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26 Apr 2007 : Column 351WH—continued

2.55 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to say a few words. I had no intention of doing so until I came into the Chamber, but given that there are not a great number of Back-Bench Members present, I thought that I might as well add my three pennyworth. I apologise to the Minister for missing his discussions on First Great Western earlier this week, but no doubt I will hear in due course about some of the problems in the company.

The report is useful and I want to make a few points, one of which I have already raised in my intervention on the Chairman of the Committee. I am genuinely confused—perhaps the Minister would clarify matters for me—about what are peak times, as they cause all manner of problems and change the nature of people’s travelling times. With price discrimination, I accept that there is a reason to take more from those who travel when the trains are at their busiest—clearly that is during the commuter times—but there are now some bizarre applications of that. The obverse is that if an operator can take more at certain times, there must be a reason for providing cheaper saver tickets; otherwise, there would just be a standard ticket price and when people travelled would be irrelevant.

My second point is important and has been touched on, but I will put it bluntly. Travelling by train must not be seen as a rich person’s form of transport. Sadly, however, that is somewhat the case now. I am not saying that rail transport has ever been able to compare favourably with the car on a purely price-based comparison, even in the good old days of British Rail, which some of us still look back on fondly. The reality is that if the full costs of the car are taken into account, including environmental costs, the train must come into its own.

However, it can be forgotten that, because of the pricing structure, a family travelling by train does not pay once, but as many times as there are members of the family travelling, which can be prohibitive. For young families who might not have a car or who might be being very thoughtful in taking the train, some of
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the costs can mean that travelling by train is still prohibitive, even with the cheaper fares, discounts and special arrangements. That can be a reason why people do not travel at all or why they use the coach. We must not see the issue as the train versus the car. One of the reasons why coach travel is so attractive in this country is that it is by far the cheapest form of transport. However, coaches do not get vehicles off our roads. That is something that we need to take account of.

My third point is to do with something that affects both the lines in my area—the Cheltenham-Paddington line and the Bristol-Gloucester line—and which is long overdue: the installation of automatic ticket machines. At one level, that is to be greatly welcomed. I get really fed up when I know that there are certain points in a journey between which people can travel and never pay a cent. If they sit in the right part of a long train, the chances of the guard—or ticket inspector, manager or whatever we call them now—finding them out are quite small. Even when the guard does find them, the experience can sometimes be quite unpleasant, because they never seem to have any money and things can get difficult. Again, that puts a lot of stress on the staff. It is galling when people regularly travel for free, because the burden is carried by those who pay. It is good that we have a system under which people can pay before they get on the train, even if they board from—this phrase is not politically correct—an unmanned station.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Unstaffed.

Mr. Drew: All right. I have been put right; there is always a correct way of putting things.

I have yet to try my parliamentary card on one of the machines. The first time that I do will be an interesting experience; I hope that it does not keep the card. The difficulty with the machines is that if someone does not know the tariffs for their journey—that applies particularly to more complicated journeys—they will need a degree to navigate their way through the complications of the system, as the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said. Sadly, the information in stations is as dire as it has ever been. One would think that clear tariff rates of what should be paid for what journey could be displayed in unstaffed stations, yet people go into the unknown. That is a problem.

I have talked to rail travellers. For a period that started at the beginning of April, people without tickets will not be fined. We have had a go at those who evade payment deliberately, but there are people who get on trains without a ticket for genuine reasons. They tend to get one on the train, and until recently that was the norm. I think that the period is a month, so it will end at the start of May. People will then be able to be fined heavily. Okay, we should deal with the people who do things wrongly, but some genuine people could be without a ticket, although it is always difficult to discriminate between the two.

For some people, the issue was the last straw. As regular travellers, they felt nervous, for whatever reason—the machine may not always be operative, but the train manager may say, “Tough—I’ll fine you and you must come back and prove that it was faulty.” There are some issues about customer relations, which are not as good as they could and should be.

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In conclusion, what saddens me is that using the train should be the norm for anyone doing longer journeys but it is not. They should not fly, and I hope that they do not drive. Too much store is set by coach travel, which is not an environmentally sound form of transport. People have to be terribly well organised and entirely disciplined in how they go about getting a ticket, and they have to accept all the frailties of the rail system; a group came to see my hon. Friend the Minister about the reliability of First Great Western.

