[Mr Graham Brady in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the West Coast rail franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Brady, for what is my first Westminster Hall debate of this new Parliament.
I should mention that I am the chair of the all-party group on the west coast main line. The group takes a keen interest in the line; we have met the operator and the franchisees, and recently we visited Euston station itself. I also thank and pay tribute to the West Coast Rail 250 group for its support and assistance, and for being a source of information. It is the secretariat to the all-party group and it has been of much use to us.
The forthcoming franchise is extremely important for the west coast rail line. The line is, in my view, the most important inter-city line in the country. It connects the great cities of our country—namely London, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham—and it links many smaller cities and major towns on the west coast of the country. Of course, I could not neglect to mention my own constituency, the city of Carlisle, which is a key railway city. Indeed, there are four railway lines that connect into Carlisle: one going to the west coast of Cumbria; one going to Newcastle; there is, of course, the famous Settle to Carlisle line; and of course there is the inter-city connection between Glasgow and London. So, the west coast line is one of the most significant and indeed vital transport links for the west of the country.
The line was originally built between the 1830s and the 1880s. It was not built as one line; it was a series of lines that ultimately got connected together. That period was the key time for investment in the line, but between 1955 and 1975 most of the line was electrified. In total, there are about 700 miles of track.
After world war two, as we all know, the railway system went into decline. There was a lack of investment, a lack of interest in the network and a decline in passenger numbers. That was true for many rail lines across the country; many lines were shut and so were a number of stations. Fortunately, the inter-city connections continued. Even though they may have had issues, they remained in use.
Then we started to see the revival of the railways in the 1990s, with the introduction of the franchise arrangements, which remain the arrangements today. On the west coast, about 17 stations are under the franchisee, although Network Rail continues to manage three of the key stations, namely, Euston, Manchester Piccadilly and Glasgow Central. On top of that, there are a number of other stations that are not part of the franchise. From an employment point of view, the west coast rail company—effectively, Virgin Trains—employed just over 3,000 staff in March 2015.
We have seen a dramatic increase in passenger journeys. In the 18 years since the start of the franchise system, the number of annual passenger journeys in Britain has risen from 845 million in 1997-98 to 1.65 billion in 2014-15, which is a faster rise than for any other major European rail system. In the past three years on the west coast line itself, annual passenger journeys have gone up from 30.4 million to 34.5 million, so that from the start of April 2014 to the end of March 2015 4.3 billion passenger miles were travelled. Indeed, passenger journeys have grown by around 20% between 2010 and 2015.
The majority of the demand for rail travel on the west coast line is for journeys to and from London. There are around 300 train services every day on the west coast line, with journeys to and from London accounting for 63% of those services. Typically, journeys on the line are long-distance journeys, with approximately 60% of them being over distances greater than 100 miles. Of the journeys made, around 66% are for leisure, 23% for business and 11% for commuting purposes; many of the commuter journeys are made with season tickets.
The London terminus at Euston, which is obviously essential to the west coast line, is the sixth busiest station in the country, and outside London the stations at Birmingham New Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Glasgow Central are three of the four busiest stations in the country.
I was extremely interested to learn about the number of journeys and of passengers using this important line up the spine of the country. Does my hon. Friend agree that by about 2024 it is expected that capacity on the west coast main line will be 100% and bursting at the seams? That is why it is so important that we move ahead with building High Speed 2, to provide some extra passenger capacity.
My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head with regard to the key issue with HS2, which is capacity. He is absolutely right that on many parts of the west coast line capacity is already becoming an issue, and that situation will continue as we approach the 2020s. Therefore it is vital that we invest in the rail network and HS2 is very much part of that.
Funnily enough, the line is not just about trains and stations; it is also about the track itself. In recent years, we have seen significant investment—of almost £10 billion— in the track on the west coast line. That investment has led to a huge improvement in capacity, reliability and punctuality. As a user of the line myself, I have certainly seen significant improvements in the punctuality of the service, and in the level and quality of customer services provided at both stations and on the trains themselves. However, quite clearly there are still many issues that remain to be dealt with, one of which many colleagues will understand—wi-fi. Overall, however, there have been big improvements since the start of the franchise system.
Also, we must not forget the benefit that there is to the taxpayer from the franchise system. Between 2008 and 2015, the overall payment to the Exchequer from the franchisee was roughly £650 million and over the entire franchise period nearly £1 billion has been paid to the Exchequer. As for passenger satisfaction, in autumn 2015 overall journey satisfaction with the existing west coast franchise was 91%, which was 4% higher than the average for the long-distance sector. Clearly that is good, but there is also room for improvement.
Indeed, the areas where the west coast franchise could improve were identified by the Transport Focus group in its report. The group highlighted the areas that passengers were most concerned about: availability of seating at stations; car parking facilities; luggage space on trains; toilet facilities; and of course value for money in the price of the tickets. Overall, therefore, comparing where we are today with where we were in 1997, when the franchise scheme started, I would say that the west coast service is much improved, but there is still room for further improvement.
Also, it would be neglectful of me if I were not to mention the aborted attempt at the franchise renewal a few years ago. Without doubt, that was a considerable setback for the Department for Transport and it will undoubtedly have put back investment and development of the service. I appreciate that we now have an interim arrangement under a direct award, which expires in April 2018. Clearly, that has been the short-term solution.
I also acknowledge the contribution that Virgin West Coast makes. It has done an excellent job. Quite clearly, it will be in competition with other rail transport companies for the next franchise, but at least it has set a benchmark that we can build upon.
There have been improvements within the direct award scheme, with investment in stations, the provision of wi-fi at stations and one or two other things. However, the situation is not the same as it would be with a full franchise; there has not been the same level of necessary improvements or the same commitment, which are what we wish to see.
I do not want to go into the many reasons why the previous franchise did not happen; we need to look forward and not to the past. Suffice it to say that I hope the Government have learned from the experience, and so far my contacts with the Government have been positive.
The really important thing is where we are today and how we can ensure that we get the new franchise right. It needs to be right for passengers.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does he agree that some of the reported proposals, including reports that there might be cuts in services to stations such as Birmingham International, would have a detrimental effect on the west midlands economy and Birmingham International airport?
One of the reasons for having this debate was so that hon. Members could have the opportunity to highlight key issues for their own area. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has been able to do so and I am sure that the Minister will be listening keenly.
My hon. Friend is very kind. Birmingham International airport is in my constituency. Is my hon. Friend aware that a reduction in service at Birmingham International train station would threaten that regional airport? It is a significant international airport, serving a region the same size as Denmark, and it already does not receive a service from London in time for passengers to catch the early morning flights.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. Indeed, we must not lose sight of the fact that there should be integration within our transport system, between the railways, the airports and the road and bus networks.
The important thing about the new franchise is that we get it right. It needs to be right for passengers, fair for the taxpayer, right for the industry and right for those who work in the industry—we must not overlook their contribution to the network. Therefore, the level and quality of service, investment in all aspects of service and ticket pricing are some of the key issues. I am sure that other Members will have their own issues, but I want to concentrate on four in particular.
