29 Jan 2008 : Column 1WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 29 January 2008

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Cross-border Rail Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mark Tami.]

9.30 am

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I very much welcome the opportunity to raise some issues in this debate. I assure the House that I do not intend it to be what we in Scotland call a greeting meeting, where we just catalogue all the complaints. There will be some of those, but I hope that we can focus on what we can and should be doing to fulfil ambitions for the services. I say that with some feeling, as I represent a constituency that is literally at the farthest end of the east coast main line. In that context, may I stress to the Minister my earnest hope that he will make it clear that the east coast main line runs from London to Aberdeen, not from London to Edinburgh? That is a genuine concern, not least because it is London to Edinburgh when investment decisions are being made, but London to Aberdeen for operational services.

I hope that the Minister will understand that those of us who represent constituencies and stations north of Edinburgh are campaigning energetically for some commitment to improve the quality of the service, not least because if the time comes, as I hope it will, when we have high-speed links to the central belt, the north of Scotland will also have at least relatively high-speed links to enable passengers to access cross-border routes effectively.

Debates about cross-border rail routes have been going on as long as there have been such routes—perhaps 150 years or more. It is a matter of regret to me that I rarely travel on the cross-border routes, not from any prejudice against trains—quite the reverse, I enjoy travelling by train—but because, frankly, the journey times are impossible for somebody who travels as often and as regularly as I do.

As it happens, Aberdeen airport is in my constituency. It is expanding in both passenger numbers and services, but there are people who object to its expansion. They offer the usual arguments about pollution, noise and climate change. I point out to them that, although I am sympathetic to their arguments, the truth is that the airport is the lifeline communication for an economy such as ours.

I would like to believe that there is an aspiration to ensure that people have real choice and that surface transport, particularly rail, is a genuine, viable alternative for more people more often than is currently the case. For the record, the journey time between London and Aberdeen is between seven and seven and a half hours. Indeed, most journeys are in excess of seven and a half hours, and that is only the time from station to station. By the time one adds on access to the station, particularly city centre stations, and travel across London, one is
29 Jan 2008 : Column 2WH
talking about a journey of nearly nine hours, as compared with my air journey yesterday, which, even though delayed, was about four hours. I am sure Members will understand that there really is no contest when people have to make a choice.

At present, several issues have clearly caused concern and anger. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me refer to the disruption caused by the engineering works at Christmas time. Virgin has estimated that it lost £10 million in revenue, and 50,000 people were affected by the disruption and the fact that it went on well beyond the predicted time. Somebody sarcastically said, “We are back to BR,” but “BR” meant bus replacement rather than British Rail.

Dan Roberts wrote in The Daily Telegraph about the problem. To be fair, taking the whole article, he acknowledged that, given the age of the infrastructure, it is surprising that for much of the time our trains run on time and provide a reasonable service. The problem is one of predictability. He states:

I do not expect the Minister to defend privatisation, as he and his Government were not responsible for it—

A discussion that does not deserve mileage in this debate is whether Virgin, Arriva or National Express is better or worse, or whether Network Rail is responsible. We tend to hear enough over the airwaves of train operators blaming the track operator and vice versa—presumably the track operators blame the train operators for having the discourtesy to run trains on their tracks and generally making it inefficient for them to operate a network—but such debates do not really get us anywhere. What is really required is to bring all this together in ways that will meet the needs and expectations of passengers.

There are three passenger franchises covering the cross-border rail services: National Express on the inter-city east coast main line, Arriva-owned CrossCountry Rail, which took over the franchise in the past few months, and, of course, Virgin on the west coast. As they are relatively new services, it is not possible to evaluate them, although there is anecdotal evidence. No doubt in due course we will be able to determine how well they are performing.

Many people regret the passing of the Great North Eastern Railway, or GNER. The irony is that one of the most popular franchises lost its right to operate because of the failure of its parent company, not because of shortcomings in its operations. Indeed, it was the franchise that passengers put at the top of their preferences. The new franchise clearly has quite an act to follow, and we hope that it will maintain the standard.

The other problem is that since the new franchises have taken over, they have announced some of the biggest fare rises on all the routes. National Express East Coast fares will increase by 6.6 per cent., and CrossCountry by 7 per cent. Both increases are measured
29 Jan 2008 : Column 3WH
at the retail prices index plus 2 per cent. That is significantly above the average 5.4 per cent. increase across the whole network, which itself is above inflation, and may bear out the comments that I just read out from The Daily Telegraph.

