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House of Commons Hansard
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30 November 2006
Volume 453

[Relevant documents: The Fourteenth Report of the Transport Committee, Session 2005-06, on Passenger Rail Franchising (HC1354).]

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I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

Rail performance is a story of recovery. Five years ago only 75 per cent. of trains arrived on time. In the year to March 2006, more than 85 per cent. were on time, and the figure continues to rise. Many train operators now regularly achieve 90 per cent. or better, and this improvement has been secured against a background of strong growth through investment, getting the organisation right, and listening to passengers.

In 2001, after the Hatfield accident, punctuality had fallen to 75 per cent. The industry faced other problems which had dragged down performance, particularly in organisation and structure. Since Hatfield, however, punctuality has improved consistently. The latest provisional figures for the year to October show 88 per cent. of trains arriving punctually at their final destination. Punctuality and reliability are now at their highest level for six years, and this been achieved at a time of significant growth in traffic. That is best illustrated by the numbers involved.

Rail passenger journeys have grown by 35 per cent. since 1996-97. In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than 1 billion rail journeys were made. In 2005-06, the rail industry delivered another record breaking year. Nearly 1.1 billion rail passenger journeys were completed—the most since 1959, making Britain’s one of the fastest growing railways in Europe. Rail passenger kilometres have also increased, by 34 per cent. since 1996-97. The amount of freight moved by rail has increased by 22 per cent. in the past five years. In the face of these welcome trends, performance has been lifted from its low point five years ago, and that improvement has been maintained.

The past few years have been a period of change and renewal, with unprecedented amounts of money being invested in the rail industry.

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One of the routes that has seen that increase is the east coast main line, on which I am a regular traveller. My hon. Friend will be aware of the speculation about the future of the franchise because of difficulties affecting the parent company. Will the Minister assure the House and my constituents that whatever happens on the east coast main line they will not have a worse service as a result of any changes and that the Government will ensure that the quality of service on that route does not deteriorate?

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I agree with my hon. Friend that there has certainly been speculation about GNER. All the commitments of the franchise have been kept up to date and I do not foresee any diminution in service to passengers on the GNER line.

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Before the Minister moves on, will he say whether he is satisfied with the levels of freight that are going through the channel tunnel?

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Obviously the Government take a great interest in the amount of freight going through the channel tunnel. Presumably the hon. Gentleman is referring to the imminent removal of a certain level of grant—as from today—that has been payable over the last few years. He will appreciate that the Government must respect the terms of EU legislation. The current payments made to EWSI are deemed to be company specific and cannot be extended beyond today. However, negotiations within the industry are continuing. I am convinced that freight will continue to grow and to move through the channel tunnel. It is in everybody’s interest that freight be moved through the tunnel on a commercial basis. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and his party would agree.

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I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to expand on this point. The channel tunnel was developed to cater for about 10 million tonnes of freight every year. We are averaging between 1 million and 3 million tonnes, so we are under capacity. What are the Government doing to improve on that?

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The Government are absolutely committed to increasing the amount of freight that is moved by rail not only through the channel tunnel but throughout the UK. Moves are afoot to come to a proper agreement between EWSI and the channel tunnel—

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Order. I may be the only person in the Chamber who does not understand what the Minister is saying, but I am a bit anxious when initials are used. Could the Minister bear that in mind when he makes his remarks?

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That is an excellent point. Since I was appointed to this position I have lambasted officials repeatedly and asked them to spell out acronyms which until recently I did not understand. That shows how quickly departmental-itis sets in to every new Minister and I apologise to the House. EWSI is the freight company England, Wales and Scotland International. I will avoid certain acronyms in future.

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Order. Without being pedantic, when the Minister has explained the acronym once we can all allow him to use the initials thereafter.

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This is indeed a learning experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will bear your instructions in mind.

Freight is important to the UK economy and the Government are committed to encouraging freight movements through the tunnel and elsewhere. Once we can get freight movements through the tunnel on a commercial basis, it must be on a sustainable basis. From then on I expect volumes to increase in the years to come.

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I welcome the Government’s support for rail freight. Does my hon. Friend accept that the problem in getting the sort of rail freight that we want through the channel tunnel is the lack of a proper delivery system on the British side? The network must be improved and enhanced specifically to deliver freight to this island.

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My hon. Friend has long experience of this subject and I bow to his greater wisdom. There are other problems involved in freight movements through the channel tunnel, not least of which are the charges which Eurotunnel attempts to impose on commercial traffic. I am optimistic that in due course those problems can be sorted out, but I accept what my hon. Friend says.

The average age of rolling stock has come down dramatically. Railtrack has been replaced by Network Rail and we have restructured the industry, ensuring more effective management of the rail network as a whole.

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On the management of the network, will my hon. Friend take a close interest in the proposal to reinstate the service from Wrexham, Shrewsbury and Telford down to London Marylebone? We lost that many years ago when it was an Intercity service. There is now a private proposal to bring it back to take passengers from Telford into London. The proposal has to go to the Office of Rail Regulation, but it would be helpful if my hon. Friend would take a close interest in it.

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Thanks to my hon. Friend’s efforts, I have taken a close interest in the open access application to run direct services from Wrexham through Shrewsbury and down to Marylebone. As he knows, open access operators receive no subsidy from the Government, but they do not have to pay any track access charges. The decision about whether to admit an open access operator depends heavily on whether its revenue stream will have a significant impact on existing franchises. My hon. Friend understands that that decision has to be taken by the Office of Rail Regulation, and I cannot influence it in any way. If the proposal is successful, I am sure that the new service will provide an excellent addition to the railway services already provided to his constituents. He has campaigned extremely effectively on the issue.

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I thank the Minister for his courtesy in replying further to the question that I asked in Transport questions the other day. He will know that the rolling stock on Island Line is former Northern line tube stock dating back at least to the 1950s and probably to the 1930s, and as such is in dire need of investment. The community rail partnership that is proposed for Island Line cuts across the new combined franchise that has just been awarded to Stagecoach, under which it promises to invest in rolling stock. Can the Minister assure me that the possibility of moving Island Line from the franchise into a community rail partnership will not prevent Stagecoach from investing in new rolling stock, as it promised?

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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention on this matter, which was raised last week and is close to his heart. If he will forgive me, I cannot offer a specific answer on investment, but I will be happy to write to him.

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Turning from the east coast main line to the west coast main line, my hon. Friend will be aware of the concerns about the possible new franchise for the services that link Edinburgh to Manchester. One of the proposals would result in the service being operated as part of a trans-Pennine franchise. That would mean that journey times, which are not particularly fast anyway, would be liable to be extended further. Is it not ironic that that would make it quicker to get by train from Edinburgh to London than from Edinburgh to Manchester? Is not that against the direction that we want to take, in encouraging people to use rail services instead of travelling by air for short distances such as Edinburgh to Manchester?

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My hon. Friend is right to say that journey times are an essential part of encouraging people to move from road to rail. I am convinced that by the time the three new franchises that are out to tender—west midlands, east midlands and new cross-country—are implemented, the re-pathing of train routes in all those areas will result in increased capacity and increased passenger capacity. On timings, I do not have confirmation of those figures at my fingertips, but I am happy to look into it.

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Does the Minister agree that on new franchises such as the west midlands it will be important to focus on how services rotate around other transport hubs, particularly Birmingham international airport in the west midlands? We need a better service from Shropshire and mid-Wales into the international airport to ensure that passengers can be moved more effectively. Those connections are not in particularly good order at the moment—many trains stop at Wolverhampton and Birmingham New Street—and we need a better service through from Telford to the airport. Will my hon. Friend take that into consideration when he considers the franchises?

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My hon. Friend is right that there is a major problem affecting capacity—not on individual trains, but around the network surrounding Birmingham New Street. The new cross-country franchise is designed to adjust and improve that position. I am quite confident that, by the time the new cross-country timetable begins, significant changes to the way in which existing capacity can be maximised will have been made. I am sure that that will be recognised by passenger groups as well as passengers themselves.

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I am sorry to intervene again; the Minister is being very generous. The passenger watchdog has condemned the decision to cut trains coming from Scotland, via my Carlisle constituency, to the south coast and the south-west. Passengers will not thank us for sending them to Birmingham New Street—probably the worst station in Britain. I apologise to any Birmingham Members, but it is so bad that it will cost a fortune to upgrade it. Changing the franchise at this time will, I am sorry to say, only stir up trouble for the Government in future.

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I disagree. The passenger flow figures that I have seen show that fewer passengers will need to change at Birmingham New Street. In fact, very few passengers travelling from the south-west up to Birmingham New Street continue their journey beyond it. I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but I hope that in the near future we will be able to look again at the figures and see the results of the new cross-country franchise. We should be able to see whether the Department for Transport’s predictions proved correct as well as optimistic.

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Will the Minister give way one more time?

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Once more, but then I really must make some progress.

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We have dealt with the west coast main line and the east coast main line, so there should be some time to deal with the Midland Mainline, which I am sure the Minister will recognise has achieved very good punctuality figures—probably the best of any inter-city train operator. The problem is that it achieves those punctuality figures with very slow journey speeds in comparison with the east and west coast main lines and very low levels of investment in the track. In considering the new franchise arrangements for the Midland Mainline, will the Minister look closely at journey times? Will he also consider providing support for Network Rail, which is now looking into a project of enhancement, costing only £85 million, to begin to start reducing the journey times to Sheffield and other cities along the route? That compares with hundreds of millions spent on the east coast main line and £1 billion on the west coast main line.

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One of the more attractive features of this job is that one quickly gets to become very casual about figures such as £85 million, describing them as “only” such an amount. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, reconfiguration of timetables has a part to play in improving train performance. He is absolutely right about that, but he should also be reminded that infrastructure improvements are not proposed as part of franchises, but left to Network Rail.

I was talking about investment being essential for providing reliable services into the future. A good example is the west coast main line project, the largest project that the railway has seen for many years. We are now seeing the benefits of the £8 billion being spent on modernising the route. Since the first major stage was delivered, we have seen faster and more frequent services, and there will be more to come in 2008-09.

Business on the route is growing quickly following the first phases of the upgrade in 2004 and 2005. The final phase is due in December 2008, and major schemes totalling £1.1 billion are now being implemented. Key outputs will include 50 per cent. more seats, faster journey times—which will include 30 minutes off the London to Glasgow route, I am happy to say—and much improved weekend services. With the introduction of new timetables, performance has already recovered, with the route now enjoying more than 86 per cent. punctuality.

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Will the Minister give way?

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If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I would like to make some progress.

Elsewhere, the network south of the River Thames has benefited from the upgrading of the electrical power supply, enabling better timekeeping and facilitating the introduction of new rolling stock. From the passenger’s point of view, rolling stock is very tangible evidence of our record investment. The average age of rolling stock on the network has come down from 20 years in 2001-02 to only 13 years in 2005-06. In addition, 40 per cent. of rolling stock has been replaced in the last 10 years, and with 4,000 new trains and carriages we now have one of the youngest rolling stock fleets in Europe, as well as one of the fastest growing.

For performance, this often means better acceleration and faster point-to-point times. With increasing numbers of passengers, however, it can also mean longer station stops. It is therefore all the more important to get the timetables right, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) earlier. With timetabling, the significant gains in punctuality made by some train operators and Network Rail in updating timetable structure and time allowances indicate further opportunity for performance improvement. Network Rail has a published programme progressively to review timetables on other routes. More realistic timetabling has contributed to the fact that, on many lines, up to 90 per cent. of passenger trains are now running on time.

