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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 28 March 2006

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

Rail Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am pleased to open a debate on a subject that affects millions of commuters throughout the country. The future of our rail services is vital not only to my constituents but to the constituents of many hon. Members. The train is the great connector. It connects workers to their offices, children to their schools and families to each other. After placing the railways in an historical context, I shall raise several matters of concern for my constituents, and conclude by asking the Minister some direct questions.

The world's first public railway was built in Britain on 23 May 1823. It was the Stockton and Darlington railway, and it received Royal Assent in that year. With railways came the promise of economic prosperity and the realisation that people could transport themselves to where jobs were without having to relocate. Trains supported the industrial revolution, transporting coal, manufactured goods and working people the length and breadth of Britain in record time. Naturally, safety became an important concern, especially when a Member of Parliament for Liverpool was fatally injured by Stephenson's Rocket, the first steam locomotive, in 1832.

In the 1960s, the future of rail came into sharp focus with Dr. Beeching's drastic programme of reforms, which closed many lines and hundreds of stations.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Those reforms closed 5,000 miles of track and 2,000 stations in this very month—two years before the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) was born. The only passenger rail service in North-West Leicestershire—Swannington and Leicester, which also carried coal to that city and was the third line after Stockton and Darlington and Liverpool and Manchester—was lost as part of the Beeching cuts. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the lesson for the Minister from that period is that we have been fighting for the restoration of passenger services almost ever since, and that once lost, it is enormously difficult to restore such desperately needed services?

Adam Afriyie : The hon. Gentleman makes a precise and good point. If people choose to change their behaviour, perhaps by taking a job elsewhere or by organising their lives differently, once they have done so, it is difficult to reopen lines because by the time closure is reconsidered, the demand has vanished.

More recently, transport and the railways were placed at the heart of new Labour policy, when in 1997 the
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Deputy Prime Minister announced that he would have failed in five years' time if

If that were not enough, he went on to say:

The reality is far from the fantastical ideal envisaged by the Government.

I quote again, this time some passengers, who said:

Of course, I quote from "Thomas the Tank Engine", a seminal work by the Rev. W. Awdry. Hon. Members and users of the railway services recognise that the Government's railway ambitions were more like a children's story, given the reality of rail today. The Government have a strange logic when it comes to rail services. On the one hand, they demand that we give up our cars; on the other hand, in the Windsor and Thames Valley region in particular, they make it difficult for us to take the train.

I shall move on to matters of concern to Windsor constituents. I have a letter written in August 2005 by Vivien of College crescent. She says:

Commuters from Windsor need to get to Slough first in order to get to Paddington and central London. Her letter continues:

She points out that before December 2004, the journey time was 30 minutes on average, and that now, based on the new timetabling arrangements, it will be approximately 39 minutes. She concludes:

The point is clear. A small increase in journey times from areas such as Windsor, which are closer to London, will have a big impact on how commuters choose to travel. People have a choice. They can drive their car, take the train or make some other arrangements. If one's journey time is 45 minutes door to door using the train and 55 minutes using the car, even a five or 10-minute delay to the train or a change in scheduling will almost certainly result in someone driving to work.

I have another letter, which is from the Windsor and Slough Passenger Association. Its members are representative of the hundreds of commuters throughout Windsor, and they raise several concerns. Overcrowding often means that commuters, many of whom may have health issues, are forced to stand for their entire journey. Even at my age I find it hard to stand for more than 30 or 45 minutes without some inconvenience. The Minister knows the train services we are talking about.

A lack of ventilation and air conditioning means that passengers travel in conditions that are often worse than those for cattle going to market. In addition, working ticket machines are scarce, and ticket office opening hours are erratic to say the least. As if that were not bad enough, security at stations is often poor, with
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inadequate staffing, and the elderly and the young often feel threatened either late at night or during less busy times of the day.

The Windsor and Slough Passenger Association made the effort to respond to the Strategic Rail Authority's consultation on rail franchises. In the association's response, it pointed out that the journey time from Windsor to Paddington was approximately 30 minutes before 2004, whereas after the implementation of the new franchise and its new timetabling and schedules, the journey times will increase to 39 minutes. It says:

That is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Sadly, although services have deteriorated by 30 per cent., passengers have not seen an equivalent decrease in fares. When taken together, all those factors erect sizable barriers to choosing to use the train.

In conclusion, I have four direct questions for the Minister. First, does he acknowledge that a small increase in journey time for commuters closer to London will encourage them to use their cars? Secondly, how does he intend to supply enough parking spaces close to stations? Thirdly, what steps is he taking to improve the security of stations? Fourthly, is he confident that the Government will deliver on their promise to move millions of people from their cars to the railways? I am not so sure.

9.38 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): It is a pleasure to attend an Adjournment debate under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. It is the first time that I have done so. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing the debate, which is a matter of considerable concern to my constituents, who predominantly use Maidenhead and Twyford stations, and also use the branch line stations of Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham.

I also congratulate the Minister. I attended an Adjournment debate last week in which no Labour Back Benchers were present—there was only the Minister. At least this Minister has a Labour Back Bencher present, although whether he will take as a positive the presence of the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) is an entirely different matter.

David Taylor : I can reassure the Minister. He knows of my admiration for him, and he has an outstanding invitation to visit the route of the national forest line, where we are trying to restore passenger rail services. It was created by George Stephenson, to whom the hon. Member for Windsor referred.

