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22 Jun 2005 : Column 301WH—continued

Sleeper Rail Services

4.30 pm

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Cook, for allowing today's debate.

This is a welcome and crucial opportunity to impress on the Minister the importance that many MPs from Devon, Cornwall and Scotland attach to the sleeper services that run through their constituencies. I shall try to be brief because I understand that other people want to speak, and I want to ensure that their views and those of their constituents are aired today.

The debate is timely for the reason that has made me decide to focus primarily on Cornwall's night riviera service—on 1 June invitations to tender and consultations regarding the Greater Western franchise were opened. That was the first indication that the future of Cornwall's sleeper service could be in doubt, and that it could be axed as early as next April.

As the organisation leading the process, the Strategic Rail Authority—which, I understand, transfers to the Department for Transport next week—has asked those submitting bids to outline separately the costs of running the overnight sleeper service between Paddington and Penzance. We are concerned that that may indicate that a decision to cut the service when the new franchise comes into being has already been taken. I understand that formal correspondence emphasises that no such decision has been taken and that the final decision will rest with the Secretary of State, but we are worried by reports in The Times, on 9 June, that a Whitehall source said that the Cornish sleeper service is being targeted first because it is less politically sensitive than the Scottish services. Therefore, I seek your assurance that no decision has been taken, that that is not your approach, that no outcome has been prejudged and that you will acknowledge the strong support—here and in the wider community—for Cornish and Scottish sleeper services.

I hope that you will also justify—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I know that the hon. Lady is new to the House, but she must address all remarks through the Chair, not directly to the Minister.

4.32 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.47 pm

On resuming—

Julia Goldsworthy : Having had the chance to collect my thoughts during the Division, I want to make them clear to the Minister. I hope that he will reassure us that the issue has not been prejudged and that the consultation process will be fed into the bidding process. I also hope that he will acknowledge the amount of support for our sleeper services that is being shown in the Chamber today and in our wider communities.

Will the Minister justify the singling out of the sleeper service from among other services in the Greater Western franchise? I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong, but I understand that part of the rationale
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behind the franchise was to ensure a balance between high and low-usage services, so that profitable services could be maintained while allowing the less profitable but still important services to be kept and the overall franchise to run at a small profit. I do not see why the sleeper service has been singled out if that is the justification for maintaining some branch lines in the franchise, especially since the cost of running the service is only a tiny fraction of the total cost of the franchise.

Staff who work on the sleeper service communicated to me that sense of being singled out when I travelled on the sleeper to Cornwall last week. They talked in particular about problems with the telesales booking service, which has resulted in many passengers being told that there are no berths available when there are. Although many passengers would still turn up for daytime services and hope to get a seat, most people would not turn up for a sleeper service unless they knew that they would get a berth, because they do not want to sit up all night.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I have had that experience of not being able to get a berth and having to sit up all night on the sleeper service. Does my hon. Friend agree that if the SRA gets away with separating out the sleeper service from the rest of the service, which should be seen as a whole, it will also separate out other non-profit-making elements of the vital service all the way to Penzance, including the service from Plymouth to Penzance, and that this is a retrograde step, which we must fight all the way?

Julia Goldsworthy : We are not the only people for whom it may be the thin end of the wedge. The sleeper staff are putting together a petition, which many colleagues have already signed. It highlights the level of support from all who use the service, including business people, visitors and even those hon. Members in the Chamber today. I hope that the Minister will take that strength of opinion into account, and that it will be fed into the consultation process.

Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): I hope that my hon. Friend is aware of the strong support that was shown in Scotland for the future of Scottish sleeper services when they were threatened in the 1990s. The Scottish Executive have undertaken to protect the sleeper services to Scotland from now on. Perhaps the Government could learn from that. Is my hon. Friend also aware of the further potential threat to sleeper services that comes from Network Rail? It is important that Network Rail continues to allow passage for sleeper services on the rail lines through England before they reach Scotland without the sort of disruption seen in previous years. I hope that my hon. Friend will press the Minister on that point.

