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Session 2004 - 05
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Standing Committee Debates
Railways Bill

Railways Bill

Standing Committee A

Thursday 13 January 2005


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Railways Bill

Clause 22

Proposal by service operator to discontinue non-franchised services

9.25 am

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Part 4 of the Bill contains 22 clauses—of which this is the first—all dealing with rail closures. This part of the Bill has caused widespread concern in numerous organisations from many parts of the country, and such concerns have been expressed to me and probably to other Committee members.

The clauses about closures refer not to the lines but the passenger services on them, and nothing is said about what happens to the lines after a closure has taken place. If a rail route carries freight, or might do so in the future, surely Network Rail should keep the line open. Perhaps it should be maintained for a period to see whether other operators wish to operate passenger services on it. How does the Minister envisage the lines being dealt with?

I do not know whether the Society for the Blind has written to other Committee members, but it has expressed concerns to me about the closure process in the clause and in schedule 7. It feels that when a closure is mooted there should be a requirement to place an advert in a publication called Soundings—a national talking newspaper—so that those rail users who cannot read a normal newspaper will be made aware of what is proposed. What is the Minister's response to that? It would be only fair if the Secretary of State were to designate disability organisations as bodies representing the interests of railway passengers in this part of the Bill.

What has added to the concern outside the House is the fact that, although there are 22 clauses dealing with closures, the Government have not shown that they want to encourage the opening of new rail routes. I received a communication from the Minster rail group, which is based in Yorkshire, and some of its members live in my constituency. It is campaigning to reopen a rail line from Beverley to York, and it has managed to secure funding from the Countryside Agency and support from one of the local authorities in the area to carry out a feasibility study on whether it would be profitable for the line to reopen.

One of the main campaigners has written to me concerning this part of the Bill, and I shall share with the Committee some of what he has to say. He writes:
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    ''But the biggest worry, and the biggest single section of the bill (over a third of the clauses) is concerned with ''streamlining'' the procedures for rail closures.

    This is odd since . . . earlier both the Minister and the Secretary of State were launching the . . . Community Rail report and . . . denying media reports that closures were on the agenda.''

He asks why they want to speed up closure procedures now, which is a fair question. He continues:

    ''What is all the more alarming is that the Bill makes no mention of public hearings or hardship. Indeed there is little about consultation with users, and then only through bodies recognised by the Secretary of State! It is not clear which bodies these would be. Rail users could be effectively ignored.''

He adds:

    ''All this sends out exactly the wrong message.''

I would welcome the Minister's response to those concerns. There may be reasons, which I hope he will explain, why he believes that all those clauses are appropriate. As there are 22 clauses dealing with pretty much the same issue, I hope that you, Mr. Griffiths, will allow him on this clause to explain his overall agenda in this area. We look forward to hearing what he has to say.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): As the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said, we now come to 22 clauses in part 4, all of which relate to changes and amendments to the closure period. I hope that you, Mr. Griffiths, will allow a little leeway from the Chair, as a general debate on the principle of closures may avoid the need for debate later. I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity to respond fully to the wider question. Individual clauses may have some merit, but, taken together, the effect of 22 clauses that change the way in which closures can be made—all of them making closures easier—is to give the impression that there is an agenda for closure, which may or may not be the Government's intention.

At present, the Secretary of State or the Scottish Ministers are under a general duty to ensure the continued operation of services, networks or stations, but there was a revealing paragraph in the White Paper ''The Future of Rail''. Paragraph 5.3.6 states:

    ''Currently much of the involvement of local and regional stakeholders is focused on planning enhancements, rather than on the Government's priorities of improving performance and cost control.''

Of course, improving performance does not necessarily mean improving service. There is a distinction between the two. There may be a wide range of trains providing a comprehensive service, but the performance of those trains may leave something to be desired. Furthermore, their performance could be improved by removing some trains. If there is only one train that runs on time, there is a very high level of performance but not necessarily a high level of service. It is possible that removing trains, as the Strategic Rail Authority has proposed in some instances in order to improve service, could result in a deterioration in the overall service while improving the performance of some trains.

The other issue is cost control. It is important that we understand the real costs that are involved. One of the criticisms that was made of Dr. Beeching when he
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imposed his cuts in the '60s was that a general level of cost per mile of railway track was used to calculate savings, which were based on the number of miles closed. It was assumed that savings could be calculated on the average cost of running a mile of railway, but that has proved to be false. Many smaller lines do not bear the cost that is attributed to them by using an average cost. In fact, when a line is closed, far less saving is achieved than was expected at the beginning, as the fixed cost of running more remote rural railways is actually far less than that of running more frequently used higher-speed services.

