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29 Jan 2008 : Column 13WH—continued

10.20 am

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Taylor, and like the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech), I must say that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate. We had a broadly similar debate on 13 March last year. None the less, this is a timely debate because of some of the developments in the past year, including the double whammy at Christmas, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington described, and the re-letting of several of the franchises that affect cross-border services.

If one looks at the statistics most recently supplied by what I call the Scottish Executive, but who call themselves the Scottish Government, one can see that there were 2.6 million cross-border journeys originating in Scotland in 2005-06. Quite bizarrely, the number of cross-border journeys originating without Scotland was exactly the same, meaning that there were about 5.2 million cross-border journeys. In that context, one would expect the commitment to rail from the UK Government and the Scottish Executive to accelerate. However, when we look at the Scottish Government’s transport plans, we see that their transport spending on rail services is forecast to decrease—they say that they will spend less on rail in each of the next two years. That is important.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Gordon. He counted three cross-border services: the west coast main line, which is run by Virgin; the east coast main line, which is run by the new National Express franchise; and CrossCountry, which is run by Arriva. Of course, there is a fourth—the overnight sleeper is run by First ScotRail—and I shall make some remarks about that later. The right hon. Gentleman gave us an eloquent introduction. He is absolutely consistent in what he says on the matter. I looked at his website, and it is clear that his concerns are not new. He spoke to Ministers prior to the re-letting of various franchises last year to ask for assurances that the contract would maintain services to Aberdeen, rather than focus on links to Edinburgh. I could predict where his argument would go today after looking at his website; he has written about the case for high-speed rail links to the north, and he partially made that case today. I want to explore with the Minister some high-speed rail issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also sensibly pointed out the issue of finding the cheapest fare. Only in the past week have I succeeded in finding the website that tells people about those fares. I declare no interest as regards the website, but I am told that is now the website of choice for those who want to find the cheapest way to get anywhere. However, the right hon. Gentleman made the point that sometimes, people must combine three or four single journeys to find the cheapest fare; and, bizarrely, on one journey, it turned out that buying a ticket to Falkirk was the cheapest way to travel from Penzance to Birmingham. That shows
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that there are still some bizarre ticketing problems. They are the fault of the operators and Network Rail, not the Government. They cannot be laid at the Government’s door, but it is right for politicians to criticise the train operating companies for them.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington. He will not be surprised to hear that, every time that people make a point about the period from 1979 onwards, I make the point that, according to rail industry statistics, investment has been falling since 1945; indeed, a lot of people claim that it has been falling since 1920. If he wants to read some excellent and impartial rail history, I guide him to books by Professor Huxley, who writes well on such matters.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Liberal Democrats are committed—he can correct me if I am wrong—to a revolution in the rail industry. There may be many things wrong with the rail industry, but neither Network Rail nor the train operating companies nor many other people want a revolution. We perhaps need an evolution toward some solutions, but do we need a major structural rip-up? We need to improve what we have, and I shall make some critical remarks about Network Rail because of its performance on the west coast main line over Christmas.

Mr. Leech: When I talked about a revolution in the rail industry, I was talking about services to passengers, rather than the actual network.

Stephen Hammond: In the light of that clarification, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the Minister will. Ensuring that passengers get the very best services and getting railway system operators to focus on that is important.

The debate has fallen neatly into two parts: the current state of cross-border rail services, and the future prospects for those services. As has been rightly mentioned, the Christmas and new year chaos was simply unacceptable. Passengers from Scotland and the north of England were rightly angry about the delays, engineering overruns, the fare increases that they suffered, and, as much as anything else, the lack of consultation and notice. The train companies bear the brunt of that anger, but they have led the way in telling Network Rail to do something about its consultation. Tony Collins, the chief executive of Virgin Trains said:

the length of time that engineering works take,

He went on to say that it is simply unacceptable for Network Rail to provide the sort of service that it provides to the train operators.