Julia Goldsworthy : I certainly will; and I shall be raising the matter with Network Rail.

I have been contacted by many business people in my constituency who are concerned that the sleeper service is under threat. One wrote:

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For many business people in Cornwall, work and leisure time is too valuable to be spent travelling on a train for more than an entire working day simply to attend a meeting in London. Without a sleeper service, travelling on the train will not make economic sense, and some may revert to driving or flying. Some may stop developing their businesses further afield, which is a great concern.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): My hon. Friend will be aware—I hope that the Minister, too, is aware—that there is also a threat to the Newquay air service. However, if one leaves London in the morning without the overnight sleeper service, the earliest one can arrive in parts of Cornwall is midday. That is so even if one uses the Newquay air service. That would effectively cut us off for business purposes. Certainly Imerys China clay company would not be able to continue employing senior staff in Cornwall who work internationally if those services are lost.

Julia Goldsworthy : I was hoping to deal with that point later. I was also hoping that the Minister would have conducted a study not only into the direct profitability of the service but into its wider economic benefits. I was sorry to learn from a written answer that I received yesterday that no such assessment has been made. The wider economic benefits and the capacity that needs to be built in Cornwall are vital, and the economic benefits that the sleeper service brings must surely run into many millions of pounds. I ask the Minister to look into the issue during the consultation process so that that information, too, can be fed into the bid.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I entirely agree with the thrust of the hon. Lady's argument. I know that the chamber of commerce in Plymouth would agree entirely that the night sleeper brings business to Plymouth that is vital for the regeneration of the city, and that we must do all that we can to ensure that the service continues.

Julia Goldsworthy : I thank the hon. Lady for pointing out that it is an issue in Devon as much as in Cornwall.

There is a dearth of hard data. That is due partly to the commercial confidentiality that surrounds the bidding process and to what I said about the need for wider research into the question. However, First Group has provided me with occupancy figures for April. It is an off-peak time, and there were still serious problems with the telephone booking service. It nevertheless shows an occupancy rate in standard class individual sleeper berths to Cornwall of between 80 and 90 per cent. during that month. In the summer months, it is impossible to secure a berth without early booking. Although the aggregated figures for each month of the year may show lower occupancy rates, that could be due to a lower uptake on some Plymouth carriages and also to shared and first-class berths.

At our meeting with the SRA yesterday, it was reported that the existing service was not being run in the most efficient way. However, I hope that the franchise bidders will be urged to consider options to streamline the service—perhaps through different carriage and berthing arrangements or by reconsidering
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the price structure; for instance, many business men use the service, and there may be potential for greater price flexibility.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on gaining this debate; it was well done. In a parliamentary answer, the Minister said that no assessment had been made of the economic effect of the withdrawal of the sleeper between London and Penzance. That is very odd indeed. Does she agree that the only assessment that the Government seem to be making is how to get more money from the licence operators and how they can reduce the running costs?

Julia Goldsworthy : That may well be the case. I would like a solution that best fits need, not one that fits financial or political expediency.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to draw attention to the wider transport network in Cornwall, which highlights the strategic importance of the sleeper service. Visitors to the county double our population in the summer months, and most of them enter the county through our road network. It will continue to creak under the strain until the A30 improvements finally take place. Our bus network is woefully inadequate and, as has been said, our airport is under threat and is due to be mothballed in 2007.

For many visitors, the train will be the only public transport alternative to the car. For business men, flights do not provide the range of options and the convenience that mainline train services offer in such a long peninsula. They would lose a huge amount of their working day in travelling if they chose to travel during the day.

Far from increasing our public transport capacity in Cornwall, the Government currently seem to be doing all that they can to remove the public transport options that exist for us. That will threaten our local economy. Things such as objective 1 have been building our economic capacity and we are worried that that will be undermined if the sleeper service goes.

