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3 Mar 2004 : Column 1019

Rail Services (Worcestershire)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

7.38 pm

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): One of the more perverse myths spread about by the Labour party is the notion that the failings of the railway services in Worcestershire and elsewhere are the result of the privatisation of the railways in 1994. The reverse is closer to the truth. Before privatisation, the railways were in an apparently terminal decline: all the talk was of cuts and closures of railway lines. In particular, an axe hung permanently over the line that links Worcestershire with London Paddington, often known as the Cotswold line, which passes through the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), both of whom I am delighted to see here tonight. The word at the time was that the line was kept open only because four Transport Ministers and former Transport Ministers used it. If so, that fragile safety net comprised Lord Walker, predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire in his previous constituency; Nicholas Ridley, then the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury; Lord Caithness, who lived somewhere in the Cotswolds; and your humble servant, who at that time represented South Worcestershire in Parliament. However fanciful that theory may appear, the state-run railways clearly turned passengers off and, under the doubly malign grip of Whitehall bureaucracy and powerful trade unions, were heading for oblivion.

Privatisation brought about two major changes. First, there was a massive programme of investment in the industry, and £24 billion has been made available since 1994, much of which has come from resources not provided by the taxpayer. Secondly, foundations were laid for a serious attempt to attract passengers back to the railways, beginning with a new and, at the time, unfamiliar politeness on the part of ticket collectors. Passengers started to be treated as desirable customers rather than as necessary appendages of the service. Above all, in Worcestershire, there was a marked increase in the frequency of services, particularly on inter-city routes.

The results were highly successful in attracting passengers. Since privatisation, passenger journeys on the service operated by Central trains between Birmingham and Hereford have risen by 25 per cent., and the rise on the service operated by the Cotswold line is an astonishing 51 per cent. That significant increase in passenger demand has, however, been achieved at a price. Previously, the problem was lack of customers, leading to cutbacks in services, which were a further deterrent against usage, but now the growing problem is excessive demand, for which the available capacity of rolling stock and track is insufficient. Trains are overcrowded, especially at peak times, and the track is congested and arguably overused. Congestion blackspots that affect Worcestershire are particularly acute around Birmingham. All of that has led to delays, cancellations and disruption for many of my constituents and, I am sure, those of my hon. Friends. Last week, 150 people turned out to voice their concerns

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about rail services in a public meeting in Malvern organised by the Malvern Gazette. A dramatic fact emerged at that meeting: a poll of 100 commuters on a route between Worcester and Hereford showed that four out of 10 journeys were more than half an hour late. If I need to make a morning meeting in London, I travel the day before, even though the morning timetable promises to get me there on time. As for timetables, no one is fooled by the proposal to lengthen journey times to meet punctuality targets.

The Government's response, perhaps predictably, is to blame the private operators, turn back the clock and initiate a new process of centralisation which, in some respects, amounts to renationalisation. The Strategic Rail Authority has therefore been created, with powers that go well beyond those of a regulator. All investment decisions and every improvement to the system has to be approved, if not initiated from the centre, by the SRA. We now have the worst of all worlds: final decisions are taken remotely behind closed doors and are subject to complex bureaucratic conditions. We really have returned to the worst characteristics of a nationalised system.

The potential for delay, muddle and bureaucratic cost is self-evident. Let us consider a proposal—in fact, such a scheme is in the pipeline—to improve substantially the facilities offered by Worcester Shrub Hill station by providing a parkway. Three distinct organisations would be directly involved in such a decision. The SRA would effectively decide on the investment, which would be owned by Network Rail and operated by the franchised train operator—in this case, Central trains. The mind boggles at the prospective paper pushing between those three entities before a final decision is taken at the centre.

The complexity and remoteness of the new command structure has particularly serious implications for the major investment decisions that are now badly needed to solve Worcestershire's railway problems, the most important of which is the need to redual track where single lining was imposed under a nationalised system. The parts that most affect my constituents are the Colwall tunnel, the line between Ledbury and Hereford, where Central trains has a franchise running between Birmingham, Worcester, Malvern and Hereford, and, on the Hereford-to-London route, the line between Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh.

The latter is a particularly serious deficiency. The fact that trains constantly have to wait at Evesham, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, and at Moreton-in-Marsh, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, in order for the line to be free is one of the major reasons for the lateness of the service between Worcestershire and London when it occurs. The Minister seemed to acknowledge the importance of dualling in a comment that he made in the House on 6 January this year. It is essential to the smooth running of the Cotswold line that dualling of the Evesham and Moreton-in-Marsh section be undertaken as a matter of urgency. Similarly, at the public meeting organised by the Malvern Gazette, the importance of dualling the stretch of line between Ledbury and Hereford and the Colwall tunnel was acknowledged by passengers and by the operating companies. The potential for buck-

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passing between Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Government is very clear, as is the centralised nature of the decision-making process.

It is not only investment decisions that are badly affected by the new management system: there is also the problem of central interference with the daily operations of the train companies. A good recent example relates to the proposed scheduling of trains on the Cotswold line following First Great Western's winning of the new franchise on the line. The train operator originally proposed a schedule of through services of trains running direct to London. That schedule would have equalled, if not improved on, existing frequencies, which have been a major factor in drawing customers back to the line. Following interference from the Strategic Rail Authority, the proposal now seems to be to terminate more trains at Oxford, which will be highly disruptive to passengers travelling from Worcestershire or Gloucestershire up to London. That major deficiency was caused not by the train operators, but entirely by the Strategic Rail Authority's intervening on their proposals and making them worse—not, I suspect, on grounds of cost savings, but simply interfering for the sake of it.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend wish to emphasise to the Minister the very serious consequences that changing at Oxford can have for overall usage of the line? As we all know, trains cannot wait at Oxford to make connections because of the single-line sections between Oxford and Worcester. The consequence will be that people miss trains and connections and stop using the Cotswold line.

Sir Michael Spicer: My hon. Friend is right. I hope that the Minister will be able to have a word in somebody's ear. Part of the problem is that we do not know whose ear it should be. We do know, however, that the Strategic Rail Authority blocked the proposal and that the new franchise will be based on a worse proposal. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend about the great difficulty caused by the infrequency of trains out of Oxford—certainly, they do not run to London as frequently as they would on a through-train basis.

There is a reverse gear feeling about this problem, as though the former nationalised service were operating again. It would be highly regrettable if it were to become the start of a new policy of cutting back on services. That is exactly what has been implied: it is clear from the new timetable that the frequency of services is to be cut. That is particularly likely if the faults on the new Adelante trains that the National Audit Office recently identified persist.

Worcestershire rail services do not need the imposition of the centralised might of the Strategic Rail Authority; they need the transparency and accountability to passengers that goes with a decentralised, locally accountable, well-motivated system. If we made one mistake in government when we privatised the railway industry, it is probably that we did not break up the network enough. A great debate could be had about that, but in my view we should have gone further to provide for local franchises. It is a tragedy

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that the Government are moving in precisely the opposite direction. If the trend towards interference from the centre persists, it will mean a less effective railway system for Worcestershire and elsewhere.

Worcestershire requires a modern, reliable, comfortable and, above all, frequent commuter and inter-city rail service. The last thing that passengers need is a return to the dark ages of a nationalised, centrally controlled, unresponsive, run-down railway system that lacks proper investment. It would mean that our inadequate roads would become even more clogged up.

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