First, there is the customer and service level. It is often the small things that matter, particularly to passengers and customers, and there is key evidence of issues that customers want the forthcoming franchise to address. These include car parking—the pricing, the number of spaces and the availability at key times. Another issue is luggage and storage on trains. Many people have commented that the storage is at the end of each carriage and they would prefer it to be closer to where they are sitting. They have also commented that there should be more space for luggage. Toilet facilities and wi-fi clearly need improvement. Wi-fi has improved at stations, but there is definitely an issue—I speak from personal experience—on the trains themselves, and customers are keen to see wi-fi improved.
Then we have congestion. Carlisle, I have to confess, is a quiet station compared with many others, but at Euston there is what many call the Euston sprint—people charging for the train, sometimes in an unedifying manner. There is clearly room for improvement on that in the franchise in the future. Customers’ views and opinions need to be heard, and there needs to be an appropriate conduit between the customer—the passenger—and the train companies and, indeed, on into Government. In my own experience, customer care has been positive overall, but customer service questionnaires demonstrate that there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Then we have ticket pricing. What is the Government’s overall aim? What balance do the Government want to see between the taxpayer and the passenger? What about the link between the retail prices index and the consumer prices index? What about competition? Those issues need to be addressed in the forthcoming franchise. I appreciate that revenue raising and the balance between the taxpayer and the passenger are important for the Government, but they are also important for the passenger and the taxpayer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on leading the charge on this issue. The things he has listed are best addressed if there is proper competition in the franchise process. Does he agree with me and the National Audit Office that unless the Government get at least three or four participants in the bidding process, there will be a risk of inadequate competition? Does he also agree that, although Virgin has given an adequate service—in some ways, a good one —the Government must ensure that it does not have too big an incumbency advantage in the bidding process?
My hon. Friend makes two valid points. There must be competition. We need to encourage many different businesses to come in and challenge Virgin for the franchise, to ensure that we get the best possible franchise for the taxpayer and the passenger.
We need transparency and simplification. The ticket-pricing system needs to be easier for the consumer—the passenger—to understand. I accept that there are technological changes going on, and it would be interesting to hear from the Minister how she wants to drive them forward. I am old-fashioned, and when I go on the train I have my tickets in my hand while many people get out their mobile phone. Such advancements are positive, but I am interested in the emphasis that the Minister wishes to place on them in the new franchise.
The third issue is clearly Euston station itself. As I have mentioned, it is the sixth busiest station in the country, and to a significant number of passengers it is the only station that matters. We have HS2 ahead, and there will be a huge change at Euston with the substantial development works there. How will the Government ensure that the works are done in a timely fashion, and what will they do regarding the certain disturbance over a long period? There will be an impact on timetabling and a restriction on the innovation that train companies can bring about, and there must be a question over the punctuality that services will be able to attain during that time. There will be a reduced number of platforms, which will clearly affect the next franchise. The customer—passenger—experience will be a concern, as usage could be affected. There is a commitment for the timetable to continue as it is, but if we get to a stage when trains are not arriving on time, there will be a danger that passengers start to look elsewhere—to other ways of getting to and from London. I am, therefore, very interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the proposed Euston development.
Then we come to station investment. I have talked about Euston. Clearly investment there is a key issue for many, but we must not forget the smaller towns and cities up and down the west coast line—for example Preston, Milton Keynes and my own city of Carlisle. Will the Minister confirm that the stations—I think there are 17 in total—will come under the control of the franchisee rather than of Network Rail? Will she also confirm that any leases that are produced between Network Rail and the franchisee will allow the maximum amount of investment and a high degree of flexibility? Most important, will she confirm that there will be a mechanism for the payment of residual value in the event of a change at the end of a franchise? The all-party group is very concerned about that, because in the last proposed franchise we had confirmation that a residual value clause would be incorporated into the agreement, but that turned out not to be the case. We are, therefore, seeking reassurance that such a mechanism will be included in this franchise. It has been mentioned in the past that the northern franchise has an element of that mechanism, but our investigations and discussions have shown that the present clauses are inadequate and need to be beefed up in the new franchise.
I firmly believe that, with a residual value clause and encouragement by the Government to invest in stations, we can go beyond the passenger rail experience to opportunities for business, retail and other such things. If I may use my own constituency and railway station as a good example, Carlisle is a prime centre for investment and a real opportunity for an ambitious franchisee. However, we need the mechanisms to be in place.
In conclusion, the key issues include Euston, the impact of HS2 on the franchise and what the Government intend to do about it. Further reassurance is needed that investment in the west coast line will be maintained even though a lot of money will be spent on the HS2 line, and the Minister must continue to ensure that Network Rail considers opportunities to increase capacity on the west coast line in addition to the increased capacity from HS2. More specifically, we need to put the consumer—the passenger—at the centre of the franchise, and pricing and customer service are important aspects of that.
For me, one of the most important things is station investment. We must not lose sight of the fact that the smaller stations up and down the west coast are equally important and matter to many people in different ways. I ask the Minister to undertake to include a residual value clause in the forthcoming franchise agreement; otherwise it will be a huge missed opportunity.
I await with interest the Minister’s comments, and her assurances that the upcoming franchise will lead to improvements in those areas and in the service. We must ensure that the west coast main line continues to play its part, and indeed improve, as one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in our country.
This is probably the second time that I have taken part in a Westminster Hall debate that you have chaired, Mr Brady, although we have known each other for a considerable time.
I will not take too long, but there are one or two issues that concern Coventry and investment there. As part of the consultation, it was suggested that the three trains an hour running through Coventry could be reduced to about two an hour. That could affect people going to work, as lots of people go to work in Coventry and lots of people from Coventry work outside it. It is important to think about that, if we are to line things up with high-speed rail, which will bypass Coventry. My experience is that if anyone is going to invest in the city, one thing they will ask about is the transport system, as well as such things as executive housing, the education system and the skill base. Transport is part of the whole package, and that is why I express concerns about high-speed rail and its impact on Coventry. We have in other places debated the issue of compensation for those affected, but that is part of another debate.
The intention is to reduce journey times between Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, and no one would quarrel with that, but we have to look at the impact on other areas, and I wonder how that fits into the Government’s proposals. Next year, they will set up the west midlands combined authority. It has been said that the combined authority will be an engine for economic growth in the region, but what about the impact of high-speed rail? If there is a reduction in the frequency with which trains go through Coventry and areas like it, the west midlands will certainly not gain too much out of that.
It is interesting to note that journeys to and from Coventry have tripled over the past decade, from 2.35 million in 2004-05 to 6,252,888 in 2014-15. That is a considerable increase by any stretch of the imagination. As part of the franchise, we should also look at the fare structure. It could be argued anecdotally, as it were, that it is cheaper to fly than to travel by train in the midlands, and that should be looked at—and it is not just about off-peak prices.
