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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Traffic Congestion

1. Sue Doughty (Guildford): If he will make a statement on his plans for (a) traffic and (b) congestion reduction. [93529]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): For strategic roads, we have introduced incident response units on the busiest motorways, and are working with the police on a range of measures to improve incident and traffic management to keep traffic flowing. In addition, we are in the process of building a new traffic control centre, and are planning a major trial of active traffic management systems on the M42 next year. That ties in with the Highways Agency's extensive programme of local improvements by seeking to make the best use of the existing trunk road network. In London, we have brought together all the key players, including Transport for London, the police and the boroughs, to keep traffic moving in London.

Sue Doughty : I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that his Department's advisory committee on trunk road assessment said that traffic reduction can improve economic welfare and that the Chancellor's own forecast for economic growth has been downgraded, will he come clean and admit that there are serious flaws in a reply given to me by the Secretary of State in which he said that "strong economic growth" will mean a greater increase in traffic and congestion? Has he abandoned his plan?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Lady could have given some credit to the fact that an extra 1.5 million people are in work since 1997, which is a significant factor in increased demand on all transport networks, as we have seen with the growing numbers travelling on the tube and railway system. That is precisely why we are looking at how we can make best use of the existing network, both the highways and in London. We are doing so to increasing effect, but I do not underestimate the

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difficulties, especially those that arise from the strong economic growth in this country compared with other major economies.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): It is self-evident that during the school term there is more traffic on the roads than during school holidays, but it is also true that parents are concerned about the safety of their children. More women work these days and are making combination journeys, dropping their kids off before they go to work. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for looking at extending opportunities for safe and affordable school transport to reduce congestion on our roads during school terms?

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she is aware, in her county of Yorkshire there has been an extremely successful experiment with school buses. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, along with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, will shortly review the lessons of that experiment and look at how such a scheme could be rolled out. Of course, it is not just about bus transport, either scheduled routes or specialised buses, but about creating the facilities for safer school routes, whether for cycling or walking, and providing realistic alternatives to reduce the need or desire for the school run.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Yesterday, the Government announced a welcome U-turn in their approach to the London congestion tax. It is amazing that the Minister has not referred to that tax. The Government have said that they are committed to

Can the Minister tell us when those concessions will be introduced? Will they be backdated to 17 February, and will they include help for parents, key workers, shift workers, small businesses and people living just outside the zone? Would it not be better to scrap the whole ludicrous scheme now?

Mr. Spellar: I do not have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, in the main, those matters are best addressed locally. Mayoral or local authority candidates can put their programme to the electorate, who will either endorse it or not. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want issues to be properly decided by the local authority in the light of local circumstances. Any scheme that is to be introduced must command the majority support of its electorate.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): What implications do the Strategic Rail Authority's unilateral announcements of cuts in rail services have for integrated transport and the reduction of congestion?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend should reflect on the fact that the Strategic Rail Authority has introduced a number of measures precisely to increase reliability, which we know, anecdotally and from statistics and public opinion, is the main factor that people consider when deciding whether to take public transport or travel by car. There is no doubt that in certain areas train paths have been oversold, so if anything went wrong on the

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network the chances of recovery were greatly diminished, which has had a significant impact on the reliability of the system. The SRA believes—we think that it is right—that by taking out some of the less used services, it will be able, particularly with extended trains on other services, to provide a more reliable service and carry more passengers, which will sustain the growth of passenger traffic that has ocurred in recent years.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Further to that answer, are not the Department's claims to be interested in integrated transport increasingly bogus? What thought did it give to the impact on road congestion of sanctioning rail cuts such as those on the line from Bristol Temple Meads to Oxford, which have put thousands of additional cars on the road? Can the Minister at least give us an absolute assurance that there will be no sanctioning of the proposed cuts in rail freight grants, which, if they go ahead, will put millions of additional freight lorry journeys on to our roads each year?

Mr. Spellar: Some £40 million is going into rail freight grants this year alone. On reductions in individual services, those represent some 100 services out of 17,000. As I said in reply to the previous question, our objective is to ensure that we have more reliable services, because that is far more likely to attract people and retain them on the rail system than the current position. That is in line with the expectations of the travelling public and it is the right way to ensure a sustainable rail system.

Rail Services (Birmingham)

2. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What recent assessment he has made of the (a) reliability and (b) punctuality of commuter train services to Birmingham; and if he will make a statement. [93530]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Secretary of State's directions and guidance to the Strategic Rail Authority require it to work to a range of objectives, including reliability, punctuality, and overcrowding. Rail performance has improved slowly over the past 18 months, but remains well below what passengers have the right to expect. Our priority is therefore to secure significant improvement in rail performance. The SRA has announced measures that are expected to improve reliability and punctuality throughout the country, including Birmingham.

Mr. Luff : Nothing in the Secretary of State's reply suggested that he really understands just how serious the situation is for Birmingham's commuter services. For schoolchildren, business users, leisure users and the disabled, every journey is like a bad dream, and too many are like a nightmare, and they are getting worse, not better. Even the information that is provided on station platforms is inadequate—never mind overcrowding, punctuality and reliability. Will he throw his weight behind the campaign for a Worcester Parkway station, which would increase capacity on services to Birmingham, and will he do all that he can to

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ensure that Central train services from places such as Droitwich Spa become decent train services, not the journeys from hell that they are at present?

Mr. Darling: I will certainly look at that proposal, but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport said a moment ago, the SRA announced changes to services, including the reduction of some 100 services out of 17,000 a day, in order to improve the reliability and punctuality of services.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Birmingham. Just before Christmas, I visited the station at Birmingham, and I can appreciate the problems that are occurring. In the past, Railtrack oversold the amount of track that it had. There are too many trains trying to get through Birmingham New Street, in particular, which has seriously affected congestion and punctuality. That is why the SRA took the very sensible steps to take out some services—as I say, it is only 100 out of 17,000 a day—which will help.

As regards information, the hon. Gentleman has a good point. As I told the industry last week, it could tell people a lot more a lot sooner than it does. There seems to be a kind of cultural malaise that has prevailed for many years. There is no reason why train operators cannot be more straightforward with people wishing to travel, and if there is a problem, they should tell them about it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): In addition to improving punctuality and reliability, will my right hon. Friend accept that an important contribution to improving commuter trains to Birmingham generally would be an expansion of park-and-ride facilities? Discussions are going on at the moment about the creation of a station at Birmingham Great Park in my constituency and about the great need for park-and-ride at Longbridge station. Will he look into that to ensure that those plans are expedited?

Mr. Darling: Park-and-ride schemes are an extremely useful way of encouraging more people to use public transport—trains, as well as buses—and I shall certainly consider that. It is also worth noting that when the west coast main line upgrading is finished, that will improve capacity on services going to Birmingham and improve signalling and reliability.

All these measures—including the management measures taken by the SRA and the new investment going into the west coast main line—will improve reliability. As I said a few moments ago, there is no doubt that although there have been improvements, we still have a long way to go before train services improve to the standard that people rightly expect.

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