(pt 1)


 
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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 25 April 2006

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

First Great Western Franchise

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

9.30 am

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): First, I wish to thank you, Mr. Chope, for ensuring that this debate takes place, if you did so; if you did not, I must thank Mr. Speaker. The debate could not be more timely, or better attended, as Back Benchers of all parties are present and will wish to catch your eye. That is most unusual in a 9.30 am debate in Westminster Hall.

I have been a train enthusiast all my life. I have two historic steam train lines in my constituency, with which I am actively involved—if not on the footplate, I certainly give them all the enthusiasm I can. Trains have a long and prestigious history in my constituency.

Every train journey offers a sense of adventure. Everyone feels that rail travel has a romantic mystique; rail journeys provide a sense of wonder to us, as we whistle past the countryside. Train transport has been one of the great and most glamorous means of getting around the world. An illustrious former resident of my constituency, the late Agatha Christie, set many of her adventures and murder stories on trains. I have been an MP for south Devon constituencies since 1983. The total train miles that I have travelled during that period would have taken me around the world several times—if not to the moon and back.

Transport is allegedly one of the three priority policy areas of the current Government. However, in spite of an enormous growth in passenger rail travel, there has been absolutely no improvement in the western region rail network as a whole. The south-west is one of the most neglected regions in the country in respect of public transport. Although Britain is the fifth largest economy in the world, the west country still has a 1960s rail infrastructure, making it difficult to run fast, frequent and reliable services there.

The importance of fast, frequent and reliable services for the economy and for tourism cannot be overstated. We need to have a three-hour Paddington to Plymouth service. The December 2004 timetable demonstrated that Plymouth was, at last, again located three hours from London, as it had been in the '70s and '80s, with two daily services up and three down achieving the three-hour timing. The Transport Committee repeatedly recognised a three-hour threshold—not three hours and a bit, but three hours—as the maximum time that most inward investor location search engines regard as their cut-off period. The Plymouth three-hour journey time has also acted as the benchmark requirement for Network Rail to deliver sustained maintenance standards and new investment in order to allow the necessary line running speeds.

The Government have announced the commissioning of a new fleet of 125 mph high-speed trains, but they will not come into service until 2015—in nine years' time.
 
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That is simply to replace the current 125 mph trains that were introduced in the 1970s. Therefore, in nine years' time we will get trains that go no faster than those running in the 1970s. Worse, the new and existing 125 mph trains are operationally restricted by the maximum speed that is permitted along the entire 300-mile length of the Reading to Penzance main line, which is merely 110 mph, and in many places very much less than that. If the speed limit were 125 mph, Paddington to Exeter would be attainable in less than one hour and 50 minutes, Plymouth could be reached in less than two hours and 40 minutes, and the time to Penzance would be four hours and 30 minutes. The Government must upgrade the Great Western main line so that high-speed trains can travel at the speed they were built to travel at in the 1970s, and will again be built to travel at in 2015.

The high cost of travel acts as a deterrent to business and tourists. The first class return train fare from London to Totnes is now more expensive than a British Airways economy return fare to San Francisco. People can fly to the European Union capitals in less time than it takes to go from Totnes to London at the weekends.

The impact of a reduced rail service on CO 2 emissions and road congestion might be of interest to the House—it is also an extremely topical issue. One would have thought that the Government would have done everything possible to ensure that train travel was more attractive in terms of both speed and cost than car travel, but they have not. If they were environmentally conscious in any way, they would have understood the impact of CO 2 emissions from road congestion, which will get worse if services to and around the west country continue to be reduced. The Government policy should be to get people off the roads, but we learn from last Sunday's newspapers that, on the contrary, thousands of miles of new roads are planned, but no new railways.

A new track should be laid between Exeter and Plymouth along the line of the A38. That would cut half an hour from the journey time to and from the capital. If the speed limits were increased from 110 mph to 125 mph from Reading to Exeter, the journey to and from Exeter would be about one and a half hours. If we were in China or the Chinese were here, that new track would have been built within a year, but the Government have not even given it the consideration it deserves. Instead, the track follows the Brunel line of the 19th century, hugging the coastline, which is threatened by global warming.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of my party, said yesterday, we must give people, and particularly those living in our towns and cities, serious travel options that do not involve the car. As the TUC said in "Making South West Work Better", its 2005 regional economic strategy paper:

Although the Department for Transport recognises that, and is responsible for helping to deliver reductions in CO 2 emissions, it has totally failed to do so.

Last year, cars emitted 19.39 million tonnes of carbon equivalent into the atmosphere, and 11.68 million tonnes of carbon equivalent came from other
 
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commercial vehicles. Domestic and international aviation accounted for 8.67 million tonnes, buses for under 1 million tonnes—970,000, to be exact—and diesel rail for only 260,000 tonnes. That gives some idea of the scale of the problem from motor vehicles: to repeat, 19.39 million tonnes of carbon equivalent that goes into the atmosphere comes from cars, and 260,000 tonnes comes from diesel rail.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I must also declare what I might call an informal interest: the line to which he refers runs 10 yd away from my house, and the high-speed trains shake it gently as they pass, so the idea of faster trains causes me a little alarm in respect of its structure.

However, my hon. Friend is making a point about the effect on the environment. He is also discussing long-distance trains, but, like me, he represents a rural area, and I ask him to reflect on the effect on local rural services. In the town of Melksham in my constituency, where usage has gone up by a factor of nine over the past few years, the services will be cut from one every two hours to two round trips a day. The effect on traffic in my area will be enormous. At a time when we are talking about the importance of the environment, it seems very strange that the Government are acceding to a reduction in services in places such as Melksham, which will be bad for people's transport, for the mobility of elderly people and for jobs.

Mr. Steen : My right hon. and learned Friend must have seen the later parts of my speech, although of course I do not accuse him of cribbing from it. There has been a 40 per cent. increase in commuter traffic in rural areas, but a reduction in the rail service; it is absolutely mad. I shall come on to that. I am most grateful for his intervention, and I am sorry about his house; perhaps he should move.

I have some figures that hon. Members will be interested to hear on carbon dioxide emissions, in kilograms per passenger per journey, for the journey between London and Bristol. By modern diesel rail, the amount is 10.6 kg, and by car it is almost double: 21.3 kg. Recent Government figures show that, on the journey between London and Edinburgh, the average passenger travelling by electric train is responsible for about 12 kg of CO 2 emissions; by car, the journey burns up 70 kg of CO 2 per passenger. By air, the figure is nearly 100 kg. If we really have concerns about the environment, we should be encouraging the maximum number of people on to the railways, not the roads.

Paradoxically, although road transport emits six times more CO 2 per passenger mile than rail, motoring costs have fallen, and although rail is far more carbon-efficient, rail fares continue to increase sharply. A moment ago, I illustrated that with the fact that it is cheaper to fly economy with British Airways from Heathrow to San Francisco, return, than to get a London-Plymouth first class rail return. That gives some idea of the level of fares.

Rural Devon roads cannot handle any more traffic. The same point was made about Wiltshire by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes
 
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(Mr. Ancram). My Urban Regeneration and Countryside Protection Bill, which I introduced six years ago, was talked out by the Government, but it would have played a part in not allowing more building or development if the infrastructure was not in place, and that would include roads and rail. The economic growth of the south-west depends on modern and efficient transport corridors, pre-eminent among which must be a top-class rail network.

