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House of Commons

Tuesday 15 October 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


HSBC Investment Banking Bill [Lords](By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read a Third time tomorrow.

Committee of Selection

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Railways (Overcrowding)

1. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): What measures are proposed to tackle overcrowding on the rail network. [71411]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Strategic Rail Authority's strategic plan sets out how it proposes to achieve its objectives, including a reduction in overcrowding.

Mr. Burstow : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Can he confirm that one of the first acts of this Labour Government in 1997 was to introduce regulations to deal with the overcrowding of chickens on our trains? Can he confirm that in the five years during which the Government have been in office they have failed to deal with the problems of overcrowding on our railway network, especially on Thameslink services through my constituency? Will he today commit to putting in place the systems that will ensure that we drive down overcrowding on our trains, so that commuters are not stuck every morning and night on what are effectively cattle-truck trains?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman to the extent that congestion on the railways, especially those

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in the south-east of England, is a problem. However, action is being taken to address that. Last year, 600 items of new rolling stock came on to the system and this year 800 more new carriages will be delivered. By 2005, nearly 2,800 new carriages will be delivered. In addition, the SRA is also taking action to make better use of the existing network by re-timetabling to ensure that we make sensible use of the railways. It is estimated that on some routes we will achieve 20 per cent. more capacity, which will allow more frequent and more reliable services. The railways are taking action in both investment and organisation.

The hon. Gentleman is right that extending capacity and increasing the number of routes on the Thameslink lines would be of some assistance. At the moment, the matter is still being considered as part of a planning inquiry—the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the inspector's findings—but I am anxious that we make progress to open up the network to enable more people to be carried across the city. He can be assured that the Government are taking action through the SRA and other players in the industry to improve frequency and reduce overcrowding.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): My right hon. Friend will know that under the previous Government's privatisation overcrowding was explicitly excluded, but before privatisation we had some measures that could be taken to control the number of people on trains. Does he agree that overcrowding is a problem partly because too many trains are cancelled? Will he consider the franchise negotiations through the SRA with particular regard to First Great Western, which is one of the biggest offenders?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend raises several points. In relation to franchising, I hope to be able to tell the House something further in the next few weeks that will constitute a significant change to the way in which franchises are organised. I also emphasise again the point that I made to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow)—that the SRA's proposals to make better use of existing rail track will allow improved frequency and greater reliability, on the Great Western line and on others. Hon. Members will be aware that the west coast main line will now be upgraded, thanks to the significant investment that could only have been made possible by this Government. That will allow greater capacity, faster journey times and more train services. That will all contribute to building a far more reliable and safer railway.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Is the Secretary of State aware that cattle-truck commuting on the Kent line is now so bad that Connex South Eastern, the operator, is bringing in trains that have the seats and toilets removed to pack in more people? He has failed to recognise that the problem is not one of new trains, but of infrastructure. All the plans put forward by the SRA so far suggest no foreseeable improvement in the next five years. What infrastructure improvements can be made within the next five years to give some hope to my commuters?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman tempts me. He is absolutely right that infrastructure is one of the major

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problems we face. One of the monumental failures which the hon. Gentleman's Government left was a Railtrack that was constitutionally incapable of delivering the improvements that the railway system needed.

The hon. Gentleman says that the SRA has not concentrated on the southern region. I mentioned the new rolling stock, and the SRA is bringing forward the upgrading of the power supply to lines south of the Thames. That is something which neither Railtrack nor the previous Conservative Government, during their 18 years in power, did anything about. With respect, the hon. Gentleman should think before he speaks.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the privatised train operating companies, which are purchasing hundreds of new rolling stock items. I agree that the problems that he has discussed this afternoon were caused by decades of underinvestment in the railways by Governments of both parties, that future investment will require both public and private money, and that it is in the national interest that Network Rail be given a fair wind. We all hope that it succeeds, but tackling the long-term problem of overcrowding will require long-term planning. Given that, does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that, 25 per cent. of the way into the Government's 10-year transport plan, so many rail projects are already well behind schedule?

Mr. Darling: Yes I do, as I said last week when we announced the plans to upgrade the west coast main line. It would have been far better if the industry had got a grip on the costs and had fully understood the sheer scale of the projects that it has to undertake.

As the parties are in the mood to be nice and not nasty, I shall agree with the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) that the fault does not lie exclusively with either Railtrack or the former Conservative Government. We are dealing with decades of underinvestment and a failure to grasp the sheer scale of what needed to be done. The hon. Gentleman's Government yielded to a temptation to which, to be frank, most Governments have yielded—that is, to live off investment made in Victorian times rather than to produce new investment as needed.

I remind the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale—and this is a difference between the parties—that the Government have allocated some #64 billion for investment in the railways. As I understand it, it remains Conservative party policy not to match that investment. If a Conservative Government were ever returned to power, the money for investment would simply not be available, and we would be back to the bad old days. I do not like to inject a note of nastiness into the proceedings—I prefer to regard it as injecting a note of reality into what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Collins: Perish the thought that the Secretary of State could ever be nasty, but, given that he is talking about long-term investment plans, what does he have to say about the announcement made a few weeks ago by the Government's own Rail Regulator? The regulator stated that the Government's plans mean that Network Rail faces a Xsignificant risk" of running out of money in the next two years. What is the right hon. Gentleman's

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response to that, and what will he do about it? Does he think that simply raising the access charges for the train operating companies will provide the whole answer?

Mr. Darling: The Rail Regulator made those remarks in the context of announcing the interim review of access charges that he decided to undertake following the establishment of Network Rail. However, all parties must face up to the inescapable fact that the cost of rebuilding the railway and making it reliable and safe is far greater than, I suspect, anyone realised in the past. The difference now is that the SRA, Network Rail and the train operating companies are working together rather than against each other, which unfortunately was how they spent much of the 1990s. They are getting to grips with the big infrastructure problems. As I said earlier, they are making better use of the capacity of the line, so that they will be able to get more trains running more frequently.

There will be a cost, and in the end political parties and Governments must decide whether they are willing to meet that cost and put the railways into a state in which they are fit for the 21st century. I am in no doubt that we can build a railway service that is more reliable and safe, but the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is right to draw attention to the fact that the costs will be substantial.

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