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McNulty Report and West Coast Rail

Volume 528: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the publication today of Sir Roy McNulty’s independent study into value for money in the rail industry, and to update the House about the west coast franchise process.

Sir Roy’s report notes that UK rail has enjoyed a revival in recent years, with strong and resilient growth in overall passenger numbers and in passenger satisfaction, and huge improvements in reliability and safety. The Government want Britain’s railways to continue to prosper and have demonstrated by their actions their commitment to them. Despite the difficult fiscal climate, we have allocated funding to complete Crossrail and Thameslink, and to support the upgrade of the London underground. We have announced electrification on the great western main line and in north-west England. We have resumed the intercity express programme to improve reliability, comfort and journey times on the east coast and Great Western main lines. We have given the go-ahead to the Ordsall chord project in Manchester and the Swindon to Kemble redoubling. We have confirmed the purchase of more than 2,000 new rail vehicles for Thameslink, Crossrail and other franchises, and the cascading of 100s more. Last but not least, we have begun the High Speed 2 consultation process.

But Sir Roy made another, less welcome, finding. Spending on the passenger railway has increased by 60% in real terms since 1996-97—that is more than £4 billion—and despite significant passenger growth, unit costs in 2009 were almost exactly the same in real terms as in 1996. Therefore, UK rail is now up to 40% more expensive per passenger mile than the railways of our European competitors. Allowing for unavoidable differences, Sir Roy estimates that UK rail costs are 20% to 30% higher than they should be, and that potential savings of between £740 million and £1.05 billion a year could be found by 2018-19 without any reduction in services. Those savings, added to the savings that Network Rail is committed to achieving up to 2014 and the savings that Sir Roy expects the regulator to seek from Network Rail over the period to 2019, should largely close the efficiency gap.

Many of Sir Roy’s recommendations are directed to the industry, and the open and inclusive process that the study adopted means that some of them are already being implemented. The industry has come together to form a rail delivery group to provide the leadership that Sir Roy noted was lacking in the past. Network Rail has announced its plans to devolve significant autonomy to route managers across the network, starting with the Wessex and Scottish regions.

Sir Roy’s remit, which was set by my predecessor and the Office of Rail Regulation which co-sponsored the study, was narrowly focused on the cost base of the railway. He makes a large number of recommendations. Over the coming months, the Government will consider the recommendations that are directed to them, and they will deliver their response later this year. Many of the recommendations on franchises reflect the changes that the Government have already announced. In addition, I can confirm today that my Department will accept Sir Roy’s recommendation that it should conduct a full review of fares policy, which will include addressing anomalies in the current system and the potential for much greater use of smart technology. In parallel, the Government are developing a wider rail strategy to ensure that we have an affordable, sustainable, safe and high-quality railway that delivers a better deal to taxpayers and fare payers. It will set out clearly the roles of central and local government, train operators and Network Rail in securing the future of the railway.

This is urgent and vital work. Let us be in no doubt that the excessive cost base that Sir Roy has identified is the reason that UK rail fares are the highest in Europe by some margin, even though our levels of taxpayer subsidy are also among the highest in Europe. Let us be clear about the potential prize. The successful delivery of cost reductions over the next few years on the scale set out by McNulty would enable us to reduce levels of taxpayer subsidy and, at the same time, put the era of inflation-busting fare increases behind us.

To achieve the challenging targets for cost reduction and industry-wide efficiency that Sir Roy has identified, all players in the industry will have to work together. The train operators, Network Rail, rolling stock companies, unions and the Government cannot avoid playing their part if we are to deliver a sustainable and affordable railway for the future.

Sir Roy makes it clear that the Department needs to step back from excessively detailed specification of train services and the micro-management of rail operations. I recognise that that will represent a major culture change, but it is one that I am determined to deliver. I would like to place on record my thanks to Sir Roy McNulty and his team for the excellent work they have done, and to welcome Sir Roy’s commitment to working with the industry on an ongoing basis.

