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Rail: Great Western Passenger Franchise

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that the new Great Western passenger franchise provides the capacity and service quality to meet the expected growth in passenger numbers.

My Lords, on 22 December, the Department for Transport launched a consultation on the new Great Western franchise. The consultation document contains the Government’s objectives for the new franchise. These include: providing appropriate capacity for passenger services that is both affordable and delivers value for money for the taxpayer within defined infrastructure and rolling stock constraints on the Great Western network; and ensuring that the overall passenger experience improves throughout the life of the franchise.

I am grateful to the noble Earl for that Answer. I have read the document to which he referred and good things are certainly said about the problem of overcrowding. However, he will be aware that according to government statistics eight of the 10 most crowded trains are on First Great Western, and there have been serious overcrowding problems at Bristol and in Cornwall. Given that there will be a long franchise and that the number of passengers may greatly increase, how will the Government incentivise the successful franchisee to run more coaches or trains so that it does not have to go to the Treasury begging for more money?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord on his analysis of the overcrowding problems on the current franchise. He will be aware that the difficulty with the current franchise is that it does not incentivise the operator to increase capacity. However, there will be significant capacity increases, especially with the introduction of the IEP train.

My Lords, will the successful bidder for the franchise be required to provide new rolling stock? As a regular user of the service, I can testify to delayed and cancelled trains because of mechanical failure, sweltering or freezing carriages because air conditioning does not work, lavatories blocked or flooded, and on one train that I travelled on recently the brakes seized and part of the train had to be evacuated because of appalling fumes that filled the carriages. The one redeeming feature of the present operator is that it has excellent on-train staff, who have a difficult job working for a company that for many of us is still known as “Late Western”.

My Lords, the bidders are able to take into account the condition of the rolling stock when they bid, with the exception of the IEP rolling stock, which they have to adopt. We need to avoid telling the bidders which rolling stock they have to use because otherwise that would compromise their negotiations with the ROSCOs.

My Lords, will the Minister consider something revolutionary so far as this and other franchises are concerned? The franchisee should set the fares, tackle overcrowding and run a proper financial risk for the length of the franchise; under the present system, the Government set the fares, the leasing companies own the trains and, if anything goes wrong, the so-called franchisee hands in the keys and the taxpayer picks up the Bill. Does he agree that, whatever system we have at the moment for running trains, franchising it certainly ain’t?

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord contributes to the consultation, because he makes some valid points.

My Lords, will the Minister address his mind to the fact that, on many of the franchises throughout the kingdom, the carriages in use are full to overflowing, but the Department for Transport holds the trump card in the acquisition of new rolling stock, because it has to give permission before that can be done? Under the new franchise, does he envisage that whoever wins it or other franchises will have reasonable freedom to negotiate, without the dead hand of the department?

My Lords, the reason why it is necessary for the department to have the final say is so that it could take over the franchise and run the rolling stock. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, talked about the franchisee handing in the keys. Franchisees might want to do that if they negotiated a rolling stock agreement that had a balloon payment right at the end. Obviously, the department would refuse that. We are very keen that bidders are able to negotiate freely with the rolling stock companies, with the exception of the IEP, on this franchise.

My Lords, will the electrification proposals have an adverse temporary effect on capacity on the lines? In that context, will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will still consider electrification of the Great Western line through to Swansea?

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, he is absolutely right that there will be disruption on services from Paddington due to the electrification, but it is obviously worth doing. On the wider point about electrification from Cardiff to Swansea, we shall have to wait to see.

My Lords, an issue raised by train operators is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, said, if they want to increase rolling stock capacity to meet extra demand, they have to secure the approval of the Department for Transport either to use existing rolling stock more intensively or to lease additional rolling stock from the leasing companies. The approval of the Department for Transport is also required before train operators can speed up scheduled services following improvements to the infrastructure. Will the Government make provision in the new Great Western passenger franchise and in existing and other new franchises to enable the train operator to make such changes in future, subject to the other terms of the franchise remaining the same, without having to go through the, at times, time-consuming and lengthy procedure for obtaining prior approval from the Department for Transport?

I think that the noble Lord broadly describes some of the difficulties of franchising. We will have to see what the result of the consultation is.

My Lords, in view of the disconnect that seems to exist between the passenger experience and the views of the Department for Transport, would it not be a good idea if the 50 most senior members of the Department for Transport had it within their remit that they have to travel on the “Late Western” line at least once a month?

My Lords, I do not think that would be a practical requirement. However, one objective of this franchising round is to ensure that the overall passenger experience improves throughout the lifetime of the franchise.