While making timetables more resilient, however, it is important that the right balance is struck between the time a journey takes, and ensuring that trains run on time. The Department therefore continues to play an important part in specifying minimum levels of train service provision.

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The Minister has been talking about investment. One of the areas of investment that I would like him to consider is that of disabled access. It is no good having tremendously young carriages running on time if people, such as some of those who use Leominster station, cannot get out of the train if they are in a wheelchair. I would be most grateful if the Minister looked into that matter, through his Department.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is, and certainly should be, a priority for the Department. He will also be aware of the access for all programme that the Government announced recently, which has a £370 million budget for improving accessibility at stations throughout the network.

Network Rail replaced Railtrack in 2002, taking over responsibility for operating, maintaining and renewing the network to meet the demands of rail users. Performance, both by Network Rail and by the train operators, has improved progressively since then. The 2004 White Paper supported performance improvement by making Network Rail the single point of accountability for rail performance. This has given it leadership of operational performance on the network as a whole and restores accountability to where it is best exercised. Network Rail produces, and shares within the industry, detailed data on punctuality, so that all parties can work together to tackle the causes of delay.

Meanwhile, responsibility for setting the strategic direction of the rail industry now rests, as it should, with the Government. We have clear agreements with each part of the industry, and we set levels of public expenditure.

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Will the Minister ask Network Rail to look once again at whether punctuality targets are appropriate on every part of the railway? Island Line is the most punctual service in the country, but it often achieves that by steaming out of Ryde pierhead station just as the ferry is coming in, when the ferry is a little late. People are more interested in connectivity than in punctuality.

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The hon. Gentleman is right, although I suspect that part of the reason for the performance of Island Line is that it has a very simple structure compared with certain other franchises. He makes a valid point about which, I suspect, South West Trains and the ferry operators should be talking to each other. If the ferry timetable were changed, that might have a beneficial effect for his constituents.

The Office of Rail Regulation continues to monitor performance and is alert to any systemic problems that might threaten continued improvement. It holds Network Rail to account for its own causes of delay. In the event of poor performance by Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation has enforcement powers, ensuring that train operators can provide a reliable service to the travelling public on a well-performing infrastructure. However, I remain concerned to ensure that performance, and its impact on customers, is closely monitored.

The Department for Transport sets its own public service agreement target to improve the punctuality and reliability of rail services, in discussion with senior representatives of the industry. Every four weeks, I meet senior industry representatives and chair a discussion in which we examine progress in rail performance and key improvement activities. Although major advances have been made, it is important to keep the momentum going. The industry knows that it must continue to plan for further improvement and that it is subject to challenge if its plans do not bear fruit. As part of its accountability for whole-industry performance, Network Rail joins train operators to plan performance improvement at individual operator level. The day-to-day responsibility for running trains on time is thus in the hands of the people best placed to deliver it.

There has been significant improvement in train performance since the Hatfield accident in 2001. It is quite clear that Government investment has contributed to the outstanding railway network in this country today. Despite the criticisms that are understandably, but unjustifiably, aimed at the industry, we have the possibility of a healthy and growing network that serves more passengers every day.

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I endorse what my hon. Friend says about Government investment in the railway network. As he has pointed out, it is making a real difference on the west coast main line, but on the question of growth of the network, is not it also time to consider a new north-south high-speed line, which would relieve capacity difficulties on other sections and provide faster services between the north and south of the UK? When is the Eddington report, which is addressing that and other transport issues, likely to be published?

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I can satisfy my hon. Friend on that score. I understand that the Eddington report is to be published tomorrow, although I could be wrong on that. I saw all those blank faces and wondered whether I had been given the wrong information.

Network Rail’s enlarged role in managing network operations following the 2004 White Paper “The Future of Rail” is also enabling better service recovery from routine disruption. Where performance remains poor on local routes, arrangements are available to put remedial measures in place. Work by the industry to reduce the impact of seasonal bad weather, such as the so-called wrong type of snow that is often referred to—

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Leaves.

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Indeed, the wrong type of leaves. That phrase was never used, but that is another matter. That work has contributed to improved performance and only a few issues remain. Senior rail industry representatives meet as part of a national taskforce to work together to find joint solutions to problems as they emerge. A new railway operational code has been established, so there is an agreed way to restore services quickly where there is disruption.

I want to talk a little about the joint control centres, which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has written about recently. Control centres are crucial to ensuring that services run well on the day. The joint control centre at Waterloo has been referred to by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who spoke yesterday in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. They have talked about there being a blame attribution desk; I believe that phrase was used. Unfortunately for them, the blame attribution desk does not exist.

There is a delay attribution desk, which provides a sensible mechanism to ensure that delays are identified and that whoever is responsible for correcting something has it brought to their attention so that the delay is dealt with quickly. The industry has welcomed that, and it has been extremely effective over the past few years.

The White Paper “The Future of Rail” recognised the importance of integrated working, and Network Rail has plans to establish joint control centres with train operators wherever feasible. The way we let franchises also has a part to play. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is in her place. I have read her Committee’s report extremely carefully, and the Department will produce a formal response in due course. Of course, I do not intend any of my remarks today to be a formal response to that report.

The Department is committed to raising and maintaining improvement in operational performance through that process. In the arrangements for rail franchises, the Department continues to address operators’ performance to ensure that minimum levels are contractually specified. Performance commitments are contractualised when a franchise is awarded and monitored throughout the life of the contract. It is important that when franchises are remapped or re-let, any short-term effects on performance are carefully monitored and addressed by local management. We are encouraging operators and Network Rail to remain vigilant in all those examples.

To help to maintain and improve performance and reliability into the future, we need to consider performance as part of the overall strategy for the railway. We intend to publish a long-term vision for the railways alongside a high-level output specification in summer 2007.

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Will my hon. Friend make it clear, however, that if for any reason a franchise must be renegotiated, it should not be renegotiated on a lower financial base simply because the company concerned is in financial difficulty? The commitment to the passenger and to maintenance of high standards is what is important, not the problems of individual companies.

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My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I reassure her not only on the question of renegotiation of any contracts with a lower financial specification, but that the Department will not renegotiate franchises where an operator gets into financial difficulties.

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Is not it a fact, however, that a franchisee can give back the franchise to the Government at a fairly minimal cost? Ministers do not therefore have a strong bargaining position.

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A franchisee’s financial liabilities must be met before it walks away from a contract. I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not mentioning any specific companies to which his comments might refer.

We intend to publish a long-term vision for the railways—the high-level output specification—next year. The HLOS is a significant innovation. For the first time, Government will lay out clearly what is expected from the railway—not in detail, as that will be for the industry to finalise, but requirements for performance, safety and capacity will be set.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall make some progress.

As performance is such an important measure of the quality of people’s journeys, it will be a key area covered by the HLOS. Passengers want—and respond to—better, more reliable services. A reliable, punctual service is one of the principal reasons that customer satisfaction, according to the national passenger survey, is now at an all-time high. This year’s figures show that overall satisfaction is up. Four out of five passengers were satisfied with their overall journey—the best level ever recorded by the national passenger survey.

Passengers want reliability, which is vital in supporting the economy and absorbing the growth in the number of people who want to use railways. We will continue to plan for that, and we will work with the industry in delivering it.

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This debate on an extremely important issue for the country comes, ironically, in a week that has seen yet another round of well-above-inflation train fare increases. Although the Minister portrayed happy passengers, this week—believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—he will find a lot of very unhappy passengers. I shall deal with some of the reasons for those fare increases in a moment.

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On the subject of unhappy passengers, may I draw the House’s attention to the experience of my constituent, Mr. Edward Bulmer, who is beyond irate? Every time he takes the train, which he chooses to do for environmental reasons, the connection at Newport fails, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, adding another hour to his journey. Does my hon. Friend agree that connectivity is a fundamental problem, and that buying a ticket and not being able to make one’s journey does not represent good value for money?

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My hon. Friend is right. On issues of connectivity, he should look as much to the Department for Transport team as to the rail companies. Few members of the public today fully understand the degree of operational control that the Department for Transport has over the day-to-day workings of the railways. The Department and its team specify train timetables—although not to the point of stating which minute of the hour a train must depart—the mix of services and what routes get services, and they create the framework in which certain services are not provided.

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Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the event of the Conservatives’ coming to power at some point in the next few years, he as Secretary of State for Transport will not impose a minimum specification for levels of service in any franchise?

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I look forward to doing the job. What I can confirm is that I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide which station in Oxfordshire is given a Sunday service. I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide detailed service configurations. I would prefer to create a world in which we would trust rail professionals to decide how our railways work best, rather than entrusting the job of deciding the configuration of services to a team of civil servants.

Let me tell the House a story that dates from the days of the Government’s Strategic Rail Authority rather than from those of the current team in the Department for Transport. While drafting their first timetable in the same detail that the Department now employs, those civil servants actually managed to make two trains head towards each other on the same piece of track in the Cotswolds. That is very relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I understand that the team of civil servants who write timetables today were originally in the SRA.

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The hon. Gentleman said that if a train operator wanted to remove a Sunday service, that would be a matter for the industry in which politicians should not interfere. Is he seriously suggesting that if a local community were due to lose a Sunday service and people wanted to lobby the local politician, the politician should turn around and say “That is a matter for the market”?

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Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of the great works of the Department. Pilning station in Gloucestershire—which is just north of Bristol, on the line between Bristol and Cardiff—has a change of service as a result of the new Great Western franchise, to a specification set by the Government. Do Members know what the new service will involve? Two trains, one each way, not per day but per week: one on Saturday mornings and one on Saturday afternoons. Who in his right mind would come up with such a service specification for a railway station like that? The answer is the Ministers in office today, but what we heard from this Minister was a long list of plaudits for his Department’s strategy and the work done by Network Rail.

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I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has answered my question. He implies that if South West Trains wanted to introduce a service of that kind, it would be purely at the behest of the private sector and no one would have any comeback. There would be no accountability, and no one to whom people could apply for redress.

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There are, and should be, proper mechanisms to cover the wholesale closure of services, but—I accept that this is a point of dispute between my party and the hon. Gentleman’s—I do not think it appropriate for Ministers to make detailed operational decisions about train service configurations at individual stations. There is a world of difference between setting minimum service requirements and making detailed decisions about the pattern of services.

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I hope that you will forgive me for intervening again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I have already taken up a good deal of time.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only do we specify minimum levels of services to a lesser extent than the Strategic Rail Authority, but the SRA specified timetables to a lesser extent than his party did when it was in charge of the railways? I would guess not.

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In the days of Conservative government, Ministers did not decide whether Pilning had two trains a week or not, and I think it absurd that that is the position now.

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rose—

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I will give way once more, but then I must make progress.

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The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way. Will he take this opportunity to apologise for the Conservatives’ privatisation of the railways, and does he realise that an apology will not make the people forgive or forget what they did?

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We can always count on the enthusiasm of the Government, and the Labour party in general, for debating the issues of 10 years ago rather than the issues of the future. It is true that there have been some real highs and lows on the railways in the decade since privatisation, but, as the Minister rightly said, the practical reality is that today, 10 years after privatisation, the railways carry more passengers each year than a rather larger network did before the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. [Interruption.]

