I beg to move,
That this House believes that the rising cost of rail travel is adding to the financial pressures facing many households; and calls on the Government to restore the one per cent above inflation cap on annual fare rises for 2013 and 2014, and to ban train operators from increasing fares beyond that strict limit.
I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Mr McLoughlin) on his appointment as Secretary of State. He returns to a Department he left some 20 years ago—time flies—after serving for three years as the Minister with responsibility for aviation and shipping. Only three years thereafter—I hope not as a result of his experience—he took a 17-year vow of silence in the Government and Opposition Whips Offices, from which he emerges today, probably blinking into the light. I think I speak for the whole House when I say that we are all very keen to hear what he has to say. He is the third Secretary of State for Transport I have faced since taking up my role in opposition. I hope for his sake he lasts a little longer than his predecessors and I wish him well in the role.
I also welcome his new all-male team—of course, that is a matter for the Prime Minister, not the Ministers he appointed—including the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Another Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), of course provides the continuity in the Department—something that he probably never thought he would do.
We are debating an Opposition motion, but there need be no disagreement in the House today. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members, including Ministers, will feel able to support the motion in the Lobby later this afternoon. It is a straightforward motion with a simple proposition—that the rising cost of rail travel is now adding to the financial pressures facing many households. That is a fact, and I would hope that we will see agreement at least on that. It is something that we are all hearing from our constituents. I also hope that we can agree on a second basic proposition—that the level by which rail fares increase should not simply be left to the private train companies to determine. It is why we have the system of regulated and unregulated fares, with those tickets on which most people rely, including day returns and season tickets, having their annual increase capped.
There has always been cross-party agreement that there is a role for Government in the setting of fare levels and it is right that we retain the ability to protect our constituents from a profit-driven free-for-all on fare rises. The reality, however, is that the so-called cap on annual fare rises, even for regulated fares, is not a cap at all. So when the Chancellor stands up, as he does, and says that fares will not rise by more than 1% above inflation—or whatever percentage it might be—he cannot actually deliver that commitment at ticket offices across the country, because the cap is an average and train companies have the flexibility, as they like to call it, to increase fares by up to 5% above the so-called cap.
In January, just two months after the Chancellor had promised a 1% above-inflation cap on fare rises, what did commuters find when they went to buy their tickets? They found fare rises not of 1% above inflation but of up to 11% above inflation, because the train companies had exercised their flexibility to add up to another 5% on to some fares. That is what our constituents across the country face again in the coming new year—fare rises of up to 11%. We are kidding ourselves, therefore, if we think that what we are debating is whether the cap should be RPI plus 1 or RPI plus 3, because the train companies can game it to their advantage. That is why our motion proposes that if we are to have a cap on regulated fare rises—we believe that there should be one, and I think the Government do too—it should be a real cap.
Given the hon. Lady’s concern about the impact of fare rises on families, will she join me in congratulating FirstGroup on its successful tender for the west coast rail franchise, given that it is committed to reducing by 15% the cost of a standard anytime return journey? Is this not a demonstration of an effective tender process by this Government?
Many questions have arisen from the announcement in the recess about the west coast main line. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that the winning bidder—we must remember that legal action is ongoing, so we are restricted in what we can say—has made that commitment, but issues have been raised over the deliverability and reality of the assumptions behind the winning bid. Those issues have been raised not only by some of the losing bidders but by other experts in the industry.
Given what my hon. Friend has said, does she understand my concern and that of many of my constituents about what might happen to the east coast main line franchise when it comes up for reconsideration? Does she agree that there is a strong case at least for considering keeping the east coast main line in the public sector, so that there is not this pressure on requiring payback in profits and payback for the Government, which was clearly one of the issues in the west coast franchise?
Will my hon. Friend take it from me, as a Yorkshire Member, that these are extremely important issues? I am pleased that we have a Yorkshire MP as the new Transport Secretary—that is some consolation—but the east coast and west coast lines are vital to economic regeneration in Yorkshire and the north west. If we do not get it right, we will starve UK businesses in the regions.
Does the hon. Lady not share my concern that under the previous Government, First Capital Connect, which runs the Bedford to St Pancras line, was obliged, because of its supported status, to claw back from the public? Imposing a cap now would put it in breach of its franchise. There were such obligations, entered into by the previous Government, on many of the franchises.
The hon. Lady makes a strong point. I agree that varying the fare cap on the basis of specific local investment promises in the rail network, which is what lies behind that issue, is not how we should set rail fares. Let us be clear, however: the Government are proposing a 3% above-inflation fare rise for the whole country, regardless of whether any additional investment is planned locally. Today’s motion, if supported across the House, would impose a clear national cap of 1% above inflation, so I hope that she will consider joining us in the Lobby to support it.
I very much support Labour’s motion, although it is a bit timid. Given that privatisation has left us with a costly, fragmented and dysfunctional railway, and given that increasing evidence shows that reuniting railways under public ownership could save us up to £1 billion a year, would the hon. Lady not agree to go further and bring all the railways back into public ownership?
At this stage, that would go well beyond the motion before the House, but I hear what the hon. Lady says. Given that she is now no longer the leader of the Green party, however, I wonder whether it is Green party policy—no doubt we will find out in due course.
The motion calls for an increase of RPI plus 1 for fares. I am sure that the hon. Lady knows that the Scottish National party is the only governing party in these islands that has not raised regulated rail fares. Would she be so kind as to congratulate the SNP Government, who are practising what the Labour party preaches?
I am disappointed by that intervention.
One always has to balance rises with the issue of affordability on the basis of the public finances, but there ought to be agreement around the House that inflation plus 1 is a realistic way forward in this Parliament.
No, I have taken several interventions and I want to make progress; otherwise I will take up the entire debate with my opening speech, which is not what Members want.
If train companies were banned from increasing fares any more than the strict limit set by the Government, we could then have a political debate about what is the affordable level for that cap, rightly taking into account the state of the public finances, but that decision would at least be more transparent and enforced. My noble Friend Lord Adonis, when he was Transport Secretary, took such a step and banned train companies from increasing regulated fares beyond the cap set by the Government. He has been very clear about this in oral and written evidence to the Transport Committee. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman for Ch, Ch—
I knew it began with a “Ch”—that might be a way to remember it in the future. The right hon. Gentleman has not taken too long to get back into the habit of heckling from the Front Bench—perhaps he never got out of it in his role at the Department of Health.
My noble Friend Lord Adonis has made it clear in oral and written evidence to the Transport Committee, and on many other occasions, that he fully intended the ban on train companies flexing the fare cap to continue into subsequent years. That would be perfectly possible. I have said on many occasions that the previous Government should have taken action earlier, but the fact is that when times got tough they acted, but when times got tougher still this Government chose to give back to the train companies the right to fiddle the fare cap.
What is the consequence? It is that the Government and the House do not have the ability to enforce the cap on fare rises they think they have approved. I therefore hope that we can all agree today that the cap should be precisely that—a cap, a maximum allowable increase.
Our motion also calls on the Government again to reverse their decision to increase the cap from RPI plus 1 to RPI plus 3 for 2013-14. This should not be a contentious proposal, and I hope that Members on both sides of the House will feel able to support it. I know that it is slightly devalued today, but Government Members might like to look back at the commitment they made in the coalition agreement:
“We are committed to fair pricing for rail travel”.
It simply is not credible to square that pledge with the decision taken to increase the annual cap on fares from RPI plus 1 to RPI plus 3.
Let us be clear who is benefiting from these excessive fare rises: the private train companies. I urge the new Secretary of State to ask his civil servants for a copy of a very good report—on his Department’s spending settlement and its progress in implementing it—recently published by the National Audit Office. It warns that the Department for Transport has failed to demonstrate that higher fares translate into payments back to taxpayers:
“There is a risk that the benefit of the resulting increase in passenger revenues will not be passed on to taxpayers fully, but will also result in increased train operating company profits.”
So there we have it. We know who benefits from fare rises: the private train companies.
I am seeking to make some progress. If there is time, I will give way a little later.
I know that some hon. Members may think, “All well and good: these private companies should be able to make these very large profits for running our rail services.” However, I wonder whether Government Members have been keeping track of who has actually run our rail services since privatisation. For example, the Chiltern and CrossCountry franchises are run by subsidiaries of Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway. Southeastern, London Midland, TransPennine and Southern are all run in partnership with subsidiaries of SNCF, the French state railway, while Greater Anglia and Northern rail services are run by a subsidiary of Ned Rail, the Dutch state railway. Let us be clear: the ability of so-called private train companies to hike fares beyond the cap does not just mean additional profit, as the National Audit Office has warned; it means additional dividends from those profits going back to the state railways of France, Germany and the Netherlands. The consequence is that fares on their domestic rail networks are, on average, a third lower than those on ours.
I will give way again in due course, but not at present.
I know that Government Members—those who are not serial rebels, and the Secretary of State knows who they are—may still want to ensure that they are in line with their Chancellor’s position on this issue. Let me therefore remind the House what the Chancellor himself said on the level of fare rises in last year’s autumn statement, when he performed one of his many post-Budget U-turns and bowed to pressure, not just from this side of the House, but from his own MPs, as well as rail passengers up and down the country. He said:
“RPI plus 3% is too much. The Government will fund a reduction in the increase to RPI plus 1%. This will apply across national rail regulated fares, across the London tube and on London buses. It will help the millions of people who use our trains.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 810.]
The real question today is: what has changed? Why is a 3% above inflation increase acceptable this year, when it was, in the Chancellor’s words, “too much” last year?
Is not the timeliness of today’s debate emphasised by the analysis of fares in the south-east conducted by the Campaign for Better Transport? Its chief executive, Stephen Joseph, pointed out just last month that commuters in the south-east routinely spend up to 15% of their salary on getting to work in London and that unless there is a change in fare policy by the Government, the cost of journeys to work is likely to rise by some £1,000 when fares next go up?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are all now hearing from constituents who are paying out significant parts of their salary in the mere effort to get to and from work. There comes a point when, with other pressures, it is not acceptable for fares to rise at the level that the Government are contemplating.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is a choice to be made about where to pitch the figure for RPI plus or minus whatever it is. Today’s motion is based on our current policy as it is—something I think the Government could agree with—which retains credibility in terms of deficit reduction, but which would also bring significant relief—[Laughter.] I do not know why Liberal Democrat Members are laughing. Despite their alleged policy to cut rail fares, they have voted repeatedly in this Parliament for Budgets, autumn statements and comprehensive spending review measures that increase rail fares by RPI plus 3%, so we are not going to take any lessons from them about how to implement policy on rail fares.
The hon. Lady asks why an RPI plus 3% increase might be acceptable, but this Government have not increased any rail fares yet by RPI plus 3%. The only RPI plus 3% increase happened on the Southeastern franchise under the last Labour Government, because we were used as guinea pigs.
The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about that. RPI plus 3% was cut last year to RPI plus 1%, but the year before it was RPI plus 3%, so what he says is simply inaccurate.
If anything, pressures on household budgets have increased in the past year. Families are finding it even harder to make ends meet, get through the month and pay all the bills. We are in a double-dip recession made in Downing street. More than 1 million young people remain out of work. Energy, food and fuel prices are all up, adding to the pressures facing our constituents. The rate of inflation—the RPI figure that will be used to calculate January’s fare rises—went up to 3.2% in July. With flex, the formula for January’s fare rises, as it stands, is 3.2% plus 3% plus 5%, which means fare rises of up to 11.2%. We should get rid of flex, but we should also—as the Chancellor said less than a year ago—set the cap at 1% above inflation.
I know that the Secretary of State has been appointed to change some of the policies pursued by his predecessor—at least that is what the newspapers say. However, I hope that on this issue he will agree with the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who told the Financial Times last month:
“I am keen to see what we can do to keep fares down to something affordable. I will be looking at whether there is a way of doing this in the autumn.”
She added that
“she did not know if the Treasury would make funds available to do this,”
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get, so I’ll make sure to ask.”
If the Secretary of State has not already done so, I hope that he will be asking the Chancellor to agree to the lower cap on fares, because as his predecessor rightly said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
Will the shadow Secretary of State clarify whether she accepts that her Government were wrong to impose RPI plus 3% on Southeastern, when the rest of the country had RPI plus 1%? That meant that from the Medway towns to London there was an increase of over 33%. Does she accept that that was wrong?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman listened to what I said earlier, but I have already said that I did not think it was right to tie such increases into specific improvements on specific lines, which is what happened in that case, and I have said that before. Perhaps if he listens a little more carefully, he will not have to intervene. I said that I did not think that was right, but the current Government—
I am in the middle of answering the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti).
The current Government are proposing an across-the-board increase of RPI plus 3% on everyone, whether or not there is any improvement in investment or any increase in service. At a time like this, when people’s incomes are being squeezed badly, it is not easy for them to cope with that. We should not continue with those levels of increases.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for finally giving way—it has taken some effort. While she is in the mood for apologising for errors made under the last Government, will she apologise for the fact that rail fares went up in cash terms by 66% in that time? That had a huge impact on people across the entire country and made fares completely unaffordable for many people.
The hon. Gentleman, who purports to be the transport spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, even though the Liberal Democrats have a Transport Minister in the Government—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes—is going round the country saying that his party is in favour of cutting fares, when he and his hon. and right hon. Friends are voting for Government measures that increase them. If he starts to apologise for some of that, I am sure we can sit down and talk about mutual apologies that may or may not be possible.
I will not give way to the hon. Gentleman again.
