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Column 203We have heard a string of excuses, most of which have been trotted out tonight in the Government's amendment. The first excuse in the amendment is that the franchising director's report
"for the first time, introduces guarantees of service for passengers".
That simply is not true. British Rail has been contracted for many years to provide services as a condition of its public service obligation grant, in accordance with the 1988 timetable.
Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester): The hon. Gentleman is speaking about guarantees of service. Could he be specific about the guarantees that he would provide in terms of service timetabling? Is he providing a guarantee that he would renationalise the railways in due course? He spoke about cuts in investment. What investment would the hon. Gentleman like to see?
Mr. Meacher: We were content with the contractual arrangements that have existed with British Rail. I have repeatedly made it clear that we believe in increased investment in the rail infrastructure by comparison with that of the present Government. If increased investment in the channel tunnel is stripped out, investment in the rest of the network has steadily deteriorated year after year. We would never have allowed that to happen.
The next excuse is a real old offender's gambit. The Government amendment
"supports the Government in its determination not to freeze the existing timetable".
Of course, no one ever asked for that. We were demanding that there should not be cuts, and that existing services should be the basis on which to build improvements.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the whole purpose of bringing in the private sector is precisely to allow the private sector to offer more services than are offered by the current timetable? Opposition Members do not understand the private sector because almost none of them has any experience of it, and they do not realise that the whole basis of the scheme is to improve customer services by increasing services beyond the current timetable.
Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman should perhaps contain himself. If he really believes that, frankly he will believe anything. I would simply say to him that if, as he believes, the private sector will restore the current level of services, why has not the Secretary of State guaranteed it in the first place as a basis for the franchises?
Another excuse is rolled out in the Government amendment, which makes the same point as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Hawkins). The amendment states that the Government are determined to "create space for the private sector to develop new and additional services".
Frankly, that is pure fantasy. I do not deny that, in some cases, there may be some improvement on the reduced standards, but surely the key point is that private operators cannot be made to produce those improvements in any case at all. If the right hon. Gentleman seriously believes that existing service levels will be restored, what is the point in reducing standards by 20 per cent. in the first place?
Never at a loss for another wheeze, the Secretary of State advanced another non-sequitur this week. He said that there would be no problem in keeping to the current
Column 204timetables, because the shadow franchise operators had assured him that they would continue to run the existing level of services and improve on it. Surely even the right hon. Gentleman can see that that is a pointless claim. The shadow franchise operators are still subsidiaries of British Rail and they have a sense of public service. The question is not what will happen when the services are run by British Rail, but what will happen when they are run by private operators who are guided purely by commercial self-interest. The Secretary of State ought to address himself to that.
We now come to the biggest whopper from the Secretary of State in his vain attempt to defend the indefensible. The Government amendment states said proposals will
"develop new and additional services based on current timetables"--
that is patently not true--
"which are more attuned to the needs of passengers".
That claim simply does not stand up to examination, and I shall explain why.
Great Western Railways is one of the flagship franchises being offered for sale. On the London to Cardiff run in 1979, there were 26 trains per day, with a mean journey time of 1 hour 43 minutes. This year, there are 19 trains per day, with a mean journey time of exactly two hours. Under the passenger service requirement, the franchising director--for which read the Government--is proposing a minimum of 12 trains a day, with a mean journey time of 2 hours 5 minutes. Is that attuned to the needs of passengers?
That is not an exceptional case, and in fact it is typical of the timetables that are now being proposed. Let us take, for example, the London to Plymouth run. In 1981, there were 16 trains a day, with a first arrival from London at 10.49 am. This year, there are 12 trains a day, with a first arrival from London at 11.21 am. Under the passenger service requirements, the Government now propose a minimum of nine trains a day, the first of which will arrive from London by 12 noon. Is that
"more attuned to the needs of passengers"?
"attuned to the needs of passengers"?