Mrs. May : I think that the Minister has received invitations from some of my constituents to go and wait on Maidenhead or Twyford station for the 7.27, to understand the impact that cutting that service will have.

In his intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor, the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire made the point that once services were
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cut, it was very difficult to restore them, which is indeed the case. The sad fact for my constituents is that when Thames Trains was given the franchise for the local services, it increased the number of services and improved the services available to my constituents, but since the decision was taken to merge the franchise between Thames Trains and First Great Western, services have been cut year on year.

I have a sense of déjà vu about the debate, because I have been fighting cuts in services since December 2003, when it was first suggested that the timetable should be changed and there should be cuts as a result of the merged franchise. To that extent, I feel sorry for the Minister, because he has been saddled with the impact of the decision to merge the franchise, which was taken by the Government and by Richard Bowker when he was chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority.

I want to talk about issues that relate specifically to services for my constituency and I shall start with the timetable. We fought long and hard for a restoration of good fast services to Paddington from Maidenhead and Twyford, and my constituents were very pleased when changes were made to two services. The situation is a little complicated because both services leave at 7.27, although they go from two different stations. One train is the 7.27 from Twyford; the other is the 7.27 from Maidenhead. Extra carriages were put on the 7.27 from Twyford to accommodate the large numbers of people wanting to use that service, and a similar thing happened with the service from Maidenhead. That was a real victory for local passengers and commuters, whose voices were heard.

What will happen under the new timetable in December 2006? Those two trains, which are already overcrowded, will be scrapped and replaced by a single train. That means fewer spaces on the train for my constituents, and the service will be going later, which will cause my constituents considerable problems. Many of them will not get into Paddington early enough.

One problem that we have with the approach taken by First Great Western and the Department for Transport on the timetable is the failure to understand two things. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor said, for people commuting from stations close to London, the time that the journey takes is crucial. On a good day, it takes someone who lives in Maidenhead about 45 minutes to drive to London in their car. If a train service is available that takes 20 or 25 minutes, they get on the train. If they are now told that their train service will take 35, 40 or 45 minutes, it is a toss-up, but they will probably get in the car, because the train is so overcrowded that it is unpleasant. The Department needs to understand the crucial importance of journey time for local commuters.

Secondly, the Department needs to recognise the importance that the services have for local people in enabling the economy of the Thames valley to thrive by allowing easy access into London. Obviously, many of my constituents boost the London economy by coming into London to work. Setting aside for a moment the impact on people's lives, which is crucial, cuts in services will also have a major impact on local businesses.

My constituents are, rightly, up in arms about the proposals. They are not quite sure whether to blame First Great Western or the Department for Transport.
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First Great Western tells me clearly that the Department for Transport is responsible. However, the message that I am now getting from the Department for Transport is that perhaps the situation is not quite as easy as that and there are some issues to do with First Great Western. Frankly, for my constituents, in a sense it does not matter who is at fault. There is a problem that needs to be fixed. The ultimate decision lies with the Government, so my constituents will ultimately say that the Government have to fix the problem.

Adam Afriyie : The problems do not exist only in our neck of the woods, in the Thames valley region; they stretch much further. I have been in correspondence with my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), who is sadly away on military training today and cannot participate in the debate. He points out that commuters living in Didcot face the loss of the 5.46 and 6.12 morning services and of the 5 and 5.18 evening services. They are at 80 per cent. of capacity, and the station is one of the 10 busiest stations on the First Great Western line, so my hon. Friend has similar concerns. People in other places are having to make similar judgments to those that have been described, so the problems that we are considering are widespread throughout the country.

Mrs. May : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention; he is absolutely right. Many of our hon. Friends cannot attend this Adjournment debate, but they are also affected by what we are discussing. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) presented a petition at the same time as I did in the House of Commons with the signatures of more than 900 of his constituents, who were concerned about cuts to local services. The petition that I presented contained more than 1,700 signatures, and we have now had well over 2,000 signatures from people who are against the proposed cuts. Similarly, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) has concerns about his local services being damaged, and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) is concerned about the branch line through to Bourne End.

We are talking about damaging changes to the timetable, which will have a significant impact on people throughout the country. I say to the Minister that for those of us with constituencies from which people commute to London and to which people commute from London to work, as is the case in Maidenhead, the Government need to take into account the time that that journey takes and the frequency of the service.

The Government also need to recognise that working life is no longer nine-to-five. My constituents do not aim to be in the office by 9 am; many of them, particularly those who commute to the City of London, have to be in the office by 8 or 8.30 am. Should Crossrail ever arrive, it may improve things, but in its absence, commuters have tube journeys to make after they get to Paddington. They do not leave the office at 5 pm; many leave at 6, 6.30 or 7 pm, or even later. The timetable needs to reflect the fact that working life today is not nine-to-five. Sadly, neither the Department nor First Great Western seems to have understood that.
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The time that journeys take is crucial. Fast services at peak times to Paddington from both Maidenhead and Twyford and from Paddington to Maidenhead and Twyford need to be reinstated in the timetable to accommodate the needs of my constituents.

