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How will the recession affect rail prices?

Ann_winterton_mpYesterday saw questions to Transport ministers.

Congleton's Ann Winterton (right) - who is an assiduous attendee of oral questions - asked about rail prices:

"What recent assessment he has made of levels of rail fares. [261705]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to regulate rail fares to balance the protection for passengers and taxpayers while allowing significant investment in rail. We have made it clear that the average cap—usually the retail prices index plus 1 per cent.—will be applied next year even if RPI is negative, leading to lower regulated fares in January 2010. From January 2010, the cap will also apply generally to individual regulated fares.

Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State will be aware of the horror expressed by commuters and passengers about the huge hike of more than 6 per cent.—the figure is much higher in some areas—in rail fares this year. I welcome his reaffirmation on behalf of the Government that fares next year will be pegged to the standard formula, but will he also assure us that rail companies will not cut services?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady refers to regulated fares. To deal with her last point first, the services are governed by the franchise agreement entered into by the train operating companies. Of course, we will not allow those agreements to be changed without a clear, good reason. To deal with the generality of her observation, support for railways comes from two sources: fare-paying passengers and taxpayers. If we are to maintain the level of investment in our railways that I think we should have, we have a clear choice. We can either allow fares to be increased according to the consistent arrangements that have operated for many years, or we can increase the subsidy from the taxpayer. If she is unhappy about the balance that we have struck, she needs to say so, as does her party. Instead of simply making generalised complaints, I want to hear what specific proposals the Conservative party would make about fares and the level of taxpayers’ subsidy."

Shadow Transport Minister Stephen Hammond posed a follow-up question on the same subject:

"The facts show that the Passenger Focus report published in February this year highlighted value for money as the most serious concern for passengers. The facts also show that the most packed trains are running at more than 170 per cent. capacity and that, since 2003, regulated and unregulated fares have risen by a third. Do not the facts show that after a decade of Labour control, the story is one of overcrowded trains, value for money falling, and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab?

Mr. Hoon: The Passenger Focus report is interesting. I look forward to meeting Passenger Focus and the Association of Train Operating Companies to discuss its contents.

I would not want the Conservative party to feel that I was letting it off the hook after the comments that I made about the Liberal Democrats. If the hon. Gentleman gets his way and eventually ends up on the Government Benches taking the decisions, he will have £840 million less to spend on the railways and on transport in general than has been spent by this Government. He and his party have to explain how they will manage to continue with investment in much-needed projects such as Crossrail at the same time as cutting the railway budget."

Shadow Secretary of State Theresa Villiers also asked about rail:

"We have heard the Secretary of State confirm this afternoon that the Government will make an announcement on a high-speed rail proposal next year. Will he pledge to the House that that proposal will match the Conservative commitment to building a high-speed rail line connecting London, Manchester and Leeds?

Mr. Hoon: I made it clear that that announcement would happen this year. The difference between the two proposals is that ours will be a thought-through, well-considered, carefully costed proposal by experts in the railways, in contrast to the large envelope on which the hon. Lady scribbled a few lines to produce the Conservative plans. I challenge her on this; she can write to me or put out a press release. The shadow Chancellor has indicated that his priorities for spending for a potential Conservative Government include handing out large amounts of money in the form of reduced inheritance tax to a handful of multi-millionaires ahead of any efforts that she has been able to make to encourage a Conservative Government to spend money on transport.

Mrs. Villiers: I think we can take it that the answer is no. The Minister of State yesterday and the Secretary of State today confirmed that, even if the Government decide to go ahead, the only routes that they are asking HS2 to consider for the proposal that it is publishing, whether this year or next year, are between London and the west midlands. In February, the Secretary of State told the Lancashire Evening Post that the proposal that is being put together is for a line that gets only as far as Rugby—a mere 80 miles from London. Why does not he just admit that Labour is struggling to catch up with the agenda that the Conservatives have set on high-speed rail and that it is manifestly failing to match our vision and commitment to a high-speed rail future for the north of England?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry, but nothing that the hon. Lady says about transport can be taken seriously when she proposes to cut £840 million from the transport budget. If she cannot persuade her own shadow Cabinet colleagues of the importance of transport, how does she expect to persuade the House or the country of anything that she says on the subject of transport?"

Ludlow MP Philip Dunne was concerned about speed limits:

"Yesterday, Ministers floated in the press the idea of reducing the national speed limit to 50 mph on single carriageway roads. There is not a single stretch of dual carriageway road in my constituency, which is the eighth largest in England. Instead of introducing a blanket ban and causing frustration for all the drivers in my constituency, would it not make much more sense for the Government to target resources on known accident blackspots?

Jim Fitzpatrick: No decision has been taken—we will shortly be consulting on the post-2010 road safety strategy—and there will not be a blanket ban either. Currently, local authorities may exercise discretion to reduce or increase the speed at which vehicles can travel on a particular road, depending on the nature of that road. However, 62 per cent. of deaths occur on A roads that carry only 40 per cent. of traffic, so it would be wholly inappropriate for us not to examine whether the opportunity exists to save lives and reduce serious injuries. The information and the data from the Transport Research Laboratory show that if we make the speed adjustment, we can save 250 lives and prevent 1,000 serious injuries. We have to look at the proposal, but we have not made a decision yet, although it may be part of the consultation, which will be out shortly, on formulating our road strategy for 2010 onwards."


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