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24 Jan 2007 : Column 463WH—continued

10.9 am

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing the debate, and I apologise to the Minister and other hon. Members for being unable to stay until the end.

In the spirit of fairness, before I say what I want to say about First Great Western, I must point out that it had to make its bid against the background of a very prescribed timetable. I know that, because when the draft timetable was published a year ago, an enormous campaign began in my area of west Berkshire, which resulted in two meetings with the Minister’s predecessor and the Secretary of State. The travelling public wrote an enormous number of letters and a petition was presented to Parliament. The result was the reversal of a large number of the proposed cuts to rail services in west Berkshire. I was able to write to the Secretary of State and the Minister to thank them for their intervention. My hon. Friend’s point about our top-down and micro-managed rail service is right, but that is the end of any diversion of blame that I wish to share with the House today.

The problems that concern my constituents started on 11 December with the introduction of the new timetable. At the meeting that my hon. Friend mentioned, which took place a few yards from the Chamber last week, First Great Western’s representatives said that the same number of trains is operating throughout the franchise area now as was operating before 11 December. I wrote those words down to ensure that I remembered them correctly. If they are correct, where have all the trains gone?

The hon. Members for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) referred to rolling stock that is piled up in depots. Our understanding from the meeting is that it is waiting to be fitted with the automatic train protection system, and that the timetable problems are unrelated to that stock. What has happened is that some bright spark—I say that with bitter irony—in First Great Western has decided to remove turbo trains from the two main commuter services leaving Newbury in the morning, and reduce the number of seats from 550 to about 280, by introducing those beastly Adelante trains. And the sooner we see the back of them the better.

What is happening to the travelling public in places such as west Berkshire? Increased travel times have a dramatic social effect, which we must not understate. Children see less of their parents and communities see less activity because people come home so late and so exhausted that they do not want to go out and run the kids’ soccer club. The problems have much wider impact on society in general, not just on the travelling public, but commuters face increased inconvenience
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and have to change trains more often to get home on time, all at a time of inflation-busting fare increases.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): On the point about timetables and inconvenience, may I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the effect of the timetable changes that were made late in the day on my constituents who attend Henley college? The timetable was changed literally a few days before the college was due to start its new term, meaning that students could not connect to Henley in time for their lessons. The college had to redraw its timetable from scratch within a few days to deal with those students.

Mr. Benyon: It is a familiar story, and I have heard of similar experiences: schoolchildren from places such as Kintbury cannot now reach school on time if they travel by train, so they are either late or their parents drive them. I hope that when the Minister responds, he takes up my hon. Friend’s point. The net effect is more people on the road. I have commuters saying in droves that they are not prepared to put up with the problems and would prefer to sit in a traffic jam for two hours or get their child to school on time than to travel by train. It is a serious worry.

I shall quote one example of my earlier point. Sarah Akass is not a commuter, but her partner is. In one of the many hundreds of e-mails that I have received, she says that her partner,

That is from just one of the many e-mails and letters that I have received on the subject.

I have written about the problem of overcrowding to the Office of Rail Regulation and to the Health and Safety Executive following our meeting last week. I have yet to hear from either organisation, but according to press reports it seems that, bizarrely, there are rules governing the overcrowding of cattle, sheep and pigs during transportation, but none regarding the transportation of people. In fact, the bizarre assertion has been made that in some way it is safer if people stand shoulder to shoulder rather than travel in a looser, seated arrangement. What a ridiculous statement. What a ridiculous state of affairs. The Office of Rail Regulation, the Department, the train operator and the HSE must examine it as a matter of urgency.

Finally, there is a problem of punctuality. Before the timetable change 99 per cent. of the two key morning commuter services that left from Newbury and Bedwyn were on time. Now that the services are dependent on trains that travel from the west country, 99 per cent. of them are late. That situation, when added to greater overcrowding, greater inconvenience and inflation-busting fare increases, is totally unacceptable.

I have written to the Minister asking him to examine the penalty clauses in the franchise document to see whether First Great Western has breached the terms and conditions of its contract. It is not worthy of the contract that it has been offered, and unless there are dramatic improvements in the near future, the Minister should take serious steps against First Great Western.

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10.16 am

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) has offered us to debate further the failings of First Great Western. I am also grateful to him because I am now much wiser about the timetable into and out of Didcot.