I also wish to announce to the House the publication of the draft invitation to tender and stakeholder briefing document for the intercity west coast franchise, which lays out the train service specification that I am minded to procure for that route. As I have said, the Government have already adopted Sir Roy’s recommendation that franchise specifications should become less prescriptive. The proposed train service specification for intercity west coast represents a relaxation of the rigid timetable specifications of the past, while retaining obligations that protect the key elements of service such as principal first and last train services and minimum numbers of station stops per week and per day. That marks a significant shift from the micro-management under the current system that has prevented operators from maximising capacity and reacting to the changing demands of their passengers.

Among other proposed changes, we intend to replace the current cap and collar revenue-sharing system that has driven perverse behaviour by train operators with a gross domestic product-based risk-sharing arrangement and a profit-sharing mechanism that will ensure that the taxpayer benefits from any unexpected profits over the term of the franchise.

Because the relaxation of the full prescription of train services in line with Sir Roy’s recommendations was not signalled in the consultation document that we published on 19 January, I have decided that it is right and proper to consult on the proposals again, starting today and ending on 17 August. As a consequence of that decision, I can inform the House that the new franchise for the intercity west coast will now be awarded in August 2012, after a competitive process involving the four shortlisted train operators, and will commence operations on 9 December 2012. In making that decision, I have deliberately avoided a change of franchise immediately ahead of or during the Olympic period. I have also decided to take advantage of the short delay to complete the integration of the 106 new Pendolino carriages into the fleet prior to the commencement of the new franchise. The Department will seek to agree acceptable terms with the existing franchisee for a contract extension to 9 December 2012, but Directly Operated Railways Ltd, the Government-owned company that runs East Coast, will be ready to operate the franchise between April and December 2012 if necessary.

Copies of the rail value-for-money study and the draft invitation to tender for the west coast main line have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available on the Department’s website. Our expectation is that future passenger franchises on UK rail will allow operators greater flexibility to meet passenger demand and pursue innovation, while protecting the key elements of service for passengers.

Longer franchises and a changed relationship with Network Rail will have a positive impact on the behaviour of train operators and their appetite for investment and risk taking. However, I want to send a clear message that the new culture of co-operation in the rail industry, and the focus on cost reduction, is here to stay and is mandatory, not optional. I can announce today that as a matter of policy for all future franchise competitions, a significant part of the assessment of bidders’ capability at the pre-qualification stage will be evidence of success in collaborative working and driving down costs.

The facts are clear: our railway costs too much, and in consequence fares are rising faster than inflation and taxpayer subsidy has reached unsustainable levels. To secure the future of the railway, we now have to tackle that problem after a decade of ignoring it and get costs into line with those of our European comparators, bringing relief to taxpayers and the prospect of an end to the era of above-inflation fare increases to passengers. I commend this statement to the House.

I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. May I place on record the thanks of Labour Members to Sir Roy McNulty for the detailed and thorough work that he has carried out? As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that work began under the previous Government.

I have said before that we would look seriously at the conclusions of the value-for-money review and support any sensible proposals to take costs out of the industry. I promise again today that we will study the details of Sir Roy’s report, and that it will inform our own transport policy review.

I agree with the Secretary of State that we should reduce the public subsidy to the rail industry, and we need to be clear about why much of that subsidy exists if we are to address it effectively. It is partly the result of the enormous structural fragmentation within the industry, and let us be clear that that fragmentation is the legacy of the botched privatisation carried out in the dying days of the last Conservative Government. The Secretary of State should have apologised today for the shambles of that privatisation and the staggering sums of money wasted as a result. Unlike him, I take our share of the responsibility for being too timid about addressing that fragmentation during our time in government.

Closer working between train operators and Network Rail makes sense, and I support the internal reorganisation that is going on at Network Rail and many of the proposals that have been made to ensure that costs are removed through greater partnership. I am pleased that the Secretary of State appears to have stepped back from his earlier plans for the wholesale breaking up of our rail infrastructure, which would have been a costly mistake and added yet more fragmentation to the industry. Can he confirm that he does not intend to proceed with an experiment of handing track over to train operating companies within any of the franchise areas? Previously there has been briefing that the East Anglia franchise would be used for that experiment. Can he reassure the House that that is no longer the plan?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to establish a proper review of fares. Despite the efforts that we made, the current system is too complex and leaves passengers frustrated. However, does he understand why passengers will have very little faith that he does not intend to impose yet further hikes in ticket prices? At a time when families are feeling the squeeze on their household budgets, he has imposed fare rises of more than 30% over the next three years. I believe he was wrong to give back to train companies the right to average out the cap across their fares, rather than apply it to each fare individually as we insisted when we were in government. He was also wrong to increase the cap on regulated fares from 1% to 3% above inflation.

