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Rail Services (London)

11 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Every day last year, more than 460,000 people commuted by rail to central London during the morning peak--3 per cent. more than the previous year's figure. Rail commuting has increased each year since 1993, and Railtrack predicts that it will grow by more than a third over the next 10 years.

How has the rail industry responded to that growth in demand? The answer is, badly. Public performance measures record a decline in the services provided over the past year by nine of the 10 train operating companies that serve London. Vying for pole position for poorest service are Connex and Thameslink. I have a particular interest in those companies. They both provide services to my constituents, as does South West Trains.

Why is the service so bad? Quite simply, the first round of rail franchising had just one aim--to complete the privatisation before the 1997 general election. There was no wider vision or strategy for the development of services or infrastructure. As a result, it is hardly surprising that no plans were made to meet the huge increase in demand for services on all London lines over the past three years.

To top it all, performance standards for the new train operating companies were set at the lowest possible level. Why? Quite simply, so as not to frighten off potential bidders. What the previous Government called "a passengers charter" was a licence for train operating companies to print money and rip off passengers. Although the train operating companies will probably prove the whipping boys in today's debate, the Conservative party should take responsibility for devising a system in which passengers' interests took, at best, second place.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): Does my hon. Friend agree that in the first round of franchises the train companies were appointed to manage a winding down of the industry?

Mr. Burstow : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, the London regional passenger committee's final annual report almost says as much. It was assumed that the rail industry was in long-term, established and irreversible decline. The previous Government lacked ambition for our railway network. This debate relates to that lack of ambition and its consequences.

As a consequence of the previous Government's lack of ambition for our railway system both in London and more generally, the mailbags of many--indeed, probably all--hon. Members, of the rail user consultative committees and of the London regional passenger committee will bear testament to the outrage and anger that many of our constituents feel about their rail services.

It is worth placing on record that the national passenger survey conducted in March of this year revealed that passenger dissatisfaction levels were highest in and around London and the south-east. That is hardly surprising. By any measure, London has some of the worst-performing train operators in the country.

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Examining the 10 London and south-east franchises, a pattern emerges. For example, in the case of punctuality--trains arriving within five minutes of the published time--in ninth and 10th places are Connex South Central and Connex South Eastern, respectively, closely followed by Thameslink. In the case of overcrowding, all 10 companies are operating beyond capacity, and Thameslink, Connex South Central, South West Trains and Chiltern Railways break the shadow Strategic Rail Authority's threshold of 3 per cent. Indeed, until quite recently, my constituency had the dubious distinction of having the most overcrowded service on the entire network--the 7.51 am Thameslink service from Sutton.

In the case of customer satisfaction, in joint ninth place are the two Connex franchises. Finally, in the case of customer complaints, last year, for the first time since privatisation, complaints from passengers in southern England fell. However, one company bucked the trend--Connex, which had a staggering 31 per cent. increase in complaints. In the league table of poor services in London, Connex stands out.

In its final annual report before handing over to the new body established as part of the Greater London Authority, the London regional passenger committee said:

The shadow Strategic Rail Authority should never have acquiesced in the introduction of the summer timetable. Connex South Central is now running 120 fewer trains a day. Although most of the trains deleted from the timetable are off-peak services--that is little comfort to off-peak users--some key rush-hour services to Victoria have been lost, including the 7.16 am and the 7.45 am trains. Services to London Bridge now stop at even more stations, which is exacerbating the overcrowding. Where there were four trains an hour, there are now often only two.

That reduction in services has been caused by a long-running dispute between Connex and ASLEF about overtime working. At one point, one in eight Connex drivers who should have been resting were driving trains. In the wake of the Ladbroke Grove disaster and the attention that is rightly paid to signals passed at danger, it is cause for concern that such dependence on overtime working could have been allowed to develop. I understand that Connex is struggling to make good a shortage of 60 drivers, and that it has 200 drivers in training. However, for my constituents that adds up to yet more overcrowding, more cancellations and more misery. Again, it is the poor passenger who pays for the failures of management and unions to reach any form of understanding.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and I yesterday met the Strategic Rail Authority to discuss refranchising the South Central franchise. We learned that the authority does not plan to impose a new requirement for the franchise to safeguard services if industrial relations are poor. Intractable disputes such as that at Connex should be put to binding arbitration in the public interest. Will the Minister ask the Strategic Rail Authority to examine that proposal? The London regional passenger committee has made a similar suggestion.

I turn finally to the refranchising of the South Central services. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington secured a debate in this Chamber on 11 April. During that debate, I asked the Minister how the transition from the old franchise to the new one would be handled. Unfortunately, the clock was against us and the Minister did not have the time to answer my question. I am sure, however, that he will recall telling the House that, were the refranchising to be aborted, the prospect of Connex continuing to run the South Central franchise until it expired in 2003 would be a second-best solution. I agree. Indeed, many of my constituents believe that Connex offers them a third-rate service.

The Minister will know that speculation in the industry is that if Connex loses the franchise, it will carry on until 2003 regardless. That led to me table written questions to clarify the powers available to Ministers and the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. I asked what powers the SRA has to ensure the smooth and rapid transition to the new franchise. In reply, the Minister wrote:

In other words, Connex would be crazy to play games with the South Central franchise when so much else is at stake. I hope that the Minister is right about that. Certainly, since the story appeared in The Observer a couple of weeks ago, Connex has been at pains to reassure everyone of its good intent and willingness to play ball. Nevertheless, will the Minister assure my constituents and all Connex South Central passengers that should Connex decide to sit on the franchise, for whatever reason, all possible steps will be taken to protect the hard-pressed commuter from any further deterioration in services during the unexpired period of the contract? For example, will the Minister examine ways of imposing the new penalty regime on the company before 2003?

