Rail Network

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 7th November 2006.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health) 11:00 am, 7th November 2006

One of the most famous old boys at the school I went to, Maidstone Grammar School, was Richard Beeching who was subsequently Lord Beeching. I rush to add that we were not there at the same time and I have no recollection of the gentleman. He is the sworn enemy of railway anoraks and his spirit, to some extent, haunts the Department for Transport to this day.

I want briefly to explain the legacy Lord Beeching left. Classically, he closed a quarter of the rail system, fuelled road expansion and earned himself a hallowed place in the demonology of railway lovers. I will obviously not praise him in that context, but I will say something about the Beeching plan and what he did for our take on railways.

The Beeching plan was based on doubtful statistics that were closed to any kind of public or independent audit. It was spurred on by the vested interests of commerce and the unions—capital and labour combined—and was speculative about the future. In some cases it was also wrong and unbalanced about the present because rail patronage was not actually falling when the plan was conceived. The plan was unimaginative in the solutions it offered—for example, it suggested closure in every case—and it was Stalinist in its implementation, because sometimes with closure came the immediate demand that housing be built over railway land. Yet Beeching was not a fool. There is an anecdote that tells of when he went into a railway station lavatory and came across a slogan that said, "Beeching is a prat." Apparently, he responded to that—I am not sure if this is parliamentary language, but I am only quoting—by writing in very neat handwriting, "No, I am not." He was not a fool, but he did throw down a gauntlet to the rail system by challenging it to state an economic case for its existence. That theme was recently taken up by the former Transport Minister, now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when he said that the railways were not there to carry fresh air around the country.

In a sense Beeching set a framework for subsequent debate, although in truth, since the inception of the railways, those involved have always had to make some sort of economic case. The first entrepreneurs who built the railways definitely knew that there was an economic case before they started work. Since Beeching, the argument has raged over whether an economic case should be a necessary condition for a rail service or whether it should simply be a sufficient condition. After all, there are other arguments that can be made for a railway system which are not strictly economic—for example, the tourist benefits it can offer and the environmental benefits such as cleaner air. There is also a public service argument that the railway should be in place because people need railways whether or not the railway companies actually make money.

The thorny question that is often raised is how the economic case will be assessed and whether the economic case is solely made by looking at the bottom line of the operator, by considering a subsidy or whether, more holistically, an evaluation should consider the contribution of a rail system to the economy of a particular area.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the very least every county town in England should have a direct rail service to our capital city?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

I warm to that sentiment, but do not know whether it is strategically possible—it is a certainly an entirely worthy ideal.

The question that provokes me most is that if there is an economic case for railway development, particularly relatively modest development, how is it to be progressed in current circumstances? We are not talking about Crossrail—I can see more than a couple of my fellow prisoners from the Crossrail Committee here.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Go on, talk about Crossrail.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

I have spent enough of my life talking about Crossrail so I will forgo the opportunity. We are not talking about high-speed rail links to Glasgow or the £3.5 billion spent on Thameslink, but about reversing some, although not all, of the Beeching cuts. Some clearly cannot be reversed for practical or economic reasons, but I am referring to instances where an economic case can be made.

We must accept that the railways are very different from how they were in Beeching's day: the power of the unions is significantly reduced, patronage is rising sharply, competition exists and environmental issues are centre stage as they certainly were not before.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Leader's Parliamentary Private Secretary, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

In that spirit, does my hon. Friend accept that the Government are making potentially disastrous use of the existing network? The plans for a cross-country rail franchise will result in people who travel from towns north of Crewe to the south and south-west—particularly to stations such as mine in Oxenholme—having to change at Birmingham New Street. Passenger Focus has said that that would cost 2.8 million passenger journeys a year. Does he accept that that would be very damaging for the rail network and also for our environment?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

My hon. Friend makes a good point on which I am certainly not qualified or knowledgeable enough to comment in detail. The Minister will surely respond by saying that rail utilisation strategies are what the Department for Transport is focusing on at the moment to obtain better use of the existing network. It appears that that is certainly not happening in my hon. Friend's neck of the woods.

In my experience, the Treasury is always involved in the railways and actually killed off the investment in rail that was part of the Beeching package. There was supposed to be investment following on from the cuts, but while there were cuts, there was no investment, a move that set back electrification. The Treasury has suffered and groaned, quite understandably, under Railtrack and the events associated with it, and has calculated that it subsidises every rail passenger by about £4 per trip. However, the pressures for expansion exist and have to be admitted. In recent statements, the Government have said that they are aiming for more use and capacity on the railways, which is part and parcel of the new franchising process. Network Rail certainly aims to do that, and it set aside considerable sums of money for that purpose. The rail regulator, to whom I recently spoke, said that in his dealings with the rail companies and Network Rail, he wished to encourage, as far as possible, increased capacity and rail growth—whatever we mean by that.

Groups such as Transport 2000 are mounting a vigorous and effective campaign, arguing for developing the railways. There have been a number of conferences on that, which have been supported by players such as the CBI.

Photo of Linda Riordan Linda Riordan Labour, Halifax

One of the best ways to expand the rail network is to have more direct routes to the capital. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the recent decision to turn down Grand Central's bid to operate a rail service from Halifax to London was a mistake and should be rectified as soon as possible?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

I do not have the detail on that particular proposition, but knowing the hon. Lady and the extent of her experience of the railways, I am sure she is making a valid and adequate comment.

We cannot obtain increased capacity and a real modal shift, which is what everybody wants, simply through tidying up and investing in stations, smarter ticketing—though that is desirable—or clever rail utilisation strategies.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

In terms of the investment needed to get people off the roads and on to rail, will the hon. Gentleman accept that Network Rail must invest in car parking facilities, which are often overlooked because the requirements for them are underestimated? Many landowners around railway stations are willing to give up their land, but Network Rail is incapable of accepting those offers.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

We certainly require a degree of joined-up thinking on that. Network Rail owns a considerable amount of land, some of which could be freed up for car parking. Clearly, the easier it is to get out of one's car and on to a train, the more the train will be used. Better franchising will help. I am sure that the Minister will say something about that. All that is entirely desirable—I do not demur from that one jot—but we need increased productivity, functionality and utility to travellers. In some cases, that will mean infrastructure that has been removed being put back in place. That need not be a nightmare for the Treasury, or mean establishing connectivity without customers. It can be a win all round.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that the first priority is to ask the Government to insist that every old railway corridor is protected and not built on?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

Absolutely. It would be very short-sighted to allow building in places where we will require transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are plenty of quick wins to be had. A classic example of that in my neck of the woods is the Olive Mount curve in Liverpool, which is on the menu to be reinstated quite soon. In that instance, we have the absolute stupidity of freight lines coming out of Liverpool dock and fouling up passenger lines. It is crucial to the economy of the area that that is resolved pretty quickly, and it can be done for a fraction of the cost of some of the projects on the stocks in the capital.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Education)

My hon. Friend mentions freight lines. A new freight line has been built, at enormous expense to the taxpayer, from Portishead in Woodspring to the city centre in my constituency in Bristol—ironically, to import cars. It could also be used to reopen the passenger line to Portishead, but First Great Western tells me that under its franchise it is not allowed to argue for an expansion of its existing network. It must simply run existing services. Is not that absurd?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

Clearly it is an absurdity, and a petty restriction that the Minister will find difficult to explain.

