Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on an issue of great importance to my constituency and my city. The issues that affect Edinburgh affect other communities up and down the country, so I shall want to speak about some of the wider issues, draw some lessons and make some proposals.
I want to raise issues about the east coast main line, the cross-country franchise and the longer term future of the inter-city rail network in the UK. Those are vital links for Edinburgh. They are vital for business and tourism, and therefore for economic prosperity, as well as for family and friends. Some 2 million people in Scotland have links to families south of the border, so the long-term future of the rail network is important for them, too.
We are discussing the issue at a crucial time for the rail network. As hon. Members will know, the east coast main line is up for retender, decisions are to be taken about the cross-country franchise and there is an ongoing debate about the longer term strategy for the rail network. I will say something about that last point in my concluding remarks.
The service operated along the east coast by Great North Eastern Railway is recognised as of a reasonable quality. I agree with that. I frequently use the service—most recently yesterday—and there is a high rate of satisfaction among passengers on the line. The starting point has to be the retender. There should be no deterioration in any service provided by a new operator. Some of the operators who have been shortlisted for the new tender have in the past been associated with rail services that have not always been as popular with their customers as the GNER service has been. We do not want any deterioration in the service, and I would be grateful if the Minister can tell us what he intends to do to ensure that the starting point is maintained.
I want to see—I am sure that cities along the line and users of the line will want to see it, too—the retendering process used to improve the east coast main line service to benefit passengers up and down the route. I am grateful to have seen a recent report by Edinburgh city council that highlighted some of the difficulties that have arisen over the past few years because of what has happened to the operating and regulatory framework for the east coast main line since 2000. The council rightly states that
“since 2000 the long-term future of the East Coast Main Line has been uncertain. That is not a criticism of the train operator. The problem lies with the different (and changing) authorities charged with long-term stewardship of this asset.”
I agree with the comments from Passenger Focus, which has concluded:
“In the longer-term it is crucial that that the lessons from this affair are understood. Passengers are best served by long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships between Government, train operating companies and Network Rail.”
The Government have certainly shown signs that they recognise that—for example, in the strategy that they are developing for the railways—but it must be emphasised that a period of certainty and long-term planning is required, not only for the east coast main line but for the rail network in general.
The uncertainty is bound to have negative consequences. The quality of the staff on the GNER service is good. I am always impressed by their commitment to the service and the facilities that they give passengers. It surely cannot be good for the morale of staff to be uncertain of who their employer will be from year to year. No matter how good the staff are, that cannot help. As well as the intangible effects of such uncertainty, the possibility of improvement for the passengers as a result of the retendering process has not been fully taken up. The process has had a shorter term perspective, inevitably, over the past few years, notwithstanding the attempts to have a longer franchise introduced.
There have been two significant improvements in the service from Edinburgh—and that from Aberdeen, Miss Begg—to London over the past seven years. We have seen a welcome refurbishment of train interiors and the introduction of wi-fi internet, which is used by an increased number of passengers. However, although we had seen an increase in the number of direct services between London and Edinburgh, in 2007 that dropped back to the number that we had in 1996. Average journey times, which had increased to four hours and 42 minutes in 2005, have only now been restored to an average of four hours and 35 minutes, which is not a significant improvement since the service was first upgraded. As passengers will know, no trains are now running the regular four-hour service that was originally provided for when the service was upgraded back in the 1980s.
Clearly, a longer term perspective is needed. The issues cannot be addressed merely through short-term renegotiations. They need to be emphasised because they highlight the longer term perspective that we need to adopt in our policy towards the east coast main line. As far as the renegotiations are concerned, I endorse the shopping list put forward by Edinburgh city council to represent that community in the renegotiated franchise. It is a reasonable list of proposals, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give some suggestion that the Government will be faithful to it in the renegotiation procedures. First, there should be reduced journey times between Edinburgh and London. We need to see more journeys completed within four hours or just above that time, with commensurate benefits for the stations further north of Edinburgh and south of the city. That will mean that passengers in Newcastle, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), or in Stockton and Darlington can enjoy the faster services that they have a right to expect in this day and age. [Interruption.] I had better give way to my hon. Friend, as I think that he wants to intervene.
I am sorry. I misunderstood my hon. Friend’s indication of approval from his sedentary position. Those passengers, too, should have those benefits.
We want, too, to see a half-hourly service between Edinburgh and London throughout the day. At times of the day, there is a half-hourly service, but only for part of the day. As any transport operator will say, it is not only the length of the journey but the frequency and regularity of a service that attracts passengers to particular modes of transport. There must be a continuing requirement for Network Rail to continue to strengthen the overhead electrification network’s physical robustness and capacity. Anyone who travels on that line will know the dread announcement over the public announcement system that there is a problem with the overhead line somewhere ahead. If that happens, the journey can be extended by one or two hours, and sometimes by six, seven or eight hours. When the line was electrified in the first place, the system was not as strong as it ought to have been to cope with physical interruption.
On the theme of electrification, there ought to be a commitment to fill some of the gaps in the network that would be ideal candidates for electrification to allow the direct running of electrified, high-quality services between different points on the network. One proposal by GNER, for example, is the line between Leeds and York. It would allow much better use of the link to Leeds from the north, so that passengers from Newcastle, from the north-east of England and from Edinburgh and further north in Scotland could have a higher quality, more frequent direct service to Leeds, and ongoing connections from Leeds to Yorkshire and further points in that part of the country.
There is also a need to develop a clearer, simpler and cheaper fares structure. It has been reported on many occasions that it is often cheaper to travel by air than by rail for some important journeys in the UK. I am aware that if people book rail tickets well in advance, they can get tickets that compare favourably with even the cheapest budget air prices in the UK, but the fact is that at times the system is not easy to use, nor is it very flexible. Again that must be addressed in renegotiating the franchises.
A retendering process is under way. I would not expect the Minister to provide specific commitments today—if he wishes to do so, I certainly would not throw away the opportunity—but I hope that he will give some indication of how the Government will approach the issues, and that he will give reassurances that passengers, consumers and customers in my city and along the line have every right to expect.