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Before I conclude, I wish to raise three other points that range a little wider than concerns about Connex, although that company provides a substantial chunk of the rail services into London. My first concern is about late night services, or rather the lack of them. The results of an investigation into late-night services by the London regional passenger committee--entitled "Who goes home?"--were published earlier this year. The investigation revealed a wide variation in the times of last trains across the network. In particular, the report reveals that services to my constituency finish early.

I did not need to read the report to learn that because, when I leave the House after a late-night sitting, I know only too well that there is no means of travelling back to my constituency except via Croydon or elsewhere. There is a busy night-time economy in my constituency, where there are many restaurants, pubs and other entertainments, and more people want to go to entertainments in London, so it is unacceptable that the last trains run so early. The report produced by the LRPC contains a useful bar chart; it is a pity that it cannot be incorporated in the Official Report.

The chart shows the proportion of stations beyond zone 1 for which a departure from Leicester square after 23.59 hours is possible. The LRPC obviously decided that Leicester square was the Mecca of entertainment in London and the point from which all people would depart. The chart lists places such as Kensington and Chelsea, Redbridge, Westminster, Barnet, Harrow, Bromley and Sutton, but there are some services after 23.59 hours to every one of the destinations except Sutton, which stands out like a sore thumb. The last service to Sutton from Victoria leaves at 23.34, so one would have to leave Leicester square at 23.09 to catch that train, arriving finally in Sutton at 00.15. That is hardly an especially late time to finish a night out, and many people who work late find it equally frustrating that they are unable to get home. Will the Minister ensure that, in the light of the evidence produced by the LRPC and other evidence that I shall put to him today, the Strategic Rail Authority will examine critically the proposals of Connex and GoVia to secure significant improvements in the times of last trains to Sutton?

My second point concerns future infrastructure investment. London has one of the most extensive suburban rail networks of any city in the world. Despite that fact, the overground system fails to match the frequency, flexibility and reliability of the underground north of the river. There is still a need to develop an integrated turn-up-and-go suburban rail service that gets people into and around London. Orbital movement in south London, especially south-west London, needs particular attention.

The road network is choked; the Minister referred to congestion during the previous debate. The only orbital public transport in south-west London is the 726 bus, which battles its way through bottleneck after bottleneck. I am sure that bus priority has a part to play, and there has been substantial investment in bus priority throughout London, but it is limited by the constraints that restricted road space imposes. Targeted infrastructure investment is required to link Bromley and Croydon and, at Wimbledon, to open new rail

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corridors linking Bromley, west Croydon, Sutton, Wimbledon, Kingston, Twickenham and even Heathrow.

Using radial routes to facilitate orbital movements--going up to Clapham junction, only to travel out again--makes less and less sense given the limits on capacity and the increasing overcrowding. The aim should be to create more direct connections around London as well as improving interchanges between services.

My proposal to the Minister has not been dreamt up for the purposes of the debate. It is the result of a detailed examination by a consortium of local authorities in south-west London, which studied orbital rail proposals. Sadly, the plans developed and published in the early 1990s were stillborn because of the previous Government's lack of ambition for our railways. Will the Minister offer the prospect of a fresh examination of those detailed proposals and their costings to consider whether there is a possibility of capital investment to make them a reality now?

My third point concerns the new penalties and incentives regime that flows from the tighter performance measures. Anyone who uses the railways regularly regards the original passengers charter as a joke. It is deeply flawed. For example, the way in which the capacity and overcrowding statistics are collected leaves a lot to be desired. There is one count a year with an option of a second and it is done on a simple calculation. Its coverage is restricted because it is labour intensive. It gives a limited snapshot of the overcrowding on a fraction of the network.

As part of the refranchising process, all new rolling stock is to be fitted with passenger load-weighting equipment; old stock rolling stock is to be similarly retrofitted. By automating the recording of the information, it will be possible to measure accurately overcrowding across the network. I have no doubt that the introduction of the automated weighing equipment on to trains will lead to jokes about speak-your-weight trains but, jokes aside, it offers the prospect of a much tighter overcrowding monitoring regime.

Will the Minister tell the House when the new regime will come in? Must it await the refranchising process, or is the shadow Strategic Rail Authority considering ways of rolling it out sooner under the existing franchises? Further, will the standards for overcrowding and capacity be tightened still further to ensure that people making journeys of less than 20 minutes duration have a greater chance of getting a seat?

The biggest loophole in the old charter was the discretion given to operators to declare void days, on which no effective service was provided for reasons in the control of the railway industry. When reliability was less than 90 per cent. or punctuality fell below 70 per cent., a company could declare a void day and have the failure excluded from the passenger charter's calculations. That is a bit like a football team losing a match 7-0 and then declaring the game void to avoid relegation.

The new incentives and penalties are broadly double the figures under the current regime. Perhaps that will better concentrate the minds of train operators and will help to drive up performance. However, when will the new regime kick in? On Connex South Central, the latest

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date would be 2003. On south-eastern services and on those provided by London Tilbury Southend Rail, the current franchises run until 2011. Will the Minister say how long passengers will have to wait?

In conclusion, rail services in London need to be improved dramatically. The evidence is there for all to see. The first round of franchises has been a bitter disappointment for passengers. I hope that the Minister will respond to three points in particular. How do the Government intend to secure better industrial relations in the rail industry, especially in the Connex case, a serious industrial relations problem which is inflicting great misery on my constituents? How soon will the new incentives and penalties regime be in operation across the whole network? Will it be achieved piecemeal as new franchises are let or will it be rolled out in advance? Will the Government give serious and favourable consideration to investment in the infrastructure needed to facilitate orbital rail services in south-west London?