I want to deal with the minimum specifications in the Government franchise document. It is important that we get the subject out of the way, so that the Minister has an opportunity to answer on this point. In preparing the franchise document, the Department for Transport came up with the minimum service level commitment timetable. I do not know how it was worked out, but the civil servants who produced it clearly did not know the region, or understand the work patterns of the people living in it. It was hopeless, inappropriate, inadequate and against the interests of those living in the west country.

The December 2004 timetable should have been the baseline for the Department for Transport's timetable. Why? Because it was developed over a three-year, post-Hatfield period in open collaboration between the train operators, Network Rail, the local authorities, passenger groups, and business and tourism groups. For that reason, it was welcomed and accepted by all such groups. Yet the timetable that emerged from the Department for Transport took no account of the 2004 timetable, and completely ignored the objective 2 status of Plymouth and its need to be within three hours of London. The Department for Transport timetable has done the Government considerable harm and has caused immense friction and anger throughout the region. It is as inexcusable as it is inexplicable.

One thing that the Government did get right was their decision to continue the franchise with the FirstGroup. The company understands the area and responded quickly and correctly to the avalanche of representations made by the county and district councils, commercial and voluntary organisations, the TUC and others. I thank the company for its measured and sensible approach, in dramatic contrast to that of the Government. The Government were content to allow trains to and from Totnes to be reduced by 50 per cent. I was deluged with letters from angry and concerned constituents, and that anger spilled over into a protest on the platform itself.

I must pause to deal with two questions that I tabled and their answers, because they show the Government's view on the subject. I asked the Secretary of State

and the Minister who will reply today said:

but not those in Totnes. He continued:


 
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In a second question, I asked the Secretary of State

That is what was going to happen. One would not be able to get to Totnes, which serves the whole south Devon area, before midday. The answer was:

That is just not true. The Government were proposing not the best service, but the worst possible service. So much so that at the first round of discussions, First Great Western ensured that the first train will stop at Totnes way before midday. In my view, all that the Government were concerned about was getting their £1.2 million a week, with no regard for the consequences for the travelling public. If they did not like it, they could go by road—that was the Government's attitude.

I pay tribute to First Great Western's management team for understanding the west country people and for listening to the rightful concerns of public authorities, businesses, private companies and, above all, local people. As a result of the appalling muddle and the Government's mismanagement, there can be only a few people in the west country who feel that the service is better run by the Government.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): The hon. Gentleman puts a lot of the blame on the Government, and I understand why, but I wonder whether he can help me. I am in a difficult situation because I have letters from the Minister in which he assured me that at Freshford and Oldfield Park stations, there would be an hourly train at off-peak times and two trains an hour at peak times. He says in the letter that the plans

So the Government had a clear intention. For me, the problem is the other way round: under the timetable, there will not be those hourly services; there will be a two-hour gap. There will not even be two trains an hour at peak time—[Interruption.]

Mr. Steen : My hon. Friends are helpfully answering the hon. Gentleman. In spite of their comments, he is really making the same point as I am about the reduction in services. Whether it is the Government's fault or the operator's, and whether or not there are too many trains on the line, we are making the same point. We want more and faster trains, and we want more people off the road. I could not agree with him more. I do not know about his particular problem because I am not a train operator, but the issue is absolutely clear.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I was a little taken aback when the hon. Gentleman said that the Government should get all the blame and First should get all the credit. I do not know whether he has looked in detail at the subsidy arrangement involved in this franchise. First probably was the best bidder, but let us consider what it gets out of the arrangement. It admittedly takes some risk, but it also gets the profits, some of which may be shared with the DFT. If the
 
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predictions of increased passengers and rail fares are not right, there will be a disproportionate burden on the Government to pick up the impact of the potential losses, so the arrangement is not quite as good as is being suggested. I would argue that the state has not got such a wonderful deal out of the arrangement. What are the hon. Gentleman's comments on that?

Mr. Steen : I am not going to make any comments on that at the moment, but the point will be noted by the Minister and by my colleagues.

I come now to the number of trains from Totnes to Exeter and from Totnes to Plymouth during rush hour. The roads around Totnes and the A38 are jammed as people travel to and from work by car. If regular trains travelled in both directions at the right price, a great number of people would go by train rather than use fuel and park their cars in the town centres. Why do people not travel by train? Simply because the number of trains is being reduced, fares are too high and coaches are being crammed to the gunnels.

Some trains that stop at Totnes have only one coach; others have only two. So full are they that schoolchildren are virtually swinging from the chandeliers. People understandably prefer their own cars. [Interruption.] I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that I do not think trains have chandeliers in his part of the world.

Rural rail services have been cut, despite their growing popularity. Passenger numbers on ill-fated branch lines have increased by up to 40 per cent. in recent years, and the branch lines across the west country will lose up to half their daily trains. That list is borne out by the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) about the Barnstaple to Exeter line. She wished to talk about that today, but has not been able to come—mind you, she probably would not have got in. The Barnstaple to Exeter line is greatly used by commuters.

The reduction in rural services has nothing to do with CO2 emissions or passenger convenience: it is simply about reducing the rail network's £5 billion annual subsidy. The cuts in rural services are as great as when Beeching axed the line in the '60s, and literally thousands of west country people use the roads and increase CO2 emissions because of them. It should be quicker and cheaper for such people to travel by train, but it is not. It is sheer madness to cut rural local services that are used by increasing numbers of local commuters when we should be encouraging such services to the maximum.

I give the Government credit for one thing. I am delighted that we have managed to save the sleeper to Penzance. When I was Member of Parliament for Liverpool, Wavertree, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and I played a part in saving the sleeper service to London, which was going to be axed. I am only sorry that when I moved to south Devon in 1983, that commitment was not continued, and the sleeper service no longer exists. I pay tribute to Lord Freeman, then Transport Minister and responsible for the first franchise document for the west country. He took little persuading that the night sleeper to Penzance should continue.

The only snag now is that as a result of rearrangements suggested by the Government, we have got rid of the Plymouth coach. One finds oneself at
 
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5.50 am, having come down from London, standing on the platform with nowhere to go and nothing to do. In the winter it is very cold.

The unreliability of the timetable is such that some say that there is no point in there being one at all, and that we should just go to the station and see what turns up and where it is going. Such jaundiced remarks come from regular commuters who despair of ever having a week free from catastrophe or delay; on the line there may be leaves, or cows or other animals that seem to have a fascination with train lines and have become the keenest train spotters of them all. It is convenient to blame First Great Western for unreliable service, but it is as well to remember that at least 50 per cent. of all delays are caused by track or signalling failures or a combination of both.

Finally, I come to the question of the track. The situation of the infrastructure is a major cause of ongoing delays and is blamed on the fact that 78 per cent. of the rails were laid before 1970. The approach of Network Rail does not give priority to the needs of the travelling public. For example, after track repairs, temporary speed restrictions are unnecessarily low. Similar priority is given to two or three trains from the Mendips carrying stone each night, which prevents weekday night work on the entire Reading to Taunton track. Network Rail needs to be more flexible and more consumer oriented and to ensure that the speeds allowed after repair are much greater.