As the Secretary of State’s predecessor rightly said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” That is the first thing that he can do in his first Cabinet meeting—well, not his first, but his first in this role. [Interruption.] Oh yes, the Chief Whip attended, but this time he will be able to vote, if there are any votes—there are occasionally votes at Cabinet, although perhaps not in this one.
We now know that many Government Members agree with us on this issue, because they have been busy telling their local newspapers that the fare rises are too high. The hon. Member—soon to be the right hon. Member—for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who is now the Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and who is, we are told, even now parked in a tank on the lawn of the Business Secretary, has gone so far as to present a petition to the House on the issue. He writes on his website:
“At a time of rising energy bills, and high inflation more generally, many of my constituents are having to make painful savings in their household budgets. Southeastern need to understand this and reduce the size of the rail fare increase”.
Our motion today would not only prevent train companies from imposing the eye-watering fare rises that the Business Minister rightly opposes; it would also cap his constituents’ fare rises at 1% above inflation.
The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has told his local newspaper:
“Harlow people are already struggling to make ends meet against a backdrop of rising petrol prices and wage freezes…They cannot be expected to pay massive rises in rail fares on top.”
The hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) told her local paper:
“At a time when household budgets are stretched, the Government and Southeastern have a responsibility to ensure the cost of rail travel remains affordable. I will continue to make representations on behalf of my constituents”.
Good for her! Her neighbour, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), has said:
“What I have found with prices going up this fast is that many of my constituents have to get up at 5 am or 6 am to take a coach to London because they cannot afford to take the train whereas others have been priced out completely because they are spending almost all their take-home pay on a season ticket. I just think that is counter-productive. I think it is a question of fairness to people who are working hard and just doing their best.”
I agree with all those hon. Members’ representations.
I should also like to quote one or two Liberal Democrats. It will not be a great shock to the House to learn that many Lib Dem MPs have been sending out press releases to their local papers opposing their own Government—we all know that they do that. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), who is not in his place, has said:
“I am very concerned at the proposed fare rises…At a time when the cost of living remains a big issue it’s not acceptable to ask rail users to pick up extra costs”.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech) has actually claimed credit for last year’s U-turn, saying:
“I hope George Osborne and the Treasury will cut the train commuter some slack in the upcoming budget...Last year, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander negotiated a RPI+1% fare rise for 2012, much lower than planned by some Conservatives. I hope they will do at least as much this budget.”
That is not very collegiate, but it is rather typical. I must not leave out the hon. Member for Cambridge, because he gets upset if I do. I can reassure the House that he has also spoken out, in his rather confusing role as co-chair of the Lib Dem transport committee. He has assured his local paper:
“I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this summer to remind her of Liberal Democrat policy, and highlight our opposition to the RPI+3% rate.”
Putting out a press release is one thing—and it can be useful—but I hope that Members will follow their words up with action this afternoon and vote for this very straightforward motion, which proposes that the cap on annual fare rises should go back to the 1% above inflation cap that existed before the last election—which even the Chancellor conceded was right last year when he performed a U-turn—and that we should strictly enforce that cap, it being the will of the House, and not allow private train companies to add up to another 5% on to some fares. The result would be clear. Instead of 11.2% being the highest possible fare increase in January, no fare would rise by more than 1% above inflation. That would benefit our constituents considerably.
If we do not act, passengers are likely to face three years of double-digit fare rises on some routes, and many ticket prices will have risen by a third during this Parliament. We have reached a point at which increasing numbers of households are paying more on their season ticket just to get to work than on their mortgage or rent payments. For too long, Governments have let the train companies get away with treating passengers in a way that would not be permitted in other industries.
I am just coming to the end of my remarks; I think I have spoken for an appropriate length of time.
Today, we in this House have a chance to say, on behalf of our constituents, that enough is enough. I urge the House to put aside party differences and vote for the motion. It is something that we all agree on. Let us deliver for our constituents the guarantee that their rail fares will not rise by more than a strict annual cap of 1% above inflation.
Before I address the motion, I would just like to tell the House what a great honour and privilege it is to return to the Dispatch Box in a proper speaking role after some 18 years, although I have to say to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) that I had not expected to be making my first speech as Transport Secretary quite so soon. When the Opposition Chief Whip informed me on Monday evening that there was to be a transport debate today, I thought that this would be either an opportunity or a great problem. I shall not decide which until I have sat down. I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome. I shall certainly consider some of the points that she raised in her speech, but I might need to take a little more time to do that, rather than responding to them all immediately this afternoon.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his new post. As he knows, I have always thought of him as the General von Klinkerhoffen of the Government—but only in that he is much nicer than his party allegiance. May I add one thing to the list of things he should worry about? It is that we often think of commuters as wealthy people going from the commuter districts outside London to their jobs in banks, yet many in my constituency are people who are on the minimum wage. For them, the £5.10 or £5.20 a day that it would cost them to go to work can sometimes be prohibitive. Will he work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that such people have a real opportunity to work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I well accept that a lot of people who commute are on very low wages, and that their transport costs account for a very large part of their income. We do need to bear that in mind. The hon. Gentleman is, however, supporting a motion today that would remove the flexibility of the rail companies to adjust rail fares, which is something that the Welsh Assembly—which his own party runs—is not prepared to do.
May I too congratulate my right hon. Friend and welcome him to his new post? He was a much-respected Chief Whip, and I am sure that he will perform this task very well. Was he not surprised that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) managed to get through her whole speech without making a single reference to Sir Roy McNulty’s report? It was as though his review had never taken place. An important part of the equation is surely the cost of the railway system, and Sir Roy’s independent report found that the system that we inherited from the last Government was so inefficient and expensive that we would have to reduce its costs by 40% to run a service comparable to those in France, Germany and Holland that the hon. Lady seemed to be disparaging.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I intend to come to that point later in my speech, as he can well imagine.
It is a great privilege to serve as a Secretary of State in this Government, and it is a task that I am incredibly proud to perform. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the diligence and skill of my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). She gave the go-ahead for the high-speed rail link—a new national rail network that will be crucial for keeping Britain moving and vital for growing our economy.
As a regular rail user myself, I know how concerned people are about rail fares. That is a fact that I fully understand and take seriously, but to do justice to this debate, it is vital to grasp the wider challenges that the Government face if we are to make our railways more efficient, more effective and more affordable. From day one in office, our priority has been to tackle the fiscal deficit that we inherited, and to put in place measures to rebalance our economy, get people back to work and boost growth.
The railways have, and will continue to have, a crucial role to play in that process. Not only do they provide the arteries through which the lifeblood of commerce flows, connecting key cities and markets, and linking communities with jobs but they receive a significant amount of funding from the state—more than £3 billion a year. It was absolutely clear when the coalition came to power in 2010 that the level of taxpayer and fare payer support for the railways had soared under the last Government, yet passengers had seen little reward for that investment. In short, the railways were providing poor value for money. We did not inherit just a budget deficit; we also inherited an infrastructure deficit—one that, left unaddressed, would mean a long-term drag on our economy. This infrastructure deficit was particularly acute on the railways.
The Secretary of State mentioned that he was a regular rail user—I presume on the west coast main line, with which he will be familiar in any event. He said that the money invested by the last Labour Government did not lead to any obvious benefits for passengers. How does he think the investment in the west coast main line was paid for?
I shall come on to some of the things we are going to do to improve the railway line that I use, which were announced before I became Secretary of State. I am very pleased about them, one of which is electrification. The last Government had a particularly poor record on that. There was a change in the franchise owners during the period of the last Government and certain changes were made to the service on that line.
Soaring demand meant that our ageing rail network was struggling to cope. There are now many more people travelling on the railways than at any time since 1929, but on a much smaller system. What does that mean? It means more overcrowding, more standing on trains, and rail consumers demanding a better service. We had to find a way to invest in the railway to support the economic recovery and to deliver the quality of service that passengers have the right to expect. That was the reality we faced, and we are meeting it head on by investing in the biggest rail modernisation programme since the Victorian era, while at the same time reforming the railways and reducing costs.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that during this Parliament and this spending review period, his Government have cut investment in the rail industry? Yes, they have announced a lot of investment for the next Parliament, in control period 5, which will go ahead some time in the future, but in this Parliament investment and infrastructure have been cut.
I was just coming on to say that this July, we announced £16 billion of public support for the existing rail network between 2014 and 2019—I expect 2014 to be during this particular Parliament—which will support over £9 billion of enhancements, meaning more services, more seats and more capacity, especially for commuters to our largest cities. The tap cannot simply be turned on as far as the rail industry is concerned. Passengers will also benefit from the completion of the northern hub in Manchester, £240 million of investment in capacity and connection improvements on the east coast main line, and a further £300 million for high-value, small-scale schemes in other parts of the country.
We are delivering a rolling programme of rail electrification on the Great Western main line to Swansea, on the valley lines into Cardiff and on the trans-Pennine route connecting Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York. We are creating a new “electric spine” for freight and passenger services stretching from the south coast to the east and west midlands and south Yorkshire.
The hon. Gentleman must not underestimate the achievements of the last Government. He said that they electrified nine miles, but he is wrong; they electrified 13 miles, and I shall come to that a little later in my speech. I shall also come on to announce the electrification that we intend to carry out.
I offer many congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his new and challenging post. Does he share my amazement that Labour Members ignore the fact that Thameslink 2000, which serves my constituency, was kept on the buffers for seven years while they dithered, thereby denying the infrastructure improvements of extended platforms and longer trains, which would have made a huge difference to commuters yet have gone ahead only recently?
My hon. Friend is a tremendous advocate for the many commuters in her constituency who rely on this service. I hope they have already seen some improvements and will see further improvements as time goes on.
Electrification will not only deliver new fleets of cleaner and more environmentally friendly trains but will reduce the long-term costs of running the railways. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) was just a little ahead in the timing of his question; the next part of my speech will put the record straight. I always try to be accurate. While in 13 years the previous Government electrified just 10 miles of railway—I got the figure wrong, too!—between Crewe and Kidsgrove, which is an important part of the railway network but not too widespread, we have set out plans for over 850 miles of electrification and investment of over £1 billion. It does not stop there, as we have approved a £4.5 billion contract to build a new generation of inter-city trains at a purpose-built factory in County Durham, creating 730 skilled jobs and a further 200 during construction. We are procuring around 1,200 new railway carriages for the Thameslink line and, with Transport for London, we are working on the procurement of new trains for Crossrail.
There is a lot more to do, but let me be clear. We are able to fund this massive programme to build a railway fit for the 21st century only because we have taken tough but correct decisions to cut spending elsewhere, redirecting our resources to boost growth and to get our economy moving. Of course, when it comes to resources, when we invest in our rail network, fare revenues are crucial in helping to fund the massive upgrade programme we are delivering. In fact, the previous Government set out plans to increase the share of rail funding paid by passengers. The alternative for us in 2010 would have been to slash investment. This would have been the wrong answer for the long-term economic future of this country and, indeed, for rail users themselves.
I join others in welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his post. He talks about the passenger paying, but I could have a week in Benidorm with £80 spending money for the cost of my return travel between Wigan and Euston. One of the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), said he thought that the railways were already a rich man’s toy. Does the Secretary of State agree with that? If not, how is he going to enable ordinary people to use the railways—or should they just go to Benidorm instead?
It sounds as if the hon. Lady knows more about Benidorm than I do. I think there are a number of anomalies in ticket fares. I see them on the train service I use, in that it can cost £170 to use one train, but a train 20 minutes later is a lot cheaper. We need seriously to try to address a number of these problems and to look at how the fares and fare structures used by the rail industry are implemented. I do not accept that everything is fine and fair. In certain areas, consumers have strong cases to make; we should look at them, and I will do so.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend. He makes an important point about reviewing the whole ticketing strategy. His predecessor announced a consultation on reviewing ticketing, and one proposal that will directly benefit my constituents is a plan to introduce a discounted ticket for passengers who travel frequently but not often enough to warrant a season ticket. There are proposals like this that will cut the cost of using the railways for many of our constituents.
I am sure that I shall like my right hon. Friend better in his new role than in his last.
The shadow Secretary of State was kind enough to quote accurately comments that I made to my local newspaper reflecting my constituents’ concern about rail fare increases. I said that I would continue to make representations on the matter. Rather than succumbing to the political opportunism displayed by the Opposition, who imposed RPI plus 3% uniquely on Southeastern commuters, will my right hon. Friend meet me, and fellow Kent Members, to engage in a substantive conversation about rail fares and services for our constituents?
I should be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the colleagues whom she wishes to bring to see me. As I have said, a huge number of people rely on commuting, particularly in areas such as Kent, and that is very expensive for them. I shall be more than happy to arrange a meeting in the not-too-distant future.
I wanted to apologise for suggesting earlier that the Secretary of State was a Yorkshireman, but may I also make a serious point? People in my constituency of Huddersfield, and in west Yorkshire generally, are finding it increasingly difficult to afford the fares for journeys to this city, where much of their business lies.
I think I have already acknowledged that several times in my speech, but I do want to look into it, although the amount that we are investing in the railways should also be borne in mind. We need to address people’s concerns, but there is no easy answer. If we had inherited the economic scenario that the last Government inherited, many of the changes and difficult decisions that we are having to make in trying to rebalance the economy would not have been necessary. What the hon. Gentleman has said comes ill from a member of the party that spent all the money, when the present Government are trying to restore the economy to its previous state and balance the books.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. Some passengers undoubtedly enjoy the benefits of a railcard, but what does he think about train operating companies that are seeking to tighten the restrictions, thereby preventing people from travelling early in the day or late in the afternoon?