Mr. Key: The answer is probably yes, because in the days when I lived down in that part of the world there was no motorway to London, nor an airline operating a daily service to Heathrow. So that probably was the pattern of service on the railway. It may well be "attuned to the needs of passengers",
but we need privatisation to take much more account of present-day needs, instead of British Rail running a railway to suit itself.
Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that significant cuts on the rail system can simply be justified by saying that there has been an upgrading of the roads and an improvement in air travel, I suggest that he tries to
Column 205convince his constituents, who I believe will be extremely angry when they realise the extensive cuts involved in that passenger service requirement.
Exactly the same picture emerges, whatever the major line, such as the London to Penzance line or the important service from Newbury to London. Furthermore, an important point that has not been brought out is the fact that the Great Western passenger service requirements link all major stations to London but not to each other. It would therefore be perfectly possible, apart from in peak hours, to meet the specification laid down with no service between Bristol Parkway and Swindon, and no service between Swindon and Reading. Is that "more attuned to the needs of passengers"?
The Secretary of State does not offer a response because the answer is clear. I shall address my next remarks to the Minister for Railways and Roads. Perhaps the person who drew up the Great Western passenger service requirement believes that Sir John Betjeman's "friendly bombs" have already dropped on Slough. For, according to the specification, despite the fact that it has four InterCity services, it needs none in future. Is that
"more attuned to the needs of"
the electorate of Slough? They must wonder what is the point of having a Minister for Railways and Roads to represent the constituency if he cannot even get the trains to stop at his station.
The passenger service requirement is supposed to protect services, yet it cuts the very services that are least viable. In those, I include the limited Slough stops, as well as extensions to the Carmarthen route once a day, and the Fishguard boat-trains, for example. Those are being omitted, leaving only the "fat" services protected. The changes will be attuned not to the needs of passengers but to the profits of commercial operators. The cavalier disregard of passengers' needs is summed up--there are many examples of it--by the Dawlish specification, which says that it must have
"at least 1 train a day, departing London at or after 9.45 am and arriving Dawlish at or before 8 pm."
Mr. Meacher: I did not check on that, but it may be compatible to go via Peterborough. As the journey time is well under three hours, that allows departure from London at any time from 9.45 am to 5 pm, so the poor Dawlish residents will have no say on whether their one train suits their day-travel market or simply the needs of those visiting Dawlish from London.
Curiously, the South West Trains passenger service requirement is exactly the opposite. I wonder how that comes about. It is over-precise rather than vague, but is
Column 206still not to the advantage of passengers. For instance, on the London to Weymouth line, a faster train is specified every hour to Weymouth but with higher frequencies at main stops and protected frequencies at smaller places. I understand from those operating the service that the trouble is that because the passenger service requirement spells out that the fast train to Weymouth must stop at all those stations, thereby preventing the service from being speeded up, and because the passenger service requirement does not allow those smaller stations to be served by restored local train services, the franchising director specification does not allow for--indeed, it prevents--any improvement. Is that
"attuned to the needs of passengers"?
This is only the start of the cuts that privatisation will bring. The passenger service requirements that we are debating exclude any Great Western InterCity services west of Swansea, any through services from Swansea via Winchester to Reading, despite the fact that the journey goes through eight Tory constituencies--I wonder what the effect will be there-- and any 15-minute service, as at present, on the Gatwick Express. Indeed, they exclude any service whatever from Gatwick after 7 pm. That is only the beginning. Today we have seen the scalpel; in future, we shall certainly see the axe as the Motorail service is chopped, sleeper services to Fort William are ended, and off-peak, late-night, early-morning and weekend services are eroded everywhere.
