Previous Section Index Home Page

Another question that should fairly be asked of Network Rail is about the information that it gave to the train operating companies. Virgin Trains suffered hugely as a result of the overrun and was not given adequate information at adequate times. After the first announcement of the engineering overrun, the Virgin Trains website said that although people could not travel on new year’s eve and new year’s day, for which the company was sorry, their tickets would be valid on Wednesday and Thursday. It quickly became apparent
8 Jan 2008 : Column 187
that rail travel on Wednesday and Thursday was not going to happen, either. That made Virgin Trains look foolish. The company would have made that announcement based on information that it was given by Network Rail. If that information was wrong, we need to understand why it was wrong and why Network Rail did not give out accurate information about when it realistically expected the line to reopen.

I have said that normally it is a pleasure to hear about my constituency in the national media or anywhere else, because it is an attractive place to visit. I am sorry to say that no Member of this House—or anyone else—has been able to do so effectively for a long time. My interest as the Member of Parliament for Rugby is not only in the level of disruption in and around Rugby and its effect on Rugby’s reputation, but in what the disruption and its consequences mean for the people whom I represent. One of the problems that the level of disruption throws up is that those who live in Rugby or travel from Rugby station see an awful lot of down sides in the disruption caused by the upgrading of the west coast main line. They cannot rely, as perhaps others elsewhere in the country can, on the hopeful prospect that one day it will all be wonderful and that they will be able to get up and down the country easily and much more quickly. For those who live in or travel from Rugby, that is not necessarily the case.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), knows my points, because I have made them to him before. He will be relieved to hear that I shall not go through all the detail again. He understands my case. The problem is that the overruns in engineering work and disruption affect people in Rugby as much, if not more so, as everyone else. However, those people do not have the prospect of a better service when it is all done.

The 2009 timetable shows that not only will there arguably be a less good service down to London and back at peak times, but the services from Rugby to the north-west and Scotland—hon. Members have mentioned them in particular—will be noticeably worse. There is a tension, if not a conflict, that we must resolve. If we are to develop a fast rail line, as the west coast main line will be, of course it is right that there will be a tension between getting people from one end to the other as quickly as possible while simultaneously stopping the train at all the places where people wish to get on and off. I understand that. However, it does not seem that it can possibly be right that the improvements to the west coast main line could so effectively bypass the people of Rugby, who have suffered so much in making them happen.

We have seen all the work on the track and the new station being put up, but there is little point in those improvements for those who live in or travel from Rugby if all they achieve is the quicker passage of other people through their town. People in Rugby want to be able to get on the train at Rugby and to go to the places to which they want to go.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am taken by the moderation of the tone of my hon. Friend’s speech. I entirely share his views on the point that local services
8 Jan 2008 : Column 188
will be less frequent because long distance services will be faster. Macclesfield station suffers from that, as the Under-Secretary knows full well. I shall meet the managing director of Arriva, the company that has taken over from Virgin Cross Country, and that will be one matter that I shall raise. Why should people from Scotland get to London more quickly when people from Macclesfield cannot travel to Birmingham or Manchester so frequently?

Jeremy Wright: I agree, and I was about to say that one of the most important things about access to Rugby is that it means that people are able to enjoy the town and everything that it has to offer. That is especially true for passengers from the north-west, and I look forward to my hon. Friend travelling to Rugby regularly when he and I have succeeded in persuading the Minister that there should be a better stopping service on the west coast main line.

I understand the conflict facing the Minister. He does not have an easy task, but the problem is that those who have suffered the most from the terrible debacle on the west coast main line over the past few days are likely to benefit the least when the work is finished. That will cause greater resentment and make it more difficult to attract people onto the railways. The hon. Member for Lewes was right to say that people will put up with a bit of inconvenience once in a while when they understand that a big project has to be carried out, but that they will not do so over and over again. They will not put up with inadequate information, or with being told one thing one day and something else the next.

If such episodes become more frequent, people will revert to the sort of behaviour that we do not want them to adopt—they will get back into their cars and drive, instead of taking the train. It will then be much more difficult to persuade them to leave their cars behind and try the railway again when the work is done and the service is as fantastic as we all hope that it will be.