For example, when the track was nationalised under British Rail, there was a 100 mph restriction after repair. Until January this year, the restriction was 20 mph after repair. That has been increased to 50 mph, and we should be grateful for that, but such restrictions knock the west country timetable sideways and throw it out of the window. The knock-on effects throughout the day mean that trains run unnecessarily late. The bulk of mainline repairs using modern equipment is done on weekday nights and at weekends, but not on the Reading to Taunton line. That means that on Sundays all passengers from Penzance upwards go via Bristol. I had such an experience on Sunday; I very regularly take five to six hours to get back to London by train. That is not acceptable on a Sunday, and the trains are packed as well.

Network Rail faces an enormous problem, but enormous problems were faced when I dealt with British Rail and Railtrack in the '80s and '90s. There have always been enormous problems with the track, and although it is true that more money is being spent—£46 million this year and £53 million next—on the Reading to Penzance route and that there is a high budget for track renewals, it remains true that even with a revised timetable it will be progressively more unlikely that trains will ever arrive according to their scheduled times.

That is the result not of breakdowns of engines or rolling stock, but simply of Network Rail commandeering sections of the track and forcing the railway to go on an alternative route. There are too many speed restrictions, they are too onerous, and more imaginative and progressive ways must be found to deal with engineering requirements. However, I am impressed by the spirit with which Network Rail is
 
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addressing such matters: the regional controller for the area is very enthusiastic and hopes that he can deliver—but there have been such hopes for the past 25 years.

The centrality of the track problem to the whole issue is illustrated by the fact that if the engineers upgraded the track from Reading to Taunton so that high-speed trains could travel at 125 mph rather than 110 mph, Exeter, Plymouth and Penzance could be reached much faster.

As the programme of track replacement proceeds, with a quarter of it having to be relaid in the next three years, it is important that deeper and thicker rails should be laid and not cheaper ones from eastern Europe. Will the Minister confirm that the best steel will be used and that the general quality and design will last for years to come?

There are further obstacles that will have to be surmounted, given the entire refit of Reading station and the introduction of Crossrail. Those two developments must not be used as an excuse for further delays, but inevitably they will. I am doubtful whether we will be able to go from Plymouth to London by train in three hours; it will be nearer four or five hours—that is why people take to the road.

Last but not least, I turn to the track at Dawlish. Climate change is already adversely affecting it: raised sea levels are causing more regular spray on to the track and halting services. On a recent visit to the Met Office in Exeter, I was left in no doubt by the forecasters that in the next 50 years rising sea levels will mean that the line beyond to Penzance will be closed for more days each year. Yet Network Rail and the Government continue to reject any suggestion that I make about providing, or even preparing for, an alternative route. An Exeter to Plymouth line along the A38 would, of course, solve that problem, as well as having other clear advantages.

The west country has only one line each way from Exeter to Penzance, and we have an outdated line, which is too slow, between Reading and Exeter. Major repairs are afoot. Reading station is to be brought into the 21st century—thank you, but at what cost?—and Crossrail is to bring trains from all over the north of the country straight down to the channel tunnel and the south coast. All in all, there is a massive programme for change, but today, public train services to and from the west country have in no way improved and in many cases have dramatically declined.

No wonder more and more people are taking to the roads in droves: their journeys are faster and cost dramatically less. This debate is an indictment of the Government's commitment to public transport and a reminder to those of us who live in the west country that they have little time for us and little regard for how we live our lives and the economic prosperity of the region. The Government could do a great deal to put things right. If the Minister has the will. there will be a way—but has he the will?

There are appalling delays on the railways, overcrowded out-of-date rolling stock and a railway company desperate to see things improve but hampered by the lack of basic requirements: a first-class track, reliable signalling and good communications systems. That lack will lead to ever greater congestion on the roads and ever increasing CO2 emissions.
 
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I have delayed asking for a debate on this issue for 20 years, because each year I hope that things will get better. However, the situation has got worse. In its original state, the new franchise timetable would have been an unmitigated disaster. The only chink of light is that First Great Western has won the new franchise and is as determined as I am to see, in my lifetime, improved, reliable, fast, comfortable and reasonably priced public rail travel.

9.59 am

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I apologise to Members in the Chamber as I shall not be able to observe the usual courtesies and prolong my presence here beyond my speech. I am going to uphold the honour of the Commons against the Lords in a charity swim that is a long-standing commitment. I hope that Members will forgive me.

It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), whose knowledge of rail matters is well known. From his comments, it is clear that his postbag, like mine, has been filled with letters expressing concerns about the rail service in the south-west.

Rail transport in the south-west has been one of the dominant issues that I have encountered since I became the Member for Plymouth, Devonport a year ago. The transport needs of the south-west are many, including air and road links, and they are all equally vital. It is the largest geographical region in the country, and it is very sparsely populated. If we are to avoid complete dependence on the car, branch lines feeding into cities such as Plymouth are essential, as are inter-city links.

Plymouth, which suffers serious peripherality concerns, is a city with an ambitious growth strategy. There are plans to increase its population significantly, by up to 50,000 people. Our economy is doing well. Our skyline is marked out with cranes, and business is looking favourably at the city. However, all those inquiring about establishing in Plymouth ask what the rail links are like. Rail journeys in the south-west have generally increased; they are up by 42 per cent. since 1995. A fifth of the journeys end in London, which indicates just how important the inter-city links are, particularly for business. We need those fast links, and the three-hour journey is essential. We also need the branch lines and the cross-country links that bring workers to workplaces, students to schools and universities, and people to the city for shopping or playing, and for their entertainment generally.

Historically, we have been living with the threat to our rail links. It was thought in 2004, following a detailed consultation, that we had got a timetable with which we could all work. The 2004 timetable seems simply to have been junked, despite the broad support for it, during discussion of what was needed after the Railways Act 2005. That point has been well made. People in the industry, who have much more experience than I do in such matters and who understand the intricacies of rail timetables, did not understand and were not happy with the process that followed that Act. The fact that the detail of the timetable was treated as commercially sensitive and was not published early on along with all the other franchise documentation caused problems.

The people who were best placed to spot the anomalies, clashes and gaps in services—the rail users—were not brought into the process, except by the back
 
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door, when people got leaked copies of the timetable. That is not how things should be. The users of the service well understand whether their connections will work or whether, as was the case in the proposed timetable, two trains are scheduled on the same piece of line at the same time. Given that the Secretary of State had inferred prior to the opening of the franchise process that he did not intend to cross all the t's and dot all the i's, we were all surprised at the degree of detail that was apparent in the franchise when we saw the detail of the timetable.

That proved not to be the final word on the matter. There did seem to be some flexibility for the franchisee to make changes. First Great Western listened to the issues that colleagues from across the region and I raised, along with other lobbyists and members of the public, and it has made some changes: there will be four three-hour journey services for Plymouth, not one, and many of the local routes have been reintroduced. However, the vague language sometimes used by First Great Western gives me cause for worry. Terms such as "expected to" and "may" are used in its press releases. Expectation is one thing, reality is another. That is why I am seeking a meeting with Alison Forster, the managing director of First Great Western, and MPs from all parties to discuss, and I hope nail down, some of the suggested changes.

