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Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

As I said earlier, these are the last Transport oral questions before Christmas, and we are backing drivers with an easier Christmas getaway. From next Tuesday, National Highways is lifting over 1,000 miles of roadworks, which means that over 98% of motorways and major A roads will be roadwork-free until 2 January. We are also getting on with the job of resurfacing Britain’s roads, thanks to the record £8.3 billion uplift in funding. Earlier this month, highway authorities received the first tranche of that investment, which will mean smoother, safer journeys and save drivers hundreds of pounds in costly vehicle repairs. Local authorities also have new reporting requirements, so taxpayers will know how that money is being spent.

The Prime Minister made the right long-term decision to redirect money from HS2 towards the local journeys that matter most, ensuring that more people in more places will see benefits more quickly. That is what the British people want, it is what the country needs, and it is what we are delivering.

Will my right hon. Friend say when the strategic objectives behind Network North will be announced and published? Can he confirm that any projects announced so far are consistent with those objectives, and whether any of the HS2 funding will come to London and the south-east?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As I set out, the objective of the decision is to ensure that that £36 billion of transport spending, which we are reinvesting in transport projects, will benefit more people, in more places across the country, more quickly. We are investing £6.5 billion pounds of savings from HS2 outside the north and midlands, which will benefit his constituents as well. That includes additional funding for London—

Order. Come on boys, you’re going to have to help me. I call the shadow Secretary of State.

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House a very merry Christmas? Why have the Government wasted £95 million on technology to retrofit buses that does not work?

The hon. Lady will know that we have done a great deal of work to make sure that buses are compliant with the emissions rules. There are some technical issues being worked through at the moment, but I am not in a position to announce any decisions yet. We will announce to the House in due course when that work is completed.

Bus services are disappearing at record levels, yet the Secretary of State’s Department has wasted almost £100 million on retrofitting technology that does not work, because it was never tested outside a lab. Even for this Government, this is a shocking display of incompetence and waste. Will he now work with those cities left with useless technology and ensure that the next round of zero-emissions funding is targeted there, so that they can get on with the job of cleaning up our air and cleaning up his mess?

Once again, the hon. Lady simply does not recognise the significant investment that we have made in bus services. We have announced a significant amount of extra money for protecting bus routes, we have rolled out funding to deliver the £2 bus fare cap, and we have announced the money to deliver zero-emission buses and delivered the full 1,000 we said we would deliver. There has been a huge amount of investment in bus services, because we know it is the most popular form of public transport and we will always back it.

T2. My right hon. Friend’s Department has ensured that many bus passengers can benefit from the £2 cap on fares, but sadly Red Rose buses in my constituency is not offering it because the company says it is not compulsory. Will my right hon. Friend help me persuade all bus companies to do the right thing for Aylesbury’s residents, including by meeting bosses of the companies that refuse? (900673)

I am disappointed to hear that news from Aylesbury. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and to invite the bus company in to explain why it is not taking up the Government’s generous offer.

T4. Earlier this year, the UK Government pledged to fund a bridge repair in the constituency of the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). The Newburgh train station campaign is working to re-establish a train station that will provide a vital transport link. Assuming that strategic funding is not just available to Members of the Conservative party, who can I speak to in order to get that station re-established? (900675)

On her first point, we are working with the local authority to progress that scheme, which was announced earlier. On her specific point, I will arrange for the relevant Minister to meet her so that she can put forward the case for that scheme, and we will look at whether it is possible to do anything to help her.

T3. I know the Minister understands that open-access rail can provide better, cheaper, more varied and more resilient services for passengers. In the next few weeks or months, how much rail network capacity does he expect to make available for open-access services from currently unused track slots, potentially from unused slots freed up by timetable improvements and from services currently provided by the operator of last resort? (900674)

I thank my hon. Friend for joining me and others in the industry to discuss open-access rail on 27 October. I have today written to the Office of Rail and Road and the chief executive of Network Rail, asking them to review the unused access rights and agree a timeline, so that we can get decisions made more promptly. I hope to then give him more information.

T6. The Prime Minister announced the electrification of the rail line to Hull in October at the Conservative party conference, so will the Minister tell me what the start date for that work will be? (900678)

As part of the engagement exercise, which the Prime Minister promised, I have met leaders from across the north. Last week, it was a pleasure to meet those from the region around Hull to discuss their preferred route. They made the point that the route should be prioritised because electrification has been talked about before, and I think that is a very good idea.