Many legitimate questions have been raised in the debate about the terrible incidents over the turn of the year. We all accept that the project was a big one, but we have to understand why Network Rail’s management failed so badly. We need to know what went wrong, and to make sure that we can look people in the eye when we tell them, “Use the railways, they are a good way to get around.”

At the moment, I do not think that I can look my constituents in the eye and say that. I do not imagine that the hon. Member for Lewes or my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield can do so either. Those of us with constituencies along the west coast main line are all in the same position, because a terrible mess has been made of improving the rail system so that people can get around the country.

Even when the disruption is over, people along the west coast main line will not see an improvement in their rail service. They may see a shiny track, and they may even glimpse a train passing through their stations at 125 mph, but that is not what they are looking for. That is why the answers to the questions that have been posed this afternoon matter.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 189

I hope that the response from the Office of Rail Regulation will answer those questions. The Government must take on board the points made—very fairly—by Opposition Members in this debate about the structure of Network Rail. However, I hope that the Minister will also look at how the rail network as a whole is structured, and at how it can be made to operate for the benefit of people up and down the country over the next few years.

5.22 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I very much welcome this debate. Many hon. Members have a lot to say about what is happening on the railways, and those of us who believe firmly that the rail service can make an enormous contribution to the fight against climate change want to ensure that it is as good as it can possibly be. Rail travel can be extremely quick, and it is much safer than road travel. It has a significant role to play in helping to combat climate change. The Climate Change Bill will set the challenging target of reducing carbon emissions by at least 60 per cent. by 2050, and greater use of the railways will be vital if we are to achieve that.

However, there is a genuine problem with the services offered on Sundays. I fully understand that our rail networks need to be maintained and upgraded, and I support that. I also appreciate why much of that work has to take place on Sundays, but I want to question our attitudes to Sunday services. Under this Government, there have been considerable improvements in the frequency of some trains and in the quality of rolling stock, but in many parts of the country the attitude to the provision of Sunday services remains very outdated. In those areas, the approach seems to be that train services exist only to transport workers five days a week, in a world where annual holidays last from Saturday to Saturday and football matches are only ever played on Saturday afternoons. However, the world has changed—as anyone who has been to an airport or shopping centre on a Sunday will know.

People want to travel on Sundays. They may want to have a family day out at the seaside or attend a sporting event or go shopping, but they invariably find that they cannot make the necessary return journey by train on a Sunday. Anyone going away for a weekend, or a student coming home from university for a weekend, will want to travel on a Sunday, but railway services are very restricted. For example, the earliest that people can leave Llanelli on a Sunday is 11 am, which means that they cannot get very far. They cannot get to the seaside until after lunchtime, and if they want to come to London they will not get here until late afternoon if they are lucky and have not been delayed too many times by various transfers on to buses and other delaying tactics that seem to beset the railways on a Sunday.

I have often found that Sunday services are crowded, especially during the evening when people are trying to get back from weekends away. Many people are completely put off travelling on a Sunday by the lack of trains, the lack of choice of routes, overcrowding or because they really cannot face the unpredictable delays and the inconvenience of struggling with heavy luggage in and out of stations and on and off replacement bus services.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 190

We had exactly the same problem on Boxing day. Many of us witnessed traffic jams on Boxing day—a day that is now popular for sporting events and that many families can enjoy out together. If we want to encourage people to leave their cars at home and to go by train we need services that they can use. Likewise, many people who go away to visit friends or relatives at Christmas have no option but to use their cars, because they simply cannot get back on Boxing day ready to go to work on 27 December. Effectively, if people want to use the train to go away at Christmas, they have to be able to leave relatively early on Christmas eve, stay away for at least three nights and come back on 27 December. In many other countries there is a much more comprehensive service on Sundays and Boxing day. That is what we need here. Travel is an important part of people’s leisure activity and we need a much better service on Sundays, with more frequent trains and far less disruption to services.

I would like a much more organised approach from Network Rail to the maintenance and upgrading of our railways. It seems to be very inflexible in the way it works. As other hon. Members have said, it seems to take out an entire track or area for weeks and months at a time. Perhaps 200 miles of track seems to be affected. Instead, it could take the work bit by bit and say that from one station to another might be closed for a month, and then the next one and the next one. It has taken out the entire line from Llanelli to Newport. It can be immensely inconvenient to go from one tiny station to the next by bus.