I also hope that operators—no doubt they will listen to today’s debate or at least ensure that they are aware of the content of comments made by Members, and certainly those made by the Minister—will recognise that MPs from many communities up and down the country support my list of proposals, and that we expect operators to respond positively when they make proposals for the new tender.
Let me turn briefly to the cross-country franchise, another one for which negotiations are under way. Again, it is an important link for much of England and central Scotland. Specifically, given my interest, it is an important link for Edinburgh. In fact, 10 per cent. of all rail journeys from Edinburgh are on the cross-country service, and there are several concerns about it that affect my community and, no doubt, areas along the line as well.
The first concern is the possible transfer, as I understand it, of the Scotland to Birmingham service—more generally the service on the west coast main line—to the west coast franchise. There is concern that overall service levels should, at the very least, be maintained. Indeed, I hope that they will be improved.
There is concern about a proposal that more journeys will require a change of train at Birmingham. If that is to be the case, it is certainly important that there be a significant improvement in the services north of Birmingham to compensate for the fact that passengers would have to change at Birmingham for services to some points in the south of England.
Another concern that has been expressed to me by several passengers’ organisations and by rail passengers directly is the proposed transfer of the Edinburgh to Manchester trains to the TransPennine Express franchise. That is causing worries to rail users. At present, there are no guarantees that overall service levels on the route will be maintained, or, as they ought to be, improved. To be blunt, the present train service between Edinburgh and Manchester is not what it could be in terms of quality of stock and the time that it takes to travel between the two cities and, obviously, places en route. The journey time between Edinburgh and Manchester is not significantly different from that between Edinburgh and London, even though it is half the distance.
Clearly, if passengers are to be encouraged to use alternatives to air travel, they should be able to think that short journeys such as that from Edinburgh to Manchester are significantly better by rail, when they take into account the associated time of travelling to airports and so on, than by air. At present, the service does not meet that standard for journey times.
It is important to take advantage of the massive upgrading that has been done on the west coast main line when the new arrangements are put into effect. Money has been spent on that line. Surely, we should make absolutely certain that the route from Edinburgh to Manchester is able to use the tilting-train technology that is now used on the west coast main line so that there could be a significant improvement on existing journey times from Edinburgh to Manchester.
Of course, the issue is not just about the line between Edinburgh and Manchester and the stations along it. It is also about the connections from Edinburgh northwards and westwards throughout Scotland, the connections from Manchester to areas in that part of England and the links to Manchester airport. As I said, this is a matter of great importance, and I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking, particularly about the use of tilting trains in the new franchise.
Furthermore, the Minister should bear it in mind that TransPennine Express has no depot or crew facility in Scotland. If it is to be the franchisee, some provision must be made for a depot and crew in Scotland. Clearly, the potential for difficulties, particularly with early morning trains, will be magnified if the operator is not based in the part of the country where the route starts.
We would like, at the minimum, an hourly train between Edinburgh and the south of Birmingham, ideally with the flexibility to run trains every two hours to the south-west of England and every two hours to the south coast.
Another aspect that will become even more crucial if there is to be a break in the service at Birmingham such that there will be fewer through trains from Scotland to the south of England, is the need to maintain the current opportunity that cross-country passengers have to access lower fares across the franchise. If there will be a requirement to use different operators at different points in the service, there will obviously be a danger that passengers will not be able to access the same types of reduced fares that are available with advance booking and so on. That could have an effect on passengers travelling from Edinburgh to Gatwick airport, for example, or to Brighton, Portsmouth or Southampton. We would want some guarantees about the availability of low fares across the routes that are currently operated by the cross-country franchise.
Clearly, issues about the east coast main line and the cross-country franchise are important to Edinburgh and many other communities along the line, but, by the nature of the franchise negotiations, they are primarily short-term concerns. We are talking about making significant improvements with the existing routes, network and technology, and I recognise that only so much can be done in the short term under current franchise negotiations. I want to take a few minutes today to consider some of the longer term issues in respect of the future of rail services in Great Britain, with particular relevance to how they will affect Edinburgh.
One reason why we have problems in making the best use of the current rail network and in combining the need for faster services with the need for adequate services to communities en route is that capacity is limited. The welcome increase in rail passenger use has been accompanied by pressures on the capacity of the rolling stock and of the network. I very much welcomed the Government’s announcements about providing new rolling stock, but we cannot get away from the fact that we also need to address the capacity of the rail network itself—the capacity of tracks to take more, ideally faster, trains.
We must provide substantial extra capacity in the rail network to allow us to meet future demand in the next five, 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years. We should take the opportunity to provide increased capacity. It would allow passengers throughout Great Britain to use the type of high-speed services that our Edinburgh neighbours are used to but which in the rest of Britain will be enjoyed later this year only on the short stretch from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, when the channel tunnel link is finally fully open and taking passenger services.
I am not one of those who believe that we can create a French-style TGV network simply by drawing lines on a map and spending tens of billions of pounds. We need to think of the economies involved and the business case to be made for such investment. It is all too easy to start playing amateur railway builder and planning the ideal rail system for the United Kingdom without thinking of the costs that would be involved.
In passing, I observe that we should not be too ready to criticise some of our European partners or other nations for developing high-speed rail networks. That policy is being adopted by more and more European countries, and by countries elsewhere in the world. I suggest that they cannot all be wrong in deciding that the development of a comprehensive high-speed network is the right way to go.
I accept that we cannot set up a high-speed rail network just because we think it a good idea. We should have good economic and transport arguments, and environmental ones too. The fact is that much work has already been done by the Strategic Rail Authority, and we also have the Atkins report. That highlighted the economic viability of high-speed rail links and a high-speed network for the UK.
It is important for the Government to indicate their long-term strategic approach to the development of high-speed rail links and to say, when they consider the long-term strategy for rail later this summer, whether high-speed rail has a role in the UK. I hope that the Minister will give us some indication of the Government’s thinking.
