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Railways: Franchises

Volume 694: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the recently concluded railway franchise agreements will contribute to the greater use of public transport; and, if so, in what ways.

My Lords, most new franchise agreements require the operator to increase capacity. We believe that these measures will stimulate further increases in rail use, continuing the very encouraging trend that has been established in the past 10 years.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while there has been some growth, for which I give the Government credit, the congested state of the roads is largely responsible for it? Will he, for once, try to think positively about the railway, to make friends with the motorist, to double station car parks, and to increase the capacity of trains significantly? We are very tired of the same old policies from successive Governments of regarding the railways as almost a second-class citizen.

My Lords, I cannot accept what the noble Lord says. The Government have a very good record on the rail network. Since 1997, rail-passenger kilometres have grown by 34.5 per cent and the number of passenger journeys has grown by some 35 per cent. Each week of the year we invest a further £88 million. The Government are not ashamed of their record—in fact they are very proud of it—of investing in the railways and in creating increased capacity.

My Lords, according to recent newspaper reports, only 44 of 177 stations in the South West Trains franchise are open for 12 hours a day. At some of the smaller stations, the ticket offices are not open at all. There is now a real fear among passengers that, in order to claw back some of the money from having overpaid for the franchise, the ultimate objective is to close all ticket offices. Coupled with the meteoric rise in fares since the new year and the no-holds-barred attitude adopted by travelling staff on the railways, do the Government agree that this is an open invitation to travellers to get back into their cars? Will the Minister invite the regulatory rail authority to leave its comfort sidings to go and talk to the franchises about these important matters? I should declare an interest as a regular traveller on South West Trains.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular traveller on Southern trains. The service that I enjoy has steadily improved over the last few years. In real terms the regulated fares are around 2 per cent lower than they were 10 years ago, the number of passengers travelling on the rail network is higher now than any time since the 1960s and, year on year, the number of passengers using the rail network continues to grow ever faster. The Government are investing increasingly in the rail network and will carry on with that work. As to the noble Viscount’s point about ticket offices, it is true that some have closed. However, we are in the modern era and many people now pre-book using online or telephone options to secure the right ticket to travel at the right price.

My Lords, how does it benefit the travelling public to relieve the National Express group of the Midland Mainline franchise—the group that transformed it from a complete shambles to the most punctual TOC in the United Kingdom? The replacement is Stagecoach, which has not exactly covered itself in glory on South West Trains. Does he accept from me that professional railwaymen are fed up with transient Ministers and civil servants faffing about with the railway industry and failing to bring any proper long-term stability?

My Lords, I was hoping that the noble Lord would declare an interest. He always makes his points about the rail network very well indeed. I do not think that we have transient Ministers. The current Rail Minister, Tom Harris, is doing an excellent job and has been in it for some time. He is a great advocate for the rail network; I suffer in his shadow. We are investing more. I cannot comment on the individual comparison that the noble Lord made—to do that would be wrong of me as a Minister—but we have a record to be proud of. We are increasing access to and use of the rail network. We have a long-term plan and later this summer will deliver the high-level rail strategy.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is now more expensive to travel for 100 miles by South West Trains than by driving a car? The finance department of your Lordships’ House still presses us to use the trains. Is this the real plan, or have I missed something?

My Lords, it is true that there have been some price increases on that rail franchise. There is no hiding from that—it has been in the newspapers, so I suppose it must be true. However, if one books intelligently, one can buy advance fares very cheaply. I do not accept for a moment the absolute comparison made by the noble Lord. It is cheaper to use the railways if you ensure that you book early—online, over the phone and in advance—as many people do, instead of just using walk-on fares. Yes, that franchise has had some increases, but generally you can get very good deals if you use the network well and you think ahead.

My Lords, will the Minister consider travelling by train in Germany or France this summer, looking at the fares and the service and then reviewing his answers in the light of that experience?

My Lords, I have not travelled extensively on the French network for some years, but I am a great admirer of it—it is very good. Some lines, particularly the journey from Paris to Nice, are a delight. However, in EU countries there are higher subsidies and direct taxation to pay for services. In this country the balance is something like 58 per cent funded by passengers and 42 per cent funded by the taxpayer. That has gone up and down over the years but has not changed much, and we accept that balance because we think it is right that we protect the taxpayer from excessive burdens from the rail network.