Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 17 September 2020

My Department continues to tackle the very many different challenges that covid presents to all the forms of transport discussed here this morning.

It might be worth mentioning that I visited London Bridge station earlier in the week, where a programme that involves all the Network Rail stations is being rolled out. It is using antiviral cleaning materials, which means that surfaces become protected from coronavirus for up to 30 days. It actually repeats this on a 21-day basis, and it carries out the cleaning during the night, enabling people to return to the railways with the confidence of their being covid-free.

In addition, yesterday, the first meeting of the Hammersmith bridge taskforce took place. This major artery through London has been closed for too long; it is now closed to pedestrians and cyclists as well. The Department for Transport is looking to get this resolved, and I have brought in my own engineers to do so.

Arguably the biggest transport issue that impacts on my constituents in Ipswich is the Orwell bridge. At the moment, the current speed limit is 60 mph, and when it closes because of high winds, the whole town grinds to a halt. The economic impact of this should not be underestimated. Highways England has a plan involving a 40 mph speed limit, which will I hope mean that the bridge can stay open even when it is very windy. However, I am slightly concerned about the timescale. Will my right hon. Friend communicate to Highways England his expectation that these new measures will be put in place before the new winter season—the windy season—when these closures will continue if we do not implement the new measures?

My hon. Friend is right that the Orwell bridge is another key artery for Ipswich. I know that it is subject to ongoing work by Highways England that requires wind tunnel validation. I have been promised that that work will be completed by the end of September. From the Dispatch Box, I send a clear message to Highways England that I expect to see it on my desk.

Our transport industries have been devastated by coronavirus, but its frontline workers have kept the country going in difficult times. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

At the outset of topical questions, with 72 hours to go before the current rail franchise emergency measures agreements are due to expire, I expected the Transport Secretary to update the House. I am afraid my sheet is blank because no such statement, comment or indication followed. That is absolutely staggering. Are we to expect that, rather than something being reported to the House, it will come out over the next couple of days or the weekend, denying the House the opportunity to look into it? Will the Transport Secretary commit to making a statement to the House on Monday?

Let us be absolutely clear that in the last six months, with the current management agreements in place, while many parts of our transport sector have been denied the support they need, £100 million has been paid out to shareholders, many of which, by the way, are foreign Governments. That cannot continue in its current form.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the first emergency measures were worth some £3.5 billion to ensure that our rail sector was able to continue. I have already described how passengers are now returning to them and the work that is going on to make sure that they are safe to return.

As the hon. Gentleman points out, it is the case that the EMAs, as they are called, come to an end quite shortly. I do not think the House would realistically expect me to stand here and carry out those negotiations in public, but I reassure him that I will certainly return to make a statement in the House as soon as there is something to say.

There are just 72 hours left to go—it is literally last-minute. It is a timetable that would make Northern shy. I do not know what is going on with the Transport Secretary.

We know that passenger numbers have fallen to 7% of what they would be in normal times, yet rail fares are set for another increase in January. The average commuter will pay £3,000 for their season ticket, which is over £900 more than they would have paid in 2010. To encourage commuters back safely, will the Government commit to freezing fares and introducing part-time season tickets, as Labour has proposed?

I hate to play politics at the Dispatch Box, but it is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that, under Labour, there were inflation-busting fare rises that added 4.9% during its time in office. Again, I want to make sure that we are speaking on the basis of facts. I will return to the House on the emergency measures.

It is not true to say, as I think the hon. Gentleman did, that the number of passengers is down to a single-digit percentage. As I said before, the number of passengers returning was at 42% last week. It is incumbent on all of us to demonstrate that the railways are safe; to take the railways from time to time, which I am sure Members on both sides of the House do; and to reassure people of the safety and efficacy of using the railways and all other public transport systems.

Ruabon station in my constituency of Clwyd South is the only station on the Chester to Shrewsbury route that is not compliant with Access for All. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the urgent need for step-free access at Ruabon station, particularly given the projected increase in footfall due to new housing and commercial developments locally? (906163)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government are committed to ensuring that our rail network is more accessible. We are in the process of making 16 stations in Wales more accessible as part of our £350-million Access for All programme. My hon. Friend the Rail Minister would be happy to meet him to discuss Ruabon station.