We are considering that whole question in our fares and ticketing review. When there are announcements to be made, we will make them in the House, and we will be answerable for them in the House if they are our responsibility. However, I think that the situation in Scotland has quite a bit to do with the Scottish Government.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. He said that he would try to iron out some of the anomalies, and I hope that he will deal with this one. If I want to travel from my constituency in Dundee to Glasgow, it is cheaper for me to buy a ticket from Dundee to Perth and another from Perth to Glasgow than to buy one from Dundee to Glasgow, and I do not need to get off the train at any point.
I do not think that we have changed the position in the last few years, and I do not know what the last Government did in 13 years. Again, I think that the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman has more to do with the Scottish Government than with us, but we will look at it nevertheless.
As previous Governments have shown, simply spending more on the railways does not necessarily bring value for money. For far too long the railways have relied on ever-increasing public subsidy and ever-rising rail fares. Enough is enough. If we are to invest in rail, we must ensure that we are getting value for money. That echoes the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry).
We have set out a comprehensive programme of rail reform to tackle costs and waste. That principle was at the heart of the Command Paper that my predecessor published last March, in which we explained how we wanted the industry to tackle the £3.5 billion annual efficiency gap identified by Sir Roy McNulty in his study of value for money on the railways.
I should like to make a bit of progress first.
The best way of securing long-term value for money is to ensure that the rail industry plays its part in delivering lower costs and sustainable railways. That will require all those who are responsible for track and trains to work more closely together. It will require a more responsible approach to pay and modern ways of working among all who are employed in the industry, from the platform to the boardroom. It will require longer franchises, providing greater flexibility, longer contracts and a sharper focus on cost, and it will require smart technology to reduce the cost of selling tickets. We are challenging the industry to deliver efficiencies that will put our railways on a par with the best in the world, and we will pursue the delivery of those savings with the Rail Delivery Group, train operators and others. Let me address the main point made in the motion by saying that our relentless focus on efficiency will help us to put an end to above-inflation increases at the earliest opportunity.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new post. I wonder what he would say to one of my constituents who told me a few days ago that he had had to give up his job in London because he could no longer afford the rail fare. How is the Government’s policy of encouraging people to look further afield for jobs consistent with pricing them off the railways that could enable them to do so?
More people are using the railways now than at any time since 1929, on a lesser network. However, the hon. Lady is right to express concern. I too am concerned about people who are having to spend such a large proportion of their income on transport. I hope that we shall be able to look at that, and that in due course we shall see improvements in some areas.
One thing that has not been mentioned so far is the cost of parking. Many people feel that the cost of their rail journeys has been rising in a reasonable fashion, in the sense that the increases are predictable, but the cost of car parking at railway stations has leapt, and the time for off-peak parking has been pushed back to as late as four or five o’clock. The fact that the cost of parking at stations has not been addressed constitutes a flaw in the debate.
I am told that that is a matter for the rail companies, but I understand the concern about car parking, which, I believe, can be extremely expensive in certain areas.
The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood has asked specifically for an opportunity to address the cap on regulated fares, and the way in which train operators use what are known as flex fares, which the motion describes as “that strict limit”. As I said earlier, I do not believe that the current fares structure—which we inherited—is perfect, and that is why we are conducting a fares and ticketing review. The key issue today is the “flex” policy, which was introduced by the last Labour Government. The cap on regulated fares is implemented by train operators as an average across a “basket” of different fares. That flexibility allows some fares to be increased by up to 5% more than the average, provided that other price increases are kept below the average. It means that operators can manage demand more effectively and efficiently, which should achieve better value for money for fare payers and taxpayers overall. It also allows operators to keep fares in a logical structure and to address anomalies over time.
Let me stress again that when operators increase some fares by the maximum permitted, other fares must increase by much less or even be held flat to comply with the regulated average. As I have said, the system was introduced by the last Government.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new post. One of the anomalies to which he has referred is the fact that fares in my constituency in south-east London are not fully integrated with the Transport for London price structure, and people pay more for a journey on the rail network than they would pay for a comparable journey on the TfL network. What are his views on that issue, and how does he plan to resolve it?
I welcome the new Secretary of State to his position. When he is familiarising himself with his new brief, may I ask him to take a look at the Wrexham to Bidston line? I raised that project with his predecessor on a number of occasions, and I think he will find it a fascinating subject.
Members will have plenty of opportunities to question me over the coming months, and after the hon. Lady has no doubt written to me about this line, I will perhaps have a little more to say about it—and I refer her to the very good line between Derby and Matlock.
We are building a modern railway network in Britain —one that plays its full part in connecting our communities, supporting our economy and safeguarding our environment. We are delivering this crucial work against the backdrop of an inherited debt and the most testing economic times for a generation. But investment by investment, upgrade by upgrade, project by project, we are making real and lasting progress. As we do, at the forefront of our thinking and the centre of our plans are the people and businesses that use, depend on and fund this country’s railways.
I am acutely aware of the concerns that passengers have about fares. That is why we are committed to ending above-inflation increases as soon as we can—once savings are achieved and the wider fiscal situation improves. It is also why we continue to keep the regulated caps under review. Every choice we make and every decision we take is about giving passengers the best railways and getting passengers the best deal. That is what the Government intend to do, and we are undertaking that task.
First, may I apologise in advance if I am unable to return to the Chamber in time for the beginning of the concluding speeches to this debate? I have an urgent meeting at 3 o’clock in the Scotland Office that I am committed to attend, but I hope to be able to return in time.
I am grateful for this opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I shall focus on fares on the cross-border services between London and Scotland. One of the final parts of the west coast main line into Glasgow passes through Lanarkshire and runs through my constituency. I use that rail service reasonably frequently—although perhaps not as frequently as I should—and many of my constituents also use it and other rail services, or work for the companies that currently operate them.
My Front-Bench colleague discussed some of the concerns about this summer’s west coast main line franchise announcement. I share those concerns. There are important unanswered questions about the process and the award, and there is a strong case for the issues to be fully examined. While there may not be an immediate negative consequence, there has been confusion on the east coast and similar confusion could arise on the west coast, which would not be good for the people working on the railways or for passengers on the west coast main line. Some of the commitments that have been made appear to be difficult to deliver, and some of the bid’s underlying assumptions require, at the very least, further consideration. I appreciate that the Secretary of State and some of his ministerial team are new to their posts, but I hope that they will bear these important points in mind.
Regional railways are very important for former mining towns such as the one I represent. Many of my constituents travel into Nottingham for work. It would be terrible, and very short-sighted, if fares were allowed to rise to such a level that people thought it simply was not worth being in work and that it would be better if they were on the dole.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I am sure the situation she describes arises in many constituencies where people travel into a larger town or city for work. The cost of that travel can make the difference between the work being worth doing or not. From other parts of the Government we hear talk about encouraging people into work and trying to find ways of getting people into employment in what are very difficult economic circumstances. If rail fares rise too high, we will fail to achieve that important objective. Although the issue of local fares is a devolved matter and many of the journeys my constituents make are local, many of them also use the west coast main line, and some of their journeys may cross the border, where fares are not a matter for the Edinburgh Government.
Another important topic is the restrictions on the use of railcards. Some of the headline commitments in the franchise bids are about reducing or keeping controls on fares. Ambiguity arises, however, when questions are asked about restrictions on the use of railcards, such as the times when they are valid.
I represent Darlington, which is the birthplace of the railways, and, as has been said, people are starting to find that fares are prohibitively high. Clarity on off-peak and peak-time fares is becoming a real issue. It is often unclear when a ticket is valid and what the price of the journey will be. That is a huge concern to my constituents.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The times at which peak and off-peak fares are available can vary greatly between different parts of the country, which can cause immense confusion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) made the point that people sometimes find that buying separate tickets for different legs of their journey works out cheaper than buying a single ticket. All such issues add complications, which does not help to achieve our objective of encouraging people to use the railways as much as possible.
If the complications become so great that people choose to travel not by rail but by a different mode of transport, that could also make some of the Government’s other commitments and policies harder to achieve. I say that as someone who travels on the west coast main line between Scotland and London. Many of the people who get on the same train as me—especially business travellers on a Monday morning—have in the past frequently travelled to London by plane. They make the point that the investment in the west coast main line over recent years means that now, if they catch the right train, they can complete their journey almost as quickly as they could by air, when they take into account the time taken in travelling to and waiting at airports at both ends of the journey. That has had a huge impact on the use of the train service. The investment has, therefore, been very welcome. Now, however, some of the peak-time fares are becoming more expensive than air fares and, especially as businesses are under increasing financial pressure at present, many business travellers are switching back to air.
The Secretary of State will find that another important part of his portfolio is aviation capacity. As this recent investment has made rail travel more attractive and almost as fast as air travel, it does not make sense that cost increases could now lead to people reverting to air travel. This is also an important issue because these cost increases are having an impact on businesses that are under increasing financial pressure because of the general difficult economic circumstances.
On the question of complex rail fares, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s policy of closing ticket offices and reducing their opening hours makes it even more difficult for people? Frankly, the machines that are available at railway stations make it practically impossible to know what is the cheapest fare.
My hon. Friend makes another important point, which I hope that the Secretary of State will consider as he reads himself into his brief. My experience of getting from airports to stations, particularly when getting a train from Gatwick into London, is that the ticket machines are quite hard to navigate. It is difficult to find the cheaper ticket, which involves travelling on the non-Gatwick Express service. That is just one example that shows that how the ticket machines are set up seems to drive people towards the more expensive fares. I am not sure how that is regulated, but it might be worth considering in the round along with all the other issues.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I was heartened to hear the Secretary of State’s comments about considering those issues as part of the review and it is very important that it covers all aspects of the matter. The problem is not just the ticket price but access to the tickets and the issues pointed out by my hon. Friend.
We quite rightly hear a lot about the pressure many people are under and about how their incomes are being squeezed. If rail fares become prohibitive at such a time, either for people trying to get to work or for business users, that will mean that people use forms of transport that do more damage to the environment and that restrict aviation capacity. It is very important that the Government carefully consider the levels at which fares can be increased, because although I do not disagree with the Secretary of State about the need for investment—everybody accepts the need for continued investment in our rail services—if the burden is placed too heavily on passengers during this time of economic difficulty, people will be driven away from using the railways. Nobody wants to see that.
I sincerely hope that the Government will consider this straightforward and fairly simple motion. It is about trying to help people at this particularly difficult time and trying to avoid other policy objectives not being met because the fares are too expensive. I know that the Secretary of State’s predecessor said last summer that she was talking to the Chancellor and trying to find a way to limit fares further. It became clear over a relatively short time that some of the Chancellor’s other decisions in the last Budget were not viable or sensible and it would do the Government a lot of good if they reconsidered the decision on fares, which is in danger of having a severe adverse impact on many people across the UK.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), who delivered a sensible speech and made some very sensible points. I had sympathy with many of them. While we are in a congratulatory mood, I also congratulate the Secretary of State. He is held in very high regard and with great affection in the House and people will be delighted to see him emerge from the Whips Office into slightly greater glory in the months to come. I hope that he might be kind enough to pass on my good wishes to his Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), who is no longer in his place. They make a good team. I am not sure who will look after whom, but we will see as the months unfold. Finally, will the Secretary of State pass on my good wishes to his predecessor, who was especially kind to Northampton? As he will know, she helped to provide the money for a much-needed new station and we remain deeply appreciative.
The debate is a missed opportunity. I understand and have some sympathy with the need for more regulated rail fares. I understand the need to see such regulation as an attempt to put a brake on the sizeable increase in rail fares that started during the Opposition’s period in government and, sadly, continues under this Government, but the truth is that trying to ban train operators from increasing fares beyond a certain point is an unnecessary diversion. The real issue is why the rail industry has not done more to get to grips with cost. Under the previous Government and so far under this Government, it seems to have been accepted that the taxpayer or consumer should finance the rail sector when no attempt has been made to increase efficiency and production and to lower costs. Every business in this country has had to deal with such challenges over the past five years, many of them to great effect, yet the rail industry seems not to be a part of that process.
We have one of the most expensive rail systems in Europe. Why is the rail sector the only privatised sector not to have made progress with cost reduction since its inception as a privatised operation?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I am referring to the McNulty report, which her party’s Government put into effect. McNulty made it quite clear that the British rail sector was 28% more expensive than like-for-like rail sectors throughout Europe. If our costs are that high, I hope that the hon. Lady will be as concerned as I am. The alternative is to keep pulling money out of the pockets of the taxpayer or consumer and I want a more productive and efficient rail industry—[Interruption.]
I was not sure whether the hon. Gentleman sat down because he had finished speaking or because he was letting me intervene, and I am grateful that it was the latter. He is making the point that that comparison is like for like, but surely the key point is that Britain has a very different railway system that is based on the private sector, whereas the cheaper train operating systems to which he is comparing it are predominantly in the public sector.
I thank the hon. Lady for that point. She served with great distinction on the Crossrail Bill—two and a quarter years of toil and effort—and she is clearly knowledgeable on rail matters, as I know from that time. My point is that the comparisons are not mine, but McNulty’s. The report was instigated by her Government. If one does not believe what McNulty said, that is a different matter, but it is the most authoritative report we have had on this subject. Rather than bickering about an area on which I am not overly clear, I am willing to accept McNulty as an authoritative response on this issue. The previous Government did too, so we do not need to get too involved in that sort of thing. I want to ask, therefore, why the previous Government—
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is a good friend. We have sat on many Committees together. My point is that the comparison is not like for like because the train system in Europe is predominantly public sector. That is why it is cheaper.
