Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Rail Travel (Disabled People)

5. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): If he will make a statement on the provision of rail travel for disabled people. [655]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): We have introduced regulations under Part V of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995—the DDA—which requires new trains entering service since 1 January 1999 to be accessible to disabled people, including wheelchair users. More than 200 new rail vehicles have been introduced which meet those requirements. Access to stations is addressed under Part III of the DDA. The provisions of the DDA also extend to light rail systems and, with the introduction of new systems, such as Midland metro and Croydon tramlink, we are opening up new local transport opportunities for disabled people.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Does he accept that disabled people are impatient for future improvements? Does he agree that there is something distasteful in the fact that constituents of mine—and, I fear, other people around the country—had to travel from Chelmsford to London in the guard's van of a train to make a hospital appointment eight weeks ago? Surely, in this day and age, it is unacceptable for disabled people on our railways to be treated, not as second-class citizens, but more like cattle.

Mr. Spellar: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, and I know that he has been in correspondence with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), on the matter. As he knows, First Great Eastern has a rolling programme to replace the slam-door trains, which was the type of train available in the case that he mentions. There are other trains on that network that are more accessible to disabled people, and I know that First Great Eastern has taken on board the need to make sure that people are aware of that. There must be a rolling programme of replacement over the next two years, and there must be a balance between provision of information and provision of new stock.

That ties in with a point that the hon. Gentleman raised in his correspondence about facilities at stations and the need for those to be repaired rapidly when they become inaccessible to disabled people. The company

3 Jul 2001 : Column 134

acknowledges that the matter could have been better handled. We will certainly keep an eye on provision in the future, not just on that line, but on others.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): Does my hon. Friend recall that it was the then Conservative Government who opposed the specific inclusion of transport in the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? In relation to the total passenger rail stock, has he consulted disabled people's organisation as to an end-date by which all passenger rail vehicles will be properly accessible?

Mr. Spellar: As I said, on First Great Eastern the old slam-door rolling stock will be replaced by 2003. That is a welcome development. On my hon. Friend's first point, it would take an inordinate amount of time, way beyond today's questions, to list all the measures that the Conservatives opposed and subsequently found to be quite a good idea, starting with their efforts to privatise the railways, which I understand that their spokesman has acknowledged were a mistake.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Minister mentioned 2003 as the date by which slam-door stock would be replaced on one rail line. What about the other lines? Is any imaginative planning under way for those with sight problems? For years stations in Japan have had ticket machines that can be used by sightless people. More vision is needed in the Department and throughout the system.

Mr. Spellar: I take the hon. Gentleman's point that there is much scope for improvement beyond rolling stock. We need to look at what is often described as the software of the railway system, rather than just at the hardware. Under the Railway Safety Regulations 1999, all mark I rolling stock—that is, the slam-door rolling stock—has to be removed from the rail network by the end of 2004. There must be a rolling programme of replacement because of capacity limitations at the manufacturers, apart from anything else. I also take his point that we should be willing to consider innovations and ideas generated abroad, which we should not see simply under "the not invented here" heading, as has sometimes been symptomatic of our transport system in the past. Sometimes such innovations cannot be adapted, but sometimes they can, cost-effectively and with considerable benefit to the welfare of passenger users—able-bodied and disabled people alike.

Regeneration Strategies (Tourism)

6. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What plans he has for a joint approach with other Government Departments to promote local regeneration strategies based on tourism. [656]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Regeneration strategies are being developed at regional and local level to boost tourism. Blackpool is a good example, and I am delighted to see that in round 6 of the single regeneration budget, Blackpool was awarded £20 million for the improvement

3 Jul 2001 : Column 135

of its tourism facilities. As president of the British Resorts Association, my hon. Friend is aware of the close co-operation between Government Departments and other agencies on tourism. I am sure that he will use his position to promote the successful regeneration of British seaside towns.

Mr. Marsden: In welcoming my hon. Friend to her post and congratulating her on that appointment, I also pay tribute to the work of her Department and its predecessor, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, in respect of the money invested in SRB and other structural funding. Will the Department recognise the important involvement of other Departments in that process and the vital contribution that tourism makes to regional regeneration, not least via regional airports and a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises? In that regeneration process, will the Department take particular account of the needs of seaside and coastal towns, which, by their very nature, have a periphery of only 180 degrees?

