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Rail Passenger Journeys

Volume 586: debated on Thursday 23 October 2014

4. What recent estimate he has made of the change in the number of rail passenger journeys in each of the last three years. (905601)

I am proud that rail in this country is doing extremely well. Privatisation has seen passenger numbers more than double to over 1.6 billion last year. Innovation in the private sector has led to more seats, faster journey times and brighter station environments, which is why there have been an extra 233 million journeys between 2011 and 2014, despite economic conditions.

The growth in the number of passengers on the railways is encouraging, particularly at Gloucester station, where figures have risen considerably higher than the national average. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the train companies have to play their part in providing extra capacity and that the 2006 decision by Arriva cross-country services to halve the number of trains stopping at Gloucester station has not helped us to grow the number of railway passengers in a sustainable way? Does he agree that that should change when the renegotiations happen?

I am always pleased to listen to the representations made by my hon. Friend to get more and better services for his constituency and the people who live in and around Gloucester. I understand the points he makes, but we have seen a massive increase in rail use. The great difference from when I was in the Department 25 years ago is that rail was seen then as yesterday’s industry. Everywhere I go now, people are lobbying for extra services, which I think privatisation has brought about.

It is good to see such expansion in the use of rail, but what action will the Secretary of State take to relieve the severe overcrowding on some routes caused by the lack of both electric and diesel trains? Is he concerned about the safety threat posed by the continuation of the Pacer trains?

As Secretary of State for Transport I have seen franchises being told to convert first class carriages to standard class carriages so that more people can travel. I think I am the first Secretary of State to do that. It was not done by any previous Labour Secretary of State, so I am very pleased about that. On Pacers, I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. We must look for better services for those people who are currently served by Pacers, possibly by improving and redesigning the Pacers, which some of the companies are looking at. It is certainly something that I am interested in.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the record that he set out to our hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). If he looks at the restarted franchise, which sees more passengers being put right at the heart of the process, more towns likely to come on to the network, and more seats available, does he agree that far from being yesterday’s industry, this is likely to be the industry of tomorrow and these trains are likely to accelerate?

I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the work he did in improving and getting franchises back on the road after the difficulty that we inherited when we first entered the Department two years ago. He made a great contribution to that. I completely agree with him. As I said, all the meetings I have with various local authority leaders now are about increasing capacity and providing more and better services. The train operating companies and the rolling stock leasing companies all have roles to play in doing that.

My constituents frequently play “sardines” on Northern Rail trains, often with passengers left at stations. Was the massive increase of up to 162% in fares a perverse way of reducing demand?

As I said, it is important that we provide that extra capacity. My only regret is that the previous Government did not order enough rolling stock for us to be able to do that. We are putting that right.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there could be a further boost to rail passengers if we had faster journeys on the west Anglia main line? Will he assure me that improvements to that line will not slip down the priority list?

I assure my right hon. Friend of that. Not only has he made that case to me in person on a number of occasions, but when I visited his constituency he pointed out the need for those improvements.

As my hon. Friends have already said, the north has some of the most overcrowded trains in the country, and Ministers have hit passengers with stealth fare rises of up to 162%. The Department said that this will

“help reduce crowding on evening services.”

Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his official policy to price people off the railways?

I will take no lectures from Labour about pricing people off the railways. This Government last year capped fares at inflation and have done so this year. We are the first Government to do so—the previous Government never did. The hon. Lady talks about the problem of serving northern cities and we fully accept that there are a number of problems. That is why the Chancellor has led on the question of how we improve connections between northern cities. We have to catch up after 13 years of neglect.