Some of the comparisons are with companies that are much more privatised, which is perhaps not the impression that the hon. Lady is trying to give, but that is not the point. The point is that I see McNulty as authoritative and so did her own Government. Therefore, we need not to argue about the review, but to use it to the benefit of our consumers and constituents. We need to put pressure on the rail sector to become more efficient and more productive, and to cut costs. It should not be only the taxpayer and the consumer who have to dip their hand in their pocket.
Let us move on, because I want to ask why the Government have not done more to respond positively to the conclusions of the McNulty review, although I was pleased to hear what the Secretary of State said, which intimated that he would be responding to that review, because Labour in government did not. The Labour Government were pleased to tuck it away in a corner of the office of the Secretary of State for Transport and forget it. That was a missed opportunity, which is rather sad.
The Opposition devised an industry structure that created many of the inefficiencies and costs to which McNulty referred. Let me remind Opposition Members that the spirit of the Railways Act 1993 envisaged a far more flexible franchising arrangement, as well as a less complicated intra-industry interface. Under the original arrangements, fares regulation involved a cap below inflation, not above it. If we want to squeeze inefficiency out of a sector, we should not give it price increases above the rate of inflation. That is crazy.
In office, Labour created an additional, unnecessary bureaucracy in the industry and made empty gestures towards a proper strategy. Today’s motion does the same—Labour is continuing in the same vein, which I find rather sad, because I have great respect for the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the Opposition spokesman. She has a great deal to offer in this area, and some of her remarks suggest that she is willing to make that contribution. I see some connection between those on the two Front Benches, to the benefit of our consumers, and I welcome her comments.
The question is, who should pay for our railways and what can we do to handle the costs? The Government policy that, progressively, passengers should pay a larger share of the cost and taxpayers less, is understandable. I do not want a subsidised, nationalised railway in another form. That is not what I seek, so I understand that view, but I want a Government who ensure that the industry’s unit costs should decline year by year over time. Cost increases below the rate of inflation will do more to impact on that than simply saying again, “You can have more than our consumers and our constituents have year by year in their pay packets.” That will result in costs rising inexorably and people being driven off the railways. None of us wants that.
The McNulty review demonstrated beyond doubt that our railway system is one of the most expensive around and that the competitiveness of the railways as against other transport modes is weak. A recent survey in The Daily Telegraph found that travelling by rail on some routes can cost more than catching a flight. That is cloud cuckoo land. According to the research, it was more expensive to take a train on 50% of popular routes than to fly, including travelling from London to Scotland. That does not make sense.
It has been a thrust of Government policy to encourage more people to use railways. I welcome that, as do many of my constituents, yet the laws of economics dictate that an increase in relative prices will depress demand. That is not a difficult formula to grasp, work out and understand, but the impact on those who use the railways to get to work is particularly bad and particularly expensive.
The situation facing my commuters in Northampton is especially enlightening and in line with many of the comments made during this welcome debate. Northampton is set to expand by more than 56,000 houses by 2026. We shall see whether that happens, because we all know that the construction industry is depressed, but that was the target of the previous Government and it remains, to all intents and purposes, the target of this Government. It really means that we are trying to get out of the south-east and London people who work in that area but cannot afford housing in it, yet what are we doing? The price of an annual season ticket from Northampton to London is £4,756 without the new increase, which will rise to £5,628 for those who need to use the underground. Add an annual season ticket for parking of £815 and we reach more than £6,000. For somebody on £30,000 with a disposable income of £24,000, that is 25% of their disposable income. It just does not make sense.
If we want to move people who work in London and the south-east to areas with less-high-cost housing, we must understand that we need a more competitive rail industry with lower pricing, not higher pricing above the rate of inflation. That is the point that I really want to make.
The regeneration and growth strategies in places such as Northampton risk being derailed, if I might use that term, unless we get this sorted. I make a plea. The Secretary of State understands that point well and knows that commuters from Northampton have already been forced to pay out a quarter of their disposable income, but that price is going up. I know that he understands the problem, which is not only about Northampton. It is about Brighton, Nottingham and other areas that are suffering from the same difficulties.
My constituents have a right to ask what the rail industry is doing to get to grips with its cost base. There are efficiencies that the industry could and should make to bring unit costs down. Staffing levels are unnecessarily high, ticketing and retail arrangements impose operational costs and inefficient deployment of staff, and industrial relations remain problematic and expensive for franchise operators. Therefore, why is the industry not doing more to grasp the challenges of McNulty and why are we not pressurising it to do exactly that? The message from the debate, and from Opposition Front Benchers and Ministers, should be that we have an inefficient rail industry, proved beyond doubt, whose costs have forced up rail prices to the point where they are becoming exclusive to people who can afford to pay and deter many who find it difficult to pay. That is not what we want from our national rail industry.
The industry, the previous Government and this Government have found it too easy to pass on ever more costs to consumers. Neither taxpayers nor hard-pressed rail users should be prepared to tolerate that, and nor should we, but what is needed is not regulation, but a proper focus on efficiency so that the industry takes responsibility for its costs, which every other sector in this country has had to do over the past five years.
I will make one final point. Rail costs are an integral part of business costs because—this point has been made and is relevant—London is the hub of British business, no matter how much we might want to change that, and businesses must travel again and again to London in any given period to sustain and hopefully grow their business. Growth is clearly the only game in town, as we learnt yesterday, and I pray that the Government take on board some of the criticisms that have been made about their growth policies over the past two and a half years. The truth is that unless other Departments see a role in this respect, we will not get the growth we need because costs will keep rising, and the railway costs are an important part of that formula. I know that the Secretary of State understands that and I look forward to him having a massive impact in that regard.
It is a pleasure to contribute to what has been an informative debate so far. As a precursor to the few brief points I wish to make, I feel that I should make an admission: I come from a long line of railway people, beginning with my great grandfather and including me, as I have previously worked in the rail industry. I make this confession—that my great grandfather, grandfather and father all worked in the rail industry—not to own up to some kind of strange rail geekery, but rather to explain that I understand some of the practicalities of our rail system and know that changes that seem obvious from the outside can actually be quite complicated and difficult to deliver.
Not least among those considerations is the important fact that the UK rail system was the first in the world. We invented railways, and the impact of that is still with us. The system that we have was designed many years ago, and that brings with it some of the costs. We cannot easily make a like-for-like comparison between our system and those of France or Germany; I am afraid that the UK rail system is just different. We must of course look at ways of reducing costs, but it is not all that straightforward.
I rarely reject out of hand anybody’s contribution to a debate on so important a subject as the rail industry. I merely make these points as a precursor to what I am about to say. I always feel that we should be cautious in what we say, because I have seen at first hand the complexity of some of the problems we face in running efficiently the kind of extensive rail system we have in Britain.
I want to speak about two things: first, the question of the average fare rise across the fares basket and the restrictions on rises; and secondly, some of the other ticketing issues that rail industry consumers face and what the Government’s ticketing review could consider in order to assist consumers. On the question of the average fare rise versus the cost to travellers of individual fare rises, I have a problem with the Government’s apparent position. The Secretary of State spoke at length only a moment ago about the importance of allowing train companies to raise fares in a way that allows them to maximise yield, but the problem is that that potentially allows significant unfairness. Those whose travel is absolutely necessary for their employment face potentially significant rises, whereas those who have a choice about how they travel are less likely to face those rises. To use an economist’s term, those with an inelastic demand curve—I apologise for my use of jargon, but it may be helpful—are stuck paying ever higher season ticket prices, while those who make up the elastic part of demand can pick and choose, so train companies maximise those yields on what tend to be leisure fares, for journeys that people can choose whether to make. That is the point that many Members across the House are making in different ways.
The problem with allowing average fare rises is that people who cannot choose whether or not to travel by train because they have no practical alternative can be faced with steep rises. The flexibility to do that cannot be allowed. In my view it is not fair. Of course, that is a decision that the Government must make based on the facts. Back in 2009 the then Transport Secretary took a decision, and I support it, because it was about ensuring not only that the train companies were able to do the business they had been contracted to do, but that there was a level of fairness for the travelling passenger.
The Government must think hard about this matter. If consumers who have no practical alternative to travelling by rail are faced with steep fare rises year after year, they will think that it is a significant unfairness to them. Members on both sides of the House have made that point. We need to be clear that this is about different groups of passengers and train companies effectively negotiating their way through to maximise benefits, in some cases for them rather than passengers.
In Merseyside we have quite a specific situation. Travel around the Mersey travel network tends to be more reasonable. However, one of the things we are desperately trying to do is increase job opportunities for people in Merseyside who are perhaps a little further afield. Earlier I cheekily mentioned to the Secretary of State my campaign to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line. It is all about helping people to travel from places in the Wirral and the rest of Merseyside across our city region and further afield, to Manchester or north Wales, to find work wherever it may be.
That is the Government’s stated policy, and they tell us they believe in it. However, with rail fares continuing to increase—my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) made this point eloquently—those on the lowest incomes will not have an option. They will be unable to take a decision to make what is currently a 90-minute journey from Bebington, Birkenhead, other parts of the Wirral, Southport or the wider Merseyside area to Manchester and other cities, because once they have made that further journey it will be just too expensive. That runs absolutely counter to everything we are trying to achieve to drive up the economic performance of our northern cities. The Government must think carefully about whether their approach to rail fares is not actually against the drive of what they are trying to do across Government.
Secondly, we need to think carefully, perhaps as part of the Government’s ticketing review, about how to ensure that the sale of train tickets and rail travel in general works for the customers, who pay significant amounts. I am particularly interested in how the current set-up harms people working for businesses and organisations who do not use the railways frequently enough to be considered regular or daily users, or even commuters, but do use them frequently enough for there to be a significant impact on their business.
The Government need to pay attention to a couple of aspects. The first is what a peak time is. When I was growing up, it seemed as if we always knew what the peak times were and that they stayed the same year after year. That may be the effect of the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight; perhaps things were different in reality. However, now peak times seem to change all the time.
If a person is travelling on different parts of the network, things can get difficult. For example, if their business, like many businesses in Liverpool and the Merseyside city region area, requires them to go to London one week and Leeds the next, it will be difficult for that person to find out whether the peak times are the same everywhere. The member of staff at Eastham station in my constituency may or may not have in their head the relevant peak times for the ticket.
Having grown up in Liverpool, I know the hon. Lady’s rail line, Wrexham to Bidston, very well; I had family in the area. However, surely people in today’s world just check online—on nationalrail.co.uk or other sites, which will tell them the pricing of tickets for when they want to travel, including for off-peak, super-advance and similar tickets. I am not sure why there is such a complication.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is extremely competent at double-checking peak times and the validity of her tickets when she travels, even if she is in a part of the country that she does not know. However, businesses have told me that they find the situation difficult.
The national rail inquiries website is good, but I am not always sure that it is that clear. The better solution would be to print the peak times on the ticket. Surely, in this day and age, we can set up a digital printer that can print the peak times on restricted tickets. People would then not need to make sure that the 3G was working on their phones so that they could look the information up. If it was on the ticket, that would really help people.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I emphasise that not only digitally incompetent people make the mistake. I am on the east coast main line every week, and there is virtually never a journey when somebody in my carriage does not have to pay an excess surcharge because they have made a mistake to do with the peak, off-peak and super off-peak times.
“Super off-peak”—there’s an expression. What does it mean? I am a regular train user—a train geek, some have said—but I am not clear when a super off-peak ticket would allow me to travel to Darlington or anywhere else.
We need a more common-sense solution. Although Members of Parliament might have smartphones in their pockets and be able to look things up as they go, a huge number of travellers—particularly older ones, who might be seeking the cheapest possible ticket for understandable reasons—would not be so confident, or would be less likely to go online and look the information up easily.
We need the information to be really clear, not least because there are some strange anomalies in the peak and off-peak scenario, especially in respect of my constituency, which is close to the Welsh border. Services going into Wales have a different peak and off-peak arrangement.
Some years ago, there was a great hurrah when we got a reduction in the number of types of tickets. Now there are supposed to be just four types of train tickets, including advance, off-peak and flexible, so that people can be clear. Personally, I do not think that that works. We need another look. We should either reduce the number of types of tickets or increase the ways in which people can be made aware of the validity conditions of their tickets. The complexity is increased because there are so many vendors of tickets—so many different organisations sell train tickets that the ways in which train ticket validity can be communicated are extremely diverse.
The hon. Lady is making some valid and constructive points about the rail industry. However, the motion that we are debating focuses specifically on the costs to the taxpayer and commuters. Will she get round to talking about the motion rather than about her constructive suggestions for the Department for Transport?
The costs that passengers face depend on how easily they are able to purchase the most cost-effective ticket for them. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that the whole idea of allowing train companies flexibility was so that they could offer passengers many more lower-price tickets. My point is that lots of people end up paying more because they are confused about the system and have poor access to the information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) mentioned, all those things imply a cost. If a person has the wrong ticket and is surcharged on the train, that is a greater cost to them. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that my comments about the types of tickets are irrelevant, because such issues imply a cost. That is why they matter to people.
I am good, Mr Speaker, but not that good. I am afraid that I do not have my calculator with me, but I am sure that the issue is worth looking at.
I return to my final thoughts about what needs to be considered in the ticketing review. There is the issue of split ticketing, which has already been mentioned. Those who travel regularly on the railway have a significant advantage over those who do not because they can work out how to split their tickets and save money. If people do that and it is within the rules, good luck to them. However, the situation is confusing. I believe that we should aspire to get more people on to the railways. If tickets are so expensive that people split their tickets to try to make savings, that should be a lesson that we are pricing people away and that the complexity in the rules disadvantages people who do not travel regularly.