In the past two or three years, the train operating companies have borne the brunt of passenger criticism for what are usually Network Rail’s errors. Now that a number of institutional factors are no longer in place, I suspect that the train operating companies will not be prepared to take the brunt of the criticism and that Network Rail’s problems will be increasingly exposed. As I said in a debate in the House on 8 January, Andy Chivers, who covered the Liverpool Street area, echoed Tony Collins. He said that there had been a “major failure” of Network Rail operations over the Christmas
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period. On the west coast main line, 60,000 passengers had their journeys disturbed. As we know, the affected area around Rugby remained closed for about three days. The west coast main line is the busiest mixed-traffic railway—it carries both passengers and freight from south of Glasgow to London. About 75 million journeys are made on it each year. Mr. Collins, chief executive of Virgin, described the situation as a complete fiasco. Virgin’s managing director, Mr. Gibb, spoke frankly:

Significantly, he added:

If Network Rail cannot deliver that service to the train operating companies, people will increasingly ask why it is not more accountable and efficient. That is at a time when we are seeing a squeeze in the public sector because of a more difficult economic situation. A chief executive gets £465,000 and is awarded a bonus of £76,000, and the non-executive directors last year awarded themselves an 18 per cent. pay increase, at a time when our police force is being asked to accept a 1.9 per cent. increase. If Network Rail cannot get itself in order, the public and the train operating companies will increasingly ask the Government, “How are you going to make this company more accountable and efficient?” Disingenuously, Network Rail blames its contractors for the problems. I say that because the contracts for the work done at Christmas would have been put in place 15 months beforehand, on the normal basis for possessions. It is pathetic to blame the contractors when that amount of lead-in time was given. In the light of the lead-in time given, why were Network Rail’s contract management systems so poor?

There is a real issue about the performance of Network Rail. It claims that it would be easier to take those services in-house, yet the reality is rather different. The railway accident investigation branch report on the problems at Waterloo caused by two minor derailments in September and October 2006 rightly pointed out that those problems occurred when the operations were in-house. We can have no confidence in that solution.

One of the questions arising from the Christmas fiasco that the right hon. Member for Gordon will want answered today is whether the Government have been told by Network Rail that the west coast main line upgrade will be delivered on time in December 2008. That is the key to the cross-border services from Scotland.

Over the past year, we have seen one or two other developments in cross-border services. The awarding of the CrossCountry contract to Arriva last year gives some hope. I travelled on that service twice last year—once from Penzance to Birmingham and once from Plymouth to Birmingham. On both occasions, the train was already an hour late when it arrived at Plymouth, and it arrived at Birmingham an hour and a half late. I assume that it would have been two or three hours late when it arrived in Scotland. That is a regular service, and I am sorry to say that it is a relatively regular occurrence. Such delays are not acceptable.

One looks with interest at whether Arriva will be able to deliver on its promise of a 35 per cent. increase in seating. An increase in rolling stock will help people looking for the easiest way to plan journeys, perhaps on
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the website that I mentioned earlier. Arriva confirmed earlier this week that it is to lease 10 new high-speed cars from Porterbrook and others. That must be good news for the CrossCountry franchise, and good news, I suspect, for people travelling on that service. Getting extra cars on such essential services is the key to delivery. Mr. Cooper, managing director of CrossCountry trains, spoke of his firm’s “focus” and its “priority” of providing effective delivery; I hope that that will be justified with the introduction of those trains. Does the Minister intend there to be more of those trains on that franchise over the next four or five years?

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) initiated a similar debate last year in Westminster Hall. He made much the same points about the east coast main line that the right hon. Member for Gordon has made today about the west coast main line. He also raised some questions about services beyond his constituency in Edinburgh.

I hope that the Minister will speak about the future of services from London to Aberdeen and from London to Inverness, and what the upgrade prospects might be for those two services. The Scottish Executive said that they intend to electrify more lines. I understand that, north of Edinburgh, those two lines are not included in those proposals. I am keen to hear from the Minister exactly what discussions the Government have had with the Scottish Executive about including those lines in the electrification process. If they are not included, we shall suffer a problem that has already been identified—we may get a faster service from London to Edinburgh, but thereafter it will be very much slower.

Malcolm Bruce: In that context—perhaps the Minister will also answer this point—the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Scottish Executive have mentioned a new Forth crossing at an estimated cost of £4.5 billion. I am not opposed to that crossing and I recognise the need for it, but does the hon. Gentleman not agree that an awful lot of money could go into improving rail services north of the Forth, which would reduce the pressure on the crossing and on the old railway bridge? Incorporating rail investment into that crossing would be a valuable addition.

Stephen Hammond: I am sure that the Minister will wish to address that point.

I turn to the fourth cross-border service—the London-Scotland sleeper service. Is the Minister clear from his discussions with ScotRail that that service remains secure? What discussions have the Government had with ScotRail or the Scottish Executive to ensure that that service, which I understand has increased significantly in popularity over the last year or so, has future improvements written into its plans? Will the Minister clarify exactly what the Government have said to the Scottish Executive about their proposal to decrease the amount of investment in rail over the next three years?

