Before we start our business, I want to welcome hon. Members back to the House after the all-too-short Christmas recess. I wish everyone a happy, prosperous, peaceful and successful new year.
The first debate has been initiated by Lawrie Quinn, the subject of which is clearly popular. Many hon. Members are present in the Chamber and quite a number of them have notified me that they wish to speak. If they are relatively self-disciplined, I will try to include as many of them in the debate as possible.
It really is an honour to be granted the first debate in Westminster Hall in the new year. I wish to reciprocate on behalf of all hon. Members in the Chamber in sending our best wishes to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to all the staff of the House for the healthiest and happiest of new years. It is clear from the number of colleagues who have joined me this morning that a popular subject has been granted for the first debate of the year. Given the wide geographical representation in the Chamber, we know how important community railways are to the nation. I shall limit my remarks to allow as many hon. Members as possible to raise the specific issues affecting the many local routes that they represent.
Last week, I was reminded that the new year of 2005 is the 40th anniversary of the infamous work of Dr. Beeching and, in a personal context, it is 25 years since I started my railway civil engineering career, before entering the House of Commons in 1997. I hope to steer the debate with due reference to both anniversaries and to what have been the seven happiest and most fruitful years of my life as one of the joint chairmen of the all-party railways group of which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are an active member.
What Dr. Beeching did 40 years ago was fundamentally a major error. Such action was pessimism over optimism and a pessimistic assessment of how much the rail network deserved to survive. Today's debate will link back to what has happened during the past 40 years and will demonstrate how far the potential for community railways can be taken.
Community railways are really about local people and partnerships. In my constituency of Scarborough and Whitby, the Esk valley route from Whitby to Middlesbrough through the North Yorkshire moors national park, the North Yorkshire moors railway and the route along the Yorkshire coast from Scarborough through Bridlington to Hull are good examples of the type of railways that we shall be considering this morning; it is a list of railways that Dr. Beeching did not manage to cut. Given such an historic context, we must define what is meant by a community railway.
In the 1950s, significant parts of the network were being closed as the spread of the private car and the lorry took away much of the local railway's traditional business. In 1963, the Beeching report concluded that about a third of the network should be closed along with many local stations on main lines. The programme was vigorously pursued for five years against strong community opposition. In 1968, it was evident that such an approach could not continue and the policy started to change. The then Transport Minister, Barbara Castle, introduced a subsidy payment for services that did not quite pay their way. It reflected the gap between income and costs and recognised the social and political value of particular local lines. Later, it was consolidated into the passenger service obligation grant under the Railways Act 1974, which lasted until it was replaced by franchise support mechanisms and payments on privatisation between 1996 and 1997. The recent work by the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority responds to the situation today and seeks to repair the historic trend of decline and ultimate closure of our important local community routes.
The community rail development strategy, which was published last November, follows naturally from those historic strands. It is based on the wishes of the communities served by key lines around the country to remain connected to the national rail network and on the concept of a different category of local railway, separately specified, with standards appropriate to its use. It builds on the wishes of local communities to be actively involved in the development of their railway. Essentially, it is about putting those lines on a sustainable basis by bringing costs and income closer together. It recognises that continued subsidy will be required and needs to be commensurate with the value of the railway to the community in terms of economic development, accessibility, social inclusion and the environment, as well as fitting in with spatial development plans and fulfilling a role as backbone of local public transport.
The strategy provides the first opportunity for many years—perhaps 40 years— to consider the development of community railways in their own right. Previous policies focused on principal routes or market segments, with little regard paid to the effect on local and rural railways. Fares and standards are often a by-product of decisions made to meet the needs of main lines, but the new strategy provides an opportunity to consider separately the unique characteristics of the much-loved and much-valued community railways.
Many hon. Members have discovered first hand from debates and visits by the all-party railways group as well as recent sittings of the Transport Committee, how important the community railways are to local people. When I have finished speaking, I hope to hear wider contributions from the Floor to support the arguments for many valued local railways from all over the country.
As I look forward into the new year, the outlook for rural railways is positive. Publication of the Strategic Rail Authority's community rail development strategy on
The proposals include seven demonstration projects, and I am pleased that the Esk valley route in my constituency is one of the seven routes. Those projects will provide practical experience of the best ways of achieving the goals set out by the strategy. I hope that every Member of the House will play a full part in becoming involved in the projects in their own localities to ensure that that is delivered.
Fifty-seven routes have been identified as suitable for future community rail designated routes and perhaps operating standards can be simplified, as is common in other parts of Europe. It is fair to note that much of the policy that has been developed during the past decade or so has its roots, in terms of best practice, in Germany and Scandinavia. I am pleased that many hon. Members have been able to see that work in practice.
The key component of the strategy is the community rail partnerships. They have been extremely successful in winning new business for the rural railways. I believe that the SRA's statistics confirm that. The partnerships bring together local communities, local authorities and the railway industries, with the shared goal of improving service and driving up the use of rural lines. Many of them have been effective in bringing in external funding for projects, including station improvements and extra train services. They go beyond the simple transport agenda and link into wider strategies for accessibility, rural regeneration, social inclusion and sustainable tourism. A growing number are structured as social enterprises and generate some of their resources from practical initiatives such as on-train catering services and events, running feeder bus services, and organising community car clubs and consultancy services—all good examples of the type of work done in the Esk valley.
Despite that positive background, media coverage of the recent launch was mixed, to say the least. Where local journalists had been briefed and were aware of the work of their local community rail partnerships, the coverage was positive and well informed. However, that was not the case with some national newspapers. That led to scare stories about closures and a Beeching mark 2, which undermined the strategy's positive message.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the negative coverage was not helped by the remarks of some in the upper reaches of government about transporting round the country large volumes of fresh air? Does he also agree that, if the SRA brief were widened from its laudable aim of improving the revenue from and usage of existing passenger rail lines to include the restoration of passenger services such as the national forest line in north-west Leicestershire and south Derbyshire, that would also be worthy of attention and investment?
Indeed, it was remarks of that kind that generated the interest and were one of the reasons why I applied for this debate. I wanted to ensure that the Government gave us the positive answers that I optimistically expect.