Regular travellers such as me know that we will have bad journeys; that is one of those things that we build into our expectations. It is not acceptable, but it happens. However, the occasional train user will have paid a lot of money for a ticket and had difficulty in getting it. They will then find that the trains that they were going to get do not come or are hideously late. Such experiences will stay with those people for the rest of their life and are the reason why—even though train usage has gone up—a lot of people would not dream of using the train. That is a shame, because the train has to be part of the solution to our transport problems, not part of the problem.

I hope that we can improve the fare policy, regulate it fairly and understand how companies could better appreciate the people who should be at the top of their priority lists—the customers. Sadly, they sometimes seem to be the last thing that comes into the companies’ minds.

3.4 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Norwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chair of the Transport Committee, on her excellent report and apologise for having missed the start of her speech.

As I said, the report is excellent. It puts on the line some of the dissatisfactions of rail users in recent years about the cost and complexity of rail travel. We all now accept that UK train travel is the most expensive in Europe. The system is complex and bureaucratic and it is not obvious to anyone why certain prices are charged. We have to set that in the context of the rail White Paper that will be released next year, the continued growth of the railways, how we will deal with prices, the availability of seats, public subsidies and the distinction between regulated and unregulated rail fares.

The report makes public dissatisfaction clear: value for money is the biggest single issue for regular rail users at present. The hon. Lady cited her example of travelling down from Crewe; my example comes from travelling regularly from Manchester. If it is cheaper for me to fly than to take a first-class train journey or go further down the list of fare options, we have not got things right.

I accept that 43 per cent. of all rail income comes from subsidies and that 57 per cent. comes from fares. In the long term, we shall not be able to increase the amount of money from the public purse to pay for all we want on our railways. The first point made by the report is about the strategic importance of the railways in underpinning much of what we as a Parliament, and the Government, want to achieve for economic development, social cohesion and inclusivity. The Government response does not address the broader
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context. The Climate Change Bill is coming through Parliament and there is an ongoing debate about congestion charging. We should be considering those broad policy objectives. We know that cars are far and away the largest producers of carbon dioxide emissions. What needs to happen to enable people to move freely on our railways? There has to be a price—not necessarily one paid by subsidies—put on the value of being able to encourage more people to travel on the railways at a much better cost.

The Committee’s report is clear and correct to say that we need a simplified, unified fare structure that is understandable to all. As the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) said, one can ring up and get three different prices for the same journey—that really shows what a nonsense the present fare structure is. The Government talk about discussions taking place with rail operating companies, but as a start, the first thing that has to happen is an agreed fare price structure. They apply to other forms of transport—aeroplanes and so on. There are agreed classes of travel. If we travel business class or standard class or whatever, we know what we are getting. However, when we buy a rail ticket, it is not clear what we will get. The structure needs to be simplified.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Surely he has chosen the wrong mode of travel for comparison. The one mode of travel for which we clearly cannot say what we are going to get or what price we will pay is air travel. The airline industry is the one industry that is absolutely not the right comparator. I am lost by that comparison and illustration.

Paul Rowen: I was talking about the structure, not necessarily the price. Yes, the airline industry does vary its prices according to demand, and that happens in the rail industry to some extent, but people know what they are getting in each class, whether they travel business, economy or first class, even though the price might vary. The first thing that we need in the rail industry, therefore, is a simplified structure, with fewer tickets and more agreements regulating the conditions for ticket use and when those conditions apply. In that way, we can have a standard agreement setting out what the peak, shoulder and off-peak times are. We need to have those things in place.

At the strategic level, we then need to look at what can be done to ensure that rail fares do not continue escalating at the rate they are now. In that respect, one issue that can and should be addressed—I hope that the White Paper will address it—is the length of franchises. Clearly, if a company has a franchise for only 10 years and has to put in a certain level of investment, it will, even with public subsidy, seek to use the fare structure to ensure that it gets a return. However, if it has 20 years to recoup the same investment, it will be much more sure that it can do so and it will not need to increase rail fares to the level that we are talking about.

We also need to look at capacity. It is an absolute insult that we charge passengers full price for standing. Anyone who turns up for the Manchester to Bournemouth train on a Friday afternoon without a
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ticket and assumes that they will be able to get a seat is living in cloud cuckoo land—they will be standing the whole way. Why, however, should they be charged the same as someone who has a seat? Indeed, given that they have bought a walk-on ticket, they may well pay a lot more than someone who has booked over the internet and who has a seat all the way. We need to introduce incentives to encourage train operating companies to increase capacity and we need to penalise them for the number of commuters and other passengers who have to stand each day for a good part of their journey. It is not acceptable that people should be put in such a position.