To conclude, we need to think about how we can simplify the system. We need to go much further in thinking about the benefits that could be achieved for the travelling public if we thought about the rail system as a whole network. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) made an extremely valid point about the difficulties of having a Transport for London network right next to a non-TfL part of the network. We need to think about all these things from the perspective of the travelling public rather than that of a complex industry. The rail system will always be complex, but we should make sure that the public-facing part of it is as simple and straightforward as possible.
By and large, we are at risk of curtailing the prospects of employment and economic growth if we do not take seriously the need to make rail fares much more affordable.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for Transport to his role. I also pay tribute to the work of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), and wish her the best of luck in her new, very important role in heading up the Department for International Development. It was a great pleasure to work with her to try to achieve many of the things to which we both aspire. I hope that that work can continue with the new Secretary of State and the other new Transport Ministers, whom I welcome to their roles, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who, I am delighted to say, is still in his role, holding the Department together in so many ways.
One of the issues on which we will have to work together is rail fares, which are quite simply too high. Under the previous Labour Government we saw year-on-year rail fare rises, and we now have one of the most expensive railways in the world. In their 13 years, rail fares went up by an astonishing 66% in cash terms—well above inflation—and in some years there were even greater increases. In 2007, for example, they allowed Stagecoach South West to increase fares by a massive 20%. Fares are too high already, but even now Labour and the Conservatives continue to argue for above-inflation rail fare increases. Although it was good to hear the new Secretary of State say that he aims to end the era of above-inflation increases soon, I hope that it will be very soon.
I will not support the motion because I do not agree with Labour Members that fares should be allowed to go up by more than inflation, which is what their motion says. It calls for a 1% above inflation rail fare cap, whereas Liberal Democrats believe that rail fares are too high already and should be reduced in real terms—that is, capped at less than inflation. We have argued that consistently and will continue to do so. It is time to end the era of above-inflation fare increases for ever.
The last-but-one Transport Secretary—I believe that 24 living people have had that job—instituted a policy of RPI plus 3%, which is well above inflation. Thanks to pressure from Liberal Democrats and others, and arguments won by the former Secretary of State, we managed to reduce that, and fares rose by only 1% above inflation—the average of the Conservative and Lib Dem proposals, and exactly what Labour advocated and advocates today—rather than by 3%. I congratulated the former Secretary of State on successfully winning that argument with the Chancellor last year. I have continued to work with her and other Ministers to try to press it. It was kind of the shadow Secretary of State to read out my words, confirming that I continued to press the former Secretary of State and will keep going with the new Secretary of State. I was delighted when the former Secretary of State announced in August:
“I am keen to see what we can do to keep fares down to something affordable. I will be looking at whether there is a way of doing this in the autumn.”
I am sure that the new Secretary of State, with all his vast experience in the ways of operating within Government and the Whips Office, will prove equally adept at obtaining the funds that are needed so desperately to ensure that price rises are reduced, and I look forward to working with him to achieve that.
We need to look at why fares are so high and how we can reduce the costs of the railways. Why do commuters in Britain suffer some of the most expensive tickets in Europe on some of its most crowded services? We have already heard some comments about this. I pay tribute to the interesting suggestions of the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), particularly on printing more information on tickets. That is an excellent idea and I hope that the Department for Transport will listen to it and take it seriously.
At the fundamental level, the main problem is chronic underinvestment in our railways. Government after Government have invested far too little in our most important transport network. Infrastructure spending has not kept up with demand. That has forced the railways into a downward spiral. An overcrowded, inefficient and unreliable service becomes far more expensive to run. The Office of Rail Regulation estimates that UK railways are up to 40% less efficient than their European counterparts, despite the cost of tickets. This cycle forces up fares and reduces the level of investment available, making for more expensive railways and a less good service.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as Liberal Democrat spokesperson, that historically there is a massive problem with underinvestment on Britain’s railways, but does he accept that the fragmentation of Britain’s railways and the role of the private companies compounds the problem greatly?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She has been fairly consistent on this issue, which is not true of all those in her party. I was interested to note that the shadow Secretary of State carefully avoided making commitments on how the railway system is operated. At the time of privatisation, I was concerned about some aspects. For example, if I want to travel from Cambridge to London, I do not care if it is cheaper to go to Liverpool because I am trying to go to London. It may be cheaper—or wonderful—to go to Liverpool, but it is not the trip I wish to make. Having said that, renationalising now would create a huge amount of complexity in trying to move to that new world. I am not persuaded that it would be the right thing to do, but I would be happy to discuss it further with the hon. Lady.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that it would be too difficult to bring the railways back into public ownership. If it were done on a case-by-case basis as the franchises came up, as with the west coast main line right now, there would not be any extra cost to the public purse; in fact, there would be a reduction in cost.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I congratulate her on her new-found freedom and hope that she will enjoy not having the responsibilities of party leader, with the flexibilities that that brings. I suspect that she will continue to be very influential on future leaders of her party. I am happy to talk to her in more detail about how such an approach would work, but I do not think that it is as trivial as she suggests. We must avoid doing something that seems very good on the face of it but does not deliver an improved rail system. For example, passenger usage numbers went up quite significantly at the point of privatisation. I would not want to do anything that jeopardised the growth in the number of rail passengers, and I am sure that she would not want to do so either.
So what can we do to bring down rail costs? We need a more modern and more efficient system. That is why I was so pleased that despite the huge public deficit and the ongoing problems in the eurozone, this year over £9 billion of investment was announced for our railways in the next five-year period. The Liberal Democrats and I were delighted to endorse that. The coalition has committed to electrifying over 800 miles of railways across the country, as well as to making a huge range of other improvements that will make a huge difference to passengers and to business. I was interested that last year’s autumn statement announced £1.4 billion of investment in our railways because, crucially, that provides £400 million more for railways than for roads. I cannot remember the last time any Government took the correct decision to prioritise expenditure on railways over roads.
As well as investing in lower fares for the future, we have to invest in lower fares now, as the excellent Campaign for Better Transport has pointed out. Over the next year, wages are set to rise by 2%, but fares could go up by as much as 3% above inflation—over 6%. Coalition means that one does not always get everything that one would most like to happen. I was pleased that last year the Government moved to RPI plus 1%, which is exactly in between our position and that of our coalition partners, but I cannot support the Conservative proposals for a rise of 3% above inflation for next year, nor the proposal in the Labour motion for above-inflation rises indefinitely. Liberal Democrats want a rate of RPI minus 1%, with fares coming down in real terms from now on. A lot of that would come from the 30% efficiency savings identified by the McNulty review. A previous Secretary of State announced that that money would be split between investment and money going back to the Treasury. We think that more of it should be used to bring rail fares down now and give the money back to people who pay. We would go further to simplify the fare structure and make it much more transparent, and make rail companies put forward the cheapest fares possible and pay refunds when services are below par. The Government are making some progress on that, but we will continue to push for more.
I am delighted that the Government have taken the difficult decision to invest in railways for the future. That is not an easy thing to do when times are tight; it would have been far better to invest more during the boom years. However, if we punish commuters and other travellers now, it could put people off railways altogether, especially those who are just starting work and those who are hardest hit by the ongoing squeeze. That would send out a terrible message about the affordability of public transport, drive down passenger numbers, and put our network on an unsustainable path. As the Campaign for Better Transport says, we cannot allow our railways to become a rich man’s toy. We need to find an agreement again over rail fares that will last for the rest of this Parliament. I strongly urge the Secretary of State to take up this cause strongly, as his predecessor did.
I hope that the Government will continue to look at the long-term strategic projects that are happening. To restore our railways to their Victorian zenith, we need a Victorian level of investment, and a vision to match. That is why I am delighted that the coalition is not only spending more on the railways than any of its predecessors since the Victorian era but committing to projects such as HS2. I am delighted that that is finally happening, but I am disappointed that, for decades, so many opportunities have been missed for greater improvements like that. Our lack of high-speed rail epitomises what has gone wrong in our railways in recent years, why fares are now so high, and why we face such capacity constraints. For years we watched European neighbours and Asian partners develop and build a comprehensive high-speed railway network. They have extended capacity, supported rail freight, released space on roads and reduced congestion. Despite calls over many years from Liberal Democrats, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, British Governments felt that the cost of doing so was too high. Why invest the money when there is nothing to be gained in the here and now? Transport investments take time to deliver.
Those Governments, over many decades, were wrong. We have waited so long that we absolutely have to go ahead with it now. The west coast main line will have already reached capacity before the new high-speed line can be finished, and the costs now have to be borne in a downturn rather than during the growth years, when money was more plentiful.
It is right that we are putting our railways on a sustainable footing. They need investment and they need it for the long term. The burden cannot be taken by fare payers. Constant, year-on-year fare rises are utterly unsustainable; they will ultimately force people off the railways and bring down revenues. Governments have found it much easier to just patch up old lines and force passengers to deal with the same old problems and pass on the cost of an inefficient system. That was a terrible waste of the boom years.
I am delighted that by the end of this Parliament, Liberal Democrats in government will have made some of the tough decisions to make sure that we will have the efficient and sustainable railway network we deserve, but it has to be affordable to people. I hope that over the coming months we can reach an agreement with our coalition colleagues to prevent an RPI plus 3% rate; otherwise, a long-term investment could be utterly undone as we drive people from our railways irrevocably.
The new Secretary of State is not in his place, but I welcome him to his new position. He said that it is somewhat daunting for him to have on his first day a debate about rail fares. All I can say is: wait until we get on to aviation. I look forward to introducing him to some of my friends: Bob Crow at the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Mick Whelan at ASLEF and Manuel Cortes at the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. On a serious point, I am sure that the trade unions will show a willingness to meet the new Secretary of State on a regular basis and to work together to improve the system. If hon. Members look at many of the submissions received by the Transport Committee in recent years, particularly from the RMT, ASLEF and TSSA, they will see that many of the issues raised and many of the ideas proposed, particularly on ticketing, have been reflected in contributions by Members from all parties to debates, particularly those centring on fares.
The agenda needs to be worked on jointly with the Government. The focus is on fares as the major problem that passengers bear the brunt of. I believe that the role of the House is to protect our constituents—the travelling public—against many of the companies that are profiteering at their expense. The hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) gave an example of price increases in his constituency, where people are paying anything up to £6,000 or £7,000 a year to commute, and of how that is becoming an impediment to them maintaining work. That is happening right across the country, so I welcome the Government’s ticketing review and refer them to the evidence that the RMT has already provided to successive Transport Committee reviews of ticketing, in which we have emphasised the problems of the complexities of pricing.
On the performance of the companies with regard to their franchises and fares, it is unacceptable that, when a company reneges on its franchise commitments and then seeks to walk away from it, it is then allowed to bid for other franchises around the country. Any company that reneges on its existing franchise should be banned from being able to bid for another and profiteer at the expense of passengers.
Time and again, when rail franchises have collapsed, they have been brought under public ownership and control. We saw that with the First Capital Connect franchise in the south-east. When that service was in public ownership, it was one of the most efficient and cost-effective services. Unfortunately, the previous Government—this Government pursued this as well—put it out to the private sector again.
The Secretary of State referred in his opening remarks to the investment in electrification and high-speed rail. I wholeheartedly welcome that investment, but I have concerns about the High Speed 2 route. I am particularly concerned about how it has been consulted on. The two-stage approach and the development of the line—the two stages being those that link London to the midlands and to the north—were consulted on separately from the publication of the route to Heathrow, which will affect my constituency. Nevertheless, I welcome the concept of investment in high-speed rail for the future.
Great play has been made in this debate of the issue of reform and its impact on costs and fares. I think that all the rail unions will be willing to meet to discuss the reform of the current system of franchising and of the operation of the railways. I met Roy McNulty on a regular basis. He is a nice old buffer and I do not in any way disparage his commitment or the genuineness of his approach to the review of the railway network, but I have to say that, even under the previous Government, the terms of reference of the McNulty review were specifically limited and that his horizons were, therefore, limited. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) has made the point that the comparisons with Europe were hardly straightforward. The comparison was between a franchising system and systems that were largely in the public sector, publicly owned and publicly managed. He was not allowed to look at what public ownership and public control could mean in this country compared with elsewhere. As I have said, the only time that such ownership has occurred here in recent years is when private sector franchises have collapsed and the public sector has taken them over and managed them efficiently and effectively.
The problem with the McNulty review—this has been touched on—is that he envisages, at the most recent estimate, a cut of 20,000 jobs. That will have consequences for services, and many of our constituents have expressed concerns about that.
The range cited is anything between 5,000 and 20,000. Even if the figure is 5,000, a significant number of jobs will go. In those areas where the general proposals have been translated into concrete ones at the local level, passengers and communities have expressed consternation. For example, the west midlands is trying to translate some of the reductions in staffing into the service itself and faces 80 ticket office closures. That will result in a reduction of staff in the station, so there are concerns about losing the service and about security on platforms and at stations. As a result, a new campaign was launched in August and 40 main stations across the country were picketed by community groups and unions. The campaign was joined by the TUC, the Campaign for Better Transport, Climate Rush and a number of other groups. I issue a warning—perhaps I will send the Secretary of State a note about this—that the campaign was also joined by the women’s institute. Any Minister who takes on the 210,000 members of the women’s institute does so at his or her peril.