At the heart of this matter is the concept of partnership working. Without doubt, the sense of partnership that has been generated owes a tremendous amount to the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, led by Paul Salveson. It has done an excellent job by facilitating the involvement of many local railway support groups, local authorities and individuals in the development of this new policy. The association has already responded to the negative general media coverage of the strategy and has tried to stress the positive way forward. I hope that this debate will enable us to put the record straight about what we mean by community rail partnerships and the objectives that hon. Members seek for their local railways and the national transport network.
The strategy is supported by a wide range of organisations with a long record of supporting rail and public transport—Transport 2000, Railfuture, the Rail Passengers Council and many local user groups. I hope that that will reassure anyone who thinks that the strategy is about cuts. It is not; it is about driving up revenue through greater use and looking at the scope for reducing costs where possible.
I thank Mr. Speaker again for being so all-knowing about the importance of this debate. With it, the Government have an opportunity to give the positive response that I am sure we all want to hear.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing this important debate. Does he agree that an important facet of the Government's response must be the flexibility to allow the community partnerships to develop around the markets that apply in their areas? In my constituency the north-south Bidston-Wrexham line, which can be developed for commuter and leisure activities, is quite different from the lines that run east-west, which could see significant freight development.
Indeed, that sentiment is at the heart of the community rail development strategy published by the SRA in November. The strategy tries to provide local solutions and to focus on the fact that each local railway is a separate entity that needs local solutions.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, because it is important, especially in our area—south-east Northumberland—where there were a lot of pit closures a few years ago. Those closures mean that everybody now has to move out of the area to find jobs. The problem in our area is that there is no transport except for buses. However, there is also a rail link, which is dormant. As we said, that is unfortunate, as rail linkage would get people from the areas where the coalfields used to be to the Tyneside conurbations, where all the work is now.
My hon. Friend may remember that I spoke on the subject in his constituency some years ago. I believe that, if fully implemented and developed, the community rail development strategy, above all through community partnerships, but also through closer working between regional and local authorities, offers hope that the type of initiative that he wants will eventually be brought forward. This is the start of a marathon march of policy development. It will be extremely important for many local communities.
We have heard the keenness of many colleagues to intervene on the debate. Their interventions and their presence in the Chamber shows the strong support for community rail development strategies around the country. It also shows what positive examples there are in the local areas of the 60 or so railways around the country. I hope that every Member of the House will commit to support the maintenance and development of railway services in their constituency and nationally, just as my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell has.
I share my hon. Friend's view that there is a good—indeed excellent—future for community railways. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that, at the same time that the Government introduced the Railways Bill, which includes abolition of the SRA, the SRA published a report about the community rail development strategy? I have some concerns about a railway service that runs through my constituency in Derby.
I think that that particular train was well out of timetable, but I agree with my hon. Friend's point. As my speech comes to its conclusion, I want to put some key questions to the Minister. I am sure that we are all interested to hear the Government's response.
I was talking about the direct role that Members of Parliament can play in their local community rail partnerships and how, if such partnerships have not been formed, hon. Members can help form them in their area. I have played a small but, I hope, significant, role in supporting the work of the Esk Valley rail partnership in the past eight years or so. Given my expertise in the rail industry, I hope that that has been a positive contribution to the debate.
It is worth noting some heroes. On behalf of the Esk valley railway development company, I pay full tribute to the original development officer, Neil Buxton, who handed over to his successor, Tony Smare, in 2003 after many years working with the local community to sustain and build the community rail partnership—a partnership that saw groups such as the women's institute and local parishes work closely alongside the county council, the North York Moors national park and the North York Moors railway to sustain and in some senses take ownership of those vital community assets.
My first-hand experience of working with the Esk valley railway development company allows me to focus on three key work streams that are important in my locality—marketing, rail operations and infrastructure. Those are significant and important because the franchise has just been transferred in my part of the world and there needs to be continuity of working to ensure that the good work that has been invested over many years is not lost.
I pay tribute to Network Rail, in particular, for working in partnership with local groups and the local newspaper, the Whitby Gazette, to recognise the importance of renewing the final mile or so of track into Whitby to improve journey times, rideability and the overall performance of an important piece of railway that had seen little attention since those black days of Beeching.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the demise of Railtrack will improve the opportunities for introducing new passenger rail services such as the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend Mr. Campbell? Were it not for the incompetence of Railtrack and the fact that the SRA diverted the vast majority of funds to improve the west coast main line, by now we would probably have had passenger rail services running on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line.
As my hon. Friend and many in the House know, I spent the last days of my career as a railway civil engineer working for Railtrack. I believe that the attitude and community focus of Network Rail, and the fact that it is prepared to work with community groups in community rail partnerships, demonstrates that there is a different, positive attitude. I urge him to become involved, if he is not already, in forming a rail partnership for his location.
The Esk valley line has been much improved and there is hope that in February—a few weeks' time—there will be a multi-million pound investment in the renewal of the final piece of track, brought about by a community partnership.
Does my hon. Friend share the concern that has been put to me by the friends of the Derwent valley line, which affects three hon. Members present in the Chamber, that the abolition of the Countryside Agency raises some doubts about the funding of such partnerships and how they will continue to pursue the valuable work that they do?
My hon. Friend tries to prevent me from closing my more parochial remarks, but I am coming on to some key questions that I am sure that all hon. Members want the Government to answer.
I hope that the Minister will restate the Government's full support for the strategy and the intention to transfer it, with all its formal powers, to the Department for Transport once the SRA is wound down. I hope that she will express support for community rail partnerships across the United Kingdom and for the work of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, which is the national federation of community rail partnerships. I hope that she will include a commitment to maintain Government funding for ACoRP once the SRA and the Countryside Agency funds cease.
The commitment to the development of a rural rail network, which we all want to see, will bring great benefits and give community rail partnerships throughout the country greater confidence, and enable them to understand better how local circumstances can bring about the much-needed change and the flexibility that we have heard about in some of the interventions, and how they can improve and extend services.