Moreover, the wording of the Secretary of State's objectives, instructions and guidance document for the franchising directors is as ominous as it is clear. Paragraph 18 says:
"For the initial letting of franchises, your specification of minimum service levels for railway passenger services is to be based on that being provided by BR immediately prior to franchising". If what we have seen today is supposed to be based on current timetables, what cuts will future lettings of franchises open up? Those passenger service requirements are not a step towards improving services for passengers; they are a step towards protecting the commercially most profitable routes in order to make franchises that nobody wants to buy just a bit more saleable. It is a policy driven by dogma, fuelled by endless broken promises and marked by almost universal opposition in the country. If it continues to be pursued, we shall ensure that it plays a major role in bringing about the Government's downfall.
"welcomes the Franchising Director's consultation document on Passenger Service Requirements which, for the first time, introduces guarantees of service for passengers; supports the Government in its determination not to freeze the existing timetable but to create space for the private sector to develop new and additional services based on current timetables which are more attuned to the needs of passengers; supports the Government in its determination to halt the decline in railway use by both passengers and freight customers; and condemns Her Majesty's Opposition for continuing to rely on scare tactics as a substitute for a policy which would enhance passenger services."
In all my years in the House, I have never before been accused of being a systematic liar. Perhaps, Madam Deputy Speaker, you will not allow me to use that word, even about myself. So perhaps I should say a systematic
Column 207purveyor of terminological inexactitudes. Taken from the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), it is a privilege and honour that I shall cherish, particularly in the light of the speech that he has just made. His talking about "cuts" demonstrates that he has not the beginning of an understanding of the privatisation process. He talked about new timetables being proposed, when on no occasion did the franchising director mention--much less propose--a timetable. As for Cardiff, in case he wants an argument I have the proof before me to show that he was factually wrong on both counts. Interestingly, the word "consultation", which is what the franchising director is about, including statutory consultations with rail users' committees and local authorities, never passed the hon. Gentleman's lips. If, in those terms, I am a purveyor of terminological inexactitudes, I am delighted to be so labelled by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. Let us now get on with the debate.
Since 1948, when it was nationalised, British Rail has invested £54 billion in the network only to see its share of passenger travel slashed from 17 per cent. to just 5 per cent. During that time BR has had almost unlimited freedom to alter services with little or no reference to the passenger and too often to the disadvantage of those who pay.
Unlike the Labour party, I am determined to reverse that sad decline and to see our railways revitalised; delivering the services that the passenger wants rather than what the network chooses to provide.
We can do this only by changing BR's bureaucratic, nationalised structure-- by providing private finance, investment and management skills; and, especially, the private sector's sensitivity to the customer. I realise that that is an unfortunate fact that the hon. Member for Oldham, West does not like, but those private sector skills, investments and sensitivities have transformed other transport undertakings such as British Airways and the long-distance coach industry. I am confident they will do the same for the railways. The hon. Gentleman has not produced a single argument to suggest otherwise.
Passengers and those who work on the railways should have confidence and pride in the service--secure in the knowledge that private train operators will be tailoring their services to what the traveller wants. Operators have real commercial incentives to do so. I understand why the hon. Member for Oldham, West has difficulty with the concept of the private sector, but let me repeat slowly--perhaps it will help the hon. Gentleman--that operators have a real commercial incentive in tailoring their services to what the traveller wants. Just like other private businesses--from supermarkets to car makers--those operators will want to retain existing customers and attract new ones. The key to doing that is to provide passengers with trains at the time they want to travel.
The stimulus is there. Extra trains may cost operators not much more than the price of the electricity or diesel to power them and the wages of the staff to operate them. That gives a commercially minded railwayman a powerful motive for creating new services and new demand. But if we want a railway which is more responsive to passengers, we need a much clearer way of determining the pattern of passenger services. That is where passenger service requirements come in. For the first time, they will provide a guaranteed level of service for passengers, which operators will be contractually obliged to meet.
Column 208I must repeat to the hon. Member for Oldham, West--that I shall keep on doing so until he grasps that salient fact--that PSRs are not timetables. They specify the service pattern that operators will be required to provide in terms of frequency of services, maximum journey times, first and last trains, weekend services and, where appropriate, levels of crowding--all for the first time.