Recent publicity has been about services not to Didcot, but to the Bristol and Bath areas, where serious problems continue. There are also ongoing problems in the far south-west, which is wholly dependent on good rail services for its interconnectivity with other parts of the UK.

In a recent debate in another place, Lord Davies of Oldham did not try to defend First Great Western’s performance record, because it is clearly a cause of deep concern. However, he studiously avoided clarifying whether the Department for Transport as well as First Great Western has a responsibility for the chaos. The Government have invested unprecedented amounts of money in the rail system, particularly in improving safety, and for that they should be applauded. That investment has made the network more reliable, but it has increased the use of the train as a preferred travel option. Many people also rightly use trains to avoid using cars and planes. However, the network has been unable to cope with the increase in capacity, and overcrowding on lines from Plymouth and Bristol to destinations in the north and east has reached unacceptable levels.

The problem is exacerbated by cuts in rolling stock. As the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) pointed out, stock has been placed in warm storage to save costs—trains have been cut in half to save money. I am advised that leasing a carriage costs roughly what it cost to build one in the 1980s, so someone is making a nice profit. I am sure that the Minister is closely examining how rolling stock leasing companies operate.

The real problem can be traced to the way in which the franchise was first awarded. I understand that to secure the bid, First Great Western committed a premium payment to the Government of about £1.3 billion over the 10-year period of the franchise. When one considers that the Government paid rail operators about £100 million to £200 million in 2005-06 for the services that the First Great Western franchise offers, one sees the scale of the financial turnaround that the company has to achieve. It can make savings only through higher fares, and we have certainly had those—fares have increased by 12 per cent.—or by reducing the number of trains, which it has done, too.

The difficulties are exacerbated by a backlog of work in First Great Western’s maintenance department, as hon. Members have already described. Add to that the way in which the timetable was changed against the wishes and the advice of a range of people who are experts in the field and it becomes clear that First Great Western’s job of meeting public expectations is almost impossible.

Plymouth city council wrote a long—seven pages—letter to the company in November 2006, flagging up a range of issues. It said:

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The company has overstretched itself, but if inaccurate data were used during the franchise process, that is clearly worrying.

I am also worried about the way in which the Department for Transport engaged in the franchise process. Did it consider such issues? Was it solely interested in saving money and did it therefore turn a blind eye to the long-term implications for the travelling public in the south-west? Was First Great Western simply being wholly unrealistic? I am not clear where the blame lies, and other hon. Members here today are also confused. I would welcome the opportunity for a round-table discussion with all parties involved in order to get to the bottom of the matter.

There have been calls for First Great Western to be stripped of its franchise in the same way that Connex—with which I am very familiar, having struggled to work on its service for many years—was stripped of its franchise about five years ago. That may be an option, but the Department for Transport must also be open and honest about its part in the matter, not least because we want to avoid a further debacle when the franchise is awarded for the cross-country service. There is widespread public concern about interconnectivity between the cross-country franchise and the greater western franchise. The Minister will know about that because I have already written to him on the subject.

Failures in recent weeks have been well documented and reported in the media, culminating in a very public protest by passengers exercising their power over what is clearly an unsatisfactory service. Knee-jerk reactions from First Great Western, such as transferring stock from rural routes in Cornwall to deal with hazardous overcrowding in the Bristol area, are merely short-term solutions, and surely questions must be asked about how the current inadequate service levels were drawn up and agreed.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): One of the reassurances we were given during the bid process was that difficulties with rolling stock that resulted in reductions in carriage numbers on branch lines during the busiest time of year would be resolved. We are now seeing such problems extending throughout the year. Does the hon. Lady agree that something needs to be done?

Alison Seabeck: Yes, I wholly agree with the hon. Lady. She will agree, I am sure, that hitting the remote ends of the network because they seem like an easy place to make cuts—if there is such a thing—and trying to consolidate the service in the busier centre is deeply damaging to the objective 1 area that she represents.

This situation cannot continue and I would welcome an all-party, round-table discussion with all the key players, with a focus on gaining a better understanding of rail user requirements and consulting other agencies
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and local authorities on how to achieve customer satisfaction, balanced against getting maximum value for the resources available. There must also be far greater transparency in the franchising process.

10.22 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing the debate, and I thank him for his honesty in his reference to the botched privatisation, which drew attention to failures of the previous Government that added, in part, to some of the current problems.

