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Address in Reply to Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:35 am on 25th November 2004.

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Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Shadow Minister, Transport 11:35 am, 25th November 2004

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said that one of the mistakes of the previous Conservative government was railway privatisation. I could give a number of other mistakes, but I shall accept the fact that that was a mistake. In fact, it was a mistake against the advice of every engineer and rail operator who knew about railways; it was a mistake which was forced on them by financial engineers.

The error has not been compounded elsewhere in the world. In Europe or further away, say, in Japan, the infrastructure has remained in the ownership of the state. The fable peddled from the Benches alongside me—that it was required because of some EU directive—was wrong. Simply a different system of accounting was required, which meant that operators paid a fair price for access.

I turn first to the position of Network Rail, which I understand is in the transport Bill, although I have not yet seen it. I have to pay tribute to the fact that it is reining in cost and promoting efficiency. But it remains a monopoly and a bureaucracy, and it has an extremely poor system of governance. There is a stakeholder board that is unwieldy and a few non-executive directors. That is a matter which merits attention. Even if the present people who have been appointed are doing the job, it is no recipe for running a company or a body holding public assets.

In particular, I plead with Ministers to keep open the possibility of vertical integration; that is, the train operator being responsible for signalling, planning the timetable and the day-to-day maintenance of the infrastructure. I am not talking about owning tunnels and bridges; they must remain as part of the basic infrastructure belonging to the state. I believe, particularly in Scotland and Wales, and on the periphery of the system, that there is a need to ensure that the management of the railway is brought under one person who is responsible to the general public for the standards of service that they experience.

I also plead with Ministers to address the subject of the length of franchises. Franchising is an extremely expensive business, which costs millions of pounds. It takes a huge amount of management and, perhaps I may say, official time. It creates a tremendous hiatus in training and investment. It is something that one should not enter into lightly. There is a very good case for saying that a franchise should continue as long as the person holding it meets the specification of government, which should, of course, improve over time.

I am particularly struck by the excellent speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, and the need to think about the future of the engineering industry that supplies the railway. I should like to turn the Minister's attention to the northern franchise, which has just been let for a mere eight years with the possibility of two years' extension. The people in the north of England will have to put up with rotten rolling stock, which no one in the south-east would contemplate riding in. The people in the north have got that sort of prospect before them for 10 years. It needs a long franchise that will enable the franchisee to invest in new rolling stock and give the people of the north of England a railway of which they can be proud.

South East Trains is the one franchise that is still in public ownership following the failure of Connex. Provided the management continuously improves, why are the Government talking about letting the contract to people such as those in Hong Kong who the Evening Standard last night lauded as providing something much better than anything here? But they have got new trains and a new railway. I am afraid that South East Trains has got an old railway and is just getting new, rather unreliable rolling stock because it was forced to be produced so quickly.

The Atkins report on the north-south rail link was commissioned by the SRA. It has gone to the department, but I believe—to put it in the vernacular—it has been kicked into the long grass. But this is the sort of project to which the noble Lord, Lord Broers, referred. It would produce a 21st century railway like that of France, rather than keep on patching up GNER and the West Coast Main Line, which are very busy railways. By building a railway that enabled people to travel quickly to Glasgow and Manchester, the roads would be relieved of an enormous burden while at the same time the issue of regional disparity, to which my noble friend referred in his opening remarks, would be addressed. We would begin to make the north of England and Scotland even more attractive to live in. That would stop people crowding into the south of England. We need to consider this—we have not done so yet—and to address the great problems we face both on the roads and in the air.

My last comment on rail provision concerns rural lines, which we are told the Government propose to devolve to some form of local government. The costs of rural lines lie at the core of the system. Even rural lines have to be fenced to a high standard and have to maintain the same standards of safety required of the West Coast Main Line. Given that, we must be realistic about the kind of costs such rail lines can absorb. I take as an example the line from Middlesbrough to Whitby. It provides four trains a day, giving a miserable service over a miserable railway. Yet next door is the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, a thoroughly vigorous service run by someone who cares about it. The two could be amalgamated, but that would require the grip of Network Rail to be relaxed and the Government to be imaginative about the future of such railway lines many of which, while they would never be profitable, could operate much more efficiently.

I turn to Crossrail. I want the Government to be sure that they back the best scheme, one that brings the greatest possible relief to the Underground and to the congested railway lines around London. It must also serve the areas that have been designated for expansion, giving good access both to business and the airports. I hope that the Select Committee that is to consider the Bill will turn its attention to those needs.

On the subject of inquiries, I do not know whether the Government intend that inquiries relating to transport infrastructure should be included in their examination of the inquiry process. I think it is the opinion of most noble Lords that such inquiries are too lengthy and too expensive. I commend an inquisitorial system of inquiry such as that in France. Inquiries should not be seen as a lawyers' meal ticket, which so often they are. They should be led by the inspector who, following debate, should make his decision.

No mention was made of road pricing in the gracious Speech, but that could be beneficial to 60 to 70 per cent of motorists. They would be able to pay less tax if those who use the roads the most paid their fair proportion of tax. This proposal needs leadership from government to get it going. Similarly, congestion charging in towns should be a condition of funding local transport plans.

We are pleased about the road safety Bill, but we are concerned that too much is made of the persecuted motorist and not enough consideration given to the effect of speed cameras on severance, noise and speed on local communities. I would not like to be the first local county councillor to take away the speed camera from a village which has had the protection of one. We welcome the other proposals, but we believe that non-insurance is a big and growing problem among cars on the roads.

Turning to bus services, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, drew attention to the continuing decline in bus performance outside London. I ask the Government yet again: when are we going to get camera enforcement of buses outside London? We have been waiting years for something to be done, even though it seems to be a simple issue.

The noble Lords, Lord Haskel and Lord Drayson, spoke of the benefits of competition. However, I would say that in public transport the benefits of co-operation are far greater than those of competition, and I believe that a public interest test on competition would be much more valuable than the ones now being used. Moreover, congestion remains the biggest problem outside London.

We have no national port strategy. Although my noble friend Lord Davies referred to growing trade with India and China, we simply do not have the capacity to go on importing through our inadequate infrastructure goods from those places. On aircraft, we know that international co-operation is desperately important, but we would prefer to see taxation focused on aircraft rather than people. That would encourage better load factors and would enable us to levy the same charges on freight.

On policing, I cannot understand why the money for British Transport Police has to flow through the train operating companies, and I draw the attention of Ministers to the fact that the British Transport Police force is about to suffer cuts in manpower because it simply does not have the money to maintain force numbers. Again, this is an issue outside London. Within the capital the Mayor has made money available.

We welcome the transfer of safety issues to the Office of Rail Regulation. We hope that in the future these matters will be evaluated on a cost-benefit basis and on the appropriateness of the safety measures for the railway to which they are directed.

Lastly, I reserve a few words for the department. It is ultra cautious. It is penny-pinching while at the same time wrestling with certain legacy issues such as Railtrack. Many projects are being delayed for years. It has no independence from the Treasury. It suffers from ever more frequent changes of Minister. It has a long memory and little vision, and it is now exposed to the problem of complaints about the day-to-day failings of the railway being directed at Ministers rather than at another agency. The department has a poor record and requires vision and a programme to deal with transport's future success and growth.