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The Railways Bill

January 27, 2005

The Railways Bill

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I fear that it falls to Conservative Members to defend the interests of first-class rail passengers. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) made some serious points. If high-quality passenger accommodation is available on all our trains, more people will use public transport, including those who might have been dissuaded from doing so in the past. In Heathrow, for example, taxi traffic may have been reduced as a result of the Heathrow Express. That would have more effect in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) than in other parts of London. Does the Minister have any evidence that high-quality new services such as the Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express, with first-class accommodation, make a contribution to getting traffic off the roads? If not, will he conduct such a survey?

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) is sensible, but it shows a certain of degree of wishful thinking on his part about what goes on in London. While I would not want to gainsay anything said by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, there are problems with the highly-regulated bus transport market in a broader sense, as well as in relation to bustitution. A significant amount of work is taking place on the tube and rail networks in the capital, often at weekends. There are very effective bustitution arrangements to deal with that, and I must give credit to Transport for London for doing a good job in that regard. As I live and work in central London, I use the buses regularly. I would be the first to say that there have been improvements to that service over the past four years under Mayor Livingstone. However, I am afraid that they have come at a great cost, which I suspect that he rather hoped would be underwritten by the Treasury. That has not happened, with the result that TFL faces losses of up to £1 billion a year from its budget for 2007?08.

Mr. Stringer: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the regulated system that existed in London before it had a Mayor worked better than in the other metropolitan areas? It lost virtually no passengers between 1985 and 1999, when other cities lost 30 to 40 per cent. of their passengers; and before Mayor Livingstone, there was no subsidy. It was not a perfect system, but it worked better than elsewhere in the country, and we should have the benefit of that kind of system.

Mr. Field: I accept that. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that I consider Manchester to be this country’s second city, partly because my in-laws live in Wilmslow, about 12 miles away from it. That is probably also why I can pronounce the name of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency better than most southerners. He makes an entirely fair point. London’s bus system has been pretty sophisticated, and regulation has helped. Transport for London does a good job in that regard, but there is a cost to be paid.

In central London, in particular, we have the problem of an enormous number of services, particularly in places such as Oxford street and Trafalgar square, where one sees bus after bus. That reminds me of what happened after the much-criticised deregulation of the market. In the mid-1980s, Oxford, where I was an undergraduate, had a massively deregulated market, and it was well-known that in Cornmarket one would see eight or nine buses from different companies all heading out towards London within five minutes of one another.

Here in London, things are not quite so simple. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to what was said by Labour Members and by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, who made a powerful case in relation not only to public safety but the broadening out of the use of our railways. That will be an important step forward if we are to get as much traffic off our roads as possible. The issue goes well beyond passenger traffic, as we also need to get as much freight as possible off our roads and on to rail.

Congestion is not only a problem for central London. Within the next few weeks, there will be a referendum on congestion charging zones in Edinburgh, and that may happen in other parts of the country. The railways must be part of the solution in the months, years and decades ahead.