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6.35 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) for introducing the debate in his usual forceful and entertaining manner. He painted a bleak but accurate picture of the railways today: train delays up 70 per cent., cancellations up 45 per cent. and overcrowding running at 39 per cent.

My hon. Friend focused on some of the key unanswered questions in relation to Lord Cullen's recommendations, which were due to be implemented by 19 December, and he set out a number of Liberal Democrat proposals which, if adopted, would ensure that the line in the sand drawn by the Transport Secretary would not be washed away by the waves created by the next multi-billion pound infrastructure overrun, or the failure to secure the very high levels of private investment that are needed to deliver his 10-year plan.

Significant contributions were made by other hon. Members, and I shall touch on those briefly. I echo the comments of the Secretary of State about the dedication and commitment of the people who work in the railway industry, and I welcome his honesty about the state of our

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railways. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) posed a number of pertinent questions to the Minister, particularly about the cost implications of the fact that Railtrack has been put into administration, and how that will affect the private finance that the Government seek to secure, in relation to both the rail industry and the PPP for London Underground.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) made an interesting bid in support of past Conservative policies to reintroduce a Department of Transport. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who is in his place, used a French term—renaissance—to describe the railways under the Conservatives. I would use another French phrase to describe his attitude— "Je ne regrette rien." However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's point about contradictions between the Government's policies in relation to rail and to the tube, where the approaches that they have adopted with regard to who runs what are diametrically opposed.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said that she would make parochial points. There is nothing wrong with that; our constituents often want us to raise matters that are relevant to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that the mud-wrestling at South West Trains must stop, and I agree with him entirely. On Lord Birt's involvement, that is startling.

Norman Baker (Lewes): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is rather odd that Lord Birt has been appointed to his new role? When he was at the BBC, he took a unified structure, split it into little pieces, set them against each other and put a bureaucracy on top. Given that the Tories did that with the privatisation of the railways in the first place, what useful contribution can he now make?

Tom Brake: The Transport Secretary stated what Lord Birt's involvement will be. His involvement with the railways is simply to keep him occupied, although I hope he does no damage in the process.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) wanted to know more about Liberal Democrat policies. Several of his hon. Friends are consulting our paper "Transport for People", so I advise the hon. Gentleman to speak to them about that.

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I have indeed examined "Transport for People", which has a very catchy title. I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on specifying—although they have not used any figures—where they would get some of the extra investment that they propose. The proposals include congestion charging and workplace parking taxation. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that will be a revelation to Liberal Democrats in my constituency, who have been criticising the Labour party for allegedly taxing motorists off the road?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, although I had hoped that it would be slightly shorter. The Liberal Democrats are happy to let local communities make their own decisions on congestion charging.

I agreed with the comments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) about the plan. If there is anything in it, it is simply reheated existing policies. It is

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certainly long overdue. He will not tempt me, however, into talking about Argentina's economy—a matter for another debate. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) said that there was a difference between aviation and the Circle line, as one cannot shut down the Circle line, but I am afraid that London Underground currently does that far too frequently and easily.

In the remaining few minutes, I should like to concentrate on two matters that have not been discussed in any detail: the supply of power to trains and carriages, and the future of London Underground. If the issue of power is not resolved, it is extremely unlikely that the Transport Secretary will be able to deliver his plans. We know that the SRA strategy has announced 1,700 new trains, although they are not really new trains and this is not news, as they have been on order for some time and their delivery is already way behind schedule. Some 2,019 new carriages have been ordered, but only 195 have so far been delivered. The train operating companies will have to get 12 of the vehicles into service every week. Will the Minister tell us how the Government will ensure that they do so? That target sounds extremely ambitious.

None the less, when and if the trains are delivered, they will need a power supply. The arrangements in Railtrack southern region are in disarray. It is thought that the power network cannot be upgraded there by the deadline of the end of 2004. It appears that many millions of pounds have been spent on trains that cannot be used for a number of years. Who is responsible for the blunder? According to the Secretary of State, it is pre-administration Railtrack. However, Modern Railways magazine disagrees. It believes that Railtrack simply did not have enough notice to upgrade the power supply in time. As I said, that means that the commitment of £1 billion-plus on new carriages and trains could be jeopardised, as those trains will not be able to run on the system once they are available. Southern region representatives say that it will take at least another six months before even the scale of the upgrade is known. Additional work needs to be done in respect of 630 substations and so on. Apparently, the equipment could be ready for that, but there is a significant problem—I know that the Secretary of State is aware of it—in terms of the manpower that will be needed to do the work.

Will the Minister tell us whether he believes that that is a failure of Railtrack, as the Secretary of State said, or of the train operating companies or, as Modern Railways suggests, the Strategic Rail Authority and possibly the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions? I await his response. I hope that he will answer a very simple question: will the power be ready at the right time and in the right place to allow all the trains to run when they are available for service? A simple yes or no will do.

The second issue on which I want to focus is the London underground. Many hon. Members are as perplexed as I am about the fact that the Government appear to be committed to recreating on the London underground many of the structural failures that we have seen on the railways. Indeed, they are almost building in the same faultline. Furthermore, the tube PPP has many other faults. One of my main concerns is the almost excessive secrecy and commercial confidentiality that

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have been involved, which seems incompatible with the democratic need for accountability. That has led to some disturbing incidents.

In 1999, the Deputy Prime Minister said that a £4.5 billion saving would be achieved through the PPP. Since he made that statement, I have been trying to pin the Department down on the subject. I received a response on 14 November 2001 telling me that the £4.5 billion figure was meant only to "inform the debate". Can we really believe any of the figures that are spouted by the Government, or must we assume that they are all about spin and have no financial substance? The obsession with commercial confidentiality means that we have to rely on the media to find out—we hope—about the state of the PPP.

Mr. Redwood: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that if the rumours are true and the Government have become bored with the PPP and do not think it can work, massive cancellation fees will have to be paid to the unsuccessful bidding parties, on top of the £100 million that has already been incurred in advisory fees?

Tom Brake: I have pursued the Government on that subject, but they have been unable to supply me with information about the additional costs not only of consultants but of the whole process.

As I have only one minute in which to conclude my remarks, I return to the motion and our proposal to dock the Transport Secretary's pay on the grounds of poor performance. Part of the remuneration of the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, who has just been appointed by the Government, is received in a bonus, and train operating company managers are also paid by results, so I think it is entirely fitting that the Transport Secretary's pay should also be performance related. To date, his achievements are less than remarkable. As I said at the very start of my speech, train delays are up by 70 per cent., cancellations are up by 45 per cent. and overcrowding is running at 39 per cent. The right hon. Gentleman is presiding over a rail system that is on the verge of collapse. Madam Deputy Speaker, it is fortunate for him that we have a minimum wage, because his performance to date warrants nothing more.

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