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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

8 Dec 1998 : Column 215


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 25 (Periodic adjournments),

    That this House, at its rising on Thursday 17th December, do adjourn till Monday 11th January 1999.--[Mr. Dowd.]

Question agreed to.



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Rail Fares

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

7.56 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): Like me, the Minister will probably be rather pleased that this Adjournment debate is taking place earlier than it might have done. Although I do not intend to speak at length, I am more relaxed about timing than I was.

The train network is an integral part of our daily national life and it will become even more important as we strive to cut the number of unnecessary car journeys to avoid congestion and unnecessary environmental destruction. As things stand, car ownership is predicted to rise by 15 per cent. each decade, and many roads and motorways are already running at full capacity. The rail network is vital in reducing the resulting congestion and air pollution.

Rail could take a bigger proportion of travellers and freight, but it will not do so unless it is made more attractive to passengers and to business. In general, rail fares are too expensive and the fare structure is too complicated. Fares have increased sharply in real terms in the past 20 years, but motoring costs have remained stable or have fallen.

According to Government figures, rail fares rose in real terms between 1974 and 1996 by 74.8 per cent. above inflation. By comparison, the real cost of motoring fell by 3.5 per cent. Travelling by car became far more affordable and train travel became less affordable, so it is no wonder that our roads are so clogged.

According to a Union Bank of Switzerland survey last year, rail fares in this country are now the most expensive on the planet. The cost of train travel in the United Kingdom is almost three times the world average. Since privatisation, the franchising director has regulated key commuter and leisure fares, including saver tickets, unrestricted standard return tickets and all standard weekly season tickets. Indeed, the franchising director has a duty under the Railways Act 1993 to regulate those fares where he considers that regulation is required in the interests of passengers.

The Conservative Government believed that market forces would prevent excessive price increases, leaving operators with the freedom to apply commercial judgment in setting a range of non-regulated fares. Those unprotected tickets include the supersaver--the cheapest national long-distance walk-on rail ticket--cheap day returns, family rail cards and the network card.

As Liberal Democrats predicted, companies have been increasing unprotected fares at rates well above inflation; they are clearly taking advantage of the legislative loopholes in the Railways Act. The increases are targeted largely at casual travellers, such as families, shoppers and people who cannot or do not book in advance, who account for about 40 per cent. of ticket sales. There is a very real fear now that, sooner or later, many of the low-cost regulated tickets will be phased out altogether.

Virgin Trains is the worst offender--perhaps unsurprisingly, since that name comes up regularly in these debates--and recently raised the supersaver on its cross-country network by four times the rate of inflation.

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Virgin argues that it is introducing many new discount offers, but those cheap fares must be booked in advance, can be used only on Virgin trains, are limited by train, number of tickets available and time of day, can be purchased only at main stations or by credit card, are often not available for journeys to and from stations on connecting routes and both outward and return trains must be specified in advance. That is confusing, restrictive and clearly by no stretch of the imagination equivalent to the simple supersaver system.

Virgin is not by any means the only railway company poised to take money from many passengers. Midland Mainline is raising its open first-class return fare from Kettering to Sheffield by 26 per cent. On the politically sensitive west coast main line between London and Glasgow--where passenger complaints run at a startling one for every 100 journeys--there will be rises of up to 19 per cent.

In London, the regulator has already punished rail companies for their dismal performance by ordering them to keep increases below 1.9 per cent.--below inflation. Connex, which operates some of Britain's busiest commuter routes through south London, Kent and Sussex, has got around the restriction by raising the price of cheap day returns--which are not protected by the regulator--by an average of 6.5 per cent.

In my own county, we have been hit by two recent examples. In the spring, Great Western Trains restricted the use of saver tickets, banning them from early and late trains. This meant that passengers using the 5.35 pm from Paddington had to pay £120 return, rather than the previously available £58 saver fare. That is the last train to Penzance. Booking in advance would get passengers a fare reduction, but not everybody can do that. The day return discount remains, but a day return from Cornwall to London is hardly realistic, since it would leave only few hours at most in London. If one cannot book in advance, one must pay far more to travel at reasonable times.

Similarly, in 1995, Great Western planned to withdraw group travel arrangements for school parties from certain services. I took that up and got it reversed but, this October, the company did it again. Schools either pay full fare, or must travel when it is convenient for Great Western. In the case with which I was presented, that meant that people were not travelling on an early train to get home at a reasonable time, and were forced to arrive very late at night. Previously, we got the decision reversed almost immediately I took it up. On this occasion, after two months, Great Western has not even bothered to reply to my representations--despite repeated attempts to chase the company up.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): My hon. Friend is right to say that it is not acceptable to have effective fare increases while punctuality is getting worse. However, does he accept that Great Western--which uses his constituency and mine--is not entirely responsible for some of the difficulties? Some of the punctuality problems lie at the door of Railtrack, rather than the operating company. Does he accept that a survey has shown that only 30 per cent. of punctuality problems are the result of Great Western, while 70 per cent. are the result of Railtrack? Does he agree, therefore, that Railtrack should get its act together and do more to help the companies?

Mr. Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend, and there is time for him to elaborate on that point in a speech, if he wishes.

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The point is well made. There are problems with Railtrack. As a regular user of Great Western, I have relatively few complaints about the quality of service, and the staff do a superb job. However, on fares, Great Western and others have used the unregulated system as a means of making up the costs of the restrictions on regulated fares. That has done a considerable disservice to passengers in Cornwall, who may, on average, end up paying a little less, but do so for a service that is not at the times they want. There is also the risk that, if they cannot travel at those times, they have to pay considerably more.

