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Railways: East Coast Main Line

Volume 707: debated on Monday 9 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether National Express East Coast are fulfilling all the conditions of the East Coast Main Line franchise.

My Lords, National Express East Coast is meeting the terms of its franchise agreement, with the exception of responding to all written customer correspondence within 10 weekdays. Currently, National Express East Coast is responding to approximately 94 per cent of correspondence within agreed timescales and is putting measures in place to remedy this situation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but are the facts that fares are rising very sharply, on-train service is declining and staff morale is shattered the result of a thoroughly flawed franchising process that is in desperate need of overhaul?

My Lord, those were some good sound bites, but they do not bear much relation to the real situation on the ground. In terms of the statistics on punctuality on National Express East Coast, the proportion of trains arriving within 10 minutes of their scheduled time has increased from 81.2 per cent to 85.7 per cent in the past 12 months and the independent national passenger survey of customers’ overall satisfaction with the franchise for the autumn stood at 88 per cent, up from 84 per cent in the spring of 2008. The more one looks at the facts, the less the noble Lord’s picture stands up to scrutiny.

My Lords, can my noble friend assure the House that if National Express or anyone else comes to him and says, “I can’t carry on with my franchise any more. Here are the keys back”, he will not bail them out but will go out to tender again and in the mean time operate the franchise from the Department for Transport?

My Lords, I am glad to say that National Express East Coast is fulfilling the terms of its franchise agreement and we expect that to continue.

My Lords, I will follow the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, in his line of questioning. Has the Minister been meeting any of the franchisees to discuss the effects of the recession and the possible drop in passenger numbers?

My Lords, the train operating companies met my right honourable friend the Secretary of State a short while ago. They made no request for government assistance, nor did they indicate any intention of cutting train services.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a weekly commuter on the east coast main line. I heard what the Minister said about the speed of the trains. Indeed, it is very good. However, the quality of service is also important. If the Minister did not specify in the contract that the quality of the service, on first class, certainly, was part of the franchise, that is a real defect. The service has been deeply degraded and does not now give value for money. It was an outstanding service when GNER had it, but is now third rate.

My Lords, there were a number of assertions in the noble Baroness’s question. If she wishes to make particular points to me about service quality, I will, of course, look at them. In terms of service punctuality, which is a key issue for passengers, punctuality on the east coast main line has improved and independent surveys of passenger satisfaction show that it is rising, not falling, on the east coast main line.

My Lords, what are the Government’s views on the wholesale closure of many stations halfway through the day and on the many redundancies, some compulsory, in front-line staff, such as ticket clerks, porters and the like? Does he agree that actions of that sort bear most heavily on the infirm, the handicapped and the elderly? Is it not the case that it drives a coach and horses through the Government’s avowed intention of getting people out of their cars and making a carbon-friendly gesture? I declare an interest as someone who commutes on South West Trains three or four times a week.

My Lords, I am glad to say that there have not been wholesale closures. The noble Viscount rightly refers to the position in respect of South West Trains. As he may be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and I had to make a decision recently on a request by South West Trains for a significant cut-back in the staffing of ticket offices and their opening hours. We rejected a substantial proportion of the request for reduced opening hours in ticket offices in the South West Trains franchise area for the reasons that the noble Lord gave in terms of the duty that we have to see that there is widespread, easy access to tickets and that passengers are not unduly inconvenienced.

My Lords, I came down this morning from Berwick-upon-Tweed, where there was several inches of snow, on National Express. The train left on time, it arrived in London on time, and I had a very comfortable journey. But does the Minister accept that we are very concerned about the reduction in the catering facilities on National Express? It has closed the dining car, except on very limited occasions, and even the snacks are not up to standard. I am no longer able to get my usual: a tomato juice and a tuna sandwich.

My Lords, my powers may not extend to tomato and tuna sandwiches. Until the last part of the noble Lord’s question, I thought that he would be fronting our next advertising campaign for the railways. On the catering on the east coast main line, the noble Lord is correct to say that there has been a reduction in the number of restaurant cars. They have been replaced by an at-seat dining service, which makes the dining facilities more readily available to passengers than was the case when they were available only in the restaurant car.

I have perused the menu of the at-seat dining service, so solicitous am I for the noble Lord’s welfare. He can choose between crayfish and chorizo risotto, Italian brunch, and steak sandwich served with Italian mixed leaves, not to mention the east coast fish pie. The wine list is not bad either. There is a 2006 Merlot, a Shiraz 2005, a Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and, if the noble Lord really wants to treat himself, there is also a Laurent-Perrier, although I have to say that that comes at £45. I do not think that that is too bad.

My Lords, my noble friend has given us a lot of statistics. If a Premier League-style table were drawn up, who would be top, who would be bottom and who would be somewhere in the middle?

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that not all passengers on National Express are first-class ticket holders who are Members of your Lordships' House and that the figures that he revealed from the national passenger survey, which show an increase in satisfaction among ordinary people paying for standard class tickets, indicate that we are not actually doing that badly?