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House of Commons

Tuesday 4 March 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Train Operating Companies

1. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Which train operating company has (a) the worst operational record and (b) the highest recorded level of passenger dissatisfaction in the latest period for which figures are available. [190972]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): As hon. Members will be aware, First Great Western has been in breach of its franchise agreement. First Great Western also recorded the highest level of passenger dissatisfaction, as measured by the national passenger survey for autumn 2007.

Mr. Gray: It used to be called the Great Western Railway or even God’s Wonderful Railway, but now it is Worst Great Western. First Great Western has shortened trains, late trains, cancelled trains, terrible catering and terrible passenger information services, and it operates at the highest price per mile of any transport system in the western world. Surely it is time for the Government to re-examine why they gave it the franchise in the first place.

Ruth Kelly: I agree that performance has been unacceptable for far too long. The package that I set out on 26 February was not just a technical statement about the franchise, because it will bring real benefits to passengers. It will double the compensation that passengers can claim when services are disrupted, allow the introduction of extra rolling stock and make available an extra 500,000 of the cheapest tickets—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes it.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for the slap of firm government, but I ask her to go even further and deal with that company. First Great Western has caused all of us who travel by train in that part of the world countless delays and cancellations, in addition to its behaviour, which has been even worse. The yellow card is welcome, but how can we make sure that a red card is issued if it does not reform itself?

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Ruth Kelly: First Great Western has been put on notice, and its performance must improve. That is why we have agreed with it a remedial plan, which will bring more capacity, more carriages and more drivers to put right the failures in the franchise. As a matter of contract, if the company breaches that remedial plan, it will be open to me to withdraw its franchise.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): My constituents can travel directly from Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport in an hour, but that service would be withdrawn under proposals introduced by Southern. Is it the Secretary of State’s view that our roads and car parks are insufficiently congested, and that we should be getting passengers off the trains and into their cars when they go on holiday?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman is discussing the Southern franchise rather than First Great Western, but I am happy to take his question. It is true that there is a shortage of rolling stock on that particular route, which we are seeking to address, but the ultimate answer is investment in capacity. We are committed to an extra £10 billion of investment up to 2014, which will deliver 1,300 extra carriages and allow people to get on the train and travel in comfort.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I welcome the deal with First Great Western, which will bring much-needed investment into the franchise. The Minister with responsibility for rail has met First Great Western on numerous occasions in the past eighteen months and read the riot act every time. When I meet people from First Great Western and Network Rail in my constituency on Friday, what message can I give them from the Secretary of State that will convince them that we are serious this time, and that if they do not pull their socks up very quickly the franchise will be taken away?

Ruth Kelly: First Great Western must get a grip, and Moir Lockhead, the First chief executive, has assured me that he will do everything he can to improve services for passengers. The remedial plan will ensure that it meets the terms of its franchise agreement; otherwise I will consider whether to withdraw the franchise. In addition, First Great Western has offered a package of direct benefits for passengers worth £29 million, including the doubling of compensation if trains are delayed or cancelled. I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents will appreciate that.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has given us old promises in this connection, but is she not likely to be challenged by the company in the courts? What action can she take to ensure that that does not happen?

Ruth Kelly: No; I assure my hon. Friend that First Great Western accepts the need to act. It has implemented a remedial plan, which was agreed with my Department, to correct the failures in the franchise, which will be set out in law under the terms of the contract. If it fails to fulfil the terms of that contract and moves into breach, we would call that an event of default, in which case we would have the option of withdrawing the franchise.

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Rail Capacity

2. John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network. [190973]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): During the preparation of the rail White Paper, the Government carried out assessments of the adequacy of the capacity of the rail network. The assessments drew on work carried out by the rail industry, and the outcome is published in the 2007 rail White Paper “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”.