The problem is not in identifying quick wins, but in getting them on the table. During our debates on the Railways Act 2005, I asked the then Minister of State, Department for Transport, now Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, why there were so many clauses on how to close a railway line and none on how to open one. If people consult Hansard, they will find that he replied, with a trace of irony, that there is no need to have clauses on how to open a railway line because it is perfectly obvious and everybody knows how it is done. In my experience, that is not the case; it is more like knitting fog. Happily, in the same debate, he said that the Department for Transport was involved in an exercise to examine disused curves in different parts of the country to see what can be done with them. I have not seen the results of that exercise or heard any more about that suggestion, but if this Minister knows what has gone on, will he enlarge on that?

The small town of Burscough, which is just outside my constituency, has two railway stations that serve two different franchises. They are separated by only half a mile and a disused rail curve. If it were reinstated and the line to Ormskirk electrified, it would join up two spokes of Merseyrail, to its benefit. It would also considerably enhance and boost services to Preston, Wigan, Ormskirk and Southport, and would cost very little—something in the region of £11 million or less. Merseytravel is doing research on that, as the previous research has been completely outdated and overtaken by changes in statistics.

However, getting the project through would mean cutting across the two passenger transport authority boundaries of Lancashire and Merseyside. It is not automatically a candidate for regional transport allocation—a method that one might wish to pursue—first, because it was not clear in the north-west whether rail fell within the regional transport allocation when it was agreed by the regional assembly; secondly, because the project is of relatively low cost; thirdly, because Network Rail needs to be involved in the act in some way; and fourthly, because it crosses a range of boundaries.

I listened with some interest to talk from Network Rail and, to be fair, from the Department for Transport about the funding that is available for growth, but my general experience from one particular project in my area is of bouncing around from body to body, including the DFT, which I have been in and out of from time to time. I went in there as a naive MP, got the maps out and tried to explain to the civil servants exactly what I was talking about. On one occasion, I was asked to go away and construct a business case. I wrote back saying, "I know, generally, what you mean by a business case, but can you give me some samples of business cases already submitted so I can model mine on the most successful of those?", but I have not received a reply.

Despite the massive, unanimous local support, trying to make progress is like confronting a Kafkaesque environment. I know that we need to get over certain hurdles, but I have never been clear about what those hurdles are or who puts them there. Sadly, I believe that many projects are in a similar, limbo-like situation. There are many quick wins to be had in which progress can be made. Where progress is made, it is often for a series of eclectic reasons, such as a section 106 agreement in the right place, or a local authority being prepared to put up funding. In the run-up to the debate, the Kilbride group drew itself to my attention. It specialises in offering advice to beleaguered MPs such as myself and communities such as mine that are keen to make progress on schemes that do not seem to meet any of the usual parameters.

There is much to be gained from expanding the rail network. A lot of money could be well spent, although we are not talking about huge sums, to bring about economic benefit in the regions, extend capacity and encourage a modal shift. A business case can be made for that, but it is not clear what the path is to bring such schemes to fruition.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. Several hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If Back-Bench Members keep their speeches to just over five minutes, everyone should be able to speak.

I repeat what I said about the digital clock: the time at the bottom has stuck at 4.27 for some strange reason, but the time above is the real one. Hon. Members will have to watch that to keep to their time. I call Katy Clark to speak next because she sat through all of the last debate but, unfortunately, missed out.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran 11:17 am, 7th November 2006

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my friend, Dr. Pugh who, like me, is a member of the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill. I am well aware that he is making a great contribution to expanding the rail network in Britain.

I shall take this opportunity, in the week after the Stern report, to argue the environmental case for an expansion of the railways system. Sadly, because of the huge increase in the use of the car in Britain, all forms of public transport, including buses, railways and trams, are estimated to account for only about 6 per cent. of transport use in Britain. The Government are rightly aware that if we are seriously to tackle carbon emissions in this country, something will have to be done about the increasing use of the car. A huge amount of work is being done on road pricing, but even before the Stern report, the Government were setting themselves challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010 and 60 per cent. by 2050. Those targets are ambitious, particularly when one considers car use and the fact that transport accounts for a quarter of all carbon emissions in Britain, with cars contributing a major part of that.

Clearly, if we are to do something about climate change and reduce carbon emissions, it is necessary to consider transport, and public transport in particular. The railways have an important role to play, but the current system simply does not have the capacity to deal with a large increase in passenger use.

Photo of Christopher Fraser Christopher Fraser Conservative, South West Norfolk

I accept the hon. Lady's point about people wanting to get off the roads and being keen to use public transport, but does she agree that they are often discouraged from doing so because services are infrequent, unreliable and overcrowded?

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Indeed, I do. Another factor that puts people off using public transport is the cost. Many of us are well aware of the cost of using the railways, particularly those of us who live in far-flung parts of Britain and have to travel regularly to London to attend the House.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

Does the hon. Lady also agree that the complexity of the fares, which has been raised many times in the House, puts people off because they have to trawl through the whole complicated system to find the cheapest fare?

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

I do agree, and that complexity has not been reduced by the railways' complex management and ownership structure. The franchising arrangements do not help to provide the British public with a simple fare structure or the best-quality service. We need to look at a number of issues, including the fragmentation of the railways, which does not help to ensure that the best pricing structures are available for passengers.

There is a strong environmental case for rail, and it is supported by the public. In a recent MORI poll, 64 per cent. of those polled said that they would support increased spending and investment in the railways if that would help to combat climate change. There is also great public support for ensuring that the railway system is not only convenient and available, but priced in a way that makes it an attractive option. Currently, however, even a 3 per cent. increase in the railways' share of passengers would require about a 50 per cent. increase in demand on the railways. Even a relatively small increase in the railways' global share of passengers would therefore require quite significant spending and investment in the railways. If the Government's policy of getting people off the roads and on to the railways and the buses is to be successful, an increase in capacity is needed.

