Skip to main content

Railways: National Express

Volume 715: debated on Thursday 3 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the current position on the National Express East Anglia franchise.

My Lords, termination of the National Express east coast franchise, which I notified to the House on 5 November, is a default under the National Express East Anglia franchise. I notified National Express East Anglia on 25 November that its franchise will terminate early, on 31 March 2011. The process for letting the franchise to a new operator has begun and a new operator will begin in April 2011.

My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for his response and for the three Written Statements that this House has received on the matter. Will he tell us whether he intends to let the new franchises under the same or different terms compared with those operating at the moment? Will he let them to one company or to different companies? Also, will he take the advice of the Opposition and let longer franchises, which would give operators greater ability to invest and to weather financial changes?

My Lords, we will let the franchises separately. We will consult on the franchise specifications. I am keen to see that we improve on the specifications so that we get a better deal for the travelling public. I am, indeed, considering the potential for longer franchises, because I believe, as does the noble Baroness, that there could be benefits.

As a poor benighted passenger of National Express East Anglia, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware of the steady deterioration in services with regard to cleanliness, refreshments, repairs to carriages et cetera, which is making the travelling experience pretty miserable? Can he assure passengers that in the new franchise more attention will be paid to ensuring that the new company operates a decent service?

My Lords, I am keen to see improvements to the service. In respect of the East Anglia service, punctuality levels have been improving; therefore, what matters most to passengers, which is that the trains turn up and arrive on time, has been improving. However, it is important that other elements of the service are also maintained in good order and we expect that of National Express.

My Lords, like the last speaker, I use this service regularly. I could not agree more about the lack of service, which is getting worse and worse. The punctuality is not too bad, but the service suffers from Railtrack problems, such as level crossings that do not shut so that we have to wait for 10 minutes, which meant, I am afraid—addressing the right reverend Prelate—that I missed Prayers the other day.

I am very sorry to hear that the noble Lord was inconvenienced by a delay on the line. As I say, the punctuality record has been improving, but it has scope to improve significantly further.

Can my noble friend confirm that two characteristics of the privatised rail system are, first, that people still hold the Government responsible for failures in the system, even when the trains are operated by private companies, and, secondly, that it has more public money going into it than the system ever did under British Rail? Finally, as one of those who spent a lifetime believing in public ownership and the public sector, I simply express my gratitude to him for demonstrating by his action in respect of the east coast main line that this has a very important part in the economic thinking of the 21st century.

I am grateful to my noble friend for those remarks. It is not just that people hold the Government accountable for the service but that, as I now know from painful experience, they hold me personally accountable for the service. They call me the Thin Controller. However, the House can be assured that I take those responsibilities very seriously and now that I am personally in charge of the east coast main line I am sure that all its problems will vanish overnight.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of us think that he is an excellent controller? Who is best placed to manage and to cost the positive and negative risks of economic change, the Treasury or the TOCs?

I am grateful to the noble Earl for his opening remark. It is important that we get a viable system of risk-sharing and that we learn from experience. Clearly, the east coast franchise did not work out and we need to learn the lessons from that experience when we let the new franchise.

My Lords, as the noble Lord is such a good controller, will he consider taking control of the Bedford to Brighton line? He rushed to the House to make a public statement when the dispute started. The dispute is still going on and the workers who use that line are facing a second-rate service daily. When will he intervene in that dispute?

My Lords, there have been very positive talks between the unions and the management in the very recent past, which I hope will lead to the resumption of the full service on that line. To repeat what I said when the concerted action started, it is totally unacceptable that passengers are being held to ransom in this way and I continue to expect that the two sides will reach a settlement that gets the trains running as soon as possible. There is no justification whatsoever for that concerted action on the part of the train drivers.

My Lords, the Secretary of State jokingly referred to solving problems overnight, but he earlier referred to the fact that the new franchises would start on 1 April 2011. Why is it taking so long?

My Lords, that is the period that it takes to let a new franchise. Of course, we expect National Express to fulfil the terms of its franchise in the period until then. I should stress that, although National Express is withdrawing from the rail industry, the managers on those lines are experienced rail managers, who I know will do their duty by the public.

My Lords, I think that the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was: when will the Government intervene? I did not hear the noble Lord answer it.

My Lords, as I said, there have been recent talks between the two sides, which I understand have been very positive. I hope, therefore, that there will be an early resumption of the full service on that line.