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Order. I trust that the shadow Minister’s embarrassment saves me from having to say anything more.

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I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I thought I had turned off my mobile telephone.

The achievement I was referring to is an astounding one, given that at the time of privatisation 10 years ago the received wisdom about our rail network was that it was in a long spiral of decline—that there would be a long decline in passenger usage and rail freight. Those have been reversed over the past 10 years. As the Minister rightly said, we have a growing railway, but that—particularly when it has grown as much as ours over the past 10 years—creates its own set of problems. That is where the challenge of the next 10 years lies.

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We have heard the argument many times that passenger growth has somehow been a result of privatisation, but it has happened in spite of privatisation, and in spite of massive fare rises and the costs of construction and new track. That argument is a non-sequitur; passenger numbers have risen because the roads are clogged and more people rightly want to travel by train.

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There is a wide variety of reasons why railway travel has grown in the past 10 years, but the practical reality is that it has grown. The last 10 years have been a successful decade for the railways, and the railways now face a significant set of challenges that did not exist 10 years ago.

I caution Ministers not to get too enthusiastic about the improvements that there have been. Punctuality has not improved just because trains are running more reliably. Timetables have also been stretched. My morning train used to be timetabled to reach Waterloo in 42 minutes. It is now timetabled to take 46 minutes. Unsurprisingly, it is not late as often as it used to be.

Let me also offer the example of my experience of timetabling on the Great North Eastern Railway route. I went up to Newcastle in the summer, and I checked on the national rail timetable website what train I should take. To my surprise, it told me to change trains at York—to get a Virgin Trains train there, rather than take a GNER train for the entire journey. I was puzzled by that, so when I got on the train I asked the guard why on earth the website had given me that advice. He said, “Ah, that is because we add an extra 10 minutes to the timetable between Durham and Newcastle so that we can catch up on any timetable problems we might have.”

The truth is that, although there have been improvements in performance, in some cases they have been created by extending the timetable. Therefore, they do not amount to simply an improvement in the reliability of the railway. There might now be a more realistic timetable, but the point I have made has to be taken into account when Ministers say to us that the railway is performing dramatically better.

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Are not the examples that the hon. Gentleman is giving us commercial decisions to do with managing the timetable and the network effectively? I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is raising those examples as issues considering what he told us about five minutes ago: timetables are irrelevant as far as his party is concerned and they should be in the hands of the rail-operating companies. Therefore, why is he raising the point?

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I am raising it because it is a practical fact. We have heard the Minister setting out that there have been significant improvements in reliability. That is the case, and we should offer our congratulations to those in the rail industry who have delivered improvements in performance over the past five years, after a very difficult period for the industry. However, in some cases those performance improvements need to be somewhat qualified by the significant changes that have been made to the timetable.

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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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No, I shall make some progress now, because other Members will want to speak.

The big challenge our railways face today is very immediate, and it is too low down Ministers’ priority list. It is hard to see how the current network can continue to absorb the projected growth in both freight and passenger numbers, and the increased growth that it is getting year by year, without serious measures being taken to ease constraints on capacity.

The forecast for the next few years for the rail industry is not attractive to the travelling public. According to the rail regulator, there will be no growth in passenger-train kilometres between now and 2014, but according to both Network Rail and the train operators, passenger growth during those years is likely to exceed 30 per cent. The small print of the new franchise arrangements means that it is almost certain that unregulated fares will rise sharply year by year: this year it is three times the rate of inflation, and last January there were fare increases of up to 10 per cent. We are seeing the brutal reality of that on some parts of the network.

This summer, we discovered that the Government and one of the major rail companies had had secret talks about pushing up fares and pricing passengers off busy London commuter trains to try to tackle the overcrowding problem. Ironically, the route in question was the Thameslink route, for which the Government’s 10-year plan promised improvements by now. We were told in the 10-year plan that the Thameslink 2000 project would be open by now and would provide longer trains and more space for passengers—another example of a promise that has come to nothing.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that asking passengers, particularly on commuter routes into London, to pay fare increases and then expecting them to travel in conditions that we would not legally allow for animals cannot possibly be a way to achieve better performance?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is the issue that lies ahead for the rail industry and the Government. They talk about improvements in performance, but our trains are increasingly overcrowded and action is not being taken to ease the pressure. Our rail network seems to be expected to absorb the growth forecast as a result of increased economic activity and the increasing numbers of people coming to live in this country. The practical reality is that our rail network will be an unhappy place for passengers in the next decade if action is not taken to ease the capacity problem. The situation is unsustainable. It is not realistic to expect the passengers of the next decade to travel on increasingly overcrowded trains; nor will we get freight off the roads and people to leave their cars at home if the rail network is under such pressure.

We must remember that all this is happening at a time when the taxpayer’s spending on the railways is at a record level. Five years ago, the subsidy for our railways was just over £1 billion a year; this year, it is in excess of £5 billion. I see no sign that the Government or Network Rail—the two organisations with the power to do something about the problem—are really getting to grips with the challenge ahead.

The irony is, of course, that six years ago the Government did promise that they would get to grips with the problem. The 10-year plan for transport, which was their strategy to ease congestion on our transport system, was ambitious stuff. We were promised wholesale change. The Deputy Prime Minister was absolutely clear about its goals. He said in its foreword:

“Now we have a 10 Year Plan that will deliver the scale of resources required to put integrated transport into practice. It will also deliver radical improvements for passengers, motorists, business—and all of us as citizens concerned about congestion, safety and a better environment.”

The document promised a transformation on the railways. It promised the modernisation of our main rail arteries, such as the west coast main line, by 2010. We can put a tick in the box for that one. The east coast main line—[Interruption.] I thought that I had already turned off my phone, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I do apologise. The east coast main line has been forgotten. The Government are about to start improving the Great Western main line, but there will be no improvement in capacity. We were promised upgrades to our suburban railways in London, Birmingham and Manchester. We were promised less congestion, more rail freight and upgrades of the routes to our major ports. [Interruption.]

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May I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the Member who is now holding the electrical device that if it is uncontrollable perhaps it could be taken out of the Chamber now and left outside, where it may do what it likes?

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We were promised the Thameslink 2000 project, and we were even promised that Crossrail would be open by 2010. The truth is that virtually none of that is going to happen.

The Government talk endlessly about the need for a strategic approach to our railways. They even set up the Strategic Rail Authority in a blaze of publicity. It was commended by the previous Secretary of State, who said that it had already brought coherence to long-term planning, and that the new management was making a real difference. Then, it was scrapped by that same Secretary of State. Instead, we have Ministers taking decisions on what happens to rail passengers throughout the country.

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Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should do more to encourage people to book transport on the telephone, or by the internet?

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I am not sure that politicians should be playing such an active role in micro-managing the railway. I have no doubt that the rail companies are perfectly capable of taking decisions on how best to provide booking services for their customers.

It was Ministers who decided to downgrade Melksham station, in Wiltshire. It was Ministers who decided that there should no longer be rail services from Walsall from Wolverhampton. It was Ministers who decided that there should be no Sunday services at many stations in Oxfordshire. It is Ministers who have decided to start running down the railway line from Oxford to Bicester—an area that we know is blighted by traffic jams.

The problem goes deeper. Not only are the Government failing to fulfil their promises to deal with the capacity needs of the future, but they are responsible for the changes to the rail franchising system that represent the ultimate stealth tax on passengers. Let us consider the case of South West Trains. The Minister and I have had exchanges about the award of the South West Trains franchise and the so-called 20 per cent. increase in passenger capacity. Let me explain the reality of that to the Minister now that we have a little more time than during Question Time.

Today’s applicants for a passenger franchise do not bid to run a business: they bid to operate a detailed specification and timetable provided by the Government. They bid blind and, if they are the incumbents, they risk losing their business overnight. Because they have relatively little flexibility, financially and operationally, the winners tend to be those who squeeze the most out of the system. In the case of South West Trains, that means squeezing the most possible people into its trains and handing over the fare money to the Treasury. What is the consequence for passengers? Well, South West Trains bid more than £1 billion for its franchise and it will have a severe task hitting that target.

Where will the mysterious 20 per cent. increase in capacity come from? It is true that the company is buying 10 new coaches for the Windsor line, but they will come nowhere near providing a 20 per cent. increase in capacity. Instead, it will come from ripping out seats on suburban trains to create more standing room. On medium-distance routes, it will come from removing toilets to create extra room for passengers and, on longer distance routes to the south coast, it involves scrapping the still modern and comfortable express train units that have two plus two, four-across seat configurations plus tables and replacing them with the more cramped inner-suburban five-seat configuration trains, cramming more passengers into the same space. None of that represents an enhancement of the service for passengers.

It is not an enhancement of the service to ask passengers who are travelling from the north-west to the south coast to get off at Birmingham New Street and cross over several platforms to change trains. New Street is probably Britain’s most overcrowded station, but the imperative for improvement comes not from a lack of platforms but from the available space on the concourse. Only this Government would think that it was a good idea to have more people get off at Birmingham New Street to change trains—[Interruption.] Is the Minister willing to intervene to tell us that that will not happen? Hon. Members would be delighted if that were the case.

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I would not wish the hon. Gentleman inadvertently to mislead the House, so I shall repeat what I said earlier. We expect that the new franchise will mean fewer passengers having to change at New Street, not more.

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Let us be clear on that point, because the issue has caused great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Long distance through services from the north to the south of England using the cross-country franchise and passing through Birmingham will have to terminate there, instead of continuing to their destinations. Will the Minister confirm that some services that are now through services will become divided services, as part of the refinement of the franchise?

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I confirm that some services that are now through services will terminate at Birmingham New Street—the hon. Gentleman is right about that—but other services that now terminate at that station will no longer have to do so. Overall, we expect that fewer passengers—I repeat, because the hon. Gentleman has failed to comprehend the point, fewer passengers—will have to change trains at Birmingham New Street once the three new franchises are in operation.

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Well, I am interested to hear that reassurance, because at my party’s conference in October senior executives who are very close to the bidding process and the current franchise expressed their profound concern about the change in the pattern of services. They felt that the trains in question should not terminate in Birmingham. I am delighted if the Minister is refining the service pattern to improve the situation, and I look forward to hearing from those involved in running the franchise that they are satisfied that those changes have eased the problem.

My final point concerns the decision yesterday by the Office of Rail Regulation to refer the rolling stock industry to the Office of Fair Trading. It is not for us as politicians to pass detailed judgments on the decisions of the regulatory authorities, but I want to ask the Minister a few questions that I hope he will answer when he winds up the debate.

The Minister will be aware of the pressures facing our train construction industry. He is right to say that the change in regulations requiring train operators to replace slam-door stock over the past three years or so has led to significant additional investment in new capacity. There has been a substantial bulge in the supply of new trains to the network but, after that boom period, the remaining rail manufacturers in this country now face something of a bust. I am sure that no hon. Member wants our train construction industry to disappear, but there is a distinct dearth of orders to keep those very valuable factories open over the next few years.

The Government and the regulatory authorities have decided to pursue a full investigation of the ROSCOs. That is a big problem for the manufacturers: it will almost certainly involve a two-year moratorium on the ordering of new trains, as the ROSCOs will be uncertain about their future business and therefore reluctant to invest. What consideration has the Minister given to that problem? What discussions has he had with the train manufacturers? How can he ensure that there is no hiatus as a result of the investigation?