The other problem is that once Network Rail has fixed its dates it is incapable of changing them. We had a poignant example last year. A big match was taking place in Cardiff and many people would have liked to take the train to it. Although there were weeks of notice, Network Rail was inflexible and unwilling to change its arrangements, so it was impossible for anyone to use the railway on that day. Many people who would have enjoyed relaxing on the train and arriving in Cardiff without the fuss of finding somewhere to park had to drive down the motorway with so many others and wait in traffic jams and queues to get into the city. There is a lot to be said for keeping a close eye on what Network Rail is doing and I implore the Minister to require strong answers about recent events during the recess and to look to the future at exactly what Network Rail can do to guarantee that its work will be much less disruptive.

On a more positive note, I welcome the Government’s proposals for simplifying the fare structure. I look forward to the implementation of a ticketing system that will ensure that passengers are sold the best available tickets for a journey. I understand that that will be in place by the autumn. It is very much needed, because the present system leaves people confused, especially if they are travelling from one area of the country to another. There seem to be so many different types of tickets and operating procedures.

We are all concerned about what happened during the recess, but there is a tremendous future for the railways and I would very much like to see that we get the problems sorted out so that people can have confidence in our service and we get more people out of their cars and on to the railways.

8 Jan 2008 : Column 191
5.29 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): We saw a sorry performance from the Government Front Bencher this afternoon. There was a complete lack of analysis of what really went wrong, and a complete absence of remedies to make sure that, in future, money is not wasted and there are not so many delays. There was no real understanding of the structure that the Government created in their new Network Rail company, and there was no real, sincere apology to all the people whose travel arrangements, local stations and rail tracks were disrupted over the Christmas and new year period.

The Government are backed by Labour Members who seem to believe in a couple of myths—in ideological baggage left over from the old socialist period. One of them is the proposition that a nationalised monopoly railway, taking us back to the golden age of British Rail, would be a lot better, and the other is the proposition that fragmentation was the cause of the recent delays and problems. I shall consider those two myths before providing a bit of analysis on what is wrong with Network Rail, how it could be put right in the short term, and how it could be made a lot better through fundamental structural change in the medium or longer term.

Let us deal first with the myths. We are invited to believe that the nationalised monopoly between 1947 and 1993 was a paragon of virtue, which never delayed people, produced extremely good services, and delivered a much better railway for less money. Those of us who have read the history books, and some of those who are old enough to have lived through that period, will know that the reality was very different. Between 1947 and 1993, the nationalised monopoly was in continuous decline. I am not making a party political point. It did not matter whether there were a Labour, Conservative or Labour-Liberal coalition Government; the system did not work.

Over that long period, there was a continuous trend: a fall in the proportion of our freight carried by rail and of passenger journeys by rail. People voted with their feet and their pocket books for the flexibility of road travel. Hauliers came into the market and took the freight business. Indeed, the nationalised monopoly railway stopped competing for most freight business, because it decided that it would not do single-wagon marshalling at all. It decided that it was interested in rail freight business only if it involved complete train loads, and if there were a reasonable number of trains a day, or a week. There were only a few people in the country with enough business to get an offer from the railways to run rail freight.

It was not surprising, therefore, that there was a big decline in rail freight and passenger movements. The decline was accelerated by the gross financial mismanagement that characterised the nationalised railway under all Governments over a long period. During the period in question, huge subsidies had to be put into the railway. Despite those large subsidies, fares rose in real terms year after year, which put people off using the railways. Those on low income were deprived of any realistic chance of access to the railway, because rail travel became prohibitively expensive. It was a double whammy: the system was bad for the taxpayer,
8 Jan 2008 : Column 192
who had to subsidise it, and bad for the fare payer, because fares kept rising in real terms.

From time to time, under Treasury pressure, the railway was forced to cut services and to make closures. Sometimes there were a lot of closures all in one go, as in the case of the notorious Beeching cuts. More often, there was a dribble of closures, year after year, as and when Governments thought that they could get away with it. The nationalised monopoly always presented Governments of all persuasions with exactly the same cruel choices: “Pay up, or we close lines”; “Pay up, or we close services”; and “Pay up, Minister, or we will pick on your line for particularly bad treatment.” That was the brutal political reality that characterised the rows between the nationalised monopoly and Labour or Conservative Governments.

