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30 Nov 2006 : Column 1306

I have campaigned successfully over the years for the upgrade of the west coast main line. Indeed, I have been fanatical about it. In reality that has been all right in the medium term, but the Government must look at a high speed line between the south and the north of England. I hope that the report to be published tomorrow will recommend that. I look forward to a debate with the Minister when we have read the report.

4.49 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): It is great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who speaks with great passion about the west coast main line. It is important that individuals should champion certain parts of the railway, and I should like to champion my own part in the context of Reading station. I do not know whether right hon. and hon. Members are aware of the great significance of Reading station as a national rail hub. What goes on there has a knock-on effect right across the country, including the south-west, Wales, the midlands, the north-west, Scotland, and the south coast. The problem is that it has become a barrier to improved rail performance. It suffers, among other things, from too few platforms, poor track configurations, lack of access, and a fairly ancient signalling system. Although that has been known for some time, Reading has languished far back in a long queue, with no one to champion the changes that are required.

That is why it is so important that the railway has champions. Since coming to this House in May 2005, I have focused very much on moving the issue up the agenda. I have hosted regular meetings involving Network Rail, the train operating companies, Reading borough council and other stakeholders to try to get a degree of common agreement about a workable plan for Reading station. I have spoken to Members from all political parties, and they all agree that Reading station should be a top priority in terms of the investment that needs to be made in the railway system.

Let me explain why. Every single day, 621 minutes, or more than 10 hours, are lost in hold-ups at Reading station—172 minutes in the station area itself and a further 449 just outside on the approaches into it. To put that in context, First Great Western runs some 1,472 trains a day. Those hold-ups represent a massive loss of passenger time. They cause not only a great deal of frustration but productivity loss to the economy and to British business. They are also a strong reason why First Great Western cannot meet its punctuality requirements. Indeed, leaving aside its often dirty and overcrowded trains, it is the worst train operating company in terms of punctuality performance anywhere in the country.

What do we need to do? The Government—I hope that the Minister is listening—need speedily to approve Network Rail’s improvement plan for Reading. That would allow for four new platforms, two reconfigured platforms, improvements to access and better ticketing. It would mean longer trains, more passenger capacity, improvements to the track, and future-proofing for the link to Heathrow from Reading and the west, from which many hon. Members will benefit enormously. The changes would also mean that the negative loss from hold-ups of 621 minutes a day would be turned
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into a positive saving of 39 minutes a day in terms of journeys going through the station. All that for a fairly small sum of money that would also lead to knock-on performance enhancements across the rail network. The Minister should give this issue a great deal of focus and his urgent attention. However, I do not want radical changes to be made to the very good Network Rail plan so that the whole process gets gummed up again.

My constituents get a very poor service on one of the most expensive stretches of railway anywhere in the world. It costs nearly £30 for a day saver ticket to travel the 40-odd miles from Reading to Paddington and back again. Surely my constituents and those travelling through Reading deserve a lot better. I hope that in December the Minister will be prepared to meet me and the stakeholder group that I convened, thereby delivering on the pledge that his predecessor made on the Floor of the House, and that together we can provide the improvements and enhancements that the railways require.

4.55 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I commend the Select Committee report to the Minister. It reaches a number of conclusions about the state of the rail industry, which should help to formulate Government policy, particularly regarding the franchising of rail services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), a colleague on the Select Committee, said that the Minister is fortunate—particularly after such a relatively short time as Minister—in being able to announce good tidings about our rail system. The Government should be proud of putting significant investment into our rail system. However, the question has to be asked whether the improvements are the result of the current structure of the system or due to the Government’s efforts. There is also the question of whether other structures would allow us to achieve even more in future.

Rail subsidy by the Government is running at roughly three times the rate that obtained under British Rail. It could be argued that if it had been known at the time of British Rail’s demise that it could look forward towards that level of growth in investment, the problems of declining numbers that resulted in privatisation could have been seen in a different light. The Committee received evidence from a number of people, showing that the benefits that we have seen and the growth of the rail industry over the last 10 years are not necessarily the result of the structure, but due more to the additional subsidies. Growth has come about through greater economic activity as opposed to the decline experienced in the 1990s. That, not the structure, is the key reason why improvements, expansion and increased demand on our railway system have occurred.

I cannot avoid mentioning the new integrated Kent franchise that came into being in April, which affects my own local rail service. I opposed the contract at the time as I felt that the new management taking over from Connex had successfully turned round the rail service and produced an improvement, particularly on the lines serving Dartford via Bexleyheath, so that people were loth to see it toyed around with.