Sleeper services such as the night riviera continue to be held up as objects of public affection. They conjure up romantic notions of being lulled to sleep by the swaying of the carriage and arriving in Cornwall in the morning to see the sun rising over our dramatic coastline. For many visitors it makes the journey down to Cornwall part of their holiday and for that reason alone it should be supported. In addition, it is a crucial service for many of our dynamic businesses that have markets and customers to tend to outside the county. Vital work would simply not be cost-efficient for them to do if it involved many working hours spent on the train.

The existing service may well not be perfect and I am sure that there is considerable scope to improve efficiency, but I urge the Minister to recognise the importance of the service and to do so by guaranteeing its inclusion in the main Greater Western franchise.

4.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss sleeper services.
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I have also received representations from my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who are present. It is an important debate. I understand that a number of Members have concerns and that shows the importance of the issue to them.

There are currently sleeper services between London Paddington and Penzance and between London Euston and Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. The sleeper service to Cornwall also acts as a Motorail service carrying cars and their occupants on Friday evenings from the middle of June until the middle of September. All those sleeper services are operated at present by mark 3, modern, air-conditioned rolling stock, which is loco-hauled—using diesel ones for the Cornish services and a mixture of electric and diesel ones for the Scottish ones.

The Scottish sleeper services were mentioned by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). The services between England and Scotland are part of the ScotRail franchise, which was re-let on 17 October 2004 and will run until October 2011. Under the Railways Act 2005, the Scottish Executive will be wholly responsible for the ScotRail franchise from later this year.

I return to the issue of the sleeper services to Devon and Cornwall. The overnight sleeper runs from London Paddington to Penzance and from Penzance to London Paddington, on Monday to Friday nights and Sunday nights. There are no sleeper services on Saturday night/Sunday morning in either direction. One sleeper car is detached or attached at Plymouth so that passengers to and from Plymouth can remain in their berths later or join the train earlier. The west of England overnight services require a fleet of five locomotives, 20 vehicles and crews for each night of operation.

Specific mention has been made about loadings and about the number of people using the service. By the very nature of the rolling stock, the capacity of the sleeper trains is low. Each sleeper carriage only has 16 berths—12 standard and four first class. The normal configuration is one carriage dedicated to Plymouth, which is separated from the train there, and three for Penzance. It is also possible to be seated for the journey and not pay the £21 to £36 supplement for the sleeper berth, as there is seating accommodation and a lounge buffet carriage. The seating capacity is 86.

Over the past three years, the average occupancy of the sleeping berth has been four to Plymouth and 17 to Penzance. At the summer peak, the Plymouth sleeper carriages carried around seven passengers each way and the Penzance sleeper carriages around 37. Because of the service stopping at Reading and then frequently between Plymouth and Penzance, it is not possible to determine the exact number of seated passengers using the service. However, over the year, the average number of passengers between Paddington and Reading has been 34, and 13 between Plymouth and Penzance. Overall, we estimate that, last year, overnight services carried around 13,000 sleeping-car passengers and 26,000 seated passengers, out of an estimated 5 million overnight visitors in the case of Cornwall.
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As to the proposals, which the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne discussed before, the Strategic Rail Authority published a consultation document on the Greater Western franchise specification on 2 June. It includes the sleeper services in the base case, so each bidder must be prepared to offer this service. It does, however, ask for a costed option of not providing it, and encourages bidders to propose alternative ways of serving the market for overnight travel between London and the south-west.

The aim is to provide evidence of the cost of providing this service and, if possible, ways of identifying better value for money options. Decisions about the future of this service will be made after the SRA has transferred its responsibility for franchising to the Department for Transport. While I would be reluctant to deprive passengers and potential passengers of a method of transport to and from Cornwall, consideration must also be given to the value for money obtained from any expenditure of Government funds. The Department will evaluate the responses and identify the costs of running the services, together with possible options for meeting the demand in a different way.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Will the Minister agree to a meeting once the consultation period has closed but before the bids have been finalised, to discuss what representations have been made, and how that is going to change the bidding process?