Last year, as hon. Members will know, the Eddington report was fairly sceptical about high-speed rail. I have to be blunt: I have heard much criticism of the report. I have read it in full, and if I had the time I would certainly take issue with a number of points in the analysis and conclusions.
I am clear why Eddington rejected it, but his conclusions do not justify that rejection. For example, I do not agree with his analysis of the environmental benefits. He also gave insufficient consideration to the benefits of freight and passenger services making more use of the space that would be made available by new high-speed links freeing capacity on the existing network.
On a number of points, Eddington’s analysis is limited. However, even he does not reject high-speed rail. To some extent, he argues against what is described as a very high-speed rail network, but he really only considers the possibilities of high-speed rail networks that use such things as Maglev technology or those that would require investment on new networks throughout the UK. He does not consider in great detail the possibilities of a more incremental approach to the development of high-speed rail links.
To be fair, although I criticise Eddington, I qualify my criticism by noting that he concedes the point to a degree. At paragraph 4.174 he states that
“it is important to recognise that not all high-speed rail line options would be subject to the same issues. For those that do not involve relying on untested technologies and are targeted at solving proven congestion and overcrowding problems, higher and more certain returns are likely than for high-risk options on new links where demands are speculative.”
Again, he points out in paragraph 4.180 he states:
“It is outside the scope of this study to assess the detailed costs and benefits of specific high-speed rail options.”
Even with his scepticism, Eddington allows some openings for high-speed rail. Certainly the Government should give make it clear that they are prepared to consider a role for new high-speed rail developments. I accept that we do not want to adopt grands projets simply because they look good on paper—on the transport map of the UK—but neither should we be too modest in our ambitions.
To some extent, Eddington has an element of predict and provide in his thinking. He predicts where the increase in the rail demand will be, and then suggests that we provide in the areas where that increase is to be seen. In doing so, he does not take full account of some of the wider economic consequences. It is worth bearing it in mind that the consequence of taking Eddington’s approach to its conclusion is that we would invest in those areas where we are already investing heavily—particularly in the south of England—precisely because that is where the short-journey congestion identified by Eddington is concentrated.
If we are to meet future transport needs, we need more capacity—and not only high-speed capacity, but capacity for existing passenger and commuter services—which could be assisted by the proper development of high-speed links. An incremental approach might be best for Britain, with stretches of new line providing first phase improvements in the context of a larger strategic framework. For example, on the east coast main line we might have improved high-speed links between Newcastle and Yorkshire, which would also benefit the cities to the north of Newcastle and to the south of Yorkshire. That would provide a high-speed link for the network as a whole, but it would obviously provide immediate economic benefits to the core cities in central and north-eastern England.
That is a possibility, but I am certainly not going to draw my own ideal railway map. I only ask the Government to consider the possibility of taking an incremental approach to high-speed rail in the UK and not to fall into the trap of assuming that the only way forward for high-speed rail is to go immediately for the investment of £50 billion or £60 billion in some form of unproven technology.
We want to see faster services on the key inter-city routes. If we could bring the London to Edinburgh times down to three and a half hours or even three hours, and if we could bring the London to Newcastle time down to under two and a half hours or even two hours, competition with air would become much keener and rail travel more attractive not only for business passengers but for private passengers. We have seen such benefits on the west coast main line, where massive investment has resulted in a major shift from air to rail in the London to Manchester corridor; and we have seen some changes in the London to Glasgow services and elsewhere. There are clear environmental advantages in switching from air to rail when possible—and when good alternative services are provided on the rail network.
I had not planned to spend so much time on the matter, but it is important to many parts of the country. I recognise that the Government have made a massive investment in the rail network, and in the west coast main line in particular. We should take full advantage of that investment, for instance by allowing the tilting train technology to be used not only for the Glasgow, Birmingham and London services but also for the Edinburgh to Manchester services and others.
The west coast main line is another reason why it is best for Scotland and England not to separate but to stay together within the Union. For example, it is hard to believe that providing rail improvements up to the Scottish border would have been a priority for a Government whose responsibilities only reached as far as Carlisle. That is another example of how the links between Scotland and England are beneficial to both sides of the border and why those links must be maintained.
Let us learn from the success of west coast main line investment, the process of which, to put it mildly, caused difficulties along the way. Now it has been completed, we can appreciate the benefits of such investment and of having a strategic approach to our rail network. On the theme of developing the links between England and Scotland, what better year than 2007—the 300th anniversary of the Union—for the Government to announce that they are examining ways of developing new high-speed rail links between England and Scotland? That could be considered a new “Union railway” to underpin the links between England and Scotland. I hope that the Minister will give us, if not a commitment, an opening to such a longer term perspective and vision when he concludes the debate.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. I praise him for his speech; he has been on his feet for half an hour and has been very thorough. I thought that there would be more hon. Members here so I have prepared a speech that should only take a few minutes. While listening to my hon. Friend, I was reminded of the contributions that he made during our Labour Students days when he made long and exciting speeches. It is the first time that I have ever followed him in a debate in the House and it is a pleasure to do so some 25 or 30 years later in this Chamber. I am sure that he is happy to be reminded of the great socialist debates that used to take place in our party.
I wish to highlight some concerns that I have about inter-city rail links between the Tees valley and major cities in the UK. I shall concentrate on the east coast main line, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which at present serves Tees valley through Darlington station. I say “at present” because in a few months’ time open access train services directly to and from Sunderland, Hartlepool, Stockton and London will be introduced. That service will be operated by Grand Central Train Services and will be Teesside's first direct link with the capital for nearly two decades. If that service is as good as the other open access service on the east coast main line, which is now operated by Hull Trains, it will be a quality service easily accessible to travellers who may not otherwise travel by train.