The rail industry has had many successes over recent years, as well as difficult times and some failures, but it is what happens in the next 10 years that matters now. For passengers and freight operators, the coming decade is likely to be a period of increasing capacity constraints, congestion and overcrowding, and there is precious little sign that the Government will act to deal with the problem before it becomes acute.

It is not too late to make a difference, but Ministers—who have taken it upon themselves to have a central role in running our railway—must take decisions and act quickly. So far, the decisions are not forthcoming: projects are sitting on the shelf and the things that could make a difference are not happening. If Ministers do not get on with the job, the problem of overcrowding on our railways will be vastly more acute in five or six years than it is now. That will undermine any attempt to deliver a more environmentally friendly transport strategy or to boost the future of our railways. My message to Ministers is that they should not look to the past, but instead look to the future and get something done.

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After 10 years of franchising in the rail industry, my Committee concluded that it has been a muddled policy. However, having heard the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), I believe that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench can be comforted by the knowledge that what we have now could never be as much of a muddle as what he proposes.

I do not want to speak for long today, so I shall concentrate on those matters that I consider to be important. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), is a handsome fellow and has handed out considerable amounts of money to the rail industry. I suppose that it is slightly ungracious to look a gift horse like that in the mouth, but the reality is that the franchise system has not produced the results that we expected.

It has been stated repeatedly that franchises have led to increased passenger ridership, but someone has to say very clearly that there is no evidence that that is so. The rail companies cannot demonstrate the innovations or improved services that have produced increased numbers of passengers. They maintain that they have been able to secure more passengers, but they do not say how, or when the increases began.

For most people, it is the overcrowding on the roads that has caused them to opt for rail travel, and the affluence of our society means that they have been able to do so. That means, however, that the Government must be certain that they are getting good value for taxpayers’ money.

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The hon. Lady is right to say that taxpayers’ money should be spent wisely. Has she considered the enormous amounts—the billions—that are being spent on the Crossrail project, and does she agree that the money could be better spent on upgrading existing lines?

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I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s question because I understood that the Conservative party was strongly in support of Crossrail and has been trying to raise money throughout the City of London, because it believes that the project can be economically defended. If that is not the case, it would be helpful to know.

The Transport Committee inquiry identified two distinct sets of tasks. We said, first, that

“the Government must conduct a strategic review of the long-term needs of rail passengers, and an…appraisal of the structure that is best suited”.

Secondly, we noted that a number of issues needed to be sorted out immediately because there was no clear evidence that the railway companies were doing anything other than resting on their laurels.

The famous canard that only handing over control of major passenger systems to private companies will produce high-quality management and imaginative responses is bizarre. There is no evidence for it. Some companies have produced some small innovations, but the reality is that more people use the services precisely because the Government have insisted on the replacement of old rolling stock, and because some of the new services are more efficient than the previous ones and most sensible people know that public transport is infinitely preferable to driving hundreds of miles for many hours.

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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I shall not if my hon. Friend will forgive me; I do not want to take up too much time.

The Government want competition, but there is no real competition in the system, partly because of the capacity problems. The Committee was worried about the fact that risk had not been transferred to private companies, as was supposed to happen. We pointed out that the more risk the Government transferred to private operators, the more money they added to their demands for doing the job. The Committee concluded:

“It is not feasible to combine a policy of increasing the level of risk transferred to the private sector with the policy of maximising premiums and minimising subsidies.”

A little clarity from the Government would lead them rapidly to conclude that the strategy has not been successful and that it should be re-examined as soon as possible.

The Committee found that passenger rail franchising is not

“a model capable of delivering quality rail services”.

There is clear evidence that companies are not responding to the needs of either the system or the passenger.

The eternal argument about whether rate payers and taxpayers or passengers should pay for rail services will have to be addressed at some point. We now have the worst of all circumstances: the companies receive larger and larger sums of money for producing more and more overcrowded services, while charging their passengers eye-watering fares that are unacceptable in the 21st century.

We need good strategies and they must be linked to the Government’s specifications. It is absurd that Parliament should cheerfully agree to hand out gold bars to individual companies without asking them to produce any standards and without asking them whether they are capable of doing what they are taking our money for. The Conservative party has always lauded the joys of capitalism, so it is extraordinary that Conservative Members now resent the fact that the minimum conditions that the Government seem to be imposing demand a response. It is important for the Government to look at the whole question of the length of franchises. They must monitor the effects of day-by-day running and they must insist that, at every level, passengers are allowed to get their views known and their interests covered.

The Government have spent a lot of money on the transport system, but some of it has gone into the wrong pockets. I am astonished that Members on the Opposition Front Bench should suggest that the poor ROSCOs should not be referred to the competition authorities simply because that would force them to put into abeyance any orders for new rolling stock. For the last three years, the rolling stock companies—particularly in my constituency—have been trying enormously hard to get the ROSCOs to invest in the sort of contracts that would have brought jobs to Crewe and would have enabled us to compete. We are capable of making some of the best rolling stock in the world, but one would not think so if one looked closely at the attitude of the ROSCOs or the individual companies.

The industry is at long last crawling out of the mud of apathy, and the sadness of under-investment and a management system that is unable to respond to the needs of passengers. There is a need for a sharp strike where it will hurt most. Above all, there is a need for the Government to demand that the whole attitude of the franchisees is changed so that there is value for money of the highest quality, in the interests of passengers.

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We welcome the opportunity to debate rail performance. It is perhaps appropriate that I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who is perhaps the only Member of Parliament who does not have any rails in his constituency.

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What about the Western Isles?

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Quite possibly.

Most people would accept that the privatisation of the railways by the Conservative Government left the railways in a mess. However, although I recognise that some improvements have been made since 1997, the Labour Government have not fully solved the wide-ranging problems that the railways face in terms of improving capacity, providing value for money, maintaining a high level of service, getting trains to their destination on time, ensuring passenger safety and making the railways accessible to all.

The Department for Transport was quick—as was the Minister—to point out in its annual review that the autumn 2005 passenger satisfaction survey for Passenger Focus reported that 80 per cent. of passengers were fairly or very satisfied. However, on the flip side, that means that one in five people were not satisfied with the service. That is not a statistic that anyone should be proud of.

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I declare my support from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which is in the Register of Members’ Interests. The RMT has organised a demonstration in the Bristol area tomorrow at 3.15 pm—everyone is invited—to draw attention to the fact that First Great Western is substantially reducing services following its successful franchise bid. Is that not an example of the way in which the rail industry is letting down its customers? People want to see improved services, but they are getting reduced services.

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I cannot disagree with a word that has been said. With franchises as they are, passengers are often not put first. The shareholders’ interests are put before them.

The punctuality of train services has been improving. However, the number of cancellations and late trains remains unacceptable. In 2005, more than 100,000 train services were cancelled—one train every five minutes. Central Trains was the biggest culprit, with more than 16,000 cancellations. Figures given for this year in a parliamentary answer in November showed that cancellations remain high in 2006, with six of the franchises having more than 5,000 cancellations up to August. Punctuality has improved—topping 90 per cent. in January 2006—but only to pre-2000 levels. Five of the franchises are currently running at under 85 per cent. reliability, using public performance measures, with a further seven running at between 85 and 90 per cent. Only seven of the franchises are performing above 90 per cent.

Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus, is quoted as saying:

“At least we now have a timetable that is a work of fact rather than fiction.”

That is not exactly a glowing endorsement of the performance of the railways. In fact, according to the Government’s own annual report, nearly one in four passengers is unhappy with train punctuality. Network Rail argues that trains are more punctual than planes, but given the nature and importance of airport security, it is no surprise that airport delays are worse, and the fact that railways are more punctual than aeroplanes is no excuse for the railways to be complacent.

I am sure that the whole House would agree that safety is paramount to a successful railway. Unfortunately, although there has been significant investment in rail infrastructure and in safety improvements, more needs to be done. The number of signals passed at danger rose by a staggering 62 per cent. between July 2005 and July 2006, and that is 20 per cent. higher than the average for the previous three years, according to the Office of Rail Regulation. Until there is a significant decline in the number of signals passed at danger, safety will remain a concern.

According to Passenger Focus, only 45 per cent. of passengers consider rail services to be value for money. That view was echoed by the Transport Committee in its report, “How fair are the fares?”, which I highly recommend to those right hon. and hon. Members who have not read it. The Government are investing £87 million each week, but neither passengers nor taxpayers get real value for money. A commuter who is forced to stand up every day on their way to work, after paying hundreds of pounds—or thousands, in some cases—for the privilege, is not getting good value for money. I read with interest yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) highlighted the fact that South West Trains

“is currently ripping out large numbers of seats from its existing stock—approximately 160 seats per train.”

The company made it clear to my hon. Friend that it wants to get people away from the doors, and it wants more people to stand inside the carriages, to

“‘allow more people to stand in comfort.’”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 29 November 2006; Vol. 453, c.102.]

I do not know about other hon. Members, but I certainly do not consider standing in a train or on a bus to be comfortable. It is therefore hardly surprising that passengers do not believe that they are getting value for money.

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Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is Liberal Democrat policy that everyone who gets on a train should be provided with a seat, or is there some limitation to his party’s desire to have every bum on a seat?

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That was not what I implied. All that I am trying to say is that if increasing numbers of people have to stand up, day after day, it will reduce passengers’ satisfaction with the service. It will also reduce value for money, because people are paying significant amounts to travel on trains, and some have to stand up every single day.

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Is there not an inherent problem with privatised franchises, in that if one wants to maximise profit, one wants to get as many people as possible on as few trains as possible, and passenger comfort will come way down the list of priorities?

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I would not necessarily say that privatisation will always lead to poor services on trains. Before privatisation, some people had to stand up, so it is not the case that privatisation always leads to increasing numbers of people having to stand up and being forced to travel in a way that is not comfortable.

A passenger who pays the full fare for a ticket should be able to expect a decent level of customer service. I spend a lot of time on Virgin’s west coast main line route, as do other hon. Members, and I have lost count of the number of times that I have been on the last train back to Manchester and have found that there are no staff—not even to clear up the rubbish in the coaches—until Milton Keynes, when they are picked up to run the services. I have no complaint about the service provided by individual members of staff on the trains that I use; in fact, I have been impressed by the staff who work on Virgin trains. On some of the less busy trains, however, the standard of service drops to such an extent that the carriages are full of rubbish. That is true, too, of weekend services, which are badly affected by maintenance work and staff shortages, often resulting in trains from Manchester to London taking twice as long as the fastest services during the week.

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I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the west coast main line, and it will be nice for the staff if he wants a cup of coffee on the way home this evening. However, the Manchester to London service has improved a great deal, and the journey now takes two hours and 10 minutes. The British Airways shuttle has almost been destroyed, because people have swapped air for rail travel, so can he say something good about the Manchester service?

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If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me acknowledge the improvements that have been made. I was suggesting, however, that the service on some London to Manchester trains was not as good as it was on others. I made the point that the staff who work on Virgin trains do a good job but, unfortunately, some trains operate with reduced staff and thus a reduced service.

