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Public Transport Investment

5. Ms Quin: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on investment levels in public transport. [7446]

Mr. Norris: The planned level of Government expenditure on transport over the next three years was announced in the Chancellor's Financial Statement and Budget Report in November.

Ms Quin: Is the Minister aware of the strong criticisms expressed by the Confederation of British Industry and others about the inadequate levels of investment in public transport in this country? In that regard, does the Minister know of the special anxiety expressed by business in the north-east of England about the report that plans for a freight terminal for our region are to be shelved and that, as a consequence, freight will have to travel 100 miles or so on already congested roads before reaching a rail freight terminal for the continent? What does the Minister intend to do about that, and where does that leave the Government's policy of transferring more freight from road to rail?

Mr. Norris: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving notice of the question that she intended to ask. The provision of rail freight facilities is essentially a commercial matter and rail operators and Railtrack will consider the appropriateness of investment decisions. Freightliner operates container freight services to and from a terminal in Cleveland owned by ICI. Two new freight terminals at Doncaster and Wakefield, readily accessible to the region, are being developed to handle European traffic. Loadhaul, the domestic train-load business based in the north-east, operates trains to numerous private freight facilities throughout the region.

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On that basis, the hon. Lady will understand that not only is there freight rail activity in her area, but that that activity is substantial. However, it is quite properly for the private sector and Railtrack to determine the pattern of particular cargoes on any individual expedition.

Sir Sydney Chapman: On the subject of investment in London transport, does my hon. Friend agree that the problem that we face today has been caused by chronic underinvestment in previous years, as instanced by the fact that in the 1970s annual investment averaged less than £50 million and in each of the five years of the 1990s it has risen to a staggering £500 million a year? Is that not a matter for commendation, showing that Government policies are on the right lines? Will my right hon. Friend listen with a degree of cynicism to those Opposition Members who complain about the lack of investment today when they were responsible for chronic underinvestment?

Mr. Norris: It will not astonish my hon. Friend to know that I happen to have the figures in front of me and they do indeed make embarrassing listening for the Opposition. Purely by coincidence I have the figures for 1997, 1998 and 1999, which show for those three years the investment was--[Interruption.] I meant 1977, 1978 and 1979; I apologise--I had not realised that the matter was so tender. I will make it clear by apologising and stating that I was referring to the halcyon days of the last Labour Government when, in their munificence, at current 1995-96 prices, the level of investment was £214 million, £198 million and £257 million. In the past three years, for 1993-94 the figure is £860 million, for 1994-95 it is £984 million and this year it is £1,085 million.

Mr. Chidgey: Bearing in mind the fact that the winners of the franchise for South Western Trains have made it clear that they have no proposals to invest in new rolling stock, how does the Minister justify paying them a subsidy of £55 million next year, particularly since when British Rail last ran the region as its operator two years ago it did so without a subsidy and at substantial profit?

Mr. Norris: These days one looks to the Liberal party to hear a distinctive left-wing voice. However, to refer to the intervention of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), the answer is that the operator of the service will offer infinitely better value for money through much-increased efficiency in terms of both manpower and investment on a service that has traditionally not received either the levels of managerial attention or the level of investment to which passengers in that area are entitled. I very much look forward to a massively enhanced quality of service on that line.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: Looking to the future rather than the past, is it more likely that the levels of investment in public transport that are required will be better than those that we now know are projected if we were simply relying on the availability of resources in the public sector?

Mr. Norris: I think that my hon. Friend knows the answer. There is not the slightest shadow of doubt that, freed from the constraints of public sector financing, train operators generally and the railway industry as a whole will generate substantially greater investment in the railways because of the privatisation of British Rail that is now taking place.

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Mrs. Dunwoody: The Minister will have noticed that, as I was told last week, the £1.8 billion from the rolling stock companies will not be invested in the railway industry. Can he assure me that it will not be hypothecated? In other words, presumably the £1.8 billion from all the private finance with which he is so delighted will go straight to tax cuts.

Mr. Norris: I would have expected more of the hon. Lady. She knows that that is a sham of a question. As I have said, investment levels will be substantially higher. The direct answer on hypothecation is that it would have been an extraordinary precedent in this or any other sector and, in truth, the hon. Lady knows it.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Would not the Government's capital progress on transport be very much greater were it not for the fact that the Government have to write off £453 million in respect of the Humber bridge debts? Is that not a clear example of the most expensive political sleaze case this century by the Labour party?

Mr. Norris: I am sure that the House will draw its own conclusion from my hon. Friend's pithy intervention.

Mr. Wilson: I am sure that the House is agog at the news that the Minister is currently writing his memoirs. We hope that they will be a little more exciting and accurate than the fiction that we have heard from him today. For instance, in response to his hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst), will he confirm that investment in the domestic railway this year is at its lowest in real terms since nationalisation in 1948? That is fact, not fiction. Will he also confirm that the much trumpeted Railtrack 10-year plan of £1 billion a year is less than has been invested in the railways even in the past decade? Will he send a message to Tory Members around the country who claim that privatisation is the only way to new electrification schemes and try to explain to them why the Railtrack 10-year investment plan outside the Heathrow area does not include a single new electrification scheme?

Mr. Norris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the completely unexpected but none the less welcome puff. I shall ensure that he receives a rare unsigned copy in due course. Not one chapter has yet been written, but one should be grateful for popularity wherever it comes from. To return to the question, I merely remind the hon. Gentleman that there is not the slightest doubt that my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst) is entirely correct. Historically, under Labour Governments--indeed, specifically and particu larly under Labour Governments--investment in the railways has been insufficient to meet the technical and operating demands on the system. It is clear that privatisation will liberate the various components of the railway industry to invest at an appropriate level and to improve standards and quality of service, as we have seen from the franchises that have already been let. The hon. Gentleman knows that. He is good at using clever words to conceal the fact that the Opposition's policy on such issues is in complete and total disarray.

Railway Rolling Stock

6. Sir Roger Moate: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about the provision of new rolling stock for Kent commuters. [7447]

Mr. Watts: In his invitation to tender for the south eastern franchise, the franchising director invited

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proposals for the provision of rolling stock for the full franchise term, which could include the provision of new rolling stock.

Sir Roger Moate: I thank my hon. Friend for the good news that the new trains for Kent commuters are likely to be part of the South Eastern Trains franchise. We hope, therefore, that the franchise will go ahead as quickly as possible. Given the size and importance of the likely order for new trains, will he confirm that the length of the franchise will be sufficiently variable to cope with such a big capital investment? Will he also ensure that the franchisee is expected to get on with placing that order very fast indeed?

Mr. Watts: Yes. As we have shown with the London-Tilbury-Southend franchise, the term can be extended--in that case to 15 years--on condition that it includes the replacement of rolling stock. That facility will also be available for the south-eastern franchise. So that no time is lost, British Rail issued a general notice in the Official Journal of the European Communities under the prequalification procedure which a franchise operator can use to take an early decision on the procurement of new rolling stock.

Dr. Marek: Why is it that, under the last Labour Government, commuters on the north Kent coast line could commute to London seated four abreast with plenty of space for their knees while under the Government's new order they will have to sit five abreast without adequate leg room?

Mr. Watts: I am tempted to suggest that perhaps some of the Government's health education propaganda about being overweight has been taken up by the people of Kent. The hon. Gentleman should know that Kent commuters have already benefited from the recent large investment in Networkers. They will soon benefit further from part of the Networker Express order currently being completed by ABB.


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