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Train Operating Companies

Volume 472: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

1. Which train operating company has (a) the worst operational record and (b) the highest recorded level of passenger dissatisfaction in the latest period for which figures are available. (190972)

As hon. Members will be aware, First Great Western has been in breach of its franchise agreement. First Great Western also recorded the highest level of passenger dissatisfaction, as measured by the national passenger survey for autumn 2007.

It used to be called the Great Western Railway or even God’s Wonderful Railway, but now it is Worst Great Western. First Great Western has shortened trains, late trains, cancelled trains, terrible catering and terrible passenger information services, and it operates at the highest price per mile of any transport system in the western world. Surely it is time for the Government to re-examine why they gave it the franchise in the first place.

I agree that performance has been unacceptable for far too long. The package that I set out on 26 February was not just a technical statement about the franchise, because it will bring real benefits to passengers. It will double the compensation that passengers can claim when services are disrupted, allow the introduction of extra rolling stock and make available an extra 500,000 of the cheapest tickets—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the slap of firm government, but I ask her to go even further and deal with that company. First Great Western has caused all of us who travel by train in that part of the world countless delays and cancellations, in addition to its behaviour, which has been even worse. The yellow card is welcome, but how can we make sure that a red card is issued if it does not reform itself?

First Great Western has been put on notice, and its performance must improve. That is why we have agreed with it a remedial plan, which will bring more capacity, more carriages and more drivers to put right the failures in the franchise. As a matter of contract, if the company breaches that remedial plan, it will be open to me to withdraw its franchise.

My constituents can travel directly from Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport in an hour, but that service would be withdrawn under proposals introduced by Southern. Is it the Secretary of State’s view that our roads and car parks are insufficiently congested, and that we should be getting passengers off the trains and into their cars when they go on holiday?

The hon. Gentleman is discussing the Southern franchise rather than First Great Western, but I am happy to take his question. It is true that there is a shortage of rolling stock on that particular route, which we are seeking to address, but the ultimate answer is investment in capacity. We are committed to an extra £10 billion of investment up to 2014, which will deliver 1,300 extra carriages and allow people to get on the train and travel in comfort.

I welcome the deal with First Great Western, which will bring much-needed investment into the franchise. The Minister with responsibility for rail has met First Great Western on numerous occasions in the past eighteen months and read the riot act every time. When I meet people from First Great Western and Network Rail in my constituency on Friday, what message can I give them from the Secretary of State that will convince them that we are serious this time, and that if they do not pull their socks up very quickly the franchise will be taken away?

First Great Western must get a grip, and Moir Lockhead, the First chief executive, has assured me that he will do everything he can to improve services for passengers. The remedial plan will ensure that it meets the terms of its franchise agreement; otherwise I will consider whether to withdraw the franchise. In addition, First Great Western has offered a package of direct benefits for passengers worth £29 million, including the doubling of compensation if trains are delayed or cancelled. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will appreciate that.

My right hon. Friend has given us old promises in this connection, but is she not likely to be challenged by the company in the courts? What action can she take to ensure that that does not happen?

No; I assure my hon. Friend that First Great Western accepts the need to act. It has implemented a remedial plan, which was agreed with my Department, to correct the failures in the franchise, which will be set out in law under the terms of the contract. If it fails to fulfil the terms of that contract and moves into breach, we would call that an event of default, in which case we would have the option of withdrawing the franchise.