I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to explain to the Committee why it is necessary to make so many amendments, given that we have a closure procedure with which no one seems too unhappy and which appears to have worked, and if, as has been claimed, there is no overall agenda for closing some of the smaller railways. I, too, have received considerable correspondence from a wide range of organisations that have expressed concern, and, furthermore, wish to enhance the railways by reopening lines that were closed in the '60s and by linking up areas that were not linked up before. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to explain the Government's thinking in detail.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I, too, would like to ask the Minister some questions, beginning with one about the proposed guidance. The whole clause is based on guidance, but we have not seen that in draft format or otherwise, and it seems that we are being asked to approve it in the dark. I should be grateful if the Minister could state when the draft guidance will be published, because when we see it we will have a better idea about whether the Government can be trusted, or whether this programme is, as most people fear, a secret agenda to close down a significant part of the railway network.

Subsection (5) states:

    ''Before giving the notice under subsection (3), the service operator must carry out an assessment of whether the proposal satisfies the criteria set out in the relevant part of the closures guidance; and that assessment must be carried out in accordance with that guidance.''

The Minister may say that there is an enormous amount of detail to be included in the guidance, but the fundamental issue, namely the criteria for closure, must be as plain as a pikestaff to the Government. I fear that the public will draw an adverse inference about the Government's trustworthiness if the criteria are not set out clearly for members of the Committee.

On page 20 of the explanatory notes, it states:

    ''The content of the guidance is not on the face of the Bill,''

as anybody who looked at the Bill would know,

    ''but it is likely to include criteria that cover economic, financial, environmental and social factors based on those used by the Department for Transport for appraisals in other transport modes.''

If the Minister or the Government can put that in the notes, why can we not have an expansion of those principles before the Committee, so that we know exactly what we are debating? If the criteria are going to be similar to other appraisals, why keep them a
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secret? On what basis can the Government use the notes, which do not carry any weight in law, as a substitute for the contents of draft guidance?

I hope that the Minister can come clean about those issues, and I hope also that he can give a specific answer to the question implicit in the contributions already made to the debate—namely, why do the Government need to change the existing criteria? At the moment, the criterion for closure, which was endorsed as recently as 2000 by the Government, is passenger hardship. Why is that to be changed or expanded? How can any change be consistent with anything other than a desire on the part of the Government to close down a lot of railway lines, which they would not be able to close down under the existing criteria?

Will the Minister explain why public sector funders need to be able to initiate proposals for closure? Much is made of the fact that passenger transport executives cannot propose closures, so why should they need to be able to propose closures in the future? Lots of public organisations and activities are funded by the taxpayer, but that does not mean that the Government or their acolytes should be able to propose the closure of those enterprises willy-nilly.

The point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) is important, because many people have great difficulty obtaining information about the costs of some of the branch lines threatened with closure. In the vicinity of my constituency, if one were to look at the Lymington town branch line, which goes from Brockenhurst, one might be desirous of knowing how much it costs to maintain that line, its stations and so on. At the moment, it is difficult to obtain such information because it is said that it is commercially confidential. It has also been rumoured that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 would not apply to Network Rail because it is a supposedly private sector organisation, although everyone knows that that is a sham. Will the Minister explain whether information such as the existing costs and the basis on which those costs have been calculated will be made available to all interested parties, not just at the stage of consultation when it is probably too late to do much about it—as with most consultation exercises, this one will probably be a sham—but now? That would enable people planning ahead to know whether their branch line is in danger of being closed down by the Government.

What criteria will be used to determine whether a line comes into the excluded category? We will discuss that in detail in a subsequent clause. It is clear that the Government can decree that a particular line be in the excluded category. If a line falls into that category, the right to be involved in the consultation process is more restricted and that process is shorter. Some of the lines under threat at the moment will be deemed by the Government to be in the excluded category. What criteria will be used to decide whether those lines are in the excluded category? What is to stop the Government spelling out all the lines that it regards as excluded under the terms of the Bill? If they did that,
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those affected by those lines would be put on notice that their line was likely to be in the first category for closure.

So, there are some important issues that the Government must address. In principle, if we are talking about changing the criteria that appear in the statute book—namely the criterion of passenger hardship in determining whether a line should be closed—the new criteria should be in the Bill and subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that, if the Minister waffles through in trying to answer some of my other questions, he will not waffle through this one but will come clean on when the guidance will be issued, what the criteria are and why we have not been told about them until now.

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Prepared 13 January 2005