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Railways: Cross-country Franchise

Volume 686: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have finalised their plans for the new cross-country rail franchise, in particular, the disconnection of west-central Scotland from that new franchise.

My Lords, the invitation to tender for the new cross-country rail franchise was issued on 31 October. Cross-country services will continue to serve the Scottish destinations which they serve currently. Pending commercial negotiations, services from Scotland to Birmingham and Manchester via the west coast may move to other operators. This does not represent a downgrade of the service, nor does it leave any Scottish destination disconnected.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which shows that it is too late to do anything about the proposed new franchise without withdrawing the franchise process.

Glasgow is a rail market worth 31 million journeys per year, and Edinburgh is worth 13.6 million journeys per year. Why is it a good idea to disconnect Glasgow from 45 railway stations in the south and south-west of England, particularly when we are trying to encourage rail substitution for domestic air services? What advice does the Minister have for rail travellers in Glasgow seeking to go to south-west England? Should they make their way to Edinburgh to change trains, which is quite easy but leads to longer journeys, or should they go to Birmingham New Street, which is awkward, congested and about to be rebuilt? What wisdom is there in this franchise reorganisation?

My Lords, the intention behind the franchise change is to enhance, improve and extend the services, not to restrict them or to cut off any market. That would scarcely be in anyone’s interests. The noble Earl is right that we are also seeking to tackle the problem of congestion at Birmingham New Street, but some aspects of the service will clearly improve. Subject to commercial considerations, transfer of some of these parts of the franchise will be to Virgin West Coast, which will use the west coast mainline and greatly speed up communication from Glasgow to Manchester and Birmingham.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that any trains currently on the west coast cross-country route between Birmingham and Scotland via Preston will terminate at Birmingham so that anybody wishing to go beyond Birmingham southwards to Brighton, Bournemouth or the West Country would have to change in Birmingham, as is my understanding? Surely that will increase the congestion of people in the rather nasty Birmingham station we have at the moment rather than reduce it.

My Lords, I am not prepared to have Birmingham New Street defined as a nasty station, but lines are congested there and through-trains produce difficulties for timetabling. However, I draw to the attention of the House the fact that the average daily number of passengers making journeys from Preston beyond Birmingham to Plymouth is only nine, and to Bristol it is only 10. So we are not talking about hundreds of passengers being inconvenienced by this proposal. By increasing the capacity at Birmingham New Street and making sure that certain lines are kept free, we are guaranteeing that the trains will run on time, which is of great importance to the passenger.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned low numbers of passengers on some lines, but he must be aware of overcrowding at particular times and on particular routes on the cross-country network. In many cases, we have magnificent, new, state-of-the-art trains, but there are not enough seats. Is a commitment to trying to alleviate some of the overcrowding included in any of the terms of the new franchises?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point, because we envisage an expansion in rail travel. Therefore, the bidders for this franchise, which is the subject of the Question, are required to cost the option of providing 30 per cent more capacity on the busiest routes. That may be done by increasing the frequency of trains but also by lengthening some trains. Rail travel is destined to expand. These franchises look forward to that development.

My Lords, passenger numbers on the cross-country rail franchise grew by 10 per cent last year. The number of people travelling is increasing by that amount each year and possibly by more in the future. How is the proposal consistent with the Government’s objective of expanding the railway, bearing in mind that the changes in the specification reduce the opportunity for point-to-point journeys from 1,100 to 564? At the many extremities of this route, one will find that the service is either barely existent or withdrawn entirely. How is that consistent with expansion?

My Lords, as I just indicated, the proposal under the franchise is for a substantial increase in traffic. As the noble Lord indicated, there will be problems with regard to certain destinations and stations, but, as I have indicated, expansion can often be concentrated on certain routes and stations. The noble Lord will recognise the one obvious advantage: if the Glasgow services are transferred from the cross-country franchise to the west coast mainline and operated by Virgin, with its tilting trains, both the time that the journey will take and its quality are bound to improve over present provision.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that one of the consequences of the rejigging of the cross-country franchise will be a reduction in services on the south Lakes and Furness lines to Manchester airport. It is proposed that trains on those lines will be substituted by direct services from Manchester airport to Glasgow airport. Has no one told the franchise people that Glasgow has its own airport and that north Cumbria has Newcastle airport?

My Lords, my noble friend raised this issue earlier this year and I was unable to convince him then of the position. Certain aspects of the new services will create some difficulty for passengers travelling to certain destinations. The noble Lord is right that we should have regard to services to Manchester airport, but the quality of the service from Manchester to the airport has been greatly enhanced. I recognise that changing trains will be required, but changing trains if the service is of a higher quality is a gain and not a loss.