What my constituents and, I suspect, what all our constituents want above all from their rail service is a safe, reliable and comfortable journey. They want rail operators that always put the customer's interest first and deliver on their promises. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure my constituents on that point.

11.19 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate and, more importantly, on his comprehensive survey of Connex services and of rail services across London, which has provided me with an opportunity to raise my constituents' concerns about the West Anglia Great Northern service for commuters in north London.

My constituency is very dependent on the railways. It is sandwiched between underground lines--the Piccadilly line to the west and the Victoria line to the east. The bus services travelling in and out of central London do not provide an adequate service because they suffer severely from congestion at peak times, leading to delays for people needing to reach central London in reasonable time. The only practical transport for people travelling to the City and to central London is West Anglia Great Northern.

I travel fairly regularly on the line and am only too well aware of the great frustration and irritation caused to my constituents daily by the delays there. Perhaps I can give hon. Members a flavour of those concerns, by quoting from a letter from Mrs. Margot Wilson. She wrote:

To deal with some of the complaints, at the end of last year, I invited the managing director of West Anglia Great Northern, Euan Cameron, to travel with me and my Enfield colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, North (Ms Ryan) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), on the commuter service to central London. While we were travelling, and in our subsequent meeting at Liverpool Street station, Mr. Cameron admitted to some of the problems and difficulties affecting commuters on the line and, perhaps more importantly, promised action to deal with them.

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Sadly, most of the problems persist, and so do the complaints, as my mailbag well attests. The complaints have increased in recent months.

Another constituent, Mrs. Norma Price, wrote to me about events on Monday 9 June. She told me:

From all the evidence that I have gathered since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have found that three themes constantly emerge in relation to difficulties with services in north London. The first, which is reminiscent of the complaints about Connex South East, is that of repeated delays and train cancellations. Those seem to follow a pattern. Early in the day, during the peak early morning service, slight delays occur, which build up during the day because of the problems of infrastructure and exhausted rolling stock. If they are not checked, they become significant delays by the time of the evening rush hour. Trains are cancelled during the rush hour because of the backlog that has built up.

West Anglia Great Northern's favourite ploy for meeting punctuality targets is for trains not to stop at every station, so that they can reach their destination within the five-minute tolerance margin. That of course causes considerable disruption to people wanting to alight at the station or to catch the train that whizzes through. That matter was raised earlier, and my hon. Friend the Minister was at pains to reassure us that the situation was being monitored. Can he reassure us that the standards of service provision that the train operating companies are supposed to meet are being monitored effectively? Is action being taken when such abuse occurs?

The second area of concern is overcrowding. Substantial overcrowding occurs on trains at peak hours, in both the morning and the early evening. I shall quote from a letter that I received recently, which relates to events that took place on 6 July this year. My constituent states:

The source of the problem there appears to be that there is insufficient rolling stock to provide eight carriages on each peak-hour journey. One might say that that should be a fairly simple objective to achieve, but I discovered that this particular type of rolling stock had been out of production for a considerable number of years and cannot, therefore, be replaced. WAGN has to try to keep exhausted rolling stock going, year in, year out, and is unable to provide eight carriages for each train at peak times. That suggests that the only long-term solution to the problem is investment in new rolling stock, to update the railway system to a standard fit for the 21st century.

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The third problem is a growing fear of crime, both on trains and at stations. Many people in my constituency will not travel on trains after dark. Although some stations now have closed-circuit television, and although WAGN has worked with Railtrack to improve the lighting on the stations, many people still have considerable anxiety about travelling on the railways during the evening.

Mr. Brake : The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that at a rail question time meeting that I organised with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) the issue most frequently raised was security. It was the key concern, even taking precedence over reliability.

Mr. Love : I would certainly echo that. Most of the discussions that I have had with regular commuters involve mention of the time in the evening beyond which they will not use the service. They constantly express a desire for something to be done to address the problem of security, so that they can continue to use the railway as they do during the day.

That problem has been compounded in recent months by a steep increase in muggings in the area, both at stations and on trains. I recently dealt with the case of a constituent whose son had been accosted and threatened on a train. I contacted the British Transport police, and I am pleased to report that an arrest has been made. I welcome that, but there is still a strong feeling in my constituency that we need more preventive action to increase security at stations and on trains.

The most recent debate on WAGN services took place in Westminster Hall on 16 February and was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North. The Minister who responded to the debate said that WAGN passengers

Because of that--and the apparent mismatch between the official statistics that are produced and the unofficial statistics with which we, as Members of Parliament, are continually confronted--I commissioned my own survey. I admit that it is not scientific, and I would be the last person to make any great claims for it, but it covered more than 3,000 commuters in my constituency. I am starting to receive replies, and I shall evaluate the results over the next week or so. There has been great interest

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in the survey and a great desire to contribute to it. From anecdotal evidence, that is because people want to express their concern about the service that is provided. I hope that as a result of the survey we shall be able to set up a local rail users' group, because that is one way in which commuters can have an impact on the service that is provided and can tell Railtrack and the train operating companies about the improvements that people believe to be necessary.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam mentioned long-term investment in the railways network. It is fair to say that both the Government and the train operating companies have argued strongly for the need for a longer time frame in which to allow investment decisions to take place. Indeed, when I spoke to Euan Cameron, the managing director of WAGN, he continually returned to the company's need to have a more secure base on which to grow the business and to invest in the infrastructure that will be needed in future.

Last September, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority was given the power to start to renegotiate franchise agreements. I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that there is great dissatisfaction and unhappiness about what has happened since then. I accept that it is probably appropriate to have a 20-year time frame rather than, as in WAGN's case, a seven-year time frame. However, there are difficulties involved in progressing along that route, and the service continues to deteriorate while we await those changes. Urgent action must be taken to ensure, while the process continues, that the service continues to respond to the needs of local commuters.

