§ 5. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)
What progress he has made towards establishing the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott)
We are making good progress towards establishing the Strategic Rail Authority. I hope that there will be time in the current Session to introduce a Bill to create the Strategic Rail Authority. In the meantime, we are establishing a shadow SRA which will be operational by the spring. I will announce its chairman soon.
§ Mr. Quinn
Many in the House know of my interest in railways, but my main interest concerns my constituents who want to travel by rail. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether progress will be made towards formulating the Strategic Rail Authority so that it can play a full part in the rail summit on 25 February?
§ Mr. Prescott
Yes. I hope that the shadow Strategic Rail Authority will be established on 1 April with the new chairman of the British Railways Board and the new franchising director in place. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority will take early action to ensure that the train operators deliver a better performance. It will also provide a strategic plan for the railway industry which will put the passenger to the fore.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the new Strategic Rail Authority will not include any plans to renationalise parts of Railtrack or any other parts of the railway?
§ Mr. Prescott
The Strategic Rail Authority will have its functions spelled out in the relevant Bill. It will have powers to enforce a better railway system than we have at present. Of course, even under the previous Administration, such authorities retained the right for those bodies—or the Government—to take over a failing railway system. There had to be somebody to step in if the private sector decided that it had had enough, that it was not making enough profits and wanted to pull out. That is the nature of private business, so under any Administration there always has to be an operator of last resort.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I know that my right hon. Friend will be aware that safety is one of the most urgent problems in rail. I hope that he can assure us that the new Strategic Rail Authority—before even the legislation establishing it is on board—will begin asking awkward questions, particularly about the signalling system. If it is true that companies such as Railtrack are letting contractors handle equipment that is likely to be dangerous—even after the companies know, from the report of the Clapham inquiry, that use of such equipment can lead to death and injury—there are very clear indications that urgent action has to be taken to restrain their profit-driven views.
§ Mr. Prescott
My hon. Friend raises a very important matter to do with safety—for which, of course, the Health and Safety Executive has primary responsibility. However, the Strategic Rail Authority will be able to take into account wider issues, such as those that she raised on maintenance, signalling and Railtrack. All too often, we hear one party blaming another. The Strategic Rail Authority will be able actively to intervene and to give its opinion and judgment on safety in matters such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned.
§ Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)
While we await the arrival of the Strategic Rail Authority, may I endorse 108 the right hon. Gentleman's comments that passengers should come first? However, I do not know quite where the SRA would be without the £20 billion of private capital made available by the policies of the previous Government. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman did not catch that, I said that £20 billion of private capital was brought in by our policies.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the regulators are about to report that, in the Government's first—almost—two years in office, train services have been getting worse? The Government's decision to close the royal Mall, for example, is causing traffic chaos for Londoners. Do such decisions—with strikes on the underground—demonstrate the right hon. Gentleman's idea of an integrated transport policy? I should remind him that we do not all have recourse to Jaguars and helicopters to help us out of our difficulties.
§ Mr. Prescott
We can understand why the shadow Cabinet is considering changing the shadow Transport Front-Bench team. Although the Tories may think that Mr. Vroom-Vroom from "Top Gear" will improve their thinking on transport, such questions show the inadequacy of their thought on transport. The hon. Gentleman mentioned £20 billion in assets—which, I presume, takes into account Railtrack's three or fourfold asset-value increase, which was made possible simply because of the cheap price at which the previous Administration sold it. It was, in fact, a giveaway price. The hon. Gentleman's statement that the Government closed down the Mall just shows his total ignorance. It was closed by something called The Royal Parks, which is nothing to do with the Government.
§ Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)
May I tell my right hon. Friend how important is, and how long we have been waiting for, the Strategic Rail Authority to knock together the heads of Connex and Railtrack? In my own constituency, we have a single line from Hastings to Ashford which is unelectrified and which offers no hope of access to the channel tunnel. Connex says that it will do nothing about the line until its franchise is extended, and Railtrack says that it will do nothing without Connex's input. I hope that the Strategic Rail Authority will be able to sort them out.
§ Mr. Prescott
It is quite clear from my hon. Friend's comments that we do not have rail integration because of the previous Government's obsessive—almost ideological—belief that integration was an alternative to competition, and that competition would solve the problems. Frankly, it will not. We have to integrate services—not only railway lines, but the other forms of transport, such as buses—and our White Paper was dedicated to dealing with that task. Our Strategic Rail Authority will place the emphasis on integration and putting passengers' interests first—not considerations of asset value and money, which have always been the obsession of Conservative Members.