In opposition, the current Minister of State said that fare rises of such a level would

“price people off the railways”,

and the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), promised below-inflation fare rises—more broken promises from the two Government parties. Will the Secretary of State reject proposals to give the train operating companies greater freedom to set the level of fares? Will he listen to his own consumer watchdog, Passenger Focus, which has today described the suggestion of reducing regulation on off-peak tickets as a “leap in the dark”? Does he share its concern, as I do, that if the plans go ahead, we might end up with affordable, flexible travel for longer journeys being confined to a brief window in the middle of the day?

Will the Secretary of State also reject the suggestion to remove any role for politicians in the setting of fares, which would effectively remove any public accountability for fares through the ballot box? The link between the fare box and the ballot box should not be broken.

May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to approach reform to staffing levels and pay and conditions within the rail industry in a spirit of partnership, not confrontation? That is something that we have not seen in the language and tone of briefings by his Department in recent days. I urge the trade unions to work with the Government as they look to carry out reforms within the industry, but will he ensure that he includes those who represent staff on the high-level group that he is establishing to take forward these reforms? As he considers staffing, will he understand the value that passengers place on staffed trains and open ticket offices, and the fact that women in particular feel safer in properly staffed stations, particularly late at night?

We have heard today the extent to which the right hon. Gentleman’s policy on rail franchising has descended into chaos and confusion, with his decision to delay the awarding of the west coast franchise. Can he confirm that First Group is to hand back its Great Western franchise three years ahead of schedule? Is the reason that it has given for that decision, as reported in the press, that it has calculated that it will make losses in the final years of its franchise period? Does he agree that that is unacceptable?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that there is a possibility that the east coast main line, the west coast main line and the Great Western franchises will all be run by the Government while he decides what his franchising policy is? Does that not make a mockery of the whole franchising system?

Does the Secretary of State understand why commuters in East Anglia are dismayed at the cost and chaos of his decision to award a contract for less than two years, risking three owners in as many years, with only the companies that supply the paint to redo the liveries benefiting? Are not the future of franchising, the massive public subsidies that go to the private train operating companies, and the vast sums that leave the industry in profits the big missing pieces of the work of looking at costs in the industry?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to replace the current cap and collar revenue-sharing system, but does he agree that we will not get the costs of the industry under control until we look seriously at its structure and the future of franchising? The public want a simplified industry—one in which the driving force is less maximising profit and squeezing every last penny out of the fare payer and the taxpayer, and more the delivery of a world-class service. That is why I have committed Labour’s policy review to look at alternative models for the future of the rail industry, including not-for-profit models. I urge him to do the same.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman’s statement was not the only announcement to be widely spun and briefed to the media in advance of his coming before the House. Several newspapers are reporting that he has abandoned his plans to close more than half the UK’s coastguard stations, yet the Opposition understand that far from abandoning the plans, he has simply put them on hold. Those plans were never agreed by Ministers in the previous Government, and I would not have approved them. Will he now take this opportunity to end the huge uncertainty facing coastguard stations and agree to abandon those reckless proposals?

I might get some guidance from you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on whether it is appropriate for me to respond to the hon. Lady’s comments on coastguards—I would be happy to do so if you indicate that that is in order.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for that very helpful guidance.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments about Sir Roy, who was of course appointed by my predecessor. I very much hope that we can take forward the rail reform agenda with a degree of cross-party consensus, which would be very helpful—realistically, it is asking a great deal to expect that we will agree on everything.