John Penrose: I thank the Minister for that reply. I associate myself with the concerns mentioned by many hon. Members in response to the last question about First Great Western. Assuming that First Great Western—or its successors—finally gets its act together and starts to deliver a decent rail service in areas such as my constituency, there will still be capacity constraints, particularly in respect of the problems addressed in the western package of Worle junction and Worle Parkway station. Will the Minister undertake to look at those proposals in a favourable light and, ideally, commit the Government to funding them as soon as possible?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is right in that capacity remains the overwhelming challenge facing the railway industry today, unlike the situation under previous Governments, who faced the challenge of how to stop the decline in the number of people using the railways. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said a few moments ago, we have committed ourselves to arranging the procurement of 1,300 new carriages. Under the indicative proposals in the rolling stock plan, First Great Western is already going to receive more than 50 new carriages; that will be a major increase in the capacity available to passengers, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The chief executive of Network Rail predicts that capacity on inter-city routes will run out by 2015, yet the Government have told us that they are not going to make any decision on new high-speed rail lines until 2012. Given that it takes a decade to plan high-speed trains, why are the Government being so leisurely?

Mr. Harris: I am rarely accused of being leisurely. I have to tell my hon. Friend that in terms of predictions for growth on the railways, the figures in the 2007 rail White Paper, to which I have just referred, are robust. Network Rail has signed up to them in the past. There may well be a case for new high-speed lines—certainly for increased physical capacity—on many of our major railway routes at the beginning of the next decade, starting in 2020. However, I do not believe that such decisions should, or have to, be taken earlier than 2012, which year will see the publication of the high level output specification phase 2.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): The Secretary of State will no doubt be as pleased as the rest of us that figures show that more and more people are choosing to use trains. However, given the Government’s decision to block extra carriages on the west coast main line, does
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she have a message for the thousands of people who regularly have to stand on that route, simply because they cannot get a seat?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that the Government have attempted to block increased capacity on the west coast main line. The Government have told Virgin Trains that it will not be given an opportunity to re-bid for the franchise without any competitive tendering; otherwise the situation would not be competitive, so I hope that that will be supported by the whole House. However, we have said that we remain committed to extending the Pendolinos by two carriages at some point at the very beginning of the next franchise.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): It is refreshing that the Government are prepared to spend so much money on extending capacity, but the reality is that the numbers of extra rolling stock and carriages are not high enough to deal with the problems in connection with the extra numbers of people wanting to use the system. We will have to take decisions rapidly about high-speed lines. Will the Minister not just accept that the issue is not for the next Parliament, but for this one?

Mr. Harris: What I do not accept is that high-speed lines are some kind of panacea, or that in committing ourselves to building such lines we will suddenly eradicate all the capacity challenges that we face. My hon. Friend is right, of course, that 1,300 carriages will go some way towards alleviating capacity pressures in the next five or six years. The Government will always intend, where possible, to increase the capacity available to passengers. However, let me remind my hon. Friend and the House that the 1,300 carriages are the biggest step change in capacity that the rail industry has seen for decades. They represent a level of financial commitment that no other party has seen fit to equal.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that a major constraint on the capacity of the rail network is the capacity of station car parks? Will he have urgent discussions with Network Rail and South West Trains with a view to increasing capacity on the Waterloo to Salisbury line, so that more people who want to travel by train off-peak can do so?

Mr. Harris: I do accept that when car park capacity is enhanced, more people use the railways; clearly, that is a way of facilitating higher demand. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that car parking facilities are a matter not for the Government but for local authorities, Network Rail and, occasionally, the train operating companies. Nevertheless, his point is well made. I would like more car park capacity to be made available throughout the country, including in his constituency.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider using the £14 million taken in fines from Network Rail to bring forward the purchase of new rolling stock, as set out in the 30-year plan? In particular, we should ensure that capacity exists in the manufacturing industry to deliver on time the rolling stock on which we have made a commitment to spend money.