We also want to discuss the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) about the subsidy and the rail utilisation strategy. The final document has only just been released, although it was apparently published to inform the development of the Government's specification for the south-west franchise. It all seems a little late in the day.

Mr. Drew : I must declare an interest: I have a strong link with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Research that it has done for me suggests that First Great Western will do very well out of the franchise arrangement. The Government would also say that they do well, but they do so latterly in the way in which the franchise has been agreed. The missing variable is the degree to which First Great Western has predicated its figures on a substantial reduction in labour costs. Anyone who travels on its trains will know that after 6 o'clock they are denuded of staff. As a group of MPs, should we not take that issue up, to ensure that those staff costs are not cut?

Alison Seabeck : I agree with my hon. Friend, who I hope will join me in the meeting with First Great Western so that we can raise some of those issues directly. I am sure that he will also raise them when he speaks to the Minister.

I hope that the Minister will take away from this debate the strength of feeling that exists in our region and a sense of the importance of rail services to the south-west. I am sure that he will do so, and that he understands that we want further changes in the timetable. Anything that he can do to bring pressure on First Great Western to tweak it further would be welcome. We also ask him to accept the lessons learned from the handling of this first franchise operation and to avoid mistakes when we come to the handling of the cross-country franchise. Will he re-examine the sensitivity issues relating to the publication of the detail
 
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of the timetable and therefore enable valuable input from users, whose contribution will otherwise be restricted to generalities? If such things are not done, we will undoubtedly end up back in Westminster Hall in the months after the franchise is awarded and exactly the same concerns will be raised. We all want to avoid that.

Will the Minister also ensure that issues such as platform length are considered as part of the cross-country franchise? I understand that there is scope for some of the cross-country trains to make additional stops to fill in some of the gaps in the First Great Western franchise, but that some of those trains are too long for the existing platforms. If platforms need to be lengthened, there will be investment issues. If the trains are to keep some of their doors shut in order to stop at such stations, there will be health and safety issues. Such issues have been raised with me by members of the public. All those matters need to be resolved before the next franchise is finally awarded.

I would love people in the south-west and beyond to feel the romantic allure of the trains, which was so eloquently described by the hon. Member for Totnes. Unless we can provide a regular and reliable service, we will be unable to coax people even into considering using the railway. The car is far too easy an option and is so much quicker in many instances.

Mr. Ancram : I take the hon. Lady's point, but does she not agree that cars are for those who have them? Many people do not have them, particularly in the rural environment. If there are no trains and an insufficient number of buses, such people cannot get anywhere. That is why I hope that the Government will closely examine the effect of service closures in rural areas.

Alison Seabeck : The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. One often hears Government officials and others talking about improvements in bus services filling in the gaps caused by the lack of train services. Unfortunately, although there has been some improvement in rural bus services, which we should acknowledge, they still do not meet the demands that exist in the wider Devon area. We need people to be able to get into Plymouth to spend money.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and to the hon. Member for Totnes for calling for this important debate. I represent a largely urban area. The issue for me is the number of people from rural communities such as Chippenham, Melksham and other towns in Wiltshire who will be travelling in by car if train services are cut. The Swindon-Southampton service, for example, is threatened with cuts. We need people to come in by train and not by car for our urban areas to remain viable. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Alison Seabeck : My hon. Friend reinforces my earlier point: such lines are important to Plymouth for exactly those reasons. They bring in money and people to support the urban economy, which in turn supports the wider rural hinterland.
 
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I hope that the Minister will acknowledge our concerns in his winding-up speech, and offer a positive indication of progress for us to take away from this morning's debate.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Before I call the next speaker, I must inform hon. Members that I shall call the Front-Bench spokespeople from 10.30 am.

10.9 am

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Chope; I shall be mercifully brief.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate. It might have been 20 years delayed, but it is extremely timely, because there is hardly a bigger issue in the far south-west than its train service. I commend the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), as she disappears. She has taken a leading role in securing a better train service from the Government and First Great Western, and I pay tribute to her for doing so. Her performance has been impressive and I appreciated what she said in this debate.

I also thank the Government for their part in the change of mind about the three-hour service from London to Plymouth. I am unsure how it came about. I know that First Great Western had a major hand in it. It was of immense strategic importance to Plymouth that it secured that change of heart. The service is a vital lifeline for the city of Plymouth, which is the economic engine for the far south-west: Devon and Cornwall. It was critical that that three-hour journey, made four times a day, remained in place. I am grateful that that seems to have been the position, but I share the anxiety of the hon. Member that it needs to be nailed down and secured to ensure that the three-hour train journey remains in place.

As you well know, Mr. Chope, those of us in the far south-west, which is what I like to call Devon and Cornwall, live in a very peripheral part of the country. The solution to peripherality is first-class transport links. We heard from my hon. Friend about the difficulties caused by everyone piling on to the roads at certain times of the day and year. Our roads system is clogged up and there seems to be no more scope in that regard. It is therefore crucial that our rail links are excellent, which brings me to my main point. I shall focus for a few minutes on one specific fallout from the new specification and new timetable: the impact on the commuter town of Ivybridge, just 10 miles east of Plymouth.

As I hope the Minister knows, Ivybridge station has been in place since the early 1990s at a cost of £1.5 million of public money. We would all accept that it has been slow to become a viable train station, for various reasons. However, in the past two or three years, usage of Ivybridge station for commuter and student transport, both from Ivybridge to Plymouth and from Plymouth to Ivybridge college, particularly in the mornings, has been growing steadily.

Studies suggest that in the past 12 months, usage of Ivybridge station has increased by 70 per cent., and that is probably an understatement for the simple reason that
 
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during the 10-minute journey from Ivybridge to Plymouth, the service provider has quite often not collected money or taken tickets, so certain lucky passengers have been able to travel free and their presence on the train has not been recorded. The 70 per cent. increase is probably an understatement of how, at last, the station is beginning to take off. More and more people are using it for park and ride. More and more people live in Ivybridge and commute to Plymouth on the 7.49 and 8.21 rail services and return on the 16.48 and the 17.50—how specific is this speech?—every day. That is a viable working service and it is growing.

We are about to have a new town on the east of Plymouth, just south of the A38, at Sherford. Sadly, that will only make the transport issues more difficult and complex. There will be more congestion than there is today, so we want Ivybridge station to have a viable and flourishing future. Sadly, the new timetable suggested by the Government and First Great Western blows Ivybridge station out of the water. Yes, people can still commute from Ivybridge to Plymouth to work, but they cannot get back again. Yes, young people can still catch a train from Plymouth to Ivybridge to go to school, but they cannot get home again. What is the point of that? The new timetable cuts the number of trains calling at Ivybridge by a significant percentage.

We have had a number of meetings about the issue, which is of great importance to the local community. We had one meeting just before Easter. The senior director for transport at the Government office for the south-west, Mr. Richard Bayly, attended and listened to representations at a packed Ivybridge town hall. He said that he would look into whether the Government and First—its representatives were there, too—could come up with a viable timetable for Ivybridge station and for Ivybridge commuters and students.

