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The Department For Transport Annual Report 2006 (HC 95-i)

Transport Committee 29 Nov 2006

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Evidence given by Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Transport, and Sir David Rowlands KCB, Permanent Secretary, Department for Transport.

Q54 Mr. David Clelland: It is just to follow up on the high-speed rail point, now that it has been raised. Does the Secretary of State imagine that by the end of the 21st century high-speed rail will still consist of hundreds of tons of metal trundling along on steel rails?

Mr Alexander: It is an important point. Of course there is a lot of speculation in terms of Maglev technology. As I understand it, there was a recent crash involving a Maglev train in Germany. There are difficulties in terms of Shanghai----

Q55 Mr. David Clelland: We cannot let you get away with that, Secretary of State. The crash in Germany had nothing to whatsoever to do with the technology. It was purely an error by an operator.

Mr Alexander: There are also questions which have been raised in terms of whether the track is actually being sustained appropriately in Shanghai. So this is a technology which deserves to be considered and to be looked at; but, on the other hand, it is only right to acknowledge that there are questions that have been raised about it. That being said, I think your question speaks to not simply an issue in terms of one particular technology, but a much broader challenge for the rail industry, which I addressed at the Rail Partnerships Conference last week, namely the traditional presumption that rail has an environmental advantage over other modes will potentially increasingly be challenged as power sources change. That is why, for example, as we are looking at the replacement for the 125, we are looking at plug-and-play technology, which can say is there an alternative power source which is a non-carbon basis, which can be dropped into the engine of the new replacement to the 125s? I do think that there is a real responsibility and a real challenge for rail to ensure that it maintains what has historically been its environmental advantage. Of course there are also issues in terms of the weight of trains. There have at times been judgements made about safety, but there have also been judgements made about specifications. I am aware that this Committee and others have travelled to Korea and seen significantly lighter trains than are running on UK rails at the moment. So this is something which I think makes the case for not simply taking a view next July over five years, but also saying what are the kinds of challenges that rail will face over a ten, 20 or 30-year period.

Q56 Mr. David Clelland: If, as Secretary of State, you say that Maglev technology is worth considering, what consideration is being given to it in the Department?

Mr Alexander: I think that the appropriate way to address this issue is, first of all, to say what are the transport needs of the United Kingdom? What are the transport needs of the economy and society? And not be in a position where a particular technology is, in turn, driving a particular project and in turn driving public expenditure.

Q57 Mr. David Clelland: So, despite the fact that it is worth considering, it is not actually being considered?

Mr Alexander: No, that is not what I have said - if you would let me finish. It seems to me the appropriate task, first of all, is to take a strategic view as to what are the transport needs of the economy and society. Eddington was commissioned specifically with the job of looking at that interaction between transport expenditure and economic growth, looking to the future. That will, in turn, inform us in terms of the ongoing analytical work which we take forward within our department. Again, however, it seems right not to say that this should be a discrete, stand-alone piece of work, which bears no relation to our understanding of how will transport modes develop, or indeed how will the railways develop over the next 20 or 30 years. It would be more logical to develop our thinking in terms of the advantages or disadvantages of a high-speed rail link in the context of a broader sense as to where rail is going and, indeed, where transport is going across the UK - and that is what we are endeavouring to do.

Q58 Mr. David Clelland: Perhaps I could come back to road pricing. In getting people off the road, road pricing is the stick, but good, efficient, affordable public transport is the carrot. What will come first? The carrot or the stick?

Mr Alexander: As I have said, in terms of the regional pilots for which we will receive bids in July and reach determination in the months thereafter, we have always been very clear that any system of road pricing would be partnered by investment in public transport. I know, not least because of my familiarity with the circumstances in Edinburgh, that there have been very considerable difficulties where the public perceive there being the prospect of road pricing without a sense that there is an improvement in public transport. However, this is not simply, for me, an issue of how do we sustain and build a consensus that these issues are worth looking at; it is also a very practical issue that, if you are asking people to make choices which reflect the fact that at the moment there is the potential for too many cars in a particular place at a particular time, there needs to be real alternatives for people. So in that sense, both in perception terms and in policy terms, I am very alive to the need to make sure that there is public investment going into public transport.

Q59 Mr. David Clelland: But, bizarrely, in Tyne and Wear for instance, where we have the largest use of public transport per head of the population of any of the metropolitan areas, the Government's concessionary fares scheme has cost us £7.2 million. Therefore, in order to bring in the concessionary fares scheme, services have had to be cut. So the carrot is getting a bit dry in Tyne and Wear. How are we going to make the carrot a bit juicier? Will the Concessionary Fares Bill, for instance, give us our money back?

