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House of Commons

Tuesday 8 March 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading Read. To be read a Second time on Tuesday 15 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

TRANSPORT

The Secretary of State was asked—

Wales-Merseyside Links

1. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What steps he is taking to improve transport links between Wales and Merseyside. [220402]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty): A scheme to improve the cross-border route between the M56 and Deeside Park is in our targeted programme of road improvements. Work is planned to start in 2006–07.

There is scope for services on the Wrexham to Bidston railway line to improve the use of community rail principles now that the Strategic Rail Authority has included it in its community rail development strategy.

Ian Lucas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. The economy of north-east Wales is prospering at the moment, but that is bringing with it much congestion, particularly on the roads. Will he meet the Transport Minister of the National Assembly for Wales as soon as possible to discuss the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line—a project that could take forward the general principles of shifting people from the roads to rail, improve access to Merseyside from north Wales and ensure that individuals travel to work by train, rather than in their cars, to areas such as the Deeside industrial estate?

Mr. McNulty: I am certainly more than happy to meet our Welsh colleague. My hon. Friend will know that a study is being commissioned by a consortium of north Wales local authorities—the Taith consortium—and Merseytravel to consider the electrification of all or part
 
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of that line. I am more than happy to meet the Welsh Minister to discuss that, as well as other broad improvements to link north Wales and Merseyside.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): My hon. Friend is aware that one of the ways that he could improve rail links between north Wales and Merseyside would be to re-signal and dual the Halton curve, thus providing a link directly from north Wales to Merseyside, a link to the Allerton interchange and the Mersey light railway and access to the Lake district. May I press him to say something positive about that, please?

Mr. McNulty: I met my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) to discuss that specific issue. I can confirm that the SRA is not proceeding with any closure process for the Halton curve. My hon. Friend will know that, although some work is planned for the Crewe-Weaver-Ditton section of the west coast main line route this year, the need to determine the curve's future is likely to rest, as he suggests, with the re-signalling work that needs to be done, currently in 2010. I certainly assure him that, at some stage between now and 2010, we will resolve the future of the Halton curve.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab): Can my hon. Friend tell the House what assistance, including financial assistance, will be given to the proposed new Mersey road crossing between Widnes and Runcorn? That crossing would do a tremendous amount to relieve the congestion between Liverpool and the other side of the River Mersey.

Mr. McNulty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. There has been extensive talk on this matter between Halton borough council and the Department. A lot of work has been done. We have most, if not all, the information that we need to move towards a decision, and I have assured those at Halton that we will make a decision at the earliest possible opportunity.

Rail Passengers

2. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): What assessment he has made of the maximum length of time passengers on main line trains should be expected to stand. [220403]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): Train operators are required by their franchise agreements to ensure that, under normal circumstances, no passenger should need to stand where the journey lasts more than 20 minutes. For journeys of less than 20 minutes, it has always been understood that some passengers will stand, especially at peak times.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that clarification. The Southend-on-Sea Railway Travellers' Association believes that there are now fewer coaches and fewer seats on the c2c line than at any time over the past 50 years. Clearly, to stop standing during long journeys, we need more coaches for the c2c line. Will he support my fight to get the five units that were transferred from the c2c line to Great Eastern returned
 
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to the c2c line, where they should be used to reduce overcrowding and standing? And while I am here, may I ask for a new railway station for Canvey and its new third road?

Mr. Darling: On the first point, yes, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the intention is to return the railway carriages that were deployed elsewhere during this year. They will certainly be returned by the end of the year, but, I hope, earlier than that. And while he is here, I note his call for more spending on the railways, but he will have to square that with the fact that the Conservative party's sums in relation to railways simply do not add up. It is committed to cuts that make the opening of any new railway station fanciful.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Increasing capacity on trains so that passengers do not have to stand can sometimes require increasing capacity at strategically important stations so that they can accommodate longer trains. Does my right hon. Friend thus welcome plans that are being worked up for a new gateway station at Birmingham New Street and the fact that a lead consultant for that project will be announced on Thursday so that Britain's second city can have the 21st century gateway station that it deserves?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend that that step is welcome. Anyone who is familiar with Birmingham New Street station will realise that it needs to be improved. It is not an especially good gateway to Birmingham and the midlands, and it suffers from terrible overcrowding, which sometimes means that it must be closed. Some £250 million has been put forward by various backers in the west midlands and I hope that we can come forward with a workable and affordable plan for Birmingham New Street. I agree that the project is a useful next step to ensure that Birmingham has a station serving not only the city, but the wider west midlands area.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that since the timetable changes affecting Ipswich, Manningtree and Colchester commuters were introduced last December, far more passengers than before are having to stand on trains for much longer than 20 minutes and the reliability of service is now scandalously bad? Is he further aware that the Strategic Rail Authority failed to consult the Manningtree Rail Users' Association in a timely way before making the timetable changes? Will he support my call for the Strategic Rail Authority to reinstate the old timetable forthwith and issue a warning to 'one', the train operator, that if its performance does not improve this year, it may face the sack?

Mr. Darling: I was just looking at the performance figures for 'one' throughout the whole area in which it operates. The most recent figure is 92 per cent., which is much better than it was in the past. I think that the hon. Gentleman is raising a specific constituency point and as I have said before, if he would care to write to me about that, I shall look into it. I shall also pursue the apparent failure to consult.

The evidence thus far is that the timetable changes have, in the most part, improved reliability. For example, the reliability of South West Trains is now well
 
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up in the 90 per cent. range, which should be encouraged. However, there will inevitably be specific cases of timetable changes not working out, so if the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me, I shall look into that.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that passengers travelling from north Wales to London Euston are standing for unacceptably long times. Is he aware that Meridian trains are standing idle in sidings? Will he hold discussions with the Strategic Rail Authority to try to persuade the people who make such decisions that those trains can be used by Virgin Trains, because that would make life a lot easier for passengers travelling between north Wales and London?

Mr. Darling: I shall look into the matter, but I do not think that that is right. The trains that are supposed to be in service are in service, although I am aware that there have been problems in north Wales, which I shall examine. The difficulties are partly caused by the continuing and irritating problems encountered by the new Pendolino trains on the west coast main line, which are causing disruption and an unacceptable service at the moment. The situation is caused in part by track problems and also by the unreliability of the new trains. I shall examine the specific problem that my hon. Friend raises, but I am not aware of trains that have been delivered but are not in service. That was a problem in the past, but I do not think that it is the case at the moment.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): Being forced to stand on trains is of course a function of overcrowding and an experience all too familiar to many commuters. Is not part of the answer to introduce new services, such as that brought in by the East Sussex community rail partnership between Uckfield and London Bridge last December? It is an excellent service, but it is not being fully promoted because of a lack of funds. Why did the Government scrap their previous pledge of £312 million for rail partnerships over three years from 2003–04, because that would have helped to promote exactly such a service?

Mr. Darling: Last November, we announced an initiative to promote the community services highlighted by the hon. Gentleman, and we have provided financial backing to go with it. He is right that additional services help to reduce overcrowding, and there are now 2,000 more week-day services on Britain's railways than was the case in 1996–97. In addition to that substantial increase, nearly 2,000 new railway carriages have been introduced on the network since 1999, thus increasing capacity. We are therefore increasing the number of services and adding capacity, which is one reason why the trains now carry more passengers than at any time since the early 1950s. In addition, nearly 14,000 more spaces are available on London commuter services during the peak times in the morning and afternoon. We are therefore making changes, but I readily accept that there is still more work to be done.
 
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