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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Pushing the train

In the light of the issues raised frequently in Plenary sessions one would be forgiven for asking why it is that Assembly Members seem so obsessed with substance misuse and trains. The answer of course is that these are amongst the many issues raised with us by our constituents. In some cases however, the obsession has more to do with the relevant AMs' own experiences.

Nobody would suggest that a wild night out is something that either William Graham or Rhodri Morgan have much experience of but that did not stop them discussing what one might look like:

William Graham: A little while ago, you described life on the streets of Wales as being:

‘pretty wild out there at the moment.’

One outcome of Wales’s being allowed to become ‘pretty wild’ is that over 75 per cent of incidents involving the police and ambulance services on weekends are the result of substance abuse. Alcohol deaths have increased by 125 per cent in recent years and there remain, sadly, increasing assaults upon paramedics, police and accident and emergency staff. Can you demonstrate how your policies will address these problems?

The First Minister: I emphasise that I was not referring to all hours of the day but simply to Friday and Saturday nights. It is very pleasant out there at any time other than those two sections of the week when people go in for binge-drinking and other things, which can result in some people getting into fights, getting injured and falling over and then going to accident and emergency units, waking up half-cut and not knowing where they are and thinking that they ought to assault the various people who are trying to help them, which is a sad state of affairs and is totally unacceptable to the NHS and to all of us in the Assembly. However, it happens because that is the effect of alcohol, and especially alcohol and drug cocktails. If I had converted the figures that I gave earlier into financial form, they would probably show something akin to a 90 per cent increase in funding for these two categories of expenditure over the past three years in order to ensure that we have a method in place. However, it requires people to be willing to recognise their own problems; we cannot drag people onto these programmes but, on the other hand, the capacity is there for everybody who wants to avail themselves of a way of getting away from an over-dependence on alcohol and drugs.

Clearly, William is still suffering the after-effects of his traumatic press conference with Lemmy from Motorhead. One person who undergoes a traumatic experience every week is Eleanor Burnham. She is never shy of bringing to the chamber tales of her train journeys between Cardiff and North Wales:

Eleanor Burnham: I was at the Shrewsbury-Chester Rail Users’ Association meeting last night. As a gentleman said, whose name I shall not reveal in case he loses his job, there is no point in his encouraging people to use the railway if, when they use it, the service is absolutely appalling. He is paid by partnerships somewhere in Wales to do with trains, and I thought that his comment was indicative of my experience and the experience of my long-suffering constituents, who will probably vote with their feet, or will not bother to vote at all next year.
It is a long way from north Wales to the Assembly, Minister, and, quite frankly, saying that you will consider introducing business class is just not acceptable. I do not want business class; I just want clean, reliable trains that are on time and that go faster than they do now—sometimes, I want to get out and push them.

It takes five hours to travel from Holyhead to Cardiff. I do not mind admitting that, like a lot of people, I was up at 5 a.m. this morning, and I was on the platform, bright and breezy, at 6 a.m. in case I missed the train. As usual, people were coming up to me explaining how appalled they were with the service. You have been taken for a ride by Arriva, and it is about time that you stopped it. If the Tibetans, with oxygen masks, can have a decent service in the Himalayas, I am sure that we can manage it in Wales. Minister, get your finger out and do something positive; otherwise, next year, people in North Wales will wonder what the hell we are doing in the Assembly. Forgive my language.

Answer that! Carl Sargeant certainly had an answer:

Carl Sargeant: Minister, I welcome the statement made today, particularly the announcement on the Wrexham to Bidston line. It is key for the economy of Flintshire and Wrexham to build into the economy of the north west of England, and I think that the electrification of that line would be of benefit. I note from your comments that huge investment is being made on the Ebbw vale line and I would like to see similar investment on the Wrexham to Bidston line, particularly with regard to electrification.

My colleague, Eleanor Burnham, made an interesting comment about pushing the train. That would certainly be worth watching if Brynle and I were sitting on it. [Laughter.]

If Carl is suggesting that this should be a new spectator sport then he may be able to shift some tickets.
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