Adam Afriyie : It strikes me that for people who live in the parts of the Thames valley region that are closer to London, five or 10 minutes one way or another make an enormous difference to their choice of travel. If, for example, someone has to consider child care, a 10-minute difference in arrival back home makes a huge difference to their life. However, someone who has a two-hour or two-and-a-half-hour journey into London is less likely to be susceptible to a small change in the timetable of five or 10 minutes. It would therefore make much more sense to have fast trains stopping perhaps in just two or three locations to pick up more local commuters to London.

Mrs. May : My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful to him, because he brings me to the next point that I wanted to discuss. There is a fundamental misunderstanding by those who are taking the decisions in the Department and at Network Rail—which I also consider has some responsibility in this regard—in that they are focusing on trying to improve the reliability and journey time of long-distance services, even though it is commuters on local services who are most affected by a change in journey time, who most care about that length of time and who are most likely to get out of the train and into their cars if their journey time is lengthened.

The crucial thing for my constituents is fast and semi-fast services at peak times. If we are to reinstate the decent services that we used to have with Thames Trains, the local services need to be allowed to go on the main fast line. The one thing that has caused most problems for my constituents and others is that, now, most of our services have to go on the slow line. That does not mean only that they take longer; they are often held up by slow, stopping trains. The Government's emphasis on long-distance services only is misplaced, partly because that contradicts other Government policies to try to get people out of their cars and on to public transport. That is the first key issue.

The second issue relates to branch lines. We fought long and hard to ensure that the Henley branch line and the Marlow-Bourne End branch line were not included as community railways. I believe that if that were to happen, the services would deteriorate. They are part of the mainline service. They are commuter services. The Henley branch line runs from Twyford, Wargrave, Shiplake and Henley, but under the new timetable, for no accountable reason, a number of trains will run from Twyford to Henley without stopping at Wargrave and Shiplake. When I challenged First Great Western about that, its response was that the Department had asked it to run some trains on the branch line but did not say that they had to stop at the stations. For goodness sake, what is the purpose of running trains on a branch line if they do not stop at the stations to allow passengers to get on and off? Will the Minister consider the specific issue of stops at Wargrave and Shiplake stations? If the trains do not stop there, people will get in their cars to drive to the nearest station to access trains.
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It was interesting to see the table in the Evening Standard and other newspapers recently showing the most overcrowded trains on the rail network throughout the country. The 18.06 from Paddington to Maidenhead and Twyford was the sixth most overcrowded train in the country, despite the fact that the Government keep telling us they do not have any measurements for overcrowding and that no safety limits are set for the number of passengers allowed on trains, and that First Great Western keeps saying, "No, no, no, we do not want overcrowding; we are doing everything we can to stop it." That is just one example. I have already mentioned the morning trains and how overcrowded they are. There are safety issues and the new timetable will exacerbate those safety issues by merging trains. Hundreds of people get on the early morning trains at Maidenhead and Twyford. In future, those hundreds of people will get on one train instead of two at around 7.27. There will be real safety issues.

The key issue is that people's lives will be severely damaged as a result of the proposals. I already know of people who have had to change jobs because of the timetable. Henley further education college had to change its timetable for lectures to enable people to get there on time. The last timetable changes had an impact on the ability of my constituents to get to Henley on time. That FE college had to change its entire morning timetable to accommodate a change in the branch line timetable. Heaven alone knows what will happen if trains on the branch line do not stop at the stations en route to Henley.

People have had to change their jobs and the FE college has had to change its timetable. People have been getting off the trains and into their cars because there are so many problems with the timetable. Businesses have come to my constituency because it is a good place to locate and has good transport connections, particularly to Paddington. I fear that if those connections go, the economy of my constituency will be affected. I urge the Minister to listen to those thousands of people who are telling him that the new timetable will cause a significant problem in their lives. They are fed up with the cuts in services during the past few years under this Government. We need those fast and semi-fast services and we need reinstatement of the sort of timetable that we had until recently and preferably the sort of timetable that we had under Thames Trains. We need our trains back on the main line. If a service is provided more people, not fewer, will use public transport. I urge the Minister to listen to the thousands of commuters whose voices are raised against him.

9.53 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is great pleasure to take part in this debate this morning and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing it.

On 15 March, I met the Minister with a number of my constituents to discuss primarily the Bristol to Waterloo line and I am grateful for the way in which he conducted that meeting and for his thoughtfulness on what was said.
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I suppose that we are about half way through the 10-year transport plan and it is appropriate for us to ask whether that has been successful in the context of rail travel. The answer is a resounding no. That is a tragedy for our constituents, particularly people in places such as the one I represent who rely heavily on transport of one sort or another and would prefer to rely on public transport, particularly trains, but find increasingly that that is difficult.

David Taylor : The hon. Gentleman referred to the preference of many people for public transport. Ten years on, is he still attracted to the privatisation that his party pushed through—he was not in this place at the time—or, with the daily, weekly and monthly evidence, is he now as attracted to the idea of a publicly owned, publicly run national rail network as I and many Labour Back Benchers are?

Dr. Murrison : I think I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He makes a point that he knows full well I do not agree with. If I were to point to a success in public transport during the past few years since privatisation, I would say that volume of freight and people carried has increased. I would also point to the investment in public transport, particularly the railways. It is difficult to conceive how that increased volume might have been achieved given the economic circumstances prevailing at the time without the increased investment.

In retrospect, we can all look for improvements in the way in which things might have been done and only an extremely foolish politician would stand here and say that everything went swimmingly.

