is not the case. Will he, even at this late stage, offer support to the motorists in the UK pursuing their own action?

Yes. I am actually on the same page as the hon. Lady. By the way, I am glad we have moved on from the belligerent bombast of earlier—I do not think it did the Opposition any favours—and she makes her case reasonably. There is a case for further steps. That is partly about the retrofit described earlier by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), it is partly about the payment of taxpayer money I described, and it is partly about the consumer. We should consider further steps and, having considered them, take them as and when necessary.

Road Infrastructure and Capacity: North-West

14. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of road infrastructure and capacity in the north-west. (908131)

The Government recently published three strategic studies into long-standing transport challenges in the north-west and have committed to major investment based on the findings. Highways England’s route strategies —by the way, I set up Highways England on my last visit to the Department—have assessed the performance of the strategic roads network and the pressures it faces. Three strategic studies relate to the north-west. Refreshed versions, drawing on the evidence submitted by local stakeholders last year, will be published, and I think they should be published soon, so let us make it March—we will publish them then.

In 2014, the roads investment strategy proposed nine new projects in the north-west, but, to date, the plans for just one of them have been announced, while the Government spend six times more on transport infrastructure in London than in the north. How does the Minister think the whole northern powerhouse thing is going, because, when it comes to transport, like much of the traffic in St Helens, it seems to be going nowhere and not very fast?

I do not think that is typical of the hon. Gentleman—at least, I hope it is not—because he is being ungenerous and, to some degree, might I say, not admitting all he knows. For surely he will know of the A570 linkway, valued at £3.2 million—that is in St Helens, by the way. He will know of the Windle Island junction improvements, valued at £3.2 million—again in St Helens. He will also know of the Newton-le-Willows interchange, valued at £14.4 million. We are not only acting in the north-west but in his constituency, and he does not want to tell us about it.

Order. This question is about the north-west of England. I am not a geographer, but I say to the hon. Lady that last time I looked, it seemed to me that Taunton Deane was rather a long way from the north-west of England.

It is the surface of the roads in the north-west within the existing infrastructure that worries me; it is a bit like driving on the surface of the moon at times. Where county councils fail to tackle the problem of the plague of potholes that besets motorists in the north-west, will the Minister be imaginative and look at ways whereby district councils could bid for the money that the Government make available so that they can tackle this problem?

My hon. Friend is right that the noise and disturbance from poor road surfaces has a significant effect on the journeys of those who use cars and trucks. As he knows, I have been in the north-west in a vehicle with him—an open-top vehicle, I hasten to add—waving to his constituents. I know how important road surfaces are, so I will certainly look at his suggestion, not only for the north-west but across the whole nation.

Topical Questions

As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, I have said in this House and elsewhere that I am very committed to improving the transport situation in the south-west, and I am pleased today to announce a new phase in our £7 billion plan for that region. We are launching the next stage of the formal consultation on a major upgrade to the A303—the main A road into Devon and Cornwall. This involves the development of the 1.8-mile tunnel past Stonehenge, which will protect that world heritage site from traffic, reduce local congestion, and speed up journeys to and from the region. We will now be talking to local people to the west of that tunnel about precisely which route it should take around the village immediately to the left. In addition, we are committed to upgrading the remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and the M5 to dual carriageway. The next step will be public consultations on the A303 Sparkford to Ilchester and A358 Taunton to Southfields schemes that will come very shortly.

A 79-year-old constituent has been repeatedly refused car hire contracts by leading rental companies. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of any restrictions that are being placed on OAPs by these rental companies?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. This is a very difficult issue. The Equality Act 2010 provides general protection against age discrimination for people of all ages, but there is an exemption for a person conducting an assessment of risk for the purposes of providing a financial service to another person. My Department has not made the assessment that my hon. Friend describes, but I encourage his constituent to contact the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, which should be able to help him in identifying a suitable provider.

An icy chill is about to descend on parts of the country. That is not an impending DFT ministerial visit, I hasten to add—it is of course the impending weather front. Will the Secretary of State tell us about the state of preparations for gritting our roads in the coming days? What discussions has he had with his colleagues and those in local government to ensure that at least our roads run more smoothly than our railways?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no icy chill last time I visited Cambridge, when he and I were there for the first bit of work, albeit a rather small bit of work with a spade, on the A14 project, which will make a big difference to Cambridge. My ministerial team and I have had detailed discussions about this in recent weeks, and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), has been in regular contact with local authorities. We have in this country, if not a salt mountain, plenty of salt and plenty of grit. We estimate that we have what is necessary to cope with the winter ahead, but we will obviously keep that under review.

I thank the Secretary of State; let us hope that we are well prepared. Taking him back to the time just before Christmas, given that soon after his visit to Cambridge he told the Evening Standard that cycle lanes cause problems for road users, will he clarify exactly who he thinks road users are? While he is thinking about cyclists—a helpful clue—could he explain why it is taking such an extraordinarily long time to produce a cycling and walking investment strategy?

