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Rail Franchising

Volume 522: debated on Thursday 27 January 2011

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On 19 January, the Government set out a new approach to franchising, taking account of the consultation that took place last summer. We expect the reforms to deliver a railway that is more responsive to passenger needs and provides better value for taxpayer investment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Last week, the east coast main line announced a new direct service from London to Harrogate—the first for 20 years—after some excellent local work promoting the economic case for that service. As the new franchise requirements for the east coast main line are developed, will that economic case see Harrogate-London links built into those requirements?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have been impressed with the work done by him, the Harrogate chamber of commerce and Harrogate business interests to make the case for improved rail services between Harrogate and London. I would encourage them to continue that input when the consultation takes place on re-letting the east coast franchise. We will, of course, take those representations into account in our decisions on Harrogate services.

Given the announcement last week that the west coast main line franchise will be up for renewal, how soon does the Minister think we will see the extra carriages and, perhaps, the extra trains that we need to relieve the severe overcrowding on the line, particularly for my constituents in Lancaster?

The Government will be funding 106 extra carriages on the west coast main line, which are due to come into operation with the new franchise. Some of those carriages will be available in a new train that will be available earlier, once its testing period has been completed. At that point, it will be available for Virgin to sub-lease, if ordinary commercial terms can be agreed.

Will the Minister give an assurance that under the new franchise services to north Wales, in particular, will not be reduced, especially given the news this week that services from Wrexham to Marylebone will cease as of Friday?

We are engaged in a consultation on the level of services and the configuration that will go into the west coast main line. We fully appreciate the importance of the services in Wales, including north Wales, and I would encourage the right hon. Gentleman to take part in the consultation. Of course, we are very much aware of passengers’ disappointment at the closure of the Wrexham and Shropshire service, and we will take that on board in the decisions that we make on the west coast line.

Could the Minister say how the reform of rail franchising will support infrastructure investment, especially the necessary electrification on the Wrexham to Bidston line, for example, which runs through my constituency?

I believe that longer franchises, which are a key part of our reform, will provide stronger incentives for private sector investment in improving stations, rolling stock and—potentially—infrastructure. The current short franchises, through which it was difficult to get a return on significant investments of that sort, made it difficult for the private sector to maximise its investment in the railways. The rail franchising reform will therefore help to deliver the sort of improvements that the hon. Lady talks about.

As part of the consultation on the inter-city west coast main line, will the Minister consider the negative impacts of the use of power boxes and mechanical signalling on the ability of franchise holders servicing the north Wales coast to provide an enhanced level of service to my constituents?

We do not seek to micro-manage Network Rail’s decisions on signalling—we take a technologically agnostic approach to that—but we encourage it to deliver its renewals and upgrades in the most cost-effective way possible, and I am happy to pass on my hon. Friend’s points to Network Rail, so that it can take them on board in its decisions.

The demise of the Wrexham-Shropshire service is particularly sad. Local people really valued it, not just because it provided the direct link to London, but because the staff provided a superb service. Would the Minister be willing to meet MPs from all parties with constituencies along the line to discuss how we can consider not just how open-access services operate generally, but how we can put the line through Shropshire and up to north Wales back into the west coast franchise?

I would be happy to have that meeting. I encourage the hon. Gentleman, as I did the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), to take part in the west coast main line consultation under way.

How will the Minister’s franchising reforms facilitate much-needed investment, both trackside and on train, in smarter signalling, such as in the world-class systems developed by Invensys in my constituency, which I would be delighted to show her, if she would be so kind as to visit Chippenham?

I shall certainly try to fit a visit to Chippenham into my diary. As I said to the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), I believe that longer franchises with more flexibility will encourage private sector investment in the railways. Longer franchises in the past for Chiltern Railways have enabled the train operator to become involved in signalling work. However, we have to acknowledge that major infrastructure works will need to continue to attract public funding, although there is no reason to believe that rail franchising reform could not assist private sector and train operator involvement in improving signalling.