I hope that I shall be able to tease a reassurance out of the Minister that the proposals set out in the Railways Bill do not herald a systematic closure programme. Any future proposed closure programme should take account of the important social exclusion issues that we have mentioned briefly this morning.
We need to hear about the Government's commitment to get the best from rail and complementary transport in rural areas. There is much scope to develop many of the integrated bus and rail links, as well as to promote walking and cycling to stations. In rural areas, particularly national park areas—such as the one in my own constituency—the spread of public transport is very thin, and it makes obvious sense to ensure strong integration between bus and rail to maximise the potential of the network.
This year will present a number of challenges to the community rail partnerships and to the Association of Community Rail Partnerships. The Countryside Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority have been major funders of vital work and of community rail partnerships. Both organisations will be wound down this year, and their funding support will cease. It is essential that ACORP should continue to develop its positive work with the rail industry and the Government. The funding gap must be bridged and properly filled. What has been achieved so far has come from a real sense of partnership, and I pay tribute to what has happened in Scotland and Wales, where generous support has been provided to community railways.
In conclusion, not only the future development of transport links but the vitality and economic regeneration of communities such as Scarborough and Whitby depends on good transport links and good access to the rest of the country. The strategy, when it is fully developed and given its head with the voice of local people at the forefront, will create the prospect in my area and many others of reopening many of the missing railway links that were axed by Beeching 40 years ago. One such important link is the eight-mile route from Pickering to Rillington Junction, which offers the revitalisation of transport from Whitby, in my constituency, to the city of York.
It is extremely important that we have reassurance from the Government. I commend the work of the SRA in introducing this strategy, and I pay full tribute to Mr. Chris Austin, the executive director of community rail development, who said in a covering letter to the SRA that was also sent to all hon. Members:
"Success will be seen as a railway which is sustainable and which contributes to a vibrant local and rural economy, as well as helping to meet Government targets on accessibility, the environment and social inclusion."
I hope that the Government believe that, and that the Minister will confirm it during the debate.
I want to speak about two lines in my constituency, the Maidenhead-Marlow and Twyford-Henley lines. They are both designated in the Government's plans as future community railways—a proposal that has caused much concern to my constituents and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), both of whom are actively taking up this cause on behalf of their constituents.
I begin by saying that I have no problem with the concept of the community railway. I am sure that there are lines in the country for which the concept is right and entirely suitable. It will be appropriate to designate such lines as community railways; the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby has spoken lyrically about his own Esk valley line. However, I do not believe that such a designation would be appropriate for heavily used lines that form major parts of the commuter railway network.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby referred to lightly used lines. In its consultation document, the Strategic Rail Authority discussed lines that were local and rural in character. The two lines that affect my constituency—Maidenhead-Marlow and Twyford-Henley—are not lightly used. In peak hours, they are a main part of the commuter network and carry residents from Wargrave, Cookham and Furze Platt into Maidenhead and Twyford, on to the main line and then, predominantly, into London Paddington, although some people commute west. The lines are heavily used in peak hours and it would not be appropriate to designate them as community railways.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby paid tribute to the role of the Strategic Rail Authority in bringing forward the proposals. That authority, which was set up only four years or so ago by the Deputy Prime Minister, is now being abolished by this Government. The abolition of the SRA means that the responsibility for such decisions will fall to the Department for Transport.
The question for my constituents is whether they can trust this Government to look after the future of their heavily used branch lines. From their experience of this Government's transport policy, their answer must be a resounding no. Anyone who tries to fit on the 7.27 from Twyford to Paddington on a weekday morning—courtesy of this Government's change of our local railway franchise from Thames Trains to First Great Western—knows that. Sadly, our local commuter lines are being pushed to one side in favour of long-distance trains. What does that say about the future of branch lines such as Maidenhead-Marlow and Twyford-Henley?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons why none of us trust the proposals is that they represent a classic smoke-and-mirrors effort by the Government to shift the subsidy that they have been giving to community rail lines on to local authorities, without giving those authorities any extra money? The case is made—no one can trust the Government on this issue because they are seeking simply to shift the responsibility and any blame for problems on such lines to other agencies that do not have the necessary funds.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is yet another example of how this Government all too frequently shift the burden of responsibility on to local authorities but do not follow that up with the necessary funding. The idea that a community rail partnership would take over the running of the Maidenhead-Marlow or Twyford-Henley lines, with all the funding responsibilities that that would bring, causes significant concern among my constituents. They feel that the only outcome will be reduced services—particularly peak-hour services—and that this is about nothing less than future closure by the back door.
The Strategic Rail Authority's consultation paper on the proposals suggested that a community rail partnership would not be suitable for high-frequency railways; in fact, it designated as suitable low-frequency railways with hourly or less frequent services. In peak hours, the Maidenhead-Marlow and Twyford-Henley lines have half-hourly services, and that fact on its own shows that they do not fit the criteria set by the Strategic Rail Authority for community railways.
As I have said, there may well be railways that the designation fits, but I do not believe that the two lines affecting my constituency are such railways. They are used heavily by commuters in peak hours and by schoolchildren travelling to local schools. We want people to use those railways because doing so has many environmental and social advantages. They are heavily used at the moment, and it would not be appropriate to hand them over to the local authority. In the case of the Maidenhead-Marlow line, the local authority—the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead—could not even respond to the consultation document on community railways; local authorities are not the best bodies to run community railways.
I can only think that the Government have a long-term plan to cut back on the branch lines and to reduce the subsidy. That will lead to reduced services and, in the end, to cuts by the back door. As one of my constituents said in the local paper, at least Beeching was honest about what was being done. I fear for the future of those two lines as a result of the designation, and I urge the Government to remove the Maidenhead-Marlow and Twyford-Henley lines from the proposal to designate them as community railways. My constituents need those lines, and the Government need to respond to their concerns.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Lawrie Quinn on securing the debate, which is of great interest to all of us. Like probably everyone else, I want to be very parochial in my remarks.
