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25 Feb 2010 : Column 152WH—continued

On top of that we have, of course, the events surrounding the east coast main line, the second default on one of our most important rail services. All the evidence suggests that it is the short-termism of our approach to investment in the railways that produces defaults and creates the risks for the DFT, the Government and the public purse
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that must be tackled if we are to ensure that rail continues to be a success story and that we take it to the next level. We have done well so far, but the cracks are appearing and we must deal with them and get the right arrangements for the future, because rail will play an increasingly important part in the future of the economy. Now is the time to pause and take stock of our arrangements.

I would strongly argue that we need to take a longer-term approach to franchising, and that the Select Committee is right to argue for that. We have been pleased that the Secretary of State agrees with us about that. We should be considering a minimum of 15 years, with all that that could bring, such as a greater commitment from the rail operators in their running of the services. The more they are seen as long-term partners in providing rail services, and as having a long-term stake in the future of the business, the more likely it is that they will invest appropriately to get the long-term return.

The greatest impact of the short-term approach to rail franchising is not just the potential risk to the public purse in situations of default such as the one affecting the east coast main line, but more than anything the impact on customer service. It must be recognised that so far the franchising approach adopted by the DFT has utterly failed in that respect. The quality of customer service has never been a formal part of the franchising process, and it is what suffers first when a franchise begins to suffer economic problems. There is a recession, so passenger numbers and profits fall, and customer service is cut.

Everyone in the Chamber who uses rail services will know what I am talking about. Cuts have been made to catering arrangements on many of our main rail services. In some respects there has also been a spill-over into the lower level maintenance services, so that for instance someone may get on to a train and not be able to get a cup of tea because the boilers have failed and there is no hot water. I am pretty convinced that that happens because the train operators have not been in a position, because of the premiums that they pay on the franchises, to invest properly in the maintenance necessary to give an appropriate standard of customer service on a train. That may not seem important in the context of getting people to work and to airports, and allowing them to go about their business; but if rail is to compete effectively with the car in future, we must offer passengers a quality experience.

Cold carriages where passengers cannot even get a decent cup of tea, sandwich or meal to keep them going, particularly when they are on the train a long time, do not make a quality experience. When people have paid up to £240, or in some cases £270, to travel to London and back, on a two-and-a-half-hour journey, the least they can expect is what is promised in the blurb on the operator's website-the newspaper, the regular offer of hot drinks, the so-called snacks and the rest of it. A lot of that is incredibly inconsistent and regularly lets passengers down. That kind of experience will in the end damage the rail industry.

We also need more investment in stations and their capacity to cope with car and cycle numbers. I acknowledge the work done by the Secretary of State to ensure that in the future more attention will be paid, in franchises, to station arrangements such as cleanliness, the welcome given to passengers, and the capacity to handle cyclists
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as well as car users. There has been a welcome start, but we need to build on it and recognise that the passenger experience is much more than getting to the station. It is time to look at the arrangements again. Not only do we need to review franchise length seriously; we need to take the opportunity of the review to consider how we deliver services to the passengers. We are going in the right direction, but there is a lot more to do.

I have one last point to make about the franchising arrangements, and it relates to the east coast main line. Surely, in an age in which ideology is seen to play much less of a role in public policy, it is time to recognise that it is ideologically unforgiveable and, indeed, dogmatic, to insist that we cannot have an arm's length operator as part of the mix in our rail services. Many would argue that that is anti-competitive, but I argue that in other areas of Government policy we have arm's length operators working alongside the traditional, private providers. In the housing market we increasingly have arm's length management organisations for council housing stock, which are on the verge of moving into not just housing stock maintenance, but the building of new stock. That is what the return of the housing revenue account to local level is all about: competing, and sometimes co-operating-I would hope more often co-operating-with social housing providers, such as housing associations, to provide what the nation needs.

I cannot for the life of me understand why an arm's length company working in the public sector can be seen to work in that context, but we cannot have that for rail services. If East Coast is allowed to compete for the next franchise for the east coast main line-and despite all the evidence that we have heard for the first three months about poor punctuality and the rest of it I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is a very short time in which to judge its performance-let us look at that, when the time for bids comes. Why not just allow East Coast to bid along with any other operator? It makes sense.

We were told at the Select Committee by the permanent secretary, when I asked that question, that it would take a change in legislation to allow East Coast to compete with other private market operators. Well, what are we here for? We are MPs; we are legislators. Let us do it. Let us make the necessary changes in legislation to allow East Coast to bid on a level playing field with other operators. That would potentially prove to be a useful model for the future of rail services. I cannot understand why anyone would resist such a move. The only possible reason why it might be resisted would be that ideologically there could be a fear that it would succeed. That is a pretty poor reason not to support it.