The time scale is now very short, so I urge the Minister to deal with the matter. He may never have been to Ivybridge or even have heard of Ivybridge—I hope that he has—but I ask him to find a way in the next two or three weeks, before the timetable is settled, to put in place a viable train timetable for the commuters and students of Ivybridge. At the moment, the timetable is not viable and that will sound the death knell for the station, which was constructed using vast sums of public money. I assure him that the station is a facility that will be used increasingly in the future. We therefore have to find a solution to the problem.

May I suggest one possible solution? A number of Virgin trains go through Ivybridge every day, but they do not stop because they are longer than the platform. In extremis, it is possible for a train that is too long for a platform to stop at the station and for the guard to announce that people who want to get off should not do so from the two end carriages or they will do themselves a nasty injury, and to say that they should get off from the designated coaches. That might be an interim solution. I understand that if the Government can satisfy Virgin on that point, it would be prepared to have some of its trains stop at Ivybridge.

The estimated cost of extending the platform at Ivybridge by 10 metres is £100,000. Given the amount of subsidy being invested in the railways today and the amount of money that the Government spend year in, year out—I appreciate that there are different jam jars and that that money might be for Network Rail and so
 
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on—I ask the Minister to do some joined-up thinking and to ask for a discussion with the railway operators, with Network Rail and with his own officials. Is it not possible to increase the length of the platform at Ivybridge, so that Virgin inter-city trains can stop there as well? That would facilitate a proper commuter service, so that people could go from Ivybridge to Plymouth to work and back again and students could come from Plymouth to Ivybridge and get home again safely without having to hang around at the station for an hour and a half, which many parents are worried about. Is that not a simple practical solution?

I do not expect the Minister to have all the detail relating to this matter at his fingertips when he winds up the debate, but will he please consider urgently the provision of a viable train timetable for Ivybridge?

10.16 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on initiating the debate.

My constituents are feeling pretty sore at the moment. Not only is the Secretary of State for Health pursuing a scorched-earth policy as far as our local community hospitals are concerned, but it appears that we face the prospect of many of our rail links disappearing, so we are pretty unhappy. I hope that the Minister will be able to cheer us up a little. I am grateful to him for meeting me last month with members of the west Wiltshire rail users group and representatives of the town councils. We appreciated that meeting and we hope very much that, as a costed option, the service that runs from Bristol to London Waterloo will be back on track.

I shall principally address two elements of the rail transport network that runs through my constituency. The Minister will know that Westbury is a railway town. People in Westbury and the surrounding areas feel strongly about trains. They are very much part of the local scene, as I hope he understands. Several lines—several little bits of the rail network—run through Westbury. I want to mention in particular the Westbury-Swindon link. On Friday, I had the pleasure of meeting members of the south-west public transport users forum in Trowbridge. They put a number of points to me about the Great Western franchise, and the Westbury-Swindon link featured large in the discussion. There is concern about the high level of cancellations for that service, dirty dilapidated rolling stock, poor connections at Westbury and poor timetabling. That all leads to a general disinclination on the part of the travelling public to use the service.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend mentions the service from Swindon to Westbury and onwards. That service goes through Chippenham in my constituency, where a significant number of people use that line down through west Wiltshire. Under the proposals, which, rather bizarrely, the Government are signing off—it should be First Great Western, but the Government are actually to blame—the trains from Chippenham down towards Southampton are being cut. Is that not a disgrace?

Dr. Murrison : Indeed it is. If the proposals go ahead, we shall see a massive reduction in the service: it will be
 
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down to about 20 per cent. of its current level. Basically, it will become a vestigial service. We are now several years into the 10-year transport plan, but goodness me, where are we going if we are seeing such a situation in an area where the population is growing all the time? We know from the regional spatial strategy for the south-east and south-west that we expect an increase of upwards of 200,000 dwellings. My constituency and those of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) will be heavily involved in that growth. In all our areas, the road network is creaking and is going to get worse, and corridors such as the one that I have described will be increasingly important.

As I said in the debate on rail transport in the south-east in January—the Minister may recall it—to get people to travel by train, we have to make travelling by train attractive. It simply is not possible to set up a train service and say, "Here you are, here's your train. Get on with it." My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said that the Chinese would simply set up a railway. They may very well do that, but in our country the difference is that we have to make it attractive to people to travel by train. We do not have that kind of command economy. We have to make using the train attractive to the travelling public, and unfortunately that is not happening.

Mr. Ancram : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a real paradox here? While these trains may not be particularly attractive, I have figures from the Melksham ticket sales office, and over the past three years, usage has increased from 3,000 to 27,000. More and more people are using the trains, whether they are attractive or not. In the face of that increase, it seems perverse to start talking about cutting services when more and more people are using them.

Dr. Murrison : My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. No doubt he will have heard, as I have, from the redoubtable Melksham Without parish council about its concerns regarding the siting of Melksham station and its facilities.

The line from south Wales to Bristol to the south coast is extremely important. It runs through a number of wards that have some of the highest indices of deprivation in our country. The Minister probably shares the prejudices of many in his party in believing that such wards exist only in the midlands and the north. That is simply not the case. From the suburbs of Southampton right up to the Severn estuary and Bristol, such wards exist in large numbers. Public transport is important to many of our constituents.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman refers to a line that has exercised me greatly. Is he aware that only in 2004, additional carriages were introduced on the Cardiff to Portsmouth route, which runs through his constituency, as a consequence of discussions with the Department for Transport? The new franchise timetable plans to make yet further reductions, however, making the service completely unusable for people who want to go to work, college or school.

Dr. Murrison : I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. The theme that she mentions seems to be a
 
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recurring one, because the Waterloo to Bristol service was commended by the Minister's predecessors. Following the network user strategy of 2003, it was scheduled to be enhanced. We were going to get more trains, but now we find that that particular service is going to be axed completely, unless it can continue through a costed option under the new franchise from February 2007. We are suffering from a stop-start service, and the difficulty is that once people are used to not using a service, they will not go back to it. We found that in west Wiltshire; there needs to be continuity so that people get into the habit of using rail transport.

The south coast to Bristol to south Wales railway route is the second most heavily used passenger railway in the west of England: its use is exceeded only by the M4 corridor route that links the west of England with London. That is a very important point, which the Minister must understand. More than 5 million passenger journeys are made each year and growth in use is about 8 per cent. per annum, but we find that this particular service is scheduled for wholesale reductions. That is simply unacceptable.

In the Bristol and Bath to south coast study, endorsed by the South West regional assembly and drawn up by Government office for the south-west, we saw that this route was considered important. I hope that the Minister has examined a letter on this subject dated yesterday—he probably has not seen it yet, but I hope he will do so shortly—from the Cabinet member for the environment, transport and economic development, Councillor de Rhé Philipe. It is signed off by chief executives of Bristol city council, Wiltshire county council, West Wiltshire district council and Salisbury district council, and by the chairman of the South West regional assembly planning and transport committee. They all stress the points that I have articulated today. I hope that the Minister reads the letter. It is a good letter that sets out the points very clearly and relates particularly to an extremely valuable link.