I intend to focus on the totality of services on the east coast main line, which, after the west coast route, is the second busiest main line in the UK. I am aware that the Minister cannot comment directly on franchise matters that he will be called on to determine later, but there are concerns about the future of east coast services in relation to the forthcoming franchise round. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith voiced concern about the future quality of the service, which I share. I think that there is genuine fear about that issue. GNER currently provides an excellent service and has excellent staff—I travel regularly on the service between Darlington and London—but staff employed by GNER are worried about what will happen when the present franchise comes to end. I praise GNER staff for their professionalism and dedication; they provide an excellent service, but they are worried about their future. They are also concerned about whether the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 will apply to them. I hope that the Minister can respond to that important concern, because since the debate on the new franchise started those staff have raised their concerns with me every week and asked me to draw the issue to the Minister’s attention. I am here to make the Minister aware of their concerns and I hope that he will say something in relation to that.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising the concerns of staff. I am sure that he knows that, because of how the service is operated, many staff are based at the Edinburgh depots. They certainly share those concerns and I agree with my hon. Friend that they need reassurance. I too hope that the Minister can provide that reassurance today.
I endorse that comment. I think that I saw the Minster nod and that he will comment on that issue.
I wonder whether robust human resource policies on the part of the companies applying to run the east coast main line will be seen as an important scoring factor when the franchise is awarded. If they are, GNER staff will be greatly reassured that they will be able to carry on serving the public in their present role. If the Minister is in a position to take those matters into account, it is important that he provides a positive response.
I will move on to the upgrading and improvement of the main stations on the east coast main line, including my local station, Darlington. Before withdrawing from the franchise, GNER announced that it had begun a programme of station enhancement. However, I understand that the Department for Transport tendering document states only that it is “recommended” that bidders be encouraged to invest in stations, with a mechanism to ensure that they get a return over the long term, which could be beyond the term of the franchise. That seems to be a disincentive to potential tenderers, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on the subject.
Such issues relate to the choice of the railway operating company, but that is only one aspect of the operation of the east coast main line. The line allows not only for current GNER operations, but for services run by other important rail operators, such as Virgin Cross-Country, First TransPennine and Northern Rail, serving the east and west midlands and the south- east. The line is also a key freight route. As I mentioned only a couple of weeks ago in this Chamber, as the Minister may recall, the line is crucial for the continued aspirations of the port of Tees and Hartlepool to become one of the UK’s premier container ports. It is also an important route for other bulk commodities that are important to Teesside, such as steel and chemicals, and for the conveyance of coal and post-related freight from the Humber to the big Trent power stations and inland container terminals.
As the Minister knows, there are problems of capacity on the east coast main line. I am aware that work is under way on route utilisation strategies for the east coast main line and, in a national setting, for freight. It is crucial that the findings of both rail utilisation studies are brought together so that the maximum benefits of future investment programmes can be dovetailed effectively.
Another, broader issue that I shall raise in this context focuses on the need to look afresh at possible new build for UK rail for the coming century. As I mentioned in the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith about the Eddington report, I felt that the report rejected the concept of establishing a dedicated north-south link. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on that matter. Even in that context, other schemes could be examined that would ease the bottleneck on the east coast main line. The east coast main line has a number of handy routes that broadly run parallel to the main line, some of which are well known and are already part of the national network, such as the alignment between Doncaster and Peterborough via Lincoln. In my area, where the majority of the east coast main line is mainly or exclusively simple two-line running, there are important lines running from Northallerton to Stockton and from there to Ferryhill. Just further north of that last junction is a totally unused rail alignment—the Leamside route. If that were utilised, it would take pressure off the east coast main line all the way to Newcastle.
I hope that the revitalisation of such key, but under-resourced, links will be taken into account when the east coast rail utilisation study and the investment that will flow from it are examined. Work on such strategies would help to free up the east coast main line. One possible proposal involves the reopening of the old grand central line from west Yorkshire to the channel tunnel terminals. That line could run to full European gauge limits from day one. As well as easing congestion, it would provide more slots for regional services and would allow far more continuous high-speed running for the inheritors of the old GNER and Virgin Cross-Country services.
My hon. Friend kindly reminded hon. Members that I first met him some 25 to 30 years ago. Perhaps he might confirm that it is also some 25 to 30 years or more since the first suggestion was made in relation to the grand central railway. That indicates that clear decisions need to be made now, or in the near future, if we are to see long-term strategic benefits even 20 to 30 years from today. If we do not take the decisions now, our successors will be having the same debate 25 to 30 years hence.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. We do not want others to be debating the subject in 25 to 30 years’ time, which is why we need some action from Government and some vision. It seems rational on the basis of cost and speed to utilise the existing capacity fully to meet the needs of the region.
The concerns about the east coast main line that I have raised with the Minister are genuine concerns that have been expressed by many. We should ensure that we retain the excellent premier league service that we already have. A lot lies in the Minister’s hands, and I hope that he will take seriously the issues that I have flagged up and ensure that we indeed continue to have a first-class service.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith once again on initiating the debate. I am disappointed that more hon. Members were not present. Nevertheless, those of us who have spoken have between us taken 45 minutes and we have contributed to keeping the debate live.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on having secured the debate, and I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar). The debate is important and timely, coming as it does on the day when the Government have published their draft Climate Change Bill. In developing inter-city services we need to ensure that many of the issues that are raised by the Bill are addressed.
We are due to hear from the Minister later this year when the Government publish their 30-year rail strategy, and the present debate is important in helping to frame what my party believes are some of the key issues that we hope will be addressed in the strategic White Paper. Network Rail is currently negotiating with the Office of Rail Regulation on the setting of funding for the period from 2009 until March 2014, and those discussions frame the debate, as well. If we do not fund services, we will not get anything from them. I hope that the Minister’s response will put our debate on inter-city rail services in the context of those matters that I have mentioned.
We know that we face a 30 per cent. growth in passengers and freight over the next 10 years. That is a phenomenal increase that testifies to the investment that has been put into rail services, and to the fact that rail is now perceived to be a much more viable option and a better means of travelling. If one undertook a survey of most hon. Members, one would find that the majority travel here weekly by train.
