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A little clarity from the Government would lead them rapidly to conclude that the strategy has not been successful and that it should be re-examined as soon as possible.

The Committee found that passenger rail franchising is not

There is clear evidence that companies are not responding to the needs of either the system or the passenger.

The eternal argument about whether rate payers and taxpayers or passengers should pay for rail services will have to be addressed at some point. We now have the worst of all circumstances: the companies receive larger and larger sums of money for producing more and more overcrowded services, while charging their passengers eye-watering fares that are unacceptable in the 21st century.

We need good strategies and they must be linked to the Government’s specifications. It is absurd that Parliament should cheerfully agree to hand out gold bars to individual companies without asking them to produce any standards and without asking them whether they are capable of doing what they are taking our money for. The Conservative party has always lauded the joys of capitalism, so it is extraordinary that Conservative Members now resent the fact that the minimum conditions that the Government seem to be imposing demand a response. It is important for the Government to look at the whole question of the length of franchises. They must monitor the effects of day-by-day running and they must insist that, at every level, passengers are allowed to get their views known and their interests covered.

The Government have spent a lot of money on the transport system, but some of it has gone into the wrong pockets. I am astonished that Members on the Opposition Front Bench should suggest that the poor ROSCOs should not be referred to the competition authorities simply because that would force them to put into abeyance any orders for new rolling stock. For the last three years, the rolling stock companies—particularly in my constituency—have been trying enormously hard to get the ROSCOs to invest in the sort of contracts that would have brought jobs to
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Crewe and would have enabled us to compete. We are capable of making some of the best rolling stock in the world, but one would not think so if one looked closely at the attitude of the ROSCOs or the individual companies.

The industry is at long last crawling out of the mud of apathy, and the sadness of under-investment and a management system that is unable to respond to the needs of passengers. There is a need for a sharp strike where it will hurt most. Above all, there is a need for the Government to demand that the whole attitude of the franchisees is changed so that there is value for money of the highest quality, in the interests of passengers.

4.26 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): We welcome the opportunity to debate rail performance. It is perhaps appropriate that I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who is perhaps the only Member of Parliament who does not have any rails in his constituency.

Mr. Martlew: What about the Western Isles?

Mr. Leech: Quite possibly.

Most people would accept that the privatisation of the railways by the Conservative Government left the railways in a mess. However, although I recognise that some improvements have been made since 1997, the Labour Government have not fully solved the wide-ranging problems that the railways face in terms of improving capacity, providing value for money, maintaining a high level of service, getting trains to their destination on time, ensuring passenger safety and making the railways accessible to all.

The Department for Transport was quick—as was the Minister—to point out in its annual review that the autumn 2005 passenger satisfaction survey for Passenger Focus reported that 80 per cent. of passengers were fairly or very satisfied. However, on the flip side, that means that one in five people were not satisfied with the service. That is not a statistic that anyone should be proud of.

Mr. Drew: I declare my support from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which is in the Register of Members’ Interests. The RMT has organised a demonstration in the Bristol area tomorrow at 3.15 pm—everyone is invited—to draw attention to the fact that First Great Western is substantially reducing services following its successful franchise bid. Is that not an example of the way in which the rail industry is letting down its customers? People want to see improved services, but they are getting reduced services.

Mr. Leech: I cannot disagree with a word that has been said. With franchises as they are, passengers are often not put first. The shareholders’ interests are put before them.

The punctuality of train services has been improving. However, the number of cancellations and late trains remains unacceptable. In 2005, more than 100,000 train
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services were cancelled—one train every five minutes. Central Trains was the biggest culprit, with more than 16,000 cancellations. Figures given for this year in a parliamentary answer in November showed that cancellations remain high in 2006, with six of the franchises having more than 5,000 cancellations up to August. Punctuality has improved—topping 90 per cent. in January 2006—but only to pre-2000 levels. Five of the franchises are currently running at under 85 per cent. reliability, using public performance measures, with a further seven running at between 85 and 90 per cent. Only seven of the franchises are performing above 90 per cent.

Anthony Smith, the chief executive of Passenger Focus, is quoted as saying:

That is not exactly a glowing endorsement of the performance of the railways. In fact, according to the Government’s own annual report, nearly one in four passengers is unhappy with train punctuality. Network Rail argues that trains are more punctual than planes, but given the nature and importance of airport security, it is no surprise that airport delays are worse, and the fact that railways are more punctual than aeroplanes is no excuse for the railways to be complacent.

I am sure that the whole House would agree that safety is paramount to a successful railway. Unfortunately, although there has been significant investment in rail infrastructure and in safety improvements, more needs to be done. The number of signals passed at danger rose by a staggering 62 per cent. between July 2005 and July 2006, and that is 20 per cent. higher than the average for the previous three years, according to the Office of Rail Regulation. Until there is a significant decline in the number of signals passed at danger, safety will remain a concern.

