Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:42 pm on 16th January 2002.

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Photo of Don Foster Don Foster Liberal Democrat, Bath 3:42 pm, 16th January 2002

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the failure of the Government to tackle adequately the growing crisis on British railways;
and believes that the salary of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should be reduced by 1.8 per cent. and that payment of a further 22 per cent. be withheld until 31st March 2003.

I shall begin by agreeing with the Secretary of State that the state of British railways is, as he said, "unacceptable". With some justification, right hon. and hon. Members can point to the failure of past Governments to invest adequately in our railways as a possible cause. No doubt that was even true of past Liberal Governments. Past investment has, at times, been lamentable. With justification, many right hon. and hon. Members will also point to the problems of fragmentation caused by aspects of rail privatisation. Criticism may also be levelled, as it was by the head of the Strategic Rail Authority on Tuesday, at some of the management of our railways system—notwithstanding the excellent work done by many railway staff.

The Liberal Democrats accept that past underinvestment, privatisation and some poor management have all undoubtedly played a part in the current rail crisis. However, we have had a Labour Government for nearly five years and it is reasonable to question what they have done in that time to seek to rectify the problems of our railways. Have the Labour Government improved the situation or has it got worse? Public opinion is clear. The YouGov poll in The Mail on Sunday last weekend showed that 70 per cent. of people believe that the situation on our railways has got worse since Labour were elected in 1997.

I acknowledge that not all is bad; for example, there has been an increase in passenger numbers and in private investment in the railways, and the Strategic Rail Authority has been established. However, we also note that between 2000 and 2001 train delays increased by 70 per cent., meaning that, collectively, passengers wasted at least 4,600 years last year waiting for delayed trains. Cancellations increased by 45 per cent. in the same period. There is massive overcrowding—39 per cent. of rail journeys are overcrowded; as I pointed out yesterday, it is somewhat bizarre that the Government have introduced legislation to tackle the overcrowding of chickens but have taken no action to reduce the overcrowding of humans on trains.

The Government have said that they want our stations to be safer. They are right. Train use will not be encouraged if people have to wait in unlit, unstaffed stations at night, if information is inadequate, or if car parks are insecure. However, although the Government announced a secure station initiative in 1998, nothing was done. As a result, only about 120 of the 2,500 railway stations have so far achieved accreditation. At that rate, it will take a staggering 76 years before all stations are deemed safe.

What about affordability? Britain's railways are the most expensive in Europe—almost the most expensive in the world. In this country, passengers can travel, on average, 55 miles for £10. That compares with 128 miles in France and 806 miles in the Czech Republic for the same amount. Under the ridiculously complex fares structure through which passengers must wade, many of our fares are excessive; yet the Government have made no serious attempt to tackle that problem.

We need a safe, reliable and affordable railway system but we do not have one.