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Railways: Passenger Capacity

Volume 690: debated on Monday 5 March 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should tell the Minister that Hatfield is in Herts, not in Essex, in case he should get lost.

The Question was as follows:

What steps they are taking to increase passenger capacity on the railways.

My Lords, it is close to the border, however. The Government recognise that, as a result of passenger growth, the passenger-carrying capacity of the network, especially in peak periods, remains an issue in many areas. The Government will continue to take steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, through the high-level output specification, and through the longer-term strategy framework for the network, to be published in summer 2007.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may encourage him to go further. Now that a record 3.2 million people a day use the modernised railways, would it not better ensure their comfort and safety if the number of passengers using certain mainline trains was limited? Is he aware, for example, there is regular overcrowding on sections of the Virgin cross-country route, which is dangerous rather than merely uncomfortable, with people forced to sit in the vestibules between the two carriages?

My Lords, obviously, it is of concern where discomfort is afforded to passengers. From time to time, like other noble Lords no doubt, I have had to suffer some discomfort when there has been considerable crowding on the rail network. But I invite the noble Lord to think of his proposition in these terms: the practicality of enforcing such a limit; the stage at which you embark on enforcement; and the kind of impact that enforcement might have in terms of trains being able to leave on time. I understand entirely the motive behind the noble Lord’s Question, but we need to focus on practicalities. Given that, it is clearly very uncomfortable sometimes on some of those crowded commuter trains into London.

My Lords, one way in which you can cater for people is to plan properly for the future. The high-level output statement to be published in the summer, to which the Minister referred, provides for a 30 per cent growth in the next 10 years, whereas we have had 42 per cent growth in the past 10 years and the curve is rising steeply. The cross-country franchise, to which the noble Lord opposite referred, provides for a 30 per cent growth over 10 years, which is not enough. Will the Government take effective action to plan for the future?

My Lords, we can fairly argue that we have done that. The noble Lord is right that since 1997 there has been a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers that has been driven by a strong economy, improving services, new trains and increased government investment. We should celebrate that. He is also right that we need to plan ahead, which is why we will publish the statement in the summer. No doubt the targets in that will be based on realistic assumptions.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the comment made by Dr Mike Mitchell, director-general of the Rail Group at the Department for Transport, that rail commuters with only a 30-minute journey cannot expect to have a seat?

My Lords, I am reluctant to agree with that observation because the objective must be journeys which are as comfortable as possible. Of course, there has been a longstanding commitment to achieve that objective, which goes back to the noble Lord’s party being in government. The commitment was simply that no one should have to stand for more than 20 minutes, which is right and fair.

My Lords, have we not reached an absurd position when the rail regulator asks people to question whether their journey is necessary? Those of us who were around during the last war saw notices on hoardings asking exactly that; “Is your journey really necessary?”. We seem now to have reached two absurd positions where, first, the rail regulator says, “Please do not travel on the railways” and, secondly, the Government want to charge motorists a hell of a lot more for travelling, particularly at peak periods when they need to go to a job. What is the answer to that? Perhaps jobs should be moved nearer to people rather than moved away.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that might be one solution. People are always entitled to shift where they work. The fact is that we have to try to provide the best quality rail network that we can, given the amount of money that we can afford as a nation to spend on transportation. I do not entirely agree with the rail regulator’s observation, but people need to think about when and how they travel.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that Japan is about to push ahead with a 500 kph magnetic levitation train between Tokyo and Osaka, which is roughly the same distance as London to Edinburgh? We should look more positively at that idea here as it would save billions, make a massive saving on carbon emissions and solve all the worries about Stansted and the expansion of Heathrow which we were discussing a moment ago.

My Lords, Japan is to be congratulated on its forward thinking and investment. Those issues and investment of that sort are kept in mind at all times.

My Lords, will the Government insist that additional standard-class vehicles are purchased for the Pendolino trains as well as for the Voyager and its two derivatives, Meridian and Pioneer, in order to make certain that there is sufficient capacity for passengers?

My Lords, I was not aware that there was a particular capacity issue on those trains and I will inquire into whether there are such problems. Obviously, we should keep that under review.

My Lords, if we limit the number of people who can travel by bus, either sitting or standing, and we do not allow people to stand on aeroplanes, can the Minister explain why we cannot limit the number of passengers travelling by train to those who buy their tickets at least the day before their journey?

My Lords, they are different forms of transportation with different requirements in terms of health and safety and occupancy rates. I understand the point being made by my noble friend, but what lies at the heart of the issue is practicality in terms of enforcement and people’s comfort.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, while as my noble friend says the railways are victims of their own success, and that is great, will he ensure that at least those trains now sitting in sidings doing nothing, particularly those which used to be run by First Great Western, are brought back into service? That would at least mitigate the effect of overcrowding in the short term.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a useful point. We know that First Great Western has had problems in recent weeks and that its performance with regard to overcrowding has not been good enough. The company itself has admitted as much. For that reason, I understand that First Great Western has now brought back into service some trains that had been taken out, and has put greater pressure on its suppliers to ensure that necessary repairs are brought forward. Further, I understand that the company has brought into service trains from other areas that it serves. Some positive action has been taken to try to improve matters on the franchises it operates.

My Lords, I understand that Mr Gordon Brown is looking for something vaguely socialist to do in his first 100 days. Would the Minister suggest to him that, certainly on commuter trains, first class should be abolished so that insult is not added to injury when standard-class passengers are squashed into the corridor, looking into empty compartments?

My Lords, I am intrigued by the noble Lord’s opening comments. I understand that he is now a Liberal Democrat, but perhaps he is now offering advice on socialism and going back to his roots. That is a great move forward in your Lordships’ House, and we look forward to the defection. On the noble Lord’s more substantial point, of course it is a matter of concern that there are overcrowded trains. By and large, the network functions well but, sadly, there will always be occasions when we encounter congestion and overcrowding. We work with the rail companies to minimise these problems, and where there is spare capacity on a train as the result of unfilled first-class seats, clearly some exceptions should be made and a waiver given.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the railway operator One Railway, which operates to and from Stansted Airport as well as in various other areas, is proposing to cut out stops at all the intermediate stations between Liverpool Street and Stansted Airport and notwithstanding that reduction will increase by only two the stopping services between Liverpool Street and Stansted? Commuters are going to have a hell of a time getting to and from London.

My Lords, my noble friend’s question goes back to the first Question today and I can understand why he has conflated the two issues. I understand that in any expansion plans for Stansted, the airport operator will have to bring forward practical and sensible measures to address the increased capacity that will be required on the rail network.