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Railways: Parliamentary Scrutiny

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have proposals to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the rail industry.

My Lords, the 2004 White Paper The Future of Rail set out the Government’s view that it should be for Ministers, accountable to Parliament and to the electorate, to set the national strategy for the railways. A structure for the industry based on that principle has since been delivered through the provisions of the Railway Act 2005, and no further changes are planned.

My Lords, in recent months a number of Written Questions tabled by noble Lords have met with the reply from the Government, “Write to Network Rail”. Does the Minister accept that, with £5 billion of public money going into Network Rail every year, robust parliamentary scrutiny of its operations is essential to provide transparency for taxpayers and railway users?

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness’s second point. Some of the responses to which she referred relate purely to operational matters. It is quite right that those references are made, because I am sure that noble Lords will receive a far more accurate response on operational detail.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a group of us spent a lot of time discussing this issue with the former Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher and that she was warned in many of those sessions? The Government ought not, therefore, to be terribly frightened; the proposal did not come from them in the first instance, which is unusual. Do they not now agree that the decision to privatise the entire railway system was a major mistake and that such a measure is unknown in almost every other European passenger railway system of any size, yet we continue with it and everyone hears the complaints? Is it not high time that we had a serious examination? A long time has passed; there is a lot of experience. Perhaps the Government could start the examination with a survey of what passengers think of the current system.

My Lords, the noble Lord’s important and compelling statement about rail privatisation is absolutely right. I am sure that it will not have escaped the notice of most Members of your Lordships’ House that the Opposition themselves have begun to apologise for what they did to the rail network. We have a system of parliamentary accountability; it was our Government who ensured that it was maintained. Indeed, the legislation that followed the 2004 White Paper brought more issues back under parliamentary scrutiny so that the rail network could be held properly to account through Ministers.

My Lords, in summer 2005 the Department for Transport established an internal rail group to work in partnership with industry on the department’s new responsibilities to achieve the following objectives: to secure delivery of improved operational financial performance and appropriate rail passenger services at an acceptable price; to deliver a robust, affordable and sustainable strategy for the development of the railway; and to ensure that cost-effective and timely delivery on major rail projects was achieved. Have any of those objectives been met?

Yes, my Lords, we are meeting our objectives for the rail network. There is the largest number of rail passengers since before the Beeching closures. We have rapidly rising investment and greater confidence in the rail network. We are doing extremely well given the current structure.

My Lords, has the Minister seen reports today that South West Trains is planning to take about a fifth of its seats out of commuter trains and to charge passengers 20 per cent more to use trains arriving in London between 10 am and 12.49 pm? Have the Government given their blessing to this robbery?

My Lords, as the operator, South West Trains is entitled to vary fares that are unregulated, although the majority of fares are regulated. I am sure that the Rail Minister will take up some of those issues directly with South West Trains.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the governance structure of Network Rail is being considered and whether that will involve trying to align the interests of passengers, train operating companies and Network Rail so that the huge bonuses earned by its directors will be the result of satisfying people?

My Lords, the confidence of the travelling public in the rail network is higher than it has been for some time. As I said at the outset, we have no immediate plans to change the industry structure that has been agreed. By and large, the structure is working well, although noble Lords are right to highlight the problems.

My Lords, is there any truth in the rumours in today’s press that the Government agreed to the South West Trains increases, or certainly that they were told about them? Does that signify the Government’s abandonment of their policy to get people to leave their cars and travel by train?

Absolutely not, my Lords. We see continued growth in passenger numbers on the rail network. We anticipate a 30 per cent growth over the next few years, and there has been a 40 per cent growth since 1997. It is not true that the department secretly agreed the South West Trains increases. Stagecoach proposed increases in some fares in its franchise bid but they were related to unregulated fares, which are not for the department or the Government to approve or disapprove.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Marsh’s words are music to my ears. I was grateful for the Minister’s comments and hope that the same common sense will prevail about the Post Office.

My Lords, I shall disclaim overall responsibility for the Post Office. I am glad that the noble Lord is heartened by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh.

My Lords, will the 1,000 new carriages announced by the Department for Transport for delivery by 2014 be purchased and leased out to the train operating companies by the Department for Transport or by Network Rail?

My Lords, I do not have those details in my brief, so I had better write to the noble Earl to ensure that he gets an accurate response.

My Lords, what guidance would the Government give to the rail companies on the colossal difference between first-class and economy fares? For example, from Llandudno Junction the ordinary first-class fare is £310, whereas the economy fare is £67. There is such a disparity.

My Lords, I am not familiar with Llandudno Junction, but perhaps I ought to be. Obviously, I will need to replan my holiday schedule. First-class and economy fares are matters for the operating company. The department regulates some fares, particularly for season tickets and savers, which account for approximately 75 per cent of all rail travel. I am sure that market forces must have a bearing on all other fares.