Hon. Members have mentioned a number of short and longer-term issues on which I should like to set out the Liberal Democrat position. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith mentioned fares. Earlier this year, the Evening Standard carried out a survey that showed that it is cheaper to travel by plane than by rail on most of the main inter-city routes. It cannot be right that plane travel should be so cheap, nor can that be acceptable in terms of encouraging environmental “goods” as opposed to “bads”—a debate in which we are all now getting involved. In the context of the proposals published by my party earlier this year and the debate that has been started by the Conservatives and by the Labour Government, I hope that we shall see taxation being used to encourage more people to take the train rather than the plane.
Having said that, rail fares have increased hugely in the past few years, and compared with those for other European countries the figures do not bode well. The cost of a return ticket from Madrid to Barcelona or from Berlin to Bonn—distances of 387 miles and 365 miles respectively—is some £63, whereas a first class return on the Manchester to London route costs £337, and even if one buys a standard ticket the cost is £119 at peak time. Those are not acceptable figures, so one of my questions to the Minister is: what is the Government’s policy on rail fares? I accept that investment has to be funded, but I hope that there will be a switch in the source of money, so that more people are encouraged to use rail rather than plane travel. We should be rationing slots on routes that can be served by fast trains.
There are currently two franchises out to tender—GNER and the cross-country service. The case of GNER raises some important questions about Government policy on letting franchises. My party’s view is that the current franchise period is too short. The investment figure of £1.2 billion that was expected from the original franchisee was far too punitive. I hope that when the franchise is let there will be a proper debate on the situation that led to the current operator pulling out, despite having contributed greatly to the service, as hon. Members have said.
As the hon. Gentleman says, there are a number of factors relevant to why the current franchise ended, and that is something that we need to examine. However, does he agree with me—perhaps differing from the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar)—that one difficulty was perhaps the open access possibilities, which will inhibit long-term investment by franchisees in substantial infrastructure improvements?
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next remarks. Clearly, one of the issues at the root of the withdrawal was the open access agreement that Hull Trains secured. I know that that went through the High Court, but if an operator is expected to deliver a premium as high as GNER was and it then faces competition through the development of other services that was not anticipated when the franchise was let—that is the key point—clearly that has a huge effect on the financial return that it can expect. The Minister is nodding his head.
I would not usually intervene at this stage, but the hon. Gentleman said that I was nodding my head. For the record, I was shaking my head.
We shall await the Minister’s comments with interest.
Once the franchise has settled down, with the seven and a half years that are left on the contract, there needs to be a serious investigation of what happened. I am sure that other hon. Members expect that when the franchise is re-let, it will cost more than the original franchise provided for. I return to the point that if we want investment in inter-city services and to get the desired returns, we need longer franchises than are currently being let.
Hon. Members have mentioned the cross-country franchise. The east-west cross-cutting link is a vital service, but there are concerns about the loss of through trains. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith was right to say that if there has to be a change at Birmingham, we need to ensure that the fares are interconnected and that some of the cheap fares are not lost. If that is to happen, Network Rail’s provision in its next control period to redevelop Birmingham New Street to make it far more accessible is vital. I hope that when the franchise is let, that will be one of the projects that go ahead.
The Minister recently announced the inter-city express programme. That will be the largest single investment in rolling stock for a long time. Between 500 and 2,000 trains will be provided to replace the old high-speed trains from 2014. The HST has been the workhorse of much of our inter-city network. In procuring the new trains, why have we gone for diesel-electric? Such trains will be more expensive and, although they will be far more efficient than existing rolling stock, they will not necessarily be more efficient than electric-only trains. What work has been done to examine whether the rest of the inter-city network could be electrified? That could prove to be a much better investment than providing dual-fuel trains, which are heavier and more costly to run. That question needs to be answered.
I know that the Office of Fair Trading is investigating the role of train leasing companies. Who will own the new trains? Have we considered Network Rail being the provider of the trains, or will that be done through the train operating companies if they are given longer franchises? Many of us currently have serious concerns about the cost of trains and carriages provided by train leasing companies. I look at the rolling stock that serves much of Greater Manchester, which is 30 years old and has long been paid for. It is nonsense that we are having to pay £300,000 a carriage for trains that have long since been paid for and have seen better days. I hope that the Minister can give us some information on that point, because it is not mentioned in the documents provided.
I would also like an assurance that, in view of Britain’s record of designing and building trains, the new trains will be designed and built in the UK. There is concern about whether certain rail manufacturing companies will remain open. The order for the new trains could give us a vital opportunity to secure Britain’s manufacturing base.
The longer-term question is: what happens once we have provided that capacity? How do we take it further on a network that will not be able to accommodate any more trains? We need to have a proper discussion about the development of a brand-new high-speed train that serves London, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Although Eddington may have pooh-poohed the idea, I believe that if we seriously want people from Edinburgh not to fly but to catch the train down here, we need a service that can travel between the two cities in under three hours, which will be deliverable only with a brand new line and a brand new high-speed train that can deliver such services. Whether that is a Maglev train or the French variant of the HST, we need to be carrying out investigations in that respect. We can deal with things with our existing network for the next 10 years, but if we are to continue to encourage people to use the train, we will need to develop those high-speed routes.
I thank everybody for the contributions that they have made. We have had a good opportunity this morning to take forward the debate about inter-city services.
Like the hon. Members for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) and for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on initiating the debate and on his speech, which was a tour de force, examining the future of inter-city rail. It is disappointing that there are not more hon. Members in the Chamber this morning. As far as my party is concerned, the reason seems to be the inexplicable decision by my colleagues to go and listen to a briefing by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), rather than coming here to listen to me—I cannot think why they decided to do that. However, it means that I have a rather longer time than is usual in such debates in which to speak. Last night, the Minister urged me to be brief. Today, he is urging me to be lengthier in my response. I shall try to take the middle course.
The extra time allows me to start my remarks by going through the history, which is quite interesting. The hyphenated Inter-City was introduced by British Rail in 1966 as the brand name for its long-haul express passenger services. It is instructive that British Rail, in one of its few moments of real clarity, introduced the brand name Inter-City and that that was taken up by the whole of Europe. The UK Inter-City reached the peak of its public awareness in the 1970s, thanks principally to those of us who are old enough to remember the “This is the age of the train” adverts, which were fronted by Jimmy Savile.