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I can tell the Minister that not a single train that I have travelled on this month has been on time. Trains seem to linger for two or three minutes on the platform at the central terminal in Charing Cross. For no apparent reason, they do not leave on time. No explanation is given for the lateness, which often leads to enormous difficulties further down the line. Only last week, I was sitting on a train in Charing Cross when it was announced that it had been cancelled, so I had to get off. A large group of people had to get off the train and they stood around the platform trying to find out what was going on. When I asked, I was told that it was the Eltham train, so I got back on it. Lo and behold, it left and travelled to Eltham. That shows the chaos that is creeping back into the service on that bit of the network. Similarly, I was off to a meeting on Tuesday, and I arrived at London Bridge 15 minutes late on yet another train service. That is my experience just in the past month. It is nothing like the service that was available under the previous contractors last year or the year before.

As the Minister pointed out, there has been significant investment in the infrastructure in that part of the network. The electricity supply has been upgraded, allowing for greater capacity and more reliability for local train services. We hear stories about leaves on the line—thankfully, there has not been any snow yet—but there is no excuse for the level of delay that I personally have experienced in the past month. It is not what we have become accustomed to, and the franchise needs to be looked at very carefully indeed. We have enjoyed significant improvement and a consistently high standard of delivery in recent times, so any slippage backwards is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will scrutinise the delivery of that service very closely because, it has to be said, it was the Government who reissued that franchise. The buck stops at the Dispatch Box, and I will be raising the matter time and again unless we see the standards to which we have become accustomed being maintained.

The Select Committee also took evidence about the transfer of risk, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has already mentioned. There is evidence that, when train operating companies fall into difficulties and go cap in hand to the Government, they are treated with kid gloves and allowed to refinance at a cost to the public purse. The Minister has said that there is no intention to do that in future, and we fully support that decision. If the train operating companies decide to play Oliver Twist and ask for more, I would urge the Minister to play Mr. Bumble.

We are concerned that the present franchising system does little more than maintain the status quo. The Government need to look into different ways of using the system to create more innovation, investment, expansion and growth in the industry. We have seen the Government’s determination in this regard, and that needs to be recognised.

The Office of Rail Regulation, following an approach from the Secretary of State, has asked the Office of Fair Trading to look into the cost of leasing trains from the train leasing companies. That is certainly a move in the right direction. I would not expect the companies to say other than that this will have an effect on investment. I would not expect them
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to roll over and say, “Okay, it’s a fair cop”. I would expect them to make the noises that they are making, but I urge the Minister not to be convinced by them, and to stick to the position that the Government have taken. The rising cost of leasing trains has a knock-on effect on fares and other costs to the travelling public, and that is unacceptable. The Government have taken the right steps in the direction of addressing that issue.

I would also like to comment on issues relating to capacity. I was interested to hear the comments about Crossrail from a Conservative Member, whose constituency I cannot recall—

Mr. Tom Harris: Romford.

Clive Efford: I am grateful to the Minister for helping me with that.

The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) suggested that the proposed investment in Crossrail would be better spent on upgrading existing infrastructure. I am sure that the £10 million will have a significant impact on the existing rail system, but we have to bear it in mind that Crossrail will provide 40 per cent. of the growth in capacity that is needed in London over the next 15 to 20 years.

We must also recall the fact that London’s population is likely to grow by the equivalent of that of a city the size of Leeds. No other region faces such population growth. On Tuesday, when I was at the launch of the Mayor’s strategy and the Transport for London document “Transport 2025”, we were given figures showing that by 2016 London’s population will grow to 8.1 million and that employment will be up at 5 million. That is up by more than 1 million jobs on the current level, which means that the demand for capacity on our existing transport network will be significant indeed.

From my perspective in south-east London, I must add my voice to the call for the upgrade of the Thameslink line, particularly the pinch point at Borough market and London Bridge station, where we need two extra lines to facilitate Thameslink through that part of the network and on into south-east London. I urge the Minister to bring that scheme forward as urgently as possible and note that Network Rail has called for it to be funded as soon as possible.

A number of challenges face our transport network, not least global warming. We await Sir Rod Eddington’s report, which I believe is to be published tomorrow, and he is likely to promote a pay-as-you-drive scheme to tackle road congestion. That is bound to have a significant effect on modal shift. If the Government are to meet that demand and at the same time meet their target to cut carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050, our rail network will have to play a significant part in meeting that growth in demand.

Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. On the possibility of there being new lines, I gather that there is a new approach from Network Rail—a five-stage criterion by which people can bid for new pieces of line. I do not know whether the Select
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Committee has yet had the opportunity to look at whether that is a sensible way forward.

I have been trying to get redoubled a piece of line between Kemble and Swindon for some time. It would be interesting to hear whether my hon. Friend knows anything about that issue and whether the Select Committee can push it forward, because it is important that we get new lines.

Clive Efford: I cannot make any reference to that line, but I commend the references in the Committee’s report to rural rail services and I am sure that the Minister heard what my hon. Friend said.

Reference has been made to overcrowding on our rail services, particularly to people standing. I represent a constituency that is in an inner-London borough, but towards the outer ring of inner London. When travelling into central London, many of my constituents must stand on whatever type of train arrives at the stations in my constituency.

