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Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure there is sufficient rolling stock available to the railways to meet demand.

My Lords, we have committed to provide 1,300 additional passenger carriages for the rail network by 2014. Four hundred and twenty-three new carriages have already been ordered. Officials are in commercial discussions with train operating companies to secure the remainder over the agreed period.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. The rolling stock is urgently needed. It has been the subject of many announcements, but few orders have been placed. Is he aware that the country’s only diesel train production line—Bombardier at Derby—will be closed down if new orders are not forthcoming shortly? There will be a large loss of skilled jobs and much damage will be done to the railway manufacturing industry.

My Lords, as I said, 423 of the 1,300 carriages have been ordered. The carriages are scheduled for completion by 2014, so we have not been slow off the mark. We are looking to place additional orders, although I cannot of course comment about particular companies that might benefit.

My Lords, does the Minister, with his usual fairness, agree with me that the situation with regard to rolling stock can best be described as—I am trying to think of a parliamentary phrase I can use—unsatisfactory in the extreme? I invite him to travel at the earliest possible opportunity on some of those routes that experience the greatest overcrowding—for example, from Cardiff to Portsmouth via Bristol and on the lines north of Manchester.

My Lords, I am well aware—indeed, I travel on some of these lines myself—of the degree of overcrowding and the pressure that there is, which in good part is because of the success of the railways. They are carrying more passenger traffic now than at any time since the late 1940s, so it is a remarkable success story. There are 11,300 rail vehicles in operation, which is an increase of 900 since 1995, so we are seeking to meet the additional demand. As I say, the 1,300 additional vehicles to that 11,300 are in the pipeline. We have ordered more than 400, but I am well aware of the urgency the noble Lord sets out.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it was very unsatisfactory last year when many of the trains around the Bristol area were so overcrowded that somebody fainted standing up and there was no room for him to sit down? That was mitigated by borrowing trains from the Welsh valleys. Those trains are required back next year. Who is going to faint first—the Bristol people or those in the Welsh valleys? What can my noble friend do about it?

My Lords, the 1,300 additional vehicles will benefit the Bristol area. The High Level Output Specification Plan update of July this year, which sets out the progress being made in planning and providing additional rolling stock, states that 52 of the additional vehicles will be for First Great Western, including provision of additional vehicles for the Bristol area. Therefore, I hope that we will be in a position to meet some of the additional demand to which my noble friend refers.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the proprietor of a private group of railway engineering companies. Can the Minister give a categoric assurance that the six-year programme as specified in his department’s White Paper, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, will remain intact regardless of the current uncertainties about the economy and the outcome of the general election and beyond? If he cannot give such an assurance, will the Government then issue as a matter of urgency gilt-edged railway bonds or their equivalent, which would be dedicated entirely to heavy and light rail programmes to maintain current employment levels in the railway industries up to 2014?

My Lords, the noble Lord is asking me to give a large number of assurances on issues, some of which are within my control and some of which are not. Alas, with all my great powers, I personally cannot determine the outcome of the next general election, although I have a good idea what it will be. Therefore, I cannot give him an assurance on that issue. However, as regards all the matters about which he asked which are within my power to address, I give him the assurances that he seeks. In particular, I give him an absolute assurance that we intend to stick by the rail investment strategy, which will see £15 billion worth of additional government investment in the rail network over the next five years and the provision of 1,300 additional rail vehicles.

My Lords, does the Minister not understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, that delays in government ordering of this rolling stock create boom and bust for the manufacturing industry rather than a steady state and efficient demand?

My Lords, I do not accept that there have been delays. We have ordered more than 400 of these vehicles already, other orders are in the pipeline and we are committed to providing the 1,300 by 2014, so we are getting on with the ordering with all deliberate speed.

My Lords, the Minister will have seen the Rail Regulator’s determination. Does he agree that the rolling stock plan is an incomprehensible muddle, as stated in paragraphs 9.82 and 28.22?

My Lords, I am very concerned about the 2014 date. Does the Minister not realise that the greatest influx of tourists this country has ever known will happen between 2011 and 2012 for the Olympic Games, followed by the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014? I beg him to do something to bring that date forward to enable us to deliver what we are expected to deliver in looking after and transporting tourists throughout the kingdom, not just round London.

My Lords, we are seeking to move as rapidly as we can, but as I say, the provision is to be made by 2014. We have ordered 400 of these vehicles already and we will move ahead as fast as we practically can.

My Lords, in contrast to the slightly churlish point made by the noble Earl on the ORR’s determination, does my noble friend agree that the investment that the ORR is authorising Network Rail to spend will make a huge difference to solving overcrowding problems over the next six years?

My Lords, I do agree. Last week’s determination will ensure that £28.5 billion is available for investment in the rail network over the period up to 2014. That is a huge sum of money and will make a huge difference, not least—talking of causes close to my noble friend’s heart—with regard to the doubling of the Cotswold Line, for which he has campaigned for many years.

My Lords, the arrangements whereby railway leasing companies own the stock and the Government order it appear to have provided substantial and reliable revenue and profit for banks over the past few years. Do the Government intend to revisit the arrangements whereby rolling stock is acquired, owned and leased?

My Lords, we intend to keep the existing structure in place, but the department has a very keen interest in ensuring that these 1,300 vehicles are procured as rapidly as we practically can. I would not want to close particular options for the way that we might procure those vehicles.