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Rail Services

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2006

6. What estimate he has made of future passenger capacity on the rail network; and if he will make a statement. (109933)

Since 1996-97, the number of railway passenger journeys has increased by 35 per cent. Current forecasts suggest that that trend will continue. Next summer, the Government will publish their high level output specification, stating what they wish to purchase from the railway during the regulatory control period from 2009 to 2014. A central element will be the increases in capacity that they wish to purchase.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but is he aware of the considerable dissatisfaction that is felt by my constituents who use the south-east London commuter route about overcrowding, increases infares, and the unreliability of the service? Furthermore, there is great concern that, as a result of housing developments in Kent and along the Thames Gateway, those problems will get worse. Will the Minister take that on board and take action?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. He mentions fares, but I am sure that he understands that cutting fares, and therefore cutting the amount of money going into the railways, is not a way to increase capacity. Increasing capacity does not always mean running extra trains; other options include improved in-cab signalling, elimination of bottlenecks, longer trains and better timetabling. Allof that requires extra money of course, and the Government are currently putting £88 million every week into the railways. Such commitment must continue if we are to meet the capacity challenges that lie ahead.

Does my hon. Friend accept that if the franchises are to work well, the companies concerned must first make good the promises that they make when they take up the franchises, and that secondly, they should not have an automatic fall-back on to a management contract when their own incompetence causes them to have to give up the original franchise? Will he give us the assurance that there will be a lot more brutal reassessment of the efficiency of such private companies, which are costing the taxpayer a small fortune?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. She will recall that a few weeks ago, during an Adjournment debate in the House, she asked me what the Government’s position was on renegotiating franchises. I explicitly stated then, and I am happy to repeat it now, that the Government do not renegotiate franchises when a franchisee gets into financial difficulties. We and GNER were convinced that it was unable to meet the specification to which it was committed, so we decided to invite new tenders for a new franchisee on that line. That is a robust way to react whenever any franchisee gets into difficulties. We are sending out the signal to the whole rail industry that if they cannot meet the commitments that they have made, we will get someone else who can.

The Minister will be aware that in excess of 72,500 homes are planned to be built in Norfolk over the next 15 years. What steps are being taken to ensure that the already overcrowded railway network and the wider transport infrastructure can cope with that significant increase in demand?

Five years ago, the main headline on the railways was about performance. Now that performance has improved markedly over that period, attention is turning to capacity, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that that is a major challenge. Meeting the capacity challenge will involve a very high level of investment. A central plank of our high level output specification, which we will publish next year, will be what the Government want to buy from the industry in terms of capacity and how much money is available. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that any Government who are serious about dealing with capacity constraints will have to come up with the money to do so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is just not acceptable that, in contrast to the rest of Europe, our entire railway network shuts down for 60 hours over the Christmas holidays? In the interests of passengers, of social inclusion and of the environment, will he convene a meeting in the new year to ensure that from 2007, at least on Boxing day, there is some sort of service to take people to see family and friends and to take them to the sales and sporting events?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but when he talks about family and friends, I hope that he will remember that railway workers also have family and friends with whom they want to spend time on Christmas day and Boxing day. He must also remember that that period is an absolutely essential window for engineering work on the railway network. If that work did not take place, the result would be far greater delays during the rest of the year.

When the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), awarded the GNER franchise back in March 2005, he told the BBC that the £1.3 billion deal was not excessive and that the east coast line was a “profitable route”. He added:

“We’ve crawled over the figures over the last few weeks because we wanted to make sure that the bid actually stood up”.

What steps is the Minister taking to find out why his Department got it so badly wrong?

The hon. Gentleman is speaking more from wishful thinking than from reference to the facts. The GNER bid was examined by the then Strategic Rail Authority and was subjected to the usual European Foundation for Quality Management assessment. The bid was easily achievable, as has been shown by the fact that recent passenger revenue has increased by 14.5 per cent.—an increase that has exceeded the revenue commitment in the franchise. The reason why the franchise had to be pulled was entirely due to problems with GNER’s parent company, Sea Containers, and not to problems with the franchise.

Then may I ask the Minister to confirm the following? If the franchise and its financial elements were so easily achievable, will he give an undertaking to the House that he expects to get the same level of contribution to the Exchequer from the new franchise agreement when he reaches it in the new year?