The hon. Lady blames “structural fragmentation” for the high cost of our railway. She obviously has not yet had a chance to read the full report, but when she does, she will see that Sir Roy identifies many causes. However, she seems to be displaying the famous Labour disease of collective amnesia. She might recall the inconvenient facts that her Government created Network Rail a decade ago, and that her Government spent 13 years in power doing nothing at all about the structural fragmentation of which she now complains.

The way forward that passengers and taxpayers would expect us to take for our railway is one of evolution rather than revolution, although that evolution must be rapid. I have taken a conscious decision, which I conveyed to Sir Roy, that I would like to see how far we can go within the existing railways legislative framework rather than spark an ultimately unproductive and, for passengers, entirely unhelpful political debate over the next couple of years on major railway legislation. The idea of Sir Roy McNulty’s agenda is to take forward significant reductions in costs in the railway within the existing legislative framework.

The hon. Lady asked about track-train integration. As she will know, Sir Roy has suggested that we pilot closer integration between train operators and the devolved Network Rail infrastructure operations on the different routes and regions. Sir Roy suggested that the railway is not homogeneous, and that we should go forward at different paces on different sections of our railway. I agree with that general principle. We will look very carefully at Sir Roy’s specific proposals and suggestions on track-train integration, and incorporate a response into the wider rail reform proposals with which I intend to return to the House before the end of this year.

The hon. Lady welcomed the fares review, and I am grateful to her for that. She asked whether the review is a cover or code word for increases in prices, but I say this to her: the Government want an end to the era in which fares rise faster than inflation, but we can do that only by delivering Sir Roy’s savings and by getting the costs of our railway back under control. That prize is within our grasp if we progress Sir Roy’s agenda. To reassure her, I have no intention of ending the system of regulated fares. That is not suggested by Sir Roy, and I know not where she got the idea that I was in favour of it.

The hon. Lady asked me to try to take a collaborative approach with the unions on labour productivity. I would be delighted to do so if an opportunity arises. I was slightly heartened by what I heard Bob Crow say on the radio this morning, although I may have heard only a part of the total interview. He said he was willing to look at proposals for more efficient working practices, which is at least better than his saying that he is not willing to look at such proposals. We must be clear that all players in the industry must change if we are to harvest those savings. The prize for the unions is also big. The railway is a growing industry—it is not in decline, as it was before privatisation, but growing rapidly and robustly—and huge increases in passenger numbers are projected. If we can deal with the problems of the cost base, we could have a hugely successful business for the benefit of British fare payers and taxpayers.

The hon. Lady has won me a small bet by referring to my strategy on west coast franchising as being in “chaos and confusion”, so I am grateful to her for that. In fact, I have today announced an example of open government. We could have progressed with the draft invitation to tender that I published today without further consultation, but I felt that because there has been a material change from the documents that we circulated at the time of the January consultation, it is right to consult again. That introduces a three-month delay, and I do not want the franchise changeover to come immediately before the Olympics, which necessarily means a delay until the latter part of next year, which gives us the opportunity to complete the integration of the Pendolino fleet. We have taken a set of careful and interlinked decisions on the timetable for that franchise, and I hope that, on reflection, she welcomes the approach that we have adopted.

The hon. Lady asked about First Great Western. It is of course true that First Great Western has decided to exercise the break clause that exists in its franchise, which allows it to surrender it in 2013 rather than in 2016. However, before she adopts too strident a tone, she should remember who let that franchise with that break clause in it. First Group has exercised the rights that her Government gave it in that franchise. She might also reflect on the fact that her Government let the GNER franchise and the NXEA franchise before she gets too strident about them as well.

The hon. Lady mentioned profit in the railway. I do not consider “profit” to be a dirty word. I consider that proper incentives and profit-making companies delivering efficient public services can be effective ways of delivering for the taxpayer and the passenger. This Government will introduce a profit-sharing arrangement in new franchises, the like of which does not appear in the current crop of franchises, which her Government let, and the like of which would have prevented situations such as the one on the Trans-Pennine franchise, where profits of 30% on revenue are being earned. We will ensure that the taxpayer gets a fair share of any unanticipated profits that are earned over the lifetime of the franchise. I hope that we all have the same objective—the delivery of a world-class railway service that is affordable for taxpayers and for fare payers. However, to deliver that, we have to drive out cost-effectively and, after Members and others have heard what I have had to say and what the hon. Lady has had to say, it will be for them to decide who will most effectively be able to achieve that objective.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that for many Swindon residents travelling to and from London to work during peak hours has resulted in eye-wateringly high fares for far too many years? What hope can he offer them for the future of peak-time rail fares?