Derek Twigg : I will be happy to have a meeting with the hon. Lady at that point. We can discuss the timing of that at a later stage. I would not want to pre-empt anything about the process that we are going through at the moment but, before a decision is made, I will certainly agree to have a meeting.

As I have said, the Department will evaluate the responses and identify the costs of running a service, together with possible options for meeting the demand in a different way. This will provide a sound basis for decisions for the eventual service level in the new Greater Western franchise. I stress, however, that no decision has yet been taken.

On services between London and the west country more generally, the Greater Western inter-city routes serve significantly sized communities throughout their length. Accordingly, there is a trade-off between fast services with few stops to more distant places, such as Penzance, Plymouth and Exeter, and the need to serve the intermediate markets within the financial and route capacity constraints of the franchise.

The SRA is proposing in its franchise specification to broadly retain the current level of services and provide Newquay with a new daily train service to and from London Paddington. I think it is worth putting the details of the services on the record. They are as follows: London to Exeter, 19; Exeter to London, 17; London to Paignton, two; Paignton to London, two; London to Plymouth, 14; Plymouth to London, 14; London to Newquay, one; Newquay to London, two; London to Penzance, seven; and Penzance to London, six.

Mr. Steen : Before the Minister tells us the times of the line, where the trains stop and how long they take, I would
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like to tell him that the arguments put forward by the hon. Members for Cornwall also apply to a great chunk of Devon. The businesses in Devon are dependent on regular train services. As things are, one cannot get to Plymouth, let alone Totnes—my constituency—until nearly midday. So one's whole day is wasted in travelling. That sleeper is essential unless one has a train leaving at six in the morning in London, which is horribly early. I hope that the Minister will recollect that issue.

Derek Twigg : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments.

Train services between the west country and Bristol will mostly be provided by Virgin trains' cross country services, with an approximate hourly frequency throughout most of the day. It is worth setting out the objectives of the Greater Western franchise. They are to improve the train service performance, matching resources to changing and growing market needs, and to ensure affordability and value for money. That reflects the results of research into passenger key requirements. We are consulting about what the nature of the new Greater Western franchise should be. The formal consultation that has already been referred to runs for eight weeks from 2 June.

Following the receipt and analysis of all the responses to that consultation, it will be possible to make changes, if required, to the specification issued to the bidders for the franchise.

Andrew George : The Minister has not addressed the principled case. This service cannot be salami-sliced into profit-making and non-profit-making, value-for-money and non-value-for-money elements; it can be seen—particularly by customers at the far end of the line, in Penzance in my constituency—only in terms of the full 24-hour service. Does the Minister not agree that the service must be seen as a whole and that there is a fear that if the sleeper service can be disaggregated, the line from Plymouth to Penzance will be disaggregated in future as well?

Derek Twigg : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but this service is unique. It has five locomotives and is different from the service in the rest of the franchise. Although it will be part of the base bid, we think it reasonable to consider the costs and whether there are alternative or better ways of delivering the service. That is why the strategy has been put forward in the franchise.

Matthew Taylor : The Minister will be as aware as we are that there will be confidentiality issues. However, the Department for Transport presumably has some notional idea of the service's levels of costs and subsidy. Can he give us any indication of those and of how much of a view the Department has on their acceptability or otherwise?

Derek Twigg : I have just double-checked that, and my understanding is that if we stopped the service, there would be a saving of £5 million per annum. I hope that that is useful to the hon. Gentleman.

It is important that the cost-effectiveness of the west of England sleeper service be examined because it is important that all expenditure of Government funds achieves the best value for money.
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Mr. Steen : We were told by First Great Western that the loss would be £1 million. Is that not an irrelevance, given that the Government hope to get a licence fee? Whether the figure is £10 million, £15 million, £20 million or more, there will be only £1 million off for the franchise operator. The Minister has put forward a bit of a red herring.