The hon. Gentleman is right to mention Coventry’s position in relation to the new high-speed rail, and how that works with changes to west coast main line usage. HS2 will not be open until 2026; surely it is important to ensure that the west coast main line has the maximum capability, given that it is already at capacity, before the new service opens, so that the region, and Coventry in particular, are not compromised.
I totally agree with the right hon. Lady. I know that she, along with her colleagues, takes a considerable interest in the welfare and prosperity of the west midlands. Earlier she raised a point about Birmingham airport; we should take a good look at the impact that high-speed rail could have on Birmingham airport and passengers. This is not necessarily a criticism, but the organisation of that airport needs to be looked at, from the point of view of passenger comfort. Passengers flying into or out of the airport have a considerable distance to go when they get off or go to the aircraft. It is quite a long walk, to say the least. The airport should look at how it organises things on behalf of passengers, whether they are going through customs or just coming back from a journey. While we all support the airport, we have to make it more passenger-friendly.
I link that with what I have been saying about the situation in the west midlands. The airport is part of the prosperity of the west midlands. Coventry airport, if I remember correctly, used to benefit from freight from Birmingham airport. Those are some of my concerns relating to how Coventry sees itself. I do not want to be too parochial, because at the end of the day we have to act in the best interests of the region, but those concerns have to be expressed.
I ask one final question, which I hope the Minister will answer. What has happened with and to the NUCKLE project? I am sure that some MPs with constituencies near mine share that concern. That project is important to the prosperity of not only Coventry but Nuneaton, and it seems to have come to a standstill. The Minister may know more about that than I do. It is vital that the line is looked at, because people have been waiting for it for 10 years. I have been involved in a number of delegations over the past decade to try to get that project off the ground. That is all linked to what I have said about Coventry station and the west midlands.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) not only on securing this important debate, but on his chairmanship of the all-party group. He raises the profile of the line, which he described as being of national importance. It is important to his constituents in providing access to Manchester, the west midlands and our capital city. My constituency is much closer to London than his, but the west coast main line is equally important to Rugby. Like him, I am a regular user of it.
Rugby has excellent communication links, not least road links. We are at the crossroads of the UK motorway system. That fact led to the media identifying “motorway man” in the 2010 general election. He is a sales engineer or a sales manager who needs good access to the motorway network to carry out his business around the country. We have great road networks, and that has benefited our logistics industry. We are at the centre of the golden triangle where logistics companies want to locate themselves.
Our communications by road are good, but our rail links are equally important, because they provide Rugby with access to the north-west and, importantly, London and the south-east. The 50-minute journey time from Rugby station to Euston is vital for our local economy. Those things make Rugby an attractive business location, particularly in relation to sites in London and the south-east. The cost of premises and the cost of employing staff are lower in Rugby, but many businesses need good access to the capital for meetings and for accessing professional bodies. Our 50-minute journey time means that it is often quicker to get to central London from Rugby than it is from many places with a London postcode. We have that resource—it is a great asset to Rugby—and we want to keep it.
Rugby is growing very fast. We are just about to start the development of 6,200 new homes on the former Rugby Radio site. Immediately adjacent we have commercial development on the Daventry international rail freight terminal, which will provide for additional consumers on the railway line. The future of the west coast main line is important to Rugby. It is also important that the Government get the handling of the franchise right, especially in the context of the completion of the London to Birmingham phase of HS2, which should be delivered in 2026.
One or two people have said to me that consultation has already started, but the contract period will not start until April 2018, almost two years away. They say, “Why are the Government consulting so early? Why are we talking about this franchise now?” Given the history of the franchising process on the line, it is important that the process is thoroughly checked. The point has been made to me that the very last thing we need is a repeat of what happened with the previous allocation of the franchise. The Minister will be at pains to provide assurances that that will not happen this time.
The consultation document is looking for the views of passengers, businesses, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships so that priorities for improvement can be identified and to inform what the Department for Transport should include within its tender document. One concern that has already been referred to in the context of Birmingham airport and Coventry is contained in paragraph 3.17 of the consultation document. It refers to peak times where levels of service might not reflect demand and—this is the bit that those of us who have read the document are concerned about—it says:
“there may be opportunities to adjust the level of service at stations which might enable wider benefits to be delivered elsewhere.”
What might that mean? The document goes on:
“For example reducing the number of stops required at intermediate stations”.
That is a matter of concern for my constituents in Rugby and for those in Coventry.
The hon. Gentleman has touched on a vital point that I mentioned earlier. I am sure he will support and agree with me. Coventry, as he knows, is making a bid for the city of culture. It is not only vital that we get the traffic flow at the airport right, but equally important that we get the franchise right in relation to the frequency of trains because, as he knows, we can get a lot of tourism as a result, and Coventry has got a big tourist attraction.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is a matter of concern. In fact, the West Midlands Integrated Transported Authority, which represents the seven metropolitan authorities in the west midlands, has voiced concerns in respect of Wolverhampton, Coventry, Sandwell and Dudley. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) highlighted, the point has been picked up by the operator of Birmingham airport as a possible threat to the region’s aviation connectivity, leading in turn to a threat to the west midlands’ economic development and levels of employment.
The same concerns apply to Rugby. It is of course very easy to reduce journey times between major conurbations and reduce the numbers of people on the trains by having those trains ceasing to stop at intermediate stations. I am a regular rail user and I can see changes that can increase capacity. The first, which has substantially been done, is to increase the length of trains. We have 11-car Pendolino trains, but a substantial number of nine-car Voyager diesel trains remain running. Replacing those and getting them up to 11 cars is important.
Secondly, the conversion from first class to standard class has partly happened. This was spoken about several years ago, but when I go to Euston station to catch a train to Rugby, I regularly walk past four pretty empty first-class carriages to get into one of the five or seven standard-class carriages.
Thirdly, more effective use of pricing can be used so that trains in the middle of the day take some of the load. I regularly come down from Rugby on the 12.23 and I often sit in a carriage that I think holds about 80 passengers with no more than a dozen or so. So additional use of pricing can be made to spread the load.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said that he would not be too parochial, but I will be, if I may, because Rugby has a very active rail users group. I meet them regularly and I am grateful to them for their observations. They have made clear to me some of the things that they would like to see, and I know they will be attending various consultation events, one of which will take place at Rugby station on 23 June. It is very important for Rugby rail users that there is no diminution of services at Rugby, especially not as regards the excellent fast service to Euston to which I have referred.
For some time there have been concerns about a recent reduction in direct services to the north-west, which historically took the Trent Valley line. Many of those trains no longer stop at Rugby, which means that a Rugby passenger wishing to travel to the north-west has to change at either Coventry or Birmingham International. Given the importance of Rugby as a commercial centre, as I have mentioned, it will be increasingly important for us to have links to the northern powerhouse.
The consultation will refer to stations, and Rugby station is one of those included in the franchise. The substantial recent increase at Rugby is starting to put pressure on the facilities at Rugby station. We had a fantastic station upgrade, which was completed in around 2008. The upgrade of the west coast main line gave our station a transformed appearance and provided a much better gateway to Rugby. Previously, people arriving would have had to walk down a long dingy tunnel. Now we have a new ticket hall, new catering facilities and a multi-storey car park. However, our parking facilities have not kept pace with the growth in the line.