Several improvements are required. Trains must run on time and to schedule. The network must be expanded to accommodate increased passenger numbers. The buoyant economy that has been created in Greater London because the Government have got rid of boom and bust--I wanted to get that in--means that a significant number of people travel on the commuter lines. The network must have the capacity for that, and we must respond to the concerns of the passengers on the trains. The rolling stock used on my line dates back to the 1960s, and that is not good enough for the service that we need.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will provide some reassurance that the new franchises will begin to deliver the investment that is critical to the service, and that they will improve commuter services in north London and across the city. I am aware that other areas have even more intractable difficulties than north London, but we all seek a service that is fit for our constituents in the 21st century.

11.35 am

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. He and I have worked closely on commuting issues in the Sutton area. I should say how much I enjoy my Wednesday morning assignments with the Minister, and, yesterday, I was flattered to learn that the Minister does not allow me to intervene during his statements because he is scared that I might ask a difficult question. I hope that he did not tell me that in confidence.

My hon. Friend was right to highlight the role of the previous Conservative Administration in setting such abysmally low standards for the rail industry, in their

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desperation to privatise it. I spoke to a civil servant who was involved in that process, and he told me that he worked until 3 o'clock in the morning, trying to cobble together--he did not use that phrase, but that was my impression of the process--amendments that would be acceptable to hon. Members, so desperate were the Government to get the measure through. My hon. Friend also referred at some length to Connex and the Connex-GoVia franchise negotiations. In addition to those issues, we should consider where responsibility for rail services in London lies and examine the wider franchise negotiation process and the role of the shadow Strategic Rail Authority and the recently announced 10-year transport plan.

Londoners could be forgiven for thinking that the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) is Mr. Big for rail services. He has taken on a gargantuan transport job and has responsibility for the tube, the buses, Croydon tramlink, the docklands light railway and the roads; in fact, he has responsibility for everything except the railways. The provision of rail services in London remains the responsibility of the Strategic Rail Authority, and the hon. Gentleman will have to be satisfied with being consulted on related matters. There must be a question over whether the hon. Gentleman will be satisfied with such an arrangement. His response to the Government's 10-year transport plan, which featured prominently on the front page of the Evening Standard, does not augur well for his relationship with the Government and the impact that that could have on attempts to sort out London's rail service problems.

I hope that the shadow Strategic Rail Authority will be up to the job of sorting out London's rail services. In recent years, debates about transport in London have tended to focus on the tube; it has a high profile, and many of the proposals for its development are controversial. However, large swathes of London--my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam--do not have tube services and local commuters, including me, are entirely dependent on suburban rail services to get to and from London.

As hon. Members will know, passenger numbers on London's suburban rail network have increased by 26 per cent. in the period to 1998-99. My own experience in the past 12 months confirms that that figure continues to rise. Rail travel in London accounts for a massive 38 per cent. of rail travel in the country as a whole. According to the Government's own figures, demand will grow by a further 15 per cent. by 2010, which presents an enormous challenge for the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. In London, the immediate task must be to bring to a successful conclusion the round of rail franchise negotiations. They must be transparent, and there must be extensive consultation with passenger groups, unions, individual commuters, train operating companies and Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend and I are also included in the category of individual commuters, in that we both rely on Connex to get us to and from Westminster each day.

Through the rail question time meeting to which I referred, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and I took what steps we could to inject a degree of public input into the franchise negotiation process. The meeting was well attended, and it was particularly pleasing to discover that Connex and GoVia took it

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seriously. The acting managing director of Connex, Olivier Brousse--he is now the managing director--attended the meeting and gave the presentation. We are doing our bit, and those who attended the meeting felt that it was successful and time well spent.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said, yesterday we met Nick Newton, executive director of the Strategic Rail Authority, and Tony De Burgh. We discussed some issues arising from the rail question time meeting, and those relating to the franchise process. Incidentally, the Conservatives have not challenged our comments on the role of the previous Conservative Government in relation to rail services. During the meeting, the view was expressed that low standards were set and the previous Government made no attempt to ensure that, as part of the franchise process, the performance of the worst lines improved to match that of the best. Instead, franchises were established in such a way that new train operating companies continued to deliver the existing level of service, whether good or bad.

At the meeting, I sought clarification on the way which franchise bids are assessed. Certainly, the travelling public will expect the Strategic Rail Authority to set tough minimum standards when evaluating bids. I was assured that the matter is in hand, and I welcome that. Passengers will also want the franchise renegotiation process to address issues such as security, staffing levels, reliability and frequency of trains. The Strategic Rail Authority will be judged on its ability to deliver improvements in those areas.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam pointed out, Connex South Central has an uphill struggle to meet passenger expectations. The new public performance measure of train operating companies shows that it has a rating of 82.6 per cent. According to the Capital Transport Campaign, that is 4 per cent. less than the previous figure, which makes it the third worst performing train operating company in London. Only Connex South Eastern and South West Trains--which runs a limited service in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend--have worse ratings.

The recent national passenger survey, which was commissioned by the Strategic Rail Authority, showed that London's passengers are far less satisfied with the service provided than passengers in most other parts of Britain.

In London, Connex South Central again fared badly with 33 per cent. of passengers being dissatisfied with the upkeep and repair of trains--the third worst figure in London--and 30 per cent. dissatisfied with the number of seats and the standing room available; that is the second worst figure in London. Passengers need a guarantee that the franchise bidding process will ensure that the situation improves according to a clearly defined, public timetable. That key point was made at our meeting yesterday. Matters could get worse in the short term because the necessary infrastructure projects may have a severe knock-on effect on services. However, if passengers can see clearly that targets have been set and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, I hope that most of them will accept that.