For all those reasons, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues, when they make representations in next year's comprehensive spending review, to put the strongest possible case for doing everything to ensure that we live up to the ambitions of the Stern report, which so clearly outlined the challenges that we face, and to secure adequate investment and funding.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. When there are capacity issues and investment is needed, for example, in re-signalling, one of the most obvious things to do is to look at the number of trains travelling on the line and at its freight capacity. That is exactly what is happening on the line between Cheltenham and Swindon in my area, where we could double the use of the line and solve a lot of the problems. That is the right approach, but there is often no co-ordination. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

I am sure that that is indeed the case. It is important that we look at all such issues, particularly in the wake of the Stern report, which makes it clear that we must take action sooner rather than later. We must look at the organisational and structural issues in the railways industry. The bottom line, however, is that we must make a political decision that the railways are part of our future, and we must put in the investment to ensure that they are the option that people choose.

Photo of Peter Soulsby Peter Soulsby Labour, Leicester South

On the question of investment in the railways, does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lot to be learned from the success of congestion charging in London and the subsequent investment in public transport that it has made possible? Does she agree that making motorists pay a realistic price for using their cars and investing the proceeds in rail is an environmentally friendly alternative for long-distance and community use? We should learn the lessons of congestion charging, which could be a major contributor to investment in rail.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

I agree. I suspect that many lessons can be learned from London's experience with congestion charging and from the attempts to increase the number of buses and to promote the use of Oyster cards and other mechanisms to reduce the cost of public transport. In Scotland, the policy of free bus travel for pensioners has also been very successful in getting pensioners to use buses as their preferred mode of transport. It is clear that price is a major factor when transport users make their choices, but if the trains are not there, people will not be able to use them, no matter what the cost.

To conclude, there is a strong political case—particularly against the backdrop of the Stern report—for making significant investment to ensure that Britain's railways provide us all with a service. Like me, my hon. Friend the Minister regularly commutes to Scotland, and he will be well aware that the journey is far lengthier for those who commute by rail than it is for those who use alternatives such as air. If we had the high-speed links that exist in many European countries, however, rail would become a far more competitive option. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he has already done since being appointed to his position and encourage him to do all he can to ensure that we get better investment in our railways.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham 11:28 am, 7th November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Pugh on securing this important debate.

I believe that Shrewsbury is the only county town—there may be one other—without a direct rail link to London. Dealing with that issue is a priority for me and many of my constituents because we believe that Shrewsbury, as the county town of Shropshire, should have a rail link to our capital city. That is not only because of the opportunities for tourism and business investment, but because of the flexibility that such a link would offer constituents, who would be able to get to London without changing at Wolverhampton.

Let me explain to the Minister what happens to people who live in a county town with no direct link to London. In our case, people have to go to Wolverhampton on Arriva's trains, which are extremely dirty. Last Monday, I saw one arrive at Shrewsbury station that was so dirty that I could not see anyone inside the carriage. I was amazed that both the inside and the outside of trains could be so dirty. The trains are always late, so people never get their connecting train on time, and desperately overcrowded.

As Shrewsbury's MP, and being very recognisable at 6 ft 8 in, I always give up my seat.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I recognise some of the points that the hon. Gentleman is making from my own train service. Does he consider that they are at least partly the result of privatisation, because profit, and not passenger service and keeping the trains clean, is the main motive?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I am trying to focus on Shrewsbury, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. In the old days, when we had British Rail, there were various problems, and in certain cases the situation was even worse. I believe in privatisation, but the Government have the responsibility to regulate train operators to ensure that services are adequate.

As I was saying, I always give up my place on the train, but every Monday I count at least 30 people standing in the carriage. Many senior citizens stand in the carriage from Shrewsbury to Wolverhampton every Monday. In the summer's appalling heat, standing was unbearable and one could not get away with transporting animals in those conditions. We arrived at Birmingham station on one Arriva train and a poor lady collapsed on the platform. I stayed with her, as did many other passengers, for about 35 minutes before the paramedics took her away. People travel in such conditions between Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Birmingham on Arriva trains, and it is a scandal.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Wales)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the large number of my constituents who travel on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line have to spend large lengths of time stranded in Shrewsbury because of the problems he identified. They largely derive from timetabling difficulties in respect of Birmingham New Street. On that basis, does he agree that an hourly service from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury would be helpful? As a rail user for the past 20 years, may I reiterate a point made by another hon. Member? Some 15 years ago we had a direct train service from Aberystwyth, through Shrewsbury, to London. It was a good inter-city service before privatisation.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I made the cardinal mistake of referring to the hon. Gentleman as a Plaid Cymru Member the other week, and I apologise for doing so, because he is a Liberal Democrat. He is right that a direct service from Shrewsbury to London would benefit all his constituents and the many people in mid-Wales who go through Shrewsbury.

I was so frustrated with the performance of Arriva Trains Wales that I invited its managing director, Bob Holland, to come to Shrewsbury to have a look for himself. He agreed to come on the service with me and tour the station. Suddenly, miracle of miracles, the train arrived on time, there was no overcrowding because an extra two carriages were put on the train and a service of teas, coffees and cakes was provided, which was lovely. It was the most pleasurable train journey on which I have ever been. The train arrived in Wolverhampton on time, and it was immaculate. I had a tea, a coffee and a cream bun. Mr. Holland said to me, "Well, there you are Daniel. I don't know what you're complaining about. It's lovely isn't it?" That shows how out of touch the chief executives of these companies are. Every time they inspect the service, it is all laid on for them, so that they get a totally false perception of what is happening.

Luckily, I and many other MPs who represent constituencies in Shropshire and Wales have been banging on about this for a long time. A company called Renaissance Trains wishes to provide a direct service from Shrewsbury to London, which is scheduled to start in late June or early July 2007. Renaissance Trains currently operates a service from the Deputy Prime Minister's constituency to London, and the company has won national awards for the services that it provides. The trains are good, clean and punctual, and the ticket prices are very reasonable. I am informed that Arriva is trying to make it more difficult for Renaissance Trains to get the franchise because it will take Arriva's business away. Will the Minister ensure that Renaissance Trains gets every help possible to try to secure the service, so that we do not have to rely on Arriva any more?

