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24 Jan 2007 : Column 469WH—continued

So why did the rolling stock that Wessex and the Welsh services were able to run reliably right up to 10 December suddenly become so unreliable? That does not add up. Again, the buck passing is not achieving anything.

The right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), speaking with the authority of a former Cabinet Minister, quite properly said that both First Great Western and the Department for Transport need to learn lessons. The issue is not just about party political point scoring; the Department must take some responsibility. I fully accept that there have been management failures, as the hon. Member for Bristol, East said, but the way in which the Department has handled the franchise is a source of concern. The Minister wrote to me about those issues on 16 January, saying:

However, I am not quite sure what that action is or has been. I hope that he will tell us not simply that the service is not good enough and that he wants it to be better, but what his Department is doing to put things right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey raised the key issue of capacity and referred to carriages being in warm storage. One point that has not been made so far is that if First Great Western provides a service of sorts, with too few carriages, it will not necessarily fail on either its cancellation or punctuality targets. In other words, provided that the train is there with at least one carriage, the operator does not trigger either of those penalties, which would mean having to give season ticket discounts or refunds. It is therefore better financially to run such services short, with all the chaos that we have heard about.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Does my hon. Friend also condemn the warm storage of our coaches down in Cornwall, which are taken away from
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us and passed up to Bristol and Bath to try to fix the problem there? All my constituents and many others in Cornwall have been consigned to buses, instead of having any carriages whatever.

Steve Webb: I can well understand the anger of my hon. Friend’s constituents about that situation. The hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) talked about robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is not a solution, although my constituents are grateful for the loan.

We have heard about the issue of the carriages and short formation. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) made a good point, in a good contribution, about the franchise and the profits that the rolling stock companies are making. The current structure was set up by successive Governments, but my sense about the rail industry is that the rolling stock companies are, for want of a better phrase, rolling in it. A letter was sent to me in November by a customer service adviser for First Great Western, who said that

I just do not believe that. I suspect strongly that the carriages are available, but at a price, and that it might just not be possible to get them—other than from Cornwall, obviously—within the profit targets that First Great Western has set itself.

The hon. Lady asked a good question, however. There might be analogy, albeit a distant one, with the 3G auction of the mobile spectrum. Huge amounts of money were raised and everyone said how clever the idea was. The Government got lots of cash, but it subsequently became apparent that too much had probably been paid. Although the businesses thought that they had got a good deal, it turned out that they had not. There have been knock-on effects for the industry. I wonder whether too much was paid for the franchise, whether First Great Western was capable of delivering the services that we need, and whether those services were specified to a high enough level. I met the regional manager of First Great Western for the Greater Bristol area and the hon. Lady’s area, who said that the specification was the most basic one possible by the Strategic Rail Authority. Our constituents deserve more than the most basic possible specification of timetables and frequency. The rhetoric about public transport—about modal shift, getting people out of their cars and so on—is used all the time, but the reality is that the Government try to get away with the minimum possible service. That is not good enough.

We have heard many horror stories, which I shall not repeat. However, to cite a further example, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has described a litany of problems, saying that passengers, luggage and even a wheelchair-bound passenger were packed in so tight that the guard could not get on until some of the passengers had got off. That is a complete farce. To be told then that it is safer to have people packed on than having just a few people standing is nonsense. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) pointed out that there are rules for the overcrowding of cattle, but not for that of humans. That is a telling point, and action needs to be taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bath rightly highlighted the fact that many of the people who work for First Great Western are as demoralised as our
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constituents are, and we all agreed with him on that. We do not want to take out our anger on the people who work for First Great Western. I have heard directly from many people who work for the company. People love the railways—they work on them because they want to provide a superb service. They are as frustrated as anybody with the rubbish that we have now.

My hon. Friend highlighted the four key areas, including the inadequacies of the timetable. We have heard about the problems in peak time—in Didcot, in Romsey and in areas in other constituencies—which is the key time when we can get traffic off the roads. To give a parochial example, hundreds of people make the journey between Yate, which is a major town of in my constituency, and Filton Abbey Wood, which is a major employer in my constituency, as part of the Ministry of Defence. There are rail stations at the start and at the end of the journey, but lots of people drive, because they cannot rely on the trains. That is madness. I hope that the summit meeting that the hon. Member for Wantage talked about, and in which I would be happy to take part, brings the issue to a head. If all that we and our constituents have gone through in the past few weeks leads to action to get a grip on the situation, everything might not have been in vain, because action is urgently needed.