There are two things that I can say to my hon. Friend. First, if we do not address the challenges that Sir Roy has set out, there will be only one direction of travel—worse services and higher prices. That is not acceptable to anybody in this House or in the country.

I want to make a point specifically about commuter fares and season tickets. At the moment, we have a very inflexible system of season tickets. People buy a season ticket which assumes that they will travel in peak hours every day. Increasingly, people have opportunities for flexible working patterns—indeed, the Government are committed to giving people greater opportunities for flexible working patterns. Smart ticketing technology will allow us to be able to start to recognise people who have a pattern of work that allows them to work at home one day a week or a fortnight, instead of their having to pay the rail fare even though they are not using the railway. That technology can help us to address some of the perverse incentives that season ticket holders currently have to use the railway in peak time when perhaps they do not always need to do so.

On the issue of value for money and rail electrification, can the Secretary of State undertake to have a look at transnational transport funding from Europe to help to support the case for the Swansea to Cardiff electrification? It would complete the electrification from Paddington to Swansea and, with the ferry link to Ireland, provide access to significant European funding.

I have already made a statement to the House on the economics of the electrification from Cardiff to Swansea and I am afraid that those economics have not changed, but if the hon. Gentleman is raising the issue of trans-European network funding, I am not aware that there is any still available. However, I undertake to have a look at that potential source of funding.

I welcome this report and congratulate Sir Roy McNulty on it. Commuters and other travellers have suffered for far too long from high and complex fares and overcrowded trains. Can the Secretary of State assure me and all those who use the trains that the savings that must be made from the system will be returned to people in lower fares and better services?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have to put it to him slightly differently: the savings will be returned to people in the form of lower taxpayer subsidy—which we have to deliver, because my Department, like every other Department, has to make its contribution to dealing with the fiscal mess that we inherited—and in due course, if they are successful, there will be lower pressure for upward real increases in fares. I would like to see a return to a world in which fares rise broadly in line with inflation, and a move away from the era of inflation-busting fare increase that we have faced over the last few years and, unfortunately, will have to face over the next three years.

The McNulty report did not seriously consider the possibility of the reintegration of the rail system into public ownership. I mention that because many systems abroad are largely in public ownership. One of the reasons why our system is at least 30% more expensive is the billions of pounds siphoned off in profits and dividends. Will the Secretary of State explain why they did not look at that option and why it is not on the table at the moment?

A good old Labour contribution from below the gangway! Sir Roy McNulty did look at the options of greater integration, but the hon. Gentleman might not be aware that things have moved on a little in Europe since the last time he read the manual. European law on railways has evolved, and the separation of train operations from track operations is now mandated across the European Union. While much of the railway is still in public ownership, it is not integrated in the way that he may imagine.

Sir Roy’s clear conclusion was that a monolithic UK-wide system is not the direction of travel and that more devolution of responsibility and autonomy to route networks is the way forward.

Although I understand the reasons behind the delay in the decision on the west coast main line franchise, can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the decision will include provision for the train operators to play a more active role in the future of stations, especially in their infrastructure and presentation to passengers?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The proposal that we have put forward—as he will see when he has a chance to look at the invitation to tender—is that the train operators should be granted a peppercorn rent lease of the station for the duration of the franchise. We also propose a revised residual value mechanism, so that train operators have an incentive to invest capital in station infrastructure throughout their franchises with the confidence that they will be reimbursed a fair value for that investment at the end of the franchise.

