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Virgin Trains East Coast

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904105)

8. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904110)

15. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise on (a) passengers and (b) rail services. (904118)

17. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. (904120)

I am not sure I see any merit in the early termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise. That is not something I would wish to happen, but we have to deal with the world as it is, rather than as how we would like it to be.

My priority is to ensure the continued smooth running of the east coast franchise for its passengers and employees, and to make sure that the trains run and deliver the service that people need. As I told the House on 5 February 2018, a new arrangement to operate the railway prior to the new east coast partnership in 2020 needs to be put in place. We are currently conducting a full appraisal of the options, and I will return to the House in due course.

I am afraid to say that service standards have deteriorated on the east coast line since Virgin-Stagecoach took the franchise—I am a regular customer on that line—despite the best efforts of the excellent staff on board trains and at stations. Those staff face having their sixth employer in a decade and a half. Will the Secretary of State meet me and some of those staff, so that they can express their concerns about the way in which the franchise has been conducted? Will he give the House an undertaking that there is a genuine public sector operator ready to take over should that be required—or has Directly Operated Railways been outsourced already?

On the last point, I can give an absolute guarantee that that is the case; we have been making preparations for different eventualities for some time and there is a genuine alternative, if that is deemed to be best for the passenger and best value for the taxpayer. My ministerial colleagues and I are happy to talk to staff, but I would correct the hon. Gentleman on one point: the reality is that the independent assessments have shown a higher level of passenger satisfaction on that route since the change of franchise, not a lower one.

I, too, wish to say a huge thank you to the staff who have been involved in keeping the trains running. As has been said, the current Virgin Trains east coast line franchise agreement will end three years early, making it the third franchise failure in about a decade. As someone who uses the line, I do not agree with the Secretary of State’s assessment of it. But will he recognise that there is a problem and see this as the perfect opportunity to bring the contracts back in house?

As I have said in this House before, I need to do what is best for passengers and for the taxpayer. The reality is that since the transition, regardless of the fact that Stagecoach clearly got its numbers wrong, passenger satisfaction has risen, more people are being employed by this railway and it is delivering more money to the taxpayer. [Interruption.] That is the reality. Labour Members can say it is not true, but it is; it is a fact that they just have to deal with.

I assure the Secretary of State that after three failed franchises and the experiences of a directly operated railway my constituents would much prefer a directly operated railway. Will he commit to providing a directly operated railway service, in the public interest?

As I have said, I am going to do what is best for the passenger and for the taxpayer. I am sorry that the Labour party does not seem to get this, but the reality is that passenger satisfaction levels are higher today than they were three years ago—that is what the independent research shows. Labour Members may not like it, but it is true.

Next year, Bradford would have seen a marked increase in the number of much-needed direct inter-city trains serving the city, but the chaos with the east coast line has put that in serious doubt. These extra trains are vital to improving Bradford’s connection to the rest of the country, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that, whatever happens to the east coast franchise, Bradford will see an increase in the number of direct trains?

This is an important point, so let us be clear: it is my intention that, whatever arrangements are put in place for the next few years, the service improvements that have been promised will be delivered. We face an issue on infrastructure and additional capacities on the northern part of the route, which will have to be resolved and may mean some amendments to the timetable for new services, but that will not stop us delivering those new services. In Bradford’s case, I am expecting to be able to fulfil the commitments that were made.

I agree with my right hon. Friend that there are no merits in the early termination of the franchise, but there are opportunities from the new partnership. My constituency has 10 railway stations, none of which have a direct rail service to London. Does he agree that this is an opportunity to look at providing services to those towns not currently served?

As I know, my hon. Friend has been a regular advocate for direct services, and I would like to see those happen. I am looking to see whether we can maximise the capacity on the east coast main line to make additional services possible. Of course the arrival of HS2 will allow many services that cannot be run now because of capacity constraints to happen, because of the additional capacity it will create on routes to the north and Scotland.

I am not entirely sure what the impact of the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise is on Horsham, but doubtless the hon. Gentleman is about to explain to us with the lucidity for which he is renowned in all parts of the House.

I am absolutely going to. In respect of the proposed alternatives to the current east coast franchise, has the Secretary of State seen President Macron’s recent remarks about the nationalised French railways, and has he any remarks to make on them?

Wisdom sometimes comes from our allies across the channel. I did see those remarks, and they are a timely reminder that a nationalised railway is not the panacea that some believe it is.

It was not the Horsham perspective, but the international perspective. Why would I expect anything less from someone so illustrious as a man who served as my constituency chairman for three years, for which he deserved a medal?

The Secretary of State says that Stagecoach got its sums wrong, but clearly his Department got its sums wrong, too, when it awarded the franchise to Stagecoach. Surely one merit of this situation should be that failing franchise holders should not be allowed to bid for future franchises. Does the Secretary of State agree that this gives us the opportunity to put the franchise into the public sector, allow further public sector involvement across all franchises, and review and improve the franchise tender process?

We certainly keep the franchise process under continual review to work to improve it but, as I said a moment ago, a public railway is not the panacea that everyone on the Opposition Benches claims it is. I intend to do two things: to take the right decisions for the taxpayer and the travelling public on that route, which is really important, and to act within the law, which is also important.

On Monday, the chief executive of Stagecoach said that he knew there was a problem with the east coast franchise’s finances just weeks after taking over the contract in March 2015, and that he had been talking to the Department about it for two years. Given that the Department was in dialogue with the operator about the difficulties, why did the Secretary of State not put together a contingency plan for the route? The Secretary of State has had two years to sort out this mess; is it not simply incredible that he still does not know what to do?

The shadow Secretary of State clearly cannot do his sums, because I have not been Secretary of State for two years. We have been planning—

I have been Secretary of State for 18 months; the shadow Secretary of State cannot do his sums. Since I became aware that there was a problem on the east coast route, we have been doing careful contingency planning, so we have a long-term plan and short-term options for the route. We cannot put those short-term options into place until the appropriate moment arises at which they are necessary. We are prepared for when that moment arises and will deliver the alternatives.

Given that the taxpayer has already lost out on more than £2 billion of premium payments, can the Secretary of State advise the House as to whether the financial ramifications of the termination of the franchise are now completely known and concluded? If not, what sums of money are earmarked to settle any further system-gaming demands from Messrs Branson and Souter through litigation or arbitration?

Again, the Labour party cannot do its sums. We have no more written off £2 billion than Labour wrote off £1.4 billion when National Express collapsed. The reality is that the east coast is and always has been in recent times a profitable railway. Whatever happens, it will continue to generate a substantial return for the taxpayer. It is about time that Labour did its sums properly, rather than misrepresenting the reality.