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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 689: debated on Monday 19 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the past performance of train operating companies will be taken into account in evaluating the bids for the new east coast main line franchise.

My Lords, yes. Companies that wish to bid must provide comprehensive evidence of their ability to operate in a safe, reliable and sustainable manner. That evidence must include specific details of past, present and planned operational and commercial performance in either rail or other passenger transport services.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. In the case of the GNER franchise, on which there will be an announcement soon, has First Great Western submitted evidence about its recent performance? There have been delays, cancellations and a lack of standing room, so you cannot even get on to the train, while 12 trains sit in a siding. Does my noble friend believe that such a track record would encourage people to travel from Edinburgh to London, perhaps standing all the way, when the company has parked up half its trains in the siding to save money?

My Lords, First Great Western’s performance problems are well known and have been well advertised. The department monitors those issues carefully. However, it is entirely open to First Great Western to enter the bidding process for the current GNER operation.

My Lords, can the Minister be much more specific? Is past performance taken into account when companies pre-qualify or when they submit their final bids? If it is when they submit their final bids, how is it valued in monetary terms?

My Lords, it is taken into account at all stages of the process. Past performance is extremely important, as I am sure the noble Lord will be aware; it must be fully and robustly assessed when the franchise is let.

My Lords, why have the Government insisted on using the minimum timescales allowed under EU law for the submission of bids for this franchise? Only 18 working days were allowed for the completion of all the necessary documents and for legal and financial preparation, so that only those companies that made failed bids last time were able to meet the deadline. That has ruled out several interested bidders and limited the number of bidders, particularly those that were unsuccessful as recently as three years ago.

My Lords, I am aware of some concerns about the bidding period, but it is right that we stick to that timetable. Companies were well aware of the process and will, no doubt, be well aware of the other stages of the franchise-letting arrangements. The system is well understood and should work well in this situation.

My Lords, I travelled down on the east coast main line this morning, together with several noble Lords, and benefited from at least some of the splendid catering, although not the Great British Breakfast. The catering on that line is well thought of. What account will be taken of the quality of train catering in looking afresh at the franchise?

My Lords, it might surprise the noble Lord to know that, when I was being briefed for this Question, I asked exactly the same question. Someone reminded me that I had answered a Written Question on that point some weeks ago. Of course catering is important. Franchise bidders will be required to provide a high-quality service at stations and on trains, but it will be for bidders to determine the appropriate level of catering offered on board. GNER has a particularly good track record in that respect, and I have enjoyed the Great British Breakfast on a few occasions.

My Lords, those of us who travel on Virgin trains envy the catering provided by GNER—or whichever company takes over the franchise. However, does the Minister accept that there is widespread belief in the railway industry that, since the Government decided to micromanage the franchises and the franchising procedure, all they are looking at is minimum service and maximum premiums? Can he say anything to disabuse the railway industry of that view?

My Lords, my noble friend is very knowledgeable on these matters; he touches on a subject that is obviously one for public comment and debate. I happen to disagree with his latter comments. I was drawn to conclude that GNER provides a better breakfast than Virgin, but that is just my personal view.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that there is a general appreciation of the quality of the service on the east coast main line?

My Lords, that is true, but we must continue to work to drive up the quality and standard of services. We will ensure that the franchising process delivers the highest quality of service that can be afforded on that line to maintain the improvements achieved so far.

My Lords, east coast passengers have been accustomed to a very high standard of service for a long time. Will that standard of service be protected in the franchise-bidding process?

My Lords, do we not want an excellent service throughout the country? Is the franchising system the best way of achieving that? After 10 years, is it not about time that the Government looked at the whole basis of the railway system in this country?

My Lords, we can always rehearse history, and in recent months the party opposite has begun to apologise for introducing rail privatisation when and how it did. However, we have a franchising system and it is our duty and obligation as a Government to get the very best from it. That is what we are achieving. More people are travelling on trains now than at any time since 1960 and more people are coming back to the rail network, having realised that it can provide high-quality services and speedy transportation.