Initially, I was very interested—almost excited—by the ideas in the document about community rail partnerships, because they seemed to give those in my part of the world a good opportunity to get a grip on rail services that are, for reasons that I shall give later, inadequate. However, I was depressed by the response given to the document by the local ginger group, a very good and active group with which Dr. Pugh and I have a great deal to do: the Ormskirk, Preston and Southport Travellers Association. It immediately responded to the proposal as if it were the death-knell of those railways specified as being suitable for community rail partnerships. Perhaps the group had been talking to Mrs. May.
West Lancashire has three rural railway lines: Southport to Manchester or Wigan; Liverpool to Preston via Ormskirk; and Liverpool to Wigan via Kirby. Those are all local and rural lines, but obviously they also connect substantial conurbations. There is nothing better than an hourly service on the lines—when the trains turn up, that is. All three lines are on the list as being suitable for community rail partnerships, and I would very much like them to be taken over by a community partnership as soon as is reasonably possible.
Two of the three lines are broken, in that the electrified parts of the lines from Liverpool end in Kirby and Ormskirk. Passengers have to transfer from those lines to diesel lines to make the rest of the journey. There are 11 small stations and halts. The largest community in my constituency is Skelmersdale, which has 40,000 people and is growing rapidly. It has no rail link at all to the rest of the country, even though the Liverpool to Wigan line runs along its borders, only about a mile away from the town centre. For many years, we have sought to link up Skelmersdale with the railway world, but we have failed. I hope that the community rail partnership will be a way to secure that link.
The Ormskirk-Preston and the Southport-Wigan lines cross at right angles in the town of Burscough. There are two stations in Burscough, and they are a mile apart. In the pre-Beeching days, those two lines were linked by the famous—in my part of the world—Burscough curves, so it was possible to make an almost right-angle turn in Burscough, and go from Liverpool to Southport, or from Southport to Preston, via Burscough. The track for those lines is still there, and there is a great feeling in the district that they should be reopened; the cost would not be too terrible. There is a big debate to be had about that, but it would fit in the category of restoring the curves.
The community rail partnership, if properly handled, could be of immense benefit. First, it could link Skelmersdale; secondly, it could bring back the Burscough curves; and, thirdly, it could create a more rational timetable. One reason why the lines are underused is that there are hardly any late-night services and none on Sundays. In the villages and hamlets where there are stations, young and elderly people in particular are isolated and cannot get into any of the large towns 15 or 20 miles away.
Station accessibility could be tackled. Several stations are impossible to get into with a pram, or if one suffers from mobility difficulties. It has been suggested that unused or underused station buildings could be put to multiple uses, and that would be wonderfully appropriate for many small stations. A community rail partnership could advertise the lines and the places that people could get to. I am also interested in the Cumbria coastal line, but I do not have the time to talk much about that now. Virtually no work is being done, and has not been for 20 or 25 years, on advertising the places that people can get to on that line—the Lake district and the coast. As a result, it is terribly underused.
Will the Minister say a little more about precisely what the simplified operating standards would mean? What will they involve and how would they save resources? Will she say something about the variety of lead organisations that might be appropriate for involvement in partnerships? There is a very active local strategic partnership serving the whole of west Lancashire. Would that be an appropriate forum to pursue these ideas?
I had a lot more to say, but a large number of people want to speak and I will close my remarks with those questions.
I congratulate Lawrie Quinn on securing this important and interesting debate.
I want to speak on behalf of my own line, which is the Cambrian coast line, which runs from Pwllheli in my constituency to Machynlleth. It stops at busy little stations in Porthmadog, Bermo and various other places on the way down, as well as many romantic and windswept halts on the seashore of the west coast of Wales. The line was first mooted to be a link with Ireland, in competition with Holyhead, which had to face the little difficulty of crossing the Menai straits—which it does magnificently, of course.
The line has faced many perils over the years, including marine boring insects, which were a threat to the bridge at Bermo and, most important, the threats posed by Beeching, who closed the vital 16 miles between Afonwen and Caernarfon. That prevented travel from the south and west of Wales to the north of Wales.
The Cambrian coast line is part of the network. It is a community railway in terms of the infrequency of the service, the fact that it serves a rural community and the fact that it provides travel for tourists, but it is also part of the network. I know that my colleagues on the Cambrian coast forum would want me to emphasise that. It is a busy local forum, made up of local representatives from the councils and also my hon. Friend Mr. Llwyd. We see the Cambrian coast line not only as serving our local community but as the link to Shrewsbury, Birmingham, London and beyond, as well as to south and west Wales. I want to emphasise to the Minister that it is part of the network, even though it might appear to some to be a quaint, romantic and perhaps even Ruritanian little line out in the west of Wales.
My second brief point is in respect of the School Transport Bill, which we discussed some time ago. The Cambrian coast line carries 250 school students every day. It is probably the only practical way that some students can attend the schools in Porthmadog and in Harlech. The line derives about £109,000 a year as a direct result of its use by school students. I want to emphasise to the Minister that when guidelines are being drawn up for the preparation of school transport schemes the rail element must be given proper consideration, particularly in respect of my line. I am sure that the local forum will be discussing that with the national Executive.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman has written to me about that issue and I have responded. He will receive a response in writing very shortly.
I commend my hon. Friend Lawrie Quinn for taking the lead nationally on several health and safety issues and on this issue. I wish to talk about the matter in a slightly different way and deal with the rolling stock that is used on community railways.
The black country has always been a centre for technological innovation. In particular, Parry People Movers, which is mentioned in paragraph 2.5 of the document, has been developing rolling stock for versions of light rail in recent years. I should declare an interest, as several close friends and members of my immediate family have small investments in John Parry's company. They have made a social investment from which they do not expect any immediate return.
The forms of light rail carriages that have been developed have great advantages. They cause less pollution, use less energy and have high-performance acceleration and braking systems. They do not have to be segregated from the surrounding environment with, for example, fencing, and are less costly to run. However, I wish to raise four points about some of the difficulties.
The first difficulty is up-front investment for innovative technologies such as this one. The National Audit Office report on light rail in April last year mentioned the need for up-front investment. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to identify—perhaps later—where funding might come from. For example, could the Energy Saving Trust's powershift programme, which applies to buses, cars and so on, also be used for light rail?