Passengers think that they are being ripped off. The fact that passengers cannot buy the cheapest ticket at the point of sale only adds to the belief that tickets are not good value for money. It is ridiculous that someone can fly from Manchester to London for less than the price of a rail ticket. Customers are forced to book tickets far in advance to take advantage of cheap fares, but it is often difficult for them to purchase the cheapest tickets. Trains are losing customers, because many people have been priced out of flexible walk-on travel. Excessive price increases mean that standard open fares are far from affordable for most people, and the knock-on effect is that value for money in rail travel has deteriorated.

The Select Committee report stated that the industry has demonstrated beyond doubt that it can neither be relied upon to produce a simple, coherent and passenger-friendly structure of fares, nor is it capable of maintaining reasonable ticket prices. Prices continue to rise. In January 2006, commuters faced a double whammy, as they had to return to work after Christmas and pay a fare increase of up to 9 per cent. Recent announcements, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) pointed out, will result in further increases so that after this year’s Christmas break passengers will again be subject to higher fares.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. There is a huge differential between the peak and off-peak travel, so there is serious discrimination against people who cannot afford to pay those outrageously high peak fares. The Government should pay close attention to that problem, as it is the worst kind of social classism. I am sure, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman is on to something.

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I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. Although £12 tickets are available on the Manchester to London line, there are very few of them. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have been able to obtain one. My constituents would agree, as they often have to buy saver returns and travel off-peak, because the cheaper tickets for peak travel have all been sold.

Under the Conservative Government, rail use declined. The present Government face the opposite challenge of growing the railway network to meet capacity needs. An additional challenge is that as rail travel increases, the network becomes more congested which, in turn, imposes additional pressures on punctuality. On my own route—the west coast main line—it is estimated that without additional work there will be no spare capacity after 2015, even after spending billions of pounds on the line. Significant investment has been made in the railways, but more is required. Also, we need to get Network Rail to spend the money that it has received. It seems ridiculous that last year it spent only £4 million out of a £50 million budget for small schemes. Significant further investment would be forthcoming if we give franchise holders the incentive to invest by awarding fewer and longer contracts, so that the train companies can plan their future investment with much greater certainty.

My final point concerns accessibility, which was raised by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) in a brief intervention. More still needs to be done to ensure that our railways are accessible to all. I know that considerable progress has been made, but there is still much to be done. The announcement by Network Rail that Oxford Road, Cheadle Hulme and Hazel Grove stations will be made fully accessible is welcome, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) have supported that investment, but that is little comfort to the people who live in Levenshulme and the northern part of Burnage, who need to use Levenshulme station, for which funding has not yet been found to make it accessible. It does not matter how good the railways are for people with disabilities if we do not allow them to get on to the station to board the train.

Overall, although we welcome the improvements, they need to go much further. If this were a school report, the performance of the railways would probably be described as a slow start with signs of improvement, but still much to be done.

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My hon. Friend is a lucky Minister. Over the past 10 years, there have been Ministers with responsibility for the railways who have stood at the Dispatch Box and said that they had put billions of pounds into railways but there had been no improvement. Now, even the Opposition recognise the improvement.

I shall speak about the west coast main line, which will not surprise the House. I have been speaking about the west coast main line for nearly 20 years now. I have probably raised the matter more often than any other Member, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but she has been in the House quite a lot longer than I have. The line is a success and we should celebrate that. We should thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), for without him putting Railtrack into administration, the west coast main line would not have been upgraded.

When Opposition Members mention the present problems, those are the problems of success. I find it difficult to accept their arguments. One way in which the Conservatives will reduce capacity if they ever get back into power is by doing what they always do—they will create a recession. People will not have to travel and will not be able to afford to travel. That is what the Conservatives did twice when they were last in power.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) who speaks for the Opposition, said that he was deeply concerned that the ROSCOs would be investigated, because that may put off investment. They set up the ROSCOs, and they knew that there was a shortage of rolling stock. We are told that the Conservative party is not the party of big business. Who owns the ROSCOs but the big banks? We must have the investigation, but there is a problem in the rolling stock factories that we still have, and those are fewer than we used to have.

People are flocking back to the west coast main line because it is reliable and comfortable, with the exception of the disabled toilets, which have a habit of springing open when one least expects it. I was a little surprised by the press release from the National Audit Office. It seemed to be more about grabbing attention for the NAO than about what was in the report. The NAO report sets out how the west coast main line was upgraded, how the costs were brought down and how Network Rail got it right. Its earlier report deals with the Strategic Rail Authority, which deserves a great deal of praise for setting out the blueprint.

There are still one or two problems on the west coast main line. The Secretary of State for Transport had to answer questions from the Select Committee on Transport about why it was necessary to appoint a large City law firm to deal with the franchise problems of the west coast main line with Virgin. The answer was that because Mr. Branson employs a lot of lawyers, he had to too. Mr. Branson did well from the situation created by Railtrack. I think he got about £550 million extra. At present he should be paying hundreds of millions of pounds back to the Treasury, but I suspect he is still enjoying the subsidy. Perhaps I am more critical than my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich of the franchising system. It will not last the passage of time.

Ticketing and pricing are issues. For a previous Select Committee report I asked the Travel Office to tell me how many different fares there were between my constituency of Carlisle and London. The answer was 29. There is no clarity in that. People try to book cheap tickets early, but they have all gone, so have to travel off-peak or pay the full price. People give up.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest frustrations in buying a ticket before getting on a train—all the emphasis is on buying a ticket before getting on a train—is when a non-regular traveller in front tries to negotiate with ticket staff exactly what fare they should pay? I have seen many people miss trains when they cannot get a ticket because of these arguments.

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I agree. The other option is to give up arguing and get on the train, but then the full fare is payable without any discounts. Virgin has brought in that new rule.

The NAO commented on a capacity problem for the future. I think it was talking about 10 or 15 years ahead. The Government must take that seriously. There are some fairly straightforward solutions to capacity, but they will not solve the problem entirely. One is to lengthen the Pendolino and Voyager trains. Unfortunately, the Alstrom factory in Birmingham has now closed down. If the line is restarted, it will probably be in France, but that needs to happen. I understand that negotiations are going on with the Minister to ensure that those extra carriages are ordered. I hope that they are forthcoming.

It will probably be necessary to change the signalling system and that will cost money. On the original plan Pendolinos were built to go at 140 mph and we were to have a new signalling system at the cutting edge, but that never happened and the trains can travel at only 125 mph and must keep a safe distance apart. Once the new technology has been developed, it will have to be installed on the west coat main line. That will allow trains to travel at 140 mph and run closer together, so capacity will be increased.

I have campaigned successfully over the years for the upgrade of the west coast main line. Indeed, I have been fanatical about it. In reality that has been all right in the medium term, but the Government must look at a high speed line between the south and the north of England. I hope that the report to be published tomorrow will recommend that. I look forward to a debate with the Minister when we have read the report.

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It is great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who speaks with great passion about the west coast main line. It is important that individuals should champion certain parts of the railway, and I should like to champion my own part in the context of Reading station. I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members are aware of the great significance of Reading station as a national rail hub. What goes on there has a knock-on effect right across the country, including the south-west, Wales, the midlands, the north-west, Scotland, and the south coast. The problem is that it has become a barrier to improved rail performance. It suffers, among other things, from too few platforms, poor track configurations, lack of access, and a fairly ancient signalling system. Although that has been known for some time, Reading has languished far back in a long queue, with no one to champion the changes that are required.

That is why it is so important that the railway has champions. Since coming to this House in May 2005, I have focused very much on moving the issue up the agenda. I have hosted regular meetings involving Network Rail, the train operating companies, Reading borough council and other stakeholders to try to get a degree of common agreement about a workable plan for Reading station. I have spoken to Members from all political parties, and they all agree that Reading station should be a top priority in terms of the investment that needs to be made in the railway system.

Let me explain why. Every single day, 621 minutes, or more than 10 hours, are lost in hold-ups at Reading station—172 minutes in the station area itself and a further 449 just outside on the approaches into it. To put that in context, First Great Western runs some 1,472 trains a day. Those hold-ups represent a massive loss of passenger time. They cause not only a great deal of frustration but productivity loss to the economy and to British business. They are also a strong reason why First Great Western cannot meet its punctuality requirements. Indeed, leaving aside its often dirty and overcrowded trains, it is the worst train operating company in terms of punctuality performance anywhere in the country.

What do we need to do? The Government—I hope that the Minister is listening—need speedily to approve Network Rail’s improvement plan for Reading. That would allow for four new platforms, two reconfigured platforms, improvements to access and better ticketing. It would mean longer trains, more passenger capacity, improvements to the track, and future-proofing for the link to Heathrow from Reading and the west, from which many hon. Members will benefit enormously. The changes would also mean that the negative loss from hold-ups of 621 minutes a day would be turned into a positive saving of 39 minutes a day in terms of journeys going through the station. All that for a fairly small sum of money that would also lead to knock-on performance enhancements across the rail network. The Minister should give this issue a great deal of focus and his urgent attention. However, I do not want radical changes to be made to the very good Network Rail plan so that the whole process gets gummed up again.

My constituents get a very poor service on one of the most expensive stretches of railway anywhere in the world. It costs nearly £30 for a day saver ticket to travel the 40-odd miles from Reading to Paddington and back again. Surely my constituents and those travelling through Reading deserve a lot better. I hope that in December the Minister will be prepared to meet me and the stakeholder group that I convened, thereby delivering on the pledge that his predecessor made on the Floor of the House, and that together we can provide the improvements and enhancements that the railways require.

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I commend the Select Committee report to the Minister. It reaches a number of conclusions about the state of the rail industry, which should help to formulate Government policy, particularly regarding the franchising of rail services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), a colleague on the Select Committee, said that the Minister is fortunate—particularly after such a relatively short time as Minister—in being able to announce good tidings about our rail system. The Government should be proud of putting significant investment into our rail system. However, the question has to be asked whether the improvements are the result of the current structure of the system or due to the Government’s efforts. There is also the question of whether other structures would allow us to achieve even more in future.

Rail subsidy by the Government is running at roughly three times the rate that obtained under British Rail. It could be argued that if it had been known at the time of British Rail’s demise that it could look forward towards that level of growth in investment, the problems of declining numbers that resulted in privatisation could have been seen in a different light. The Committee received evidence from a number of people, showing that the benefits that we have seen and the growth of the rail industry over the last 10 years are not necessarily the result of the structure, but due more to the additional subsidies. Growth has come about through greater economic activity as opposed to the decline experienced in the 1990s. That, not the structure, is the key reason why improvements, expansion and increased demand on our railway system have occurred.

I cannot avoid mentioning the new integrated Kent franchise that came into being in April, which affects my own local rail service. I opposed the contract at the time as I felt that the new management taking over from Connex had successfully turned round the rail service and produced an improvement, particularly on the lines serving Dartford via Bexleyheath, so that people were loth to see it toyed around with.

I can tell the Minister that not a single train that I have travelled on this month has been on time. Trains seem to linger for two or three minutes on the platform at the central terminal in Charing Cross. For no apparent reason, they do not leave on time. No explanation is given for the lateness, which often leads to enormous difficulties further down the line. Only last week, I was sitting on a train in Charing Cross when it was announced that it had been cancelled, so I had to get off. A large group of people had to get off the train and they stood around the platform trying to find out what was going on. When I asked, I was told that it was the Eltham train, so I got back on it. Lo and behold, it left and travelled to Eltham. That shows the chaos that is creeping back into the service on that bit of the network. Similarly, I was off to a meeting on Tuesday, and I arrived at London Bridge 15 minutes late on yet another train service. That is my experience just in the past month. It is nothing like the service that was available under the previous contractors last year or the year before.

