Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the last Conservative Chancellor gave only £500 million to upgrade the whole west coast main line? When Railtrack went into administration, the predicted cost for upgrading that line was £10 billion. It would have been cheaper to build a brand new line.
Mr. Byers: My hon. Friend has followed the vagaries of the west coast main line in considerable detail. He knows that the project was dogged first by a failure of political commitment by the Conservative party. We have tried to drive it through. As time goes by, the new management of Railtrack is beginning to realise the state of the project, and greater difficulties are becoming apparent.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I speak in favour of the amendment and against the motion. In fact, the motion would have been better if it had included the words "When the Secretary of State is successful he will receive a huge bonus." I am convinced that my right hon. Friend would indeed receive that bonus.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the good work that he is doing. I was delighted when he said that he wanted to stay in the job for many years. When we consider the history of transport in this country, we realise that one of the problems is that Transport Ministers do not stay in post for very long. I notice that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) - a former Transport Minister - is in his place. Under the Conservatives, there were about a dozen Transport Ministers during 18 years, and under the Labour Government there have been four. That has added to some of the problems.
I hope that the Secretary of State and his team stay in their jobs. There is one reservation, however: we need a Secretary of State who has responsibility only for transport and nothing else. We should remove all other responsibilities. That was a problem under the previous Government. We should focus on transport, as it is important for the people of Britain and has an essential role for our future. It is wrong to add further responsibilities to the role of the Secretary of State. The role of a Secretary of State for Transport would be every bit as important to the daily lives of people in this country as that of the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for International Development. I want the restoration of a Ministry of Transport.
Recently, the Secretary of State has been criticised unfairly - not least for his decision to ask that Railtrack be put into administration. There is no doubt why that criticism was made. Many wealthy and influential people lost a large amount of money. There was no cry from the Labour Back Benches or the general public to the effect that my right hon. Friend's decision was wrong - we think it was the right decision. However, some of the wealthy people who lost money are extremely influential - especially in the Conservative party.
Mrs. May: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that more than 90 per cent. of Railtrack employees, some of whom lost their life savings as a result of the Secretary of State's action, are all wealthy?
Mr. Martlew: I am suggesting that I represent hundreds if not thousands of railway workers, but I have received only two letters from railway workers who actually lost shares. The rest of them accepted that Railtrack was not working, that the Conservatives had made a mess of things and that the only way to put things right was to put the company into administration and then into a not-for-profit trust.
Mr. Hopkins: My information from friends in the rail industry is that they want secure jobs in an industry that will be secure in the future. They have written off their shares in Railtrack - they largely blame that on the Tories.
Mr. Martlew: I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. If people want a job with a secure future, those jobs will be on the railways. I come from three generations of railway workers, but when I left school in the 1960s my father told me not to look to the railways for work because there were no jobs in the industry. The situation has changed and the industry now offers a secure future. Indeed, there are now too few skills in the industry - too few people know how to run a railway - and we need more skilled people.
Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): Is my hon. Friend aware that sickness rates among Railtrack staff plummeted after the Secretary of State's announcement that he was putting the company into administration? Is not the fact that the Government are taking an active hand a measure of the confidence of the staff?
Mr. Martlew: I think that the high sickness rates were a measure of the lack of confidence in the people running the railways. The trouble with Railtrack was that it was run by accountants and not by railwaymen. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) wishes to declare an interest.
Back-Bench Labour Members support the decision to place Railtrack into administration, as does the vast majority of the general public. The decision came as a surprise, and it was a welcome reversal of Government policy. I remember asking my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister two years ago whether he would consider reversing the decision on rail privatisation. He told me that that was not necessary and that the SRA and extra investment would sort out the problems. Only recently has my right hon. Friend agreed that that strategy had failed.
On 23 March last year, I introduced a private Member's Bill. If it had been passed, it would have earned a rather grand title - the Railways Act 2001. The proposal was simply that we should look at how the rail infrastructure was being managed and controlled, and that a report should be prepared containing alternative options. I proposed six options, which included nationalisation, regionalisation and the establishment of a not-for-profit trust. Safety would have been the main priority of such a trust, with any surpluses being ploughed back into the infrastructure.
I am sad to say that the Government opposed my Bill very strongly. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), was the relevant Minister at the time. He spoke against the proposals with some conviction and passion, and anyone who reads column 639 of the Hansard record of 23 March 2001 will see the reasons for the Government's position at that time.