Mrs. May : As my hon. Friend is looking for examples of what happened under privatisation and the advantages following it, he might like to think about the changes at stations in the Thames valley. When Thames Trains took over the franchise, it provided improved services for my commuters at no cost to the Government because it did not require a subsidy. Under this Government, services have been cut during the past few years.

Dr. Murrison : My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, which illustrates the point I was trying to make in response to the intervention from the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor).

My principal concerns are about my rural services. There have been cuts on First Great Western's Cardiff to Portsmouth line. I received a letter this morning from a constituent in the village of Dilton Marsh who is concerned about the effect of the new timetable on that community. There have been cuts to the mainline Paddington service which affect the town of Westbury and there is a proposal that the direct service from Bristol to London Waterloo, which stops at towns in west Wiltshire, should be removed. I know that the Minister is considering the invitation to tender. I have not yet heard his decision, but I hope that he has relied on the new figures that have been provided for him by the west Wiltshire rail users group. They seem to conflict starkly with those produced by his Department. He will recall that during our meeting we cast some doubt on the
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methodology used by the Department for Transport when compiling those figures. There were software problems and a number of other issues.

Essentially, the west Wiltshire rail users group believes that the authorities have grossly underestimated passenger usage. I can tell the Minister that, from my personal observation, the figures on which his Department is relying are well wide of the mark. I hope that when making his determination he pays proper attention to the new data that have been gathered.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) believe that timetable changes particularly affect those who live close to London and commute, we must appreciate that connectivity is an important part of people's decisions to travel by train or use the convenience of their own car. I am not sure that the Minister has yet considered the importance of direct services, albeit stopping services, which the Bristol to London Waterloo service necessarily is because it stops at towns in west Wiltshire. It is important psychologically that people can latch on to a direct service that will take them all the way from their town in west Wiltshire to London Waterloo. That is important to them and if they have to change at Salisbury they will think twice, especially as that connection is sometimes unreliable. They will either not travel or they will take their car, with the obvious impact on road congestion.

I am concerned about a suggestion in the Evening Standard on 16 January that the Government were reducing services on rural lines to provide scope for investment on overcrowded services in the south-east. I am not sure about the veracity of that report. Generally speaking, I rely on what I read in the Evening Standard, but it would be useful to know what assessment the Minister made of that report and whether there was any truth in it, as it would be a great shame were that to happen.

We know very well that the Department controls, in fairly minute detail, what happens on our train services. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire railed against privatisation. We must appreciate that the level of control that this Government have over the railways is extraordinary. Therefore, I suspect that to some extent his concerns about privatisation and the rustication of control of public transport have been assuaged somewhat by the Government's recent attempts to command and control the rail network. That being the case, the Minister must accept responsibility for what happens.

David Taylor : I was not necessarily railing against privatisation. I was trying to avoid the Government's being sidetracked into rural closures.

Dr. Murrison : I am sorry, but I did not catch the hon. Gentleman's last point. I assume that it was a statement rather than something to which he wanted me to respond. I thought that he was railing against privatisation, so I am glad that he corrected the record.

My point is that we must recognise that Ministers control the rail network to an enormous extent and therefore must take responsibility. In making decisions—some of which will be popular and some of which will not—about invitations to tender and new
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franchises, I hope that the Minister will not try to foist responsibility on to train operating companies. The TOCs will say that the Department is to blame, and the Department has a tendency to say that it is all up to the TOCs to make decisions as to whether they can run a service commercially and so on, but given the extraordinary level of control that Ministers now have over everything that happens on the railway, that is disingenuous. My constituents will look to the Minister, not the TOC, to make a favourable decision on our service to London Waterloo.

That is all that I wanted to say. Again, I thank the Minister for his courtesy in the meeting that we had a few days ago. I hope very much that he will pay close attention to the passenger data that the West Wiltshire rail users group presented to him at that time, and, in so doing, make the right decision for rail services in west Wiltshire.

10.3 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) has done the Chamber a service in initiating this debate on community rail, which is what I shall focus on this morning. I wish to direct the attention of the Chamber and the Minister to the future.

I do not believe that there will be any significant new road building in counties such as Oxfordshire in the next 10 to 20 years. There will not be any widening of the M40 motorway, although there may be some marginal improvements to the A34, which is the road from Oxford to Newbury. The county's road network will probably be the same in 10 or 20 years as it is now.

However, Oxfordshire is a fast-growing county. Banbury and Bicester, the two main towns in my constituency, are growing at an exponential rate. I suspect that Bicester is one of the fastest growing towns in the country. Planning permission was granted only last week for new housing estates in Banbury, and new estates have been proposed for Bicester. Oxford is now set to grow as well. That simply means more and more cars on the roads, and, given that there will be little extra road capacity, more and more congestion.

On Friday, it took me an hour to drive from Banbury to the county hall in Oxford—an hour there and an hour back—and that was not during the rush hour but in the middle of the day. As our roads get more and more congested, travelling time will increase. Yet within that equation, the local railways are under-utilised and undervalued. The two lines, one from Oxford to Banbury and one from Oxford to Bicester, have, in a sense, become branch lines. There used to be a line from Oxford to Stratford-upon-Avon, but the Government in their wisdom moved that franchise to Chiltern Railways. That was excellent news for that company, which has done an excellent job on the whole of its franchise from Marylebone to Birmingham, but it now means, in effect, that the only trains from Oxford to Banbury run between Oxford and Banbury—[Interruption.]
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Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): The building has to be evacuated because of the fire alarm. Members of the public, would you follow the security staff? I suspend the sitting, which will resume as soon as people are able to reassemble here.