It is often not possible to find a space in the car park on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. It is less of a problem on a Monday or Friday when there are fewer commuters and people are more likely to be working at home or perhaps taking a day’s holiday. So we need additional parking facilities, although I would add that we might be able to make better use of the existing space if the indicator boards at Rugby station, which have been out of order for quite some time, were repaired. I have raised that with Virgin, and perhaps a note in Hansard might push that along and get it sorted so that people can draw up at one of the three car parks in Rugby and have confidence that there is a space for them.
We need additional car parking spaces, but we could also do with additional investment in the road network around Rugby station. There is a particular issue with congestion around peak times. People have been known to be late for a train as a consequence of the congestion around the station, which is very much caused by the single running on Mill Road, a road running underneath the station that is controlled by traffic lights. That really needs to be upgraded to two-way running. It is a real shame that the opportunity to improve that was missed when the railway line was realigned in the west coast main line upgrade. It certainly needs doing.
Partly as a consequence of the congestion around the station, there has been recent talk of a possible parkway station just outside Rugby on the Northampton loop of the west coast main line, which would be two or three miles away from Rugby. Frankly, I cannot see the point in Rugby having two stations two or three miles apart. I and I think most of my constituents would much rather see investment in the infrastructure around the station, giving better road access and the additional parking to which I have referred.
On the services that Rugby receives, there is a particular issue with Saturday evening services from Euston station. The last train to Rugby from Euston on a Saturday evening is at 21.23. That of course means it is not possible for my constituents to attend a performance at a theatre in London and catch the train home. They have to stay overnight or alternatively, as my wife regularly does, come down for a matinee, but people should be able to catch the last train back in the evening.
Of course, when people do take late train services, the trains are slowed down and take longer. The last train on a Saturday leaving Euston at 21.23 takes 1 hour and 21 minutes. The last two trains on a weekday are at 22.30, which takes 1 hour and 28 minutes, and at 23.30, which takes 1 hour and 35 minutes. The fastest train takes 48 minutes. Why cannot we have trains running at that kind of speed later in the evening to enhance people’s use of the railway?
We have heard quite a bit about HS2. I do not think it is possible to consider the future of the west coast main line without some reference to HS2. It is vital that even when investment starts to be made in HS2 money continues to be spent on the west coast main line. What we do not want is a Cinderella line that gets forgotten about while the all-new sexy high-speed rail is developed.
In terms of general improvements, my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle has spoken about improvements needed at Euston station. I am very familiar with the Euston sprint. The concourse is small and people race to the train. Earlier notice of the platform allocated to a train would be helpful. I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about reductions in space available at Euston while the construction phase of the high-speed rail is undertaken.
At the other end of the line the construction of the new parkway station at Birmingham International will be one of the earlier phases of HS2 construction so does my hon. Friend agree it is important that the Department for Transport looks at the compromised access at Birmingham International railway station throughout the construction work, which is scheduled to last at least five or six years and will involve major changes to the road infrastructure as well as the railways?
Of course. People understand that development entails some disruption, but it is important that the disruption is not excessive and does not outweigh the advantages of what might be coming later on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle spoke about the need for better wi-fi and better mobile phone signals, which involves investment on the track. There is also a need for more flexibility between the tickets of the operators on the line. London Midland also operates on the line, and occasionally it is difficult to transfer a ticket between one operator and another. Occasionally, when people have bought a ticket from the existing operator, Virgin, and want to upgrade it, they cannot do so. They have to throw the old ticket away and buy a new one. It would seem to make sense if someone who wanted to change to a peak train could simply pay the difference, rather than having to buy a wholly new ticket.
An efficient west coast main line is vital to the economy in my constituency. We have been well served by the existing operator in recent years, but it is vital to make certain that the new franchise will enable my constituents to continue to enjoy a good service and good facilities on the line.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on bringing forward this timely debate.
The hon. Gentleman spoke in his opening remarks about connecting the great cities of the country. In my opinion, it is about connecting the great cities of the countries of the UK, rather than a single country, but maybe that is me being parochial. I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman said about customer service and the importance of incorporating that into the new franchise and getting it right on car parks, luggage storage, toilets and wi-fi. I have to confess that I have been caught up in the “Euston sprint”, so I will try to remember the advice—it is a rather unedifying sight when the wee voice in the back of my head says, “Run! Run, get that table!”
The west coast main line is very important to Scotland, given that it is one of two cross-border lines that serve it. For me, it imperative that the Scottish Government are consulted and allowed to have an input on the new franchise. As to the other cross-border route, if the UK Government want to assist with the extension of the Borders railway to Carlisle, I am sure that the hon. Member for Carlisle would like that.
It was only recently that the importance of the west coast main line was demonstrated, indirectly, with the forced closure of the Lamington viaduct. Not only did that disrupt cross-border services; there was a considerable knock-on effect on local services north of Carlisle. Local commuter services in my constituency were affected because trains were rerouted from Carlisle to Glasgow via Kilmarnock.
To return to my point about the Scottish Government’s involvement, the 2012 franchise shambles confirms my view. The award process was scrapped at the 11th hour without the Scottish Government being notified; that had a knock-on effect on the Scottish Government’s tendering process for the ScotRail franchise. Also, scrapping the FirstGroup award and the direct award to Virgin cost the taxpayer about £50 million. That £50 million is equivalent to the cost of the free wi-fi that the Department for Transport pledged for some train services in 2015. A current issue, which I have raised in Parliament, is “talking buses” and the provision of audiovisual equipment on buses; the cost is estimated at £5 million a year, and we can see what that £50 million could have done, if it had not been wasted in that franchise process.
The direct award that resulted from the scrapping of the franchise limited the Government’s negotiating hand. It is much more difficult to deal with a sole bidder. I recognise that there was scrutiny of the direct award, to try to ensure best value for money. I note that the commitments made as part of that included the conversion of 21 first-class carriages to standard class; £2.5 million to improve the interior of the Pendolino fleet; £20 million to modernise and enhance stations; work with Network Rail to improve journey times from London to Scotland; and work to remodel the Carstairs junction in Scotland. I hope the Minister will update us on the progress of all those things that are part of the current direct award franchise, and see how they could be built on and improved in a future franchise. The shortest journey time to Glasgow at present is still four and half hours; it has certainly not decreased in recent years.
As for train carriage refurbishment, I will just make a wee plug for a company in my constituency. It is a train refurbishment company called Wabtec, and the work it does—the quality of the fit-out—is genuinely fantastic. The carriages look brand spanking new once they are refurbished, and the turnaround time is incredible. I make a wee plea to the Government and any of the train companies that are listening to bear Wabtec in mind.
