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17 Dec 2002 : Column 680continued
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The Strategic Rail Authority has asked for best and final offers to be submitted by bidders in February 2003. It expects that a preferred bidder will be announced in spring 2003.
Mr. Llwyd : Bearing it in mind that Wales has the worst railway services in the whole of the UK in terms of frequency, punctuality and so on, what does the Minister think will be the ultimate effect of the direction from the SRA to cut the franchise bids by 20 per cent? In a rural context, common sense dictates fewer services.
Mr. Spellar: The SRA has actually asked bidders to look at what would happen under reduced subsidy levels. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Wales received a subsidy last year of 14.3p per passenger kilometre, compared with a national average of 3.4p. The SRA is saying that companies should be looking at how they can bear down on their costs. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the train operators, Network Rail and the contractors must consider how the public
Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the advent of an all-Wales rail franchise should not diminish the importance of services into England? Does he share my profound regret that a town such as Wrexham, the capital of north Wales, still does not have a decent rail service to London, which is a constant drain on the developing industry there?
Mr. Spellar: I fully accept my hon. Friend's point with regard to Wrexham. North Wales will benefit from the upgrade of the west coast main line, which will significantly improve journey times to north Wales. My hon. Friend will also be aware that in co-operation with the Welsh Executive, we have been looking at improving the road network in that area. I accept that there will be further problems to deal with. There have been decades of under-investment, which we cannot remedy overnight. We are, however, taking significant steps in that direction.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Minister knows that First Great Western recently put forward a proposal to link Wales to London by high-speed line. The Strategic Rail Authority gave that proposal a very negative response. Is it now the Government's policy that the private sector should not be involved in developing ideas for the enhancement of the rail infrastructure?
Mr. Spellar: No, we are certainly not saying that. The SRA is clearly saying to train operators, and rightly so, that their first priority must be to ensure that the franchises that they already have run efficiently and effectively, are reliable and provide customer satisfaction. There is much work to be done in the future as regards enhancements, but the key thing is to run the system as it is in order to cater for the travelling public and for freight. Train operators should be focusing all their efforts on that. Once we have got that sorted out, they should look at future enhancements.
Regulations requiring access for disabled people, including wheelchair users, to new trains, buses and coaches have been introduced. We have also accepted the recommendations on transport made by the disability rights taskforce and recently issued the first of two consultation documents on proposals to implement them.
Mr. Clarke : I thank my hon. Friend for his generous reply. Will he focus in particular on access to buses to ensure that the appropriate equipment is made available and is constantly monitored? Will he also bear in mind the need for disability awareness training, especially for drivers?
Mr. Jamieson: The Government share my right hon. Friend's commitment to providing accessible public transport and full access for disabled people. That relates especially to buses. As he probably knows, since December 2000, all new buses have had to comply with the needs of disabled people. We recognise that the matter involves not only improving trains or buses, but the training of the people who deliver the services. We have placed a duty on drivers to give appropriate assistance to disabled people from October this year. I am aware of a number of training scheme initiatives for bus drivers that will assist in improving services for disabled people.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I know that the Minister is aware that many of the essential inter-island lifeline services in my constituency are provided using Islander aircraft, which have access difficulties for people with some disabilities. Can he give my constituents some assurance that those lifeline services will be protected when the regulations take effect in 2005 and that we will not be left with a situation in which one size is supposed to fit all?
Mr. Jamieson: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are considering those matters, especially in the consultation that is taking place now and in the coming year. We want to ensure that we get it right. I can assure him that there is a total will to ensure that all public transport facilities are fully available to disabled people. We welcome and listen to the views of disabled groups, including lobbying groups, which make very important representations to us, and I will bear in mind the points that he makes.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Richard Branson gets a lot of stick from us[Interruption.] Indeed, but I travelled on one of the spanking new voyager trains from Preston to Bristol only a few days ago and was staggered at how sophisticated they are. There is even signage in Braille in the toilets and elsewhere. Will the Minister pass on those good ideas from the voyager train, which could be picked up by other train operating companies?
Mr. Jamieson: I am sure that the Virgin operators will read Hansard and take note of what my hon. Friend says. As he will know, the SRA has a code of practice that takes into account the needs of disabled people, especially in respect of new rolling stock and the refurbishment of existing rolling stock. I, too, have travelled on some of the new Virgin trains and I concur that they are excellent not only for disabled people, but for all passengers.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The figures published by the Strategic Rail Authority on 12 December show that overall performance between July and September of this year was better than for the equivalent period last year. However, much more needs to be done to drive up reliability and the SRA is leading work systematically to address the problems that cause delay on the network.
Mr. Heath : Much more certainly needs to be done, given that since the advent of this Government, delays have doubled and cancellations have increased by more than half. As it is very often not the rail operating companies that are at fault, but the track and infrastructure, will the Secretary of State answer the question that was put to him earlier, but which he failed to answer: how will interests of the travelling public be assisted by cancelling even more services, reducing maintenance and increasing fares?
Mr. Darling: As the hon. Gentleman asked the question, let me answer it. The delays to trains are caused in a proportion of roughly half and half by problems on the track and problems in the train operating companies, which are currently responsible for about 48 per cent. of all delays. If one asks what the causes are on the part of the companies, one sees that 45 per cent. of them relate to problems with the train fleetthat is, reliability and maintenance problems.
Some 12 per cent. relate to stations and problems in getting the trains away, and 18 per cent. relate to problems in relation to crewing. All those are management issues, so it does not necessarily follow that if we give the train operating companies more and more money, we will get a better service. As I made clear in my earlier reply, we must get a grip on costs and drive up the performance of management to get a better standard. I should have thought that all Members of the House, even Liberal Democrats, would sign up to that.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Can my right hon. Friend explain why the Strategic Rail Authority has handed vast amounts of money to Connex, which is probably one of the most reviled managements in the whole railway system, and in whose interest it was to allow those people to continue, because they manifestly are not doing any of the things that my right hon. Friend has asked them to do?
Mr. Darling: In relation to Connex, the House and my hon. Friend will know that the decision has been taken to bring the franchise to an end earlier than would otherwise have happened. The reason that it has run forward to 2006 is, first, because that line is about to receive a lot of new rolling stock, and a new company coming in coupled with new rolling stock might have been problematic. Secondly, I came to the viewI have to authorise those things at the end of the daythat the cost of taking the Connex operation back in-house would probably have been higher than that of