As the Minister pointed out, there has been significant investment in the infrastructure in that part of the network. The electricity supply has been upgraded, allowing for greater capacity and more reliability for local train services. We hear stories about leaves on the line—thankfully, there has not been any snow yet—but there is no excuse for the level of delay that I personally have experienced in the past month. It is not what we have become accustomed to, and the franchise needs to be looked at very carefully indeed. We have enjoyed significant improvement and a consistently high standard of delivery in recent times, so any slippage backwards is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will scrutinise the delivery of that service very closely because, it has to be said, it was the Government who reissued that franchise. The buck stops at the Dispatch Box, and I will be raising the matter time and again unless we see the standards to which we have become accustomed being maintained.

The Select Committee also took evidence about the transfer of risk, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has already mentioned. There is evidence that, when train operating companies fall into difficulties and go cap in hand to the Government, they are treated with kid gloves and allowed to refinance at a cost to the public purse. The Minister has said that there is no intention to do that in future, and we fully support that decision. If the train operating companies decide to play Oliver Twist and ask for more, I would urge the Minister to play Mr. Bumble.

We are concerned that the present franchising system does little more than maintain the status quo. The Government need to look into different ways of using the system to create more innovation, investment, expansion and growth in the industry. We have seen the Government’s determination in this regard, and that needs to be recognised.

The Office of Rail Regulation, following an approach from the Secretary of State, has asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into the cost of leasing trains from the train leasing companies. That is certainly a move in the right direction. I would not expect the companies to say other than that this will have an effect on investment. I would not expect them to roll over and say, “Okay, it’s a fair cop”. I would expect them to make the noises that they are making, but I urge the Minister not to be convinced by them, and to stick to the position that the Government have taken. The rising cost of leasing trains has a knock-on effect on fares and other costs to the travelling public, and that is unacceptable. The Government have taken the right steps in the direction of addressing that issue.

I would also like to comment on issues relating to capacity. I was interested to hear the comments about Crossrail from a Conservative Member, whose constituency I cannot recall—

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Romford.

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I am grateful to the Minister for helping me with that.

The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) suggested that the proposed investment in Crossrail would be better spent on upgrading existing infrastructure. I am sure that the £10 million will have a significant impact on the existing rail system, but we have to bear it in mind that Crossrail will provide 40 per cent. of the growth in capacity that is needed in London over the next 15 to 20 years.

We must also recall the fact that London’s population is likely to grow by the equivalent of that of a city the size of Leeds. No other region faces such population growth. On Tuesday, when I was at the launch of the Mayor’s strategy and the Transport for London document “Transport 2025”, we were given figures showing that by 2016 London’s population will grow to 8.1 million and that employment will be up at 5 million. That is up by more than 1 million jobs on the current level, which means that the demand for capacity on our existing transport network will be significant indeed.

From my perspective in south-east London, I must add my voice to the call for the upgrade of the Thameslink line, particularly the pinch point at Borough market and London Bridge station, where we need two extra lines to facilitate Thameslink through that part of the network and on into south-east London. I urge the Minister to bring that scheme forward as urgently as possible and note that Network Rail has called for it to be funded as soon as possible.

A number of challenges face our transport network, not least global warming. We await Sir Rod Eddington’s report, which I believe is to be published tomorrow, and he is likely to promote a pay-as-you-drive scheme to tackle road congestion. That is bound to have a significant effect on modal shift. If the Government are to meet that demand and at the same time meet their target to cut carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050, our rail network will have to play a significant part in meeting that growth in demand.

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My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. On the possibility of there being new lines, I gather that there is a new approach from Network Rail—a five-stage criterion by which people can bid for new pieces of line. I do not know whether the Select Committee has yet had the opportunity to look at whether that is a sensible way forward.

I have been trying to get redoubled a piece of line between Kemble and Swindon for some time. It would be interesting to hear whether my hon. Friend knows anything about that issue and whether the Select Committee can push it forward, because it is important that we get new lines.

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I cannot make any reference to that line, but I commend the references in the Committee’s report to rural rail services and I am sure that the Minister heard what my hon. Friend said.

Reference has been made to overcrowding on our rail services, particularly to people standing. I represent a constituency that is in an inner-London borough, but towards the outer ring of inner London. When travelling into central London, many of my constituents must stand on whatever type of train arrives at the stations in my constituency.

Having been through the likely areas of growth in demand in our transport network in the foreseeable future, I think it is unlikely that anyone—whether Conservative or Liberal, or even Labour—will ever be able to supply a train service to central London that provides everyone with a seat. I know from talking to constituents who try to get on trains that do not even have standing space that they would rather get on such a train and be able to stand than not get on the train at all. A balance must be struck between the need to increase capacity and get people on to trains and the need to provide comfort for people on their journey into work.

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Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support the policy of removing seats so that more people can get on to trains and stand?

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That is what I am indicating. I am not suggesting, however, that someone travelling from Manchester to London should be required to stand. We are talking about commuter journeys. Many people stand as a matter of course on the London underground. Many people’s journeys are so short that they do not bother to sit down when seats are available. If the Conservatives and Liberals are suggesting that they will be able to provide everyone with a seat who wants one, they are misleading people. I am not suggesting for a minute that those on long train journeys should be expected to stand. On many journeys from my constituency in inner London, people have never been able to stand—they are frequently unable to gain access to trains because of limited standing room. That is a common feature of our transport network and has been for a long time. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

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I was not suggesting that nobody would have to stand under my party’s proposals. My point was that capacity should not be increased by ripping out seats so that more people have to stand.

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I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but we will have to scrutinise the Liberal Democrats’ budget proposals to see how they would pay for seats to go back into trains and for increased train length to provide the capacity lost as a result, and how they would meet the future growth in demand. I am not suggesting that people coming from the south coast into central London every day, for example, should be asked to stand. On some routes, however, people getting on at stations in and around London have virtually always had to stand. The inability to get more people standing on those trains has been a significant problem. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed people being unable physically to get on to a train because so many people are standing, and I have experienced it myself. There is a balance to be struck, and anyone who suggests that there is a magic formula that can solve that problem and at the same time meet increasing capacity demands is misleading people. That has no part in a mature debate about the future of our transport system.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made a similar comment to that made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) in an article in the Evening Standard on 2 October. In response to commuters complaining about South West Trains’ policy of reducing the number of seats in carriages, he said:

“It is unacceptable that people are paying more for tickets but are less likely to get a seat.”

What is the Conservatives’ policy to meet that extra demand? From where are the extra seats to come? From where will extra carriages on trains come to meet the growth in demand? The Opposition are misleading the public—and being disingenuous—in saying that there is a simple solution and that no capacity problem needs to be addressed.

The Government have achieved a great deal, and even Opposition Members have had to recognise the Government’s significant achievements in improving our train network. The current franchising system, however, has not delivered for the general public. We need to listen more to what the travelling public are saying about our rail services, and design our services in a way that delivers for them, not for the people who operate the services.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford): I found myself in agreement with much of what he said. We have heard a great deal of talk about whether the results of privatisation have been good or bad, but we are where we are today, and indeed we can move forward.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about climate change issues. I strongly favour more use of the railways, and I feel that if we are to embark on any major changes to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2050, the rail network will need to participate in a major way.

I am somewhat disappointed with the level of attendance today, particularly among the Liberal Democrats. When their spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), began his speech with the words “We welcome this debate”, I wondered which other Liberal Democrats he meant.

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It was the royal “we”.

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Oh, was it? A number of Members with constituencies in the south-west are affected by what happens to South West Trains, and it is a shame that they are not here today.

As for the Minister’s speech, the number of journeys made by rail passengers has indeed increased, and I understand that the distance travelled by rail passengers in the last year was indeed the greatest since 1946. However, that does not necessarily equate to an improvement in performance. Such statistics can be misleading. More people are using pushbikes, scooters, cars—of course—and aeroplanes. That does not necessarily mean that performances have improved; it merely means that more people are travelling today. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who chairs the Transport Committee, the nation is much more affluent today. We can afford to travel, and we do travel.

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According to population statistics, 600,000 people have come in from 10 other European Union countries, and I suspect that they are all travelling as well. Clearly more people are travelling in the United Kingdom for that reason alone.

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My hon. Friend makes an acute observation: not just the British public but everyone is travelling more.

Let me say a little about the Government’s method of monitoring their performance. They rely on something called the public performance measure, or PPM, which is their yardstick for assessing punctuality and reliability. According to that measure, a train is described as on time if it arrives up to five minutes late in London or the south-east, and up to 10 minutes late in other areas. I suggest to the Minister that a more accurate measure would be one that specified when the trains were on time and when they were up to 10 minutes late. That would constitute a better recognition of how progress in the United Kingdom is made.

As a result of the PPM, targets are currently set at about 85 per cent. If there is a 10-minute leeway in either direction, of course it will be possible to squeeze all trains into the “window” within which they must arrive or depart. In fact, we have gone backwards since 2000, when the performance measure was 87.8 per cent.

The Transport Committee, which has done a great deal of work on this issue, has been highly critical of the PPM target. According to its report published in May this year,

“it is clear that the target of 85 per cent. was set far too low.”

The Committee said:

“timetable revisions alone may lead to further increases in PPM performance”,

but asserted that what was needed was an improvement in performance rather than the use of percentages to tweak the figures. It concluded:

“The punctuality and reliability of the UK rail network is not yet good enough for a major Western country. The Government must set a new target that provides a genuine challenge for the industry to improve its performance.”

I should be grateful if the Minister responded to those comments, because the current targets clearly do not work.

The Institution of Civil Engineers also criticised the PPM, saying:

“we should not allow ourselves to be too dazzled by the figures on punctuality, currently the only available yardstick for customer satisfaction”.

We really do need another measure of success.

Many Members have mentioned increased travel costs. It is now cheaper to fly from London to Barcelona than to travel to Bournemouth by train. It is also cheaper to drive by car to Bournemouth than to go there by rail. That is not an incentive for people to leave behind their cars. On the standard of service, as Members have said, the trains are more overcrowded, and nothing is being done to tackle that problem. The Government made huge promises in their 10-year plan, which I shall come to later; unfortunately they have been left wanting.

In a recent report, the CBI commented that 63 per cent. of the UK transport network will get worse in the next five years unless there is major investment. It goes on to say that an astonishing £300 billion is the minimum investment needed to deliver the required improvements to the transport network over the next decade. That would be an astonishing commitment, but that figure is also an astonishing indictment of the current state of our infrastructure.

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First, will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is advocating that more public money should be spent on infrastructure—and therefore taxes put up? Secondly, does he accept that a lot of the problems in our infrastructure were caused by 18 years of Conservative Government?

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I opened my remarks by saying that we are where we are. We can go back in time and talk about those 18 years, but we can also go back and discuss what Labour Governments have achieved with the rail network. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree that there has been a lack of investment by a series of Administrations compared with that made by our continental colleagues. That is the bottom line.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s other question, the money must come from a combination of a public and a private partnership, but he will have to wait a little longer to find out the detail of what the Conservatives propose on that because, despite the turmoil on the Government Front Bench, we are not expecting a general election just yet.