The second issue—improving value for money—is referred to in paragraph 1.8. The strategy document says that further research is required on rolling stock value for money, lower costs for ground-level boarding and so on. I urge my hon. Friend to arrange for such research to be carried out as soon as possible so that there will be no impediment to community rail.
The third issue relates to specifications for rolling stock. As I do not have time, I shall not go into detail, but there have been great difficulties in meeting some of the specifications, which historically focused on high-speed rail. Applying them to the development of rolling stock for community rail has been difficult. The strategy document says that the standards should be as flexible as possible and appropriate to the routes. I urge the Government to ensure that the specifications are flexible, to match a more flexible railway.
The final point is about interchange with other forms of transport. The Brierley Hill metro extension, which will affect my constituency, relates to community rail in that heavy rail freight will run over part of it. There is a need for flexibility. Incidentally, I urge the Government to approve funding for the Brierley Hill metro extension by the summer. Everything is now in place, but, again, there must be a more flexible approach to linkage with other forms of transport.
The way in which Mr. Pickthall started his speech was quite telling. He began by saying that he was very excited when he first heard of the community railway idea, but then became very depressed by the reaction to it. I wonder whether that is not something like the experience in respect of what we hear from the Government. An idea starts off, and, yes, we may all agree with it and agree that there is some logic behind it. But we are haunted by the Chancellor's words: we cannot believe a word that they say. He said that of his neighbour, and the truth is that the British public are now saying it of the Government. That is why there has been a great deal of scepticism, to put it mildly, about what community railways are all about and what they will actually deliver.
I have received a letter from the friends of the Derwent valley line—as, obviously, have other hon. Members. I want to discuss that line because it serves an important part of my constituency. It goes from Derby up to Matlock. It includes the stations of Matlock Bath, Cromford, Whatstandwell, Ambergate, Belper, Duffield and Derby. A good half of that line—the section from Ambergate—is on the same line that is used by inter-city railways. Virgin and Midland Mainline use it for their main services. The line is designated to become a community line—it is not in the first seven, but it is one of the other 57 lines that we have heard about. Who will have the priority on it, if it is designated as such? That worries me.
The concerns expressed to me by the friends of the Derwent valley line have a lot of legitimacy. There is much concern about what will be the consequences of the Government's overall proposals for the line, and also about what will come out of the Railways Bill.
We have heard lots of comments this morning about the Strategic Rail Authority and its published document on the community rail development strategy. The Government set up the SRA, and they are now abolishing it in the Railways Bill. When the Deputy Prime Minister set up the SRA he informed us that it would be the answer to all the problems facing the railway industry, and the present Secretary of State for Transport has told us that the Bill is the answer to all the problems currently facing the railways. Therefore, it is not surprising that the British people are sceptical about what the community railways policy will actually deliver.
The hon. Member for Amber Valley and the friends of the Derwent valley line have mentioned the abolition of the Countryside Agency, and the fact that future funding for the community rail partnerships in general and the Derwent Valley Rural Transport Partnership in particular is not guaranteed after 2005. I want the Minister to assure us that that funding is secure, and that finding that money will not suddenly fall on any of the relevant councils—Derbyshire county council, Derbyshire Dales district council, Amber Valley borough council or Derby city council. It would be a travesty if the funding were not in place and we were expecting any of those councils to find that money.
We all know about the problems with regard to local authority resources. There has been an increase of 15 per cent. in passenger traffic on the Derwent valley line in the past six months. The areas that the line serves attract many tourists in the summer months, as well as at other times of the year; lots of people go up to Matlock and Matlock Bath. The Minister's constituency abuts mine and she knows the area well. We also have a huge number of visitors to the Peak district. Therefore, there is a lot of pressure on the roads and urban transport.
Today seems to be a transport day in the House of Commons. There is not only this debate but a debate on road safety this afternoon in the main Chamber; the Railways Bill is also being debated in Committee. There is a lot of attention on transport today, but there is also much concern. I have not had enough time, but I want to ensure that the Minister has time to respond to some of the interesting points raised by many hon. Members.
There is much scepticism about the underlying motives behind community railways. As my right hon. Friend Mrs. May said, there is a case to be made for them in certain areas where the railway interferes with no other lines. I am concerned about the Derwent valley line—particularly about whether a community railway or one of the larger companies, such as Midland Mainline or Virgin will get priority when they operate on the same tracks. My constituents are also concerned about that.
Whenever there is any threat or change to the railway service—there was a possibility earlier this year that some services would be removed—that issue fills my postbag. I thought that the Government wanted to encourage people to use the railway. That is what they say, but they must give an assurance that they are not putting services at risk.
Just briefly, following on from previous points, I ask the Minister for some reassurances about the clauses of the Railways Bill on railway closures, because they are causing some anxiety in relation to the development of community railways and particularly the Derwent valley line.
I ask the Minister to consider the different uses of railways in the future development of the railway service. Commuters have expressed their concerns to me about whether services on the Derwent valley line might be lost from Standwell and Ambergate into Derby and into Belper. However, that line is also important in the economic regeneration of the midlands. The Derwent valley has world heritage status and it is essential that we develop the railway line further. The partnership that we have had up to now has done well, in conjunction with Central Trains and the county council, in developing and expanding traffic on that line, and it will expand in future.
I am a great supporter of community transport buses and getting more money into such schemes and of the tax regime under which they operate. In this situation, however, we have to consider community transport in terms of the railway. The A6 is the main road through Derby and is used for everything: lorries use it, tourists do too, and so do those of us who dawdle behind the tourists trying to get to Matlock to visit the county council buildings. The A6 is a wonderful route that is also used by bikers and it even has helicopter signs, because the bikers are monitored from the air. We cannot afford to expand buses on that road as the main form of transport to meet all those needs.
I hope that in the development of the railway lines and this policy my hon. Friend the Minister will consider how to develop a range of uses in different areas. The Derwent valley line is valuable. It has a great deal of local support and we want to ensure that the proposals put forward are advanced positively to meet the various needs in our area.