In 1986, the British Railways Board divided its operations into a number of sectors, and the sector that was responsible for long-distance express trains continued to use the brand name Inter-City. Following on from the adverts of the 1970s, we had the Inter-City 125 adverts, also fronted by Jimmy Savile. The name of that train reflected its top speed in miles per hour. We are not here to debate that today, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith made clear, but it is always interesting to examine how what was a brand name has become a generic name.
As everybody who has contributed to the debate so far has said, it is clear that demand for long-distance travel has been growing for many years. The capacity constraints that we face in the next 10 years we also faced 25 years ago. Demand for long-distance travel has been growing for the past 25 years. The Conservative Government recognised that and started a programme of extensive electrification and line upgrades in the 1980s. The east coast main line, to which the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland referred, is the spine through the east of England up to Scotland. He will recognise that the electrification of the line to Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow in the 1980s significantly decreased journey times and increased capacity.
As has been rightly said, however, demand for long-distance rail travel continues to grow significantly, and all the major routes require substantial increases in capacity. The hon. Member for Rochdale quoted the popular statistic that the Corporation of London gave us last year, which shows that demand on the London commuter network is expected to grow by 30 per cent. by 2014. Similarly, Government statisticians suggest that the east coast main line, on which 2,000 passenger trains and about 250 freight trains currently run every day, will see a 40 to 50 per cent. increase in inter-city passenger traffic, a 30 to 40 per cent. increase in cross-country traffic and a 20 per cent. increase in the need for freight over the next decade.
We must ask, therefore, what will provide such extra capacity and what the Government intend to do, particularly on the east coast main line. There have been a number of suggestions. In 2000, Network Rail’s previous incarnation, Railtrack, planned to spend about £1.6 billion on the line to remove some of the bottlenecks. Over the past five years, we have seen the reconstruction of the station at Leeds and work in the surrounding area, as well as the overcoming of the bottleneck problems around Grantham. It is good that that work has been completed, but as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland said, we need a commitment from Network Rail or, through Network Rail, from the Government to increase line capacity. Several stretches of the east coast main line could be inexpensively converted from two or four tracks to six. Clearly, some of the bottlenecks on the line are difficult to relieve—the principal one being at the viaduct just outside Welwyn Garden City, where I was brought up—and it would be expensive to increase the line’s capacity in some areas. However, it is not true that moves to increase capacity on the line are being constrained wholly by the need for expensive land purchases, and many of the problems on the line could be overcome through inexpensive land purchases.
Although capacity is the pre-eminent problem facing the railway network, it is fair to say that other problems include over-prescription by the Department for Transport—last year, in a parliamentary answer, the Minister’s predecessor said that 14 civil servants were writing the timetables—Network Rail’s lack of vision, until relatively recently, as regards capacity increases, and the shortened franchise system, which acts as a brake on innovation and investment. Indeed, last July, as the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the Conservative party set out its belief that franchise lengths are too short and act as a brake on innovation and investment. If the Government take more premium out of the franchise period to recuperate their subsidy, one of the problems that we will have to accept is that the economic return to train operating companies during the life of a franchise will be shortened, and their ability to innovate and invest will be taken away. The lengthening of franchises is one of the key issues in terms of increasing capacity not only on the inter-city lines, but across the railway network.
The future of inter-city rail is also being constrained and that is likely to remain the case. The Evening Standard survey, to which the hon. Member for Rochdale referred, found that travelling by rail was not only more expensive than travelling by air, but that it was three times more so. A passenger on a typical rail journey creates one tenth of the carbon footprint of a passenger making the same journey by air. We therefore need to look not only at the economic consequences, but the environmental consequences, of pricing.
Despite the increased fares, however, anyone hon. Member who reads today’s debate pack or who looks at their postbag and at the articles in the newspapers will know that there have been several instances of passengers paying the full fare, but having to cram themselves on to their trains and stand for long journeys from Manchester, Birmingham and constituencies further north. In many cases, this year’s fare increases have been four times the rate of inflation, and we cannot expect people to keep making the environmentally friendly choices that we want to make if, at the same time, we do nothing to promote those choices.
Many people feel that they are being priced off the railways, and there is an indication that the industry thinks that that is a Government strategy. I should be interested to hear how the Minister responds to that. This year, Virgin and GNER have put up their average prices by more than 11 per cent., and one or two of my constituents on certain lines have faced fare increases of 56 per cent., which is hardly an incentive to go on the railways. If train operating companies are to be allowed to put through increases beyond the retail prices index plus 1 per cent., which the Government say is the standard fare increase this year, many people will want to ensure that companies deliver the necessary investment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) summed things up rather accurately when he said:
“Transport is one of Britain’s big headaches…We already know that major routes…are going to be full to capacity in ten years time. That’s why we have to start assessing…longer term solutions”.
During the Christmas recess, the Conservative party announced that it would undertake a feasibility study with engineering consultants and financial backers on extending the high-speed rail network across the country. We accept that that is not a short-term project, but the thinking needs to be done now if we are to attack the congestion problems of the next 10 years. We also accept that no Government are likely to wish to spend in one go the £50 billion or £60 billion necessary to build high-speed rail from north to south, and nor could they afford to do so. Equally, we accept that the project may need to be phased, but the construction of our motorway network was phased, and the route from London to Manchester was not built overnight. Indeed, the motorway network was spun off from an extraordinary beginning—the motorway to Preston, which was the first piece of the network in this country.
On 19 January, my hon. Friend announced that the Conservative party was undertaking a further feasibility study to address the congestion problems about which we are all hearing. The study will look at technology that would allow an eight-minute journey from Glasgow to Edinburgh and a 15-minute trans-Pennine journey. I refer, of course, to Maglev technology and the next generation of travel. That is the sort of medium and long-term thinking and feasibility study work that needs to be done now to ensure that we make improvements and overcome congestion constraints.