Does Sir Roy’s report which, from what the Secretary of State has said, is very stimulating and interesting, mention the possibility of mutualisation or a co-operative form for Network Rail? We want a profitable, safe and effective service but if, as MP for Huddersfield, I look at the rolling stock that gets my constituents to Wakefield, Leeds and Manchester, I see that it leaves a great deal to be desired. Could we also see some changes on that front?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have been pleased by the announcement that we made recently about additional rolling stock for the commuter services into Leeds. Sir Roy did not specifically address the question of any form of mutual structure. Network Rail is of course an independent company, and as Secretary of State I do not have any power to direct it. There are issues of the governance of Network Rail that need to be addressed, and I accept that, but I suggest that the urgent need is to look at its operational structure. The issues of governance and the rather theoretical question of ownership can be looked at on a longer time horizon. Right now we need to drive out cost.

Following the work of the last Government, there are no fast off-peak services on the west coast main line to or from Nuneaton station. Many of the fast off-peak trains thunder through Nuneaton station half empty while there is a strong demand for off-peak services to and from that station. Will the west coast main line specification make it possible for franchisees to look, for example, at changing services so perhaps a fast train could stop at Nuneaton station every hour, trading off a small increase in end-to-end journey times for the possibility of maximising revenue on that service?

I thought, at the beginning of my hon. Friend’s question, that perhaps he had missed what I said about less departmental micro-management, but I saw from how he ended that he had not missed it all. We will not mandate the new franchisee to do what he describes, but we will make it possible by relaxing the rigid timetabling and specification imposed in the past. We will also give operators an incentive to do so. By moving away from the cap and collar revenue-sharing regime, we will make operators much more responsive to the demands of passengers waiting on a platform and ready to pay good money to get on a train. In the past, that has not always been the case, because 80% of what passengers handed over went directly to the Government.

I note what the Secretary of State said about subsidies and fares—we will return to that later in the year—but will he give us a progress report on the Coventry Knuckle project, which I am sure he knows a lot about, because it would help Coventry’s economic situation?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I had a productive meeting with him, some of his parliamentary colleagues and local councillors about the project. I think they took from that meeting clear guidance on what needs to be done to raise the project’s prospects of achieving local authority major scheme funding. I remain happy to engage with him and his colleagues in progressing that project.

Wages in Hastings have fallen dramatically against the rest of the south-east in the past 10 years, but wages of commuters are significantly higher. Does the Secretary of State agree that if we manage to redress the imbalance between the continually deteriorating service and higher wages, we would improve the regeneration of towns such as Hastings as well as the quality of life of commuters themselves?

My hon. Friend is right. High-quality rail services deliver major economic benefits to the towns they serve, which, of course, is one of the major rationales behind the Government’s enthusiasm for the high-speed rail project.

What consideration has been given to a Welsh franchise based on a not-for-profit model operated by the Welsh Government? I believe that is the policy of at least two of the main parties in the National Assembly.

I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that franchising policy in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, so it will be for them to decide when the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise comes up for renewal, which—off the top of my head—is in 2016. However, I said something this morning that he will be interested in: I indicated that when we return to the House later this year with our proposals for broader rail reform, we will consider the greater devolution of regional railways and regional railway funding, both to the devolved Administrations and to local authorities and integrated transport authorities around the country. That will enable us to oversee the national strategic rail routes, but not manage the regional and local railways system, from the Department in London. That seems a sensible way of proceeding.

I welcome the greater autonomy for Network Rail route managers in the Wessex area, because rail passengers in my constituency are endlessly frustrated by the pass-the-parcel attitude to responsibility for performance on the railways. In the light of First Great Western’s recent announcement, will the timing for the letting of the Great Western franchise enable the Government fully to embrace the McNulty report proposals in setting out the future of rail travel for my constituents?

Yes, of course. The fact that the Great Western franchise will be re-let in 2013 will enable us to bring forward to that date the incorporation of the benefits of McNulty’s work. However, I would re-emphasise that one of Sir Roy’s key conclusions—one that I strongly share—is that our railway is not the same in every area. What is right for the west coast main line might not be right for the East Anglia franchise. What is right for the northern franchise might not be right for the south-eastern franchise. We will consider each franchise individually, and look at different models appropriate to the type of railway involved. We will proceed on that basis, and we will learn as we go.