Cyclists use cycle lanes, and motorists and other road users use the roads alongside them. That is fairly straightforward, to be honest. If the hon. Gentleman is eagerly anticipating our cycling and walking strategy, he does not have long to wait.

T2. Will the Minister of State’s inspirational words about beauty be matched by the deeds of Highways England? (908106)

It does not surprise me that my right hon. Friend has drawn attention to my rapturously received and beautifully articulated speech on beauty. He is right to say that we now need action. We have established a design panel at Highways England, and in a few weeks’ time we will produce a new design guide. It will dismay all the crass modernists and harsh brutalists, but it will delight all those who believe that our public infrastructure can be stylish and elegant as well as deliver the necessary utility. My role is only this: to rediscover the age-old golden thread with which all of that will be woven.

T3. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), is as frustrated as I am by the constant delays to the tram-train project between Sheffield and Rotherham. Will he confirm that passenger services will start next year? Will he also give a date by which lessons can be learned from that project and rolled out across the country? Will he give particular consideration to the availability of hybrid tram-trains, which would mean that the vehicles could run on non-electrified heavy rail routes? (908107)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about hybrid tram-trains and I will look into it. As far as I am aware, the project is on track and on schedule, but I am particularly keen to understand the lessons that can be learned from it, to make sure that any projects elsewhere are done properly and to time the first time around.

T6. The excellent report “The Free Ports Opportunity”, written by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), sets out the possibilities for UK ports to become free ports, post-Brexit. It estimates that that could create 86,000 jobs in the UK. Will the Minister of State outline the possibilities for ports such as that in Newhaven in my constituency to become free ports, post-Brexit? (908111)

I have with me the report to which my hon. Friend refers. It is an excellent piece of work, and I have already arranged to meet its author. I initiated the maritime growth study when I was last in the Department, but it is time to refresh that. It must be a living document. As part of that exercise, we will consider the role of ports now that we are freed from the clutches of the European Union. My ambitions are, as ever, measured and modest: I seek nothing more than for Britannia to rule the waves.

T4. Ministers will be aware of the comments in Public Health England’s recent alcohol evidence review that drinking alcohol up to England’s drink-drive limit increases the risks of fatal accidents by 13 times. We have the highest drink-drive limit of any country in Europe expect for Malta, so will the Government look again at reducing the limit as a matter of urgency, in line with the views of the Police Federation, the RAC, the House of Lords, the Fire Brigades Union and 77% of the public? (908108)

We have no plans to review the drink-drive limit. The level of 80 mg per 100 ml of blood is one of the higher ones, but no country has a better record than us on road safety and improving performance in tackling drink-driving. Taken together, it is the combination of the right limit and enforcement and the cultural belief that drink-driving is wrong that makes progress.

Before Christmas, a parent at Morley Primary School in my constituency was badly injured when driving in the school’s vicinity, because another car was going too fast, which is a regular occurrence. I have consistently requested that the county council change the speed limit and move the signs—only move them—but it consistently refuses to do so because, it says, nobody has been killed yet. I do not want a child, parent or anybody else to be killed. Is there any way that the Minister can change the criteria by which councils decide to change such speed limits?

Local authorities already have the powers to introduce lower speed limits where they think it is appropriate. I think that that should apply especially around schools. The decision does not have to be a reactive one—waiting until something happens—and it is inappropriate to think in such a way. I suggest that I write to the Highways Authority in Derbyshire to highlight the powers that it already has. My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for roads will visit my hon. Friend’s constituency in a fortnight or so to discuss roads, so perhaps she could pick the matter up with him then.

T7. Brexit will cause a dangerous free-for-all in cabotage. Will the Minister agree to meet the Scottish Government to consider how to avoid that? (908113)

I think we are some way away from that. Discussions have to take place between our Government and the European Union on arrangements post-Brexit. They will take place, and we will inform the House of progress on the matter in due course.

A start has been made in the first road investment strategy on upgrading the A47 from Lowestoft to the A1. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that he will work with me and other East Anglian colleagues on the second road investment strategy to ensure that this good work continues.

My hon. Friend will know that we managed to achieve what he wanted in respect of the bridge in his constituency, but he is right that we need to do more in respect of RIS2. To his customary eloquence and commitment he has added prophetic powers, because just this morning I am writing to all the colleagues he describes inviting them to participate in that process. This will be for the people and shaped by the people’s representatives.

T8. The A75 in my constituency benefits from Euro-route designation. Will the Secretary of State assure my constituents that he will support the continued designation of Euro-routes after the UK leaves the European Union? (908114)

I have to confess that I have never heard anyone in this country, north or south of the border, refer to an A road in the United Kingdom as a Euro-route. If they cease to be Euro-routes after we leave the European Union, I suspect that we will be able to count the number of people who miss that on the fingers of one hand.