10.6 am

Sitting suspended.

10.26 am

On resuming—

Tony Baldry : I understand that we get no injury time, Miss Begg, so I shall be as brief as I can. I hope that Front-Bench Members will not mind if I eat slightly into their time. Clearly, the Front-Bench Liberal spokesman lost the will to live in my speech; he has not yet managed to return.

I was talking about community rail. In Oxfordshire, the roads are becoming more and more congested, and there is an opportunity for rail to take people from Banbury and Bicester to Oxford for study. Many people go to Oxford for the college of further education, and many go for shopping, leisure, recreation and work. With the current system, community rail services get completely lost in the franchise that has been given to First Great Western. I make no particular criticism of First Great Western, but it is really a long-distance train operator. Its skill is operating trains from Exeter and Bristol to London. I do not say that it is not interested in community rail, but it sees it as a contractual obligation to the Government. It is not desperately concerned about the long-term transport needs of counties such as Oxford.

The system is not integrated. The county council looks at roads and bus services. It is able statutorily to subsidise loss-making bus services and to consult with people, but it has no involvement with rail services. At a local community level, we do not have an integrated community transport strategy, because rail is left in limbo.

What First Great Western and other train operators do depends largely on the contractual obligations placed on them by the Government. There are huge demands on the Government's rail budget for subsidies, so they are not particularly interested in subsidising loss-making and community lines in counties such as Oxfordshire. Therefore, there is spiralling decline. The Government say, "The Oxford to Bicester railway line needs only a few services each day, so that is all we will provide money for,"; First Great Western says, "We are not going to run any services for which there is no subsidy" and the service goes further into decline. Commuters and other passengers from Bicester to Oxford then find the service less and less reliable, and find other ways of travelling from Bicester to Oxford—often by bus or coach. Although buses and coaches carry large numbers of people, journey times are often much longer than on trains because of road congestion going into Oxford.

The Government think that they have got around the problem by introducing community rail partnerships. I can see that they might be of value in areas with a high number of tourists, where a branch line might be on the
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verge of closing and the Government, working with community groups and the tourism industry, might manage to preserve it, but that is not the situation in Oxfordshire.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that community rail partnerships have been for many the beginning of the end. It is not community rail partnerships that we require, but an integrated transport strategy for counties such as Oxfordshire that looks at the next 10 to 20 years and asks where rail fits in. Rail will not fit in if we have, as we do at the moment, an ever-declining service on the rail lines from Oxford to Banbury and Oxford to Bicester.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor mentioned the Beeching cuts. I suspect that, if what we know now had been known in the mid-1950s, many of the lines cut during the Beeching period would not have been cut. Many of those could have provided good rail services today. My concern is that, if we do not focus on the potential for the use of rail in areas where the roads will become increasingly congested, by the time that we wake up and recognise the value of the railways as a means of getting people around not only long distances but locally from one town to another, they will have become run down to such an extent that they will not be revivable.

I have a couple of requests for the Minister. Can he and his officials have another look at community rail? They should not just say, "Okay, we will shove off that bit that is too difficult on to community rail partnerships." Instead, they should ask how, in counties such as Oxfordshire—my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) makes the same point about Wiltshire—we can ensure that rail services help people with journeys of often no more than 20 or 30 miles to the nearest university city, major town or connecting town. How can we do that and how can we integrate the system more with county councils?

Subsidies are clearly an issue. I asked the same question in the House. There is considerable subsidy in the rail network, but my constituents are no less worthy of rail subsidy to go to work, study or school than long-distance commuters who come from Exeter or Bristol to London. There has to be some transparency about the subsidies given out on the railways.

Can we please find ways in which to work out how to optimise the opportunities that rail transport and the railway network offer us? Otherwise, I can see that each year First Great Western will apologetically come and talk to the Cherwell rail users group and others and say, "We are terribly sorry. This is the requirement that has been placed on us by the Government. We are fulfilling that contract but we have to meet other obligations and we have that difficulty."

My other point is by way of parenthesis but it follows on from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead and my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor said. A number of commuters use the local services as connecting services via Oxford to London. There is a broad difficulty. To everyone in areas such as Oxfordshire and the Thames valley, its seems that First Great Western has either taken the decision or been told by the Government that the stretch of rail from Reading
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to Paddington must be as high speed as possible to enable long-distance trains to get through more quickly. The irony is that many local services are being held back. Not only are the number of trains from Islip, Tackley and Heyford fewer during the day, but the time of running is considerably longer, as is the time that those people have to wait for connections at Oxford. That is simply because of how the stretch of line between Reading and Paddington is used.

That must be considered, otherwise the irony will be that those living nearer to London will find their services becoming more and more disrupted. Apart from anything else, I cannot see that that makes good economic sense for First Great Western. All that will happen is that those nearer to London will take other options, not least getting in their cars and going up the M4 or the M40. That will mean a considerable loss of revenue for First Great Western. There has to be fairer access to the stretch of rail between Reading and Paddington, so that the people who live nearest to London and others are not penalised.