Will the Minister explain how railway stations are maintained, because it is important for the railway network? I would like to take him around Shrewsbury station, which is poorly kept and not well maintained; it has graffiti and the buildings are dirty. Shrewsbury takes the Britain in Bloom competition seriously and is a beautiful, historic English town, so it is a great shame that it is blighted by having such a dirty, poorly maintained station. When one goes around the station with representatives from Arriva and Network Rail, they each blame the other and say that things are the other's responsibility.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Has not the hon. Gentleman simply illustrated the point about the fragmentation of the railway that I was trying to make earlier? Different companies are involved and that allows one to blame the other. Another problem is that of fines. If one company is not performing its task, that will not necessarily affect or matter to it, but it might affect someone else. Does he not agree that the fragmentation of the railways is most unhelpful?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I agree that there is a serious problem of a lack of responsibility for certain maintenance of railway stations, and that is why I am asking the Minister to address it. I shall give her an example. Arriva says to me that anything above 6 ft—I should know about this because I am 6 ft 8 in—is the responsibility of Network Rail but anything under that is its responsibility. The council also owns a bit of the railway station—a bridge going into the town. Both Arriva and Network Rail constantly say to me, "That is not our responsibility. It is their responsibility." That is appalling, because the customers and the station suffer. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point.

Some stations in the west midlands are beautifully maintained, for example, Wolverhampton. Network Rail and the train operators seem able to work well together at Wolverhampton, where the facilities are extraordinary: it has bowls on the platform that are specifically for pets; it has flowers; the station is always painted; there is no graffiti. If they can do it in Wolverhampton, why cannot they do it in Shrewsbury? They also do it well in Hereford, which is a similar-sized city to Shrewsbury. We want more common standards on station maintenance.

Finally, I want to discuss ticket prices. I come to London every Monday, returning on Thursday. I am desperate to keep my travel expenses as low as possible, unlike certain colleagues, particularly my predecessor—the former Liberal Democrat, then Labour, then Liberal Democrat Member, or was it the other way round? We will not go into that. I try to buy my tickets for a specific day and time, because that makes them so much cheaper and a fraction of the price of the most expensive ones. Sometimes, if one is delayed, one goes on the train and a huge penalty is imposed. I want to have a go at Virgin Trains for the huge differences in the prices that it charges for tickets from Wolverhampton to London. It is unacceptable and outrageous that, if someone needs a flexible fare to London, the company tries to fleece them for about £188 for a return ticket.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unacceptable that the average Virgin train, certainly from Liverpool, consists of 50 per cent. first-class carriages, forcing standard-class passengers to suffer cattle-truck conditions? Does it worry him that a subsidy might be issued to Virgin to extend its trains and not convert some of the first-class carriages to standard class?

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

I agree. The service from Wolverhampton to London provides a huge number of first-class carriages, most of which are empty, and people in standard economy class are wedged into crowded carriages. I am not a great fan of Virgin—I want to put that on the record—and I would like to hear the Minister's views of its treatment of customers, the overcrowding in standard class and, more importantly, its fleecing with first-class fares.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Order. I ask hon. Members to restrict their comments to five minutes, so that everyone who wants to speak may do so.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 11:41 am, 7th November 2006

It is a pleasure to follow Daniel Kawczynski, because I grew up in Shropshire and spent many hours hanging around Shrewsbury railway station waiting for trains. In the days of British Rail, there were direct trains from Shrewsbury to London, but privatisation fragmented the service, which is largely what I shall speak about today.

Everyone now recognises the value of the train system, and everyone knows that the combination of Beeching and Buchanan in the 1960s destroyed much of our huge railway network. Ten thousand miles of track were destroyed by Beeching, and Professor Colin Buchanan persuaded the Government and local authorities of the day to destroy town centre after town centre and build roads through them. We are now paying the price for that, and it is up to us to ensure that the current mood in favour of railways continues and that the necessary investment is made.

Because of privatisation of the railways, there is often a lack of co-ordination in train journey planning. To be frank, the ticket-pricing system is mad. Railway nerds who read Rail magazine, as I do, will know that Barry Doe produces "Fair Dealer" every month in which he goes through the complicated business of how to find the cheapest ticket from London to Aberdeen and so on. He obviously spends a lot of time looking at a computer screen and works it out for himself, but most people, when they want to buy a ticket to travel, do not want to go on a computer first. I look to the Minister to ensure that a simplified ticket system is introduced so that it is not only the people who have hours to spend looking for a ticket who can find a reasonable price. Everyone who wants to travel should be able to find that.

Why are people who buy a ticket on the day of travel always penalised? Some people who have to travel do not always know that the day before and they are heavily penalised. We end up with busy trains in the morning from London and other big cities full of business men who get tax deductible expenses, and the rest of the population must wait and travel later when they can afford to. I hope that the Minister will look into that.

Network Rail has recently published its programme of investment in the railway system for the next few years. It is an impressive document and a vast amount of investment is taking place. I pay tribute to the Government for the welcome amount of money that they have put into capital investment in the railway system.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I strongly support what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he accept that the money might have been better spent if the railways had been in public ownership, given that the cost of track renewal has increased by between four and five times under privatisation?

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Indeed. Track renewal costs were high. Setting up Network Rail has ensured that the industry is now led by engineers rather than accountants, which is an improvement. The problem lies with the train operating companies and their relationship with it. When Richard Branson paraded his new Pendolino train to Manchester and said how wonderful the service was, he was praised, but the reality is that millions of pounds of public money went into building the infrastructure for that train to run on and his company can make a lot of money from running it. The train operating companies should be brought back into public ownership so that the public receive the benefits of the improvements, instead of those benefits being siphoned off by shareholders.

As I said, I welcome the impressive rail investment programme, but the Government must address the issues such as the reopening of disused railway lines. I tabled a question for the Secretary of State for Transport in which I asked:

"which railway lines in England and Wales are under consideration for reopening; and what his policy is on the reopening of railways lines."

The reply I received was:

"In July next year we will publish our High Level Output Specification. This will set out the railway outputs the Government wishes to buy in terms of capacity, safety and reliability and the funding to support this for the next 5 years. It is for the industry to determine what inputs are needed to deliver this."—[Hansard, 24 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 749W.]

Private Eye paraphrased that answer with the two-letter word, "No."

It is not for the industry to determine future outputs; it is for the Government to set the scene of the level of railway operation that they want and the investment that they are prepared to encourage in it. In that way, many of the disused railway lines can be reopened. There are many that I could mention, but I shall quickly mention the need for the east-west line to be developed. In an intervention, my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins called for the protection of existing railway corridors, which is important. We look to the Government to call in any planning application that proposes building over existing track, even if it is disused, to protect it for the future. The reopening of the Bletchley to Bicester line would be part of that, but many other lines should be reopened—for example, the Wisbech line should be reopened beyond March. I pay tribute to the Scottish Executive for their preparedness to fund the reopening of part of the Waverley line; I hope that that goes all the way through. We need such developments.