There is no need for PSRs to specify services in detail in the way that they appear in a timetable; indeed to do so would simply fossilise services, making them completely unresponsive to changes in passenger demand. The PSRs that have been announced, however, are based on the existing timetable, exactly as we have always promised. I endorse what the hon. Member for Oldham, West quoted from my predecessor who said:
"I have made that clear . . . we expect the franchises . . . to be on the basis of the present timetable."--[ Official Report , 2 February 1993; Vol. 218, c. 159.]
He did not say that they would be identical to the present timetable, but "on the basis of". I stand by that.
In cases where services are heavily dependent on
subsidy--incidentally hon. Members will have noted that the hon. Member for Oldham, West did not mention anything to do with that--that subsidy will continue and PSRs will require the operator to run services which, to all intents and purposes, match the present level of services very closely.
For services which are commercially viable, we can afford to allow the operator greater flexibility to respond to market demands. Even in those cases, the PSR--the guaranteed requirement--for such services takes as a yardstick the services specified in the existing timetable. Moreover the combined effect of the PSR and the commercial incentive can be expected to deliver services that are just as comprehensive as those operated by BR at present--possibly more so. That is not just wishful thinking. The evidence is there in the track access contracts which the operators have agreed with Railtrack. For each of the four train operating units whose PSRs were announced last week, the access agreements give the operators both sufficient train paths to provide the existing services, and extra paths to provide additional services. The operators could have negotiated those rights only in the expectation that they want to provide services in excess of existing services.
Do not take my word for it. Listen to those operating the services at present. I realise that it is embarrassing for the hon. Member for Oldham, West, but the managing director of South West Trains said: "We firmly believe that the route to success lies in attracting more people to our services and this means more, not less trains. We plan further new services this May."
The managing director of Great Western Trains said:
"The current timetable provides more services than the minimum requirement, in line with customer demand and commercial justification. The timetable plan for May 1995 maintains the current level of services and consideration is being given to the introduction of additional ones."
The managing director of Gatwick Express said:
"We . . . have no plans to reduce our service frequency."
Column 209The managing director of London-Tilbury- Southend line said: "LTS Rail introduced additional off-peak trains in May 1994. No significant changes are envisaged for May 1995. Completion of the £150 million LTS resignalling project in 1996 will provide further opportunities to encourage car users to switch to LTS Rail. We have negotiated a track access contract which provides scope for this."
Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West): Since my right hon. Friend is talking about the railway line that runs to my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), does he agree that, in the past 20 years, that line has become famous as the misery line? What is now suggested offers, for once, the hope of resignalling; eventually new rolling stock and a better service with more off-peak and perhaps even peak services. It will therefore offer a better deal to the people of Southend.
Dr. Mawhinney: My right hon. Friend is exactly right. It seems clear to everyone except the Labour party that if British Rail sees opportunities, the private sector will see even more opportunities, because that is its characteristic. The Labour party fails to understand that.
Mr. Meacher: It appears, unfortunately, that the right hon. Gentleman has read out a section of his speech that was prepared before he listened to mine. He has not taken into account my central point that all the managers from whom he has quoted are employees of British Rail. They, of course, have a commitment to expansion and public service. What he must address is the likely attitude of private operators, who are motivated purely by commercial self-interest.
Dr. Mawhinney: Not only did I take that point into consideration, I dismissed it, as I just told my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West. The problem with the hon. Member for Oldham, West is that he has no understanding of how the private sector works. It is interested in delivering more services and attracting new customers at marginal cost, because that is at the heart of commercial incentive. That incentive is good for the passengers, good for the operators and, incidentally, good for the taxpayer as well.
Column 210No one can seriously doubt our commitment to ensuring that services in future are broadly based on the services run by BR at present. Indeed, just last week, the franchising director said:
"I am determined to achieve the best possible service for passengers, and I will take into account commitments by bidders to improve on existing timetables when evaluating bids for these franchises."