The right hon. Member for Gordon touched on the vision thing. That is important, but we should not simply build an edifice for the sake of it. If we are to build a high-speed railway, we need to be quite clear why we are doing so. We must be clear that it will deliver the infrastructure needed to support the expansion of the economy over the next four or five years, and whether it will deliver the extra capacity that the railways
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will need over the next 25 to 30 years. Another part of the equation, of course, is the environment.

The Eddington report said that there should be no plans to review the feasibility of high-speed rail until 2012. Will the Minister say whether that remains the position? In terms of the UK’s infrastructure development, there is a place for high-speed rail, but it will have to be combined with a number of other ongoing projects.

If we are to consider high-speed rail, it is unlikely that a London to Scotland link will be built in one go. We did not build the motorway network in one go; it was built in fragments. It is worth pointing out that the first fragment of motorway went from Preston to the coast, which was not the most logical part to build first. If one were to build the London to Birmingham section first, and then onwards, a total cost of £30 billion for London to Scotland would be about right. However, some good studies suggest that, with some help from the planning procedures, the first phase from London to Birmingham could be built for about £8 billion. It is clear that the City and private sources of finance would be, and will continue to be, available to the Government.

I emphasise, as the Minister knows—he has heard me say so several times—that the Conservative party is committed to undertaking a feasibility study into high-speed rail. It will answer some of the challenges of the next 25 years, especially on the infrastructure, and it will also help with freight. Alongside that, we will consider the taxation of foreign lorries. We must also compare the problems of having longer, heavier lorries against using rail freight. It seems to me that rail freight is important not only from north to south but also from east to west.

We have had a wide-ranging debate today on cross-border services. We have concentrated on the two matters that are crucially important: the services that exist now, including how they can continue to provide the best service and be improved; and also the future of those services. I look forward to the Minister addressing both of those points in his remarks.

10.40 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate.

This is one of those occasions when we can perhaps spend a little more time in a slightly less heated environment than the main Chamber on giving some thought to these issues. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman was the sponsor of this debate, because he raised, in a methodical and reasonable manner, some of his concerns, which, as a constituency MP, are entirely legitimate. I did not agree with all of the right hon. Gentleman’s conclusions and I think that he said in his own remarks that he did not expect me to. However, he has raised some very interesting points. So, in the time that we have left, I would like to go through as many of them as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman first asked me to make it absolutely clear that the east coast main line franchise covers the whole of the route from Aberdeen down to London, and I am happy to make that clarification. When the franchise was handed back by GNER at the end of 2006 and we found ourselves in the position of having to re-let the franchise, it was made absolutely
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clear that the original specification on which the GNER contract was let would be the template for the new franchise, which, of course, included services all the way up to Aberdeen. That remains the case and will remain the case.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the aspiration of giving people a real choice, and that is a sentiment with which I entirely agree. In fact, looking at the coverage of transport policy in this country, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Government have some type of vested interest in, or some type of specific policy aimed at, achieving modal shift. I said in the Chamber a couple of weeks ago and I am happy to repeat it again now that the Government are not committed to trying to proscribe or persuade individuals from using one particular form of transport in favour of another form. That will probably come as a surprise to many observers, certainly to many journalists who write about this issue. What is more important than telling people to give up their car or not to use air travel is to give them a real choice. Where people do not have the choice between modes of transport, the Government must rise to the challenge. However, rather than simply telling people to switch from one mode of transport to another, the Government’s policy and the Government’s plan is to ensure that as many people in the country as possible—ideally everyone in the country—have a genuine choice of which mode of transport to use.

The right hon. Gentleman made a valid point that, in many parts of the country including his constituency, such a choice is not easily available, either to him personally or to his constituents. We must recognise that the facts of geography hold sway in some of these matters. Of course, given the choice between flying and getting a train from his constituency down to London, flying would be the preferred option. It would certainly be my preferred option, if I were in his shoes.

Of a Monday morning, I generally travel down to London using the Virgin west coast service, but on a Thursday evening I generally fly back to my constituency, on the purely logical basis that, on a Monday, I am less keen to see my private office staff than I am keen to see my family on a Thursday evening. For me, that is a choice of convenience and logic, and I hope that my private office staff are not particularly offended by that revelation.

That is a reasonable and logical choice for any commuter to make. In the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, many people, when faced with the logistical difficulties of travelling by train, will inevitably choose to use airlines instead. Nevertheless, it remains the Government’s position that we want, as far as possible and as far as is practical, to give citizens of this country a proper choice.

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