I want briefly to mention the Bedford to Bletchley line in my constituency, which has an active rail user group that has worked with the local authority and the train operator, Silverlink, to grow custom on that route. Can the Minister confirm the suggestion in the SRA's rail strategy document that it would be possible for the Bedford to Bletchley rail link to join the Bicester to Oxford route, in the constituency of Tony Baldry? Those two rail links are part of the Oxford to Cambridge route that was shut down by Dr. Beeching and are part of the wider east-west rail link. If they could join in a single community rail partnership, it would benefit them, would be helpful in reopening the closed section of line between Bicester and Bletchley and would contribute to the reopening of the Oxford to Cambridge link.
Will the Minister confirm that that sort of rail partnership between two separate links is possible?
I can only say that hon. Members have more than co-operated with my request. If there are no further Back-Bench speeches, we can start the wind-up on time.
I will be brief, because the Minister has a lot to respond to. I congratulate Lawrie Quinn on securing this important, wide-ranging debate that started in Westminster and seems to have covered all stations north.
No one can be against the objectives of the Bill—increased use, costs down, less subsidy and, generally speaking, a new approach. Community ownership is a fine phrase. The new approach defined by the SRA involves a series of desirable moves, such as the use of other funding sources—although some of the funding sources specified in the paper that it prepared seem a bit optimistic. The paper mentions better marketing, integration, flexible fares, boosting secondary sales such as cinema tickets, food and additional products that can be sold as part of the package, links with tourism and events and more flexibility. None of us would object to having nicer, better looked-after stations and realistic and appropriate engineering standards.
None of the proposals are objectionable in principle, and none of them are impossible on a larger scale. On lines such as Mersey Rail a lot of co-operation takes place with the local community over events programmes, although that line is not designated for community rail partnership.
I accept that we are dealing largely with a dysfunctional and disjointed system. Despite the good prospectus, there is suspicion about the Government's zeal for community rail partnerships. That is despite their protestations on that score, notwithstanding the remarks made by the Department for Transport about moving air around the country. Many of the lines are believed to make heavy losses, although in the SRA paper a community line is not by definition a line that bears heavy losses or incurs big expenses. I suppose that suspicion is exacerbated by the fact that the Railways Bill, which is being debated in Committee as we speak, contains an inordinate number of clauses about closures. I suppose also that part of the suspicion lies in the fact that some of the ideas have evolved from communities' attempts to save railway lines under threat. It is relatively easy to parody the plan under discussion, seeing it as the gradual handing over of the line to anoraks while reducing funding—a kind of Beeching mark 2, with all the subsequent economic and social damage, which is never properly weighed up with railway closures.
None the less, my personal position is one of slight ambivalence. I am not convinced that everything recommended in the paper by the SRA can necessarily be dismissed. There is a lack of clarity about what a community rail partnership is, and the consultation documents provided to the SRA say so. We are unclear, and we will still be unclear after today, about how the cocktail of funding will work. There is a lack of clarity about the true cost of the existing lines. It is unclear how liabilities and assets will be dealt with, because some community rail partnerships will inherit track that has been recently renovated, which will be run at a low cost. Other partnerships will inherit substantial and heavy costs.
It is unclear how community rail partnerships will work in the wider industry, which everyone acknowledges is fairly fragmented. It is also unclear how partnerships are going to get out of hock to the train operating companies and the rolling stock leasing companies, which have a licence to print money whether community rail partnerships exist or not. It is fundamentally unclear how the partnerships will avoid having responsibility but little control and possibly less funding.
I remain suspicious about designation, which is the process whereby some rail lines are being designated suitable for community rail partnerships—an issue brought up by Mrs. May. In the north-west, the Southport to Manchester airport route is designated as one for community rail partnership, which is particularly interesting to me. In recent SRA documents, routes to airports are regarded as fundamental to the further development of the strategic rail network—not a small local issue but a major part of our transport infrastructure. None the less, other routes in the north-west—Mr. Pickthall mentioned the Ormskirk to Preston line—are almost tailor made for a community rail partnership. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am involved in a project to develop a railway line in that area and to install a curve in Burscough—I hope to see that some day—which will link Ormskirk, Preston and Southport. That would change Merseyrail from a radial structure to a far more profitable loop structure and it could be done with very little cash. Small change from the tram scheme for Liverpool would do, or even the tea money from Crossrail; either would adequately accommodate such a scheme.
Progressing the scheme is extraordinarily difficult; one needs to speak to Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority, the train operating companies, the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority—which is pretty encouraging—Lancashire County Council, the regional development agency and the Government office for the north-west. It is like knitting fog. It takes an extraordinary act of faith to believe that the creation of a new partnership will make life easier. None the less, it might.
There are doubts about the programme and what the Government are endeavouring to do, and those doubts have been voiced by many hon. Members. Is the proposal really about a sustainable future for community lines, or about winding up lines that have no future? I suspect that it is both.
This has been an excellent debate, and I, too, would like to congratulate Lawrie Quinn. At the beginning of the debate, there were 22 people in this Chamber, including you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Government Whip. That shows the great interest in the subject.
We can divide the contributions into those from Members on the Government side, which were basically centred on naivety, and were made by hon. Members who have, so far, been taken in by the Government's spin, and those from Conservative Members, which were perceptive. My right hon. and hon. Friends realise that if one halves the subsidy to community railways, saving £150 million a year, many rural lines will be forced to close. Not surprisingly, Dr. Pugh, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats and is their sole representative here, describes the position as ambivalent; there is nothing new about that.
The proposal is essentially another attack on rural Britain. One needs only to compare the subsidy going into rural community railway lines with that going into London buses, let alone the London commuter rail network, to see the enormous disparity. The Government connive at putting £1 billion of subsidy a year into London buses, yet they seem to resent £300 million in subsidy going into the national network of community railways.
My right hon. Friend Mrs. May, in a succinct and pithy speech, put her finger on the key issue: the proposal is about future closure by the back door. If not, why is the line that she mentioned, which is heavily used by commuters during the day, to be included in the community rail network without local people having the opportunity to veto that? My hon. Friend Tony Baldry talked about smoke and mirrors and about not being able to trust the Government, a theme taken up by my hon. Friend Mr. McLoughlin, who has the Derwent valley line running through his constituency. I understand that that line has attracted a large increase in passengers in recent months.