I am conscious of the fact that the present Secretary of State was not involved in the debate on my Bill. I was delighted when he took the decision about Railtrack - it sent the message that this country's rail system could never work under a privatised Railtrack. I would not disagree completely if the Government were to argue that they had given Railtrack an opportunity and that it had become obvious that the company was going to fail. I am pleased that we are where we are today, and I am sure that we can go on to better things.
I deal now with the west coast main line. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport would not expect me to make a speech on the railways without talking about that line, which has been in a terrible state for many years and which is still crumbling. I formed the all-party west coast main line group 10 years ago this month. The group is very active, and we had the pleasure of the company of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister yesterday. A total of 50 people, from both the Commons and Lords, attended the meeting.
When she was Prime Minister, the then Mrs. Thatcher cancelled the advanced passenger train, also known as the tilting train. The Swedes and Italians subsequently pinched the technology for such trains, which are now being imported back to Britain for the west coast main line. That Conservative Government made no investment in the line, even though it is the country's main rail artery. Hon. Members from Scotland and Wales complained earlier about the lack of investment, but they must realise that an upgraded west coast main line is essential for improved services to north Wales and to Scotland.
The west coast main line has been allowed to decay to a terrible extent. I mentioned earlier that the last Conservative Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), suggested that the difficulties could be put right by the application of £500 million of Government money. The latest estimate is that continuation of the plans for the line proposed by the privatised Railtrack would cost £10 billion, and that it would be cheaper to build a brand new line.
I accept that the SRA is right to look at the project again, but it is a misconception to believe that work has not started on upgrading the line. A lot of work has already been done, and the first stage of the project should be complete by 2003. By the summer of this year, the first Virgin tilting train should be running, taking guests and competitors from London to the Commonwealth games in Manchester.
Within a year, 53 new train sets should be running on the west coast main line, giving us a good new service. I understand that the old rolling stock is to be scrapped, as it deserves to be, but decisions remain to be made. The first is whether to accept the proposal that trains on the west coast main line should be allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 140 mph. The first stage of the project will allow tilting trains to travel at 125 mph, but the trains are designed to do 140 mph, so the matter needs to be debated and discussed.
A second matter for discussion is the mix of services on the line. The hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned her constituency, and it is clear that we must think about local traffic, cross-country traffic and freight traffic as well as express services. The SRA must come up with the mix that is best for the railways.
I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to tell the all-party group that by the end of February the SRA will have produced a definite blueprint for the west coast main line.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman will have read the SRA's document fairly carefully. It does not give any commitment as to when PUG2 - passenger upgrade 2 - will be completed. Was his all-party group able to obtain any commitment on that matter from either the Secretary of State or the Minister for Transport? Or does he think that the new Pendelino trains will run at 125 mph for the rest of their life?
Mr. Martlew: I was in the chair at yesterday's meeting, which meant that I had the advantage of being able to put the first question to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport. That was the question that I asked, and his reply was that the matter would be decided by the SRA before the end of February. I believe that in some areas of the country it will be relatively cheap to allow trains to run at 140 mph, but that it will be very expensive in other areas.
A decision therefore has to be made, but there is no doubt that the original costings that caused Sir Richard Branson and Virgin to buy trains that could travel at 140 mph were sadly flawed. Those costings put the total amount of money involved at around £2 billion or £3 billion, not £10 billion. I believe that the train companies using the west coast main line will come to a sensible agreement on the matter.
Finally, I turn to that part of the SRA report that deals with the need for a National Rail Academy. I am pleased that it has finally been accepted that there is a massive skills shortage on the railways. I asked my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State about that two years ago, and he replied that serious problems existed. The SRA clearly accepts that.
Earlier in 2000, I had discussions with the then Minister for Lifelong Learning, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). He came to Carlisle and we gave him a good demonstration of how the National Rail Academy could work. We showed how it could be funded, where it should be based and how quickly we could get the project off the ground.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport will not be surprised when I tell him that all the available data pointed to the fact that the academy should be based in my constituency. However, if the SRA is serious about reducing the skills shortage quickly, a quick decision on the National Rail Academy is needed. Carlisle is one of the options for its location. If we do not get the skills, we will not complete the 10-year plan. It is simple as that, and it will not matter how much money is spent or whether it comes from the private or the public sector - if we have not got the skills, the plan will not work.
In conclusion, the Secretary of State has my full confidence. He has taken some hard decisions and a lot of criticism - he seems to be able to take a lot of criticism, and I applaud that as well - but he has to change the Government's policy on the railways and Railtrack, and the decision that he has taken will bear fruit in the future.
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