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Since our last Question Time in January, my Department has announced high-speed rail proposals to revolutionise travel between our major cities, with trains running up to 250 mph; announced planned investment of more than £800 million in a package of local major schemes throughout the UK; and outlined new proposals to improve bus travel and tackle antisocial behaviour, including a ban on alcohol consumption.
Chiltern Railways' proposed new rail route from Oxford to London Marylebone via Bicester is welcome, but there are concerns among residents of north Oxford about frequent and, because of their speed, noisier trains passing their houses. First, does the Minister agree that mitigation is the key issue for those residents? Secondly, given that his noble Friend the Secretary of State was willing to meet me last year to discuss the issue, will the Minister ask him if he would be willing to meet us again to discuss mitigation?
The announcement of the £262 million Chiltern Railways Evergreen 3 project has some downsides, and on behalf of my right hon. and noble Friend I am happy to make a commitment for him to meet the hon. Gentleman in the next few weeks. If, for some reason, my noble Friend cannot meet him, I shall ensure that either I or one of our ministerial colleagues is able to do just that.
In answer to an earlier question, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Chris Mole, spoke about the improved information for passengers about the best fares that are available to them. Does he not agree, however, that providing the best possible fare ought to be an absolute obligation on train operating companies and a condition of their franchise, in order to ensure that passengers always get the best and lowest fare available?
We continue to work seamlessly with Passenger Focus on that issue so that we can improve the information available to passengers, to ensure that they get the best possible fare. On the specific point about whether it is possible to include such provision as a franchise requirement, perhaps my hon. Friend would like to respond to our current consultation on future franchising.
As a keen motorist and member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists, I consider that to travel by car is a first-class experience-until one comes across an army of cones, marching for many motorway miles and restricting lanes, without contractors undertaking any work. What sanction does the Department have to ensure that heavily taxed motorists are given more consideration?
I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that we bring back John Major's cones hotline. I seem to recall reading recently that last time a journalist rang that number he was told that there was no one there any more. The hon. Lady should appreciate that there are a number of reasons why the perception might be that there are cones without works going on: for example, when materials are hardening- [ Interruption. ] I would have thought that the hon. Lady was capable of understanding some basic civil engineering principles. Materials such as concrete take some time to dry, and it is not a very good idea to drive cars on it while that is happening.
Order. It is good that the House is in a good mood, but we need to make rather better progress. In addition to asking for short questions, may I say very gently to those on the Treasury Bench that there is no rule against single-sentence answers?
The excellent news that Nissan in Sunderland is to produce the first generation of electric cars is further evidence that the north-east is a region with a future, which deserves to be an integral part of any high-speed rail network. Has the Minister seen the report from UK Ultraspeed, in response to the High Speed 2 report, which shows that Maglev could produce a faster, greener, quieter and more cost-effective answer to the high-speed rail question? Instead of taking small steps to catch up with-
Order. I hope that this is coming to an end. [ Interruption. ] I understand that it is Question Time, of course, but I had just made the point that we need short questions, and I think that we have got the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's question now.
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding the House that one of the benefits of a Government committed to investing in our country is that we invest in businesses in its regions as well. I am happy to look at that alternative proposal. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has looked at some of these issues, and there are concerns about energy usage, but I am happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend offline.
A comparatively small number of properties will be immediately and totally blighted by the high-speed rail link. Will the Minister ensure that officials get in touch with those householders-because they must know where they are-to ensure that they understand the exceptional hardship scheme, and that there is some communication between them and those who are running this project? It was quite a shock for them last week suddenly to discover that their properties may well disappear. Can the Minister take action to ensure that they are properly informed?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really good point. Only about 600 properties along the line are affected, so why cannot we contact them and let them know, in case they have not heard the news by listening to the radio, watching TV or reading the papers? Let me go away and look into that, and get back to him if there is a reason why it cannot be done.
Will the Minister take some time in the next few days to contact Network Rail to ask it why it is continuing to pursue the policy of making redundant a number of safety workers and maintenance workers, thus damaging the professional basis of the railway system in this country-and also, many people believe, compromising the safety of the existing system?
The Office of the Rail Regulator, as the economic and safety regulator for our railways, has challenged Network Rail to address, over the next control period, the disparity in the effectiveness and efficiency with which it delivers maintenance and network upgrades in comparison with similar infrastructure operators elsewhere in Europe. Network Rail is seeking to minimise the number of compulsory redundancies, but there are positive opportunities for some of those employees to find other jobs on big projects such as the upgrades to Reading station and Thameslink over the coming years.
Will the roads Minister give a less dismissive reply to the legitimate point raised by my hon. Friend Ann Winterton about the proliferation of road works, speed restrictions and cones on motorways, which causes intense frustration to the travelling public purely for the convenience of the operators? He is getting a reputation for avoiding responsibility for real problems. Can he now rise to the occasion and give a real answer to a real problem?
The Highways Agency takes significant steps to minimise the time that road works take, and has positive incentives in place for its contractors to ensure that their road works can be completed in advance of the necessary length of time, if possible.
The access programme for three stations in London will enable people to have much better access to the Olympics in 2012, but I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend any detailed concerns that she has.
Can Ministers reassure people, not just in London but elsewhere, that they, as well as other Government Departments, are taking a direct interest in the British Airways dispute? Can they provide an assurance that they will put pressure on to secure a dispute reconciliation within hours, not days or weeks?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the way in which he asked it. He is clearly interested in finding a resolution to the dispute, rather than raising the stakes for the sake of party political gain. Ministers continue to have dialogues with all sides to try to reach a resolution. Thousands of passengers will clearly be inconvenienced if the strike goes ahead, and I am keen to ensure that we do all we can to resolve the dispute.
Why are Ministers happy for the German state railway, Deutsche Bahn, which is not subject to takeover, to make a bid for Arriva trains, which operates services up and down the country, but not for a British state-owned company, East Coast, to make a bid to continue to run services on the east coast main line?
My hon. Friend will know that it is not for me to comment on speculation in the financial pages of the newspapers, and it would be unwise for me to do so.
I welcome the consensus across the House on the need for high-speed rail, but can the Minister assure me that his Department and Network Rail will both remain focused on vital local rail projects such as Worcestershire Parkway in my constituency?
The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us that we need to focus on the bread-and-butter issues, and there is more chance of that happening with the Labour party in government, because investment in public transport will continue.
My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. One of the advantages of High Speed 2 is that it will release capacity on the conventional lines, which can be used to move local commuters and freight much more than they currently are. That will be good for the environment, businesses and UK plc.
Do the Government accept that in my constituency there are many rural areas where there is minimal public transport or none at all, so the car, or another vehicle, is essential to people's ability to maintain an acceptable quality of life? Will Ministers make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to recognise the problems of motoring in rural areas?
For almost the first time in history, I agree with almost everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He is right that it is really important for us to understand the challenges that face those who live in rural parts of the country. It is great for them to have a bus service that the Government have subsidised in record amounts, but if the bus comes once an hour, or once a day, the car is the only other form of transport, and we need to be sensitive to that.
Order. I am afraid that all good things come to an end.