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Mr. Simon Thomas: The Secretary of State has outlined past experience in the railways and the problems created by the chronic underinvestment, and I think that everyone agrees with him on that. Will he now put his mind to the chronic underinvestment in Wales in the next 10 years under this plan? Does he accept the figures produced by the Wales Transport Research Centre at the University of Glamorgan under Professor Stuart Cole, which show that the plan has only 17 per cent. of what the railways in Wales need for the next 10 years?
Is not the Secretary of State concerned that he could be storing up problems for the future in Wales by continuing the underinvestment under this plan, and that he could have the same problems as the Government had with the health service, when they addressed the problem of numbers on the waiting lists? They should be addressing the crucial infrastructure issue, rather than the number of passengers travelling in and out of London. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the huge underinvestment in his plan for Wales?
Caroline Flint: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have a role in driving the pace of change through the franchising process? I am sure that, like me, he welcomes the agreed two-year extension to the Great North Eastern Railway east coast main line franchise, which has resulted in 11 extra services running from Leeds to London. GNER will refurbish every train in the fleet and rebuild every locomotive. Is not that good news for the travelling public and for those of us who are taking action on the franchising process to make the private operators put in the required investment?
Mr. Byers: When hon. Members have the opportunity to see the details of today's two-year franchise extension for GNER, they will realise that it will have real benefits for the travelling public. Most importantly, they will understand why there was a need to introduce a two-year extension at this time.
Mr. Byers: I want first to make the point about GNER because it is of concern to many Members. The extension is for two years because the detailed work to upgrade the east coast main line was not carried out by Railtrack. That work can now be done. When we come to re-let the franchise after the two-year extension, we will be able to consider awarding a five, 10 or 15-year extension for the franchise on that line. The nature of the upgrade will mean that the franchise lends itself to such a lengthy extension.
Pete Wishart: Does not the extension to the GNER franchise mean that the Secretary of State has reneged on the commitment that he made in July to replace the existing rolling stock on the east coast main line? Is not that another indication that the 10-year plan is really a solution for London and the south-east? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a growing perception that it offers very little for Scotland?
Mr. Byers: The agreement announced today offers real benefits to people in Scotland. For example, there will be an extra carriage on each of the high-speed trains. My announcement last summer was basically a negotiating position aimed at finding out what the Strategic Rail Authority could secure from GNER. We never believed that all those objectives would be achieved. People will recognise the benefits that the changes will bring to passengers on the east coast main line and travellers to Scotland.
Mr. Keetch: The Secretary of State knows that he will be very welcome in Hereford whenever he wants to visit. Returning to Wales and the borders, the current owners of the franchise there told me that because they will not know for another 12 or 15 months whether they will be successful in retaining the franchise, they will not make any significant investment at all, which is understandable. Is there not a need for longer franchises to give a period of stability so that companies can invest as they should be doing?
Mr. Byers: When the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to read the new franchising statement from the Strategic Rail Authority he will see that it is considering a 15-year franchise, broken into three parts so that it is reviewed after five years. To be frank, I am concerned about what the position would be if, after five years of an extended franchise of 15 or 20 years, the company was clearly under-performing on its contract. It is important that we have break clauses in such franchises, and that is the direction in which the Strategic Rail Authority wants to go.
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There will be parts of the rail network where the private sector is keen to be involved, but we should never forget that the network is for the whole country and there is public service provision in the railways. Some lines are not economic, but it will be a disaster for the network if we close them down to save money in the short term, because in the long term that will deny passengers to the main lines. We must not make that mistake. We know from the way in which the rail network has been misused over the years that easy decisions can be made, but in the end some lines will not be cost-effective and they will need a public subsidy. The 10-year plan contains scope for the public sector to make provision to secure those routes.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Before my right hon. Friend leaves Scotland, there is a special problem which is something of a nightmarethe key Forth rail bridge, the greatest monument to 19th century engineering, with which there are expensive maintenance problems. I am not asking my right hon. Friend for an answer off the top of his head, but could he get his officials to look at where the boundary for responsibility lies between the Scottish Executive in Edinburgh and his Department? There are urgent matters and it may be a question of a stitch in time saving nine.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Yesterday I had a meeting with the Scottish Minister for Transport and we looked at a range of issues to do with rail in Scotland. I am acutely aware of the need to make sure that the bridge is maintained safely and securely. Probably the best thing would be for me to do some detailed work and write to my hon. Friend so that he is fully aware of exactly what is being done.