I find it surprising that after all these years of allegedly new Labour, the Labour party has not moved on in its thinking and realised that that was not a particularly good model. It was not even a good model for the people who worked for the railway. The nationalised monopoly kept sacking people, because as it retreated, made cuts and reduced services, it had to take cost out, although the costs still grew unrealistically. An awful lot of people were therefore made redundant into the bargain.

I think that Ministers understand those points, because we are 11 years into a Labour Government and there is absolutely no sign that they wish to recreate a nationalised monopoly. One cheer for that. We have some common ground, and some agreement. I do not expect any Minister to leap to his or her feet this evening and suggest that the record of the nationalised monopoly under Labour Governments was particularly fine. Ministers know that what I say about fares, service quality, delays, reliability and redundancies is all too true of the nationalised railway monopoly. Those on the Front Bench have at last realised that there needs to be a different model, and that a nationalised monopoly is not run by the Government but runs the Government, bosses the Government around and does not deliver for all the money that is put in.

However, many Labour Back Benchers seem to think, fondly, that there was a golden age of nationalised monopoly and, fondly, are misled into believing that their Government might one day recreate that nationalised monopoly. I should like to assure Labour Members that I do not believe that there is any chance of the present Labour Government recreating the nationalised monopoly of their dreams. The Government could not afford to nationalise the train companies, and they know that it would be a disaster trying to run the railways as they were in the 1970s and 1940s under Labour Governments and in the 1960s and 1980s under Conservative Governments. It was the failure of the nationalised monopoly that drove the Conservative Government into fundamental change, which ushered in a new era for the railways.

As someone who was involved in the decision for railway privatisation but who did not recommend the scheme that was chosen, I have no need to defend that scheme. The decision to introduce some element of private capital and some element of competitive choice and challenge did enough to transform the railways. We need turn no further than to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who has
8 Jan 2008 : Column 193
praised the way in which the privatised railway post-1993 moved from retreat and decline to an era of growth and development.

Ministers regularly use figures for the 1993 to 2007 period and, of course, they like using figures for the 1997 to 2007 period, when they can claim more of the credit. Whichever period one chooses, it presents a very different picture from the previous 40 years. It is a picture of growth in passenger travel and in freight transportation. Many of the present problems of the railways are the kind that one wants in a business. They are the problems of too much pressure of demand—more people wishing to use the railways and more people frustrated that better use cannot be made of those fabulous routes across the country and into the centres of our leading towns and cities, which are at present in the monopoly custodianship of Network Rail, the subject of the debate this evening. We seem to have some agreement that privatisation kicked off something that was rather good.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): In spite of myself, I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution. It is good to know that we do not have to wait for the publication of his memoirs to see that he disagreed with his Cabinet colleagues on the nature of the privatisation of the railways in 1993. Before he goes on to the consequences of that privatisation, would he mind sharing with the House his specific reservation with regard to the financial structure of Railtrack, the rolling stock companies and the passenger franchising system?

Mr. Redwood: My problem with the structure that we chose and with the Government’s structure is that I think we left too big a monopoly element in the track. The evil is monopoly—it is not public ownership so much as monopoly. As all the economic textbooks rightly tell us, monopoly does in the customer. It always charges too much and delivers too little. It always looks after the interests of the owners and the senior managers. It does not look after the interests of the customers or even of the more junior employees, who do most of the work. So it is a nasty system, and even public ownership does not tame monopoly sufficiently to get rid its evil consequences.

At the time, I favoured splitting the railway into regional rail companies, which would allow competitive challenge over time, because they would have to re-bid for franchises; so it was not a perpetual monopoly for them. At the same time, it would allow others to come in and build new track or suggest new services, so that there was some element of contestability where the tracks could, in certain circumstances, be used as a common carrier and would not necessarily remain the monopoly preserve of the regional company. The basic structure was to go back to regional companies.

Although I do not think it necessary, reconnecting track and train can make sense. I was a strong opponent of the London underground system developed by the Government, because I thought that splitting track and train in confined tunnels was particularly foolish. I proposed the pro-competitive solution of splitting things into competing companies that owned track and train entire with their own lines; I think that that would still be a better answer, given that the system has gone bankrupt in one major company and is obviously struggling.

Next Section Index Home Page