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Ms Jackson: The hon. Gentleman introduces the subject of rolling stock companies. If I get started on that subject, any benefits the House has gained from the Adjournment starting sooner than expected would totally disappear. It was surely one of the most crass aspects of rail privatisation that the rolling stock companies were sold off at a fraction of their real worth, and entirely outside the regulatory system. Orders are now being laid, and new rolling stock will come on to our railways, but that is not before time.

The pieces of good news that I recounted at the start of my speech will be of little comfort to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, as many of his constituents have seen their fares increase by more than inflation. Last summer's decision by Wales and West Passenger Trains to ban cheap day returns to several popular holiday resorts in Cornwall might have made sense to the train operating company and helped it to manage overcrowding, but it is a bitter pill for passengers, many of whom are totally reliant on those rail services for their own essential travel. In addition, I very much doubt that high local fares benefit the Cornish local economy, dependent as it is on tourism and holiday travel.

I know that Great Western Trains has also made changes to its fares for journeys between London and Cornwall. I am aware of concern about the fact that saver tickets are no longer available for use on the popular 5.30 pm departure from Paddington--a point raised by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell. However,

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I understand that Great Western Trains has made arrangements to accommodate day travellers from Cornwall to London by other means, including a flexible all-day services day return ticket and the super advance fare.

I would be surprised and disappointed if train operators did not consider different ways of meeting the needs of their passengers, and providing them with good value for money for the journeys they wish to make. As well as meeting the fares regulation requirements, train operators must show the franchising director that they are improving their customers' satisfaction with the service and value on offer.

Mr. Matthew Taylor: As the rail regulator and Great Western will undoubtedly refer to this debate, it is important to make it clear that a day return from Cornwall is no substitute for a saver fare, because few people will make the round trip to London in a single day. The time is very limited. The only real option is the advance fare, and not everyone is able to make use of it.

Ms Jackson: It is entirely probable that the rail regulator and Great Western Trains will attempt to obtain a copy of the Official Report to read this debate. If they do not, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall certainly bring it to their attention.

Recent research has shown that, on average and in real terms, fares overall have been falling since privatisation. From January 1999, key fares such as saver tickets, unrestricted standard returns where there are no savers, and all standard weekly season tickets, will be capped at 1 per cent. below the rate of inflation. They will remain capped for each of the next four years.

In the London, Edinburgh and Cardiff areas, where there is significant commuting and the railways exercise considerable monopoly power, all standard season tickets and a range of standard singles and unrestricted standard returns are also capped. For non-lnterCity London commuter fares, the fares cap can be adjusted further to reflect the quality of service provided by operators--a point made by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell.

With the exception of Silverlink trains, the average permitted increase in London commuter fares has been capped below the rate of inflation, to reflect falling performance levels over the last year. That means a reduction in real terms for passengers. However, as many passengers have told me, they want reliability more than anything else: they want the train to be there when they arrive at the station, and they want to be sure that it will arrive at its destination at the advertised time.

Passengers expecting the usual January fares increase will have been surprised by Connex Rail's announcement last week that it would be reducing the cost of many commuter rail fares in the south-east. Connex Rail's decision should help to make rail travel more attractive and encourage people to leave their cars at home--and every hon. Member who has spoken this evening has stressed the desirability of that outcome. I strongly welcome that move, and I hope that it will mark the beginning of a trend to attract more passengers with value-for-money fares across the rail network.

I also welcome moves by train operators to promote discount fares such as Apex--I know that the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell does not share my

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view of that method of selling tickets--and other advance-booked products to attract people to their services, particularly in off-peak hours, when space capacity currently exists. As a result, passengers are using the cheapest tickets more than ever before.

The take-up of journeys made by purchasing Apex and similar advance-booked tickets has increased by 40 per cent. in two years. Indeed, the increase in the average fare paid between April 1996 and April 1998 was only 3 per cent.--below the rate of inflation. Popular discount railcard schemes--the senior railcard, the young persons railcard and the disabled railcard--which allow reduced rail travel for holders have also been protected by the franchising director.