According to Passenger Focus, only 45 per cent. of passengers consider rail services to be value for money. That view was echoed by the Transport Committee in its report, “How fair are the fares?”, which I highly recommend to those right hon. and hon. Members who have not read it. The Government are investing £87 million each week, but neither passengers nor taxpayers get real value for money. A commuter who is forced to stand up every day on their way to work, after paying hundreds of pounds—or thousands, in some cases—for the privilege, is not getting good value for money. I read with interest yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) highlighted the fact that South West Trains

The company made it clear to my hon. Friend that it wants to get people away from the doors, and it wants more people to stand inside the carriages, to

I do not know about other hon. Members, but I certainly do not consider standing in a train or on a bus to be comfortable. It is therefore hardly surprising that passengers do not believe that they are getting value for money.

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Clive Efford: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is Liberal Democrat policy that everyone who gets on a train should be provided with a seat, or is there some limitation to his party’s desire to have every bum on a seat?

Mr. Leech: That was not what I implied. All that I am trying to say is that if increasing numbers of people have to stand up, day after day, it will reduce passengers’ satisfaction with the service. It will also reduce value for money, because people are paying significant amounts to travel on trains, and some have to stand up every single day.

Kelvin Hopkins: Is there not an inherent problem with privatised franchises, in that if one wants to maximise profit, one wants to get as many people as possible on as few trains as possible, and passenger comfort will come way down the list of priorities?

Mr. Leech: I would not necessarily say that privatisation will always lead to poor services on trains. Before privatisation, some people had to stand up, so it is not the case that privatisation always leads to increasing numbers of people having to stand up and being forced to travel in a way that is not comfortable.

A passenger who pays the full fare for a ticket should be able to expect a decent level of customer service. I spend a lot of time on Virgin’s west coast main line route, as do other hon. Members, and I have lost count of the number of times that I have been on the last train back to Manchester and have found that there are no staff—not even to clear up the rubbish in the coaches—until Milton Keynes, when they are picked up to run the services. I have no complaint about the service provided by individual members of staff on the trains that I use; in fact, I have been impressed by the staff who work on Virgin trains. On some of the less busy trains, however, the standard of service drops to such an extent that the carriages are full of rubbish. That is true, too, of weekend services, which are badly affected by maintenance work and staff shortages, often resulting in trains from Manchester to London taking twice as long as the fastest services during the week.

Mr. Martlew: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the west coast main line, and it will be nice for the staff if he wants a cup of coffee on the way home this evening. However, the Manchester to London service has improved a great deal, and the journey now takes two hours and 10 minutes. The British Airways shuttle has almost been destroyed, because people have swapped air for rail travel, so can he say something good about the Manchester service?

Mr. Leech: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me acknowledge the improvements that have been made. I was suggesting, however, that the service on some London to Manchester trains was not as good as it was on others. I made the point that the staff who work on Virgin trains do a good job but, unfortunately, some trains operate with reduced staff and thus a reduced service.

Passengers think that they are being ripped off. The fact that passengers cannot buy the cheapest ticket at
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the point of sale only adds to the belief that tickets are not good value for money. It is ridiculous that someone can fly from Manchester to London for less than the price of a rail ticket. Customers are forced to book tickets far in advance to take advantage of cheap fares, but it is often difficult for them to purchase the cheapest tickets. Trains are losing customers, because many people have been priced out of flexible walk-on travel. Excessive price increases mean that standard open fares are far from affordable for most people, and the knock-on effect is that value for money in rail travel has deteriorated.

The Select Committee report stated that the industry has demonstrated beyond doubt that it can neither be relied upon to produce a simple, coherent and passenger-friendly structure of fares, nor is it capable of maintaining reasonable ticket prices. Prices continue to rise. In January 2006, commuters faced a double whammy, as they had to return to work after Christmas and pay a fare increase of up to 9 per cent. Recent announcements, as the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) pointed out, will result in further increases so that after this year’s Christmas break passengers will again be subject to higher fares.

Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. There is a huge differential between the peak and off-peak travel, so there is serious discrimination against people who cannot afford to pay those outrageously high peak fares. The Government should pay close attention to that problem, as it is the worst kind of social classism. I am sure, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman is on to something.

Mr. Leech: I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. Although £12 tickets are available on the Manchester to London line, there are very few of them. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have been able to obtain one. My constituents would agree, as they often have to buy saver returns and travel off-peak, because the cheaper tickets for peak travel have all been sold.

Under the Conservative Government, rail use declined. The present Government face the opposite challenge of growing the railway network to meet capacity needs. An additional challenge is that as rail travel increases, the network becomes more congested which, in turn, imposes additional pressures on punctuality. On my own route—the west coast main line—it is estimated that without additional work there will be no spare capacity after 2015, even after spending billions of pounds on the line. Significant investment has been made in the railways, but more is required. Also, we need to get Network Rail to spend the money that it has received. It seems ridiculous that last year it spent only £4 million out of a £50 million budget for small schemes. Significant further investment would be forthcoming if we give franchise holders the incentive to invest by awarding fewer and longer contracts, so that the train companies can plan their future investment with much greater certainty.