We Conservative Members are concerned about the gap between what the Government say and what is actually happening. When launching the Government's new vision for rural railways, the Secretary of State for Transport said:
"Rural railways are important to many parts of the country."
We all agree with that. He went on to say:
"We want more people to use rural railway lines and the development of community railways is a vital part of that."
My right hon. Friend Mr. Knight, who cannot be in two places at the same time, would usually have dealt with this debate, but he is dealing with the Railway Bill Upstairs. He asks—and I certainly support his point—why the Government's Railways Bill is making sweeping changes to how community railway lines can be closed in future. If the Government really are interested in promoting community railway lines, would not it be great to have a Bill that dealt with making it easier to open railway lines where demand existed? There is not much chance of that from a Government who have kicked almost every project for expanding railway capacity into the long grass.
Unfortunately, the Railways Bill is about making it easier to close, not open, railway lines. It is also very much about ensuring that if they are closed, someone other than the Secretary of State will take the blame.
The railway network has remained roughly constant in size since the 1960s. It is widely assumed that the Government's latest wheeze, dressed up as the community rail development strategy, is little more than a smokescreen behind which Ministers are trying to conceal a new round of savage rail cuts. I remember the Beeching cuts; at the time, I was none other than the secretary of the railway society at school, so I felt very strongly about them. I have had a continuing interest in the maintenance of the railway network since those early days. We know what happened then, but I cannot cope with the fact that the Government are not prepared to come clean about their intentions. They are disguising their true intent.
The community railway development strategy transfers more responsibility for financing rail services to passenger transport executives—although it does not transfer any extra money to them—while simultaneously taking away from those executives their role in determining which local rail franchises should be awarded. To provide extra local services, a PTE must get approval from Network Rail, which, as we know, is not an easy task. No such problem arises if the local PTE wants to cut a service—what a surprise. In that case, it is free to switch the spending to other transport modes, as the White Paper delicately puts it. That means a bus. Although Network Rail is allowed to block the provision of new train services if some of its engineers want to do that, there is no comparable hurdle to starting a new bus service, however congested the roads that service may have to use.
An interesting insight into where the Government's sympathies lie is provided by the fact that when new rail services are considered, the extra infrastructure costs and compensation to other operators must be calculated in advance and paid by the local passenger transport executive. In the case of new road surfaces, however, such considerations apparently do not apply. That is described as "streamlining" in the White Paper. That really means that the Government want to shift traffic from trains to buses, but do not want to say so. Most of all, they do not want to take the blame for the rail closures that they are secretly planning.
We are not against flexibility in facilitating decisions about new forms of transport service, but we are utterly against a policy of closure by stealth, which has been designed to ensure that when closures are carried out, the local passenger transport executive will be blamed when the Government are actually responsible. We share the concerns of PTEs throughout the country about the way in which the Government are removing some of their powers. Kieran Preston, the chairman of the Passenger Transport Executive Group has said that
"it makes no sense to hand over the planning and management of regional rail networks to unaccountable civil servants in Whitehall who lack the local knowledge and expertise".
We have had a good debate. It is important to put pressure on the Minister to answer some of the points and give some of the assurances that hon. Members have sought. We want community railways to have as much freedom as possible to increase their passenger numbers by coming up with their own schemes. We are inherently in favour of freedom, enterprise and decentralisation—they are inherent parts of our policy. That is not the way the Government are going. They have an agenda to close down many rural railway lines by stealth, which is why we are grateful to the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby for giving us the opportunity to express those views. I hope that all of those who switch in due course from the naive to the perceptive category will seize the opportunity to press their arguments home on Report of the Railways Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Lawrie Quinn on securing the debate, which has generated a huge amount of interest. We have had a wide-ranging debate, and I could not possibly attempt to respond to every local issue raised. However, I shall undertake to write to hon. Members giving detailed responses to the points that they have raised.
As the House will be aware, the Strategic Rail Authority published its community rail development strategy in November last year. The strategy aims to put local and rural railways on a sustainable basis for the long term, by increased ridership, freight use and net revenue, keeping managing costs down and the greater involvement of the local community. It is based on the premise that the closure of lines is not desirable nor a solution to the problems that local lines face, irrespective of what hon. Members may have read in certain sections of the press. I can assure hon. Members that the strategy is aimed at increasing rail use and developing the railway to the benefit of the communities that it serves.
The strategy has been developed over 18 months. It involved an extensive consultation exercise in February last year, which drew responses from more than 300 organisations and individuals, including local and regional authorities, regional assemblies, regional development agencies, the rail industry, tourism bodies, Members of Parliament, rail user groups and a host of other bodies and individuals. By and large, the objectives and approach advocated in the consultation document were supported overwhelmingly by the respondents. There was an almost universal agreement that no single approach can be adopted nationwide, as many hon. Members have said today. Instead, appropriate local solutions would have to be encouraged within a broad framework.
The final strategy was published in light of the responses received to the consultation. It lists 56 routes that the Strategic Rail Authority proposes to designate as community rail lines. Those local and rural routes make up about 10.5 per cent. of the national rail network, including 390 stations. There is evidence of latent demand for the lines and the argument for their retention and development is therefore compelling. It is one that is supported fully by the Government. To achieve the objectives of the strategy, there will have to be active support from a wide range of stakeholders, including train operators.
The Minister may not now know the answer to the question that I am about to ask, so I should be grateful if she would let me know it in due course. Of the 56 lines that have been designated, how many have lines that are part of the inter-city network? I am concerned about the Derwent line in that a large part of it is dominated by the inter-city network and I am worried about the priority that the community lines would receive.
I cannot give a figure. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the Derwent line. I am aware of it; it is not too far from where I live and my constituency. There is a possible link between the Derwent valley line and Peak Rail, the heritage line at Matlock and, given that it is in the Peak district, there is clearly scope for the development of tourism along that line.
I am not aware that that is the position, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about it.
To achieve the objectives of the strategy, there will have to be active support from a wide range of stakeholders, including train operators, Network Rail, local authorities and local users working in partnership.