Before the shadow Strategic Rail Authority can award rail franchises, it must put its own house in order. The Capital Transport Campaign recently challenged

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the methodology by which the shadow Strategic Rail Authority assesses overcrowding on London's trains. The criteria used are lenient. On peak services, if the journey is 20 minutes or less, standing is considered acceptable. In broad terms, it is acceptable by shadow Strategic Rail Authority standards to have one passenger standing for every three seats before the train is classed as overcrowded. Will the Minister tell me whether consideration is being given to finding a definition of overcrowding that is more likely to be recognised as valid by those of us who must endure daily overcrowding?

Mr. Burstow : My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to the hitherto lenient regime. Does he agree that it is best characterised as an operator-centred standard rather than a passenger-centred standard and that, in future, it should be based on the perceptions of passengers rather than the needs of the operator?

Mr. Brake : I agree entirely. The extent to which train operating companies in the Sutton area and elsewhere are willing to involve passengers in consultative forums and to take on board exactly those concerns will be crucial.

The Capital Transport Campaign stated:

A limited amount of good news came out of our meeting yesterday. "Speak their weight" trains was one aspect, another being the requirement to fit sanders to new rolling stock and to retrofit on to old rolling stock. Given that many parts of London are affected by bad weather or are subject to inclines that trains cannot manage when the weather is wet, such proposals will be welcome.

Yesterday's meeting prompted several interesting questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam has referred to what will happen if an existing train operator refuses to relinquish the franchise. What will happen if the existing operator seeks such a high price for being bought out by the successful bidder that the successful bidder walks away from the deal because he is not willing to pay the price?

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Given the gross overcrowding on rail services in London, any additional capital or revenue resources available as a result of last week's announcement will be welcome. However, we need significant increases in capacity in the network because of the increased demand that is anticipated. I hope that Crossrail will be built quickly and that Thameslink 2000 can deliver extra capacity. Those schemes must proceed with a degree of care, in that communities might be threatened. I am sure that the Minister will be aware that Southwark is at risk following such proposals and that a public inquiry is taking place at the moment.

Can the Minister guarantee that Crossrail and Thameslink will be delivered and will he outline a timetable for when that will be achieved? The section on transport in London in the 10-year plan suggests that various things might happen given the level of investment that is available and I am sure that hon. Members would want something a little more concrete in respect of what will definitely be delivered. I know that that requires negotiations with the Mayor and the Assembly, but the Minister must know what will be delivered and by what time. The same applies to the upgrade of services into London Victoria, a capacity increase in the Chiltern line and an enhancement of commuter routes from Waterloo.

There are few bigger issues in my mailbag than rail services in London. I am sure that that is the case for all Members of Parliament who represent London consistencies, so I am a little surprised at the attendance at the debate this morning. The 10-year transport plan must generate the extra capacity or it will have failed. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority must ensure that the next generation of franchises delivers consistent improvements in the service or it will have failed, too. It is the Minister's responsibility to reassure us that both the 10-year transport plan and the Strategic Rail Authority will deliver much improved rail services in London.

11.53 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate. Both he and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) made some interesting points, once they had got over their ideological obsession with the railways and their attacks on my party. However, as a resurgent political party, we are bound to be the focus of attacks.

Rail services are important to the people of London. For the sake of the economy and for people to get around, rail is far more important to the capital than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is therefore necessary to get it right. As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said, the Library has produced figures to show that 460,000 people commute to London in the morning peak; that is a lot of people to cope with under the system.

Of the 10 companies providing commuter services to London and operating beyond capacity during peak hours, Thameslink, Connex South Central, South West Trains and Chiltern Railways all exceed the shadow Strategic Rail Authority threshold of 3 per cent. above capacity. There was a total of 610 million journeys on railways in the south-east of England in

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1998-99--1.7 million per day. That number has increased substantially, because of privatisation. The railways were built by the private sector and, for most of their history, were run by the private sector. That is the best way to operate railways.

Until the late 1970s, any investment in British Rail beyond £250,000--which represented, for example, the major refurbishment of a station--had to go to the Secretary of State for Transport. That is no way to run a railway, especially when the resources were, in many instances, competing with hospitals, schools and many other areas that I suspect have a higher priority with the British public. What the previous Government did was a step in the right direction; if there is any argument about it, it is about whether they should have done it earlier. Doing it very late in 18 years of office yielded precious little political dividend for my party. Although it will benefit the country, privatisation did not benefit my party in 1997.

Mr. Burstow : I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's thinking about the benefits of the fragmentation of the railway industry. At what point does he believe benefits will arise? Have they started to arise, or will it be some years before they do?

Mr. Syms : I believe that benefits have started to arise, but I think that it will be a slow job. Inevitably, there were some mistakes in the way in which the industry was privatised. One could argue that franchises should have been given for longer. Shorter franchises, certainly in the new round of franchises, give an opportunity to improve the deal that the public are getting and may be a blessing in disguise.

Mr. Brake : The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that the franchises should have been longer. Could he confirm also that the standards set for the train operating companies to deliver should have been tougher?

Mr. Syms : As with all such matters, it is a question of experience. In any move from the state sector to the private sector, one has to include many methods of measurement of performance targets. The benefits have been coming through; more capital has gone into the industry and more people are travelling by train. As a consequence, much of the increase in complaints has come about because people believe that it is now worth complaining--unlike under British Rail.

Mr. Brake : The hon. Gentleman says that more people are complaining. Is he aware that, in the past few days, Connex has withdrawn the facility for people to e-mail complaints, thereby restricting the way in which people can raise concerns about its service?