Having been through the likely areas of growth in demand in our transport network in the foreseeable future, I think it is unlikely that anyone—whether Conservative or Liberal, or even Labour—will ever be able to supply a train service to central London that provides everyone with a seat. I know from talking to constituents who try to get on trains that do not even have standing space that they would rather get on such a train and be able to stand than not get on the train at all. A balance must be struck between the need to increase capacity and get people on to trains and the need to provide comfort for people on their journey into work.

Mr. Leech: Does the hon. Gentleman therefore support the policy of removing seats so that more people can get on to trains and stand?

Clive Efford: That is what I am indicating. I am not suggesting, however, that someone travelling from Manchester to London should be required to stand. We are talking about commuter journeys. Many people stand as a matter of course on the London underground. Many people’s journeys are so short that they do not bother to sit down when seats are available. If the Conservatives and Liberals are suggesting that they will be able to provide everyone with a seat who wants one, they are misleading people. I am not suggesting for a minute that those on long train journeys should be expected to stand. On many journeys from my constituency in inner London, people have never been able to stand—they are frequently unable to gain access to trains because of limited standing room. That is a common feature of our transport network and has been for a long time. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.

Mr. Leech: I was not suggesting that nobody would have to stand under my party’s proposals. My point was that capacity should not be increased by ripping out seats so that more people have to stand.

Clive Efford: I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but we will have to scrutinise the Liberal
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Democrats’ budget proposals to see how they would pay for seats to go back into trains and for increased train length to provide the capacity lost as a result, and how they would meet the future growth in demand. I am not suggesting that people coming from the south coast into central London every day, for example, should be asked to stand. On some routes, however, people getting on at stations in and around London have virtually always had to stand. The inability to get more people standing on those trains has been a significant problem. On numerous occasions, I have witnessed people being unable physically to get on to a train because so many people are standing, and I have experienced it myself. There is a balance to be struck, and anyone who suggests that there is a magic formula that can solve that problem and at the same time meet increasing capacity demands is misleading people. That has no part in a mature debate about the future of our transport system.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) made a similar comment to that made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) in an article in the Evening Standard on 2 October. In response to commuters complaining about South West Trains’ policy of reducing the number of seats in carriages, he said:

What is the Conservatives’ policy to meet that extra demand? From where are the extra seats to come? From where will extra carriages on trains come to meet the growth in demand? The Opposition are misleading the public—and being disingenuous—in saying that there is a simple solution and that no capacity problem needs to be addressed.

The Government have achieved a great deal, and even Opposition Members have had to recognise the Government’s significant achievements in improving our train network. The current franchising system, however, has not delivered for the general public. We need to listen more to what the travelling public are saying about our rail services, and design our services in a way that delivers for them, not for the people who operate the services.

5.14 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford): I found myself in agreement with much of what he said. We have heard a great deal of talk about whether the results of privatisation have been good or bad, but we are where we are today, and indeed we can move forward.

I listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about climate change issues. I strongly favour more use of the railways, and I feel that if we are to embark on any major changes to meet the greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2050, the rail network will need to participate in a major way.

I am somewhat disappointed with the level of attendance today, particularly among the Liberal Democrats. When their spokesman, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), began his
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speech with the words “We welcome this debate”, I wondered which other Liberal Democrats he meant.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): It was the royal “we”.

Mr. Ellwood: Oh, was it? A number of Members with constituencies in the south-west are affected by what happens to South West Trains, and it is a shame that they are not here today.

As for the Minister’s speech, the number of journeys made by rail passengers has indeed increased, and I understand that the distance travelled by rail passengers in the last year was indeed the greatest since 1946. However, that does not necessarily equate to an improvement in performance. Such statistics can be misleading. More people are using pushbikes, scooters, cars—of course—and aeroplanes. That does not necessarily mean that performances have improved; it merely means that more people are travelling today. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who chairs the Transport Committee, the nation is much more affluent today. We can afford to travel, and we do travel.

Mr. Evans: According to population statistics, 600,000 people have come in from 10 other European Union countries, and I suspect that they are all travelling as well. Clearly more people are travelling in the United Kingdom for that reason alone.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes an acute observation: not just the British public but everyone is travelling more.

Let me say a little about the Government’s method of monitoring their performance. They rely on something called the public performance measure, or PPM, which is their yardstick for assessing punctuality and reliability. According to that measure, a train is described as on time if it arrives up to five minutes late in London or the south-east, and up to 10 minutes late in other areas. I suggest to the Minister that a more accurate measure would be one that specified when the trains were on time and when they were up to 10 minutes late. That would constitute a better recognition of how progress in the United Kingdom is made.

As a result of the PPM, targets are currently set at about 85 per cent. If there is a 10-minute leeway in either direction, of course it will be possible to squeeze all trains into the “window” within which they must arrive or depart. In fact, we have gone backwards since 2000, when the performance measure was 87.8 per cent.

The Transport Committee, which has done a great deal of work on this issue, has been highly critical of the PPM target. According to its report published in May this year,

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