Mr Alexander: First, in terms of the £350 million that was committed by the Government at the time of the first Concessionary Fares Bill, I am very aware - not least because of the number of your colleagues from the North who have told me so in no uncertain terms - as to the issues that arose in terms of the implementation of that. There is a job to ensure that there is an alignment between what is our stated objective and how local authorities actually take forward these proposals on the ground. It is exactly with that in mind that we have established a group which is working from the Department with local government at the moment, to make sure that the difficulties that were encountered in the areas like the North East first time round for the application of local services are not simply replicated when we move to a system of national local concessionary travel, for which there has been an additional contribution of £250 million from the Treasury. That new Concessionary Fares Bill was introduced in the House of Lords on Monday, but I can assure the Committee that the work in terms of making sure there is an alignment between local and national government reflective of that experience is already underway and will continue in the months ahead.

Q60 Mr. David Clelland: It would be reasonable, would it not, for Tyne and Wear to be able to start improving its public transport system from where we were 18 months ago, and not from where we are now because of the introduction of the concessionary fares scheme?

Mr Alexander: Obviously there are issues in terms of the design of the concessionary fares scheme within localities. There have been opportunities for Tyne and Wear to discuss the concerns and difficulties that they have had; indeed, questions have been raised, if I recollect, on the floor of the House on these issues. I do think it would be most appropriate, as we look ahead to the application of the next bill, to say what lessons can be learnt from that and how can we work together, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Q61 Chairman: Did the Department underestimate the financial impact of mandatory, free off-peak bus travel?

Mr Alexander: I believe that the £350 million that was put in was sufficient to support the objectives, but I am fully aware that there were difficulties in specific localities. Our task is to make sure that those difficulties are ironed out.

Q62 Chairman: Are you going to intervene? Is that what you mean by saying that they are going to be ironed out?

Mr Alexander: No. As I say, there has already been established a process whereby officials in my department are discussing the application of the scheme with local authorities, and those discussions continue. However, I would not feel qualified at this stage to offer you a detailed view as to the specifics of which routes and the design of specific schemes in specific localities.


Q97 Mr. David Clelland: This is nothing to do with Crossrail, but something much more important. The Secretary of State has made several references today to the strategic road network, but is he aware that in the North-East there is not a single mile of three-lane motorway, which I think we accept as the national standard for motorways; there is not a continuous dual carriageway from Newcastle north of Scotland; there is not a continuous dual carriageway from the Newcastle north of Scotland; there is not a dual carriageway from the North-East across to the motorways in the North-West; and the two-lane motorway that we do have runs out at the edge of our region at North Yorkshire. Then there is some 20 miles before we then pick up the brand spanking new three-lane motorway running through Yorkshire, joining to the M1 and down to London. My question is, when is the North-East going to become part of the strategic road network?

Mr Alexander: I can assure you that investment in transport for the North-East is today at record levels. Between 2001 and 2006 in excess of £450 million has been invested in the region, delivering real improvements on the ground. Over £200 million has been spent on major capital projects in Tyne and Weir, with an emphasis on public transport improvements, for example, taking the metro to Sunderland, about which we were speaking earlier; and specifically in relation to roads the Highway Agency is progressing projects to deliver an upgrade to the A1 in Yorkshire, which will complete a motorway standard link to the North-East.

Q98 Mr. David Clelland: To the North-East but not through the North-East?

Mr Alexander: Clearly there are discussions which continue to be articulated from the North-East in terms of the particular demands within that region. I would simply say that judgements always have to be reached and we are spending record sums in the North-East at the moment.

Q99 Mr. David Clelland: But surely it is important for the region and for the development of the regional economy that, given the fact that road transport, however much you might try to get people out of their cars, is going to be a major feature of transport in this country for the foreseeable future and we need to have a strategic road network which links all regions and assure that all regions have at least the national standard. That does not apply to the North-East, so what plans are there to bring the North-East up to national standard?

Mr Alexander: Our ambition is to have targeted investment in our national road infrastructure that is in part driven by considerations of relative levels of congestion and of all of the demands that are placed on the national road network, and I can assure you that the criteria that is used in terms of consideration for funding in the North-East is the same consideration - it is not as if there is a separate set of matrix for the North-East in my department from Yorkshire, Humberside or from any other region of England - and in that sense of course there are always going to be particular projects or particular requests that come from regions which, for reasons of probity in the public finances, cannot be met. But I can assure you that there is no desire to disadvantage any one region over any other.

Q100 Mr. David Clelland: But the Secretary of State must recognise that the A1 western bypass is recognised by his department as one of the most congested roads in the country, yet there has not been a major improvement of that road for the last 20 years.

Mr Alexander: Of course we face a challenge in terms of congestion. The answer in every circumstance to every congested road in the country is not to necessarily build additional capacity - that is in part why, as I say, our approach to congestion involves ensuring that there is better information to motorists, we manage the existing network better and we have traffic management officers working now in every region, and at the same time to ensure that as resources allow there is targeted investment in our road network and we take forward the discussions as to whether there is applicability and suitability for road pricing.

Mr. David Clelland: It would seem that the criteria would apply to Yorkshire and other areas of the country where brand new roads seem to be springing up all over the place.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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