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Rail Services

4. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): What plans he has for the development of train services to Northampton; and if he will make a statement. [109931]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Plans for train services at Northampton are contained in the specification for the new west midlands franchise and outputs of the west coast main line modernisation project. Both have been published by the Department. They include an increase in the number of trains to and from the west midlands, and a new inter-regional service between Euston and Crewe.

Ms Keeble: In Northampton, which is one of the growth areas, there is a particular need for upgrading of the line that runs north from the town so that we can have fast main line services commensurate with those on the west coast main line, but the matter is not due to be examined until 2012. Will my hon. Friend consider bringing forward the timetable, and will he meet me with members of the rail users group in the new year to discuss that and other issues relating to our train service?

Mr. Harris: I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the work that she has done on behalf of her constituents, but I cannot at this stage
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offer her any encouragement in respect of Northampton’s inclusion in fast inter-city services. Adding Northampton as a stop to the current inter-city routes would add12 minutes to total journey times. However, when modernisation works at Rugby are completed, a new hourly service will link Northampton with the main stations on the west coast main line to Crewe. That will be in addition to the reinstatement of the previous twice-hourly service between Northampton and the north.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Minister will know that many of the constituents ofthe hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) use the Midland Mainline service, which starts at St. Pancras and heads up to Sheffield. Will he ensure that when the decision is made on which new franchise is to gain the Midland Mainline service, the service to Market Harborough—which is also used by Northamptonshire people—is not diminished in any way? At present we have a half-hourly service, but there are proposals to reduce it to an hourly service off peak. Will the Minister make certain that that does not happen?

Mr. Harris: As the hon. and learned Gentleman will know, the minimum specification for franchises is a matter for public consultation. As the local Member of Parliament, he will be invited to take part in that consultation if he has not already done so.

Public Transport

5. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): If he will increase funding for local charities and community groups for the provision of transport services in areas with low levels of public transport. [109932]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): Current central and local government support for bus services amounts to over £2 billion a year, including funds paid directly to community transport groups by the Government.

Mr. Kidney: Does my hon. Friend agree that if there is to be a fully effective and comprehensive public transport system, there must be planned support for community groups that is complementary with support for other forms of transport? Up and down the country, groups such as Stafford community link are struggling to provide their current excellent services because of short-term, insecure funding. Can my hon. Friend promise them a more sustainable plan for the future, so that they can rely on it and make their own plans?

Gillian Merron: First, I congratulate Community Link—Stafford and District for providing an innovative, flexible and popular service that people want. That is the kind of approach that we have very much in mind in respect of our new proposals to improve bus services, which will allow a far greater long-term role for community transport, in areas that are not currently served well, by removing a number of restrictions. Community transport services throughout the country have told me that they are looking forward to their removal, as well as that there is a need for planned funding.

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Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Hackney, South and Shoreditch has good bus services and one of the best providers is Hackney Community Transport, which provides some of the back-route services—those on the back streets of London, rather than the main routes. Will my hon. Friend explain how the Government’s new transport proposals will allow social enterprises such as HCT to benefit and to provide better and more customer-focused services for passengers throughout the country?

Gillian Merron: I have had meetings with Hackney Community Transport and I am very impressed by the service that it offers to my hon. Friend’s constituents. Our new policy, “Putting Passengers First”, removes restrictions; that will allow drivers to be paid and different-sized buses to be used than can currently be used, and it will simplify the issue of permits. All of that will assist social enterprise.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend also look into the way that community transport is funded? Barnsley Dial-a-Ride and Community Transport has an increasing workload as our regular bus services are in decline. Will she also compare the services operating in London with those that operate outside London? The London groups get direct grant, whereas community groups such as Barnsley Dial-a-Ride and Community Transport are paid through the passenger transport authority.

Gillian Merron: All of those matters are constantly kept under review. It is important to say that, through the bus service operators grant, the Government directly fund more than 700 community transport groups. The rural bus subsidy grant can, of course, be used by local authorities to support community transport, and I encourage them to do so. The revenue support grant from Government is also a major source of funding for local transport, including community transport. For the ninth successive year, that has increased overall in real terms. I understand the points that a number of Members have made well on funding community transport, and they will all be kept under review.