My concern is that we do not seem to have an integrated transport plan and local plan for how to use rail to the best effect as a community asset in areas in the south and south-east of England in particular. Housing numbers in those areas are growing exponentially and as a consequence car and road usage will grow. We are bound to see greater road congestion. Railways provide a wonderful, unique way of relieving that congestion cost-effectively. However, people will use them only if services are adequate and reliable. Services will not be adequate on the present system, with the Government giving minimal subsidy to the rail operators. The rail operators do not see an opportunity but a duty that they have to fulfil. We are missing an opportunity, which is sad. I hope the Minister can address it.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): I appeal to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to keep their remarks to about seven minutes, as that will give the Minister time to sum up.

10.36 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on initiating the debate. The long-suffering commuter will be grateful to him and his colleagues for raising some of the issues.

Britain has the largest rail network in Europe, which has a key role to play in easing traffic congestion. In his introductory remarks, the hon. Gentleman gave us a short potted history of how the railways in the country began. I feel that he missed a bit from when the Conservatives were in power: privatisation, the effects of the introduction of Railtrack, and the doubling of costs. To be fair to the Government, the problems that we are dealing with now come from the underfunding in the Conservative years and the subsequent privatisation that, it seems, increased costs.

Adam Afriyie : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Paul Rowen : To be fair, I only have seven minutes.

Adam Afriyie : It is only a quick point. The hon. Gentleman makes the slight that the Conservatives'
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cost-cutting, or whatever it was, caused the problem. After nine years of Labour Government, surely he cannot still be making the same old point that we are totally tired of.

Paul Rowen : I am not here to defend the Government, but long-term underinvestment cannot be addressed overnight.

Five issues need to be addressed. Although the debate this morning has concentrated on London and the south, as I represent a northern constituency, I want to make it clear that some of the issues that have been mentioned affect the rail network and commuters as a whole, and are not merely London-centric.

The first issue is the rail franchising system and the unprecedented power of the Secretary of State under the Railways Act 2005. The second is overcrowding on commuter services. The third is the age and suitability of much of the rolling stock. The fourth is the cost per mile. The fifth is the issue of capacity and bottlenecks, which have a major effect on future development and expansion not only in London but in the big cities, including Birmingham and Manchester.

The Railways Act gave the Secretary of State unprecedented powers. He stipulates and controls the franchise and can set the timetable within that. If we consider the issues that have been referred to, it is clear that many of those problems have come about as a result of setting the franchises so tightly. Although the Secretary of State sought to deny responsibility for such issues in the House last week, in my view he cannot escape that fact. Those powers exist and they have clearly been exercised. He can also require a review of rail services—we saw two published last week—and close unpopular routes.

If we look at the new franchises, and particularly the west country franchise, which was let to First earlier this year, we see that train numbers have been reduced despite unprecedented increases in passenger numbers. On the St. Ives Bay line, for example, passenger numbers are up 25 per cent., but the number of trains has been reduced from 26 to 23 each way in the summer and to 16 in the winter. On the Maritime line, passenger numbers are up 21 per cent, but the number of trains has been reduced from 13 to eight each way. It is the same on the Looe Valley line, where passenger numbers are up 16 per cent., but the number of trains has been reduced from 13 to eight each way. That is the direct result of a franchise that will deliver £1.13 billion to the Treasury over the next 10 years. In the past, many people would have expected the more profitable lines, such as the Bristol to London line, to help to subsidise some of the rural and branch commuter services, but that has not happened.

If we look elsewhere, we will see the same process beginning as each franchise is let. In my area, for example, the operator of the northern franchise wanted to introduce new services and an improved timetable, but the new franchise system has prevented them from doing so. That has had the consequence of continuing overcrowding, but the issue has not been addressed on lines such as that from Huddersfield to Manchester, which has only two carriageways. The review that was published last week contained no plans whatever to increase capacity on such lines.
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As for overcrowding, the numbers of excess passengers are quoted for London, and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) asked a telling question last week about commuter services in London, but similar figures are not available for elsewhere in the country. Overcrowding affects commuters who travel into not only London, but Manchester, Birmingham and our other big cities, and the House needs all the figures to be made available when we debate the development of services. The review that was published last week is meaningless for the northern franchise because it gives no information to back up some of the points that it makes.

I turn now to the age and suitability of the rolling stock. A few weeks ago, I asked a question about the plans for each franchise and what would be done to improve the age of the rolling stock. Of course, the average age, which the Government quote, has improved, but if we look at services other than those on inner-city lines or serving London, we see that things are different. The average age of northern franchise rolling stock is 19 years, and there are no plans to renew it. That is totally unacceptable. We have inefficient, old rolling stock that costs a fortune to run, but we are not dealing with the issue.

On the cost per mile, we are sometimes quoted figures for some rural lines that show that such lines are inordinately inexpensive and cost too much per mile. However, we do not see the figures. If we are to have an honest discussion about which services should be provided, we need the figures to be produced. It has now been decided to axe certain services in the west country, but such decisions should not be made just by the Department for Transport—they should involve local people. A key point about the Railways Act is that it removed control from passenger transport authorities and councils, which no longer have a proper say in the letting of franchises.