In the time available, I should like briefly to mention the Bristol to Waterloo service, which is a vital service for my constituents. I know that the Minister will consider the matter carefully as the preferred bidders put their plans forward. It is a costed option, and I hope that he will use that as one of the foremost criteria when deciding which of the preferred bidders should run this important service.

10.25 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing what has been an excellent debate so far. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), particularly because of his last remarks on the crucial service to Waterloo.

If we are going to get people on to the railways and out of their cars, as the hon. Member for Totnes wants to do, we must ensure that we have a safe, reliable and affordable public transport system. At the moment, the train journey from Bath to Paddington is not only one of the most expensive in this country, but almost one of the most expensive in the world. Fortunately, there is currently an alternative—the route to Waterloo. Although it takes longer, it is significantly cheaper. For that reason, and many others, I hope that the Minister
 
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will listen carefully to what has been said about the crucial need to maintain the Bristol Temple Meads to Waterloo route when the South West Trains franchise is renewed.

We have heard from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) about the importance of the timetable, but there are other crucial issues. Affordability is one and capacity is another. It is deeply disturbing that the current proposals will reduce the number of carriages in some of the crucial commuter trains through, for example, Freshford, Keynsham—it is wonderful to see the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), who represents Keynsham, here today—and Oldfield Park. The number of carriages on those trains is to be reduced at peak times, which will cause a huge problem.

It is also crucial that we have timetable that is fit for purpose and delivers what is needed. I referred briefly in an earlier intervention to letters that I received from the Minister on 9 August and 13 September, which refer to the three stations of Freshford, Oldfield Park and Keynsham. In those letters, he assured me that there will be an hourly service at off-peak times and two trains per hour at peak time. He made it absolutely clear that these plans were his

He went on to say:

Sadly, however, we see that that is not being delivered in any of those three stations.

There is a difficulty. Since the initial plans were produced, about 9,000 letters of complaint have been received by First Great Western. As we heard from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport, consideration has been given to some of those concerns. In about six weeks' time, we shall hear the outcome of that process, and we understand that some of the concerns raised have now been resolved. It would be enormously helpful to my constituents if the Minister would confirm today that the problem of the reduction of services through those three stations is one of the issues that has been resolved. If not, I urge him to consider carefully concerns about the reduction in the number of carriages on peak routes, and I ask him in particular to ensure that we retain the crucial Temple Meads to Waterloo service.

10.28 am

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I shall be as brief as I possibly can and confine my remarks to specific matters relating to the Tamar valley line in my constituency.

The position regarding the Tamar valley line is that it is a community rail pilot. The Government approve of community rail and have expressed warm sentiments about the line on numerous occasions. They have done so to such an extent that when the question of the timetable arose, I wrote to the Minister, and I hope that he recollects writing back to me on 18 October 2005. The crucial issue regarding the Tamar valley line is that the eight trains a day that currently run should be retained. I have received communications from many in that area of my constituency, including the parish councils, and it is clear that the early morning service is vital in order to provide connections through Plymouth to the rest of the
 
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country. Its removal in the present timetable will cause hardship to literally dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of people.

In the letter of 18 October, the Minister assured me—and through me, my constituents—that that service would be retained, that eight trains a day would be guaranteed and that the principle and policy of reflecting the Government's support of the community rail partnership and the community railway of the Tamar valley line would be honoured. I regret to say that the timetable now published demonstrates that that will not happen. I hope that he will do all in his power to ensure that his assurance, which I publicised to my constituents throughout my constituency, will indeed be honoured. Faith in this Government, reliance on their word and the solidity of their assurances to people in my constituency are at stake.

The Minister will be fully aware that the connections that can be made using the first morning service mean that many people in remote and isolated parts of my constituency can go to work even as far afield as London. If the service is withdrawn, there are those who will be unable to work and forced to move. I hope that the Minister will pay earnest attention to my constituents' concerns about the Tamar valley line, and give me the assurances that I look for today.

10.31 am

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate. The number of Members present from all parties shows the level of concern about the new timetable, which will be implemented from December. Like other hon. Members, I hope that we will hear from the Minister some reassurances that there will be changes to what is now the second revision to the original published timetable.

We know why we are in this situation: three franchises have been combined into one, and one operator, First Great Western, has taken responsibility. Earlier on, Mr. Steen referred to the work that First Great Western has done since the protest by many people in the south-west. I want to consider what lies behind those problems, at what the continuing problems are and at what the Minister must do. We know that investment is needed, but as Mr. Steen said, that has been evident for many years.

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. It is customary to refer to hon. Members by their constituency names.

Paul Rowen : I am sorry, Mr. Chope.

The issue is the franchise specification. I want to read part of it, because it explains and underlines why we are in this situation. It says that the franchise

In other words, we are in this situation because the Department for Transport has specified precisely what will and will not be provided. I think that we are seeing certain changes—I am thinking in particular of the threat to rural lines and interconnecting services to main lines—because the franchise specification says that the deployment of resources should
 
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The franchise is London-centric, and it does not meet the needs of people in the south-west.

Many hon. Members have referred to the issues affecting their constituencies. First, the timetable is not fit for purpose in terms of capacity. It does not provide enough seating capacity, so on the Westbury, Bath and Bristol Temple Meads to Cardiff Central line, the Exeter St. David's to Exmouth line, and the Exeter Central to Torbay line, there is insufficient capacity to meet demand.

The second issue is customer flow. The specification takes no account of existing usage or of some of the improvements that, for example, Wessex Trains made through the wider benefits programme in order to build on growing demand. As the hon. Member for Totnes said, there has been a 40 per cent. increase in demand on rural lines. However, the new timetable has no train arrival at Exeter St. David's from Barnstaple between 7.44 am and 9.40 am. What are commuters who want to go to Exeter going to do? There is no train arrival at Weymouth from Bristol, Westbury or Yeovil before 9.31 am. What about students going to Weymouth college, and other commuters? There is no westbound train departure from Truro to Penzance between 16.24 and 18.40. In other words, one time is too early for Truro college students to get home, and the other is too late for commuters.

Mr. Gray : Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that taking account of where people live and the growth in rail usage should include not only the timetable, but the potential for new stations? Does he not agree that there is a strong case for a new station at, for example, Corsham in my constituency? It is a fast-growing area, with many people commuting to the constituency of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

Paul Rowen : I agree entirely. There was a golden opportunity in the timetable for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to rail services by building in those services. However, the fact of the matter is that we have gone backwards in terms of the services that Wessex Trains provides, for example. Train services are not fit for purpose, and they will not meet the needs of local communities. We know the result: people will go back on to the roads, increasing traffic congestion and CO 2 emissions, and the train service will not be improved.

Dr. Murrison : Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman's comments about CO 2 emissions and his party's antipathy towards cars, does not he accept that in rural areas in particular, a multi-modal approach is important? My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) is concerned about the situation at Salisbury station, where it is difficult to park a car, which means that it is difficult for people to use rail transport, particularly if they are commuting. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree?

Paul Rowen : I do not know how the hon. Gentleman can say that my party has an antipathy towards cars.
 
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However, as he said, we need joined-up solutions. In rural areas where there are no buses, people must be allowed to travel from their homes to the station so as to get on the train to their next destination.