Last night, the Minister and I were in the House, and I spent some time going through the Government’s transport failures. I do not need to re-enact those today, because, as the Minister knows, I set them out clearly and extensively, and they are recorded in Hansard. My speech was somewhat lengthy, but the Minister made a very short speech, and I am sure that his speech today will be a little longer. None the less, we welcomed his announcement on 8 March that the process for procuring the new train fleet for the inter-city express programme has started. The Government set the programme up to work in conjunction with high-level outputs, and it potentially represents a significant development of the inter-city network in terms of rolling stock. It is certainly the most significant announcement on the development of inter-city services that we have had from the Government in the past 10 years and, to that end, they are to be congratulated.
Perhaps I can encourage the Minister to go a little further this morning, beyond his announcement of last week, and answer some more questions. The hon. Member for Rochdale put several, including some on the environment. He touched, of course, on ownership. With the railway leasing companies at loggerheads with the Government, and one company, Angel Trains, refusing to buy Pendolinos for the Virgin west coast operation, citing uncertainty about how it will recoup its investment, how does the Minister expect the process to work? Can he confirm today that he has spoken to the leasing companies about that, and that the problem has been overcome?
Will the Minister also confirm whether the Department has the sort of expert negotiators in procurement needed to undertake a programme of the size in question? Government and public sector procurement records for Governments of either political colour reveal that a constant issue has been a lack of experts. The Government procurement record has thus left us, particularly in the context of defence, doing deals that have cost the taxpayer rather more than they should.
The Minister last week mentioned a figure of between 500 and 2,000 carriages. Will he discuss what the number will be? Will it be closer to 500 or to 2,000, and what will be the evaluation mechanism? Clearly, the number could have a significant impact on what can be delivered. Also, if the inter-city express programme is supposed to complement the high-level output statement, would not it have been more sensible to announce the two together? Are the Government now considering speeding up their announcement of the HLOS, so that we can see how the inter-city express programme will complement it? I wonder, too, whether the first operational date has been set. I notice that we are hoping for some trains in 2012, but perhaps the Minister will comment on when there will be full operation. What infrastructure improvements are intended to go alongside the rolling stock procurement? In the Minister’s statement of 8 March there was no indication of any infrastructure improvements. The Government have some hopes for the success of the inter-city express procurement programme, but is not its impact likely to be lessened without the infrastructure improvements that other hon. Members have discussed this morning?
Before the hon. Gentleman sits down I would be interested in whether he can enlighten us about the intentions announced by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) with respect to taxation on air travel. It is good to have a debate on the issues, but I should have thought that if there is to be such a taxation increase an obvious way to allocate resources would be to invest in rail services and more environmentally friendly forms of transport. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said whether that would be a good way to spend such money; I think that it might be.
The hon. Gentleman might indeed think that a good way to spend money, and others might too. It is an interesting temptation for me to prejudge what money might be raised and how, when we are in government in a few years’ time, we shall spend it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand my resisting the temptation, but I note what he says.
I want briefly to mention the invitation to tender for the inter-city east coast franchise. That was announced on 15 December and on 20 February the pre-qualified bidders were announced. I understand that the Minister cannot talk about the bidders or where they are in the process, but perhaps he can enlighten the House—because the matter is significant for inter-city travel—about when he expects the franchise process to come to some conclusion. Can he confirm that the bidders will bid solely against a Department for Transport specification, as I think he said previously? If not, what other process is being used, and what are they being allowed to put into the process? Earlier in the year the Minister said that he expected the Department to be able to raise the sort of premium, from the rebidding or the reallocation of the franchise, that was in the original franchise. Does he still have that confidence, and, if so, what safeguards will be established so that the new franchisee, whoever that is, will not suffer the same fate as GNER?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on securing the debate. Before I respond to points that he made, perhaps I can start almost in reverse order by dealing with some of the comments of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). I feared, when he began his comments with a reference to 1966, that it was going to be a very long speech. Strangely, his quick history of inter-city rail services in Britain glossed over the privatisation of the rail industry by his party’s Government in 1994. He gave more mentions to Jimmy Savile than to the privatisation of the rail industry.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to intervene; I do not have that much time, but I should be happy to give way to him. He has made several critical comments. Can he confirm that any future Conservative Government will refuse to accept premiums from any bidder for a rail franchise? While he is doing that will he confirm that they would not necessarily go for the company offering the largest premiums?
I did not mean to avoid speaking about privatisation this morning; it could have taken us into a rather long discourse, and I thought that we were relatively constrained by time, so I did not head down that route. The Minister will I am sure want to confirm that use of the railway system has increased significantly since privatisation. As to premiums it is far too early for us to prejudge what would happen. We might of course choose an altogether different system for the operation of the railway network. It is not at all clear yet, so I shall resist the temptation from the Minister, rather as I did the interesting temptation from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith.
I shall take that as a no.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) made a similar comment about premiums. He said that the premium required by GNER in the previous franchise was too punitive. I wonder if he understands that when an invitation to tender is issued, not only do the Government not specify a level for premiums; they do not specify whether a premium should be paid. I am not sure how the hon. Gentleman can conclude that a premium that was volunteered by GNER was too punitive. The term punitive suggests that the Government were in some way trying to punish the winning bidder for the GNER franchise.
I sometimes, in my darkest moments, envy the Liberals. It does not happen often, but I wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being in a party that, never aspiring to Government, does not have to consider the consequences of policy or finance. We have seen this morning a typical example of Liberal Democrat wishful thinking on policy. The hon. Gentleman talked about fares and about its being cheaper to travel by plane than by rail. He gave a continental example. He did not point out that he was making a comparison of the most expensive peak fares in Britain with average off-peak fares on the continent. That is fair game in politics; I understand the point that he is trying to make. However, sometimes we should pay less attention to badly-conducted newspaper surveys in this country and more attention to the facts. However often we say that air travel is cheaper than rail travel, simple repetition does not make it true. Often newspaper surveys do what the hon. Gentleman has done this morning. They take the cheapest advance flight on easyJet or one of the cheaper airlines and compare it with the same journey by rail, for which they take the first-class, pay-on-the-day fare. Of course those fares will be more expensive than advance purchase fares on the cheaper airlines. The hon. Gentleman fails to take into account airline tax and the fact that there is sometimes an additional charge for baggage on flights. Also, the cost of travelling from a city centre to an out-of-city airport, on the Heathrow Express for example, is never taken into account.