T5. I emphasise to the Government the point made by my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), about pressing ahead with the Ely junction and Haughley junction schemes. Network Rail has done much of the preparatory work and is poised to get on with it as quickly as possible. (900676)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that scheme again. I know it is an important issue for colleagues in the east of England and I am delighted that we are able to make progress as a result of the decision on Network North. I have discussed it with Network Rail and the next steps involve the development of the full business case. Network Rail has what it needs to make progress, and I know my hon. Friend will be wishing it every speed.

T7. Over the past year, yet more people have been killed or seriously injured on our roads, and the UK’s record on that has plateaued. While we have accident investigation organisations for air, maritime and rail, we do not have one for roads. The Government promised to set up a road safety investigation branch last year. When will that become a reality? (900679)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the important issue of road safety. I notice that the statistics she set out are inconsistent with those set out by her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). She recognises that our road safety record is not going backwards, as he suggested. When there is a fatality, road accidents are investigated by the relevant authorities, and that remains the position. We learn lessons from accidents, so that when we build new road infrastructure it has safety at its heart.

T8. Will my hon. Friend update the House on the progress of the potential return of the direct rail link from King’s Cross to Grimsby and Cleethorpes? (900680)

My hon. Friend follows my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) in raising that matter at Transport questions. They are without doubt the strongest lobbyists when it comes to train timetabling changes. She will have seen the test train that ran in June. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the last Transport questions that we hope to make an announcement shortly. It is something that we are working on.

Of the 4,000 zero-emission buses promised in the national bus strategy, only 660 have been funded outside London and half of those have gone to overseas manufacturers. What are the Government doing to help UK manufacturers develop competitive zero-emission buses capable of longer distance journeys?

I was delighted to meet and engage with many of the different manufacturers from the UK only two weeks ago. I look forward to discussing the matter with them in more detail.

T9. What conversations is the Minister having with Southern and Thameslink about increasing rail capacity and running longer services from Carshalton and Wallington, addressing the dangerous gap at Hackbridge station, and installing step-free access at Carshalton Beeches station? (900681)

I have met my hon. Friend and I appreciate the work that he does campaigning for the stations in his constituency. I have regular conversations with people from Govia Thameslink Railway, and I know that they have recently increased capacity on some busy services through Carshalton and Hackbridge. On Hackbridge station, I offer to meet him with a team from Network Rail to see whether we can address the matter that he mentions.

Such was the excitement in Wales in 2012 when Conservative Ministers announced that they would be building the four-mile western rail link to Heathrow to open in 2020 that First Minister Rhodri Morgan described it as one of the “most important announcements” in the last 50 years, but it was yet another broken promise. After more than a decade, when does the Transport Secretary expect the first spade to be dug into the ground to build the No.1 infrastructure priority of the Thames Valley region?

When this proposal was first mooted, it was to be a 50:50 split with Heathrow airport and the new runway, but matters changed after the pandemic. We are determined to see private sector involvement in the railways continue. If there is a private sector proposal, we are very happy to support it, but these schemes must not come at the expense of taxpayers.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) saw for himself on Sunday night the scourge of pedicabs in the west end. With the Pedicabs (London) Bill having reached Report stage in the Lords, can he update the House on when we can expect it to be presented in this place?

One train per hour stops on the Durham coastline, usually with two carriages. This severely limits access to economic opportunities in Sunderland, Newcastle and Middlesbrough. Recently, Northern Rail confirmed a new two-hourly service, but my constituents will only be able to wave at it as it goes by, because the plan is that it will not stop at the stations at Seaham and Horden. Can the Rail Minister please use his influence with Northern to see whether he can get those trains to stop?

I am sure that everyone waves at the hon. Gentleman, great man that he is. It was great to meet him when he came to the Department. We talked about Durham coastal service and timetable changes. Today, Transport for the North is discussing timetable changes, so I hope that that proposal goes through and that I can therefore give Durham coastal service the improvement that he asks for.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend to cut the money given to the West of England Combined Authority, as it spends it extraordinarily badly on vanity schemes for the Mayor, on cutting bus services for my constituents and on pillorying motorists with this dreadful scheme, which is hated in Saltford, for a bus lane on the A4?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point about regional Mayors, which is that we have devolved powers and resources to them, but they are ultimately accountable to their constituents. I hope very much that if they are punishing the motorist, the motorist will punish them back at the appropriate time at the ballot box.

Now that the blight of HS2 has been lifted from North West Leicestershire, can the Minister update the House on when work will commence on reopening the Ivanhoe line, which will offer rail access for the first time in many decades not only to my constituents, but to our neighbours in South Derbyshire?

