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First Great Western

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

9. What recent discussions he has had with FirstGroup on the future of the First Great Western rail franchise; and if he will make a statement. (61514)

Department for Transport Ministers and officials meet franchised train operators and their owners regularly. These discussions have included the decision which has been announced by First Great Western to exit the franchise in March 2013.

On the electrification of the Great Western line, what action is being taken to ensure that the new franchisee works with Network Rail so that there is minimum customer disruption during that period?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that that element is an important part of the forward programme that is occurring.

When the First Great Western franchise is retendered, would the Minister consider allowing a provision to allow sufficient capital investment to improve the car parking at Kemble, which is already at capacity?

We are reviewing the full franchise process, led by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. As part of the franchise consideration, we are looking at longer franchises that may include that sort of issue in due course.

Given the circumstances in which FirstGroup decided to relinquish the contract, how will the Minister address new franchises so that both the interests of the taxpayer and the welfare of passengers are heeded?

That is an important and quite correct question, because the present franchise held by First Great Western was undoubtedly skewed towards the operator and away from the fare payer and the taxpayer. It is not a franchise that, frankly, the Government would want replicated. The whole process of franchise renewal is designed to eliminate that sort of unfair franchise.

I certainly endorse the Minister’s most recent remarks. Residents in Melksham in my constituency will want to do a lot better from the new franchise than they did from the last one. Will he tell us when the public will have an opportunity to contribute to a consultation on the draft specification for the new Great Western franchise?

I assure my hon. Friend that that matter has been fully taken on board. There will be a full consultation, including with residents of his constituency.

FirstGroup also manages First Capital Connect, the franchisee operating the Thameslink route. As that franchisee has consistently low scores on customer performance, will the Minister give an assurance that the franchise will not automatically be extended in 2015 but that we will have an opportunity to put it out to tender once again?

No decision has been made on that matter, although clearly there are franchise terms to be adhered to by the franchise holder, and requirements in law that must be adhered to by them and the Department. Performance is an important matter for the railway and it is something I take seriously, as does my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed by passengers on the hon. Gentleman’s line and I shall be meeting railway operatives later today to discuss performance on the railway, including on his line.