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Rail Services

Volume 459: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2007

The March 2006 target of 85 per cent. punctuality and reliability was met with performance reaching 86 per cent. by that date. Since then, the Department for Transport has been working successfully with train operating companies to create the conditions for further improvement. Punctuality and reliability on the railway are now at 88 per cent. on average.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, but I have to tell him that punctuality and reliability are not words that my constituents in Bridgend use in relation to First Great Western. I know that that is true among the constituents of my colleagues along the whole of the south Wales corridor. What meetings is the Minister having with First Great Western, and will he please press it to start to improve its reliability and punctuality?

My hon. Friend knows that I have raised First Great Western’s performance with the company on several occasions. It accepts that its performance following the production of the December 2006 timetable was not acceptable. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome the recovery plan that has been drawn up jointly by First Great Western and Network Rail to improve performance. I assure her that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to apply any pressure necessary to bring about the improvements in performance that we wish to see.

In terms of distance from London, the train service to Gloucestershire is one of the worst in the country. To improve the reliability and punctuality of the service—again, it is operated by First Great Western—would the Minister support an increase in rail capacity when that is put to him by Network Rail? The company has feasibility money to dual the line from Swindon to Kemble and from Oxford to Worcester Shrub Hill. Will the Minister support those proposals when they come before him?

Of course, the Government are always willing to consider capacity improvements when there is a robust business case. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me with more details of the proposal, I will be more than happy to look at them.

Given the horrific experience that we have recently been having in Swansea with First Great Western, when the Minister meets the company will he look for a commitment above and beyond its existing franchise? While the company has the franchise agreement now, I am severely worried about the service in the future.

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue. She will understand the Government’s position: we must have certain minimum specifications. Unlike the Conservative party, we believe that a minimum level of service that must be provided by franchisees should be written into franchise agreements.

I know that my hon. Friend is especially worried about the removal of the 17.15 service from Cardiff to Swansea and the effect of overcapacity on services run by Arriva Trains Wales. She will know that I went down to Cardiff two months ago and travelled on the Arriva Trains Wales connecting services from Cardiff to Swansea. I know that she will be disappointed that I found that there was plenty of spare capacity on those services. However, I will be more than happy to speak to First Great Western to ensure that it meets its commitments under the franchise agreement.

I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge the great improvement in reliability and punctuality on the c2c line since it was privatised. However, is he aware that some of my constituents were trapped on a train last week for more than seven hours because of problems on the line? Will he look into bringing forward work on the line’s signalling and overhead power lines?

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the improved efficiency and performance on the rail network. There are inevitably occasions when passengers are inconvenienced, which is always a matter of some regret. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that the record amounts that are about to be invested in the network by Network Rail will lead to a major step change in the improvement of the infrastructure in this country.