Mr. Syms : I was not aware of that, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing it out. I would normally telephone if I had a complaint, rather than e-mail; perhaps that is less common in this modern age.

There are 460,000 people who come into central London every day; of those, nearly 200,000 go onto the tube network. As we all know, the tube network suffers greatly from excess capacity and acute overcrowding in many sections, including the Central line between Mile

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End and Holborn, the Waterloo and City line, the Northern line between London Bridge and Bank, the District line between Fulham Broadway and Earls Court and the Victoria line between Victoria and Green Park. A challenge for the future is to increase investment and capacity within the network.

It is interesting to study what will happen. Railtrack projects that rail travel will increase in the south-east by 36 per cent. The Government's 10-year plan projected an increase in London rail traffic by 15 per cent. over 10 years and, on the underground, by 10 to 20 per cent. There will be significant problems ahead, unless investment in capacity increases. The Government's proposals for congestion charging and workplace car-parking charging will also make matters worse.

I have some questions for the Minister on several points relating, to some extent, to the 10-year plan. The first focuses on his relationship with the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), which has been the subject of some comment in the press. The hon. Member for Brent, East wrote an article for the review section of The Independent on 18 July, which was about his negotiations with the Government about capital. He stated:

We all heard that everything was sweet and wonderful and that there would be a joint press conference and a nice little piccy, but suddenly it all fell apart. As I understand the situation, £3.2 billion has been allocated to London over three years. In the first year, 2001-02, there will be £218 million, of which £104 million has been allocated to paying for the Jubilee line. The Minister is amiable--most of us get on well with him--so what went wrong in his relationship with the hon. Member for Brent, East? It is significant if a substantial political figure such as the Mayor of London is upset with what the Government are doing in terms of overall transport investment. That has a knock-on effect on rail, as the underground will come under the mayoral authority at some point.

Will the Minister update us on the public-private partnership? When is it likely to be announced? Many people come into London, so the tube is vital. The matter has gone on for some time, so we would like to hear the implications that the PPP will have for investment. We are reasonable, and if the Minister cannot give us details this morning, I hope that he will write to us. I am sure that all hon. Members would be interested.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington made a point about Crossrail. Many points in the 10-year plan use "might" and "possible"--it is somewhat airy-fairy. The cost of Crossrail might be £3.5 billion. On page 71, the document claims that there would be the substantial benefit of a 15 per cent. increase in available seats on rail and underground throughout London. When the Government came into power, they dismantled the team at the then Department of Transport that was considering the matter. They have now earmarked some money for work on it, and we want to know whether they are putting their weight behind it. Is there likely to be a start date? What will happen? These points apply also to Thameslink.

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The document suggests that the investment could cover

Mr. Brake : Would the hon. Gentleman like to ask the Minister whether he will use the opportunity to guarantee that London's passengers will not have to pick up the difference if the PPP costs are not entirely covered?

Mr. Syms : I am sure that the Minister heard that comment and will be delighted to answer it.

Having had the 10-year plan with its spin and big announcements of billions of pounds, we need details in relation to rail in London and the underground about how the Government intend to undertake their objectives. As page 72 of the 10-year plan states, the Government want

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not implying that I creep about the place.

Mr. Syms : Certainly not, Mr. McWilliam.

The debate has been useful and it is a pity that more hon. Members have not taken the opportunity to attend because many of them must have mailbags full of complaints on the matter. The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) raised an important point about crime and fear. If we want more people to use the public transport network--especially women, children and families--a lot more must be done to give them a feeling of well-being so that they feel comfortable travelling late at night. CCTV is one method by which that can be achieved. However, staffing levels in stations are an important factor. They would be expensive to improve, but we will have to take a view about whether we should invest in more security. In the long term, that investment would pay off.

I am sure that the Minister will be delighted to answer the few questions that I have asked. We need more details from the Government before we can judge whether they will achieve some of their targets.

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12.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): We have had four interesting speeches in this morning's debate, raising several questions to which I will attempt to respond. However, I must first congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate and providing the House with another opportunity to discuss rail services in London.

The scale and complexity of London's transport system, coupled with the high levels of demand, mean that transport problems in London are of a different magnitude from those in other metropolitan areas and constitute a huge challenge to the people who attempt to solve them. London is provided with commuter services by 10 out of the 25 train operating companies: Chiltern, Connex South Eastern, Connex South Central, South West Trains, Thames Trains, Thameslink, Silverlink Trains, West Anglia Great Northern, c2c--formerly known as the London, Tilbury and Southend railway--and First Great Eastern.

Better to assess the performance of those companies and other train operating companies, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority has introduced an improved public performance measure, known as PPM. That measure, for the first time, combines figures for punctuality and reliability into a single performance measure, which covers all scheduled services, seven days a week, with no exclusions. That will give a clearer picture of how train operators are performing, and remove the loopholes in the previous system, such as the use of void days. I hope that that provides my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) with the assurances that he was seeking about the proper monitoring of train operators' performance in service delivery.

In his usual assiduous fashion, my hon. Friend raised two other issues on behalf of his constituents. He mentioned the problem of trains missing stops to make up time. Let me assure him that the situation is being monitored and train operating services are penalised under the timetable incentives regime. The provision exists, and I recommend that he pursues the question of the performance of his local service and asks whether such penalties have been levied.

My hon. Friend also raised the important issue of security on stations and trains. As one of its commitments at the February 1999 national rail summit, the Association of Train Operating Companies guaranteed to provide closed-circuit television in a significant number of stations and station car parks. That it has done over the past 18 months. It is planning to introduce more this year and it has also recruited additional security staff at stations and provided a more visible staff presence on board trains. Again, I am pleased to be able to assure my hon. Friend about the response from the train operating companies to the issues that he is raising.

