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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 14:49 GMT
350m transport cash unspent
Mr Byers said he was trying to cut down on underspend
Beleaguered Transport Secretary Stephen Byers' department failed to spend 350m of its capital budget last year.

Appearing before the Transport, Local Government and the Regions committee, Mr Byers insisted he had introduced steps to reduce the underspend - currently running at 5.5% of the capital budget.

This is simply not good enough - passengers need to know that rail safety is a top priority for the government and the industry

Don Foster
Lib Dem, transport
His admission prompted his Conservative opposite number, Theresa May, to cast doubt on whether he would be able to deliver the 10-year plan announced by the Strategic Rail Authority earlier this week.

"Given his department's record of underspending, what hope can rail passengers and motorists have that Mr Byers will be able to fulfil the spending requirements of the 10-year transport plan?" she said in a statement.

DTLR permanent secretary Sir Richard Mottram conceded the underspend "should have been lower".

Mr Byers said that the underspend for this year had been reduced to 180m.

"We are going to work to take steps to reduce that further," he added.

Stephen Byers
Stephen Byers has agreed to meet the protesters

But Labour committee member Helen Jackson said that some 40% of the underspend related to the transport side "at a time when the transport infrastructure desperately needs capital investment".

Mr Byers was also questioned on the long-running controversy over how to finance future development of London Underground.

Until now the government has been at loggerheads with London Mayor Ken Livingstone who prefers a bond issue to raise the capital.

The government has backed the idea of a public private partnership (PPP).

Mr Byers told the committee that a value-for-money comparison between PPP and the bond issue would be undertaken with a final decision made in March.

He insisted that the process for deciding would be open and that the government had a 'Plan B' if their PPP proposals did not add up to value for money.

Mr Byers is due to face a Commons debate on the subject of the railways in the afternoon during a Liberal Democrat sponsored debate, in which he will be urged to publish details of a review of the safety recommendations made by the inquiry into the Paddington rail disaster.

Boycott threat

The Health and Safety Executive completed a review into whether the recommendations had been implemented last month, although their report is not due out until March.

Lib Dem transport spokesman Don Foster said: "There may be all sorts of checks to be done on the details, but, broadly speaking, on the question of whether the recommendations have or have not been done, if there is a draft report it should be published."

Meanwhile David Da Costa, a long-time commuter, is due to present a series of demands to Mr Byers on Wednesday which he says represents the views of 30,000 passengers.

The Better Rail Action Group (Brag) plans to hold the boycott with the National Organisation of Commuters Rail Action Protest on 1 March, unless things improve.

Passenger pressure

A recent BBC Watchdog telephone poll of 23,000 people suggested that 94% were in favour of the boycott.

Brag, an umbrella group for many regional independent passenger pressure groups, was launched on 8 January, just days before Europe Minister Peter Hain claimed Britain had "the worst railways in Europe".

Mr Byers went on the offensive on Monday pledging that a 67.5bn package of measures to upgrade the railways would "put passengers first".

He said the SRA's plan would offer "no more excuses" for the ailing rail industry.

But the improvements will rely on private investors matching public investment.

The safety of UK railways has been under scrutiny in the wake of the Paddington tragedy and the Hatfield crash.

Top priority

Lord Cullen, who conducted the inquiry into Paddington, said a review that looked at whether 41 of his safety recommendations had been implemented should be completed by 19 December.

Mr Foster said: "We have heard nothing from the government and the only promise of any report on progress in improving rail safety is a deadline of 'in the spring'.

"This is simply not good enough - passengers need to know that rail safety is a top priority for the government and the industry."

Liberal Democrat Transport spokesman Don Foster
"Labour should be held to account for this"
David Da Costa, Better Rail Action Group
"We are asking Stephen Byers for some guarantees"
See also:

14 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Rail blueprint 'puts passengers first'
03 Jan 02 | England
Rail passengers let off steam
10 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Byers pledges rail revival
10 Jan 02 | UK
Rail disputes at a glance
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