When it comes to reducing journey times to Scotland, it is imperative that rail upgrades north of Crewe should tie in with the planned upgrades for HS2. At present, the planned high-speed classic compatible trains will actually run slower when they are in the existing train network north of Crewe, because they are designed fundamentally for the high-speed infrastructure. Previously, Ministers have told me that that would be addressed in the next investment phase for Network Rail. Will the Minister confirm that the improvements north of Crewe, which should clearly benefit the hon. Member for Carlisle and his constituents, will be taken on board in the Network Rail investment phase? Without that investment, the current journey time of four and a half hours will be really difficult to get down to the predicted three hours and 40 minutes—the stated post-phase 2 journey time to Glasgow. Otherwise, it seems to be a matter of the timetable that clearly exercises other hon. Members; and I can understand why they are fighting for their constituents, to make sure they do not lose out on services this year.
I want to comment briefly on the recent ScotRail franchise, which has been awarded by the Scottish Government. I suggest that it contains some of their asks for the forthcoming west coast main line franchise. The franchise, which was awarded to Abellio, confirmed that the living wage will be payable to all staff and contractors. There were no compulsory redundancies, and pensions and travel rights were protected. There is free wi-fi in all trains—wi-fi has already been mentioned in the debate—and upgraded rolling stock. Also, Abellio relocated its headquarters to Scotland. I am not saying that that would be an ask, but, again, if the winner of the west coast franchise wants to relocate its headquarters to Scotland, it will be very welcome.
In answer to an oral question I asked in the Chamber, the Secretary of State advised me that the Scottish Government could learn good practice from the UK Government, but I beg to differ, given that the ScotRail Abellio franchise was awarded in October 2014, with the bidding process starting just after the previous west coast main line shambles. At that time, the Labour party called on the Scottish Government to halt the ScotRail franchise process, on the basis that some unspecified powers might come to Scotland after the Smith commission.
Rather than proceeding with a bid that allowed new investment, new ticketing, new jobs and a possible profit share, the Scottish Government were asked to do nothing but extend existing arrangements—which would have prevented that investment. For a franchise to work, there must be some form of security as to duration, and that is why it was important to go ahead with it. Under Labour’s plans, we would have been left in limbo until at least the year 2018, and more likely 2019. Actually, by then we will be half way through the Abellio franchise, which is allowing continuing investment at the moment. Also, now that we have additional powers under the Scotland Act 2016 to allow a public sector bid, it is possible to plan for that process, for when the Abellio franchise comes to an end, which will be in 2022 or 2025.
To go back to the main thrust of the debate, the new west coast main line franchise must have Scotland at its heart, and accordingly it must have reduced journey times to Scotland. That means marrying the new franchise to the strategic rail investment programme. It also means involving the Scottish Government.
We have about 40 minutes for the three Front-Bench winding-up speeches, and perhaps a brief comment from the hon. Gentleman who moved the debate. I trust the Front-Bench spokesmen to co-operate with each other to ensure that that happens.
I always try to co-operate with the Chair and make sure to keep to the point, Mr Brady.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing this important debate. It is always good to start these debates with points of agreement, and he made a number of good points. He said that this was a vital development for the west coast; I absolutely agree. He discussed the need to improve seating, toilets, luggage space and value for money for consumers and users, as well as parking and other facilities that people need to use the train network effectively. He rather skimmed over the franchise bid process—he went past it in his own version of the Euston sprint—but he can rest assured that I will cover that in a little more detail; not too much, but a wee bit. He mentioned what he described as the small things, although actually they are big things, as I think he knows; as he said, they are important to people. Unless we get the big things right—the developments at Euston station, which he referred to, and the franchise—those other things will be much more difficult to tackle.
The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) rightly discussed the need for a better passenger experience, the effect on Coventry and Birmingham and the need to ensure that the Government are taking into account the connections required. That must happen all along the line from Euston to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) rightly pointed out that the franchise must be handled right, and I will come to that point. He also discussed the need for new trains. As we have seen, the SNP Scottish Government’s franchise deal includes new trains and new stations across Scotland as part of the arrangement. There are lessons to be learned there.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) also mentioned the franchise. He talked about the knock-on effects, which are very important, and he made the great point about the cost to the public being equivalent to the cost of putting in place the wi-fi that is currently missing from passengers’ journey experience. He spoke about the ability to put into practice innovations, such as audio-visual accessibility, that make a huge difference to the travelling public who may need assistance. I underline his call for the Minister to update us on the commitments made during the direct award; I hope that we will hear from her on that. It would be remiss of me not to underline the great work done by Wabtec in his constituency on refurbishing rolling stock.
The west coast line is important to Scotland. Five Scottish stations are affected—Lockerbie, Carstairs, Motherwell, Glasgow and Edinburgh—so it is important that the Scottish Government have a say in the franchise process. I was pleased to see the Minister nodding when that came up earlier—I hope we will get a commitment from her on that. Passengers must have a safe, fast, frequent, reliable and punctual service that connects Scotland to London and the intermediate locations that have been mentioned, with on-board facilities and fares that attract passengers to the rail network and retain them.
Indeed, the UK Government can take lessons from the SNP Scottish Government on how to conduct a franchise process while offering passengers a fair deal on ticket prices and fares. After the shambles of the 2012 franchise bidding process, the UK Government must ensure that the next franchise process has the public’s confidence and that it will be able to deliver value for money for passengers. The cancelled franchise process for the west coast main line brought the whole franchise bidding process into disrepute, leaving the public with no confidence in the Government to conduct major rail franchise bids. In fact, the Public Accounts Committee said in 2013 that
“the Department did not apply basic processes properly.”
Crucially, the Committee also said:
“This is not the first time we have come across this situation.”
The Laidlaw inquiry found that there was a damning failure and that the public were left with a lack of confidence. That cannot be allowed to happen with this franchise.
The west coast main line serves five stations in Scotland, as I have said, and is one of the main routes that links passengers in Scotland with Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London. At the time of the cancelled process, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government were going through their own franchise process for ScotRail, which had to be put on hold with absolutely no notice to Ministers in the Scottish Government. Keith Brown, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary, said:
“We had no advance notice of this decision being made. Obviously it does have implications for the line itself…what I would like to do is be involved in that discussion with the UK government to say what is best for rail users in Scotland.”
That is a fair request.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair request to the UK Government; may I make a fair request to the Scottish Government? Carlisle station is a station for the Scots as much as for the English. If the opportunity arises for investment in the station from the Scottish Government, will he support that?
Absolutely. I hope the Minister will act on the hon. Gentleman’s promotion of Carlisle by committing to look into connecting the new Borders railway with Carlisle. Perhaps that is something we could investigate as well. It would benefit many more people.
As I said, at the time of the franchise process, there was no communication with the Scottish Government. On the basis of the Minister’s comments, I am hopeful that that will change in future years.
As for the passenger experience, people in the 21st century have a right to enjoy a train journey. There ought to be a focus on working with others to deliver improvements to stations and to the passenger experience. The points that the hon. Member for Carlisle made when he spoke about improving the passenger experience are all vital to ensuring that overcrowding is reduced, that ticketing is sorted out properly and that integrated journeys are increasingly facilitated across all the stations in England and across the border into Scotland as well.