The performance figures based on the new public performance measure for the period April-June 2000 were published on 13 July. The House will be aware that the statistics showed that the overall performance of the majority of train operators fell compared with the equivalent period in the previous year. Of the operators providing commuter services to, from and within

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London, only the peak services of Chiltern and South West Trains have improved. The Government have made it clear to operators that their performance must improve and, at the rail summit 2000 in May, the industry committed itself to improve performance over the coming year as monitored by the new performance measure, and we expect it to deliver that commitment.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) referred to overcrowding. As well as punctuality and the reliability of London services, it is clear that overcrowding is regarded by passengers as a key area of concern. The hon. Gentleman asked me a specific question about it and I can say that the latest figures produced by the SSRA show that passengers experience excessive overcrowding on routes operated by four out of the 10 train companies that serve the capital. Thameslink, Connex South Central, South West Trains and Chiltern all exceeded their peak loading thresholds.

However, Thameslink has more than halved its overcrowding levels compared with 1998 by leasing additional rolling stock from other operators to meet peak-hour demand. As for other operators, South West Trains is currently introducing new rolling stock; Chiltern has ordered 19 additional coaches, 10 of which are due to be in service later this summer and Connex South Central has ordered 120 coaches. Further improvements are clearly necessary, however, and the provision of adequate capacity to meet customer demand is a fundamental requirement in the franchise replacement process that is currently under way.

Mr. Brake : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill : Will the hon. Gentleman let me finish what I was about to say? It might satisfy his voracious appetite for information.

Earlier this year, the franchising director stated in his outline guide to franchise replacement that the current upper and lower capacity limit will be replaced by a single demand limit, which will reflect the capabilities of the trains and infrastructure. There will also be regular surveys to show satisfaction ratings for each company with penalties for those companies that fall behind benchmark levels. I hope that I have gone some way towards anticipating the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but if he still wants to intervene, let me say that, notwithstanding his earlier remarks, my door is always open.

Mr. Brake : I thank the Minister. I am pleased to hear that his door is always open and I shall perhaps make use of it in the future. However, he has not said whether he agrees with the Capital Transport Campaign that a further two operators, to all intents and purposes, have exceeded their overcrowding limits.

Mr. Hill : We are studying the campaign's observations, as we look at any reasonable observation about railway performance. However, I must issue a caution to the hon. Gentleman. I have noticed in these and other matters that he has a slight tendency to act as a conveyer belt for pressure group representations. In all

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candour, I must say that that if he or his party ever have a sniff of power, it will want to look more carefully at what demands are reasonable and deliverable.

Mr. Burstow : One other matter that I raised in my opening remarks related to the introduction of the load weighting equipment on trains as part of the refranchising process. I asked whether that would be introduced ahead of franchising or whether it had to be dealt with as part of the refranchising process.

Mr. Hill : The reason why I have not responded to the hon. Gentleman's point is that I do not know the answer, but I shall pursue the matter and write to him and to other hon. Members.

As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam will be aware, following the issuing of instructions and guidance to the franchising director by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister last year, the franchising director is currently seeking to deliver a range of additional improvements by negotiating the replacement of the shorter franchises. A continual increase in performance and in customer satisfaction will be key requirements of any replacement.

The franchises that I mentioned earlier for Connex South Central, Chiltern, GNER and South West Trains have been included by the franchising director in the first two batches to be renegotiated. For Connex South Central, the franchising director is currently assessing the detailed bids submitted by Connex Rail and GoVia. For Chiltern, he is similarly assessing bids from M40 Trains and Go-Ahead. There is no fixed time scale within which decisions on those franchises will be reached.

I thought that I detected a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Connex's claim to the new franchise on the part of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. From the serene smile that I see playing about his lips, I gather that that is the case. That is in contrast to the passionate support for Connex's claim from his colleague the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who I thought was the official Liberal Democrat spokesman on rail. It would be helpful to have some clarification of the official policy of the Liberal Democrats on the matter, or are we to deduce that this is another example of the usual Lib-Dem fence sitting?

Mr. Brake : By way of information, the official Liberal Democrat spokesman on transport is an hon. Member who represents a Scottish constituency. I am the official London transport spokesman. Has the Minister not illustrated that the Liberal Democrats are not slaves to the bleeper, as are Labour members?

Mr. Hill : A good attempt, but it did not quite work. I am amused to discover that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is another Liberal Democrat official spokesman. The hon. Gentleman's party prides itself on its independence of spirit, but it has more Front Benchers and Whips than any other party. However, I must not be seduced into parliamentary jousting.

To get back on-message and to deal with the question raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam about any possible changeover, as I have already explained to

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him in a written answer, the revised template for franchise agreements produced by the franchising director offers improved provisions for the smooth transfer at the end of the franchise. It goes without saying that the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority will take all possible steps to protect the rail customer in the event of any such changeover.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether there would be any penalty regime for Connex before 2003. The Transport Bill will provide enhanced enforcement powers to ensure timely and effective action if franchise commitments are not met. I hope that that further reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Burstow : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill : I will give way, but I have much more to say and little time in which to say it, so let us make the exchange brief.

Mr. Burstow : I am grateful to the Minister. As a champion of my constituents and commuters, rather than as an advocate for GoVia or Connex in the franchise round, does the Minister agree that the important thing is to secure a smooth and speedy transition between the old and new franchises and to go into the new regime of penalties and incentives to get a better performance out of the new company?

Mr. Hill : I certainly agree that any changeover should be as smooth as possible. Clearly, I am not in a position to comment on the issue of speed, but all of us are looking for significant improvements from the franchise replacement renegotiation process in the delivery of rail services, not only in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman but in my constituency of Streatham, both of which are served by Connex South Central.