I represent a London constituency where there are some interesting developments. There is massive investment in public transport in London and London overground railways are being developed, but why, in the development of London overground lines and the east London line, must a train operating company be called in to run it? Why can it not be run by the public in the same way as Transport for London runs the rest of the system? Can the Minister give me any encouragement on the transfer not just of rail operations to Transport for London, but of some stations?

I understand the point that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham made about station management. Finsbury Park station in my constituency is a classic example. The building is owned by Network Rail; Transport for London and London Buses operate there, and the British Transport police have an office there. When everyone finally agrees to come to a meeting, someone cancels the day before so the meeting does not happen and we go round the circuit again. We need better co-ordination.

The Government have done well in their preparedness to invest in the railways system. They also did well in establishing Network Rail in place of the failed Railtrack. However, we want rail operations and the train operating companies to be returned to public ownership, and a real preparedness to go further with investment to ensure that many disused lines are reopened, so that we have the sort of rail network that this country needs and deserves. We have a great opportunity given the current mood, which has shifted away from our congested roads to cheaper and more environmentally sustainable rail transport.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point 11:49 am, 7th November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Pugh on securing this important debate. I did not agree with every detail of his speech, but I certainly agreed with the broad thrust of his interesting speech. It is always a pleasure to follow Jeremy Corbyn, and I echo what he and others have said about protecting the corridors that are currently closed.

Recent Government policy has been to increase the cost of rail travel, which is already far too high, in order to reduce or hold down passenger numbers. That is particularly true of rail services into London, and the policy has pushed people on to the roads, which is mindless. It makes much more environmental and economic sense to increase peak capacity, thereby increasing the number of rail users and reducing the cost by the usual price-volume economic model. It is not rocket science, so I do not know why the Government continue to follow their policy of recent years. Some of my constituents have to travel into and out of London every day to work. Benfleet and Canvey Island in my constituency are part of the London commuter belt. Benfleet has the most used station on the C2C line, and it suffers particularly as a result of that policy.

Although I accept the need for major blue-sky schemes throughout the country, one of the quickest and easiest ways to increase capacity as we must would be to maximise the use of existing infrastructure and rolling stock. I have three examples of how that can be achieved. First, we should extend platforms so that we can run trains with more carriages. Doing so is easy, provided one obtains the various permissions needed, it is quite cheap, it can dramatically increase train capacity and it can enable more people to be transported into and out of London at peak times. Secondly, we must examine the old signalling. The C2C line needs investment in signalling to run more trains during peak hours. A little investment in signalling on the approach to London would enable C2C to run more trains each hour during those key periods.

Thirdly, and slightly more controversially, we should make small but strategic additions to the main lines. We should build spur lines and loops to existing tracks, and new stations to serve large communities. Many communities are without stations, but their people use the rail service. Canvey Island has 44,000 people, and 3,000 of them have to travel off the island to get on a train to travel to London to work each day. Only 600 people a day use the terminal at Shoeburyness on the same line, so we could afford a new station on Canvey Island, with a spur line linking it to Pitsea down Canvey way. It would be quite cheap, it would make a lot of environmental sense, and it would help to regenerate the community of Canvey Island.

It is dangerous and unacceptable that hundreds of people must stand when they travel into work—in my case for 40 minutes each way each day. We would not transport animals in that way, so why do we expect my constituents and those of my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski to do so? I ask the Minister to consider ways in which we can positively encourage schemes such as the Canvey Island rail spur and station and enable them to be realised. It is an environmental and economic no-brainer. I also call on Thames Gateway London Partnership, a massive quango that should be improving local infrastructure and the economy for our communities, to shift its focus from yet more building to community regeneration. That would be a jolly good start, too.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 11:53 am, 7th November 2006

It is a pleasure to follow those hon. Members who made fine points and, knowing your interest in railway matters, to see you in the Chair, Mr. Martlew.

I congratulate Dr. Pugh on raising the debate. Some important points have been made. I want to be more specific about the Stern report, about the urgency with which we must address the CO2 problem and about what transport, and rail in particular, can do. Statistics from the Department for Transport show that inter-city rail travel emits one fifth of the CO2 grams per passenger kilometre that car travel emits and one tenth of that of short-haul air travel.

We have not touched on the role of the rail freight sector. The grams per tonne kilometre emitted by rail freight compared with that emitted by heavy goods vehicles on the roads is a factor of 10. Rail freight transport emits one tenth the CO2 of road freight transport. Our rail system lacks capacity for passengers and for freight, so we must have more investment.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that I want to consider large schemes, and I urge the Government to consider them, too. Some ideas for passenger rail transport are unfeasible. A new greenfield route would be horrendously expensive and it would not be the way forward. Making the best use of existing north-south corridors for passengers is the way to proceed, but to do so we must take freight off those lines and upgrade them so that they can run more and faster passenger trains. To do that, we need a new rail freight route that runs down the backbone of Britain, from Glasgow to the channel tunnel.

The opportunity exists. I am involved in a scheme—I have not a pecuniary interest, but an enthusiasm to drive the idea forward—for a new rail freight line from Glasgow, linking all major industrial areas of Britain to the channel tunnel. It would also link to a burgeoning rail freight system on the continent. The scheme would include a large gauge that was capable of taking not only full-scale 9 ft 6 in lorry containers, which are becoming standard, but double-stacked 9 ft 6 in containers on trains all the way from Glasgow to Dortmund, or wherever, overnight.

We believe that the scheme would take 5 million lorry loads off the roads every year, save the Government vast sums of money in road investment and repairs, transform our environment and make a massive contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. It is the realistic way forward. I shall not go into the details of the scheme, because I want to discuss them in another debate, but I urge the Minister to consider a dedicated rail freight system and route that links our industrial areas with the continent, and within Britain, the south, north and midlands and the west and the north-east.

They key factor is gauge. The problem with the east coast main line, and particularly the west coast main line, is that they do not have sufficient gauge to accommodate even 9 ft 6 in containers. Under Railtrack, one of the new breed of railway managers who knew nothing about railways insisted that a container could go on a particular route, the gauge engineer said that it could not. The manager insisted it was taken on a train, and the container smashed into a bridge because it was 6 in too big. That was just one of Railtrack's many successes before it was wound up and transformed.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

Given that many goods enter this country through our ports, and that much is transferred on to roads, does my hon. Friend agree that we should develop dedicated railway ports where railways take on all freight? It is happening in other European countries, and we must consider it in our long-term strategy.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The scheme that I propose would deal with the continent, not with long distance deep-sea transport by ship. However, unloading freight from ships directly on to trains for delivery to terminals throughout the country, and then on to road for immediate delivery to localities, would be a sensible way forward. It would be additional to—not instead of—the scheme that I suggest. My proposal is to link Britain to the continent, where people are investing massively. A 35 km tunnel capable of taking double-stack containers is being built through the Brenner pass. It is being drilled through rock as part of a scheme that, for freight alone, will eventually link Sicily with Berlin.