The UK Government should ensure that the new franchisee makes fares affordable across the piece. The Scottish Government have already taken action to ensure that fares are affordable across the Scottish rail network, by ensuring that their new franchisee will continue to limit regulated peak fare increases to the level of the retail prices index. Regulated off-peak fares will also be limited to increases of 1% below RPI for the lifetime of a 10-year franchise. The Scottish Government are making the best of the system that the UK Government continue to persist with. The Conservative UK Government introduced railway franchising in the 1990s, and the legislation precludes any public sector organisation from bidding to operate a railway service. No such barrier applies to state-backed organisations from Europe or elsewhere. That is patently unfair, so I hope we can look at how we can adjust that.
The SNP tabled a new clause in the Scotland Bill that would have devolved rail services in Scotland, giving Scottish Ministers full powers and flexibility to decide who would run such services. However, like every other SNP amendment to the Scotland Bill, it was voted down by MPs. The new clause also sought to ensure that the provisions of the Railways Act 1993 allowed direct awards to be made, to the full extent possible under European law, for the operation of rail passenger services such as the ScotRail Caledonian sleeper.
As a result of the franchise deal in Scotland, passengers and staff will enjoy an enhanced range of benefits, with advance fares between Scottish cities starting at £5, a commitment to pay at least the real living wage—the one applied in Scotland—to all staff and subcontractors, at least 100 apprenticeships and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies.
I was waiting to see whether the hon. Gentleman would address an issue that I am interested in. One day HS2 or a high-speed line will go to Scotland. Do the Scottish Government have a position on whether they would prefer that line to go up the west or the east coast?
At the moment, the Scottish Government’s position is that we must be included in the discussions. The UK Government have brought forward no plans to ensure that we are connected by HS2. It is vital to us that the routes that connect Birmingham and the central belt in Scotland are electrified immediately or as quickly as possible. As for the high-speed line, it is very difficult for me to give the hon. Gentleman a basis for our policy without seeing UK Government Ministers’ plans, because we have to scrutinise them to decide what is best for Scotland.
Rail staff pensions and travel rights are protected under the Scottish franchise. Crucially—this has come up a number of times—to make sure that we are connected and do business properly, there will be free wi-fi on all trains. That is often missing on journeys down here. There will be a new approach to cycling, with more than 3,500 parking spaces and bike hire at a number of stations. Eighty new trains are due to arrive at the start of December 2017, and there will be 23% more carriages across the network.
As I said earlier, the west coast main line affects Scotland. I mentioned the five stations. Passengers must have fast, frequent, reliable and punctual services connecting Scotland to London. The UK Government must commit to ensuring that the Scottish Government are much more involved in the future franchise.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) for securing this crucially important debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber—
May I also briefly pay tribute to Mr Neil Caulfield, who tragically passed away last week? He was a wonderful Clerk to the HS2 Committee. He was wonderfully helpful and professional, and we will miss him. I pay tribute to him and to all the Clerks who support us through this work.
The west coast main line is the backbone of Britain’s railways. It services great cities and towns in England, Wales and Scotland. The issues raised today are vital to so many passengers, as more than 34 million journeys a year are made on the service and almost 7 billion passenger miles are travelled. As the hon. Member for Carlisle said, the west coast franchise, which is currently operated by Virgin, ends in April 2018, and the Department is running a competition to find an operator for the next franchise. Before looking to what the Government should seek from the operator of the next franchise, I would like to secure assurances from the Minister that there will be no repeat of the franchising fiasco of 2011-12. The Department conducted a competition and announced that FirstGroup had been awarded the franchise before having to cancel the competition and subsequently award it to Virgin at a not insignificant cost to the taxpayer. That caused a great deal of confusion. The railway industry needs to be able to have confidence in the mechanisms of contracting. We simply cannot have a recurrence of that debacle.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Euston station, which is considered to have particular problems. We have heard that it is often overcrowded and difficult to navigate. It is awkward to buy tickets, and there is a short time between announcement and departure. People speak of the unseemly scrum once the information appears on the screens. In its February 2016 report, “InterCity West Coast rail: what passengers want”, Transport Focus recite passengers describing the experience as “stressful and unpleasant”. The national rail passenger survey of west coast passengers in part reflects that, with a rating of 11 percentage points below average.
The good news for passengers at Euston is that it will be redesigned to become a modern, easy-to-navigate, integrated station. The bad news is that things will probably get worse before they get better. I am pleased that the Government have given assurances to Camden Council about the £2.25 billion redevelopment of Euston proposed by Labour, consequent on the passage of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill. When the station is completed, passengers will experience less crowding and improved connectivity among rail, bus and taxi services. Routes for walking and cycling through the local area will be created. That will go some way to addressing passengers’ concerns, but it is often the case with major station improvements—we see this at the moment at London Bridge—that passengers are significantly disrupted and inconvenienced during the period in which the work is taking place. I would like some assurances from the Minister about those matters.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, is currently analysing HS2 to trim costs and gauge whether the £55 billion project can keep within budget. There have been rumours that the Government might entertain plans to alter the route of HS2 or their plans for an integrated Euston station, and instead have the high-speed trains run only to Old Oak Common. That would put a great deal of stress on Crossrail, which was not planned to include that extra capacity. I must admit that I find it strange that, after Report and Third Reading, and given the exhaustive and exhausting legislative process for HS2 to date, the Government are again having to re-assess it. Although close attention to and scrutiny of cost is absolutely vital, I am concerned that what appears to be a comprehensive review of key issues within HS2 runs the risk of undermining confidence in the Government’s capacity to progress the project as planned and agreed. Will the Minister clarify what Sir Jeremy is considering? If the plans for an integrated Euston station are still on track, what will be done to mitigate the impact on west coast services, given that the number of platforms available at Euston to the west coast service will reduce from 18 to 11? Once it is up and running, HS2 will provide extra capacity, relieve congestion on the line and improve passenger experiences. Those are some of the many benefits of HS2.
The hon. Member for Carlisle spoke about fares and ticketing, which are a common source of frustration for passengers, who too often feel they get poor value for money from train operating companies. One of the consequences of privatisation is that we were left with the most expensive and confusing ticketing structure in Europe. Many passengers struggle to understand fare structures and pricing; the difference in cost between tickets strikes people as illogical. The discrepancy between fares, especially if someone needs to travel at short notice—as might be the case for a family funeral—often leaves passengers feeling that the train operating companies have ripped them off.