My final point concerns accessibility, which was raised by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) in a brief intervention. More still needs to be done to ensure that our railways are accessible to all. I know that considerable progress has been made, but
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there is still much to be done. The announcement by Network Rail that Oxford Road, Cheadle Hulme and Hazel Grove stations will be made fully accessible is welcome, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) have supported that investment, but that is little comfort to the people who live in Levenshulme and the northern part of Burnage, who need to use Levenshulme station, for which funding has not yet been found to make it accessible. It does not matter how good the railways are for people with disabilities if we do not allow them to get on to the station to board the train.

Overall, although we welcome the improvements, they need to go much further. If this were a school report, the performance of the railways would probably be described as a slow start with signs of improvement, but still much to be done.

4.4 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): My hon. Friend is a lucky Minister. Over the past 10 years, there have been Ministers with responsibility for the railways who have stood at the Dispatch Box and said that they had put billions of pounds into railways but there had been no improvement. Now, even the Opposition recognise the improvement.

I shall speak about the west coast main line, which will not surprise the House. I have been speaking about the west coast main line for nearly 20 years now. I have probably raised the matter more often than any other Member, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but she has been in the House quite a lot longer than I have. The line is a success and we should celebrate that. We should thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), for without him putting Railtrack into administration, the west coast main line would not have been upgraded.

When Opposition Members mention the present problems, those are the problems of success. I find it difficult to accept their arguments. One way in which the Conservatives will reduce capacity if they ever get back into power is by doing what they always do—they will create a recession. People will not have to travel and will not be able to afford to travel. That is what the Conservatives did twice when they were last in power.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) who speaks for the Opposition, said that he was deeply concerned that the ROSCOs would be investigated, because that may put off investment. They set up the ROSCOs, and they knew that there was a shortage of rolling stock. We are told that the Conservative party is not the party of big business. Who owns the ROSCOs but the big banks? We must have the investigation, but there is a problem in the rolling stock factories that we still have, and those are fewer than we used to have.

People are flocking back to the west coast main line because it is reliable and comfortable, with the exception of the disabled toilets, which have a habit of springing open when one least expects it. I was a little surprised by the press release from the National Audit Office. It seemed to be more about grabbing attention for the NAO than about what was in the report. The
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NAO report sets out how the west coast main line was upgraded, how the costs were brought down and how Network Rail got it right. Its earlier report deals with the Strategic Rail Authority, which deserves a great deal of praise for setting out the blueprint.

There are still one or two problems on the west coast main line. The Secretary of State for Transport had to answer questions from the Select Committee on Transport about why it was necessary to appoint a large City law firm to deal with the franchise problems of the west coast main line with Virgin. The answer was that because Mr. Branson employs a lot of lawyers, he had to too. Mr. Branson did well from the situation created by Railtrack. I think he got about £550 million extra. At present he should be paying hundreds of millions of pounds back to the Treasury, but I suspect he is still enjoying the subsidy. Perhaps I am more critical than my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich of the franchising system. It will not last the passage of time.

Ticketing and pricing are issues. For a previous Select Committee report I asked the Travel Office to tell me how many different fares there were between my constituency of Carlisle and London. The answer was 29. There is no clarity in that. People try to book cheap tickets early, but they have all gone, so have to travel off-peak or pay the full price. People give up.

Mr. Drew: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest frustrations in buying a ticket before getting on a train—all the emphasis is on buying a ticket before getting on a train—is when a non-regular traveller in front tries to negotiate with ticket staff exactly what fare they should pay? I have seen many people miss trains when they cannot get a ticket because of these arguments.

Mr. Martlew: I agree. The other option is to give up arguing and get on the train, but then the full fare is payable without any discounts. Virgin has brought in that new rule.

The NAO commented on a capacity problem for the future. I think it was talking about 10 or 15 years ahead. The Government must take that seriously. There are some fairly straightforward solutions to capacity, but they will not solve the problem entirely. One is to lengthen the Pendolino and Voyager trains. Unfortunately, the Alstrom factory in Birmingham has now closed down. If the line is restarted, it will probably be in France, but that needs to happen. I understand that negotiations are going on with the Minister to ensure that those extra carriages are ordered. I hope that they are forthcoming.

It will probably be necessary to change the signalling system and that will cost money. On the original plan Pendolinos were built to go at 140 mph and we were to have a new signalling system at the cutting edge, but that never happened and the trains can travel at only 125 mph and must keep a safe distance apart. Once the new technology has been developed, it will have to be installed on the west coat main line. That will allow trains to travel at 140 mph and run closer together, so capacity will be increased.

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