The Prime Minister’s Network North announcement gave that commitment on the Ivanhoe line down to Leicester. We are fully committed to that. I know that I am due to be meeting the hon. Member on another matter, so I will give him more of an update then.

Like many, I welcomed what was going on with Network North, particularly the announcement of Ferryhill Station. When it comes to the final assessment and decisions, we need to ensure that the right question is asked, as the Green Book says. The right question is: what is the socioeconomic benefit to the towns and villages around the station, not to the GDP of the UK? May I ask for that assurance please?

That was another commitment that the Prime Minister made in the Network North announcement. My hon. Friend has campaigned for Ferryhill Station for so long, and I thank him for bringing it forward. The business case will look at the socioeconomic conditions that he mentions, and I am confident that we will be able to get spades in the ground for his station very shortly.

LNER is going to consult again on altering the timetable to increase the frequency of trains from Edinburgh and Newcastle to London, but that inherently means a reduction in services to West Yorkshire, Manchester and Merseyside. That is very sad, and it is bad for the northern economy. This is not a timetabling issue; it is a capacity issue on the east coast main line. Can we have some investment in the east coast main line, north of York, to remedy those problems?

As things stand, we are unable to operate that service because the trans-Pennine route upgrade, which is delivering the billions of pounds’ worth of investment to enhance the route that the hon. Member asks for, is currently being constructed. That will provide the bandwidth. As I mentioned, today we hope to get a decision from Transport for the North that will improve services and add an extra service north to south. Then, with the multi-billion pound investment in the trans-Pennine route upgrade, we will get east-west service improvements as well.

In Hyndburn and Haslingden, we are hoping to have a very happy new year, as we hope to hear the announcement that both Rishton Station and Church and Oswaldtwistle Station have been successful in the Government’s Access for All scheme. Can any indication be given of when we might hear the announcement, and will the Government look favourably on them?

It is worth noting that 75% of all rail journeys now take place from step-free stations, with 220 stations made step-free under Access for All. We have 300 in the list for the next batch, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that hers are in that long list. We will decide shortly which ones to take forward next year.

Will the ministerial team stop briefing against hydrogen combustion engines? The fact is that hydrogen is on its way, in trucks and JCBs. Cummins in my constituency is prepared for three years. [Interruption.] When will the Secretary of State stop?

Order. Hang on a minute. Do not take advantage, Barry, because I will not call you again otherwise.

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. Not only are we not briefing against hydrogen combustion engines; we are very supportive of them. I have been to Cummins. I have been to JCB. I have looked at the fantastic work that is being done developing hydrogen. We have some world-leading companies here. The Department is very supportive, and working closely with them.

I commend the work of my disabled young constituent, Nathaniel Yates from Reddish, who has assessed every single railway station in Greater Manchester. Too many of them are not step free. We have the money for Reddish North, but when can we get the money for Levenshulme?

I commend that work as well. In fact, the Great British Railways transition team has done a station accessibility study auditing every one of our 2,500 stations. That report is due out shortly. I hope that the team can work with the hon. Member’s constituency to come up with some good data and improve access for all.

The key element of Scarborough’s successful town bid is the station gateway project, but getting permission from Network Rail to knock a new entrance into the back of the station is proving slow and bureaucratic. Can the Secretary of State gently lean on Network Rail a bit, please?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. I am sure that Network Rail will have heard that. I will take it away, raise it with Network Rail, and get back to him to let him know whether we can make that go faster.

The latest of many improvements to Gloucester Station since 2010 includes vital work on the station underpass and forecourt; however, contractor costs have risen since the original station improvement fund award. Will the Rail Minister agree to meet me and Great Western Railways to resolve that potential issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for that question. I am very familiar with the investment and work that is currently being undertaken at Gloucester Station, as it is the one that I use on a regular basis when getting the train to London. The Rail Minister will be delighted to meet with him to see whether there is more that we can do to take those matters forward.

Inevitably, concerns about overcrowding will come up this afternoon at a Chiltern Railways drop-in at Marylebone with Buckinghamshire MPs, so can the Rail Minister assure me that the Government are doing everything possible to push Chiltern to improve?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department is working closely with Chiltern as it looks to get more rolling stock to replace some of its ageing diesel stock. There are capacity issues, as he notes, because more people are using the railways, which is a great success, but we will work with the operator to ensure that it gets the rolling stock it needs.