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Network Rail replaced Railtrack in 2002, taking over responsibility for operating, maintaining and renewing the network to meet the demands of rail users. Performance, both by Network Rail and by the train
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operators, has improved progressively since then. The 2004 White Paper supported performance improvement by making Network Rail the single point of accountability for rail performance. This has given it leadership of operational performance on the network as a whole and restores accountability to where it is best exercised. Network Rail produces, and shares within the industry, detailed data on punctuality, so that all parties can work together to tackle the causes of delay.

Meanwhile, responsibility for setting the strategic direction of the rail industry now rests, as it should, with the Government. We have clear agreements with each part of the industry, and we set levels of public expenditure.

Mr. Andrew Turner: Will the Minister ask Network Rail to look once again at whether punctuality targets are appropriate on every part of the railway? Island Line is the most punctual service in the country, but it often achieves that by steaming out of Ryde pierhead station just as the ferry is coming in, when the ferry is a little late. People are more interested in connectivity than in punctuality.

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is right, although I suspect that part of the reason for the performance of Island Line is that it has a very simple structure compared with certain other franchises. He makes a valid point about which, I suspect, South West Trains and the ferry operators should be talking to each other. If the ferry timetable were changed, that might have a beneficial effect for his constituents.

The Office of Rail Regulation continues to monitor performance and is alert to any systemic problems that might threaten continued improvement. It holds Network Rail to account for its own causes of delay. In the event of poor performance by Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation has enforcement powers, ensuring that train operators can provide a reliable service to the travelling public on a well-performing infrastructure. However, I remain concerned to ensure that performance, and its impact on customers, is closely monitored.

The Department for Transport sets its own public service agreement target to improve the punctuality and reliability of rail services, in discussion with senior representatives of the industry. Every four weeks, I meet senior industry representatives and chair a discussion in which we examine progress in rail performance and key improvement activities. Although major advances have been made, it is important to keep the momentum going. The industry knows that it must continue to plan for further improvement and that it is subject to challenge if its plans do not bear fruit. As part of its accountability for whole-industry performance, Network Rail joins train operators to plan performance improvement at individual operator level. The day-to-day responsibility for running trains on time is thus in the hands of the people best placed to deliver it.

There has been significant improvement in train performance since the Hatfield accident in 2001. It is quite clear that Government investment has contributed to the outstanding railway network in this country today. Despite the criticisms that are
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understandably, but unjustifiably, aimed at the industry, we have the possibility of a healthy and growing network that serves more passengers every day.

Mark Lazarowicz: I endorse what my hon. Friend says about Government investment in the railway network. As he has pointed out, it is making a real difference on the west coast main line, but on the question of growth of the network, is not it also time to consider a new north-south high-speed line, which would relieve capacity difficulties on other sections and provide faster services between the north and south of the UK? When is the Eddington report, which is addressing that and other transport issues, likely to be published?

Mr. Harris: I can satisfy my hon. Friend on that score. I understand that the Eddington report is to be published tomorrow, although I could be wrong on that. I saw all those blank faces and wondered whether I had been given the wrong information.

Network Rail’s enlarged role in managing network operations following the 2004 White Paper “The Future of Rail” is also enabling better service recovery from routine disruption. Where performance remains poor on local routes, arrangements are available to put remedial measures in place. Work by the industry to reduce the impact of seasonal bad weather, such as the so-called wrong type of snow that is often referred to—

Mr. Ellwood: Leaves.

Mr. Harris: Indeed, the wrong type of leaves. That phrase was never used, but that is another matter. That work has contributed to improved performance and only a few issues remain. Senior rail industry representatives meet as part of a national taskforce to work together to find joint solutions to problems as they emerge. A new railway operational code has been established, so there is an agreed way to restore services quickly where there is disruption.

I want to talk a little about the joint control centres, which the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has written about recently. Control centres are crucial to ensuring that services run well on the day. The joint control centre at Waterloo has been referred to by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who spoke yesterday in an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. They have talked about there being a blame attribution desk; I believe that phrase was used. Unfortunately for them, the blame attribution desk does not exist.