On railways policy, I have a concern about the length of the franchises that are awarded. In a debate about the failures of First Great Western, it might seem perverse to talk about longer franchises—many people would think that seven days was too long, let alone seven years. However, when franchises are awarded, do companies think that they are in it for the long haul? Do they have an incentive to buy the rolling stock rather than lease it? Longer franchises—of course with regular performance reviews, but with the fundamental assumption that a company that does a damn good job is in there for the long haul—would give the industry the stability that we all want. There should be a presumption of, funnily enough, longer franchises with proper scrutiny. The Liberal Democrats want serious action on train leasing and on the profits that the rolling stock companies are making, because there is a domino effect. The cost of leasing is exorbitant, so the companies do not lease, the service is not good enough and we are where we are today.

Call it blame or responsibility, but the focus in many quarters must be on how we tackle the problems that have arisen throughout the network and which should have been foreseen by both the operating companies and the Government.

10.38 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Like so many other hon. Members before me, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) not only on securing this debate, but on his eloquent advocacy on behalf of his constituents. That has been a feature of this debate—I was going to name all hon. Members who had spoken, but I have counted 17 contributions or interventions so far. That shows the strength of feeling about the franchise.

We had two debates on the same subject in the Chamber last year, one initiated by the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and the other by my hon.
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Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). In March last year I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and other parts of the area to listen to the problems of local commuters and to discuss the issues with First Great Western management.

What has happened has not been a surprise. This debate is important on two levels. First, the service that the train users receive from First Great Western, as operated by First Group, is not satisfactory. In fact, it is so far from satisfactory that it is, to use the currently immortal phrase, not fit for purpose. However, on another level the debate is clearly about some of the key problems of the rail industry, including how it is structured. The hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) mentioned the length of franchises; other problems include the level of Government intervention and how the franchising is being tendered.

Transport 2000, an independent group, has stated that rail use in the south-west and west has grown by 42 per cent. in the past decade. Yet it goes on to say that despite that categorical evidence of passenger demand, in December 2006 in the finalised timetable

During his excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said that people are extremely angry and are paying huge prices for an abominable service. He outlined the litany of performance failures. I can only say that on behalf of my constituents and myself, I am glad that I do not travel on the Didcot service. We talk about journey times decreasing; it seems extraordinary that there has been a 20-minute increase in the time that the service takes. That was cited by “The Thunderer” on Monday, the day of action. For those who do not read The Times, I should explain that “The Thunderer” is a columnist who on Monday pointed out the problems not only of delays, but of overcrowding. He specifically mentioned Oldfield Park station, where commuters had difficulty getting on the train. That underlines the consensus of feeling, which is evident not only from hon. Members here today and from “The Thunderer” in The Times. Gerry Doherty of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association union said on Monday, the day of the strike:

This debate has shown a clear consensus: First Great Western is not providing the service that it should. Inevitably, as predicted by Members in their letters to the Minister and by Transport 2000 and others, we are seeing overcrowding and transference away from trains across the whole area. The service being provided is in direct contrast to the needs of the commuting public and the long-distance traveller.

Mr. Rob Wilson: Does my hon. Friend think it fair or just that my constituents now have to pay £3,176 for an annual standard class ticket from Reading station in my constituency to Paddington? That is nearly £6,000 of earned income; a lot of sweat goes into earning that much money, which pays for a standard-class ticket to stand for 30 minutes on journeys to and from Paddington.

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Stephen Hammond: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the senior civil servant who said that standing was acceptable will be regretting his remarks. Rail commuters from Reading may well want to hold him up as one of the villains of the piece.

I want to talk about long-distance as well as commuting issues, as considerable wider west and south-west needs are also involved. The corridor from the south coast to Bristol and Wales links some of the major urban settlements. Particular problems in Greater Bristol, Bath, Wiltshire and south Wales, and the line from London to the south-west peninsula, have been mentioned. The regional spatial strategy and regional economic strategy highlight those as areas of housing and economic growth. The timetabling for those areas has resulted in cuts in service, shorter and less frequent trains starting later in the morning, and longer dwell times—in complete contrast and opposition to the regional economic strategy.

This debate has shown that the plight of all travellers using Great Western since the imposition of the new timetable is simply not acceptable. No one in the Chamber is an apologist for First Group, whose performance has remained inadequate and whose punctuality remains appalling. It needs to spend money—and not a little—on taking urgent action to clear its maintenance backlog. The issue is not only that the prescribed timetable took out some of the carriages, but the huge problem of maintenance. I hear what has been said about targets, but clearing that backlog would do a lot to increase punctuality, reliability and commuter satisfaction.