Ms Keeble: My hon. Friend may be aware of the tourism summit in March this year. That was a good example of inter-departmental co-operation and many issues that arose there are being taken forward, including access of seaside resorts in terms of various Government policies and funding, planning for leisure and tourism, and matters affecting the Home Office, such as the licensing and gambling reviews.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): In considering single regeneration and its interaction with tourism, will the Government now consider allowing regeneration expenditure to be targeted outside the parameters currently set for the affected areas? Some attractions that need enlivenment and investment are situated outside the existing boundaries and cannot currently receive the resources. In the coastal strip that I represent, the money needs to be spread further.

Ms Keeble: I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for money to be spread flexibly. The Government are committed in our regeneration strategy to taking on board the views of the local community and to ensuring that the regeneration money is spent where it will have maximum impact and meet the requirements of the different communities.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): I welcome my hon. Friend to her new post. Can she imagine the devastation caused by 44 cases of foot and mouth and the culling out of 240 farms in my constituency, and the effect that it has had on tourism? Will she consider closely the contribution that tourism can make to regeneration in the towns of Bishop Auckland and Barnard Castle? Substantial amounts will be needed to market those areas, so I would be glad of a positive response.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his best wishes. The tourism summit that I mentioned earlier considered the impact of foot and mouth on

3 Jul 2001 : Column 136

tourism. I have visited his constituency and seen a number of farms in the various beauty spots in the area, which is well worth visiting and deserves support.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Minister will be aware that Fylde lies next door to Blackpool. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and I therefore understand the importance of tourism in regenerating the Fylde coast. However, one big problem that tourists face is reaching the Fylde coast by the often overcrowded M6, especially at the weekend. When will her Department give us some news about proposals that would ease congestion on that vital routeway to the north-west?

Ms Keeble: That was ingenious cross-cutting from one section of the Department to another. I am sure that the issues that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned in relation to roads will be taken on board by the Department and that he will receive a response very shortly.


7. Clive Efford (Eltham): What steps he will take to increase public accountability of the management of Railtrack. [657]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): The statement of principles agreed on 2 April between the Government and Railtrack set out a new agenda for the company and a new working relationship with the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority. Railtrack is now implementing the reforms and restructuring of its organisation agreed as part of that deal. In addition, the rail regulator has strengthened the accountability of Railtrack by rectifying weaknesses in the initial regime.

Clive Efford: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. However, does he accept that the House's inability to hold Railtrack's management directly responsible, especially for the decisions that led up to the Hatfield catastrophe and others, created some of the disaffection that voters felt at the general election? Does he also agree that public opinion is ahead of the House? People out there believe that the people who stand at the Dispatch Box are ultimately responsible for Railtrack's decisions. If we are to increase the House's standing in public opinion, we must make sure that Members of Parliament can hold companies such as Railtrack directly accountable for spending public money on public services.

Mr. Byers: The priority is a railway network that operates on time, is safe, clean and comfortable. That is currently not the case. Yes, as Secretary of State, I have a responsibility, but so do all parts of the industry, such as Railtrack, the Strategic Rail Authority, the regulator and the train operating companies. The time has come for them to stop passing the buck and to take responsibility for providing a world-class rail service. The Transport Act 2000 contains the requisite legal provisions and the 10-year plan provides for investment of more than £60 billion in rail. That should improve the railway network. The British public want that, and we need to deliver it.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Secretary of State claims that there is no need for any major structural change.

3 Jul 2001 : Column 137

Does not he accept that Railtrack has failed miserably to operate in the public interest? Operating as a private monopoly creates a conflict between passenger safety and profits for shareholders and former chief executives. Will he reconsider his decision to make no major structural changes and examine proposals for bringing the parts of Railtrack that directly run the railways into a not-for-profit public interest company? Secondly, will he consider giving train operating companies the opportunity to manage the maintenance of the track on which they operate?

Mr. Byers: We need a period of stability to enable all the parties in the railway network to concentrate on providing a safe and reliable system. That must be the priority.

Let us consider some of the hon. Gentleman's points. The market capitalisation of Railtrack amounts to some £2 billion and debt liabilities account for some £4 billion. That totals £6 billion, which could be spent on investment. His proposals would require legislation. They would simply introduce paralysis into the system, when we want genuine improvements. However, in the autumn, we expect Lord Cullen's second report on the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove, outside Paddington. It will deal with structural issues to do with the railway network. Clearly, the Government will need to reflect on its recommendations.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): That response is helpful, but is not it obvious that, since privatisation, Railtrack's priority has been its shareholders? That continues to be the case. Railtrack was kicked out of the second phase of the channel tunnel link, opted out of the east coast main line and refused to modernise the west coast main line unless the public purse paid for it. For the massive amounts of public money that have been poured into Railtrack, the Strategic Rail Authority should take a direct, majority interest in it to ensure genuine public accountability in future. That is long overdue.

Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend will know that, last Friday, I issued new guidance and directions for the Strategic Rail Authority. They will change its relationship with Railtrack. One of the objectives of the guidance is ensuring that Railtrack concentrates on its day job, which must be to provide a safe and reliable network. To achieve that, it needs to work closely with the train operating companies. I met the new chairman of Railtrack, John Robinson, last week, and I am pleased that he is going to meet all its customers—the train operating companies—to identify a more positive way forward.

The House will agree that one of the great weaknesses in the railway network over the past few years has been the inability of the respective parties to work together. I hope that, in the light of the experience of the past couple of years, they will recognise that it is in everyone's interest—in theirs and that of the travelling public—to put their house in order and concentrate on providing a railway network that runs on time and is safe and comfortable to travel on.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Did I hear the new Secretary of State correctly a few seconds ago, when he said that he was worried that structural change might

3 Jul 2001 : Column 138

introduce paralysis into the rail network? What exactly does he think that the network has been suffering from over the past few years? Instead of arguing that other people are buck passing and not accepting responsibility, why does not he accept responsibility? Why does not he accept that it is impossible satisfactorily to control a private monopoly by regulation? Why does not he accept that, instead of having endless meetings with senior executives of Railtrack, he should engage in the structural change that could make a difference? Does he rule out the substantial public subsidy that flows each year into the railway network being used in the public interest to build up a majority share and ensure public accountability?

Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of many examples in which regulation is effective as far as the private sector is concerned. That is the reality of the situation.

Mr. Salmond: They are not monopolies.

Mr. Byers: If we look at gas and electricity, we can see where regulation has been effective.

In this particular case, we need to ensure that the structures that exist, and the levers that we have, are used effectively. That is what I am committed to doing. The hon. Gentleman feels that things have been bad over the past two years—and I accept that they have; they have been grim—but they would be so much worse if we started the whole process again. We must use the powers that now exist under the Transport Act 2000, which was introduced last year, coupled with the 10-year plan and the £60 billion investment that is now in place. We must ensure that that money is delivered quickly so that we can have the kind of rail service that the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland want.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the traffic chaos being caused in Bolton by the closure of Railtrack bridges? The footbridge across the railway line at Bromley Cross is so unsafe that two children have been injured. Will he ensure that Railtrack fulfils its public responsibility on bridge safety?

Mr. Byers: As my hon. Friend will know, Railtrack has established a new body to deal with rail safety, which is just being put in place now. I am sure that it will want to reflect on the specific point that he has just made.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment and welcome him to the Dispatch Box in his new role. After four wasted years on transport, the British public are hoping very much that he will improve on his predecessor's record. May I also welcome the refreshing tone that the right hon. Gentleman adopted in his comments about the railway and Railtrack, and his acknowledgment that the industry needs a period of stability and an end to the blame game that was practised by his predecessor?

I endorse entirely the right hon. Gentleman's statement on the structure of the railway, when he said that it would be imprudent to implement any changes to regulation, particularly of safety, before we have seen part 2 of Cullen. If he carries on in this vein, may I assure him that, if he delivers, he will have our support against his

3 Jul 2001 : Column 139

Back Benchers, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party, all of whom want to take him back to the bad old days of nationalisation?

Mr. Byers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. If he continues in the same vein, he is going to cause me enormous difficulties in the months ahead.

Mr. Jenkin: I welcome specifically the right hon. Gentleman's statement ruling out renationalisation. May I question him about the constant threat of strikes? Does he support the right of trade unions to disrupt passenger services, when they are doing so simply to pursue the political agenda that they call "Take back the track"? Will he consider introducing legislation similar to that of other European countries that prevents strikes in essential public services such as the railways? He would have our support on that.

Mr. Byers: I am pleased to say that I am able to disagree, which will be of enormous benefit to me. As I know from my previous role as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry with responsibility for employment relations, the crucial point is that the structure does not allow any group of workers to strike for political reasons. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in that we would not support such action as it would be unlawful. However, we recognise that people involved in an industrial dispute should be able to strike.

Next Section

IndexHome Page