Rail Services

6. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What estimate he has made of future passenger capacity on the rail network; and if he will make a statement. [109933]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): Since 1996-97, the number of railway passenger journeys has increased by 35 per cent. Current forecasts suggest that that trend will continue. Next summer, the Government will publish their high level output specification, stating what they wish to purchase from the railway during the regulatory control period from 2009 to 2014. A central element will be the increases in capacity that they wish to purchase.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Minister for his reply, but is he aware of the considerable dissatisfaction that is felt by my constituents who use the south-east London
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commuter route about overcrowding, increases infares, and the unreliability of the service? Furthermore, there is great concern that, as a result of housing developments in Kent and along the Thames Gateway, those problems will get worse. Will the Minister take that on board and take action?

Mr. Harris: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. He mentions fares, but I am sure that he understands that cutting fares, and therefore cutting the amount of money going into the railways, is not a way to increase capacity. Increasing capacity does not always mean running extra trains; other options include improved in-cab signalling, elimination of bottlenecks, longer trains and better timetabling. Allof that requires extra money of course, and the Government are currently putting £88 million every week into the railways. Such commitment must continue if we are to meet the capacity challenges that lie ahead.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that if the franchises are to work well, the companies concerned must first make good the promises that they make when they take up the franchises, and that secondly, they should not have an automatic fall-back on to a management contract when their own incompetence causes them to have to give up the original franchise? Will he give us the assurance that there will be a lot more brutal reassessment of the efficiency of such private companies, which are costing the taxpayer a small fortune?

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. She will recall that a few weeks ago, during an Adjournment debate in the House, she asked me what the Government’s position was on renegotiating franchises. I explicitly stated then, and I am happy to repeat it now, that the Government do not renegotiate franchises when a franchisee gets into financial difficulties. We and GNER were convinced that it was unable to meet the specification to which it was committed, so we decided to invite new tenders for a new franchisee on that line. That is a robust way to react whenever any franchisee gets into difficulties. We are sending out the signal to the whole rail industry that if they cannot meet the commitments that they have made, we will get someone else who can.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister will be aware that in excess of 72,500 homes are planned to be built in Norfolk over the next 15 years. What steps are being taken to ensure that the already overcrowded railway network and the wider transport infrastructure can cope with that significant increase in demand?

Mr. Harris: Five years ago, the main headline on the railways was about performance. Now that performance has improved markedly over that period, attention is turning to capacity, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that that is a major challenge. Meeting the capacity challenge will involve a very high level of investment. A central plank of our high level output specification, which we will publish next year, will be what the Government want to buy from the industry in
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terms of capacity and how much money is available. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that any Government who are serious about dealing with capacity constraints will have to come up with the money to do so.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is just not acceptable that, in contrast to the rest of Europe, our entire railway network shuts down for 60 hours over the Christmas holidays? In the interests of passengers, of social inclusion and of the environment, will he convene a meeting in the new year to ensure that from 2007, at least on Boxing day, there is some sort of service to take people to see family and friends and to take them to the sales and sporting events?

Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but when he talks about family and friends, I hope that he will remember that railway workers also have family and friends with whom they want to spend time on Christmas day and Boxing day. He must also remember that that period is an absolutely essential window for engineering work on the railway network. If that work did not take place, the result would be far greater delays during the rest of the year.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con): When the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), awarded the GNER franchise back in March 2005, he told the BBC that the £1.3 billion deal was not excessive and that the east coast line was a “profitable route”. He added:

What steps is the Minister taking to find out why his Department got it so badly wrong?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is speaking more from wishful thinking than from reference to the facts. The GNER bid was examined by the then Strategic Rail Authority and was subjected to the usual European Foundation for Quality Management assessment. The bid was easily achievable, as has been shown by the fact that recent passenger revenue has increased by 14.5 per cent.—an increase that has exceeded the revenue commitment in the franchise. The reason why the franchise had to be pulled was entirely due to problems with GNER’s parent company, Sea Containers, and not to problems with the franchise.