The Minister referred to local authorities and stations. Obviously, a key issue is station reopenings or, indeed, openings. Local authorities often put money forward with the rail authorities for that to happen as such action is expensive. Some new designs for platforms are being produced. Is the Department for Transport encouraging such designs and does it regard that as helpful research?
We always want to ensure that stations are accessible. Many issues concern the inaccessibility of stations, especially when we are discussing tourist lines. It is difficult to make arrangements for people with access difficulties at local stations, so we are keen to make sure that we make stations far more fit for purpose.
Although the characteristics of the 56 proposed routes vary, they all have the scope for greater community support and greater development. The strategy is designed to improve the value for money and social value of the lines in three broad ways, the first of which is through increasing patronage and income. There are many ways in which that can be achieved, such as raising the profile of the railway within the local community and through better marketing. There is a latent demand to be tapped, as demonstrated by the Bittern line partnership in Norfolk, where passenger numbers have increased by 162 per cent. since the establishment of the partnership.
The Minister refers specifically to the desire to increase patronage on potential community railway lines. At the moment, the Government's policy, as exercised through the SRA and Network Rail in the operation of franchises and timetabling, gives emphasis to long-distance services and is leading to a reduction in services on local branch lines and commuter lines. When will the Government reverse that policy? Without that reversal, she cannot hope to have the increase in patronage that she is talking about.
I agree that there have been issues about the inter-city lines, for instance, taking precedence over local lines and I know that many Members have raised that matter, including in my area. We are looking at that.
As the right hon. Lady has jumped up at this point, I will take on board the issues that she raised about the Twyford to Henley-on-Thames and Maidenhead-Marlow branch lines. She talked of the strategy being imposed on her local community. I assure her that local consultation will take place prior to the designation of any lines. We believe that there is scope for some operational improvements in Marlow in particular, where the current signalling is restrictive. By designating it a community railway, there is a real opportunity to make that a priority for attention. However, I want to make it clear to her and to other hon. Members who raised the issue that it will be down to local consultation and if the local community does not want such a designation, it does not have to happen.
Returning to the points that I was making, the second key issue is to drive down costs. The key drivers of cost on the railway are the maintenance and renewal of the infrastructure, the lease charges for trains, and staff costs. There is scope for reducing those outgoings on community lines through track maintenance strategies more closely aligned to the needs of the routes, through better use of rolling stock and competitive pressure in the rolling stock market, and through training staff with a variety of skills.
Assessing the exact costs of community rail routes is difficult because almost all routes are part of a larger network. More work is required on that issue and it will be carried out through seven pilot projects that the SRA has identified, including as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby mentioned, the Esk valley line from Middlesbrough to Whitby, which runs through his constituency. That work will necessarily involve the support of Network Rail and the Office of Rail Regulation.
Thirdly, the strategy relies on greater community involvement. That includes the industry working with local authorities and local users, and the establishment of community rail partnerships. Those are not-for-profit organisations that include local authorities, rail users, the train operator and often Network Rail. Some may also include local businesses, national park authorities or other local stakeholders. They are established by mutual agreement and run by a committee of the stakeholders.
Hon. Members have raised a number of issues. One of the issues raised by my hon. Friend Judy Mallaber related to the Countryside Agency. The Countryside Agency has funded ACoRP as a rural transport partnership project since 2000–01. A number of Members raised issues about the future of rural transport partnerships and that programme. The programme was never intended as an initiative that would last for all time. Existing commitments will be met until the end of March 2006. At that point, the Countryside Agency will hand over its decision making to regional development agencies. Each RDA will determine the priorities for its region and will certainly give priority to such rural initiatives.
On the subject of local community involvement, a question has formed in my mind relating to something the Minister said. If a community suspects that a community railway project is a back-door way of closing a line and that the cuts in subsidy entailed by the SRA paper will have that effect, how can it set about rejecting it? The Minister said that if, after consultation, a local community wants to reject it, it may do so; how, exactly, can that come about?
If there is no local support, that will become clear during the local consultation process. Community railways cannot work unless they are actively supported by the local community. If that support is not forthcoming, they will not be able to proceed.
Mr. Johnson intervened when the Minister was talking about continuity funding and the Countryside Agency. Did she say that that will be guaranteed until 2006, and what mechanisms does she envisage will be in place with regard to the more piecemeal negotiations with the regional development agencies for future funding?
With the ending of the Countryside Agency's responsibility, a number of programmes will be passed over to the regional development agencies. They will take responsibility for the rural funding and for developing the valuable initiatives developed by the Countryside Agency, such as the village partnership schemes and the rural transport moneys that go to parish councils.
The strategy provides a framework for all these developments to take place. A route prospectus will be prepared for each community rail line to identify the opportunities for development, and any constraints on that, as well as the suggested time scale for implementation. The plan will be consistent with the SRA's programme of route utilisation strategies and regional planning assessments and, prior to publication, it will be discussed with all the key stakeholders, including the community rail partnership or the rail development company. An agreed plan, along with the associated consultation, will be a prerequisite to the formal designation of routes as community rail lines.
None of what is proposed in the strategy will change the principles of railway operation, and the safe operation of services will remain the overriding concern. However, designation of a route will allow for a reappraisal of the standards for infrastructure renewal and maintenance to ensure that they are appropriately specified for the route in question and to allow for a reduction in costs.
The specification of service levels will remain the responsibility of the funding body—in most cases the SRA or, in time, the Department for Transport. However, in the case of microfranchises, that body may be a local or regional authority. In both cases, the specification of service levels should be made in conjunction with the local community.
The regulatory cap on fares will be removed from community rail lines so that they can be determined locally in light of demand and, where appropriate, integrated with bus fares. Local promotional fares will be encouraged, as will improved methods of revenue protection.
The implementation of the strategy will at first be focused on the seven pilot projects. They have been chosen for their differing natures in order to demonstrate and test various aspects of the strategy. The detailed proposals for each line will be confirmed following local consultation and discussion with local authorities and the community rail partnership or railway development company.
This has been a useful debate, and I am grateful to Members for their contributions. I will write to Members who raised detailed points to ensure that they get a full response.