First Group, in extensive negotiations with the Government, has restored one commuter service since December. It needs to restore more morning rush-hour trains and to increase the evening peak service. First Group will be listening to this debate; the message is that all those things should be done as a matter not of urgency, but of necessity.

Several Members have said that they do not want to get too involved in the blame game. As I said, First Group needs to make substantial improvements. Given what the Minister has heard from across the Chamber, he must be in no doubt that Members are clear about why the service is so poor: the problems are due principally to the Department for Transport and the prescribed franchise that it imposed on First Group. Some understanding of whom should be mentioned in the blame game is important for understanding the problems not only on this part of the network, but on the network as a whole.

It is true that the Government specified the First Group timetable that has reduced services and led to carriages being withdrawn, and that they extracted the premium from First Group that has forced fare increases. I am sure that the Minister will denounce rail privatisation, forgetting that his party has been in charge of the railways for 10 years and that usage has increased. He will remind us that he has had his brief for only four months and that the franchise re-letting took place before that.

I have had the pleasure of sparring with the Minister on transport issues since he has come to the Front Bench and I know him to be one of the good guys. However, he is a representative of the Government, who cannot escape our criticism and questioning. Our debate has proved that the villains of the piece are not only First Group, but the Government.

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The Minister needs to answer a number of problems that underline not only the issues that have been highlighted today, but those for other franchises. How many civil servants in his Department are now writing timetables? How many timetables were included in the invitation to tender for the First Great Western franchise? Which franchise was chosen? Will he confirm that the Government minimum specification was involved, that the Government continue to use that process to deliver franchises, that the specified timetable reduced services and that the timetable specified the length of trains and the number of carriages to be used?

Will the Minister also confirm that between 1 April and 1 December last year, when the finalised timetable was put forward, First Group made numerous representations to the Government, seeking to alter the timetable, and that First Group has gone beyond the minimum timetable specified? Does he agree with Transport 2000’s comment in its publication “Growing the Railways” that the Government imposed a timetable and train leasing framework that involved fewer trains? Will he confirm that the timetable took 32 carriages out of service?

As I said earlier, no one here wants to be an apologist for First Group; its performance and service are unacceptable. However, the Government wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage saying:

Given this debate, the Minister will surely want to recognise that that statement was at least a little early in the making. Will he reconsider it? This debate has highlighted First Great Western service issues and a number of issues in the railway system; overcrowding is easily recognised by my constituents on the South West Trains franchise from Raynes Park and Wimbledon. One of my constituents recently wrote to me about a 47 per cent. increase in fares on the Thameslink line. The Government’s micromanagement of the railways is failing.

Let us finish the debate in the same way as it has taken place, by accepting that there is blame on both parties. Even if the Minister cannot answer all my other questions, perhaps he will answer this one: having heard the speeches of the 15 to 20 hon. Members in the Chamber, will he guarantee to get the Members who have spoken on behalf of their constituents, the Department and the management of First Great Western into a room to rectify some of the timetable chaos and problems that result in human misery for the commuters who are the constituents of so many hon. Members here today? Will he agree to do that as a matter of urgency?

10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey). He has received many congratulations this morning; I do not expect to be the same position by the time I sit down.

I am sure that my civil servants will understand why, given the intensity of the feeling in the debate, I shall abandon my prepared comments and try to deal directly with as many comments as possible. I begin by pointing
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out that although I am the Minister for rail, and possibly, these days, the Minister for Westminster Hall, I am not the Minister for First Great Western. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) said at the end of his comments that no one in this room would be an apologist for First Great Western, and he was accurate in that respect. I do not intend to be an apologist for First Great Western; it is not down to me to defend the unacceptable level of service that First Great Western has provided to its customers over the past few weeks.

First, I shall refer directly to the comments of the hon. Member for Wantage. He asked for more clarification and transparency in the franchising process. I can tell him and the Chamber that the invitation to tender for the greater western franchise will be published shortly, although I do not know in what form it will be published at the moment. However, it will be published and available for public inspection.

Talking about the First Great Western franchise, the most recent edition of Private Eye states that the other problem

The hon. Gentleman referred also to Christian Wolmar’s article in yesterday’s Evening Standard, where he said:

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