The principle of the franchise system—to which I thought, until a few seconds ago, the Conservative party was also committed—is competition. There will be a competition to see which operator wishes to undertake the new east coast inter-city franchise. Once the bids are in, they will be evaluated and we will hold any new contractor to delivering exactly what is specified in the contract. If they cannot deliver it, exactly the same process will have to be gone through again, but I am convinced that the financial problems that GNER encountered in America with its parent company will not be repeated.

I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that the problems with the east coast main line franchise rested with GNER’s parent company and not with GNER’s ability to run the service. What assurances can he give the House, first, about the quality of the service and the number of staff who will be employed by GNER over the 18 months that it runs the service on a management agreement, and secondly, about the management functions—

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. The management contract that GNER is now leading on behalf of the Government will, I hope, be limited to 12 months, although it could go on for 18 months. During that period, any major changes to services, including jobs, will have to be approved by the Department. However, we do not expect any such major changes to take place before the new contractor takes over. Job cuts that may have already been negotiated and agreed by the unions will remain unaffected and will be a matter for GNER management and the unions.

Does the Minister share my concern that on the morning of9 December, Trowbridge station ticket office had to spend more time issuing refunds for GWR train services than it did issuing tickets? Does he agree that that is indicative of the changed timetabling and rolling stock reductions over which he has presided and which have caused cattle-truck chaos across the country, but especially in the south?

I am unaware of the specific problems affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. When a new timetable starts, there is always a period in which passengers, especially those who travel every day, have to try to get used to it. However, I am convinced that the new timetable and franchises coming on stream in the next couple of years will introduce new rolling stock and improve the service for everyone travelling on it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that as of today we have the youngest rolling stock of any railway in Europe.

New franchise agreements specify a minimum service level that takes account of demand and network capacity. Bidders can propose more services, where that is operationally practicable. There are also provisions to deal with the need for extra trains during the life of a franchise.

What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that First Great Western provides a good reliable service into Wales in view of the fact that the 3.15 pm from Paddington now stops at Cardiff and does not go on to Swansea? The 7.3 am from Bristol to Cardiff and Swansea has been taken off altogether. What can he do to ensure that a better service is provided for Wales?

I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns and they have been echoed by right hon. and hon. Friends over the past few weeks. The 17.18 Cardiff to Swansea service run by First Great Western is a matter for the company: I do not have the authority to intervene in that matter and insist that that particular service is reinstated. However, the Department will continue to monitor passenger numbers on that route. I am told by First Great Western that capacity on alternative services run by Arriva Trains Wales is sufficient to accommodate passenger numbers on that line.

The discontinuation of the 17.18 from Cardiff to Swansea is an absolute disaster for passengers in Swansea and west Wales. In the new cross-country franchise in Scotland, the Government have stipulated the continuation of inter-city routes, so why did they not specify routes to Swansea and west Wales in the case of First Great Western?

The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair in trying to draw distinctions between the devolved Administrations. When the timetable for that service was put out for consultation by First Great Western, it attracted very few public responses and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman responded to that change.

My hon. Friend will be aware of my campaign to improve parking at the railway stations in my constituency. What moneys are his Department making available to improve parking across the whole network?

I admit that I was previously unaware of my hon. Friend’s campaign for car parking in his constituency, but I am now suitably informed. Of course, increasing car-parking capacity at park-and-ride stations to accommodate increasing passenger demand is extremely important. As part of the new franchises, train operating companies, in partnership with Network Rail and, very often, local authorities, are asked to produce robust financial plans to expand car parking. However, that expansion is often limited by the private ownership of land.

First Great Western introduced a new timetable on 10 December, following a public consultation earlier this year. The Department will continue to monitor the effect of the new timetable on passengers.

Is the Minister aware that the four trains that used to run from Oxford to London between 6.30 and 7.30 in the morning so that people could get to work at 9 o’clock have been cut to two? That has caused huge frustration, overcrowding and late arrivals. Will he confirm that that is not his vision for commuter services from Oxford to London, that the Department for Transport is not to blame, and that he will work with us to improve matters?

I can confirm that I am well aware of the problems affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. First Great Western has told the Department that it is looking at ways to plug the gap at 7.25 am. He will be interested to know that Network Rail and First Great Western have put in place a joint action plan to address performance issues, including the Oxford to London route, and to monitor them every month.