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Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

6. What rights GNER employees will have to employment with the successful applicant for the new east coast main line rail franchise. (125115)

As with all franchising competitions, employees are protected under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.

The re-franchising process creates uncertainty for railway employees and, indeed, for the travelling public, who have been used to a high quality service from Great North Eastern Railway on the east coast main line and do not know what the future will hold. Will my hon. Friend do everything he can to bring the uncertainty to an end as quickly as possible? Is he able to tell us when the end will be and the new franchisee will be announced?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his persistent campaigning on behalf of GNER employees in his constituency. I know that he takes a great interest in the matter. I can reassure him about the time scale; the Department for Transport expects to announce the winning bidder this summer, with the franchisee taking over before the end of the year.

The Minister knows how important the upgrade of the east coast main line is to the regeneration of urban centres in the east of England, whether in York or my area—Peterborough. Will he update the House on the meeting about the east coast main line upgrade held yesterday between his officials and Network Rail and tell us whether any progress has been made on that important issue?

I was not present at the meeting as I had other ministerial engagements yesterday, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me I shall be more than happy to update him.

One way in which employees of any of the railway franchises could be protected would be to establish one franchise that was not owned by a company and could be used as a benchmark against which all other efforts could be judged. Will the Minister seriously consider whether that can be done, as at present taxpayers have no guarantee that what they are being offered by a muddled franchise system is good value or even workable?

I listen closely when my hon. Friend speaks on these matters, since she knows a great deal about the rail industry. However, the European Foundation for Quality Management system, which is used to assess all franchise bids, is a robust measure and I am absolutely confident that continuing to use it will ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for the taxpayer in terms both of value for money and, particularly, of reliability.

I am happy to repeat what I told the hon. Gentleman when we discussed the matter at the Dispatch Box in December. The Department for Transport does not specify levels of premium from bidders for new franchises; it is entirely up to the franchisee or potential bidders to decide how much of a premium they may want to pay.

The Minister did not answer my question. I asked him about the Department’s budgeting. Several of the other new franchises have budgeted on the basis that there will be a shift from subsidy in the current franchise period to a quite substantial premium to the Government in the next franchise period. Has the Minister made contingency plans for the reduction in revenue that could result from both the situation at GNER and similar situations arising for some of the other franchises that may have over-bid?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman should understand that I have no intention of trying to speculate about the levels of premium or subsidy that future bidders may propose. The price of any new franchise is an important consideration, as it should be—we have a responsibility to the taxpayer to get the best deal we can—but deliverability, not price, remains our primary consideration.

On behalf of my constituents who are employed by GNER, I thank the Minister for that response. Will similar consideration be given to workers throughout the transport industry, such as those currently facing an uncertain future with British Airways?

As the Minister is aware, York is an important railway town and GNER has brought huge numbers of jobs to the city and surrounding villages in the Vale of York and elsewhere; but the collapse in the franchise arrangements, as other Members have pointed out, has huge ramifications for the whole franchising process. Is there no end to the taxpayer’s largesse? Will other companies be bailed out if their franchise arrangements fail?

I think that, with respect, the hon. Lady is getting the wrong end of the stick. The franchise was taken away from GNER specifically because we refused to renegotiate it, which was exactly the right decision for the Government to take. If we sent out a message that these franchises could be renegotiated, it would simply encourage any bidders to bid well above what they could afford, knowing that the Government would then come in and bail them out. The Government have not renegotiated this contract: we took away the franchise because GNER was unable to meet its franchise commitments.

7. What recent assessment his Department has made of the quality of rail services between Manningtree and London. (125117)

The industry-standard public performance measure, or PPM, is a measure of performance of train operating companies rather than individual services. The current PPM of the train operating company “one” expressed as a moving annual average is 87.1 per cent., which represents an improvement of 0.6 per cent. in the last year.

Passengers using Manningtree have suffered unreliable and overcrowded trains for the last three years. Insult was added to injury with the recent hefty increases in both fares and car parking charges. Does the Minister believe that adding £100 a month to the cost of commuting from Suffolk to London on a sub-standard service is a good way to encourage people to use the train?

I am aware of some of the performance issues that “one” has suffered in recent months. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that with car parking at Manningtree being oversubscribed, “one” is currently working on proposals to deck over the car park and make it a double-deck one. As far as rail fares are concerned, increases in regulated fares are restricted to inflation plus 1 per cent., while with non-regulated fares, it is up to the train operating companies to decide by how much they need to go up. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that more fares should be regulated, he will also have to suggest where that money is going to come from. If it is not to come from the rail payer, the only other source is the taxpayer.

My constituents also use this line and they were shocked by the death at Swainsthorpe last Thursday—the third death there in 16 months. I have written to the Secretary of State about that. Will the Minister tell us whether there will be a full review of automatic half-barrier crossings, which are thought to be a risk factor in the accidents that have occurred?

The Department for Transport will, of course, act on any recommendations that we receive from Her Majesty’s rail inspectorate.