There is a delay attribution desk, which provides a sensible mechanism to ensure that delays are identified and that whoever is responsible for correcting something has it brought to their attention so that the delay is dealt with quickly. The industry has welcomed that, and it has been extremely effective over the past few years.

The White Paper “The Future of Rail” recognised the importance of integrated working, and Network Rail has plans to establish joint control centres with train operators wherever feasible. The way we let franchises also has a part to play. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is in her place. I have read her
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Committee’s report extremely carefully, and the Department will produce a formal response in due course. Of course, I do not intend any of my remarks today to be a formal response to that report.

The Department is committed to raising and maintaining improvement in operational performance through that process. In the arrangements for rail franchises, the Department continues to address operators’ performance to ensure that minimum levels are contractually specified. Performance commitments are contractualised when a franchise is awarded and monitored throughout the life of the contract. It is important that when franchises are remapped or re-let, any short-term effects on performance are carefully monitored and addressed by local management. We are encouraging operators and Network Rail to remain vigilant in all those examples.

To help to maintain and improve performance and reliability into the future, we need to consider performance as part of the overall strategy for the railway. We intend to publish a long-term vision for the railways alongside a high-level output specification in summer 2007.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend make it clear, however, that if for any reason a franchise must be renegotiated, it should not be renegotiated on a lower financial base simply because the company concerned is in financial difficulty? The commitment to the passenger and to maintenance of high standards is what is important, not the problems of individual companies.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend makes a valid point and I reassure her not only on the question of renegotiation of any contracts with a lower financial specification, but that the Department will not renegotiate franchises where an operator gets into financial difficulties.

Mr. Martlew: Is not it a fact, however, that a franchisee can give back the franchise to the Government at a fairly minimal cost? Ministers do not therefore have a strong bargaining position.

Mr. Harris: A franchisee’s financial liabilities must be met before it walks away from a contract. I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not mentioning any specific companies to which his comments might refer.

We intend to publish a long-term vision for the railways—the high-level output specification—next year. The HLOS is a significant innovation. For the first time, Government will lay out clearly what is expected from the railway—not in detail, as that will be for the industry to finalise, but requirements for performance, safety and capacity will be set.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Harris: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall make some progress.

As performance is such an important measure of the quality of people’s journeys, it will be a key area
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covered by the HLOS. Passengers want—and respond to—better, more reliable services. A reliable, punctual service is one of the principal reasons that customer satisfaction, according to the national passenger survey, is now at an all-time high. This year’s figures show that overall satisfaction is up. Four out of five passengers were satisfied with their overall journey—the best level ever recorded by the national passenger survey.

Passengers want reliability, which is vital in supporting the economy and absorbing the growth in the number of people who want to use railways. We will continue to plan for that, and we will work with the industry in delivering it.

3.52 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): This debate on an extremely important issue for the country comes, ironically, in a week that has seen yet another round of well-above-inflation train fare increases. Although the Minister portrayed happy passengers, this week—believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker—he will find a lot of very unhappy passengers. I shall deal with some of the reasons for those fare increases in a moment.

Bill Wiggin: On the subject of unhappy passengers, may I draw the House’s attention to the experience of my constituent, Mr. Edward Bulmer, who is beyond irate? Every time he takes the train, which he chooses to do for environmental reasons, the connection at Newport fails, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, adding another hour to his journey. Does my hon. Friend agree that connectivity is a fundamental problem, and that buying a ticket and not being able to make one’s journey does not represent good value for money?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is right. On issues of connectivity, he should look as much to the Department for Transport team as to the rail companies. Few members of the public today fully understand the degree of operational control that the Department for Transport has over the day-to-day workings of the railways. The Department and its team specify train timetables—although not to the point of stating which minute of the hour a train must depart—the mix of services and what routes get services, and they create the framework in which certain services are not provided.

Mr. Harris: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that in the event of the Conservatives’ coming to power at some point in the next few years, he as Secretary of State for Transport will not impose a minimum specification for levels of service in any franchise?

Chris Grayling: I look forward to doing the job. What I can confirm is that I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide which station in Oxfordshire is given a Sunday service. I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide detailed service configurations. I would prefer to create a world in which we would trust rail professionals to decide how our railways work best, rather than entrusting the job of deciding the configuration of services to a team of civil servants.