Derek Twigg : Well, I can only repeat that, according to the figure that I have been given, the cost saving would be £5 million. I give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that if that should turn out to be different, I would confirm that to him.

A point was made generally about overall transport provision in the south-west.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): Given that the western rail passenger committee has now been amalgamated into one for the south-west region and that there are now no representatives with travel experience of the far west of England, how does the Minister plan to take full account of the needs of people there in the franchise consultation process?

Derek Twigg : Would the hon. Gentleman repeat that? I am not sure that I understood the question.

Mr. Rogerson : My question relates to consultation during the franchise process and particularly to the fact that the western passenger committee has been amalgamated into the one for the south-west region. How would the Minister address the concerns of those in the far west of the region?

Derek Twigg : The new rail passenger committee is in the process of being set up, so the concerns of people in the south-west can then be put forward. The consultation process taking place is another way in which people in the south-west can make sure that their views and concerns are expressed.

Matthew Taylor : The Minister may not be aware that there is no representative from the far west on the new body. Given that we in that region are the most reliant on the service, it seems extraordinary that we should now be excluded from the formal process of passenger representation.

Derek Twigg : It does not follow that representation will not still be made and that the Rail Passengers Council will not be able to put forward the concerns of rail passengers and people in the south-west. I repeat that the whole consultation process is taking place as we speak.

Just before the last intervention, I began to refer to overall transport provision, which a number of hon. Members have brought up today. It is important that there are good transport links for the west country, as has already been reiterated, but we plan to continue to develop rail services to maximise existing capacity.

On air services, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), is discussing
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the future of Newquay airport with Cornwall county council later this week. We are clear on its importance to the county's economy and want to work with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to find the best outcome for Cornwall. There are a number of road improvement schemes under consideration, particularly the A30, the A303/A358 and the A38 at Dobwalls. I am particularly pleased that the Highways Agency has announced that work will begin on the long-awaited improvements to the A30 at Goss Moor in central Cornwall.

In doing all this, we are paying strong regard to the cost-effectiveness and affordability of all modes of transport and we will continue to do so. Regarding the future schemes, we will listen to the region's priorities and take account of its strategies, which are very important for economic growth and housing.

Andrew George : I realise that the Minister's remarks are coming to an end, but can he confirm that at the end of the 12-week period—an eight-week consultation period followed by four weeks of consideration, when I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor) will lead a delegation to meet the Minister—the final decision will be made by the Secretary of State? If a decision is made to remove the sleeper service from Cornwall, or elsewhere, the final decision should be made by the Secretary of State.

Derek Twigg : That is correct, but I reiterate that we will ensure that we listen to all views and opinions before we come to a decision. I reiterate for the second time that no decision has been taken at this point in time. The consultation process is currently under way, and we want to consider what has been put forward there and other representations that have been made.
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At the right point in time, I will be happy to receive a delegation to discuss where we go before the decision has been made.

Mr. Steen : Before the Minister finishes, could I just—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I must point out to the House that when making an intervention it is important that before launching into it, one gets some kind of visual or verbal consent from the receiving Member.

Mr. Steen : I wanted to get some visual consent from the Minister, and I am most grateful to you, Mr. Cook.

I would like to ask the Minister whether he is going to find a way of consulting the business community, and I include tourist operators in that. Tourist operators are terribly dependent on tourists—that is what they are about—and their businesses require a transport system whereby they can get about easily, travel overnight to Heathrow and so on. The night sleeper provides that service very efficiently. Is the Minister going to consult tourist operators and business men, not just in Cornwall but in Devon, Plymouth and Exeter, on the matter of the sleeper?

Derek Twigg : I can only reiterate that a consultation process is going on as we speak in which people can put forward their views and concerns. From what I have heard today during the debate, I know that already a number of business people, tour operators and so on have been in contact with local Members of Parliament to make their views known. There is plenty of opportunity for the business and tourist communities in the south-west to make their views known.

I would just like to confirm that the cost per annum was £5 million, as I said before.

Question put and agreed to.

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