People on the continent are taking the matter seriously and we must do the same. If we do not, we will lose out economically. Britain is peripheral to the European economy and we need the new artery to ensure not just that we save on CO2 emissions, but that our economy is part of the European economy. That is particularly important in Scotland. My hon. Friend the Minister is a Scottish Member, and it is pleasing that we have a Minister with professional experience in the transport industry. I know that he will appreciate many of the arguments made by transport experts, because he is one himself. Such expertise is not the case with all Ministers. I am pleased that he is in his post and I hope that he will take seriously what is being said.

We can make a massive contribution to Britain's economy and to reducing CO2 emissions by taking rail freight seriously and investing in a scheme like the one that I have mentioned, going from the central industrial region of Scotland right through to continental Europe, and linking every major industrial area of Britain to the continental economy.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham 12:00 pm, 7th November 2006

North-east Wales and west Cheshire is one of the fastest growing areas in the UK, and it has historically had a low usage of railways and a high usage of motor cars. The result of the combination of those two factors, growth and the lack of public transport is a serious congestion problem. The potential for growth in the rail services and systems of the area is reflected by three proposals. The first is the Wrexham-Shrewsbury-London line, to which Daniel Kawczynski referred. I fully support his comments, and I am working hard to take the scheme forward.

Secondly, there is a proposal for a new electrified service on the Wrexham-Bidston-Liverpool line, to be run by Merseytravel. That service could be extremely important to the commercial and industrial future of both north-east Wales and west Cheshire. We have industries such as General Motors at Ellesmere Port, Airbus at Broughton and Deeside Industrial Park Ltd, all of which are currently served not by public but by private transport. The result is a severe, developing congestion problem that must be tackled.

The third proposal is for a further development of the Shrewsbury to Chester line, particularly at the north end. Services would be improved between the commercial centres of Wrexham and Chester by the addition of stations at places such as the Chester business park and Rossett. That would facilitate much better commuter travel between the two centres. There is currently serious congestion difficulty on roads in north-east Wales and west Cheshire. I have been commuting in the area for 20 years and I have seen free-flowing traffic grind to a halt.

I was very taken by the speech by Dr. Pugh, particularly with his description of trying to work our way through developing the transport system as being like "knitting fog." That is how I see our approach to transport. The current franchising system is intended to manage the existing service. It is bad at improving the public service, considering the potential for new development and carrying it out. I recognised the hon. Gentleman's point about the difficulty of taking such projects forward.

R

The Government is clearly not interested in improving rail services and infrastructure (the latter an obscenity in DfT speak). It is simply interested in bilking operators like GNER and lining the pockets of the banks who own the ROSCOs whilst stifling the improvements needed when we go past Peak Oil. Pending reports and "strategies" are nothing but spin. Get ready for more lawyers' sweet nothings. Forget hydrogen, New Labour's Holy Grail to keep all the tin cans on wheels on the road (unless all that spin and hot air in Westminster can be made to generate many Gigawatts of power)! The present climate could not be more hostile for Britains' Railways. Even in the 1980s, rail electrification was in progress, and there was a programme, a strategy for this. Now, despite the impending oil crash, the Westminster Goon Show consider diesel trains the future! Crisis? What Crisis? I wouldn't put this shower in charge of a squat toilet in the middle of a desert although that's probably the best place for them!

Submitted by Robert Battersby

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman has had his say and I want to be brief.

I hesitate to counsel my hon. Friend the Minister on further structural reform, because I know it is an ongoing sore, but there is a real need to consider how to take new projects forward. Members of Parliament can do so much with their resources and knowledge, but we recognise that there are possible services—I have mentioned three in my constituency alone—that could be carried forward. We wish to do so, and there are strong cases for it environmentally, as we have heard, and economically. If we do not develop the transport services in my area, the local economy will ultimately suffer.

I am pleased that under this Labour Government we are managing success. The economy has expanded, but we need to manage that expansion environmentally. We have a system that looks backwards at keeping existing services going. We need a much more constructive, imaginative and facilitative system that enables us to improve transport services in the communities that we represent.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport 12:05 pm, 7th November 2006

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Pugh on initiating the debate, and other hon. Members on their contributions. Some excellent points have been made. The debate is timely because of the publication over the weekend of the Select Committee on Transport's report on rail franchising and because we are promised a transport Bill in the forthcoming Session. I hope that that Bill, as well as doing something about bus re-regulation, will address the issues that hon. Members have raised.

I wish to set out a few things that Liberal Democrats think important and in particular draw attention to four points made by the Select Committee that are pertinent to those made by hon. Members. The Government say that they support competition, yet they appear to consider open access operators—Daniel Kawczynski mentioned one—a threat to stability. They hail the growth in passenger numbers, yet they do not provide a long-term strategy and investment to increase capacity. We are promised a Government report in 2007 in which they will set out their long-term strategy, but I hope that the Minister will explain today the direction in which they are travelling. They want co-ordination, yet they continue to operate a system of fragmentation, as hon. Members have said. Finally, they want the private sector to invest, take risks and innovate, yet they prioritise price above all those factors. There is a role for the private sector in the railway industry, and for companies to continue to expand and develop it they need longer franchises than they currently get.

I pay tribute to the Government's record of investment in the past few years, and the Minister's predecessor, Derek Twigg, used to say that the investment was £88 million a week, which is not to be sneezed at. We must look forward, however, and consider what needs to be addressed. Kelvin Hopkins mentioned freight. I was disappointed at the end of last month that the channel tunnel rail company made it difficult for freight trains to travel through the tunnel. I went up to Trafford Park in Manchester to watch one of the last few freight trains that will be able to operate through the tunnel.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I support the hon. Gentleman's view on freight and was interested in what the hon. Member for Luton, North said about the channel tunnel rail link, but the Government have the contract with the channel tunnel rail company. It is the Government who are failing to get involved and sort out the contract so that freight can continue to move through the tunnel.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Minister will consider the matter. It is clear that companies will not be able to afford the prices that are being set, which will mean not less traffic on the road but more. I agree with the hon. Member for Luton, North that we need investment in a freight line that runs down the centre of the country.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on rail freight. Does he agree that the matter is even more critical now that the channel tunnel is about to be forced into bankruptcy? Putting fewer trains through it will make it even less viable. We need thousands of tonnes of freight going through it every day.