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Let me tell the House a story that dates from the days of the Government’s Strategic Rail Authority rather than from those of the current team in the Department for Transport. While drafting their first timetable in the same detail that the Department now employs, those civil servants actually managed to make two trains head towards each other on the same piece of track in the Cotswolds. That is very relevant to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I understand that the team of civil servants who write timetables today were originally in the SRA.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman said that if a train operator wanted to remove a Sunday service, that would be a matter for the industry in which politicians should not interfere. Is he seriously suggesting that if a local community were due to lose a Sunday service and people wanted to lobby the local politician, the politician should turn around and say “That is a matter for the market”?

Chris Grayling: Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of the great works of the Department. Pilning station in Gloucestershire—which is just north of Bristol, on the line between Bristol and Cardiff—has a change of service as a result of the new Great Western franchise, to a specification set by the Government. Do Members know what the new service will involve? Two trains, one each way, not per day but per week: one on Saturday mornings and one on Saturday afternoons. Who in his right mind would come up with such a service specification for a railway station like that? The answer is the Ministers in office today, but what we heard from this Minister was a long list of plaudits for his Department’s strategy and the work done by Network Rail.

Clive Efford: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has answered my question. He implies that if South West Trains wanted to introduce a service of that kind, it would be purely at the behest of the private sector and no one would have any comeback. There would be no accountability, and no one to whom people could apply for redress.

Chris Grayling: There are, and should be, proper mechanisms to cover the wholesale closure of services, but—I accept that this is a point of dispute between my party and the hon. Gentleman’s—I do not think it appropriate for Ministers to make detailed operational decisions about train service configurations at individual stations. There is a world of difference between setting minimum service requirements and making detailed decisions about the pattern of services.

Mr. Harris: I hope that you will forgive me for intervening again, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that I have already taken up a good deal of time.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that not only do we specify minimum levels of services to a lesser extent than the Strategic Rail Authority, but the SRA specified timetables to a lesser extent than his party did when it was in charge of the railways? I would guess not.

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Chris Grayling: In the days of Conservative government, Ministers did not decide whether Pilning had two trains a week or not, and I think it absurd that that is the position now.

Mr. Martlew rose—

Chris Grayling: I will give way once more, but then I must make progress.

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way. Will he take this opportunity to apologise for the Conservatives’ privatisation of the railways, and does he realise that an apology will not make the people forgive or forget what they did?

Chris Grayling: We can always count on the enthusiasm of the Government, and the Labour party in general, for debating the issues of 10 years ago rather than the issues of the future. It is true that there have been some real highs and lows on the railways in the decade since privatisation, but, as the Minister rightly said, the practical reality is that today, 10 years after privatisation, the railways carry more passengers each year than a rather larger network did before the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I trust that the shadow Minister’s embarrassment saves me from having to say anything more.

Chris Grayling: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I thought I had turned off my mobile telephone.

The achievement I was referring to is an astounding one, given that at the time of privatisation 10 years ago the received wisdom about our rail network was that it was in a long spiral of decline—that there would be a long decline in passenger usage and rail freight. Those have been reversed over the past 10 years. As the Minister rightly said, we have a growing railway, but that—particularly when it has grown as much as ours over the past 10 years—creates its own set of problems. That is where the challenge of the next 10 years lies.

Kelvin Hopkins: We have heard the argument many times that passenger growth has somehow been a result of privatisation, but it has happened in spite of privatisation, and in spite of massive fare rises and the costs of construction and new track. That argument is a non-sequitur; passenger numbers have risen because the roads are clogged and more people rightly want to travel by train.

Chris Grayling: There is a wide variety of reasons why railway travel has grown in the past 10 years, but the practical reality is that it has grown. The last 10 years have been a successful decade for the railways, and the railways now face a significant set of challenges that did not exist 10 years ago.

I caution Ministers not to get too enthusiastic about the improvements that there have been. Punctuality has not improved just because trains are running more reliably. Timetables have also been stretched. My morning train used to be timetabled to reach Waterloo in 42 minutes. It is now timetabled to take 46 minutes. Unsurprisingly, it is not late as often as it used to be.

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