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I am interested in the fact that the hon. Gentleman is promoting a public-private partnership. He does not, therefore, support the position of his Front-Bench team that there should be a laissez-faire attitude and that the private sector should dictate.

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I will not be cornered into saying whether there should be public or private money and where it should go. The point is that large sums need to be spent. There are different aspects of the rail network and there are different methods by which we can improve its services. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has outlined the general scheme. I am saying that there are many ways in which we can move forward with the sum that the CBI suggests needs to be spent. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the party he represents is in government, and that therefore it is his Government’s responsibility; they are in power and in charge at present.

In its 1997 manifesto, Labour promised to

“develop an integrated transport policy to fight congestion and pollution”.

In 1998, a White Paper on integrated transport policy was published; we do not hear much about that any longer. In it, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“I recognise that motorists will not readily switch to public transport unless it is significantly better and more reliable. The main aim of this White Paper is to increase personal choice by improving the alternatives and to secure mobility that is sustainable in the long term.”

That was said in 1998, but I have not seen a huge amount of improvement since then.

The next big initiative from the Government was the new deal for transport. In July 2000, a 10-year plan was published, and the Deputy Prime Minister claimed:

“The plan will get Britain moving and give the people of this country a transport system on which they can rely.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2000; Vol. 519, c. 552.]

The 10-year plan promised that £180 billion would be spent over 10 years. It also promised a 50 per cent. increase in use measured by passenger kilometres, an 80 per cent. increase in rail freight, improvements in service quality, more punctual and reliable trains, less overcrowding, installation of new traffic safety systems, modern trains and more attractive and secure stations, and modernisation and increased capacity on the west coast and east coast main lines. I could go on and on. The litany of comments that have come not only from Opposition Members but from Labour Members shows that those plans have been left wanting.

What a shopping list we had from the Government, and what a set of promises—and five years later, what a huge disappointment. As early as May 2002, the then Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions stated that

“the Plan has failed to provide a vision for a more equitable, safer and more efficient transport system…It fails to provide a coherent picture of what, when, why and how much it will achieve. The 10 Year Plan is the first of its kind. The idea of a 10 Year Plan has been widely welcomed. However, the current Plan does not fulfil many of the roles of a good Plan.”

That was the Government’s own Transport Committee commenting on that issue.

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It is a House of Commons Select Committee, actually.

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I stand corrected by the Chairman of that very Committee.

We also need to look at some of the other targets. Halfway through the plan, the Government’s transport targets have been shown to be unachievable and have been watered down. They are now considered not targets but “aims”, and the target of a 50 per cent. increase in rail use has been abandoned.

A subject that has not been mentioned much is violent crime on our railways. There were 9,748 cases of violent crime on the railways in 2004, the most recent year for which I could obtain statistics, which is an increase of 12 per cent. on the previous year. That is another concern that the Government must address.

I intervened on the Minister at the beginning of the debate to ask how much rail freight is going through the channel tunnel, and he agreed that it is important that we increase the amount of such freight. The channel tunnel has the capacity to push through some 10 million tonnes of freight a year, but it is averaging about 2 million tonnes. That is testament to where we are in our attempt to get freight on to our railways.

Colleagues will agree that every time that we overtake a lorry on a motorway, we wonder why on earth such goods are not being transported by rail. The reason is our existing capacity. An inter-city train charging along the west coast main line, for example, requires 8 miles of free track in front of it, because that is the necessary stopping distance. As a result, any freight or other commuter train is shunted out of the way. If we are to increase the amount of freight on our railways, there is a fundamental requirement for more track.

According to a recent YouGov survey, 79 per cent. of people identified transferring freight from our roads to rail as the priority for the Government in tackling congestion on our motorways—more than twice the percentage who advocated a reduction in roadworks, and more than four times the percentage who were in favour of building more roads.

The Government have a huge responsibility so far as our rail network is concerned, particularly given the challenge of climate change, to which reference has been made. I agree with many of the points that have been made today. One Member raised the question of a north-south link. Travelling to Europe by train is a very competitive alternative to doing so by plane, but the same is not true of travelling within the UK. If we want to travel to Manchester, Newcastle or even further north, the plane is the faster option that wins every time. A north-south link is imperative if we are to open up the north. I come from the south-west, which is hugely overdeveloped in part because businesses do not feel that they can locate in the north, given the lack of transport connections to the south.

There are also other imaginative ideas, such as double-decker trains. To use such trains, we would have to rebuild some of our tunnels, which are far too low to accommodate them. However, that is the sort of vision that we must have if we are to have a proper 10-year plan, instead of simply taking seats out of trains to tweak the figures. We should also consider investment in signalling, as has been mentioned, and examine the timetables.

The rail system is far from adequate. It is unable to meet the challenges of the 21st century and the demands of a growing customer base, and it is unable to take advantage of the nation’s desire to go green. It is also unable to meet the existing targets without ripping out seats, and it is not as integrated as it should be; indeed, it is fragmented. The nation wants a simpler, integrated structure that is safe, affordable and efficient.

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I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and I agreed with a lot of what he said, particularly his emphasis on rail freight and the need for extra capacity.

I also participated in a debate yesterday and I apologise to the Minister for his having to listen to me speak twice in two days about the railways; I promise that I will say different things today. Unfortunately, in between the two debates there has been a crisis on the line that I have travelled on for the last 37 years, such that it took my researcher four hours to travel 30 miles yesterday. It took me an hour and a half to get home on what would normally be a 45-minute journey. Sometimes things go wrong and we must seek to improve maintenance standards as much as we can.

There has been much talk about climate change, and rail freight produces one twelfth of the amount of CO2 per tonne/mile of road freight. It would be a fantastic bonus for tackling climate change if we could get more freight on to rail. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that together with colleagues I am promoting the concept of a dedicated freight line from Glasgow to the channel tunnel, which would take 5 million lorry loads off our roads every year, transform the economics of the channel tunnel and provide for double-stack containers and trailers on trains all the way from Glasgow and our major industrial areas to the continent of Europe. It is a massive concept. It would also take most of the north-south freight from the east coast main line and the west coast main line, freeing up those lines for faster and more frequent passenger trains, producing much more capacity. If the east coast main line had some tweaking, such as quadrupling the track with a new viaduct at Welwyn and a couple of bypass loops further north, we could have 140 mph, non-stop trains from King’s Cross to Edinburgh. On the west coast main line, we could have 135 mph trains, which might not be non-stop, but they would provide a very fast service. That would, at least for the foreseeable future, provide sufficient capacity for passengers on the north-south routes and transform journeys between here and the north.

The rail freight line is my most important concern. Because we are an island off the coast of Europe we must be linked in to the European economy more strongly. We need a better freight artery into the heart of Europe and across the whole of Europe. The idea was promoted by Lord Kinnock, when he was the Transport Commissioner, of a rail freight network across continental Europe. It is now going great guns and a 35-mile tunnel is being drilled through the Brenner pass so that double-stack containers will be able to use that dedicated freight line. Freight lines are also being built through the Alps between France and Italy. In the not too distant future, it will be possible to get full-scale freight trains all the way from the toe of Italy to Berlin. We have to be part of that network, so we have to use our channel tunnel and have a delivery system—a dedicated freight line—on our side. We call it the euro rail freight route and I hope that hon. Members will hear much more of it in future.

We have made much progress, but there are problems with cost. I raised the question of costs many times in transport questions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when he was Secretary of State for Transport. The costs that I have been given for rail maintenance and new track have not been challenged and are horrendous. Before rail maintenance was brought in house, it was suggested that costs had gone up by four times under privatisation. Network Rail said that what was happening was that contracting companies were working strictly to specifications that might not be exactly right. Network Rail would discover a problem on Monday morning and the whole thing would have to be done again. The contracting companies were doing very nicely thank you, out of having to do the work twice. When it was done in house, the corrections were made as they went, by directly employed engineers. The work was done once and much more cheaply.

My hon. Friend the Minister may be aware of the railway engineers forum, at which the keynote address was given by an official from his Department, who said that there is a huge gap between what the Government want to pay for the British rail system and what they are being presented with as a bill. He addressed construction costs and said that, at present, major project expenditure goes 50 per cent. on construction costs and 50 per cent. on other things. He contrasted that with the situation in British Rail days, when the east coast main line electrification took place under Don Heath, the very fine BR engineer, who is now retired. When he was asked what the project management costs were, he said that they came to 1 per cent. of the total, with 99 per cent. of the money going on construction. The Department for Transport official said that, by today’s standards, the project represented “exceptional value for money”.

The solutions that we need can be found in the way things were done in the BR days. I do not say that merely to make an ideological point, but it is clear that cash-limited projects undertaken by engineers directly employed by a publicly owned railway industry did a good job with the money that they had. The cash limits might have been painful and difficult, but they worked and we should return to that system.

Moreover, the people directly employed by the railway industry took great pride in doing the best possible work with the money available. We need to get that motivation back into our rail industry, as opposed to the present contractual relationships. Under the present system, the more contracts and funds that are available, the better contractors like it. It is very difficult to control the associated costs, as is shown by the fact that Network Rail is bringing its maintenance arrangements back in-house. I suggest that we return to something resembling what we had in the past—an integrated rail system with directly employed engineers.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows what I think about franchising, so I shall not repeat what I said yesterday. However, I urge him to look at the report of the seminar on railway engineering costs of 14 June 2005, when one of his officials made such a telling address about how costs could be reduced.

That is the way forward. If costs are brought down, we will get more for our money, and fares and freight charges will also be cut. Our rail system might then start to look a bit more like the systems on the continent, where fares are much lower. In addition, the travelling public will get a much fairer deal.

We are well into a new railway age, and that is very welcome. I have always believed passionately in the railways and seen them as the future, and it is clear that this House and the Government now share that conviction. There is still a bit of a problem with the Treasury but, once that comes onside, we will certainly be winning.

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With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to respond to some of the comments that have been made in the debate.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) strongly criticised the Government for exercising what he called a high degree of operational control. That is an important matter, and I hope that he will bear with me as I set out my argument. If the Government were to abrogate their responsibility to set down minimum timetable standards, does he believe that private rail operators would continue—perhaps for altruistic reasons—to run services on lines that they deemed to be unprofitable? Were the Government to adopt that approach, I am sure that he would be one of the many MPs knocking on my door and asking me to intervene. He would want the Government to do what we are doing already—that is, specify minimum levels of standards.

Earlier, I issued a challenged to the hon. Gentleman. I asked whether, if he were to become Secretary of State for Transport in a future Government, he would commit his party to a completely laissez-faire policy in respect of the railways. I wanted him to say, on the record, whether a future Conservative Government would set those minimum standards. It is telling that he refused to offer that commitment, which means either that he is convinced that private operating companies should be allowed to set any level of standards that they choose, or that he thinks the Government should intervene.

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rose—

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I see that the hon. Gentleman is ready to intervene. I am very pleased.

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I am delighted to confirm that I believe that the Government, as a major funder of the rail network, have the right to set minimum requirements for the money that they spend. The problem is the degree of micro-management that this Government pursue across the rail industry, with decisions being taken at a level well below what is appropriate. The Government should have a strategic approach, and not get involved with minute operational details in the way that they do at present.