To sum up, I would like to see four things. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, we need the network to be looked at as a whole, and there should not be this piecemeal letting of franchises. Secondly, we need more profitable lines to subsidise less profitable lines. Thirdly, we need long-term investment. The original plan talked about having franchises of 15 and 20 years, so that improvements could be made, but that is not happening, and all the franchises that have been let are for shorter periods. Finally, we need passenger transport authorities and local councils to play a greater role in setting priorities as part of an integrated transport plan. In short, we do not need the greater centralisation of the rail network that we are currently seeing. We need the Minister to be open about what is happening and we need to have an honest debate about the problems that we face.

10.45 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under you in this curtailed debate, Miss Begg. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on bringing this important subject before us. I shall keep my remarks brief and try to give the Minister as long as possible, because he will have much to say.
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The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) needs to understand that 10 years have passed since privatisation. The Government have totally restructured the railways since then and could have taken back control of all the franchises had they chosen to do so. It is no good, therefore, fighting the battles of 10 years ago; we need to move on and to deal with the problems of today and tomorrow. That, however, is where the Government are letting people down. The truth is that, all round the country, lines are under threat of closure or service reductions and stations are in jeopardy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : Can the hon. Gentleman tell me which lines are under threat of closure?

Chris Grayling : I will happily do that if the Minister will wait for my remarks.

What the Government are doing is repeating what happened all too often in the days of British Rail. BR would decide that it no longer wanted to maintain or pay for a line, so it would dramatically scale back the services on it. Similarly, we now have lines in the west country, for example, where the number of trains a day has been cut by 50, 60 or 70 per cent. Not surprisingly, ridership on those lines will fall dramatically, and I would be prepared to bet that, in a short time, people in the industry and the Department will say, "These lines are no longer affordable. We need to close them." We are at the start of a slippery slope. Of course, there are no closures on the table today, but the Minister must surely realise that the cuts that he is making are creating the climate for closure.

I visited Dunbridge station, in Hampshire—in this case, one station is affected, not the whole line—where the number of services is falling from more than 20 to about five or six a day. The first morning train into Salisbury will now be at 10 o'clock in the morning, and anybody who goes into Salisbury will not be able to return until 7 o'clock in the evening. The morning train that children from the villages take to school is also being axed. That station will be in jeopardy because usership will fall, and somebody will turn round and say, "The station is not economical. We will get rid of it." The Government are starting rail services down a slippery slope in Cornwall, Hampshire and Oxfordshire.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) did not mention the way in which the Department has intervened directly to say that weekend services to stations in Oxfordshire should go. That is a completely new development on our railways. Today, civil servants and Ministers are working together as part of a team directly to control what happens on our railways. Timetabling is now decided in broad terms, although not to the exact minute past the hour, because Ministers do not decide whether a service will come at three minutes or 16 minutes past. However, they do decide how many trains there are from Twyford to Henley and how many pass through Bicester or use Westbury station on a typical day.

Derek Twigg : I do not want to eat into the hon. Gentleman's time and this is the last time that I will impose on his generosity. Is he saying that a Conservative Government would make no changes at all to services in what is a multibillion-pound business?
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Is he saying that the timetables and the specification of any franchise should be left wide open and that there should be no base specification and no indication of what the Government want?

Chris Grayling : In those comments, the Minister highlights the amazing contradiction in what the Government are doing. He says that this is a multimillion-pound business and asks whether the Conservatives would intervene to decide things. It is not the job of politicians to decide what trains run at which times on the railways and where they stop—that is surely the job of rail professionals. That is where the Government are going wrong.

The reason why these changes are taking place is that the Government have set themselves a goal of realising significant savings from the railways. The changes and the reductions in specifications on rural railway lines are all part of an attempt by the Government to extract as much money as they can from the railways, to counterbalance a big jump in public subsidy in the past few years. On the one hand, the Treasury is trying to squeeze the new franchisees and get as much money out of them as it can; on the other hand, it is trying to reduce the specification for those franchises as far as possible, so that services to stations such as Westbury are removed from the equation. That means that Dunbridge in Hampshire gets fewer trains every day and that the Looe branch in Cornwall and all the other affected areas in Cornwall get fewer services. The changes are all about cost saving.

The Government are looking in the wrong place for efficiencies in our rail network. There are still huge issues around how Network Rail works. We still spend far more on rail maintenance and rail renewal than other countries. The hon. Member for Rochdale referred to Network Rail, and to maintenance and the level of investment in the railways. It is true that, for the past few years, the Government have been investing huge amounts of money and borrowing huge amounts through Network Rail to spend on infrastructure. In the end, however, we must surely catch up and start spending money on the real challenge in our rail network, which is to improve capacity.

Over the past few years, the Government have dramatically increased the amount of public money that they are spending on the railways. The Minister will no doubt tell us about the £87 million a week that is spent on the railways, and yet at the end of that time, with all that money being spent, where are we today? Most of the major rail projects in the 10-year plan have been scrapped. The modernisation of the Great Western route was part of the plan. Platform extensions, Thameslink 2000, Crossrail and the modernisation of the east coast main line were all promised by his predecessors by 2010, yet most will simply not happen.