I return to some more examples. The timetable for the Severn Beach line does not take account of its high usage by schoolchildren.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): My hon. Friend has been very generous with interventions. He mentioned the Severn Beach line and, earlier, interconnectivity with mainline services. I would dearly like to use the Severn Beach line to make my journey from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington. Frequently I cannot, however, because the service ends at Temple Meads, giving passengers three minutes flat to get from one end of the station to the other in order to get the London service. I am sure that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) will empathise with the fact that for many people who would like to make the through journey, the constraints of the timetable make it impossible.

Paul Rowen : I agree entirely. We know about the difficulties between inter-city services, but there is also a lack of interconnectivity between those services and local trains. We must factor in whether the timetable is deliverable. Several experts have said that as currently constructed, it is not. There are three instances every day whereby trains travelling in opposite directions are timetabled to meet on a single line between Kemble and Swindon. That is ridiculous.

Time is short, and before the timetable is published, those issues must be considered afresh. We need a commitment from the Minister and First Great Western to resolve them. First is committed to provide £1.13 billion to the Government over 10 years. Some of that money must be reinvested in local services, otherwise the situation will get worse.

One of my hon. Friends, who cannot attend today's debate, said to me that an underlying plot is in operation. First Group runs buses as well as trains in the area, and it would be useful for the group if many of the rural branch lines were replaced with bus services. There is one example of that in the timetable. The Avonmouth-Severn Beach service is being replaced with a bus. If rural lines are being decimated for fast interconnectivity city lines to London, that will be at the expense of many people.

I hope that the Minister will consider those issues with First. The people of the south-west deserve better. We have had an excellent debate today and I hope that those concerns will be listened to.

10.41 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Like the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate. My hon. Friend's eloquence has brought colour to it as much as his fashion statement and glasses. I was elected last year and I am grateful to him for his kind advice and hospitality over the past year.

This is an important debate because clearly underlying it is the philosophy that we have discussed about the possible movement from cars to trains. My
 
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hon. Friend emphasised the effect on the peninsula and the environment. The debate is also important because it goes to the heart of the problems with the railways and with how the rail industry is structured and how the franchise process is working. We have had some excellent contributions from hon. Members throughout the Chamber about the problem pertaining to their constituencies.

I am aware that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) has led a strong campaign in her area. Two months ago, the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) initiated a debate on South West Trains in her constituency and I suspected that we would have a debate such as this, so just before Easter I took the opportunity to go down to the west country to look at the problems in detail. I travelled by train from London to Plymouth, where I came across three or four major problems that the timetable is causing. First, points have already been made about high-speed trains and cutting the number of three-hour London-Plymouth services, as well as local services such as those from Ivybridge and St. Germans.

In Plymouth I met local councillors, the local press and especially local railway officials, which was an enlightening experience because it gave me real insight into how the bidding process for the franchise worked and what lobbying is taking place by FirstGroup with the Government for revision of the timetable. I also met local business men, which was crucial. Tim Jones of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council stressed to me that the three-hour train is vital for Plymouth's success. We have heard Plymouth described as a vibrant and growing city. The regional spatial and economic strategies highlight Plymouth as an area of expansion. The point that was made was that if the three-hour train service were to disappear, the business prospects in the area would also disappear.

While I was in the west country I took the opportunity to look at the Looe-Liskeard line and the impact on local businesses and local employment of people being able to connect with trains to Plymouth and beyond, such as on the Penzance-Plymouth line. All those issues underlie a problem. If the timetable that came into place on, appropriately, 1 April—it replaced the December 2004 timetable, which is being junked—is not revised it will have severe implications for the peninsula.

Equally, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made a point about the importance of the route from the south coast to Bristol and south Wales. The south coast to Bristol and south Wales corridor links the major urban settlements of south Hampshire, greater Bristol, greater Bath, Wiltshire and south Wales with the lines to London. The regional spatial strategy and the regional economic strategy highlight those as areas of growth in housing and economic development. The proposals for those areas are to cut services, and existing passengers will find themselves on shorter and less frequent trains, with services starting later in the morning and dwell times at stations being cut. The inevitable implication is overcrowding and the inevitable consequence is that people will be less likely to use the trains.

Mr. Don Foster : The hon. Gentleman referred to growing towns. The town of Frome is growing enormously and he may be surprised to know that under
 
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the proposed timetable there is no train between 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock in the morning from Frome to Bath, where most of the work is.

Mr. Hammond : I did not know that, but I am not surprised. That is a consequence of the proposed timetable, and the same is happening throughout the west and south-west. Such reductions will be a real problem when trying to persuade local people to go to local urban centres and centres of regional economic development. That will be a major consequence, and people will either lose employment or be forced into their cars with all the consequences for the environment that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes has described.

Mr. Cox : Another example of which my hon. Friend may not be aware, although I hope that the Minister is aware of it, is that the train service on the Tarka line from Barnstable to Exeter has had removed from it any train that arrives in Exeter for the peak rush hour. That is a clear example of what my hon. Friend is saying.

Mr. Hammond : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. We have heard a number of comments from other hon. Members about lines being cut. We have not said much about Hampshire, but clearly the timetable has implications for Hampshire. I shall not continue to detail the cuts because I want to leave time for the Minister to reply, as do most hon. Members.

While I was in Plymouth I had a good indication from FirstGroup about how the bidding process worked. It is important to understand that First is trying to work with local people and to lobby the Government to revise the current timetable, but following the Railways Act 2005 and the demise of the Strategic Rail Authority, the Secretary of State for Transport is effectively running the railways. He is doing that not only strategically, but by intervening in the minutiae of the railways. Under the franchise process for the route in question all bidders were asked to supply three bids, one for a minimum service level which was specified in detail by the Government—the detailed specification option—one on the original timetable and one on an optimum timetable for the route. It is no surprise that the timetable that has been granted and for which First is paying £1 billion over 10 years for the privilege to operate is the detailed specification option.

On 20 March, I asked the Minister to tell me how many rail routes would be cut as a result of that detailed specification and how many stations would be closed. His answer was none. I suspect that that revolved around the word "cut". If I had asked how many service reductions there would be as a result of that detailed specification option, I suspect that I would have received a different answer.

One matter that will be clear to all hon. Members from the debate is that the current timetable, which started on 1 April, is not fit for purpose. FirstGroup has impressed on me and, I am sure, other hon. Members who had discussions with it, that it is negotiating with the Government to revise the timetable so that when the final version is published in the first week of December a number of the issues that we have heard about today may be resolved. I hope that the Minister will today give
 
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us some guarantees about the three-hour London-Plymouth service and local commuter services in Ivybridge and respond to the comments made by my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) about the Bristol-Waterloo service and a number of the other implications for west Wiltshire. We look forward to the Minister giving us those guarantees.

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg) : I shall try to deal with as many issues as I possibly can in the short time available. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing this debate. He is a real rail enthusiast and has always taken a special interest in railways, particularly in his part of the country. I shall deal quickly with a few points made by other hon. Members and then address some of his concerns.