On intermodal comparisons, we need to begin making it more advantageous for people to travel by rail. It is not acceptable to say, as the Government response seems to, “Well, the railways are busy and full anyway, so we don’t need to do anything.” We want to see a shift away from forms of transport such as car and air and we need to be able to encourage that shift. That is where the strategic view is important. We should be using the debates about climate change, CO2 emissions and congestion charging to ensure that we have the additional resources to enable capacity increases to take place without massive fare increases.

I will close there, because I have covered the main points that I wanted to raise. I hope that, in responding, the Minister can give us a much more positive view than that contained in the Government’s defensive and inward-looking response to the Committee’s excellent and far-reaching report.

3.14 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): On behalf of the official Opposition, I welcome the Transport Committee’s report on fares and ticketing on the railways, just as we welcome all its reports. Although it is a shame that we have had to wait 50 weeks to discuss it, the report is none the less welcome. I suspect that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) will not expect me to agree with all its conclusions, but it is none the less extremely useful. It raises some interesting and important points about the way in which train operating companies operate and highlights the fact that urgent attention needs to be paid to that modus of operation.

The report also highlights some crucial failings in the Government’s management of our railways, and I want to underline that by addressing two issues. The first is people’s experience of buying tickets and finding the cheapest fares. In that respect, it is the behaviour of the TOCs that needs to change to a large extent. The second issue is the level of fares and value for money.

The Select Committee report concluded:

Rather more starkly, the Committee noted earlier in its report:

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In the intervening 50 weeks, the Government have, for once, agreed with the Select Committee. Their response stated:

They have announced their attention to work with TOCs to address the problem, but there has not been much improvement in the 50 weeks since the report or, indeed, since the Government’s response.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The hon. Gentleman is making great play of the fact that we have had to wait quite a long time for this debate, but I should point out that the timing was a matter for the arrangements of the House. As a Committee Chairman on the Liaison Committee, I was happy to see other reports go ahead. I have many things on which I can attack the Government, but the timing of this debate is not their responsibility.

Stephen Hammond: I was not attacking the Government for the length of the delay, but citing it in the context of the actions that they said they would take in their response.

I was about to quote the most recent research from Passenger Focus, which found that seven out of 10 leisure passengers decided not to travel because of the cost of the ticket, with 44 per cent. using the car instead. It also found that three out of five commuter and business passengers disagreed with the contention that tickets were generally fairly priced—I suppose that one could say that people will always disagree with that contention, but it is worth pointing out that finding in the interests of fairness. The research also found that four out of five leisure travellers and seven out of 10 business travellers agreed that they would travel more on trains if the fare were a bit cheaper. The Passenger Focus report commented:

The point is simple. The TOCs and the Government can say for as long as they like that the fare structure is simple and that good value can be found on the network, but if that is not the passengers’ perception, people simply will not travel by train. The Committee’s report dealt excellently with that point, saying:

That is a crucial point. Whatever we think about the fares, there is a perception that they are too high, and the modal shift will not go in the direction that we want.

It is worth mentioning one important point about fares and pricing that the report did not look at. There is now a move to smartcards and new ticketing technology across the networks, and anyone who travels on the London network will know that increases in cash fares have encouraged people to switch to Oyster cards. That is hitting some of the those on the lowest incomes hardest, although I accept that London
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is a devolved matter and that we are concentrating on train fares. None the less, the single minimum cash fare on the London underground is £4, but it is £1.50 if one uses an Oyster card. There is clear evidence from a recent Greater London authority report that the take-up of Oyster cards among the lowest-income groups is lower than it is among higher-income groups. One needs to be mindful of that, particularly as we move to introduce ITSO’s technology across the network. If we do that, I hope that we will do so in a way that does not penalise those who most need access to affordable public transport, and I would be interested to hear what the manager has to say about that—sorry, the Minister. He is the manager of the railways; I get confused.

I want to talk about ways of finding the cheapest fare. In autumn 2006, the Passenger Focus group carried out the mystery shopping exercise that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott) tried, and I have a sample of the results. During the off-peak period, almost 48 per cent. of passengers at the largest stations have to queue longer than the industry guideline of three minutes. During peak hours, 11 per cent. queue longer than the industry guideline of five minutes.

Passenger Focus also did a shopping exercise to test what sort of information can be obtained by telephone. Of the companies that it tested in autumn 2006, only GNER telesales was able to provide information to every caller; 40 per cent. of the callers to GNER, 32 per cent. of those to South West Trains, 28 per cent. of callers to Virgin Trains and 22 per cent. of callers to First Great Western waited more than 10 minutes to speak to an operator. As the group rightly commented:

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