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I am still not clear whether that means that a future, hypothetical Conservative Government would set specific minimum service levels for rail lines. I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from. It is perfectly legitimate to hold the view that the Government should not specify service levels, although I do not agree with it, but he must understand the real political consequences. Does he believe that Governments should take only a general strategic view? The Labour Government take a strategic view, but if he believes that the Government’s role should end there, and that Members of the House would not want Government intervention on such matters, his mythical and hypothetical tenure of office will be extremely short and panic-stricken.

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Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend. I pointed out in my speech that the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) had indicated that he was against taking seats out of trains. Presumably if he was in power he would want to put them back. Is that micro-managing the industry or not?

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My hon. Friend pre-empts me. I was about to make that point. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell has been consistent in saying that he does not want the Government to micro-manage and to specify conditions, but I detect a note of criticism when he stands at the Dispatch Box talking about South West Trains removing seats from certain trains. I may be mistaken, but he seems to be criticising the Government for the removal of those seats. Is he saying that the Government should intervene to stop SWT removing seats? Does he believe that future Secretaries of State for Transport should intervene at that level and stop train-operating company managements reconfiguring the seating arrangements on their trains? I suspect not.

The hon. Gentleman referred to fare increases. He said that the amount of money paid by taxpayers was at an all-time high—those may not have been his exact words, I am paraphrasing. As he knows, some fares are regulated but others are not. If he is saying that more fares should be regulated, that is certainly an interesting policy proposal. If we regulated more fares, we would have to subsidise the private operating companies to an even greater extent. Does he believe that the Government should put more money than we do already into private train-operating companies to keep unregulated ticket prices down?

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I shall be delighted to swap seats with the Secretary of State for Transport and explain my strategy in detail to the House—sooner rather than later, I hope. Furthermore, I will happily debate it with the Minister when I can do more than merely intervene, with only a small window to make my comments. In the meantime, does he accept my view that the way the Government have changed the franchising process is flawed and that the consequence will be more overcrowded trains and a less good deal for the passenger? I shall welcome the opportunity to debate the matter with him further in due course.

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We have just had an opportunity.

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As my hon. Friend says, we had the opportunity today to discuss precisely those matters. The British public will probably expect the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell to set out his proposals for the rail industry before the general election rather than after he claims his seat on the Treasury Bench.

I want to talk about the South West Trains franchise, which was announced in September and to which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell and several Members referred. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency is served by South West Trains so it is perfectly legitimate for him to talk about the franchise. He cast aspersions, but much in the franchise is good news for the travelling public. He questioned whether there will really be increases in capacity and seats—there will. There will be new rolling stock. Smartcard ticketing will be rolled out. There will be more secure stations; 95 per cent. of all passengers using the South West Trains network will travel to and from secure stations. There will be gating at stations, including Waterloo, as a way of preserving revenue. If he is not aware of some of those important, positive developments in the franchise, I am more than happy to write to him with the details. If he wants, I will even phone him. I do not know whether he has a mobile phone, but if he wants to give me the number, I am more than happy to get the information to him.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the rolling stock companies and asked whether it was true that there was going to be a moratorium—he predicted a two-year moratorium—on the building of new train stock. Is he saying that, with the suggestion in the air that the rolling stock companies are making excess profits—massive profits that would account for something like 8 per cent. of the total cost of tickets—we should not have asked for a full inquiry into that business, simply because of the fear that those companies would stop producing new trucks? That is a dangerous attitude for someone in his position to take. The Government have a responsibility to be a good steward of the public purse and if the inquiry that we hope will take place reveals that we could be using some of that money for investment in the rail industry, I would have thought that he would welcome that.

What was missing from the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was a solution. He talked at length about the criticisms that he has of the Government’s policy. That is his job. I accept that. He is a member of the shadow Cabinet; he is in opposition; his job is to criticise the Government. However, a part of opposition is also to come up with alternative answers. His comments were noticeably lacking in any positive suggestion for finding a way to meet the challenges in the rail industry in the 21st century.

A similar comment could be made of the speech by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech). I accept that he is standing in for the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), but some of the comments that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington made just do not chime with reality. At the beginning of his speech, he said that the Government were letting the public down in terms of passenger safety. He is clearly not aware that passenger safety on the railways is at an all-time high[Interruption.] He is now claiming from a sedentary position that he did not say that. I am sure that Hansard will show that he made a criticism of passenger safety.

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What I said was that there was still some way to go on safety when signals passed at danger have increased over the last 12 months.

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The hon. Gentleman did talk about signals passed at danger, but I am talking about a separate part of his comments. He started his speech by making a comment about passenger safety, without reference to signals passed at danger. If that is what he meant, I accept that. It is something that the Government will continue to monitor. Just for the record, passenger safety on the railways has been going up historically and is now at an all-time high. It was going up during British Rail’s tenure and it continued to go up after privatisation. It has certainly been going up over the past 10 years under the stewardship of this Government.

Rather than accept the fact that passenger surveys have shown that eight out of 10 passengers are happy with the service, the hon. Gentleman chose instead to emphasise that one in five passengers are unhappy with the service. That is a typically Liberal Democrat analysis. He forgot to point out, as I pointed out in my original comments, that for eight out of 10 passengers to be satisfied with the service is, in itself, an all-time record high. I find it a bit churlish of him and his party not to accept that that is quite an achievement at a time when we face so many challenges in terms of capacity.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is still much to be done, but I come back to my criticism of the comments by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Just because the Liberal Democrats are not, and never will be, in a position to form a Government, or part of a Government, that is no excuse for not having proper policies. I recognise that he accepted some of the good things that are happening in the railways, but it is not acceptable simply to stand in the corner of the Chamber and make criticism after criticism of the Government, without offering at least some glimmer of what the Liberal Democrats might do in the alternate reality where they form a Government. He did not talk about increased spending, what new investment the Liberal Democrats might make, or what new tracks they might build. I am sure that very few of the dozens of people across the country watching this debate will conclude that the Liberal Democrats have anything positive to offer, in terms of policy on the network.

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With reference to the millions of people who, I am sure, are glued to their television sets as they watch this debate, the Minister has been speaking for nigh on 13 minutes, and has focused very much on Liberal Democrat and Conservative views. A number of issues were put to him concerning his brief and the fact that he is currently in charge. He is at the helm, and things are not quite all right. Will he turn his attention to the issues raised by Members on both sides of the Chamber?

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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s guidance, and I will learn at his knee about his experience in the House, which is obviously significant, compared with mine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) spoke with typically deep knowledge and feeling about the railways. As usual, the House listened carefully to her comments—I certainly did—and, as I said, her Committee’s substantial and thought-provoking report will receive a response from the Government in due course.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) started by acknowledging that the Government’s investment, of which they are rightly proud, has produced results. He talked about developments in in-cab signalling, and he is right to say that that technological innovation could have a major impact, helping us to improve track capacity in future. The Department certainly wants that to be developed. I pay tribute to him, because since I first came to the House—and long before—he has been well known as a doughty campaigner for the west coast main line, which is crucial to his constituency.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) spoke of his commitment to Reading station, and I know that the subject is important to him and to the citizens of Reading—and, of course, to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). The hon. Member for Reading, East, asked whether the Government would give the go-ahead to Network Rail’s master plan to renovate Reading station. All that I can tell him is that various plans are in the pipeline, and I am not yet in a position to say yes or no to any of them. However, there will be significant infrastructure improvements of one sort or another at Reading station in the years ahead.

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In my speech, I asked the Minister whether he was prepared to honour the pledge given to the stakeholders and to me by his predecessor, now the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). Will he today confirm that he will honour that pledge?

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My apologies to the hon. Gentleman; I had indeed registered that invitation. Of course I am more than happy to honour my predecessor’s commitment. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I cannot promise to do so before Christmas—I think that he mentioned December—but that decision is not for me, but for my diary secretary, who has complete control over me and my diary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) talked in worrying terms about his experience of railways in the south-east. It is a truism that when someone gets a train that arrives on time and is clean and efficient in every respect, they are unlikely even to register the fact. If a person’s train is cancelled or severely late, of course that will register; they might even write to their MP about it, and he or she will inevitably pass the letter on to me. For the record, despite my hon. Friend’s unfortunate experience, in the last period for which I have a figure, the performance measure for the south-east was 87.8 per cent., which is 0.2 per cent. higher than the national average. Perhaps he is just unlucky in the trains that he chooses to catch.

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It is churlish to challenge my hon. Friend when he said such nice things about me, but he said that as a result of the new cross-country franchise fewer people would have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, is it not correct that my constituents and his constituents travelling from Scotland to the south of England and the south-west must change there?

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That is correct, as I made clear in an intervention on the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Through services such as services from Glasgow to Penzance will alter, so customers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, passengers on other services will no longer have to change there. According to our passenger figures, fewer passengers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. There are alternative changing points, too, including Wolverhampton, where some of the facilities are better than those at Birmingham New Street. In the invitation to tender, companies that have expressed an interest in the franchise are asked to provide evidence of robust processes to demonstrate that they will provide a proper service, including information and guidance, to people who have to change at Birmingham New Street.

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I hope that my hon. Friend will look carefully at the physical constraints at Birmingham New Street and whether or not a completely new station would be a better alternative.

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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and she will know that Birmingham city council and Network Rail have submitted a proposal, not for a brand new station, but for a major refurbishment and redesign of Birmingham New Street. That will involve substantial central Government funds if it goes ahead, and the Department hopes to make an announcement on the scheme in the new year.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) questioned the validity of the concept of being on time. I apologise for not being in the Chamber when he made his speech—I took a 10 minute break, but it was nothing personal. I understand the point that he made, but whether we use five minutes, 10 minutes or any other measure, it is important to be consistent. If we are not, we cannot measure an increase or decrease in efficiency or performance. For example, even if he disagrees with the 10-minute limit, it cannot be denied that as a consistent figure it allows us to measure in precise detail the improvement in service. That improvement would be exactly the same, regardless of whether the measure was five minutes, 10 minutes, or an absolute zero.

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If the Minister went to Germany, Austria or Switzerland he could set his watch according to the time that the train arrives at the platform, as it is the time that it is due. That is not the case in the UK, so we need a robust system to measure the effectiveness of our timetabling. In my speech, I made the point that the 10-minute window—it is five minutes in some parts of the country, which is strange—provides too much leeway. I accept that we could use a 10-minute measurement, but we should record how many trains arrive dead on time, too.

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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I am not sure whether it is an urban myth. I doubt that it is technically correct that in any European country one can set one’s watch according to the arrival of any train. It is a nice idea, but I suspect that it is a utopian one. It is a delight, however, to hear Conservative Back Benchers espousing the joys of Europe for once. The hon. Gentleman said that the price of tickets was a disincentive, preventing people from travelling by train. That criticism has been levelled at the Government for a number of years, particularly since the regulations changed several years ago. However, customer numbers continue to rise, and they are predicted to do so in future.

I know the hon. Gentleman is interested in freight. In 2005-06 the Government committed £23 million from the Exchequer in support of the British freight business. My hon. Friend—

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

ESTIMATES

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 145 (Liaison Committee),

That this House agrees with the report [28th November] of the Liaison Committee.—[Mr. Roy.]

Question agreed to.