I understand the Minister’s point, but let us deal with real facts. A first-class ticket from Manchester to London is £337 by rail and £319, including tax, on a British Airways full-rate fare. That is a clear example without any reduction in fares. That clearly is not right.
I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s comparison.
The hon. Gentleman said that fares have increased hugely in the past few years. There are two points to make on that. First, because of the control that the Government have exercised in the past 10 years, regulated rail fares, which the majority of rail passengers use, are 2 per cent. cheaper today, in real terms, than in 1996. He says that that is a huge increase, but I think it is a decrease.
Secondly, is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Government should increase the subsidy to railways in order to reduce the fare that passengers pay? That is a perfectly legitimate policy, which I might embrace wholeheartedly if I were a Liberal—hypothetically, of course—knowing that I would never have to implement it in office. It is a lazy argument simply to say that every passenger should be even more subsidised than they are.
There will be plenty of opportunities to explore the nature and structure of the franchise system. There is no accepted consensus within the British rail industry on the length of rail franchises. Different people in the industry will give different answers on that. If we were to increase the length of franchises and there was a particularly profitable franchise, we would be in a position to double its length but not to accept any premiums from the company that was chosen to run it. That is an absurd policy position.
Before I move to my main remarks, let me have one more go at the hon. Gentleman. He asked whether the new trains for the inter-city express programme will be built in Britain, and made it clear that he thinks that the Government should deliberately choose a British company to manufacture the new trains. I absolutely sympathise with that view because I share his concern for British manufacturing. However, his party is known in the House as being particularly pro-European—arguably more so than the other two parties. Is he saying, as his party’s Front-Bench spokesman on transport, that the Government should deliberately seek a prorogation from European procurement rules that oblige Britain to seek the cheapest possible tender from throughout the European Union? Is that the Liberal Democrat party policy? If so, it is quite courageous, but I suspect that he has not cleared his comments with the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).
I shall not take an intervention on that point, but will let the hon. Gentleman consider it. Time is moving on and I have only six minutes left to reply to my hon. Friends who spoke.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raises an important subject. Our inter-city services are the backbone of Britain’s rail network and make an essential economic contribution by connecting our most important city centres quickly and efficiently. The record growth of Britain’s railways in the past decade is well-documented. Inter-city services have played a significant part in that growth. More than half of all rail travel is for distances of 50 miles and above. Indeed, it is in such longer-distance markets that rail is strongest. Although rail accounts for only 2 per cent. of journeys overall, it accounts for more than five times that percentage for longer distance journeys. It now completely overshadows the short-haul air market to as far north as Manchester and Yorkshire and competes effectively as a mode of travel to Newcastle.
Rail used to have 40 per cent. of the market share for travel from London to Manchester. That market share rose to 60 per cent. after the west coast main line upgrade was completed, and is expected to grow to 80 per cent. when the 2008 timetable is implemented. Interestingly, rail is used as much, if not more, by those who own or have access to a car as by those who do not. Sensibly, many drivers choose instead to let the inter-city train take the strain. Is that the phrase to which the hon. Member for Wimbledon referred earlier?
In terms of origin and destination, London dominates the inter-city market, just as it does rail in general. However, in considering our important inter-city and inter-urban links, we must not forget cross-country services or the TransPennine Express. Those services provide valuable long-distance connections and have the secondary function of supporting key commuter markets. That happens on all the mainline radial routes into London, but cross-country services also pick up commuter traffic around Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds, making these routes some of the most crowded on the inter-city network at peak times. In the past 10 years, the average trip length on inter-city services has fallen by 10 per cent., which shows that increasing numbers of commuters are now using those services and mixing with long-distance business and leisure travellers.
The House will be aware that the Government are re-letting several inter-city franchises. Bids for the new cross-country and east midlands franchises have been received and the Department is undertaking a detailed and rigorous evaluation of them. The inter-city east coast invitation to tender went out last week.
The cross-country market has changed significantly in the past five years, as the number of journeys on those services has grown spectacularly from 12 million journeys a year in 1997 to 20 million last year. Most of that growth was in the core section between Bristol, Reading, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. About 10 per cent. of cross-country journeys are more than 200 miles. In the past five years, the average journey length has decreased by 20 miles, which suggests that fewer very long-distance journeys are being taken, and that there are more short to medium-distance travellers.
By responding to those changes, the new franchise will bring several key benefits to passengers. I hope that these points address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. There will be increased capacity on the core sections where trains are busiest, and services will run to a clock-face timetable to improve predictability and reliability. The frequency of services will be maintained on the core routes, and timetabling improvements will simplify train operations and should lead to improved timekeeping for all new cross-country services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith raised his specific concerns about cross-country services between Manchester and Scotland. They will cease in December 2007, but the TransPennine Express Manchester airport to Cumbria service will be extended to central Scotland. Service frequency between Manchester and central Scotland will remain as it is today and journey times will, at the very least, remain similar to those now, with the possibility of accelerations. Simply put, that service is not being downgraded.
Before I step up a gear and try to speak at 350 words a minute, I tell hon. Members that I am more than happy to address in writing later any points that I am unable to address today. As there are less than two minutes left, that it is highly likely to happen.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar), who asked about the uncertainty hovering over the heads of GNER employees. As I said in the House last Tuesday in transport questions, GNER employees will be protected by the TUPE regulations.
The circumstances of the re-letting of the inter-city east coast franchise are such that the specifications for the new franchise will broadly continue the existing operation, including cross-border services and those north of Edinburgh, with the addition of the London to Leeds half-hourly service that will start in May 2007. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith that there is no need for an inquiry into why GNER lost its franchise. That fact that its franchise was taken away is evidence that the Department for Transport will continue to act robustly when any franchisee fails to meet its obligations under the franchise contract. That is an essential function of the Department, as we are responsible for ensuring that passengers get the best possible value for money.