Orders of the Day — Rail Services (Wansbeck)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:34 pm on 27th April 1999.

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Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:34 pm, 27th April 1999

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) not only on obtaining this debate but on giving such a passionate and detailed understanding of the importance of our railways to so many areas of our national life and for detailing again—it made chilling hearing—the almost wanton disregard of the previous Administration for the needs of his part of the United Kingdom.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the transport White Paper sets out the Government's aim to provide a transport system that is safe, efficient, clean and fair, and makes it easier for people to make more sustainable travel choices, leading to less congested and polluted roads. Many of our towns and cities are now facing significant levels of congestion and pollution, placing a burden on business and resulting in a poor quality of life for people who live and work there. Our aim is to reduce people's dependency on the car by delivering real alternatives—such as better public transport and improved facilities for cycling and walking. Our railway network will have a central role in an integrated transport system, and if we are to persuade people of the benefits of switching from car to rail, we must provide more and better train services.

My hon. Friend may be aware that, to encourage further investment in the network, we have provided the franchising director with two new sources of investment funding via the rail passenger partnership and the infrastructure investment funds. They are aimed at supporting new investment proposals to produce wider benefits for both integrated transport and a modal shift to rail that could not be taken forward without public sector financial support. Of course, Railtrack remains responsible for funding investment in rail infrastructure where there is a commercial case and in accordance with its licence obligations.

The rail passenger partnership scheme is designed specifically to encourage and support innovative proposals at the regional and local level that develop rail use, and promote modal shift and integration with other forms of transport. Funding for the RPP scheme will be awarded by the franchising director—as part of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority—and will be channelled through franchised train operators.

We encourage local authorities and others to present to the franchising director proposals consistent with the strategies set out in our transport White Paper. Sponsors should prepare a business case in consultation with the relevant train operator, Railtrack and other local authorities. The business case will allow the franchising director to estimate the likely level of public sector funding required to support the scheme and whether the proposed expenditure represents value for money. The franchising director's interim planning criteria will provide guidance to any party submitting a proposal and the Government will look to the franchising director to undertake appraisal of any proposal that is put to him objectively, and to give fair consideration to all the proposals for new services that he receives. Under those criteria, he would look for genuine value for money and a real passenger benefit from schemes that he is asked to support.

My hon. Friend referred to the south-east Northumberland transport study conducted in 1996, but the franchising director has not—as far as I am aware—received a business case or any proposals from local authorities for the reopening of rail passenger services in the Wansbeck area. I understand that such a proposal has been the subject of discussions involving the county and district councils, the passenger transport executive, Nexus, the relevant transport providers, Northern Spirit and Railtrack. Opraf—the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising—stands ready to advise applicants, and will be issuing revised criteria for the allocation of financial support. Those criteria will take account of the development of multi-modal appraisal techniques that establish a level playing field for appraisal of different transport modes.

My hon. Friend may also know that Opraf is taking forward a wide-ranging consultation on the future development of rail services, addressing the type and level of services that the rail network should provide, consistent with the Government's objectives for integrated transport policy, value for money and affordability. The views of both passenger and freight users will be heard and the consultation will focus on establishing priorities for rail at national, regional and local level. Views will be sought on how local government can develop land use strategies that fully exploit the economic potential of rail to meet future transport needs. A key question is how the rail industry and stakeholders should be working together to achieve improvements in the rail network. The parties in my hon. Friend's constituency may wish to respond to this consultation, so that their voices are heard.

The results of the Opraf consultation will feed into the shadow Strategic Rail Authority's plans for the rail network. They will also assist in the evaluation of Railtrack's 1999 network management statement and help in forming a view on the outputs that the shadow SRA will want Railtrack to provide. The SRA will form an early view on priorities for developing the network in consultation with local authorities, regional planning conferences and other organisations. We have made it clear that local authorities have a fundamental role in initiating local rail schemes.

Our White Paper made available funds to assist in providing a better local public transport system, including rail and bus passenger transport. The centrepiece of that approach will be local transport plans, which will be the key to the delivery of integrated transport locally. This summer, local authorities will submit provisional plans setting out their proposals for delivering integrated transport over a five-year period. Those plans will cover all forms of transport, including rail.

Many of the problems that we face in transport policy are essentially local, and local transport plans will provide local solutions to those problems within a coherent national framework. To do that, the plans must be founded on active partnership with local users, providers and businesses, for only in that way will we achieve lasting consensus at local level.

There needs to be partnership and accountability in developing the railways as part of an integrated transport system. The Government are determined to play their part in creating an effective public transport network that people will choose to use, but local authorities and the private sector also have a vital role. We will all share the benefits of a sustainable transport system and we must share the responsibility for achieving it.

We anticipate partnership between the public and private sectors and closer liaison between central and local government on transport planning. The strategy and commitments in our White Paper "A New Deal for Transport: Better for Everyone" will serve to benefit rail passengers and facilitate worthwhile investment in new schemes, through partnership between Government, regional and local authorities and private sector operators and sponsors.

We believe that together those plans will help us to develop a better railway service attuned to the expectations of rail passengers, which is in line with our policies on integrated transport, and which will equip us to provide a rail system with an infrastructure appropriate to the 21st century. The measures that I have described demonstrate this Government's commitment to public transport enhancements at national, regional and local level to the benefit of all sectors of the community.