All the rail companies argue that, by offering advance booking discounted tickets instead of supersavers, they are not penalising passengers, but that is nonsense. The tickets are generally limited in number, more limited in terms of which services are included and require considerable pre-planning. There is no flexibility if those plans go awry.

The railway is traditionally a "turn-up-and-go" carrier--greatly to the benefit of passengers--and the application of an airline pre-booking style arrangement undermines the flexibility of rail travel. Ultimately, that will reduce the flexibility of passengers to use the service and, therefore, the numbers using it. My fear is that, as the ability of the service to take more passengers increases, profits will be taken from the increases, but flexibility will not be restored. Not all passengers can plan their journeys days or weeks in advance--especially the return leg. They therefore have to choose between a loss of flexibility or a higher--sometimes much higher--fare.

Analysis of ticket types by the Central rail users consultative committee revealed larger fare rises for passengers who purchase their tickets at the time of travelling and smaller fare rises for passengers who buy tickets in advance. Fares that could be purchased immediately before travel went up, on average, by 3.4 per cent., while tickets that had to be purchased in advance went up, on average, by 1.8 per cent.

Average fares paid by passengers are often quoted by the rail companies, and by the Government in official responses, on the ground that average fares paid by passengers have fallen. Those fares have fallen slightly in real terms, it is true, but that masks gains for some at the considerable expense of others. There has been an overall reduction in the flexibility of the service that passengers receive. These have not been free cuts: they have been cuts at the expense of the service that passengers get.

The Central rail users consultative committee--the statutory watchdog protecting and promoting the interests of rail passengers--has revealed that nine out of 25 train operators increased prices in real terms in spite of deteriorating performance, punctuality and reliability. It is not even the case that all companies are offering reduced real-terms prices on average. For instance, Connex South Eastern was able to raise fares by an average of 4.4 per cent. during a period when major delays increased by 30 per cent. and cancellations on the Kent coast services rose by a staggering 100 per cent.

A report issued yesterday by the Central rail users consultative committee set out the passenger charter figures for the year ending September 1998, and showed that the proportion of train delays is now 35 per cent. higher than in the year ending March 1997, which marked the completion of franchising. Complaints to the local

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committee network have also continued to rise, and are now more than a third up on the same period last year. In July, August and September of this year, the committee received nearly 5,000 complaints--an increase of 39 per cent. over the same period last year, and a 45 per cent. increase over the April-June total.

In Devon and Cornwall, the South West rail users consultative committee recorded a 200 per cent. increase in complaints last year--the highest in the country, but by no means exceptional. In November, the same committee made one of the more bizarre announcements by the rail industry--almost on a par with "the wrong kind of leaves". It announced that it could not cope with the rising tide of complaints--this is the body set up to receive complaints--and would no longer answer calls in the morning, so that it could deal with the backlog. I suppose refusing to answer the telephone is one way of cutting complaints, but it is not a solution of any help to irate passengers.

Since privatisation, companies have been concentrating their efforts on introducing their own fares, which are available only on their services and from which they keep all the revenue. Revenue from national fares is divided up between the companies. That reduces choice and price competition, and makes arranging travel far more complex.

For inter-city companies, we are moving towards an airline approach--multiple classes, multiple fares and multiple hassle, complication and misery. It is possible with certain companies to pick up cheaper advance fares, but the downside is that the fares structure becomes an impenetrable jungle, which the staff--never mind the passenger--have difficulty in understanding. For example, three different companies operate between Gatwick and central London, offering a total of 36 different standard-class fares.

Rail travellers are now being hit by a further blow: the withdrawal, not for the first time, of cheap travel over Christmas. That is a Scrooge-like measure at this time of year. Supersaver tickets have been cancelled from 18 December to 1 January. With increasing complaints, delays and cancellations, and the certainty of packed trains, the least the rail companies could do this year is to stop being Scrooge and offer a little Christmas spirit by maintaining saver tickets; that is, if anybody can find the right train in the first place: the Christmas timetable should have been available in early October but, like many services, it is running late. Some Christmas journey timetables have still not been published two weeks before Christmas.

Liberal Democrats opposed the Conservative Government's privatisation of the railways because we foresaw problems such as higher fare increases on non-regulated tickets, confused booking arrangements and deteriorating service. We and the Labour party did not believe that privatisation would deliver either a high quality of service or the necessary investment. Since privatisation, quality has indeed continued to decline. Private partnerships to increase investment in the system would have made sense; the botched system that we got did not. No wonder not a single Conservative Member is present for this debate.

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I know that the Government accept that they need to tackle rail companies that continually abuse franchise loopholes, but their commitment to rail travel has so far failed to get legislative backing. I welcome the news that the Deputy Prime Minister announced this week: that, as a result of agreement on the handling of House of Lords reform, the Government hope as a priority to introduce legislation to establish a strategic rail authority. But that is not definite, to say the least, as the Conservative leader clearly has other ideas about that agreement, as we all know.

Frustrated rail travellers this Christmas may well wonder why the Deputy Prime Minister failed to secure the Bill in the Queen's Speech in the first place. They have heard the rail companies blaming the wrong kind of leaves for delays; perhaps this is an example of the wrong kind of Lords.

It is time for action. Welcome as the Government's words have been, non-regulated fares are going up at high speed, despite the fact that more and more trains are late or cancelled. The only answer is high-speed legislation from the Government to sort out the situation in the new year, not a further delay into the new millennium.

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