Photo of Paul Rowen Paul Rowen Shadow Minister, Transport

I agree. It is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, and I hope that the Minister will do so.

I wish to mention something that has not yet been raised: the need for a high-speed rail link between Scotland and the capital. Currently, 97 per cent. of all traffic to the capital from Scotland uses air. It is clear that such a line would be important in getting people to switch and as part of our attempts to address climate change. Speed will be of the essence. If we are talking about a long-term plan, we need to ensure that the line is built, but there are rumours that the Eddington report has gone cold on that. I hope that that is not the case, because if every other developed country that is serious about rail can have a fast rail link, why not this country, which invented rail?

I finish with two points. A number of bottlenecks need to be addressed, such as at Birmingham New Street and platforms 12 and 13 at Manchester Piccadilly. Addressing them would do much to alleviate the concerns that hon. Members have raised. We also need longer trains and longer platforms, but that will not happen unless the train operating companies receive longer franchises. I hope that the Minister will consider the points that I and other hon. Members have made.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport) 12:11 pm, 7th November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Pugh on instigating this debate and, once again, the prisoners of the Crossrail Committee on their good work. It is good to see them here this morning. It is clear that Britain's transport infrastructure will face almost unprecedented pressures over the next 25 years. Forecasted growth in the number of cars is far greater than what we can possibly provide for by building more roads. That means that we shall need a modern, efficient railway system that can face up to the challenges that will confront the network.

As was mentioned, the rail network now carries more passengers each day than before Beeching, which saw the wholesale closure of half the network. The current figures are an astonishing achievement that would have been thought laughable 15 years ago. On top of that, there has been a reversal—although not great enough—of the trend in freight, with at least some freight moving from road to rail. That has happened since privatisation, but that is not what we are here to discuss, which is the challenge of the future.

The future challenge for the railways, for both passenger and freight, is capacity. It is difficult to see how the next decade can be anything like as successful as the previous one unless the policy is orientated to ease the constraints on capacity. According to Network Rail, the TOCs and industry commentators, passenger numbers are estimated to grow by some 30 per cent. between now and 2014. However, the Office of Rail Regulation says that no growth in the number of passenger train kilometres travelled on the network between now and 2014 is expected, which in layman's language means no more space for passengers.

Photo of Daniel Kawczynski Daniel Kawczynski Conservative, Shrewsbury and Atcham

With all the new people using rail services, does my hon. Friend agree that it is also important for the Government to ensure better access for disabled passengers at stations? For example, there is no opportunity for disabled people to get on to the platform for the service between Shrewsbury and Chester, which has been mentioned.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I agree with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on getting Shrewsbury mentioned a record number of times in a debate.

We can all do the maths. All that we are seeing adds up to more and more passengers, on more and more overcrowded trains, with a constant upward pressure on fares to try to take the sting out of overcrowding. I am concerned that neither Network Rail nor the Government seem to be prioritising the challenge, and I should like briefly to comment on their roles.

Network Rail seems to want more and more money. Earlier this year it asked the Government for another £7 billion of investment, over and above the cash that it had already received. In total, Network Rail wants nearly £1.5 billion more to run the railways than the independent rail regulator thinks it should have. There are only two places from which that money can come—the taxpayer or the travelling public. The Government are talking of allowing huge fare increases, which seems to be facing the capacity challenge with a policy of pricing people off the railways. It is all very well for Network Rail to ask for more money, but earlier this year it said, both privately and publicly, that its priorities were repair, maintenance and replacement. Not once was there talk of an increase in capacity.

Through this control period and the next one, Network Rail has been given some aggressive targets to drive down costs, which indicates an element of previous profligacy in that organisation. However, it is also interesting to see the start of some change. The route utilisation strategy shows at least a recognition in Network Rail that capacity is the key driver, although there is no time scale for implementation of that. Given the length of lead time and payback time, we need Network Rail to accelerate and to prioritise that programme.

The Government interfere too much in the railway. It makes no sense to have them writing timetables. A comment was made earlier about the privatised railway and Railtrack running trains into a buffer. The first timetable that was written by the Government for the First Great Western franchise had two trains on a single track heading towards each other at the same time until First Group pointed that out. It also makes no sense for the Government to be the key driver of procuring new trains, which is the reason for a number of the problems in the south-west London commuter network.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

The hon. Gentleman talks about procuring trains, but is it not a fact that some of the biggest costs are the vast rental costs that are charged by the ROSCOs—the rolling stock leasing companies, which are essentially the banks—to the train operators? The costs sometimes amount to 30 per cent. every year of the value of the trains and stock, which can themselves last for 20 to 30 years.

R

The 30% figure seems right, and that's why the ROSCOs were snapped up by the banks. They know a cash cow when they see it! There are a lot of Corporate vested interests in the present fragmented dysfunctional structure. The Labour leadership...

Submitted by Robert Battersby Continue reading

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

Some element of the leasing structure is undoubtedly problematic, but as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, part of that is driven by the length of franchise in this country, which fails to allow the TOCs to invest in a way that they might otherwise want to. It is madness for franchises to be so tightly specified that the TOCs have little incentive to invest or to innovate.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

Does the hon. Gentleman not consider that very long franchises might prevent the imaginative development of railways?

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

No, I do not see any evidence for that. Innovation and investment are much more likely. I see no problem with the infrastructure either, because we could operate a full repairing lease, as we have elsewhere, so I am not convinced by the hon. Gentleman's point.

I am convinced that the status quo is not the answer to confronting the capacity challenge. The current system cannot drive the sort of capacity increases that we are looking for. As imposed by the previous Secretary of State but two, Mr. Byers, it has caused structural rigidities, which neither allow decisions about capacity to be taken fast enough nor provide for clarity in the railways as to who is accountable. The separation of the TOCs and Network Rail has meant institutionalised conflict, which has pushed up cost. The current system cannot and will not confront the challenge of expansion. There is an overwhelming acceptance among the railway lobby groups and the chief executives of the TOCs that we need to reconsider the current structure, as imposed by the right hon. Gentleman. It is time for a reconsideration of vertical integration, which is probably the only way of overcoming the structural rigidities in the system.

The current franchise arrangements make increased investment impossible. They are too tightly specified and there is too much Government interference. Chiltern Railways is the only franchise of a longer length—although on a small scale—but it is driving innovation and investment. We need to learn the lessons and consider the length of franchises. I agree with Paul Rowen that, were we to examine those franchise lengths, we could also ensure that we left room for innovative small operators and open-access operators, and protected the interests of the rail freight operators.