Four bids for the South West Trains franchise have been received. The franchising director will consider them and provide a shortlist giving detailed proposals, which he hopes to announce shortly. Two counter-parties remain in the on-going bidding process for the Great North Eastern Railway east coast franchise.

The Thameslink franchise will be subject to renegotiation in due course. The negotiations will take into account the proposed plans for a Thameslink 2000 project, currently the subject of a Transport and Works Act 1992 inquiry, and the proposed award of a replacement for the existing Connex South Central franchise. On 26 June, the franchising director announced that he had invited potential operators to submit proposals for a new Thameslink 2000 franchise.

In all cases and in consultation with other bodies such as the British Railways Board, local authorities and regional planning bodies, the franchising director will evaluate the proposals made by the counter-parties and will take into account the various costs and benefits before reaching his decision. I can assure the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that the franchising director will decide entirely objectively.

In the time remaining to me, I would like to bring the Chamber and, via the debate, the residents of Sutton and Cheam, up to date on positive developments with

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regard to stations in that area. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam raised the issue in debate only two months ago. There is good news; I am sure that we would all wish to rejoice together where there is good news. I am happy to inform the Chamber that, after lengthy delays, the extensive redevelopment of Sutton station has started and is expected to be complete by the end of the year, when it will be fully accessible for disabled passengers.

The £2.9 million regeneration programme is a joint partnership between Connex and the London Borough of Sutton. It will include new waiting areas in key locations, spacious new toilet facilities with wheelchair access, glass-fronted lifts for improved personal safety, closed circuit television, improved lighting and customer information screens. I understand that Connex customers are being kept informed of progress by way of posters and fliers.

Work has now recommenced at Cheam station as part of Railtrack's regeneration programme, which will include reglazing the station canopies and repainting and refurbishing the station subways. Additional closed circuit television has been installed in the past two months. Connex will be carrying out further works, including reopening the waiting rooms and toilets, opening a small refreshment and newspaper outlet, supplying additional staff in the afternoons and evenings and opening a staffed information point on the London-bound platform. The work is due to be completed by November this year. I have asked the shadow Strategic Rail Authority to monitor progress at both stations. I hope that that offers some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.

I could respond in some detail to the speech made by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), the official Opposition spokesman and my old jousting partner. I know that he is a reasonable man, but he will surely agree that the privatisation of the railways, masterminded by the Conservative party, led to a fragmented mish-mash of 100 or so companies working in a strategic vacuum with a predominant culture of blame. The customer was clearly not being put first.

To reverse that change in the short term, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister called the first national rail summit in February 1999, when he put the industry on notice that its various parts would either sink or swim together. It is generally accepted that that message got through. For the longer term, the Strategic Rail Authority, under Sir Alastair Morton, was created in shadow form to give the railways the strategic direction that they lacked, to invest in the railway network and to bring together plans for freight traffic. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the Transport Bill, which has just had its Second Reading in the other place, will create the proper Strategic Rail Authority.

We have achieved much in the railway industry during the three years since the general election. I believe that the policy framework is right and that, with the 10-year plan, we have secured the investment necessary for the future growth of the railways, reversing decades of decline. Among our achievements, I would single out a 17 per cent. increase in rail passenger journeys, with 1,300 more trains running daily to meet demand; more than double the investment in the railway industry; the rescuing of the channel

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tunnel rail link; the improvement of nearly 2,000 stations and the building of 17 new stations; the creation of 50 new freight terminals; a 22 per cent. increase in the movement of freight by rail; and the replacement of the old slam-door stock at latest by 2003, with the requirement that all new rolling stock should be accessible to disabled people. We need no lessons from the Opposition on how to run a railway. We are greeting the new millennium with a real rail renaissance.

I shall speak briefly about London and the 10-year plan--[Interruption.] I do not have time to give way, and I have been reasonably generous in allowing interventions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam will be aware of the extra Government investment heralded by the launch of our 10-year plan. The plan is designed to reduce congestion, improve integration and provide a wider choice of quicker, safer and more reliable travel on our railways, roads and other public transport. It is a significant milestone on the way to realising our transport policy, and it is relevant to today's debate.

During the next 10 years, we expect to see capital investment in the railways of about £49 billion, of which £34 billion is expected to be private investment. That will have a significant impact on rail services in London. As well as helping to deliver rail franchise replacements, which will lead to the upgrading of services out of Victoria station, increases in capacity for the Chiltern line and the enhancement of commuter routes out of Waterloo station, that extra money could deliver also the completion of the Thameslink 2000 project, extra capacity at London Bridge and the construction of the east London line extensions.

That investment could also help to deliver a new east-west rail link, such as Crossrail, delivering an increase of up to 15 per cent. in the total number of rail and underground seats into central London during the morning peak hours, as well as new east Thames road and rail crossings. In addition, the plan provides for preparatory work on longer-term projects, such as a possible Wimbledon-Hackney rail link, and improving the surface access to London's airports.

Allied to infrastructure enhancements, about £7 billion of the £49 billion is expected to be invested in new and replacement rolling stock. That forecast takes into account expected growth in the railways over the next 10 years and known orders placed by train companies. It also assumes that replacement of existing rolling stock will continue during the second half of the 10-year plan period.

Everyone acknowledges that not all the challenges that the rail industry faces can be solved overnight. There are large loans to sustain and long-term investment is required to upgrade infrastructure and rolling stock, to cater for the continued growth that is forecast and to ensure that sufficient additional capacity is not only planned but provided in the longer term. That is true for rail services across the board. I am delighted about the continued success of franchise renegotiation--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Time is up.

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