The west coast main line has improved dramatically over the years in both capacity and reliability, because of the investment made. However, it is the victim of its own success. Use has risen exponentially and the trains are packed at peak times. Despite what the Secretary of State said about regulated fares, there is a widespread fear that the proposals he has announced will allow substantial increases in off-peak rail travel fares. If that is so, it will not only damage people travelling in off-peak periods, but remove the incentive to plan one’s travel and thus make the crush at peak times even worse. What can he say in response to those fears?

I can say that they are unfounded. By the way, the right hon. Gentleman made the case for High Speed 2 more eloquently than I could. It will deliver a massive increase in capacity on the west coast corridor and allow much more innovative and flexible services on the west coast main line, which is now operating at—or very close to—capacity. However, there is a serious point about pricing and cliff edges in the pricing system. Anyone who stands at Euston station on a Friday evening will see that nobody wants to board a train at 6.50 pm or 6.55 pm, because that means paying the peak fare. They are all trying to get on the train at 7.2 pm, to the extent that the British Transport police regularly have to deploy to physically keep people off the trains for safety’s sake. That is a barmy pricing system. We have to consider the anomalies of massive cliff edges and try to smooth them out, so that there is less of an incentive not to travel on a particular train. However, overall I would expect such a move to be revenue-neutral across regulated fares; this is about managing the system better, not raising more money.

One of the understandable grumbles of the Kettering rail users group is that for historical reasons the fare for a journey from Kettering to London is disproportionately higher than that for a journey to London of a similar length from other places. Will the fares policy review seek to iron out such anomalies?

I do not want to pre-empt the rail fares policy review, to which I am sure that my hon. Friend will make a submission, but I have recently enjoyed meeting the Northampton rail users group, and the Minister of State has just said that she would be happy to meet the Kettering rail users groups, so perhaps we can carry a dialogue forward.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. On a constituency matter, with regard to First Great Western and the handing back of the franchise, I would welcome the Secretary of State or the Minister convening a meeting of the relevant MPs along that line to discuss the security of service provision. This looks like a creeping re-nationalisation of the railway service—but there we are! However, as the Secretary of State said, there is a big staffing agenda. All three rail unions have welcomed the opportunity to work with the Government on that agenda. However, it is crucial that they are represented at every level of the industry and in every forum discussing the staffing agenda. It is not conducive to good industrial relations to have statements about threats of further anti-trade union legislation at this time.

I will have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman on creeping re-nationalisation: there is not one, and I can assure him that so long as I am in this job, there will not be one. However, I am happy to meet MPs along that route to talk about the Great Western franchise. First Group will continue to operate the franchise until 2013, and it has assured us that it will operate it as normal and run the franchise properly during that period. It has every incentive to do so, because, as I just announced, our policy is that eligibility for participating in franchise competitions will depend on demonstrated ability to deliver co-operative working, and to bear down on cost pressures.

I am absolutely ready to meet the unions. In fact, I think my office is in the process of arranging a meeting with the rail unions through the TUC, which I hope can play a constructive role in this process—it is a process I think we all want—of making this a viable and affordable industry that has a bright future, and which will employ not fewer but more people as the railway expands on the trajectory of current projections.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s approach to the west coast main line franchise. As has been said, overcrowding in standard class in particular is a problem on the west coast main line. I pay tribute to the quality and courtesy of the staff I encounter in difficult circumstances. However, first-class carriages are often under-utilised. Can he confirm whether the new franchise will include a duty to take all practical measures to ensure that people do not have to stand on trains that often travel at more than 120 mph?

As I said earlier, the intention is to be less prescriptive. Train operators already have the freedom to de-designate first-class carriages and reconfigure their trains if they want to, and all the new Pendolino cars that will be inserted in existing nine-car sets will be standard-class carriages. I do not want to talk about imposing a specific duty on operators, but they will have to deliver on targets to reduce overcrowding, and we have powers to force them to take action if they do not.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sir Roy McNulty on two occasions during his consultation. I put to him the points made by Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator, that British Rail worked miracles on a pittance and that when the railways were handed over to the privateers, they were handed over “in good order”—his words. Also, the Catalyst report recorded BR as having the highest productivity of all the railways in Europe. BR was desperately underfunded, with not enough investment, but it worked miracles on a pittance. I also put it to Sir Roy that the staggering rise in costs that has occurred since privatisation is a direct result of privatisation. I personally believe that it is pie in the sky to think that we will bring those costs down without public ownership again. When is the Secretary of State going to look at that again?