In July 2000, when the Deputy Prime Minister was in charge of the railways, he said that

Sadly, he and the Government have failed to deliver on that pledge. Railway services in the south-west are simply not fit for purpose. So great is the anger of people in the Bath and Bristol area, to which the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) referred, that thousands of rail commuters, including many of my constituents, took part in a fare strike. Although I cannot condone the breaking of the law, I fully sympathise with the anger that my constituents and many in the area have about the appalling services being delivered by the Government and First Great Western.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, according to First Great Western, rail passenger numbers have increased by 41 per cent. in the Bristol area, but it cut the service in December. Does he accept that those of us in the Bristol area appreciate the difficulties that that poses for our constituents, as well as his constituents in Bath?

Mr. Foster: I do indeed, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

It may interest hon. Members to know what was written on the ticket handed out at the protest on Monday. The rail company was described as “First Late Western”. The class was described as “cattle truck”, the ticket type, “standing only”, the route, “hell and back”, and the price, “up 12 per cent.” In a sense, that sums up the issues of real concern to my constituents and others in the wider area. That protest, organised excellently by More Train, Less Strain, brought real concerns to the fore.

People’s concerns fall into four categories. They are concerned by the inadequacies of the timetable, which no longer meets the working patterns of many who wish to commute by rail. They are also concerned about the inadequacy of the number of carriages. We are told by First Great Western that it needs 94 carriages per day to operate the commuter services—what we used to know as the Wessex trains—and, indeed, until Monday, it did not have that full number running on any one day. We have been assured that we will get that full number, but as has already been pointed out, even if a full complement is run, fewer carriages are operating than used to. There is also the question of where those carriages come from—it is quite amazing simply to look at the signage on them.

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There are deep concerns about excessive delays and cancellations and at the height of all those concerns, ludicrous fare increases were imposed. The fare from Bath to London on the high-speed train is one of the highest priced train journeys per mile in the entire world. Many of my constituents have suffered in massively overcrowded carriages and many have not even been able to get on to the trains.

We have heard about passengers, but in fairness, I should point out that many of the staff working for First Great Western are equally concerned about what has happened. A letter sent to my local paper by a ticket officer who, unsurprisingly, wanted to remain anonymous, read:

He went on to point out that no one gets admonished for arriving late at work at First Great Western because very few of those who now work there travel to work by train. Another anonymous letter was sent by a train driver, who wrote:

The staff are appalled about the level of service as well.

The Government must take some of the blame. Over a year ago, I wrote to them detailing my concerns about the planned new timetable, and I received a letter on 9 August from the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), about Keynsham and Oldfield Park, and another letter on 13 September relating to Freshford. I had written to him expressing concern about a reduction in the frequency of trains to those stations. I got a letter referring me to table 6.112 of the franchise stakeholder consultation. My attention was drawn to the fact that the table clearly states the intention to retain an hourly frequency at both stations, and that there would also be additional hourly calls, giving two trains an hour at the stations concerned during peak periods. Those promises from the Government were not delivered. Those trains do not exist and there are greater gaps at those stations than were promised.

As I said earlier, rail services in the south-west are simply not fit for purpose, and the Government must take some of the blame for that. The hon. Member for Wantage is right to say that the buck passing has to stop. I join him and all hon. Members who have spoken in urging the Minister to agree to a meeting that will bring First Great Western, the Government and concerned Members of Parliament into one room, in which we will stay until we have sorted the matter out.

10.29 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) both on securing this debate and on the measured and fair way in which he put his argument. Given the amount of anger among our constituents, to which we have all been exposed, that was quite an achievement.

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The hon. Gentleman started by saying that there was a lot of buck passing going on. I absolutely agree with him. Everyone blames somebody else. We should not try to point the finger today, but work out where we should go from here to sort the problem out. Let me give one example of the buck passing. I had a meeting with the regional manager of First Great Western in my area and the cross-Bristol franchise, to which a number of hon. Members have referred. We all know that there have been problems with maintenance. As the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) said, we are told that the maintenance depot at St. Philip’s Marsh is not ready yet, and that neither is the stock that was taken over from the Wessex franchise, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned.

I note in this week’s edition of Rail magazine, however, which I am sure hon. Members read regularly, that Arriva Trains Wales was outraged by that suggestion. The managing director said:

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