Compared with the national average, west coast performs relatively well on value for money—however, that is against an exceedingly low baseline of just 48%. Frustrations over fare structure and pricing are common passenger complaints. There is more that the next franchise holder can do in that regard, including simplifying fare structures, making the purchasing experience less complex and more transparent, lessening the cost discrepancies between similar journeys, and allowing passengers to find the best tickets available for their journey.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. There is always a balance between fares and subsidy, and Governments of every colour have to struggle with that. On that very point, there are certainly improvements to be made, but I fear that as long as the Government persist with an exclusively privatised rail network, the feeling that passengers are receiving poor value for money will persist, and understandably so. Virgin runs one of the better services in the country on the west coast, but it is a poor comparison with our recent experience of when the public sector was presented with the opportunity of running passenger services. We need only to compare Virgin’s receipt of £2.5 billion in direct subsidy, and the £500 million it paid out in dividends between 1997 and 2012, with the performance of Directly Operated Railways between 2009 and 2014, which ran on a much lower subsidy. Under public operation, the east coast returned the highest level of premium to the Government—over £1 billion—while achieving passenger satisfaction ratings that surpassed all other long-distance operators. The public are absolutely right when they say they believe that rail should be in the public sector—they have good reason to do so.
Commuters and passengers desire free and decent wi-fi on trains; it is an important matter for them. We often get free wi-fi when we buy cup of coffee, but people who spend a fortune on a train ticket may have to rely on an unreliable wi-fi service. A good service is clearly beneficial for those people—both for leisure purposes and for conducting business as they travel. One hopes that attention will be paid to that.
The hon. Member for Carlisle spoke about the potential for a residual value mechanism, which would reward train companies for investing in things such as stations, where the return on their investment would go beyond the period of the franchise. I think the hon. Gentleman hoped that that would be a way to ensure better long-term thinking and investment, which is a reasonable point, but I caution against over-eagerness for the idea, because improving stations should not depend only on train companies deciding that there is an overwhelming case for them to make significant profits. Train operators do not have a great record of investing their own capital in stations, and increasing residual value mechanisms might make it harder for a national public operator or local authorities to improve facilities later.
The franchising system has failed to deliver clean, safe, accessible and properly staffed stations in too many areas, and tweaking the arrangements is not the best or most cost-effective way of making services better for passengers. I trust that the Minister will deal with the issues and concerns mentioned and, with that, I bring my remarks to a close.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing the debate and on presenting a factual and detailed set of arguments. I also commend him on the work he has done in chairing the west coast main line all-party group, ably supported by West Coast Rail 250.
As my hon. Friend knows, because he welcomed me there, I have visited Carlisle station several times. It is more cathedral than railway station, and one of the most astonishing architectural gems I have seen on the network —I speak without hyperbole. His plans to improve the car parking, access and links are incredibly good. The station even has a putting green, which is an amazing thing to see, as well as many other good services, so it is a wonderful place. I take on board the point about Borders railway, and am interested in looking into it.
I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. We heard the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) talk about the importance of midlands services and local connectivity; he is a great advocate of the NUCKLE scheme, as I am. I was pleased to put the spade in the ground for and open the Bermuda Park station—a critical part of the scheme. We await further details from Network Rail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) talked about the vital connectivity of his city and what that does for the local economy. I will add my voice to his in writing to the company about the announcement boards; people have a right to know when their trains are going, and from which platform.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) will be pleased to know that Stagecoach, one of the companies operating the franchise, is a proud Scottish company, headquartered in Perth. His points about the cross-border relevance of the franchise were absolutely spot-on. In fact, my most recent visit to Carlisle was to look at first hand at the Lamington viaduct, where, during the storms, there was a serious wash-out that flooded large parts of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle. That was a serious engineering challenge, but Network Rail rose magnificently to the occasion and restored the link. It got the lines operating again, restoring not only the inter-city and cross-border services, but the vital commuter services between Carlisle, Lockerbie and other parts of the region.
I reassure the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who speaks for the Scottish National party on transport matters, and everyone else present that the Department has absolutely learned lessons on the franchising process. Clearly, there was a problem, and there were serious questions to be answered. We strongly believe—as did the previous Labour Government for 13 years—that franchising is the way to deliver improvements on the railways. I have had the pleasure of letting the east coast franchise, the Northern and TransPennine Express franchises and, most recently, the Greater Anglia franchise, which is about to be announced. In those franchises, hon. Members can see the absolute, laser-like focus on passengers and quality of service. Furthermore, in the case of the east coast franchise, the service is returning more money to taxpayers than ever happened under Directly Operated Railways.
I am agnostic on such things, but I can see no benefit in that. I do not know who in my Department the hon. Gentleman thinks would do a better job of running the west coast railway than those who do so now. I remind him that before privatisation, 14 trains a day ran between London and Manchester; 47 brand-new trains now run, with fantastic on-board services, of which we have all availed ourselves. I cannot see why he is so obsessed with the idea of civil servants running companies. The west coast case is a good example of how the private sector has invested.
Before I move on to the bulk of my speech, I want to associate myself with the comments of the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), on the tragic loss of the Clerk to the HS2 Committee. It was an absolute tragedy, and we would all want to pass on our condolences to his family, and to put on record what a wonderful job he and that Committee did in very difficult circumstances.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle said, the west coast franchise has been a real success story; for example, we have seen a big increase in passenger numbers, a big improvement in passenger satisfaction, and capacity increase by more than 2,000 seats a day. The franchise is also leading the way with automatic delay repay, so people who buy a ticket on the west coast trains website and find that their train has been delayed do not have to do anything; they automatically get a refund if the train is delayed by more than 30 minutes. That is an excellent piece of passenger-facing innovation. The franchise has also put free wi-fi into 17 stations—I will talk about wi-fi on trains in a moment—and several other obligations have been delivered, or are in the process of being delivered. To reassure Members who asked about this, the company is replacing self-service machines, improving concourse and ticket-retailing facilities, upgrading waiting rooms and loos in many stations, and putting in about 350 new cycle racks. About £20 million is being spent along the route.
The Minister mentioned the automatic repayment system for delays, which is a good thing at one level, but the risk is that it might cause defensive timetabling. Companies have no incentive to take that extra few minutes off the journey time. Will she give us some assurance that that is not happening?
Yes, I absolutely will. When any service that is this busy tries to stretch out timetables to avoid paying compensation, it simply creates more disruption, given how complicated the routes are. The company has no incentive to monkey with the timetable in order to avoid its compensation payment obligations. Furthermore, the company, in common with all train operating companies, receives money from Network Rail in the case of a Network Rail cause of failure, so again, properly, that money should be paid out to customers.
The improvement in the conversion of rolling stock has been mentioned. The company has been taking out first-class seating to include more standard-class seats, which is important. Those services can be very crowded, particularly in the shoulders—the times around the peaks.
I thank the Minister for giving way again. Will she give an assurance that, if it were possible for whichever company wins the franchise to take five minutes off the journey time to Warrington, for example, there would be no defensive timetabling, penalties, or other disincentives to stop that? That is important to making progress.
My hon. Friend’s point about avoiding defensive timetabling is absolutely right. I will come on to talk about how everyone can make their important proposals for the new franchise. We want the franchise due to start in 2018 to put the customers on the route absolutely at the heart of the service, continuing some of the innovation and progress that has been delivered. We know that we need more capacity on the route, better value for money, improved punctuality—it is improving, but it is not good enough—and better management of disruption. By the way, those are things we want, and are contracting for, right across the country.