I am not. I think the hon. Gentleman suffers from the disease—which I have noticed is quite widespread—of taking a rose-tinted retrospective view of British Rail. People were quick enough to criticise and complain about British Rail’s performance when it was operating; now, at 15 years’ distance, that era suddenly appears to have been some halcyon period of British excellence. The hon. Gentleman is right that British Rail operated the railway on a shoestring at relatively low cost, but in doing so it built up a tremendous legacy of under-investment and disregard for safety risk, the terrible consequences of which we saw only too clearly in the late 1990s and the early years of this century.

I welcome this report and the associated cost reductions on the west coast main line. We can learn from this report, so will my right hon. Friend please ensure that the forecast build and running costs for High Speed 2 are not exaggerated?

Yes. The High Speed 2 business case and the build and running costs put forward in the consultation document incorporate the Treasury’s generous additional percentages for risk and optimism bias—with as much as 60% added to the basic costs in some cases—to address the very concern that my hon. Friend outlines.

In all this emphasis on devolving and transferring responsibility to train operating companies, does the Secretary of State not recognise that there is a danger of losing the whole principle of having an integrated rail service, with integrated timetabling and ticketing for those who make complicated journeys? Additionally, he did not say very much in his statement about reopening disused branch lines, which could well benefit by becoming a useful feeder service into the network, or about the east-west freight line, which is so important in increasing freight usage and using existing rail tracks more efficiently.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, which allows me to make an important point. Integration in the railway at the level of timetabling, planning and route network operation is important. The hon. Gentleman will not have had a chance to read the report yet, but Sir Roy makes that point clearly. Those things have to be done on an industry-wide basis; they cannot be fragmented when greater autonomy is devolved to network rail route managers or when train operators are given greater flexibility.

The hon. Gentleman also talks about reopening disused lines. I am afraid to tell him that work on the cost base has a little way to go before that becomes a practical reality. However, as I said earlier, I intend to look carefully at the case for devolving responsibility for commissioning services and the budgets with which to do that for regional and local railways later this year. I would expect decisions to reinstate any currently disused lines to be taken at that level.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on this encouraging report. What are the prospects for improved rolling stock on the Leeds-to-York line via Harrogate and Knaresborough? We have rapidly growing numbers of passengers on the route, but the rolling stock is some of the very worst that I have seen in the country.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As I mentioned earlier, an announcement was made recently about additional rolling stock for services into Leeds. I had it in my mind that that covered the route in question, but he is testing the extreme edges of my memory now, so it would be better for me to write to him with the specific answer to that question.

Surely the Secretary of State must accept that fragmentation costs more. For example, I understand that Network Rail employs about 600 legal staff to negotiate with the train operating companies, and no doubt each operating company also employs significant numbers of such staff. Surely we should be looking at integration, as it will save us money.

The hon. Lady has obviously read the RMT press release from this morning. Of course there are additional frictional costs—interfaces—in the operation of the railway that we currently have, with franchisees and an overall network operator. However, there are also a lot of unnecessary costs that are caused by the adversarial relationship between Network Rail and the train operators. As I said earlier, I do not believe that the answer is some massive revolution that requires primary legislation and will take the rest of this Parliament to deliver. Instead, this is about getting people working together differently. Let us get to a railway that is different from the one that we have now. In the railway that we have now, the brightest and the best people in all train operating companies are the ones who spend their lives allocating responsibility for failure and collecting money from each other. Hundreds of people are literally spending their days trying to decide whether each delayed train is the responsibility of Network Rail or of this or that operator. That is not productive. Getting the industry to work together, looking at industry-wide costs and focusing on solving the problems, rather than allocating blame for them, is the way forward.