Mark speaks on need for extra capacity in public transport

March 11, 2008 11:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) on securing it.

For reasons of time, I shall restrict my remarks largely to public transport matters. Let me say at the start, however, that investment in transport infrastructure is self-evidently vital to the economic growth of any region, but particularly those regions that are some distance from the capital. The further away they are from London, the more important good transport links with the capital and the rest of the country become. We rely on good transport links not only to move goods around, but to create trade links with the rest of the UK and the wider world, allow workers to get to their jobs, bring together rural and urban areas, access shops and culture and allow children to get to school. The list is endless, but the point that I seek to make is simple: good transport links are essential to our everyday lives.

Transport is the backbone of our economy, and it is a generally accepted fact that the state of any area's transport network relates directly to its economic and social success. Many hon. Members have referred to IPPR North's recent paper on the subject, which argued convincingly that the lack of investment and improvement in transport-particularly public transport-in northern England is one of the biggest checks on the region's economic growth. Like many others, including Yorkshire Forward and just about every hon. Member who has contributed to the debate, IPPR North remains concerned about the level of investment in the region's transport.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) referred to the figures supplied to us by PTEG, which show that Yorkshire and Humber received only a third of the public expenditure that London received in 2006-07. My region, the north-west, was not much better off, receiving £276 a head, which is less than the average for England, at £305 a head, and considerably less than London's £614 a head. Of course, the difference in investment between London and the north will not come as a surprise to any of us, and we will all have argued in relation to our own constituencies that funding seems all too often to be skewed in favour of the south. Obviously, we understand that London is the capital and therefore a special case, and all that I am arguing is that the north also deserves a transport system that can support its economic growth and its citizens' social needs. Is the Minister therefore considering reviewing the funding allocations for transport to ensure that all regions get their fair share?

The lack of investment in the region's public transport is particularly worrying. I have listened to contributions from hon. Members both sides of the Chamber, and it seems to be universally accepted that significant investment must be made in the region's train services. The IPPR North report stated:""It is widely recognised that the main rail links between the North and South of England are not likely to be adequate to support sustainable growth over the coming decades""

and that rail links in the north are not "fit for purpose". As I mentioned in questions to the Secretary of State for Transport just last week, it is a fact that, on too many train journeys, people are left without a seat, certainly in the Yorkshire and Humber region. As in the north-west, overcrowding is a significant problem on trains. According to PTEG, and as we have heard, a quarter of all local train arrivals at Leeds in the morning peak period have passenger loadings in excess of 135 per cent. of seated capacity.

If we want to encourage more people on to public transport, it is pretty obvious that we desperately need extra capacity, because no one will want to travel by train if they know in advance that the likelihood of getting a seat is remote. Therefore, there needs to be an urgent assessment of rail services in the north and of the introduction of high-speed rail services to London. That should be looked at as soon as possible, and I ask the Minister to address that question specifically in her response and to tell us if and when a proper cost-benefit analysis of such schemes will take place.

More specifically, I understand that First Group, which runs the trans-Pennine service, is in negotiations with the Government to add a fourth carriage to its trains to increase capacity by 20 per cent. and that that would be in exchange for an extension to its franchise. I also understand that it is looking to buy new rolling stock, but that it needs the go-ahead from the Government before it does so, so that the stock will continue to be used if the franchise changes hands. Will the Minister update us on what stage the negotiations with First Group have reached and give us an assurance that the Government are committed to working with First Group to ensure that capacity is increased on the trans-Pennine service?

One problem with transport is that it is nearly always more efficient in cost-benefit terms to create services in city regions than in rural ones. In particular, bus services for countryside communities often suffer first when funding is tight, because they do not make as much money as urban transport services tend to. There are not many rural areas that will say that their bus services have not been reduced in recent years. That is certainly no less true of the Yorkshire and Humber region, and we must ensure that rural bus services in the region are protected to reduce social exclusion.

One possible way of increasing bus passenger numbers-I say this in reference to the point made by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac)-would be to introduce a system that allowed passengers to travel more easily between different areas. We could have a cross-regional smartcard system similar to the Oyster card in London to encourage more people to use buses and, I hope, ensure that more of the region's bus services remained sustainable. Perhaps the Minister could also touch on that.

Obviously, we need to keep in mind at all times the need to ensure that all forms of transport are sustainable and to help move England towards a carbon-neutral future. As we know, transport contributes highly to greenhouse gas emissions, and we must ensure that improvements and extensions are not accomplished at the expense of the environment.

The transport system in the Yorkshire and Humber region obviously needs significantly increased investment to support economic growth, reduce social exclusion and improve environmental sustainability. With a population of 5 million, the region is a vibrant, successful and hugely important part of the UK, but it deserves better. I very much hope that the Minister is listening to the concerns of the region's residents, as they have been expressed today, and I look forward to her response.

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