Chris Grayling: Then may I ask the Minister to confirm the following? If the franchise and its financial elements were so easily achievable, will he give an undertaking to the House that he expects to get the same level of contribution to the Exchequer from the new franchise agreement when he reaches it in the new year?

Mr. Harris: The principle of the franchise system—to which I thought, until a few seconds ago, the Conservative party was also committed—is competition. There will be a competition to see which operator wishes to undertake the new east coast inter-city franchise. Once the bids are in, they will be evaluated and we will hold any new contractor to delivering exactly what is specified in the contract. If they cannot deliver it, exactly the same process will
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have to be gone through again, but I am convinced that the financial problems that GNER encountered in America with its parent company will not be repeated.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that the problems with the east coast main line franchise rested with GNER’s parent company and not with GNER’s ability to run the service. What assurances can he give the House, first, about the quality of the service and the number of staff who will be employed by GNER over the 18 months that it runs the service on a management agreement, and secondly, about the management functions—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to only one supplementary question.

Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. The management contract that GNER is now leading on behalf of the Government will, I hope, be limited to 12 months, although it could go on for 18 months. During that period, any major changes to services, including jobs, will have to be approved by the Department. However, we do not expect any such major changes to take place before the new contractor takes over. Job cuts that may have already been negotiated and agreed by the unions will remain unaffected and will be a matter for GNER management and the unions.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Does the Minister share my concern that on the morning of9 December, Trowbridge station ticket office had to spend more time issuing refunds for GWR train services than it did issuing tickets? Does he agree that that is indicative of the changed timetabling and rolling stock reductions over which he has presided and which have caused cattle-truck chaos across the country, but especially in the south?

Mr. Harris: I am unaware of the specific problems affecting the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. When a new timetable starts, there is always a period in which passengers, especially those who travel every day, have to try to get used to it. However, I am convinced that the new timetable and franchises coming on stream in the next couple of years will introduce new rolling stock and improve the service for everyone travelling on it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that as of today we have the youngest rolling stock of any railway in Europe.

7. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): If he will take steps to ensure that there is a frequent railway service from all parts of the UK. [109934]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): New franchise agreements specify a minimum service level that takes account of demand and network capacity. Bidders can propose more services, where that is operationally practicable. There are also provisions to deal with the need for extra trains during the life of a franchise.

Julie Morgan: What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that First Great Western provides a good reliable service into Wales in view of the fact that the 3.15 pm
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from Paddington now stops at Cardiff and does not go on to Swansea? The 7.3 am from Bristol to Cardiff and Swansea has been taken off altogether. What can he do to ensure that a better service is provided for Wales?

Mr. Harris: I am aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns and they have been echoed by right hon. and hon. Friends over the past few weeks. The 17.18 Cardiff to Swansea service run by First Great Western is a matter for the company: I do not have the authority to intervene in that matter and insist that that particular service is reinstated. However, the Department will continue to monitor passenger numbers on that route. I am told by First Great Western that capacity on alternative services run by Arriva Trains Wales is sufficient to accommodate passenger numbers on that line.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The discontinuation of the 17.18 from Cardiff to Swansea is an absolute disaster for passengers in Swansea and west Wales. In the new cross-country franchise in Scotland, the Government have stipulated the continuation of inter-city routes, so why did they not specify routes to Swansea and west Wales in the case of First Great Western?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is being slightly unfair in trying to draw distinctions between the devolved Administrations. When the timetable for that service was put out for consultation by First Great Western, it attracted very few public responses and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman responded to that change.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of my campaign to improve parking at the railway stations in my constituency. What moneys are his Department making available to improve parking across the whole network?

Mr. Harris: I admit that I was previously unaware of my hon. Friend’s campaign for car parking in his constituency, but I am now suitably informed. Of course, increasing car-parking capacity at park-and-ride stations to accommodate increasing passenger demand is extremely important. As part of the new franchises, train operating companies, in partnership with Network Rail and, very often, local authorities, are asked to produce robust financial plans to expand car parking. However, that expansion is often limited by the private ownership of land.

8. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of commuter train services from Oxford to London. [109935]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): First Great Western introduced a new timetable on 10 December, following a public consultation earlier this year. The Department will continue to monitor the effect of the new timetable on passengers.

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