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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I reassure my hon. Friend that Southeastern has not removed zone 3 from its ticket prices on north Kent services. However, may I commend him on identifying that omission and bringing it to my attention? I am informed that the company made an error in implementing London zonal fares, which affected zone 3, and I can confirm that that error has now been corrected.
Clive Efford: I am sorry that I have had to approach my hon. Friend to receive anything close to an apology for the error. When my constituents wrote to Southeastern, the company chose to ignore the complaint in its reply, blaming the Government for a 66 per cent. increase in fares. It is several weeks since I pointed out the error, so will my hon. Friend ensure that Southeastern publicise it and give people who can prove that they were overcharged and who paid an excessive fare the opportunity to obtain a refund?
Mr. Harris: I well understand my hon. Friends concern. It is for Southeastern to decide whether or not to publicise any new arrangements, but I have been told that it is working on a process to refund season ticket holders who have overpaid.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the anger among commuters in my constituency, both at the large fare increase on north Kent services, and at the unreliable service that they receive? Surely, increased ticket prices far above inflation and train delays are not the way to encourage more people to use the service.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that regulated fares have increased more on Southeastern than on most other franchises, at RPI plus 3 per cent. compared with RPI plus 1 per cent. for other train operating companies. Those rises can be justified by the significant investment that has taken place on Southeastern in recent years, and that investment will
continue. It should be noted that over the past three years, Southeasterns performance has increased by 9.3 per cent., as it has achieved a public performance measure of 88.8 per cent.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The Government introduced the free off-peak local bus travel concession for some 11 million older and disabled people in England on 1 April 2006. Since then, bus patronage has increased nationally by about 3 per cent. Further information will be published in the autumn.
Mr. Wright: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. My constituents in Great Yarmouth are certainly pleased with the Governments response, and look forward to the national travel concession next year. However, there are two problems. First, the scheme has been so successful that many fare-paying passengers cannot get on the buses and, secondly, in rural areas, there is a lack of public services, so pensioners cannot take advantage of the benefits offered by the Government. Can the Minister give us any news that will provide a boost both for pensioners in those areas and for fare-paying passengers?
Gillian Merron: I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has done to secure the benefits of concessionary travel arrangements for his constituency, and I am delighted to hear of the success of Government policy in Great Yarmouth, as has been the case across the country. I am aware that there have been concerns about the level of service provided by First Group in the area, and I urge the local authority and First Group to get together to address the issues. More broadly, we recently announced proposals to improve bus services across the country, which include improved partnerships between local authorities and bus operators to deal with the kind of matters that my hon. Friend
Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Given that the settlement for free local bus travel forced many councils to increase council tax, causing significant hardship to many older and disabled people, what reassurances can the Minister give regarding the settlement for free national bus travel so that the Government are not accused of giving with one hand and taking away with the other?
That is not a situation that I recognise. After the introduction of the new national bus concession in 2008, the Government will be spending about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel for older and disabled people. Our commitment
is to keep that going and extend it nationally, and I hope the hon. Gentlemans party will support us in that.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): May I suggest to my hon. Friend that she encourage other authorities to follow the example of Derbyshire county council, which extended its Gold Card discount and transport scheme to cover a number of community transport schemes, so that people with mobility problemselderly people and disabled peoplecan go on the dial-a-bus schemes to the local shops or travel to other towns free?
Gillian Merron: I am happy to endorse that local arrangement, which I know my hon. Friend strongly supports. Local authorities have the discretion to vary their concessionary fares scheme and extend it to community transport in the way that she describes.
Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Pensioners in Rushden who want to go to Wellingborough do not get free travel. The Minister speaks of free national travel. When will that be brought in, and will it be subsidised by council tax payers or out of general taxation?
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that one area with the highest take-up of concessionary fares is Tyne and Wear. She will also know that it cost the passenger transport executive £5.4 million to introduce the scheme last year, and it will cost a further £2.6 million to continue the scheme over the next financial year. Are there any measures that can be brought in to compensate Tyne and Wear PTE for that £8 million loss, so that when the national scheme is rolled out we will start from a level playing field?
Gillian Merron: The Department for Communities and Local Government and my Department continue to work on the matter. We are considering a number of options for distributing the existing funding. I have spoken to my hon. Friend and others about the matter. It is in the interest of us all to ensure that local authorities are adequately funded for providing the statutory concession. As I said, the Government will spend about £1 billion a year on concessionary travel from April 2008.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Although many pensioners in my constituency welcome access to free travel, will my hon. Friend join me in condemning Go North East, which is cynically stripping out bus routes from many of the outlying villages in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency of City of Durham, which is leaving pensioners isolated? Although they have a free pass, they cannot use it because there is no bus service.
Local provision is a matter for bus operators and local authorities, and I hope my hon. Friend will contribute to the process. Our document, Putting Passengers First, will enable local areas to
have a far greater say to ensure that his constituents are much better served by bus services.
Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): As has been said, the concessionary travel scheme has been a great success in Tyne and Wear, with an increase in travel through it of about 20 per cent. Will the Minister re-examine the funding formula, which has been alluded to and which can only be described as absolutely barmy? It is based on the number of over-60-year-olds in the population, which means that the Scilly Isles, with no buses at all, gets cash, while places such as Tyne and Wear are obliged to withdraw services and scrap the concessionary scheme for young people to make sure that the scheme works?
Gillian Merron: I have listened carefully to my hon. Friends considered view of the funding scheme. I should say that funding is provided by the formula grant, which is in line with the wishes of central and local government. As I said, we are considering several options for distributing the existing funding. I am looking forward to my own visit to the north-east to see bus services there.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): More than 1 billion rail journeys were made during 2005-06the most since 1961. That represents a total distance travelled of more than 43 million km during the same period.
