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Railways: Cross-country Franchise

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What responses they have received to the Department for Transport’s consultation on the new cross-country rail franchise.

My Lords, in the first month of the consultation, the Department for Transport received 26 responses by e-mail and 11 written responses. A variety of themes are emerging, including the use of rolling stock, the extent of through trains and service levels.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that between six and eight through trains a day service the stations from Scotland through Cumbria and Lancashire down to Penzance, Plymouth and Bournemouth, and that his department proposes to axe those trains, terminating all services at Birmingham? How can this possibly be of benefit to the consumer and to passengers who enjoy the privilege of travelling on those through-trains to the south coast?

My Lords, I am aware of my noble friend’s keen interest in the service in the north-west. Let me emphasise that the intention is to improve the service. We have a very acute bottleneck, which results in poor time-keeping at Birmingham New Street station. The intention is to guarantee an hourly train service and that the timetable will be adhered to rigidly, although I recognise that there is a cost involved in the seven trains to which my noble friend referred. Passengers will change at New Street, but the punctuality of their trains, and therefore an improved service, will be guaranteed.

My Lords, do the franchise conditions protect passengers wishing to travel from smaller country stations, or are the rail companies free to divert services to larger urban stations without restriction?

My Lords, consultation is taking place on this franchise. Therefore, final terms will not be prepared for bidders until later this year when the consultation is complete. However, with regard to franchises, rail companies undertake certain levels of service. Any significant departure from the service contained directly in the franchise would be subject to consideration by the Office of Rail Regulation and the department.

My Lords, in the Minister’s Answer, he said that people would have to change at Birmingham New Street, which is an enormous imposition on passengers. The trains into which they will have to change will be full and they will not get seats. Will the Minister please impress on those drawing up this franchise the need to provide adequate rolling stock and infrastructure on this route? He referred to punctuality, which is improving, but the capacity of the route will not meet the demands envisaged in the next seven years.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord because he has highlighted a further point which I refrained from making due to the already great length of my Answer. Improvement to the service certainly entails within this franchise longer trains, including doubling the length of some trains, to increase capacity. We are aware of the noble Lord’s point that extra demand on the rail means that trains are crowded. Our intention is to provide regular, punctual services at hourly intervals on a range of routes that go through Birmingham. But the cost involved is the seven through trains, to which my noble friend referred in his Question.

My Lords, this cross-country rail franchise is badly needed. How long will it take to implement?

My Lords, consultation will be completed in the next few months. We will then ask for bids, which have to be in by February, for implementation from May next year.

My Lords, would this change only serve to accentuate the current shift of passengers from the west coast main line to the east coast main line, as proven by the fact that tens of thousands of passengers from all over Cumbria every year now drive to Darlington to catch a fast train to London?

My Lords, my noble friend will recognise the significant investment in the west coast main line. That investment—it has taken many years to complete the work—presumes that train services will run at full capacity on the west coast main line. It is for train operating companies to provide the service. There will be enhanced reliability and capacity for one set of trains operating under the new franchise.

My Lords, would my noble friend look at the demand and capacity on the west coast main line north of Preston? Given his comments about the shortage of rolling stock around the Birmingham area, will he look at the many hours in the day when trains are going north, and probably south, from Preston to Edinburgh and Glasgow and at the number of passengers on them? Perhaps he will consider reducing that number and allocating the trains to where there is a big demand.

My Lords, my noble friend will understand that this franchise deals only with trains operated by Virgin on its cross-country franchise and by Central trains. I hear what he says about over-capacity in certain parts of the railway system. Let me make the obvious point: it is not in the interests of train operating companies, which have invested so much in recent years in new rolling stock, to have that rolling stock underused. Although I accept what my noble friend says, because he is very knowledgeable about the railways, the general perspective is that the demand for passenger space, seating and adequate trains is increasing, and we need to invest more.

My Lords, the proposal is to remove Glasgow and west central Scotland from the cross-country franchise. At a time when we are trying to reduce domestic air travel,how sensible is it to disconnect half the Scottish population from the rail network to the south-west of England? Does not holiday rail travel in particular thrive because people with baggage can travel without having to change trains?

My Lords, I understand the point made by the noble Earl, but he will have heard what my noble friend said about the actual usage of some of these cross-country services. It is intended under this franchise to ensure that the successful bidder provides a regular, hourly service over a series of routes through one of the great bottlenecks on the railway system, Birmingham New Street station. That is why we are prepared to countenance some breaks and changes in train services. Passengers would prefer a train that picks them up at the right time and arrives at their destination on time. While I recognise the point about changing trains, it is preferable for passengers to know that their trains are punctual even if that necessitates a change of trains.