I cannot give the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) a detailed answer on the point that he raised, but I shall write to him about it as soon as possible. My officials are working on the specific issue about service that the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) mentioned, and I shall get in touch with him as soon as we have a firmer answer on it. The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) asked about services at Ivybridge. Obviously, we are considering more options for additional services, but the normal procedure for enhancements such as those to platforms is a business case, and involves talking to Network Rail and so on. I am not sure what stage the matter is at, whether it is just an initial idea or whether there are ongoing discussions. If I hear of anything on that, I shall write to him, but I am not aware of anything at present.

I understand that most Members are here today because they are not happy with various things, but we must consider the bigger picture. It is important to remember that these are good times for the railways. A record amount is being spent—£87 million each week—and, on average, train performance is above the target of 85 per cent. that we had for March this year. More than 85 per cent. of trains run on time, and many train operating companies are now hitting 90 per cent. and above. There has been a significant improvement in reliability and significant investment in rolling stock, with about one third of it being replaced.

It is not the case that people have been put off using the railways. Last year, there were more than 1 billion passenger journeys—a further increase. There are more passengers than there have been since the early 1960s on what is, compared with the pre-Beeching railway, a smaller railway. That is a significant improvement.

On the comment of the hon. Member for Totnes about FirstGroup, it put in a bid for the franchise because it obviously thinks that it is a good commercial proposition. It believes, as do we, that the number of passengers will continue to grow.

It is important to give some background. It was clear from the start that specifying the service to be provided by the new Great Western operator would be an intricate task. We must balance issues of affordability, service, value for money and performance when awarding a franchise. At the same time, this is a truly
 
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regional franchise that brings together services of all types: inter-city, inter-urban, commuter, local and rural. By contrast, most previous franchises tended to be of one particular service type.

The Great Western franchise is a particularly large and detailed franchise. It also operates across a wide geographical area including, for example, parts of London, the Thames valley, the south midlands, Bath, Bristol, south Wales and the south-west peninsula. That makes it one of the most operationally complex franchises on the network.

One of the great benefits of the new franchise is that it allows us to ensure that Network Rail has to deal with just one train operator across most of the network west of Paddington. That should bring real advantages for passengers, too. For example, it will greatly simplify the operation of major stations on the routes for Paddington, Bristol Temple Meads and Reading.

The core of the specification is the service level commitment, which typically lays down the minimum number of trains that must run on each route, the time of early morning and late evening services, journey times and calling patterns. However, the Government do not specify every aspect of a service. For example, rolling stock, which hon. Members have mentioned, is largely a matter for bidders, who must ensure that trains can achieve the speeds needed to deliver the service, and that there is enough rolling stock to meet the operator's own forecast of demand.

Fares, too, are a matter for the franchisee, provided they comply with the Government's policy on regulated fares. Increases on such fares are limited annually to 1 per cent. above the rate of increase in the retail prices index. I probably ought to mention as well that catering on trains, a subject which is of great interest to the hon. Member for Totnes—he has previously raised it with me—is entirely a matter for bidders to propose.

In short, we aim for a specification that is detailed enough to ensure that value for money for the taxpayer is properly balanced against the needs of passengers. At the same time, we recognise that operators, not Ministers or civil servants, are experts in delivering train services. We therefore leave to them as much of the operational detail as is reasonably possible.

The point that I would like to stress more than any other before I move on to other issues is that the operator is free to vary train times and to amend calling patterns, provided the minimum standards set out in the service level commitment are met. Crucially, they can also operate extra trains, provided there is sufficient track capacity and no adverse effect on other operators' subsidies or premiums.

Tenders for the new franchise were received in September 2005, and, as we all know, the franchise was awarded to FirstGroup. It is worth emphasising that FirstGroup has committed itself to £220 million investment over the first three years of the franchise in return for the right to run it, and that that will deliver a range of benefits to passengers. There will be a complete redesign of the high-speed train fleet, at a cost of some £140 million, which will increase by 14 per cent. the number of seats on commuter and long-distance trains to and from London in the peak periods. There will be a programme of station improvements, including better customer information systems, 1,700 new car parking
 
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places and, crucially, at a time when there is great concern about passenger safety at stations, improvements in passenger security through the upgrading of CCTV at stations across the network.

Also, there will be revenue protection measures, including automatic ticket gates at principal stations. That is important for passengers, as detecting fare evasion tends to reduce other crime on the railway. The measures will be backed up by extra staff and the recruitment of more community support officers.

New performance and reliability targets will call for nine out of 10 trains to run on time by 2011–12. As the hon. Gentleman knows—he raised the issue with me recently—the sleeper service to Penzance, which many in the media predicted would be withdrawn, has been retained.

Once FirstGroup had been awarded the new franchise, it embarked on a consultation about the detailed service that it proposed to offer. As hon. Members have said, that attracted a considerable volume of responses, which tended to focus on objections about specific proposals. I hope that the extent to which it has been possible to meet the points that were raised in the consultation demonstrates that it was a genuine and helpful exercise. Inevitably, there will be some preferences that it has not been possible to cater for, but the service that we now expect when the new timetable is introduced will go a long way to satisfying the points that have been made. Of course, it will still be possible at various points during the lifetime of the franchise to offer additional services if the case can be made for them, but they must meet the criteria that I outlined.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I know that he has limited time. Could he possibly drop me a line along the lines of the one for the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), as the services at Keynsham in my constituency are to be reduced at commuter times? The capacity of the trains will also be reduced, and that is causing great concern.

Derek Twigg : I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in the train services in his constituency and is a good campaigner for them. Yes, I shall certainly write to him on that matter.
 
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The hon. Member for Totnes mentioned track maintenance and infrastructure problems. Today's debate has highlighted the condition of the infrastructure, and I am aware of the concerns that have been expressed by hon. Members about the performance of FirstGroup and Network Rail in respect of the Great Western service. The principal causes of problems are track condition and the temporary speed restrictions that are imposed to maintain safe operation. Performance on the route remains unsatisfactory, but Network Rail reduced the delay minutes for track-related problems from 14,000 minutes per period at the start of the year 2005–06 to 10,000 minutes per period. It has a large programme of track renewals over a five to six year period and has invested in high-output track renewal plant that has been successful in reducing track-related faults. To reduce delays, it is working to increase the track handback speed following renewals from 50 mph to 80 mph. A recent programme of rail renewal has helped to reduce temporary speed restrictions, and Network Rail plans to spend additional money over the next five years on more than 100 schemes to improve Great Western performance.

An essential element of planning a train service specification is to give Network Rail reasonable access to the railway for maintenance and renewal. Generally, that requires possession, which involves a temporary closure of a section of railway to traffic. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the typical pattern is for routine track maintenance to be undertaken during midweek night possessions, when few passenger trains operate, and for renewal and larger maintenance projects to be done at weekends. At the same time, growing levels of rail traffic pose a challenge to Network Rail, which, if possible, must increase the rate of maintenance and renewal without increasing its demands for possessions.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Dawlish. It receives special attention from Network Rail. The line and sea wall are regularly monitored and receive enhanced maintenance. The foundations of vulnerable sections have been strengthened, and a team of five people work on the section throughout the year. Network Rail is not currently considering an alternative route. The monitoring and enhanced maintenance—

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.
 
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