One thing that makes the British countryside unique, special and loved by everybody around the world is that, since the 1940s, it has been illegal to put up great big advertising hoardings outside towns and cities. That means that our motorways should be free of advertising, and people should just be able to appreciate the countryside. Unfortunately, on my journey back from London last night, I saw 23 such hoardings that have been plonked in fields by farmers and others. What is the Government going to do to return the British countryside to the way it should be without constant advertising along the motorway? (906161)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can confirm that no one puts illegal hoardings on land controlled by the Department for Transport or Highways England. Much of this illegal signage is put up on land located next to motorways, so this becomes a planning matter. I will therefore raise his concerns, if he is happy for me to do so, with Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers.

My constituents are fed up with speeding vehicles and horrendous noise pollution, especially on the so-called Rutland TT race circuit. Will my right hon. Friend please consider running noise camera trials in some of Rutland and Melton’s stunning 160 villages, especially Great Dalby and Langham? (906164)

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that we have carried out some trials using noise equipment and automatic number plate recognition software, to see whether it is possible to match the two up and use them as we might use a speed camera, but for noise. Work is ongoing to compile the results of that study into a report, so I hope to be able to report back to the House on that. I agree with her that this is a problem. For example, sometimes exhausts have been modified, both in motorcycles and cars, and for no other purpose but to make a huge amount of noise. We are certainly interested in finding solutions to that, and I will report back to the House.

Before the summer recess, the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Transport about his plans to introduce hydrogen bus towns and hydrogen hubs. That is an excellent opportunity for my city of Bath, where having electric buses is a real challenge because of our steep hills. Will he update us on those plans, and especially on how cities such as Bath can profit from that, and quickly please? (906166)

We are very keen to improve air quality, and that goes hand in hand with reducing carbon dioxide—the two often go together. Our massive investment in car electrification, which has not yet been mentioned, means that we now have more charging locations than petrol stations, and one of the best charging networks, in this country, although it could still be better. We are also ensuring that public transport and bus services switch over, and I have mentioned previously from the Dispatch Box the 4,000 zero-carbon buses that will be coming in. We will work closely with local authorities such as Bath to create clean air zones and improve air quality for everyone.

Will the Secretary of State work with me to see that Tettenhall gets the train station it needs, to support the surrounding area and to increase connectivity and infrastructure in Wolverhampton? (906165)

The aim of the Restoring Your Railway programme is to reconnect people and communities. I know that my Department has provided feedback on the proposal to reopen Tettenhall station, and I encourage my hon. Friend to contact the programme’s team to discuss the next steps.

Just before the general election, the Prime Minister committed to electrification of the entire midland main line, but since then we have seen no such commitment from the Department. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to reassert that commitment, or was that just another broken promise to the east midlands? (906168)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are currently delivering the midland main line upgrade, which includes electrification from London to Kettering, with additional electrification to Market Harborough being developed. Further electrification of the midland main line is currently at an early stage, but it is being examined by Network Rail. The Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail on the development of a proposal for this, including approaches to advancing the delivery of electrification across the route.

There are over 360,000 licensed taxi and private hire drivers in England, and the sector has been very hard hit. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the sector, and will he tell us how he plans to measure the impact of his rather disappointingly weak statutory guidance issued back in July? (906169)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the impact, and the same is true of many other forms of transport. I pay tribute to the work of taxi drivers and private hire vehicle drivers, who have been incredible during this crisis and have often provided the only form of transport available for people in certain areas.

The statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards have considerable teeth, because for the first time ever we will have national databases, and we will put enormous work into ensuring that all local authorities and hackney carriage authorities sign up to those and use them. I will say more in the not too distant future about our support for taxis and private hire vehicles through the pandemic.

Many taxi drivers in my constituency have raised concerns about having to pay East Midlands Railway the full £600 fee for a permit to ply for hire at Loughborough station, despite the unprecedented collapse in business they have been forced to face over the past few months. I would be grateful to know whether the Minister has had any discussions with rail operators about permit fees and, if not, whether it is something he would consider. (906167)

Officials from my Department have been in discussions with East Midlands Railway and provided guidance last week that should, I hope, enable train operators to resolve this issue.

I declare my interest as an electric vehicle driver. The charging network across Thirsk and Malton is pretty woeful. Many of the connection types are different, the chargers are slow and even the new BP Chargemaster ones for contactless payment cards often do not work. What more can we do to prevent the charging network from becoming a deterrent to the take-up of electric vehicles? (906170)

I, too, declare an interest as an electric car driver. Although I said, accurately, that there are now more charging locations than petrol stations, it is still the case that in particular areas—Thirsk and Malton is perhaps one such example—the charging is not good enough. One issue that I have come across, as I am sure has my hon. Friend, is machines that require sign-up to a membership system or particular requirements in advance, preventing me from charging up. He will be pleased to hear that we intend to enforce, particularly on rapid chargers, a system whereby it has to be possible for people to walk up and pay contactlessly for the energy that goes into their car, without signing up to a particular scheme in advance. We have taken powers to enforce that system and I hope it will make his drive easier, as well as mine and everybody else’s who switches to an electric car.