The PSRs offer passengers more than the simple freezing of the existing timetable. I turn again to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West because I have even better news for him, and indeed for the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).
Take commuters on the London-Tilbury-Southend line, for example. Because the passenger service requirement specifies maximum load factors for peak services, they will receive a guarantee that the operator will have to put on extra trains if demand for services increases, instead of simply cramming more people into existing trains. That is exactly why for years that line has been called the misery line; the misery is at an end.
Secondly, PSRs allow the private operator space to develop commercially viable services in line with passenger demand, in addition to the guaranteed requirement. Specifying the existing timetable, as the hon. Member for Oldham, West would have us do, would reduce the scope for such initiative and deprive passengers of the very benefits that privatisation is designed to bring. The difference between us is that Conservative Members understand the way in which the private sector works and he does not--but, given his background, that is probably understandable.
Matching services to what customers want is precisely what the private sector does best. That is clearly demonstrated by previous privatisations and there is every reason to expect the same logic to apply to the railways. It is a logic that the Opposition have always denied--I acknowledge that they have the virtue of consistency--and they have always been proved wrong.
Let me correct one misapprehension that obviously afflicts the Labour party. To hear its members talk, one would think that the passenger service requirements had been decided and cast in stone. As I said earlier, that is not so, although the hon. Member for Oldham, West failed to recognise it. The announcement last week was of the start of a consultation process. Indeed, the hon. Member for Oldham, West will have to become used to the fact that that is how we do business nowadays. Instead of the centralised bureaucratic decision making so beloved of the Labour party, whereby the hon. Member for Oldham, West would sit on the Front Bench and determine the time, speed and location of every train in the nation, users of the railway are being consulted about what they want to happen. Passenger power is returning to the railways.
Mr. Mackinlay: On that narrow point, can the Secretary of State tell us how the member of the public who feels aggrieved can complain, and know to whom to complain, bearing in mind the multiplicity of franchises and the interests of Railtrack? Who will run that one-stop shop where he can complain about the diminished rail service and obtain a remedy?
Of course, the hon. Member for Oldham, West does not recognise any of that. He is too busy playing the tired old Opposition game--the tactic that they have used before every privatisation. He is trying to scare people. He will bemoan a job worry here, threaten a service cut there; anything to put at risk the service that he claims to support. With friends like him, the railways will always be in big trouble.
Still, the Opposition have always been wrong before. Privatisation has brought new services, better standards and more choice. They will be wrong again.
I drew attention in our previous debate to the endearing admission by the Leader of the Opposition that the British people do not trust Labour. How true; how very true. Tonight the hon. Member for Oldham, West has simply dug his party into an even deeper hole. His leader will be cross--perhaps I should say "crosser"--with him. The British people will compare his rhetoric--for we shall remind them--with the reality of the new railway, and they will trust Labour even less. Our plans for the railways offer something new for passengers; they offer guarantees. For the first time there will be an absolute guarantee of service levels. No Labour Government ever offered passengers such an assurance, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West refused to do so this evening. No Liberal appears even to understand it. On 27 January, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) warned that if the
"minimum service requirements for the rail network are at any less than those we experienced before privatisation, then the Government has betrayed the travelling public".
There were no passenger service guarantees before privatisation. The hon. Member for Oldham, West issued an even sillier press release on the same day. As he has demonstrated again tonight, he simply does not understand how the market economy works. He said: "The Secretary of State's appeal to the train operators to provide more than they are contracted to do is whistling in the wind".
"What operator in their right mind would take the risk of providing more than a bare minimum of services for which they will get no subsidy?"
The operators have replied with a stinging rebuke. They want more services and, unlike the hon. Member for Oldham, West, they both know what they are talking about and can deliver. At least they understand the elementary basis on which the private sector works.
Operators are aware of the commercial opportunities that privatisation will bring. They recognise the incentives in the new system to provide services above passenger service requirement levels. They know that they will make more money if they can attract more passengers on to rail.