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Rail Franchising

Volume 636: debated on Thursday 1 March 2018

9. Whether his Department can prevent a rail operating company from bidding to retain its franchise as a result of that company’s performance. (904111)

All franchise operators are required to obtain a pre-qualification passport. The Department may suspend or withdraw a passport in the event that the passport holder triggers certain requirements within the passport application. This would place restrictions on or remove the passport holder from bidding for franchise competitions.

I take it from that answer that it is possible for the Secretary of State to deny an existing franchise holder the right to rebid in a new tendering process. Govia, which has had the south eastern franchise for a long time, has consistently been a poor performer, so can he remove Govia from the service? If it were to get the franchise, what guarantees can he give to my constituents that they will get the improved service that they deserve?

In the case of the south eastern franchise, we will accept the bid that is going to deliver the best possible outcome for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, with longer trains and better services. This is a competitive process. I will not hesitate to remove a passport from a firm when that is required. I also have to operate within European procurement law—something that the Labour party is still very keen on—and that requires me to take a proportionate approach. I will always seek to do that and I will always seek to operate within the law.

Last year, no fewer than 67 million rail journeys were cancelled or severely curtailed. I raised this matter with the Prime Minister yesterday. Most of the compensation paid by Network Rail was trousered by the train operating companies. When they bid to renew their franchises, will the way in which they have treated their passengers with compensation be a key consideration, as it should be?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to ensure that passengers get the compensation payments to which they are entitled. Of course, the compensation structure is much more complex and there are far more issues than those that have been highlighted in the media in recent days. I am very clear that the move that we are going through this year to provide digital ticketing across the whole network will make it much more straightforward to give passengers the compensation that they deserve and need, and enable them to do so simply, without having to fill out long, complicated forms.

The estimates report was very revealing, showing how hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on compensation, underwriting failure and bail-outs. In control period 4 alone, a staggering £339.4 million of public money—our constituents’ money—was handed over to private operators, while passengers were forced to pay over the odds to travel. How much more public money will the Secretary of State pass to these failed rail operators?

The Opposition keep talking about the huge amounts that are paid, but they fail to understand that less than £3 in every £100 that is spent on the railways remains with the companies. The rest is going into the biggest infrastructure investment programme, better services and newer trains—the kind of improvements that people could only dream of in 13 years of Labour Government, but which they are getting under a Conservative Government.

That is certainly no apology to our constituents. The Secretary of State’s lack of due diligence has caused chief exec David Brown, of embattled Southern rail fame, to announce that he has done a—expletive deleted—good job, and that he will bid again for the next franchise contracts. Virgin and Stagecoach will do the same. These companies are on a huge gravy train at the expense of taxpayers, so why is the Secretary of State being held to ransom and why he is even prepared to consider rewarding their failure?

The hon. Lady talks about a privatised gravy train. I would encourage her to look at the conversation that the French Prime Minister had about a state railway, where he said:

“The dilapidated network, delays, abysmal debt…The situation is alarming, not to say untenable. The French, whether they take the train or not, pay more and more for a public service that works less and less well”.

I would say to her constituents that I am delighted that over the next 12 to 18 months the people of York are going to see every single train, pretty much, that serves their station replaced as new, or brand new trains—trains that they have not seen for decades.

During the franchise process, business cases get a lot of focus. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) mentioned the Virgin Trains east coast contract and the franchise holder criticising some of the figures he had been passed. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee who was present at that hearing, I can say that the franchise holder actually said that, although the figures were not what he was expecting, they were not an insurmountable barrier to the franchise working. He quoted the Scottish referendum and Brexit, and a declining trend in passenger figures, as the real reason why the franchise failed. When franchises across the companies are being bid for, will my right hon. Friend encourage those companies to have a broader range of dynamic scenario planning so that they get accurate figures?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are now migrating the franchise system to being much more focused on quality. The quality of service is going to drive revenues as much as anything else. People will see a very different approach where we do not necessarily take the highest bid, we look for high quality in the bids, and we look to be prudent about the risk-sharing mechanisms so that hopefully this does not happen again.