The Government may argue that above-inflation fares are needed to enable services to be improved, but I believe that passengers would like services to be improved first, rather than think that they are paying for something that may not materialise. In any case, if we are serious about the long-term aspirations of developing the network and encouraging more people on to it, it is reasonable to expect that fares will not increase above inflation. Indeed, in an expanding network that was actively encouraging people to transfer to it, one would hope that, if anything, fare increases would be below the overall RPI.

There are some other worrying indications. I need to press the Minister a little more about the negotiations and terms of the contracts, about which I have had some correspondence with him and others. When Arriva CrossCountry came through as the winner of the franchise in July last year, it said that it would introduce an older fleet of trains and cut back on-board services such as toilets and shops. I was contacted yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who would have been here were it not for the fact that his Select Committee commitments prevented him. He asked me to point out his concerns about the services that pass through his constituency, in particular through Berwick. He is appalled to hear suggestions that hot food services could be cut in standard class between Dundee and Penzance.

Evidence suggests that not many passengers take the whole journey on that train, but the train makes the whole journey and people have the right to do so, too. If people taking a significant chunk of the journey from Dundee to Penzance are told that they will be on the train for hours but that no hot food will be available, it is pretty poor provision. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what is happening. If the argument is that by not having hot food and having fewer toilets we can seat more passengers, it means that more passengers will be offered a poorer service. Are those the expectations? Is such provision within the contract that the Government negotiated? What is the justification for that? I hope that the bid was not accepted because it cost the least in subsidies, rather than because it met the balance between cost-effectiveness and passenger need. Will the Minister share with hon. Members how the Government balance the two factors of value for money for the taxpayer, in terms of a lower subsidy, and comfort and efficiency for the passenger? It is not right for one to be completely traded for the other. I hope that the Minister agrees.

Just this week, there was a demonstration by passengers on First Great Western, boycotting that railway, refusing to pay or using fake tickets. I do not want to make too much of that, but there are clearly pinch points where passengers feel aggrieved because, although they are paying, in some cases, significant sums to use trains, they are not getting the service they expect so, not surprisingly, their anger rises.

The Government, perhaps understandably, are anxious to control or reduce the subsidy given to the railways—we need a debate about that. However, that has to be part
29 Jan 2008 : Column 4WH
of a genuine public engagement about where the burden is shared. If it is simply a matter of the Treasury reining back on the cost of the railways and, in effect, offloading it on to passengers by saying, “We do not have the capacity anyway, so we can charge them more and more and actually it will be helpful if they go elsewhere”, that ignores the wider debate about climate change, pollution, congestion and so on.

One of the reversals of progress, compared with 150 years ago, or even in my lifetime—50 years ago, say—is that people used to be able to walk into a station, ask about the route and find out which fare, by whatever class they wanted to travel, provided the best value from A to B. That is no longer an option. The amount of questioning, effort and research that is needed to find the best route and the best fare is disproportionate to the result.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): When I was researching for the debate, I was intrigued to see that one of Arriva’s commitments for its new cross-country franchise was to provide a website showing clearly the cheapest fare and the quickest way to make journeys. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he or his constituents have any experience of whether that website is up and running yet?

Malcolm Bruce: I do not know, although I will give a sample of fares for part of that route later. However, the hon. Gentleman makes my point. It is all very well saying, “We have a route—one route—and we can tell you exactly what the best fare is on it”, but many people travelling cross-border have to change trains and operators, particularly when going from north-east to south-west, or vice versa, and that is where the difficulties arise. That was true in Victorian times, too, but there was none the less an integrated timetable and fare structure, so it is not something that was possible only during the British Rail era.

The whole fare-pricing structure involves the price, the name of the ticket and its validity, any conditions attached to it, its variability and whether it is appropriate for the journey that people are taking. Increasingly, people are prepared to use the internet, hoping that it will have done the work for them, to search for the best fare. However, that is a matter of trust; people do not know how good the internet service is and the extent to which it has provided the right answer. In any case, they have to ask the right questions.

A considerable amount of research is still required to find the cheapest price. People have to book early in advance, if they can, for the cheaper, fairer prices that the Government say are available, but which are often buried in an obscure area, for an obscure train at an obscure time. If that is so, it is a meaningless option. The French have a “most recently bought” competitive fare, which enables passengers to know which fare people buy most regularly and how it compares with other fares.

As information is not available and people cannot find the best deals, journeying by rail is becoming increasingly beyond the means of the majority of people in this country, particularly if they are travelling, as I have sometimes tried to do, with a family, notwithstanding family rail cards and the like. My office priced a journey for a long weekend next month, travelling on Thursday
29 Jan 2008 : Column 5WH
and returning on Monday, from Huntly in my constituency to Bristol. That is not an unusual journey—it is not true that everybody wants to go to London—but the cheapest price for one adult is a saver return at £168.30 on a restricted ticket. When I talked to someone from my local newspaper about that, he said, “Don’t you mean £68.30?” I repeated that the ticket cost £168.30. A standard open return ticket costs £279, which is a pretty steep jump.