This point has been touched on by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), but there needs to be a discussion about why the fares have increased and why the travelling public have been burdened by those increases over the years. We need to have a debate—I hope that this will happen under the new Secretary of State—about how we should organise our railways. We cannot ignore the understanding and appreciation that now exists of the impact of privatisation. I would welcome a more open debate in which people took a more agnostic approach to privatisation, rather than an ideologically committed one, as has been the case in the past.
I refer Members to the “Rebuilding Rail” report, which came out a couple of months ago. It looked at the value-for-money arguments of the existing franchising mechanism and compared the public subsidy that was put into British Rail with the current subsidy. That independent report found that public subsidy had doubled under the franchising system from £2.4 billion to more than £5.4 billion. From 2005-06 to 2009-10, the average subsidy going into the privatised system was £1.2 billion a year. The total subsidy under privatisation is now nearly £12 billion.
When we have had this argument in the past, a number of Members from all parts of the House have argued that the private companies that operate the franchises are paying a premium and putting money back into the system. I pay tribute to the detailed work of John Stittle, the senior lecturer in accounting at the university of Essex, in the “Rebuilding Rail” report. He looked at how the money has, in effect, been laundered through Network Rail. We have increased the public subsidies to Network Rail, resulting in a reduction in the track operational costs for private companies, which has enabled them to pay the premiums. Under privatisation, there has been a straightforward subsidy from the taxpayer to the private companies to run the system, the passengers have been hit by high fares, and the premiums that the companies pay back to the state, which they extol the virtues of, have actually been paid for by subsidies laundered through Network Rail. That is why we need a re-examination of the whole structure. I hope that we will now have that open debate.
The “Rebuilding Rail” report shows—this is partly reflected by McNulty—that the high costs that are resulting in high fares are a result of the complex structure of the franchising system. It highlights other issues such as the higher interest payments that were paid to keep Network Rail’s debts off the Government balance sheet; the debt write-offs that have occurred under privatisation; and the costs arising from the fragmentation of the system between numerous organisations and subcontractors, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) pointed out. The profit margins of the complex tiers of contractors and subcontractors are forcing rail fares up, because of their high costs. The level of the dividend payments to private investors is unacceptable to the travelling public when fares are increasing. As I said, there is an average subsidy of £1.2 billion a year and more than £11 billion of public funds have been paid out so far.
I hope that we will have some new thinking. I hope that we will again look at public ownership as an option. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion demonstrated, although it was dismissed by the Liberal spokesperson, that independent examination of the matter has shown that public ownership could be reintroduced in the railway system at virtually zero cost. As the franchises end, they can be brought back into public ownership, as has happened with two franchises, at no additional cost. Even if the Government are not willing to go as far as the full renationalisation of the railway system, as I would wish, it is open to them to keep at least one franchise in the public sector to be the benchmark against which other franchises are judged. That would enable the system to be evaluated properly and for pressure to be placed on the private sector element of the system.
I hope that with a new Secretary of State and a new Transport team, we can have a constructive dialogue. However, I cannot see a constructive dialogue coming from passengers if they are hit in successive years by fare increases. Although I will vote for the Opposition motion, my view is not just that fares should be frozen or capped, but that the travelling public deserve a cut in fares. Many passengers feel that they are being fleeced, both through increased fares and because they have to pay through their taxes for increased public subsidies while a number of the private companies make unacceptable levels of profit.
Two weeks ago, when the franchising issue broke, Branson, the head of Virgin, expressed his concerns about losing the franchise. One article repeated the quotation from his finance director when the privatisation of the railways first happened: that it was their opportunity literally to print money. That is what many of the private companies have done as a result of the franchising system. I believe that that is obscene, as will many passengers when they face further price increases in their fares. As the hon. Member for Northampton South said, that puts people’s ability to maintain their employment in jeopardy.
I welcome the new Secretary of State. I support the motion and hope that we can go further at a later date. I hope that with the new rail team, we can have a wider debate that is unfettered by the ideological commitment to privatisation that there has been in the past.
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak. Like many colleagues, I wish the Secretary of State well, although he is not in his seat at the moment. It was great to see him back at the Dispatch Box. In taking interventions from Opposition Members, he was generous, flexible and accommodating—characteristics that he did not always demonstrate in his previous role.
This debate is simple for me. Although the railways are a complicated issue, the fundamental question is, who will pick up the tab of improving our railways? I am pretty disappointed by this debate because it is almost blatantly politically opportunistic. This is such a serious issue and it affects so many of our consumers and constituents that we should have more grace than to bat it about in this way and try to score cheap political points.
The answer to who will pick up the tab is, ultimately, the taxpayer. If we all agree that the railways need improvement and investment, and that the cash has to come from somewhere, ultimately the taxpayer has to pay the bill. The question is how to strike the balance between the ordinary taxpayer and the individual taxpayer who makes use of the service and rides on the trains. I put it to the House that someone working in the former coalfields of Sherwood, where rail services are pretty sparse, who earns less than £20,000 a year should not be put under pressure to pay taxes to give a banker who lives in Surrey a subsidised ride into the City. That is a difficult problem to solve, but we have to get the balance right between the ordinary taxpayer and the commuter. I am not sure that we have got the balance right today.
Standing at the Dispatch Box today, the Secretary of State inherits a situation that I do not envy: he comes to his role in the middle of a global financial crunch; he inherits a railway system that has faced enormous under-investment from a series of Governments; he faces the global price of energy going through the roof; and he has inherited a deficit from the previous Government that is difficult to solve.
I do not know what sort of car the hon. Lady drives, but I certainly have not seen a 7% drop in the cost of my motoring. I do not think we have got the balance right at the moment, but we have heard a series of speeches by Opposition Members about how nationalisation could improve the railways. I wonder whether people’s memories are so short that they forget how poor British Rail was. The Government who privatised the railways did not do it because British Rail was so fantastic.
It is important in these debates that Members of all parties cut through the myths. May I refer the hon. Gentleman to a report by a think-tank called Catalyst, which analysed the subsidy given to British Rail in comparison with those in the rest of Europe and found it to have been the most efficient rail service in Europe? It also analysed the differences between the subsidies under nationalisation and those provided now, and again found British Rail to have been more effective and efficient. I will send him a copy.
I would be very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I accept that this is a complicated issue, but when British Rail ran the railways it was not a panacea or a fantastic system. There were enormous delays for commuters, and the railway carriages were cramped. The service provided to commuters was shocking.
We could argue that there has not been enough progress, which I accept to a certain extent. Like the Secretary of State, I travel on the midland main line. It seems simple to say that capacity on that line could be improved just by making the trains a little longer, but the situation is much more complicated than that. The trains are already too long for people who want to get out of certain carriages at Loughborough station, so they have to move down the train to get off. Enormous investment is required in the midland main line, which is one of the most under-invested railway lines in the country, and I am delighted that the Government are putting in the cash to improve it by moving electrification further up towards the midlands and Yorkshire. It has been a long time coming.
I return to my constituents in Sherwood, who are not blessed with wonderful railway connections. If a resident of the town of Ollerton is employed in the city of Nottingham, their only option is to use buses or get in the car and drive. Public transport provision in my constituency is shockingly poor, and with the exception of the town of Hucknall, railway provision is pretty much non-existent. A taxpayer in Ollerton has to get in their car, for which they have paid road tax, and fund their journey by paying for petrol and the tax on it. They drive to the city of Nottingham and pay the workplace parking levy introduced by the Labour-controlled city council to earn their wage to pay taxes to support a banker in Surrey by cheapening his journey into the City of London. To someone working in Sherwood and earning twenty thousand quid, that does not seem acceptable. We sometimes need a bit of a reality check. I have heard a lot of complaints from colleagues in the south-east. I understand that they feel under pressure because of the increases in the cost of their rail tickets, but there is not a great deal of sympathy from hard-pressed, hard-working people in the coalfields of Nottinghamshire who are on low wages.
How will we solve the problem? Frankly, I am not sure that I have all the answers, but I would be delighted to work with the Secretary of State and the transport team to try to solve it. I believe that the answer is for the price of railway tickets to creep up, so that people can adapt and adjust, and for us to find ways of being more efficient. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) talked about efficiency savings, which will be the key to solving the problem. We must not only make use of taxpayers’ money for investment but find ways of spending it in the most efficient way possible. It is not tolerable or acceptable to my hard-working, tax-paying constituents that they have to keep dipping their hand in their pocket only for that money to be wasted rather than spent in the most efficient possible manner. If efficiencies are made, they will be able to benefit when they make use of the trains if they have the opportunity to come to London or to commute across Nottinghamshire. They cannot keep paying indefinitely without efficiency savings.
Probably the most shocking statistic that I have heard today is the comparison between the cost of flying and using rail. It is now cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to London than it is to go on the train. It seems bonkers that we find ourselves in that position, but it demonstrates how efficient the private sector can be in providing air journeys.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is utterly specious. That situation has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a privatised airline and everything to do with the fact that airline fuel is subsidised whereas other fuel is not. If we subsidise domestic flights, it is not surprising that railways will be more expensive. Will he follow through on the logic of his argument and say that the Government will consider getting rid of the subsidy on domestic flight fuel?
I certainly think that we should examine how railways fund their fuel and energy supplies, and we are considering electrifying lines so that they are more efficient. I know that the hon. Lady is talking about aviation fuel, but I make the point that some rail lines, such as the midland main line, run on diesel rather than electricity. I am sure that the carbon footprint of those journeys will be of interest to her, and I wholly accept that we should continue to examine the matter.
I cannot reiterate enough the importance of getting the balance right between the commuter paying and the taxpayer paying. It is easy to forget that hard-working people doing fairly low-paid jobs are under equal pressure and also have to pay for transport to work. It is wrong to suggest that we can simply reduce rail fares.
I was aghast at some of the comments of my Liberal colleague the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who is no longer in his place. He said that cutting the price of some rail tickets was Liberal Democrat policy. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will assure us, as a Liberal Democrat member of the Government, that the Liberal Democrat policy and the Government’s policy are fairly closely aligned. In the land of buttercups, rainbows and daffodils where my colleague seems to live, things do not seem to balance out as I understand them in the real world.
I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that as the Secretary of State settles into his role he will consider the whole country, not just the commuters. They are obviously under pressure as they have to pay for their tickets, but he should also consider the hard-working taxpayers.They do not have a lot of spare cash and cannot keep dipping into their pockets for it.
People in my constituency have simply had enough of the rising cost of public transport, and the latest above-inflation rail fare increase is just about the last straw. Worried Brighton residents repeatedly tell me that they are already suffering from below-average earnings and simply cannot afford the proposed increases. As I mentioned earlier, one man told me how he had to give in his notice at his job in London because he simply cannot afford to get there. Now he is unemployed because he could not afford his rail fare.
Much has been said today about the impact of spiralling ticket prices on cash-strapped commuters, who are rightly furious that trains continue to be overcrowded and unreliable as well as overpriced; that public transport options are not fully integrated; that smart ticketing is not the norm; that trains are still too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter; and that the toilets do not work, or are simply non-existent on some train services from Brighton. That is a serious equalities issue. I have been contacted by many Brighton residents who want to be able to use the train but have health problems or are elderly. The fact that there are not toilets on the trains means that they can no longer use them. As a daily commuter between London and Brighton, I know only too well how accurate many of those complaints are. When we urgently need rail to play a role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the transport sector and contributing to improved air quality, the system should be better.
Fares should be managed as part of an overall strategy of making public transport more integrated, more comprehensive and more affordable, helping people to leave their cars at home and providing an attractive alternative to flying for longer journeys within the UK. Yet, since privatisation, the cost of train travel has risen by 17% in real terms compared with a 7% drop in the cost of motoring. Those higher fares mean that that gap will now widen. Moreover, the rail fare increases announced a few weeks ago represent an unacceptable tax on rail commuters, given that the percentage increase above the 1% written into the franchise agreements flows directly to the Treasury.
I welcome today’s motion as a step in the right direction, but I support the suggestion of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) that fares should not be allowed to rise at all—if anything, they should come down. I regret that there is no Liberal Democrat amendment on the Order Paper to that end. However, we need to go much further. The controversy over the west coast main line franchise shows that what people want most is some kind of stability on the railways. They are not impressed by one unaccountable company snatching control from another with promises that they may never deliver. Nor are people happy that the cost to the public purse of running the railways has risen by a factor of between 2 and 3 times since privatisation.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has already mentioned the report “Rebuilding Rail”, which I warmly commend to the House. It makes cogent arguments explaining why, under privatisation, there are much higher costs to the public. As the hon. Gentleman said, they include higher interest payments to keep Network Rail’s debts off the Government balance sheet; costs arising as a result of the fragmentation of the rail system into many organisations; profit margins of complex tiers of contractors and subcontractors; and dividends to private investors.
I will not, simply because of time.
The only way to sort out the mess and waste, the rising fares and overcrowding is to take back control of the railways. I am not afraid to call that nationalisation.
It is time to make public transport a public service again, and to nail the myth that buying back assets that have been sold off would be too expensive. A step-by-step approach would allow the railway’s assets to be reacquired for the public at minimal cost and with substantial ongoing savings over time.
I am most grateful. Is the hon. Lady really saying that she wants to return to a nationalised British Rail? Is she also saying that privatisation is bad and that all the other privatised sectors have not cut costs? Or is the rail sector the only one that has not? How does she explain that?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to Deutsche Bahn, SNCF and several railways in Europe that run perfectly good public sector railways with much lower fares than ours. I am not necessarily saying that we should go back to British Rail; I am saying that we should learn from that experience. We might in future have much greater democratic control, with passengers involved in the decision making. Far more of running the railways might be delegated to regional level. We do not have to go back to something—we can go forward to something and learn from the best of what is happening in many European countries and in the rest of the world.