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Mr. Harris: That is an innovative idea from my hon. Friend. I can reassure him that the money needed to buy the 1,300 new carriages has been banked, as it were, and has been committed. We are not facing any kind of shortfall in respect of the 1,300 new carriages that we are committed to buy. He might be aware that the Office of Rail Regulation has embarked on a consultation about how the £14 million fine levied on Network Rail will be imposed—whether it will be a fine coming back to central Government, or whether it can be quantified as passenger benefits for those who suffered the most during the new year overruns.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): How will it help rail capacity to take £14 million out of Network Rail’s budget? That fine, imposed on a public sector body, can only hit rail users. Would it not have been better to stop the £75,000 bonus to the chief executive, or the 18 per cent. pay rise for the directors?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman will be disappointed to be reminded once again that the Department for Transport has no say over whether the Office of Rail Regulation imposes a fine on Network Rail. That should be a matter for the independent rail regulator. The hon. Gentleman’s party has accused this Government on a number of occasions of micro-managing the railways, but again one of them is at the Dispatch Box telling us that that is exactly what we should do. The railways are better run by railway people, not Ministers.

Channel Tunnel

3. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): How many vacant train paths there have been through the channel tunnel in the last 12 months. [190974]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): There are currently a significant number of paths available through the channel tunnel. The allocation of paths, and the precise number that have been unused, are matters for Eurotunnel.

Kelvin Hopkins: Even if existing signalling could be upgraded, less than a quarter of the tunnel’s train capacity is currently used, and only a massive increase in rail freight traffic could close that gap. Would my hon. Friend accept that heavy investment in rail freight lines between the major economic regions of Britain and the tunnel is vital if we are to make use of the tunnel properly?

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time on this issue, and I know that his expertise is impressive. He will know that the Government intervened at the end of 2006 in order to create an open-access regime in the channel tunnel that allowed EWS and other operators to continue to run freight through it. He will also be aware that £200 million has been committed under the high level output specifications to develop the strategic freight network.

My hon. Friend will be aware that at the end of last year I announced £150 million in productivity transport innovation funding for gauge enhancement in the freight network. The 50 per cent. increase in freight tonnage carried on the British rail network shows that this Government are solidly behind the freight industry, but
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it must remain a commercial venture. Given that, it is in the best interest of the industry to make its own commercial decisions—with the full support of the Government, of course.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): In addition to the opening of the rail freight paths through the channel tunnel, when will the passenger paths that have now been freed up at Waterloo be opened, to ease congestion in the south-west?

Mr. Harris: The hon. Lady is correct; a number of passenger paths through the channel tunnel, and on High Speed 1, the channel tunnel rail link, remain unused. Having listened closely to the debates that took place recently on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (Supplementary Provisions) Bill, she will know that it is my hope that open-access operators from Britain and Europe will apply to run freight and passenger services on vacant routes in order to increase the capacity running on the channel tunnel rail link, or High Speed 1.

Concessionary Bus Fares

4. Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): What assessment she has made of the budgetary implications of the national concessionary bus fare scheme for local authorities. [190975]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): We have allocated an additional £212 million to travel concession authorities from 1 April, on top of the £350 million allocated in 2006-07—enough to fund around an extra 200 million bus journeys across England. Our assessment of the likely cost impact of the new concession is based on generous assumptions about pass take-up, fares and increased patronage.

Paul Holmes: Is not the reality that the scheme has been underfunded nationally by at least £60 million? In Chesterfield alone it will cost a minimum of £1.3 million, and the Government have provided only £1 million. That leaves a small council such as Chesterfield borough council to find £300,000, which is the equivalent of a 7.5 per cent. increase in council tax. When will the Government stop forcing councils throughout the country to cut services and raise council tax to make up for Government underfunding of Government schemes?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. In 2006-07 Chesterfield local authority was already spending £1.3 million on concessionary fares. We are providing a 32 per cent. increase: on top of that, we are giving £416,000 extra. In his authority, 23,000 people will be eligible for concessionary fares under the new scheme, and it will provide them with the freedom to use their bus pass wherever they are in the country. He should be encouraging them to take up the pass, not scaremongering about the effect on other services.

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