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Railways: First Great Western

Volume 688: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the conduct of the new Great Western Trains franchise has met the Government’s performance criteria.

My Lords, First Great Western has met the Government’s performance criteria to date. Improving rail performance is nevertheless a key objective for the Government and joint action plans are in place between Network Rail and First Great Western to address performance issues. These are monitored monthly.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. Does First Great Western’s meeting the performance criteria include the fact that 60 trains a day have been cancelled since December; that there is so much congestion in Bristol and the Thames Valley that people cannot even get on the trains; that some fares are up by 11 per cent and there have been 9,000 complaints; and that, meanwhile, First Great Western has sent 12 trains back to the depot to do nothing? Do the Government think that that is satisfactory? The Railways Act 2005 gave the Secretary of State the power to specify trains, numbers of coaches, stopping patterns and so on. Does the Minister believe that the Secretary of State actually has the time to do that, or even the expertise?

My Lords, Great Western meets the minimum contractual requirements but performance has long been poor compared with long-distance operations elsewhere on the network. That is why, as I indicated in my initial Answer, specific measures are in place. Great Western needs to invest in improving its long-distance trains and 19 new motor units are being put into 19 trains to replace what are in fact fairly aged performers. We therefore expect performance to move up. It certainly is not satisfactory at present.

My Lords, in Scotland the First Group is performing quite well on the ScotRail franchise as specified by the Liberal Democrat Minister for Transport. However, the department’s over-specification on the Great Western franchise is clearly leading to cancellations and overcrowding. Is the Minister satisfied that First Group is a competent organisation to be bidding for the east coast franchise, where very high standards are expected and have been for several years?

My Lords, each franchise bid is considered on its merits and First Group’s bid for the very important east coast main line franchise will be considered in due course. As the noble Earl will recognise, there have been weaknesses in train performance in the west of England. The rail authorities are appropriately making demands on the operator to ensure that the necessary investment is in place to improve performance.

My Lords, is it not a bit absurd for privatisation to be implemented and then for Governments to criticise and show surprise when the private sector’s decisions are not the same as the Government’s? Is it not time that we woke up to the fact that railway privatisation is verging on the edge of a disaster? It is about time that we at least re-looked at it.

My Lords, in the past decade there has been unparalleled investment in rail services, leading each year to a greater number of passenger miles than we have known before. Although punctuality is still not at levels that we want to see, punctuality even in the south-west was at 85 per cent, which is the norm across the network. We want to see improvement, and investment will produce improvement in more reliable rolling stock. The noble Lord should not underestimate the gains made in the past 10 years through government and private investment in rail.

My Lords, is it not more relevant that First Great Western so often fails to meet customers’ performance criteria? Far from the service improving, trains are more and more frequently very late or are cancelled.

My Lords, First Great Western is aware that it could have more constructively handled recent complaints by the travelling public about a weakness in service, particularly in the Bristol area. We want to see it do so in future. But, generally, investment is in place to guarantee that the rolling stock is fit for purpose and improve the service in coming years.

My Lords, is the Minister aware—I am afraid that he may not be—that since the beginning of the year there has been almost a tripling of the cost of the journey on the First Great Western line which I frequently use because the trains have been rescheduled as long-distance rather than short-distance trains? On the past three occasions that I have travelled from Paddington to Great Bedwyn I have had to stand from Paddington to beyond Newbury, which is almost in Wiltshire. Does he agree that the claim that the rolling stock has improved and is fit for purpose is a bit of an exaggeration?

My Lords, it is certainly unacceptable for passengers regularly to stand during long journeys. The ambition is that passengers should not stand for journeys of more than 20 minutes. The noble Baroness has identified a weakness in the First Great Western service. As I indicated, some but not all of this is attributable to unreliable rolling stock, and that is being put right.

My Lords, the Minister did not mention that passengers are holding a day of protest, boycotting trains in the south-west on 22 January. Has he no comment on or support for that?

My Lords, what I hope will result from the passenger protest is a very clear appreciation by First Great Western that improvements are necessary and—as the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, indicated—that it will improve its passenger relations. I therefore hope that there will be a step forward on 22 January.