Back in July, the Government committed to decriminalising moving traffic offences, which will provide parity across England. Given that Greater Manchester has called for this change for a number of years, will the Secretary of State give an update on the timeline for delivering on the commitment? (906172)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. These powers have existed in London forever. They prevent, for example, box junctions from being blocked up, along with a number of other things. As he rightly says, we intend to extend the powers throughout the country and I will report back to the House on that shortly.

I want to return to support for the aviation sector during the pandemic. Thousands of jobs have been lost at easyJet and Airbus, and easyJet has moved many pilots to part-time contracts and closed three of its bases. Staff who are losing their jobs in aviation or managing on part-time pay need the sector-specific support package that has been promised. That will be essential in avoiding more job losses, so when will we see that support for the sector? (906174)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the impact on aviation, which has been enormous, but so has the support, and that is often not recognised. If I may detail it, there has been £1.8 billion of support through the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which easyJet and others have used; £283 million has come from the coronavirus job retention scheme; and 56,400 staff have been furloughed, with the salaries that have been paid worth well north of £1 billion. When those figures are added up, there has been an enormous amount of support for the sector. We are working with it every day and the best thing we can do is to open up the routes, which is dependent on the progress of the virus and the progress of technology to help us beat the virus.

As chair of the all-party group on disability, I have been contacted about accessible transport by many constituents across the UK. Next Wednesday, it will be two years since the Department’s consultation on audio-visual announcements on buses, but it has yet even to publish the consultation responses. We must do everything possible to be a fully inclusive society, so when will passengers finally get the benefits of audio-visual announcements on buses? Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and the all-party group? What progress will the Government make towards their 2030 inclusive transport strategy ambition? (906178)

That is an incredibly important subject. The good news, which the hon. Lady may have missed, is that during my time as Secretary of State I have put several million pounds into precisely this issue of audio-visual on buses. I will certainly write to her with the details, and I will also arrange for her to meet the buses Minister.

This Conservative Government are putting unprecedented levels of investment into the Highways England strategic road network. The A64 Hopgrove roundabout upgrade is one project that is vital not only to my constituents but to people from West Yorkshire and beyond who suffer in the queues. Will the Secretary of State give me an indication that this project is still in the programme and of when we are likely to see spades in the ground?

My right hon. Friend is right about the £27.4 billion we are investing in the road investment strategy 2 programme to upgrade and build roads fit for the 21st century. There was very effective lobbying on the roundabout, and I will certainly come back to him in writing to provide more of an update.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, the Secretary of State and the whole House will share my grief about the fatal Stonehaven tragedy and the environmental damage wrought by the Llangennech derailment. It seems that the Government have finally listened to the Labour party and look to be ending their failed franchise model. Given the many billions of taxpayer funds that this will cost, it is simply unacceptable that we have to read about these agreements piecemeal in newspapers. As my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, perhaps the Secretary of State can enlighten us as to when he will make a full statement to this House outlining the future of rail. Will he also confirm what percentage of contracts, especially for HS2, will be going to UK suppliers?

There is a lot to cover there, but I will try to make it brief. The hon. Gentleman is right about Stonehaven. I went to the scene of the tragedy—I was taken over in a helicopter—and it was like a Hornby train set had been thrown up in the air. Our thoughts and prayers go not only to the three who died, but to those who were injured, the emergency workers and the brave people who rescued others—our thoughts are with them all. The House will have noted that I issued the Network Rail interim report on Stonehaven a week or two back, which comes to some very important interim conclusions. I will update the House further with the full report shortly.

As for the ending of the emergency measures agreements, I hope the House will understand that it is not possible to conduct negotiations with nine different operating companies in public—I cannot do that from the Dispatch Box. As he knows, the EMAs come to an end shortly, so I will of course be coming back to the House. I would disbelieve everything that you read in the newspapers; I do not think I have read a single thing that relates to what is actually happening. I will return to the House in due course to update it on precisely what is happening, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can doubt our commitment to rail—the £3.5 billion we have put in so far, and indeed our support for HS2, which he mentions.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.