People can pay a cheaper fare if they have the patience and time to investigate the single fares on offer. Of course, that has become the great catch. Most people assume that if they are buying a return ticket there is a discount—a deal. However, increasingly, the way to find the best deal is to buy two singles, independently, from opposite ends of the proposed journey. If people do that for a return journey from Huntly to Bristol, they can find a return fare totalling £92, but the tickets are valid only on specified trains. That is a serious problem, because even people who are pretty clear about when they want to travel can find that circumstances change, and their whole ticket would be invalidated if that happened.

Just for the record, the train journey from Huntly to Bristol takes 10 and a half hours. According to the AA, the road journey takes nine hours and 55 minutes on 547 miles of road. Although I am not sure that I believe that figure, I shall use it for a comparison. Would a family, or even two or three adults, even contemplate a 10 and a half hour train journey that cost, at a minimum, nearly £300 and might cost £500 or £600, or would they take the car?

Although people can find competitive fares, it is not reasonable to expect them to do all the work themselves. There is no guarantee that they will get the most appropriate fare or deal for their circumstances. We need to take a much more radical look at how all these things are operated and reported on. That is not just my view. The Select Committee on Transport has, not surprisingly, looked into the matter and was pretty critical about what it found out in its sixth report of the 2005—06 Session, “How fair are the fares? Train fares and ticketing”. The Committee commented on the costs and said that

It also criticised the lack of flexibility, particularly for walk-on fares:

The Committee issued a rebuke about the complexity in unregulated fares. The Government have said that they are putting in place a simplified system, but it is not clear how effective it will be or whether long-distance operators will apply it. If the Minister can give an update about exactly what is being done to try to simplify the structure so that people can access and manage it, I would be grateful.

It is worth recording that, although things have improved, the three cross-border routes attract a high number of complaints. When I asked the Library for information,
29 Jan 2008 : Column 6WH
I was told that, in 2006-07, there were 1,229 complaints against the three train operating companies offering cross-border services, which outnumbered the 973 complaints made against all the remaining 18 train operating companies. There were more complaints against those three operators than the other 18 by a factor of four to three. I accept that the cross-border routes involve longer journeys, but given that many people do not bother to complain and only three operators and three routes are involved, it is indicative that there have been serious problems. However, I acknowledge that the figures seem to have improved.

The situation is not all bad. We have some good operators and some new franchises, but there is still some uncertainty. People want reliability, improved journey times and fair and competitive fares, but we have a long way to go, even within the existing structure, to deliver people’s expectations.

I turn to the vision thing, or perhaps I should call it the lack-of-vision thing. Many people have travelled on continental railways. People travel internationally, so they are aware of what other countries are doing, and they feel that the United Kingdom is falling embarrassingly behind. Japan sets a high standard in reliability, punctuality and cost. My parliamentary researcher, who went to a wedding in Japan over the Christmas and new year period, reminded me of how efficient the Shinkanseng—the bullet train—is in time and price.

I have made some comparisons between the UK and France. France may be the aspirational model, but it is our next-door neighbour and it is reasonable to ask why we are so far adrift from what the French have done. There is no doubt that what has been achieved in France has been the result of genuine political leadership, vision and determination. I shall give an example. The trip from Paris to Marseilles is about 411 miles, compared with 397 miles for the trip from Aberdeen to London. That is the distance as the crow flies, and I accept that the track does not follow the crow, but I am comparing like with like. The journey time is hugely different; from Paris to Marseilles, it is three hours and three minutes, compared with seven hours and eight minutes on a comparable line in the UK, so there is no contest.

Even given the favourable exchange rate, the TGV fare is significantly more affordable. The most popular, most bought fare is £36 return. Recently, I helped my daughter to book a summer rail trip from London to Avignon, which is a direct service that runs in the summer and takes five and a quarter hours. The return fare is £189, which is a fantastic bargain in time and price compared with anything in the UK.

When the Government commissioned a feasibility study on high-speed trains, as they did for their last manifesto, they estimated that £30 billion would be required for a high-speed Scotland to London line. When the White Paper was launched last July, the Secretary of State dismissed proposals for a high-speed railway and suggested that it would not be considered again until 2012, presumably because then we will have digested the Olympics and it will be after the next election. That is not a satisfactory response. The Secretary of State said:

I suggest that they are changing, and changing fast.

Next Section Index Home Page