I declare an interest as a daily commuter on the east coast main line, which is a very well run strategic route. Service outages, infrequent as they are, can be very disruptive. May I ask the Minister to prevail on train operating companies and Network Rail to improve communications with passengers in real time, to ensure that passengers are made aware of these problems and can make alternative arrangements as necessary?

It is entirely right to say that passenger information during disruption is something that all train operating companies and Network Rail need to improve. Not only do we need a single source of information that is consistent, but it needs to provide the most up-to-date information. It is not acceptable for people who have checked their phones on leaving home and thought that their train was on time to find, by the time they get to the station, that the train has been cancelled. That is not good enough.

Will the Secretary of State reject the new proposal of a spur line from HS2 in the constituency of Bolsover between Hilcote and Morton? Not only will it cut the Blackwell council in two, but it will destroy scores of houses in the village of Newton. Will he have a look at the letter I have sent him, in order to pacify the people of Blackwell about this mad idea?

Of course I will. I have taken a close interest in the eastern leg, and I have been up and down most of the route myself. I am very keen that we deliver the economic benefits, but that we do so in the way that works best for local communities. I am happy to take a look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

It has been yet another week of misery for hundreds of thousands of passengers on Southern rail. Given that the unions have received guarantees on jobs, on pay and—from the independent rail safety regulator—on safety, would the Government now support Conservative proposals to limit strikes, or at least the impact of strikes, via legislation?

There is a lot of interest in the matter, and a lot of calls have been made for such measures to be taken. We are considering carefully how we approach future issues. Of course, nothing in legislative terms would solve the current dispute. I think my hon. Friend will join me in expressing the disappointment of Conservative Members about the fact that we have not heard from the Opposition today one word of regret or condemnation, and not one call for the unions to go back to work. They just do not care.

The RAC has estimated that drivers have been over-charged by hundreds of millions of pounds owing to over-zealous enforcement by private car parks. Requiring operators to sign up to accredited trade associations would help to stop that type of behaviour. Does the Secretary of State agree that having all companies sign up would ensure that their business models were based on fair treatment of the motorist?

I will happily look into the matter that the hon. Lady raises. It is actually the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I will take it up with my ministerial colleagues.

In view of the increasing number of passengers and employees using Stansted airport, the growth of the Cambridge biomedical campus, the prospect of Crossrail 2, the announcement of major housing developments and the welcome prospect of new, high-performance trains, what plans has my hon. Friend for increasing track capacity on the West Anglia line to take advantage of those factors?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise all those factors. He will know of the important work that the taskforce has done. We are also looking at timetabling, to which I hope he can make substantial contribution. He is right to raise the matter and we are looking at it very closely. Control period 6 announcements are on the way and I hope that his concerns will be reflected in them.

This time two years ago, when the Blackpool North electrification scheme faced delays and the rail Minister was a Back Bencher, he rightly demanded answers from Ministers. There is now real concern that the electrification of the midland main line will be further postponed or even cancelled north of Corby and Kettering. Will the Minister provide the House with the clarity that he sought for his constituency and give an unequivocal assurance that this key Conservative manifesto promise will not be broken?

We are continuing to work towards the key outputs that matter most to passengers. I recognise the importance of the network, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) will work on a cross-party basis to identify the key regional priorities that we want to be reflected in the new franchise. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood).

In Broxtowe, there is widespread and cross-party support for HS2. Of course, we get the east midlands hub at Towton, but there is still concern about the route. Will my right hon. Friend assure residents in Trowell, Strelley Village and Nuthall that their voices will be listened to and that, if necessary, changes to the route will be made without affecting the timetable for delivery?

I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend that commitment, as I did to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) a moment ago. The route will bring huge benefits to the east midlands and to Yorkshire, including the areas around Sheffield, but I want to make it clear that we will be as thoughtful and careful as we can about the detail of the route. The reason for the consultation is that it gives us a chance to listen to those views, and we will.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware of the Vauxhall car fire scandal. Last month, I hosted in the House of Commons around 25 people who had been affected, and heard about traumatised children and how the incidents led to increases in insurance excesses and cost families thousands of pounds. Will a Minister agree to meet not me—I am not interested in meeting Ministers myself—but the families of those affected?

I am aware of the issue and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency is taking action with Vauxhall to remedy the situation. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and some of the families affected.

As my hon. Friend will know, we have recently announced plans to dual the A66. We are currently waiting for the conclusion of the work on the potential for a trans-Pennine tunnel. I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that whether or not it is recommended that that work go ahead, our commitment to delivering trans-Pennine improvements will not be affected in any way by the outcome of that study.