Christine Russell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I can tell him that the number of rail passengers travelling from Chester to Euston has increased by more than 30 per cent. in the past year. Contrary to what Opposition Members may think, that is surely a sign of success as a result of local economic prosperity and improvements to the west coast main line. Is it not time to turn to considering improvements to the facilities at stations to take account of that increased rail usage? For instance, at my local station
Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is right to acknowledge that, having addressed many of the safety concerns as regards rail services that were uppermost in many peoples minds a few years ago, as we continue to address the challenge of performance and reliability, capacity is undoubtedly one of the dominating challenges that we face now and in the years ahead. The straightforward answer to that is to ensure that there is sustained investment. Many people forget that back in the days of British Rail there was annual budgeting, whereas we are now looking at year-on-year budgeting, which can make a significant contribution. Part of the reason for the improvement in passenger numbers on the west coast main line is the record levels of investment going into that service, with the consequence that there have also been improvements in performance and reliability.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Given that the Government accepted a bid from First Capital Connect that meant fewer passengers and increased fares, our only hope is to get increased capacity through the Thameslink project. Will we have an early funding decision on that to help my constituents who want to travel?
Mr. Alexander: Capacity will be increased on the First Capital Connect route between Bedford and Brighton to ensure all eight-car running in the course of the franchise. The decision that the hon. Lady asks about, along with several others, will be considered in the context of the high level output specification next summer.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that in recent years there have been new trains and an increased frequency of service on the Cross Country franchise. However, the problem is that the trains are shorter than they used to be, and there is a serious problem of lack of capacity and overcrowding, particularly on the central part of the route between Birmingham and Leeds. Now that that service is out for refranchising, will he give an assurance that he will consider that particular problem when deciding who the new service operator should be?
Mr. Alexander: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that in all our franchise negotiations capacity is one of the considerations uppermost in our minds. He speaks of Leeds. That is a timely reminder that this is not merely a challenge for the south-east of England. As the Eddington report indicated, we are now dealing with circumstances whereby we have economic growth in several cities, and we therefore need to address the challenge not only in the south-east but in cities throughout the country.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that more use of the services could be achieved if the timetable were more conducive? In particular, I draw his attention to the fact that there are two services an hour in each direction from Euston to Stockport, but only one on the line from Chester to Stockport, which passes through Altrincham and which is not timetabled in a way that matches with any of the mainline services on the west coast main line. Will he encourage a more sensible use of timetables to ensure that connecting services match up?
Mr. Alexander: Appropriate timetabling changes can certainly make significant contributions to performance and service reliability, but it might help the hon. Gentleman if he consulted his Front-Bench spokesman on these matters. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) recently stated:
I do not think it is the role of Ministers to decide detailed service configurations.[ Official Report, 30 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 1290.]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): We welcome the European Unions recent announcement on aviations inclusion in the EU emission trading scheme in 2011 and 2012. We have led the debate in Europe on the issue and will continue to work on the detail of the proposal, including an earlier introduction.
Laura Moffatt: It would be wrong to assume that people who derive their income from and contribute to the general economic well-being of an area such as Crawley are not concerned about aviation pollution. What more can we do collectively to alert people to the continuing problems with aviation? Although they are currently small, they are increasing. What more can communities do to assist in the battle to reduce global warming?
Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend is an effective representative of her constituents, who have a wide range of interests in Gatwick airport. The Government are fully committed to ensuring that aviation meets its environmental costs. In addition to the EU emissions trading scheme, seeking reform of the Chicago convention to recognise global environmental considerations, doubling air passenger duty and pursuing other measures such as improving aviation working practices, research and development and promoting voluntary action by individuals will all contribute.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Does the Under-Secretary agree that one of the ways in which she can limit carbon emissions from aviation is to encourage civil servants to fly less? If so, will she speak to her colleagues at the Treasury? Thanks to the merger and subsequent centralisation of Her Majestys Revenue and Customs functions, it has managed in the space of only a year to double the number of civil servants who take domestic flights so that, on any given day, more than 50 HMRC managers travel through regional airports in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the Department is already taking steps to increase the capacity of the railways through the franchising process, the high level output specification and the longer-term strategy framework for the network to be published in the summer.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the latest national passenger survey, which shows that nearly 40 per cent.6 per cent. more than previouslyof travellers on First Great Western are dissatisfied with the amount of room available for
passengers to sit or stand. Does not that make the case for increasing capacity on the railway rather than having expensive new refits of first class compartments?
Mr. Harris: I fully accept that the performance of First Great Western in the past few weeks has unfortunately overshadowed the good news in the rest of the rail network, especially in the light of the passenger survey to which my hon. Friend referred. It showed that customer satisfaction is 81 per cent. nationally. I expect First Great Western to meet its franchise commitments and provide a significantly improved service to passengers in the next few weeks.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The removal of First Great Westerns 5.18 service to Swansea has had a knock-on effect on other commuter services in south Wales. Recently, 340 people in Cardiff boarded a Cardiff to Swansea train which had only 186 seats. Since the last time the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) asked the same question, things have got worse. When will they get better?
Mr. Harris: The removal of the 17.18 service from Cardiff to Swansea was a commercial decision that First Great Western took and the Department has no authority to reverse it. Of course, we will keep the position under review with Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western.
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on the improvements on the west coast main line between Lancaster and London. They have made journeys much better. We must now consider capacity, especially, in my area, on trains between Lancaster and Morecambe, and improve the frequency of the trains by improving the track. What funding is available for such improvements?
Mr. Harris: I agree with my hon. Friend. Let me repeat that the high level output specification, which the Government will publish in the summer, will specify the capacity that we wish to buy from the rail industry in 2009 to 2014. We will also state the funds available for that.
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