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Rail Services

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

5. What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of rail services since 1997. (76578)

7. What steps his Department has taken to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter rail services. (76580)

The rail network has undergone major improvements in recent years. Punctuality on the network is now 86.7 per cent.—the highest level since May 2000. Following the 2004 White Paper, Network Rail is now accountable for performance and for co-ordinating rail industry planning and operational management. My Department holds regular meetings with Network Rail and industry representatives to discuss further performance improvements.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in congratulating the Labour-led Scottish Executive on improving punctuality and reliability? Only two weeks ago, they announced that they would extend the rail line from Bathgate to Airdrie, ensuring that my constituents have three direct rail routes to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It is obviously the case that punctuality and reliability are challenges in every part of the United Kingdom, but I join my hon. Friend in those congratulations.

May I draw to my right hon. Friend’s attention the continuing problems with One railway in my north London constituency? In February, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), wrote to me about the difficulties that had occurred as a result of industrial action on the railways. Since then, very little has improved. Four days ago, my constituent, Ray Knight, received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority, in which it said that it was instructing One

“to change their advertising to remove the claim regarding a 30 minute frequency where it does not apply”.

Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Government will undertake a robust review of the franchise agreement to ensure the reliability of rail services in my constituency?

In the first instance, it is for Network Rail, working closely with One management, to try to secure the performance improvements that we all want. There has been a decline in performance in the past year, albeit from a higher base than elsewhere in the country. I understand that 87 per cent. of One services run on time, against a national average of 86.8 per cent. One management has recently been restructured, and performance has shown signs of improvement, but I will ensure that the point made by my hon. Friend’s constituent is passed on directly to Network Rail and, indeed, One management.

Will the Secretary of State consider the future of commuter services in Kent, particularly when the high speed channel tunnel rail link is finished, which will provide many welcome benefits? Can he guarantee that that will not be used as an excuse to cut services, especially to smaller rural stations in my constituency and elsewhere in Kent?

Passenger numbers on the railways have been increasing significantly in recent years. We now have a billion-passenger railway. On the other hand, as my predecessor once remarked, we are not in the business of carting fresh air around the countryside. It is inherent in a confident growing number of passengers that we face challenging decisions at times. We therefore need to consider how we can secure value for money from the network, but that is clearly in the context of continuing to grow the railways.

How will punctuality and reliability be improved by the Secretary of State’s extraordinary proposal to extend the Mayor of London’s power to set fares and control service levels to stations such as Sevenoaks, outside the London boundary, where my constituents cannot vote for the Mayor of London and certainly would not do so if they could?

My understanding is that the services are predominantly within London, but that matter is being consulted upon.

May I welcome the Minister to his new role? As someone who is quite good at spotting odd cover-ups, let me tell him that all Thames valley MPs of all parties are concerned about the punctuality and efficiency of the commuter service that leads into the Thames valley. The service between Slough and Paddington has become less frequent, and because of the reduction in frequency, it might appear more punctual and more effective. Unless we have an effective rail commuter service into the Thames valley, which is the engine of Britain’s economy, we risk losing much inward investment into the UK.

We continue to invest record amounts in the British railways, but in the context of those rising passenger numbers, it is necessary at times to introduce changes to the schedules that make sense in the context of the differing demands in different parts of the country. However, the improvements that we have seen over recent years are the result not only of more sensible timetabling changes, but of the better integration of working relationships between the train operating companies and Network Rail.

In order to improve the punctuality and reliability of congested peak-hour commuter services, what action is the right hon. Gentleman taking to replace the present chaotic system of rail fares among the rail companies with consistent and generous incentives for off-peak use?

A balance must be struck, given that there are essentially two sources of funding to the railway: there are funds provided by the taxpayer and there are funds provided by the fare payer. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was previously raised by the Transport Committee, about the present complexity of some of those fares. We are deliberating about our response to that Select Committee report.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some train companies are almost as creative about their timetabling as they are about their accounts. Will he please look carefully at some mainline services, where the airline habit of adding in minutes to schedules is being used in order to improve the running of trains? The Secretary of State is doing a good job. He has given the train companies the money. Let us make sure we get value for it.

I concur with my hon. Friend’s final point about securing value for the investment that has been made. As I say, it is inevitable that there will periodically be timetable changes. It is important that those changes are made not simply to slacken the performance, but to reflect the changing demands over time on the network.

Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the things he could do to improve the punctuality and reliability of commuter services is to unplug the national bottleneck that exists at Reading station? Will he finally announce that the funds will be made available?

Discussions are continuing on that. I am aware that in a previous answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), my predecessor explained that he had seen the station at Reading, was aware of the difficulties and recognised the challenges that are faced.