A number of potential schemes have been mentioned. Let me touch on a few that seem to be relatively minor improvements. We need the Government to commit to and force on to Network Rail a scheme of small-scale improvements that could drive big capacity increases in the railways. My hon. Friend Bob Spink talked of the needs in his constituency. Let me put to the Minister the following issues: the Maindee curve reinstatement, the Halton curve reinstatement, double tracking from Leamington Spa to Coventry and from Salisbury to Exeter, platform lengthening, extra links at termini and freight improvements at a number of the London commuter stations. Birmingham New Street and Manchester Piccadilly have also been mentioned. The expansion of railways also needs a scheme to make underused and disused railway lines more available for innovative light rail schemes.

I look forward to the Minister's confirmation that none of the above is going to happen and that the Government will continue to define the franchise too tightly. I look forward to him stating that he is not going to instigate a programme of reform within Network Rail. I shall be interested to hear how he thinks that capacity will be driven up unless there are changes.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 12:21 pm, 7th November 2006

I congratulate Dr. Pugh on securing the debate, which provides an opportunity for the House to consider the progress made on Britain's railways, the investment in growth that we are already delivering, and our plans to take that to the next level.

Unfortunately, a couple of hon. Members have now left the Chamber, but it was refreshing to see so many members of the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill come blinking into the sunlight after their long exile—it would not be quite accurate to say self-imposed exile. However, it is good to see so many members of the Select Committee and other hon. Members here today. I shall try my best to answer as many as possible of the points made, but I am sure that hon. Members will understand that I may not be able to answer every single one in appropriate detail as well as deliver my own prepared remarks.

If someone from another country who knew nothing about the British railway system were listening to this debate, they could be forgiven—particularly given the comments made by the hon. Member for Southport—for assuming that the British railway system was under-resourced, underused and under threat. The opposite is the case. Of course there are major challenges, capacity prime among them, but ours is the first Government in generations to have to deal with the problem of increased rail passenger numbers. Many previous Governments would sorely have wanted such a problem.

The hon. Member for Southport started by saying that Beeching's spirit haunts the Department for Transport today, but he did not clarify what on earth that meant. I have to challenge that statement. If he is suggesting any resemblance between the Government's policies and what Beeching did in the 1960s, I challenge him to go back to his sources.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I want to get through my speech.

Daniel Kawczynski—that is another mention for Shrewsbury in Hansard—said that every county town should have a direct rail link to London. Unfortunately, I did not hear that mentioned by Stephen Hammond. I wait with interest to see whether that commitment will find its way into the next Conservative party manifesto.

The hon. Member for Southport mentioned that seeking to progress infrastructure developments can be a Kafkaesque experience. I understand the frustration of anyone who wants physical growth in the rail network about how slowly the industry moves, and I sympathise. The hon. Gentleman will understand that there are good reasons for that, but I share his and others' frustrations.

My hon. Friend Ms Clark talked about the comprehensive spending review in the context of the Stern report. She also mentioned a high-speed rail link. She was probably not present when I delivered my first response to an Adjournment debate on that very subject. Through the 2005 Labour party manifesto, the Government are committed to looking at the possibility of a high-speed rail link, but that has to be done in the context of the Eddington report, which is due before the end of this year.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fraser has left his seat after describing the rail service as infrequent and unreliable in an intervention. That is far from the truth. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is not a regular user of the rail service, but as he is not in his position to defend himself, I shall let that stand.

I will be happy to take up the complaints made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham about the state of Shrewsbury station. I understand that the station is operated by Central Trains, not Network Rail, but if there is a problem in getting the station up to specification, I shall look into that for him. If he writes to me, I shall pursue the matter.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn made some powerful points, although he would not expect me to agree with them all. However, I am grateful that he was the first speaker in the debate to pay tribute to the amount of investment that the Government are making in the railways. In the current spending cycle, we invest £88 million every week.

My hon. Friend asked for a simplified ticketing structure. He should realise that the travelling passenger is a sophisticated being and that the internet has made it possible to shop around for the cheapest ticket. I accept that that can be intimidating, particularly for those who are not used to travelling, but the statistics do not bear out the claim that a complex ticketing structure is discouraging people from using the network. The simple fact, as I mentioned earlier, is that there has been exponential growth in rail passenger numbers.

My hon. Friend asked for train operating companies to be nationalised, but I cannot offer him any encouragement in that respect. He said that it was up to the Government to set outputs. Notwithstanding my original answer to his question—I was intrigued to hear him quote it back at me—I should say that through the Railways Act 2005, the Government intended to bring back strategic direction of the railways to themselves and take it away from the strategic rail authority. That move was welcomed by the whole industry. Next year, our high-level output specification will identify the outputs that the Government want to see and want to be able to pay for.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am sorry. I have three minutes left and have already refused the hon. Member for Southport.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I thank the Minister. Very quickly, is he prepared to do anything to protect disused railway lines that may be subject to reopening procedures in future?

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend is very persistent. Network Rail keeps corridors under review. Of course, some railway land was sold years ago and nothing can be done about that. It is rare for Network Rail to sell off land that might be brought back into rail use, and it is up to the local planning authority to decide on planning applications.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper PPS (Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I shall be brief. The Minister mentioned investment of £88 million a week, and we are now talking about reinstating railway lines. I have not heard the Minister mention whether he would commit anything to such things as the Burscough curves. A tiny portion of that money would unlock the whole of the network for my constituency.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hope that she will forgive me; I have a number of points to cover in the time left. However, I take her point on board, and if she writes to me we can continue the dialogue.

My hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins made some good points about freight. On EWS International's problems with the channel tunnel, freight usage charges, already extended once by the Government, cannot legally be extended beyond the end of this month. However, I understand that negotiations are continuing between the company and Eurotunnel. I expect freight to continue to run through the channel tunnel.

I am grateful for the description given by my hon. Friend Ian Lucas of the unique circumstances affecting his constituency. He is an enthusiastic campaigner on local transport. If he writes to me, I shall be happy to meet him to discuss the issues. This debate is turning into a great opportunity for me to receive a lot more mail, Mr. Martlew.

Paul Rowen talked about the Transport Committee's report on rail franchises, which was published at the weekend. I am delighted to see my hon. Friend Mrs. Dunwoody, the Chairman of that Committee, in her place. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I am not aware of any major rail issues in the new transport Bill that we are expecting. He said that the Government do not have the strategy or investment to cope with increasing capacity. I strongly disagree. I have already referred to the high-level output specification to be published next year. We certainly intend to continue high levels of investment in the rail industry.

The hon. Member for Wimbledon made some interesting—

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

Order. We must move on to the next debate.