The proposal that “Rebuilding Rail” and others are considering is a more or less cost-free process, whereby when the franchises expire or companies fail to meet the criteria, they could be acquired on a case-by-case basis. New rolling stock could be directly procured, making the process far cheaper than the current leasing arrangements, and fair price regulation could be introduced to bring down the cost of leasing existing rolling stock from its private sector owners.
We also need to bring Network Rail’s debt back on to the Government’s balance sheet. I appreciate that the Government will blanche at the very thought, but doing that would reflect the reality of the situation and result in much lower interest payments.
According to calculations from “Rebuilding Rail”, reuniting the railways under public ownership could save more than £1 billion a year of taxpayers’ money. To put that figure in context, the money that we would have saved if rail had not been privatised could have been used to cut fares by up to 18%. The matter needs to be properly examined, and I am deeply upset that the Conservative ideological position means that the proposal is dismissed simply because it contains the words “nationalisation” or “public ownership.”
I think I am following the hon. Lady’s logic. However, if the perfect answer for the general public is to renationalise the railway, why is there such a large petition about the west coast main line, which supports the continuation of a private company’s running that route?
I imagine that that is because there was no properly public option on the ballot paper, as there was with the east coast main line, which was taken back into public ownership. Plenty of polls show massive support for bringing the railway back into public ownership. A majority of people want that. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman consider that.
In Europe, passenger rail services are much cheaper and services are better, and between 80% and 100% of train services are run by publicly owned companies. Those two facts are not unconnected. Despite what some opponents claim, there is no EU requirement for the railways to be privatised. Other European countries have accommodated EU legislation, while largely or entirely retaining public ownership of their railways, by ensuring that there is separation between the body that is responsible for passenger train operations and the subsidiary company that is responsible for capacity allocation and access charges.
The Government should know that there is a problem, since the McNulty review, commissioned by Labour but delivered to the coalition, clearly highlighted excessive costs in the UK rail industry. That report also showed that privatisation’s promise of innovation simply has not materialised. Both McNulty and the Transport Committee noted that, in fact, innovation has been actively discouraged by the disjointed and complex nature of the privatised railways.
Genuine, at-risk private investment, as opposed to private capital expenditure that is underwritten by the Government, makes an insignificant contribution to the railways, representing about 1% of investment. That is substantially less than the additional costs that arise from a privatised structure. Nor has efficiency improved in the hands of the private sector—despite often being cited as another major benefit of selling off public services. In fact, there has been an increased number of administrators and managers, as well as duplication of functions in different private companies, and staff who have to be employed to ensure that everyone talks to one another and knows what is going on. It has been estimated that the cost of those back-room staff has increased by 56% since privatisation, measured per train kilometre—money that would have been better spent keeping rail fares affordable and investing in real improvements.
Britain was once world famous for its trail-blazing and hugely successful railway, but today, privatisation is failing passengers, the economy and the environment. Unless it returns to public ownership, Britain will struggle on with a disjointed, complex and often dysfunctional railway system that regularly makes commuting a miserable experience and puts us to shame internationally.
I am in a difficult position because I support the sentiment, but oppose the motive behind the motion. The motive is opportunism of the worst kind.
I support the sentiment because I am very concerned about hard-pressed rail commuters in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, and I want them to be helped. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) compared his constituents and commuters in the south-east. I should point out to him that only a small percentage are bankers travelling to the City of London. The vast majority of my constituents are no better off than his.
Let me read out part of a letter—one of many—that I have received. It states:
“Dear Mr Henderson,
Once again I find myself writing to you on the subject of rail fares. As you will have seen in the press, the Government announced that rail fares will rise in January by an average of 6.2%. By my calculations, this will bring the cost of a non-High Speed, train only season ticket from Sittingbourne to Victoria to £3,954.88. My wife and I both commute from Sittingbourne to Victoria to work in Westminster and the increase will mean the cost of getting to work will take 22% of our combined take home pay—the increase will hit my wife particularly hard as it will represent 30% of her monthly income. The rises come at a time when many people, including us, are experiencing frozen pay or pay cuts.
Theresa Villiers said on the BBC yesterday that the increased fares will ‘make life better’ for rail users by paying for improvements.”
The point about investment in rail is important. I commute into London most days, and I welcome the £26 million investment going into Three Bridges station, and the £53 million investment that will go to upgrade track capacity at Gatwick station.
My hon. Friend is right about investment, but commuters on Southeastern railways have heard the same tired old tune, year in, year out, and frankly they have stopped believing it, if they ever did. We may have the Javelin service into St Pancras, but that is hardly high speed as it spends most of the journey on the tortuous route through Strood and Gravesend.
The letter continues:
“High speed also means higher cost, due to the supplement charged to travel beyond Gravesend. The service into Victoria has deteriorated over the years to the point where most “fast” trains take almost an hour and 10 minutes to travel from Sittingbourne to Victoria”.
Only 30 years ago the journey was 50 minutes, so travel times have gone up rather than down. I suggest that those who support High Speed 2 consider the impact of High Speed 1 on my constituency.
That letter just about sums up the frustration felt by my constituents—frustration that did not happen overnight but has been bubbling up for many years. The motion calls on the Government
“to restore the one per cent above inflation cap on annual fare rises”.
My constituents, however, have had to pay fares linked to the retail prices index plus 3% for many years because that formula was written into the franchise agreement for Southeastern railways, which runs trains in north Kent. That greater fare increase in Kent was to pay for improvements that were allegedly introduced in the area prior to April 2006, although my constituents often wonder what those improvements were. If those improvements were HS1, that would add insult to injury because people find themselves either paying for a superfast service that is not fast and goes to a London station to which few of them want to travel, or paying for a standard train service that takes longer than it did 30 years ago.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the invitation to tender for the new intercity west coast franchise allows for increases in rail fares of 8% above inflation in 2013 and 2014, and 6% above inflation for the rest of the franchise? Does he share my concerns that yet again, such increases will not lead to proper investment in the service?
I share the hon. Lady’s concern because my constituents have a similar problem. The franchise agreement with Southeastern also set out the level of subsidy that it would receive. That is important because the subsidy started at £139.9 million in year one, reducing to £24.7 million by year seven. In year eight, Southeastern will be expected to pay a premium of £9.3 million to the Department for Transport. It does not take a genius to work out that if the Government expect Southeastern to pay them a premium, rail fares will have to rise to fund it.
Who negotiated that franchise agreement? The Labour Government did. Indeed, their stated policy was to recruit more of the cost of the rail service from those who use it, rather than relying on the general taxpayer to subsidise it. It is, therefore, hypocritical in the extreme for Labour Members to complain now about a system of rail fare pricing that they introduced and supported. I greatly fear that spiralling rail fares will have a detrimental effect on commuters in my constituency, and will directly hit hard-working families who are already struggling. The increases will hit even harder people who have recently lost their jobs, such as those at Thamesteel who will have to commute some distance to find a job.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is particularly difficult because Kent has some of the lowest average incomes in the south-east yet some of the highest commuter fares? The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned costs in her constituency, but the cost of commuting from Chatham, which is only 30 miles away, is about £100. Brighton is almost 50 miles away, yet the cost is almost the same.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The cost per mile of rail travel from our part of Kent is one of the highest in the country, and commuters in my constituency have had to put up with that for a number of years. That is the issue I wish to address, and I welcome the Transport Secretary’s offer to meet Kent MPs. Although he is not present in the Chamber, I assure him that at that meeting I will press for help for commuters in my constituency.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I am in a difficult position. I support the sentiment of the motion but oppose the motive behind it. For that reason, I will abstain, as I hope will all my fellow Kent MPs.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson). I listened with great interest to what he said, and I assure him that I was in a similarly difficult position on many occasions during the previous Parliament. I was proud of the money that the Labour Government ensured was invested in the railways, but I did not necessarily agree with all the policies on the structure of the railways. The hon. Gentleman described rail fare franchising arrangements, and that area needs to be looked at again. It is, therefore, regrettable that no lessons seem to have been learned especially, as I outlined in my intervention, in the invitation to tender for the west coast line.
The general public are clearly outraged by the Government’s decision to increase the annual cap on rail fares to 3% above inflation in January 2013 and 2014. Many commuters will find that the cost of tickets increases by as much as 11% as a direct consequence of the Government’s decision to give back to private train companies the right to increase the cost of some tickets by an additional 5% on top of the increase set by Ministers. The position is slightly better in Scotland, but there, too, we will see significant increases in rail fares that cannot be afforded at the moment.
A number of hon. Members have made an effective business case for why people simply cannot afford increases in train fares at this time. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to a constituent who has decided that they can no longer work in London as a result of the fare increases, and many hon. Members will have been visited by constituents for whom the cost of transport, whether train and bus fares or something else, has been a prohibitive factor in seeking employment.
Powerful contributions have been made about the need for a simpler ticketing structure because many who use the railways simply do not understand how the current system operates. Government policy, and the direction of travel of some of those managing the railways, seems to be moving towards a situation in which we will rely on machines rather than on people. We have heard about the job losses that may result from the McNulty review, but our constituents do not want a future railway with stations that have no people to treat them as customers and where they have to use machines to buy tickets, where they do not have the security of knowing that staff are present, and where they have to get on trains that have CCTV equipment rather than personnel to help them. If that is the direction of travel, I hope that the new Secretary of State for Transport will bring some common sense to the agenda and recognise that that is not the kind of railway network we want for the future.
Politics is about choices. It will be interesting to watch the debates within the Government over the coming period not only on railways, but on aviation and roads. The Labour Government made a choice in favour of the railways. We might not have done everything we would have liked to do and we might wish we had done more, but there was a commitment to the railways. There are incredibly strong environmental reasons why we need to make the choice in favour of railways rather than other modes of transport, and why we need policies to ensure that people choose public rather than private transport in as many situations as possible. I therefore believe the Government are going in completely the wrong direction with their policy of rail fare increases.
The National Audit Office report on the impact of fare increases on Government income and private train company profits warned of the risk that the benefits of any resulting increase in passenger revenues will not be passed on to taxpayers, but will result simply in increased train operating company profits. A number of hon. Members described how the model of railway ownership takes money out of the railway system and puts it into the hands of those who profit as a result of ownership—the railway companies. We need to look forward to simplified, cheaper railways, but the Government’s decisions in the past couple of months are taking us in completely the wrong direction.
I congratulate the new Department for Transport Front-Bench team on their positions. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) is in the team, because he is a constituency neighbour—I think he will recognise some of the points I will make in my short contribution.
All hon. Members have made valid points on the challenges of rail fares, the fare structuring system and, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) has pointed out, the difficult political choices that have to be made in government. I would like to think that, before the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will listen to and take on board many of the concerns raised by hon. Members on behalf of hard-pressed commuters and rail users.
The Opposition motion calls for a fare increase of RPI plus 1, but as colleagues from the Kent constituencies have said, the Labour Government’s policy was an increase of RPI plus 3 in the area covered by Southeastern. Government Members should not listen to lectures on fare increases, because we have all had fare increases in the past. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport mentioned a fundamental aspect—the basket system by which the figures are calculated. Labour did nothing about the basket system when in power, leaving many commuters paying above-average increases.
Like all hon. Members’ constituents, mine are concerned about above-inflation rail fare hikes, but the increases are harder to stomach when passengers see no improvements in services. Commuters in Witham have had continual increases in rail fares, so they are appalled that they have had no improvement in services. Under the Labour Government, there was no investment in Essex rail infrastructure, while commuters faced horrific delays.
It currently costs £4,700 per year to travel from Witham to London, and almost 4 million passengers a year use stations in my constituency—2.2 million use Witham station alone. We have come to the conclusion that enough is enough. I appreciate that there is a new Front-Bench team, but I ask them to recognise that the east of England, including Essex, has suffered for far too long from the effects of underinvestment and price increases. If nothing else, it is about time that the regional anomaly, which has existed not only for the past few years, but for decades, was rebalanced.
Like all regions, the east of England is growing. Investment in rail is essential to jobs, investment and economic growth. I should like to give a plug to work that has taken place within the eastern region. Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk MPs have pulled together a team to work with our councils and local enterprise partnerships, and, importantly, rail user groups, which are made up of the very people who shell out the money for the huge prices, to develop a rail prospectus for the greater Anglia franchise—I know the Minister is familiar with the document because he supported and made a tremendous contribution to it.
The document is about not only rail fares, but investment. I have taken the opportunity to plug the prospectus, but I should also point out the highly significant economic benefits not just to the region and our commuters, but to the country. I hope that the new Department for Transport team consider the points I and others have made in the debate, and that they think about how we can start rebalancing rail fares and rail investment.
I join colleagues on both sides of the House in putting on the record my congratulations to the new Transport Secretary on his appointment. It is fitting that he should have made his debut in this debate. I know he is unable to be in the Chamber at the moment, but I am sure he will look carefully at all the arguments put forward by colleagues.
I listened very carefully to the Transport Secretary’s contribution, and was somewhat disappointed that he said very little about rail fare increases. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), will say more about them, or perhaps the Secretary of State will return to fare increases in the coming days or weeks as he finds his way in his new brief and tell us exactly what he will do to protect passengers, what he thinks about the flex system, and whether he will lobby the Chancellor to keep rail fare rises to RPI plus 1%, as the Opposition propose. The Transport Secretary has an opportunity to push for the reintroduction of a real cap on fare rises, and I very much hope he takes it.