One of the obvious failures of rail privatisation has been the perceived lack of a clear, understandable, national fares structure. Although I welcome many of the new and innovative fares introduced by train operators, they have led to a multiplicity of different and frequently changing fares for similar services, with, in some cases, complex and varied conditions--for example, in relation to advance booking.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I want to try to ensure that every hon. Member from Cornwall speaks tonight, so I shall relate to the Minister an experience that I had a few weeks ago when I was trying to book a ticket.

I waited in the queue for about 20 minutes with nothing else to do, so I decided to time the people standing at the full inquiry desks, where three clerks were trying to work out fares. That is difficult for the public to do. Even the clerks, poring over computer screens and huge books, were taking five to six minutes to deal with each inquiry. Surely there is a better method, whether it uses a paper or computer system. Inquiries about the best ticket for a particular journey must take less time. To stand in a queue for nearly half an hour, as I did, while clerks spend five to six minutes on each inquiry will clearly put people off travelling at all.

Ms Jackson: It may be of some comfort to the hon. Gentleman to know that the Association of Train Operating Companies is engaged in producing a high-tech system that will mean that the wait to which he was subject, and which many would-be rail travellers suffer, will be a thing of the past. I am in no position to say when that system will come on line, but it will do so. Of course, as I have said, that does not attack the problem of the multiplicity of fares and people's sheer inability to understand how they are arrived at, which we want to be addressed.

Mr. Baker: Before the Minister concludes--she seems to be coming to the end of her remarks--will she respond to my earlier point about the quality of response from national rail inquiries in dealing with the multiplicity of fares, which is diminishing so that they can meet their targets of answering a call on time?

Ms Jackson: The hon. Gentleman should have more faith--I intended to deal with that issue before I

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wound up. As he has pushed me, I say to him that we are disappointed that the rail regulator has had occasion, yet again, to impose stinging fines on the Association of Train Operating Companies over the failure of the national rail inquiries system. I have regular meetings with the association, and I assure all hon. Members who have spoken that I will raise with the association the issues that have been mentioned tonight.

I am concerned about the complexity that passengers often face when booking an apparently simple journey. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) related a direct personal experience of that. I am particularly concerned that there may be instances of passengers paying more than they should or receiving inaccurate advice about the service and routes they may use. As I said, we can do little to change the current fares arrangements in the short term, and I do not want to deprive passengers of many popular bargain fares that are now widely available. However, it is surely not too much to ask train operators to make sure that they correctly advise passengers on every occasion.

When I and my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Transport met train operators and Railtrack last month, we made it clear that we expect progressive year-on-year improvements from the industry starting over the next 12 months. Passengers want an efficient, reliable and reasonably priced rail service. I assure the House that we shall do everything in our power to ensure that train operators redouble their efforts to deliver a good service at a reasonable price.

I shall discuss with the train operating companies the issues that have been raised, including that of school parties, which the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell mentioned. That could be addressed. There are considerations of capacity but, as the hon. Member for Bath, who I regret is not in his place, has said, Railtrack has failed adequately to invest in certain parts of the network. We have discussed the failure of the rolling stock companies to provide new stock.

Although we argued against rail privatisation, as did Liberal Democrats, we have to acknowledge that we are where we are. We have to move forward. Vast amounts of public money are still going into our railways. I was interested to hear that the hon. Member for Lewes has opted for our approach to this. Money put into roads was deemed by the previous Administration to be investment, but money put into railways was subsidy. We totally reject that argument.

For a variety of reasons, not least the environment and economic sustainability, we are committed to ensuring that our railways carry more passengers and more freight. We have made it abundantly clear to the train operating companies and to the entire railway industry that there is potential for a renaissance in our railways, but it will be achieved only by everybody working together. If we need to push and shove a little, the Government are determined to do that.

Question put and agreed to.

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