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Rail Franchising

Volume 514: debated on Thursday 22 July 2010

3. What progress has been made on his Department’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10276)

9. What progress has been made on the Government’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10283)

10. What progress has been made on the Government’s review of rail franchising; and if he will make a statement. (10284)

The Government today launched their consultation on the future of rail franchising policy. Our proposed reforms will lead to longer, more flexible franchises to incentivise private sector investment in the railways, which will benefit passengers and improve value for money.

Given the current poor standard of commuter service that my constituents in Enfield North receive from National Express, as evidenced by the lowest average customer satisfaction rates across the south-east, how will our franchising proposals improve the experience for passengers in my constituency and elsewhere?

We will ensure that the new rail franchising system imposes on train operators demanding performance requirements, based on passenger outcomes and passenger satisfaction. Operators that do not meet those demanding requirements will face serious sanctions that will include, in the most serious cases, termination of the franchise. We believe that longer franchises will lead to more private sector investment and the improvements to stations and railways that passengers want, to improve their journeys. Longer franchises will also enable train operators to build longer-term working relationships with Network Rail, which are so vital to ensure that our railways are run efficiently and deliver value for money.

Many of my constituents in Milton Keynes are angry that despite paying about £5,000 for annual season tickets and having undergone years of misery as the west coast main line was upgraded, they are still denied access to Virgin trains at peak hours; the trains either do not stop at all or—perversely—they do stop, but only to let people off, not on. The long-term solution is the extra capacity that High Speed 2 will deliver, but will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that when the west coast main line franchise comes up for renewal in 2012, she will ensure that my constituents have fair access to high-speed services?

All representations from the affected communities will be taken on board as the decisions are made. We hope that what will result from the rail franchising reforms on which we are consulting at the moment is a better and more intelligent and flexible approach to timetabling. That will enable the demands of passengers to be more readily met than they are by the current inflexible system. My hon. Friend is right that the long-term solution has to be a new high-speed rail line. There will come a time in the not-too-distant future when the west coast main line will be simply full to bursting and we will need to provide extra capacity. That will release more space for commuting and stopping services on the west coast main line.

The tourist industry in Great Yarmouth is worth almost £500 million, yet the train station is not exactly a welcoming gateway to our town. Residents would like a better station. Will the Minister give some assurance to the residents of Great Yarmouth that under the new franchise agreement we will be able to put some onus on the franchisee and Network Rail, to make sure that they can invest in things such as the stations themselves, so that we can get a better train station for Great Yarmouth?

I recall the discussions that we had on this issue when I visited my hon. Friend’s constituency. I believe that the issue is a prime example of how the reforms that we are proposing could yield significant benefits for passengers. They will give the opportunity for private sector investment in stations such as Great Yarmouth’s. At the moment the franchise is of about seven years, and that simply does not give the certainty needed for private sector investment to pay for itself during the franchise. With longer franchises, we can expect more station improvements of the sort that my hon. Friend wants.

Will the Minister agree to meet a small delegation led by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) to discuss the Nuckle project in Coventry? The situation has been going on for a number of years and it needs resolving one way or another.

Given that franchises have failed already, many more franchises are going to fail under what is likely to be a much harsher financial regime. Is it not time to bring things in-house and begin to recreate the state railway systems that operate so well and so much more cheaply on the continent of Europe?

The hon. Gentleman’s views on the railways are well known, although I am afraid that I do not share them. It would have been impossible for there to have been the significant growth in passenger numbers that we have seen since privatisation without the benefits that private sector innovation and enterprise have brought. Reversing things and renationalising the railways would be a retrograde step.

I note from the Order Paper that there are five identical questions on rail franchises from new MPs no doubt keen to impress their Whips. Half an hour before oral questions we had a press release from the Department for Transport announcing a consultation on the new rail franchises. Will the Minister confirm that in the new consultation that she has announced this morning, there will not be any barriers to stop new models, such as mutuals and co-operatives, from taking over franchises?

There would be no barriers to mutuals and co-operatives bidding for franchises if they fulfilled the criteria. All franchise bids will be judged objectively on the quality of the services they will provide for passengers and value for the taxpayer.