This debate has been about the general and the particular. There is a general crisis in the cost of living. Household budgets are under enormous pressure as living costs climb ever higher. The Opposition have called today for the Government to take a particular action—a further U-turn that would be welcomed by the constituents of all hon. Members in the Chamber. The Government could reverse their decision to allow the dramatic rise in rail fares, which, for many people, have come at the worst possible time.
The Government could resist the growing burden on hard-pressed passengers. The Labour Government put in place a strict cap on rail fare rises of 1% above inflation. It is a cause of great regret, both in the House and more importantly in the country, that the current Government chose to give the rail companies free rein over regulated fares. The removal of the cap, coupled with the restoration of flex, will lead to fare rises of up to 11%. That is a real blow at a time of pay freezes in both the public and the private sectors, higher-than-expected inflation and a contracting economy. The Campaign for Better Transport has warned that the cost of season tickets will go up three times faster than salaries. Without economic growth, the pain will only increase in intensity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), who is not in her place, clearly explained how many people, particularly commuters, need to travel at particular times and cannot shop around for cheaper fares in the off-peak or super off-peak periods. They must simply pay up and see their disposable income hit. To give just one example, when one of my constituents needs to commute from Nottingham to Leicester to go to work, a season ticket currently costs £1,672 a year. Under the Government’s plans, it is estimated that that figure will rise to £1,937 by 2015, which would represent 7.38% of the average regional salary. Pity the commuter from Leeds to Hull whose season ticket will go up from £3,732 to £4,323, an eye-watering 16.5% of the average regional salary. In the most extreme cases, a season ticket could cost up to 25% of the average salary.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) noted—and the hon. Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) agreed—commuters in the south-east are routinely spending 15% or more of their salary simply on getting to work, and many will be priced out of work altogether. The example given by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) was helpful in that respect.
The issue is not just affecting commuters. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, this also hurts businesses in his constituency whose staff need to travel to London to sustain and grow future business. Meanwhile infrastructure spending is being scaled back and the Government seem set on using the McNulty report as cover to withdraw staff from stations, despite many passengers relying on them to find the cheapest fares, which—as many hon. Members have pointed out—cannot easily be done using automated ticket machines, never mind the other concerns about unstaffed stations.
The fare rises will also have a particularly serious impact on those on low incomes, including pensioners and young people, who are already feeling the squeeze as the cost of living rises. When I speak to young people in my constituency the cost of transport is one of the key concerns that they raise, and I think the high cost of train travel comes as a real shock to many of those leaving home for the first time to go to university. For pensioners, the fare rises are compounded by cuts to alternative modes of transport. Bus services have been cut back and the withdrawal of support for long-distance coach travel is hitting pensioners hard.
Before the last election, someone said:
“The fares issue will not go away. It will be the biggest inhibitor of train travel in the years to come.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 166WH.]
Those are not my words, but those of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes. In fact, we have heard many warm words on fares. Scores of coalition MPs have been telling their local papers that they opposed the rise in fares, despite voting for them in this House. They will be glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight, and I trust that all those hon. Members will join us in the Lobby today.
Not at the moment.
We have heard many warm words on fares and coalition Members have been supportive of the Government’s position. We have been promised an end to “inflation busting fares” in a press release from the Department for Transport, and both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives promised “fair pricing for rail travel” in the coalition agreement. For all those fine words, what has been delivered? Fares will rise by 3% above inflation, flex will be reinstated, and there will be overall rises of up to 11%. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) likes to pretend that that is nothing to do with his party, but it is his Ministers, including the Under-Secretary, who are imposing these measures.
The new franchises also hand operators unprecedented license over the quantity and quality of the services that they run. Ministers must mind the gap between rhetoric and reality. For too many passengers the reality of rail travel is overcrowded carriages, repeated delays and needlessly complicated pricing structures. Instead of tackling the root causes of waste in the railways, the Government are merely handing the cost on to passengers. We are keen to see a more efficient rail industry, but passengers face unaffordable fare rises now. There have been enough empty pledges from this Government. Their words are cheap, but the fares are dear, and the rail companies count the profits. There has to be another way.
Less than a month ago, the former Transport Secretary, now Secretary of State for International Development, said that she wanted to find a means of bringing
“fares down to something affordable.”
This motion offers just such a means. I hope that the new Transport Secretary will be prepared to stand up against vested interests for the public good, and I hope that Members from all parties will support this motion to help ease the burden on rail passengers.
I thank all those who have contributed to this debate, and I recognise the strong feelings that rightly exist about rail fares across the House and in all parties.
Reforming and modernising Britain’s railways is one of the Government’s top priorities. We are already delivering the most ambitious rail investment programme since the Victorian era to boost capacity and improve services. In July, we announced £9.4 billion of network upgrades across England and Wales for the period between 2014 and 2019, and a £4.5 billion contract to supply Britain with its next generation of nearly 600 intercity trains. As we heard earlier, we have committed to 861 miles of electrification—not nine miles, but one in nine miles of the entire network.
New tracks and trains are only one part of our blueprint for a better railway. We are also taking a fresh look at fares and ticketing to reflect the latest technologies and meet the changing needs of passengers. Such a review is long overdue. Many rail users find the current system archaic and impenetrable—we have recently concluded a public consultation inviting views on how we might make it more transparent, more accessible and more flexible.
One of the key drivers of change will be smart ticketing technology. In London, the Oyster smartcard has transformed public transport, providing passengers with a more efficient and convenient alternative to paper tickets, and accelerating the flow of people through busy rail and tube stations. Smart ticketing could pave the way for a new fares system offering discounts for passengers who avoid the busiest services. As well as benefiting individual rail users, it would help us make better and more efficient use of train capacity so the savings realised can be ploughed back into keeping fares affordable.
The Government’s ambition is for all public services to become digital by default. That means helping as many people as possible to switch to digital channels, while continuing to provide support for the small minority who cannot make the switch. Buying a train ticket should be no different. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) referred to the complexity of tickets and the difficulties people can have with ticket machines. Those two matters are being addressed fairly and squarely by the fares and ticketing review that the Department is undertaking.
The challenge for train companies, therefore, is to make buying a ticket online or from a machine just as easy as from a station ticket office. Purchasing a rail ticket should be a straightforward transaction, not an obstacle course. So as part of our reform programme, I want to ensure that when passengers buy tickets, they can navigate the choices available and find the best ticket for their journey, quickly and clearly. Train companies need to improve their machines so that they sell the full range of tickets and guide passengers through each step of the process. As I said, that is all part of the fares and ticketing review that is now under way.
As I mentioned, we are all concerned about rail fares and we all want an end to above-inflation fare rises, but it is important to put the Opposition’s motion in context. Under them, rail fares increased by 1% below inflation, but that was changed to 1% above inflation in 2004. Under the previous Government, therefore, we had years of above-inflation rises, and it appears from the motion that it would still be Labour’s policy, were it to come to power, to have years of above-inflation rises. We want to end these above-inflation rises, not continue them indefinitely, as the motion suggests doing. It looks a little opportunistic to talk about fares being capped, given that the record of the previous Government was one of continual year-on-year above-inflation increases.
We have heard about the issue of flex, which is the ability not only to increase fares above inflation, but—the Opposition did not mention this—to increase a lot of fares below inflation. The previous Government introduced flex in 2004, and it ran through until 2010, so it was in operation for several years. A 2010 deed of amendment introduced by the then Transport Secretary reads:
“With effect from 00.00 on 1 January 2010 Schedule 5.5 of the Franchise Agreement will be amended as set out in the Appendix to the Deed… From 00.00 on 1 January 2011”,
which is just after the general election, Members may note,
“the amendments to the Franchise Agreement set out in this Deed of Amendment shall be reversed”.
So there was a deliberate policy from the previous Government to end flex only for one year, and over a period that happened to cross the general election.
My noble Friend Lord Adonis made it clear that it was his policy to put an end to flex full stop and that it remained his intention to do so. The deed to which the Minister referred was a one-year way of dealing with it, but of course we were running into a general election, and there are rules about binding successors. Is he asserting that my noble Friend has been misleading the Transport Committee about his policy intentions?
I am merely reading out the legalistic words that the previous Transport Secretary put in place stating that the policy was to be reversed on 1 January 2011. The facts speak for themselves. I have to ask, however, if the Opposition’s policy is now to end the flex, why the Welsh Assembly Government, run by the Labour party, continue to operate it. I have not heard any words from the Opposition condemning the Welsh Assembly Government. Or is it all right to have flex in Wales, where Labour is in control, but not in England, where we are determining policy for rail matters over here?
I am interested in a point that several Members made about the split of the responsibility for paying for the railways between passengers and taxpayers. The point about where that balance should lie is very important. The Opposition spokesman will know that Labour’s plan was for a 70% passenger and 30% taxpayer split. In 2010, the percentages were 64% passenger and 36% taxpayer, so one assumes that Labour wants to increase the percentage in order to reach its 70% figure. Our policy priority does not include worrying about the split per se, but is about getting efficiencies into the rail network—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Mr Binley) rightly made. I can assure him that we are taking great steps to improve the efficiency of the rail network, and by and large we have adopted the report from Roy McNulty, which was a helpful contribution to the debate on the rail network, in order to bring down our costs.
Roy McNulty indicated that costs were about 40% above what they should be, and we are determined to make those savings. We have identified savings of £1.2 billion in control period 4—the present control period—and up to £2.9 billion of further savings in control period 5. There are further savings to be made through genuine efficiencies—not cuts—in how the railway is run. One, for example, is the alliance project between Network Rail and South West Trains. I am not quite sure whether the Opposition support that trial, but it is delivering real savings and efficiencies, eliminating duplication, reducing the cost of the railway and providing a better service for the people who use South West Trains. That is an example of how efficiency savings can improve services. I am happy to say that it is now happening on South West Trains.
The Minister has talked about the balance between taxpayers and fare payers. He will know that the National Audit Office said that higher rail fares might simply lead to higher profits for train operating companies. How will he ensure that taxpayers benefit, not the private companies?
It is our intention, once the savings coming through from Network Rail are realised, to end the era of above-inflation rail fare increases introduced by the previous Government. There can be no doubt about our intention to do that.
Let me deal with the issue of ticket offices raised by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), for whom I have much respect when it comes to railway matters, and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), the shadow Minister. It is worth pointing out that in the last five years of the previous Government, Ministers approved cuts in opening hours at approximately 300 stations. The number since the coalition Government came to power is soon to be 34, so there were far more cuts to ticket office hours under the last Government than there have been under this Government. In fact, the shadow Secretary of State might want to know that ticketing hours have actually increased at a number of stations since this Government came to power. We do not hear much from the Opposition about that either.
I do not want to make my speech simply a matter of rebutting the Opposition’s motion. It is important to get rail fares down as soon as possible and this Government take that very seriously indeed. We are committed to reducing and abolishing above-inflation rises as soon as we can. To answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), I think both sides of the coalition are committed to buttercups, rainbows and daffodils. Both of us want to end the era of above-inflation increases as soon as we practically can, and the sooner we can make the savings that the Opposition are so reluctant to see—and which, by the way, they have no plan to deliver—we can end that above-inflation record, which I am sorry to say the Labour party introduced when it was in power.
Taxpayers and indeed passengers have been paying over the odds for the railway. The fiscal position demands that the high level of public subsidy for rail in recent years be reduced. As a Government, we have a duty, which we take seriously, to keep rail travel affordable for as many people as possible and to minimise the level of taxpayer support for rail by bringing forward sensible and workable efficiencies. Achieving that will depend on securing the efficiency savings that we have outlined in our rail Command Paper. That is why it is so important that the whole industry works together to a shared agenda to deliver for both passengers and taxpayers.
Opposition Members have referred to the coalition agreement. We stand by the words in the agreement about getting a fair deal for passengers, and we are determined to do so. The present Secretary of State has already indicated, in his first contribution in the House in that role, his concern about rail fares, and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), did likewise. Yes, there was pressure last year to ensure that we did not have RPI plus 3%. That pressure was successful and we have committed—once savings are found and the improvement in the wider economic situation permits—to reducing and then abolishing above-inflation rises in average regulated fares.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Mr Deputy Speaker: the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—I should know that, shouldn’t I?—referred to fares. I do not pretend that some fares are not excessive; some of them definitely discourage people from travelling by train. That is part of the reason why we are having the fares and ticketing review. She referred to trains being overcrowded, but to be fair and put the matter in context, she needs to recognise that one of the reasons why the trains from Brighton are overcrowded—I know them very well—is that Southern has introduced a large number of cheap fares, which local people are taking advantage of. There are now people standing off-peak all the way from Lewes or Brighton to London because fares have been reduced to an attractive level. In fact, we have a selection of fares. There is an issue about peak fares—that is part of the fares and ticketing review—but many off-peak fares are very cheap indeed.
I can assure the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) that split ticketing will be covered in the fares and ticketing review. As for East Coast, which is currently run from the Department for Transport, as it were, through an arm’s length body, action has been taken on that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) was right to talk about investment for the future, which I have already mentioned. The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to complexity; that will be dealt with in the fares and ticketing review. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) talked about the inheritance in Kent. I recognise that there are particular issues in Kent that should be looked at, and I am happy for that to be part of the work of the Department for Transport. We want to see an end to above-inflation fare rises as soon as possible, and I want to assure the House that we in the Department are taking steps to achieve just that.
The House proceeded to a Division.