Occasionally—I do not want to exaggerate—a hold-up between Birmingham and Euston seems to stop the whole line. I do not understand that, and we should have a better method of dealing with hold-ups. If there is an accident on the line involving an individual, there should be another way to proceed without necessarily creating hold-ups. Also, while I am on my feet, I congratulate the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing the debate—it was remiss of me not to do that earlier.
The hon. Gentleman illustrates a point that has been made well. Part of the reason why we need HS2 so badly is that capacity is so tight on the route. If there is a hold-up, there are few places that can take the additional services. On any tight route, whether on the west coast or in other parts of the country, disruption spreads quickly—the disruption simply cannot be absorbed, because the timetabling is so tight.
The public consultation has been launched. It sets out the Government’s vision for this franchise, how they can continue to support investment in vital cities right across the UK and build on current levels of customer satisfaction, and how the operator can do more to provide better information and train services.
A very legitimate question that is asked in the consultation is causing alarm and has been raised several times. It is right to ask people, communities and local authorities what sorts of trade-offs they want. Do they want faster journey times? Do they want more connectivity? We in Horseferry Road could sit and design timetables that look perfect on paper, but unless they deliver what is required on the ground—a train service that works for those who use it and maximises the economic potential of transport, which are things that have to be pulled through locally—we will not be doing a service to the communities that we serve. Questions such as, “What would a reduced service to Coventry look like?” are genuinely questions; there is no vision or master plan. We want as many people as possible to help answer these questions, and those trade-offs are vital.
The consultation has started and is on gov.uk. We regard the Scottish and indeed Welsh Governments as vital partners in that; the service of course links very much to the north Wales service as well.
I am grateful to the Minister for being generous and allowing me to come back in. I take at face value her commitment to working with the Scottish Government. Will she look at the improvements made to smart ticketing through CalMac, the popular public sector winning bidder for the ferry franchise?
I am always happy to look at things that happen on ferries, because I represent one of the most landlocked constituencies in Britain, so it is always novel to do so. I will come on to smart ticketing, which the hon. Gentleman knows is a particular passion of mine.
I thank the Minister for giving way, especially as she was moving on to another point. I asked earlier about the commitment on journey times in the existing franchise, which was supposed to look at improving journey times in Scotland. That is clearly a massive issue, and I remind her to give us an update on that.
[Nadine Dorries in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.
Absolutely, and looking at how existing commitments to journey time improvements can be met is part of the current programme.
I wanted to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle that during the public consultation, we will go out and talk to as many people as possible. We will hold a meeting at Carlisle station tomorrow from 3.30 pm until 5 o’clock. Perhaps he will encourage his constituents to come along and see some of the proposals and have a conversation with officials.
I will deal briefly with fares and on-board service. Although this franchise has some of the most reasonable fares in the country, particularly for tickets bought in advance, it also has some expensive walk-up fares. The most important thing is that we have capped fares at inflation for the duration of this Parliament, at a cost to the public purse of £750 million, which will save the average season ticket holder around £425 over the Parliament. That is absolutely right. However, we will ask the next franchise holder how fare structures could help to ease the shoulders around the peak, when trains can be very crowded. The world is changing; people are not working nine to five, five days a week the whole time. I have been keen for bidders to be asked to propose options that allow people who work part time—perhaps two or three days a week—to buy more cost-effective tickets or multi-buy discount tickets. We have specifically asked for that in franchise competitions, and we plan to do so in this one as well.
Wi-fi has come up several times. I was delighted to be the Minister to announce that all trains, with the exception of those that are being phased out, will have free on-board wi-fi by the end of 2018, and this franchise will be no exception. It already has a good wi-fi service in certain classes, but it is not free on all services, and it absolutely should be. I take on board the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle made about improved luggage and seating arrangements, which is another thing to feed in.
That is an important question. We can have as-good-as-we-can-get connections right now, but there are troughs and blind spots, and we are working with industry, on a TOC-by-TOC basis, to improve those connections, so there are no not spots along train routes.
HS2 will clearly have a major impact on this line. It will add much-needed capacity and will have a very positive impact for customers who are looking to travel quickly between cities. It is of course a vital programme. We will look to appoint franchisees, both in this competition and in the west midlands, that can work with the HS2 operators in the run-up to HS2 opening, and we want the competitions to procure franchisees that can work with HS2 and Network Rail during the construction works. I have to say that the lessons learned from London Bridge are scarred on my ministerial portfolio.
They are well concealed. No one correctly estimated quite how tough it is to do major improvement works on a very crowded and highly operational railway. Lessons have absolutely been learned, and will be applied in the works at Waterloo this summer on the south west franchise, where we are bound and determined not to make mistakes. The prize will of course be a wonderful new station, I hope with a beautiful arch somehow reinstated, and many more services. That will be a prize worth having, but we are absolutely bound and determined to avoid the disruption that we saw at London Bridge.
I slightly disagree with the view of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough that residual value mechanisms are not really relevant, because if a public company or public authority wants to invest in something, it wants to ensure that it will get a return from it on behalf of taxpayers. That is only right and proper. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle is right that that has been a barrier to investment in franchising. We have developed a residual value mechanism in the Department, and it has been used in the latest competitions. I accept that it is not quite what he is looking for, and I am always happy to meet him and have that discussion, but we want to use that mechanism in the upcoming west coast franchise because we want to ensure that the stations along the route and other assets, such as smart ticketing, are supported.
I want to mention smart ticketing before I conclude. It is a passion of mine to get rid of the tangerine tickets, which look like something out of the 1970s, and move to something that far better suits what customers are using today: mobile technology. People will have seen that we have put those requirements into franchising, and we will do so in this case. The adoption of smart ticketing is moving very quickly in this country.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as that is not in my portfolio, I did not feel that it was appropriate to comment on that, but I will happily have my colleague write to him.
This is another opportunity for a big step change in the services that are provided for customers by whoever the new incumbent is. We believe in the railway as a way to drive investment across the country, but fundamentally it has to work for the customers using it. It is not a train set; it is a way of getting people to and from their workplaces and families. I assure hon. Members who have taken the time to be here today that that will be front and centre of the next franchise competition.
Thank you, Ms Dorries, for the opportunity to say a few additional things. I appreciate the contributions of all hon. Members on what is an important issue for many people up and down the west coast. The issue affects businesses, individuals, tourists, our major conurbations and of course the smaller cities and towns right up the west coast of our country. The next franchise is a real opportunity for the industry, users and the taxpayer. The Minister kindly touched upon the key issues that will be incorporated into the franchise. My all-party group will certainly take a big interest in the franchise, and we look forward to her coming to a meeting of the APPG at some point to discuss aspects of it. We will certainly take up residual value with her, which is an ongoing issue for us. Passenger issues and what happens at Euston are also critical, but I like to think that the future of the west coast rail line is positive.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the West Coast rail franchise.