At the same time, having spent all that money on the railways and increased public subsidy to such an extent, the Government are now cutting services in many parts of the country. If we cut rail services, fewer people are likely to use the railways. More people will get their car out of the garage and drive instead. When there is no train, the families in Dunbridge in Hampshire who have to get their kids to school in Salisbury every morning will get their cars out of the garage and drive them to school. That is surely the opposite of what the Government intended when they set out in office.
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At the end of nine years, the Government have talked grand talk about transport and spent a lot of money—in the same way that they have spent a lot of money on the health service and education—yet we see the same picture in terms of delivery. There have been few improvements to capacity, although the network has succeeded despite the Government's efforts, because the private rail companies have managed to boost passenger ridership enormously in the past few years. Large amounts of money are being spent, but capacity problems are not being addressed and projects that could deal with them are being kicked into the long grass. The Government's only solution is apparently to go back to the old-fashioned route of Dr. Beeching: to cut services and downscale the number of trains serving stations, with the inevitable consequence that in the end they will close.

The result is that the railways are weaker. In many parts of the country, public transport services are disappearing, as a result of which more people will get out on to the roads. That is not where the Government started nine years ago and it is not what I believe they intended to do, but it is what is happening. It is time that we took a new direction and got better value for the public money being spent, rather than just chopping services in areas where the amount of money saved is, in fact, small. Having a train stop five times a day instead of 20 times a day saves a small amount of money and makes little difference to cost.

It is time that the Government got to grips with the real cost issues on the railways, addressed the capacity problems and came up with a proper strategy for the future of our railways, instead of meddling in detailed jobs such as timetabling and services, which are properly left to rail professionals.

10.54 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : In the short time available, I should like to do deal with as many issues as I can, but it will not be possible to deal with all of them. I congratulate the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) on securing this important debate. I note that his reading was "Thomas the Tank Engine". He may want to read through the "National Rail Timetable", from which he might get more information. He might also notice that it is a lot thicker than it was 10 years ago. In other words, there has been an increase of around 20 per cent. in services on our railways since his party was in government.

All hon. Members who spoke in this debate care passionately about their local rail services. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), who is not here now, mentioned the Ashby and Coalville services in Leicestershire. I am sure that he will realise that we will need to engage the local authorities and Network Rail to develop a business case for that.

I note that when I asked the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to name all the lines that were being closed down, he could not do so. It is ridiculous to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I are an incarnation of Dr. Beeching, who reduced the number of stations from 5,000 to 2,700. We currently have about 2,500, so on that basis we would have no
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stations left at all. I do not honestly think that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that we intend to cut hundreds or thousands of stations.

It is important to look logically and clearly at where we are with today's railways. Of course, there will be changes and, of course, we have to look for value for money. As has been mentioned a number of times, there is demand where there are particular crowding and capacity issues, which is a big challenge that we will have to address and that we are addressing. I shall explain in the few minutes available what we are doing.

We are spending £87 million a week on the railways, with record investment in rolling stock and the youngest rolling stock for years. Overall passenger satisfaction is up—I am not pretending that there can be no more improvements, but it is improving. We have 20 per cent. more services than in the mid-1990s. On public performance measures, we are now above the 85 per cent. target for reliability of trains, and the target for this year may be exceeded, although we shall have to see what the latest figures say. The trains are more reliable, which is important to commuters, as well as rural rail travellers. A number of our train operating companies now achieve more than 90 per cent. reliability. We have been working with the industry to bring about those improvements.

Let me give some examples of what has been happening with the railways. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) mentioned the northern franchise, but the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell suggested on the radio a few weeks ago that we were going to cut the northern service. Well, we have not done so and we have no intention of doing so. He will probably be aware that TransPennine express will get new rolling stock, so investment in trains is taking place there—the northern rail services are obviously heavily subsidised. I announced 17 new trains for South West only a few weeks ago, so it is nonsense to suggest that no improvements are taking place.

Of course, we have—through longer trains and platforms, better timetabling and route utilisation strategies—to get better capacity out of the network. More than 1 billion passengers will use the railways this year, which is the greatest number since the early 1960s,
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but on a much smaller network. We have got more passengers on to the network. There are challenges, but people are using the network because they see investment going in and an improved service that is an alternative to using their cars.

Dr. Murrison : The Minister talked about rail utilisation strategies. Why does the rail utilisation strategy of 2003, which recommended an enhancement of the Bristol to Waterloo service, appear to have been ignored?

Derek Twigg : The hon. Gentleman may want to read the latest rail utilisation strategy on South West, which Network Rail announced last week. I listened to his arguments about that service. We are considering the issue and will announce something shortly. Some £7.6 billion has been invested in the west coast main line and, with the channel tunnel rail link and the Thameslink box station, investment is taking place all the time.

On First Great Western, I have had a number of meetings with hon. Members, as has been made clear. We have listened and our officials are talking with First Great Western to consider what improvements we can make as part of that franchise process. However, as I have already made clear, the franchise is very large and we have to consider how to get the best benefit for the most passengers, and the best value for money, ensuring that the resources are best used rather than used on services that hardly anyone or no one uses.

Mrs. May : Does the Minister not understand that, in terms of benefits for sheer numbers of passengers, he needs to focus on the commuter services, not the long-distance services?

Derek Twigg : I can understand the right hon. Lady making a strong case for her constituents, but as I made clear, we look at the franchise as a whole and at how we can get the best benefit for the majority of passengers. She has made her points to me both in this debate and in a separate meeting, and will do so again in correspondence that we shall have shortly. We are looking at the issues and at how we can address the concerns that have been raised.
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