Briefly, I agree with everything that the Select Committee report said about fare structures. Paragraph 28 said that

It is getting increasingly difficult for passengers to work out the best fare, in terms of price and service. I argue also that the websites that allow the cheapest prices are not always the easiest websites in the world to use. As someone who tries to use them reasonably regularly, even I become very frustrated sometimes with the inability of the websites to give me the information that I am looking for. I do not think that I am particularly unskilled at using websites. I do most of my purchasing online nowadays, but the thing that I find most difficult to do
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is to purchase a rail ticket. That says something about the fares mechanisms and the fares offer that is on the table from rail operators.

We are getting into a rather unfair and strange situation with rail services. Increasingly, passengers are using discounted fares to use the trains and they are invariably required to reserve a seat to use the services. However, the passengers who have to use open tickets-because they do not know when they will be travelling down to a particular location or when they will be travelling back-pay the full price and cannot reserve a seat because they do not know which train they will be catching, and they are increasingly unable to find a seat because the people paying £10 or £15 have made the reservations. The situation is getting quite difficult in terms of how rail operators are treating their customers. I argue that rail operators cannot afford to lose the full fare price paying customers on their trains and that the operators need to give more thought to how they pitch their fares at potential passengers.

In the long-term context of where rail services are going and where the country is going, it is incredibly important that we consider the overall price of travelling by train compared with travelling by car. If we are to make it possible for trains to compete effectively with car travel, we must make train travel attractive not just in terms of getting to the station, getting on the train and using the train, but in terms of how much it costs to use the service. For most people, if they have to pay the full price fare or they have made a last-minute decision to travel, the chances are that they will choose the car rather than the train, because the car is cheaper if they are paying the full price for the train fare on offer. We need to think in the long term about how rail services are priced. If we want more people to use the trains and congestion on the roads to be reduced, the Government and the rail operators must think very seriously about the long-term interests of the country when it comes to how the services are priced.

I want to mention the role of integrated transport authorities in our metropolitan areas in developing and organising rail services. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the numbers of civil servants developing and putting together timetables for rail services. I think that the ITAs would have some sympathy with that point of view, in that they are increasingly expressing an ambition to be at least consultees on the delivery or the development of rail franchises and, beyond that, to play a much fuller part in developing and delivering rail services.

If we are to deliver on our ambition in this country of putting together integrated transport networks, we must ensure that our train services work with our tram services, our bus services and all the local transport services across a particular region or sub-region. I understand that there are difficulties with developing that devolution of control of rail services, but surely it is not beyond the capacity of all the brains at the DFT to work out a workable way of devolving control of rail services at local level to ITAs, so that we can start the real process of putting together local rail services that work alongside tram and bus services. It should be possible for someone living in south Yorkshire-someone living in Sheffield or Barnsley-to get from home to the station on a bus or tram and to get from there to Leeds on a train in a
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way that is co-ordinated, comfortable and offers a high-quality experience. We have not reached that position yet. There is a lot of work to do, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister's response.

3.35 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) for three reasons. First, it is always a delight to listen to her, particularly on the subject of transport, of which she has great knowledge. Secondly, even though the main Chamber is today dominated by Welsh men and Welsh women, I calculate that when we have finished in Westminster Hall, one third of the speakers will have come from God's own county of Yorkshire. As there is always a feeling in the county that we lose out on rail expenditure, perhaps that corrects the bias. The third reason is that I agreed very much with my hon. Friend's non-ideological approach to these matters. Basically, she was saying that she is in favour of what works, and I am too. I shall consider a number of different franchises in north and west Yorkshire, going into south Yorkshire as well, and I shall give different policy conclusions on them, depending on how well they are working.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the east coast main line. There is real frustration in Yorkshire in the business community as well as among those who travel for leisure that for the second time in just a few years, the whole franchise has been thrown open to question. I think that there was a very strong case, on the basis of the public service comparator, for leaving it in the public sector for perhaps 10 years. The hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) cited the figures. It is interesting that in the south-east, some of the best figures ever for punctuality were recorded when the south-eastern trains were operated as a public service.

Let us just see what the evidence says; let us have a comparator. Who could lose out from that? It now appears, however, that there will definitely be a refranchising operation, so my fall-back position will be exactly the same as my hon. Friend's. Again, what is there to be afraid of? Why not let the East Coast company, as a stand-alone public company, compete? It is difficult to overstate the frustration in Yorkshire that that main artery, on which our economy is so dependent, is being used as a sort of plaything. It needs much more long-term stability.

However, the trans-Pennine franchise, particularly as it operates through Selby and York, which I know well, through to Leeds and Manchester, under First TransPennine Express has been a great success. Since the franchise began in February 2004, the number of passengers has increased from 13.5 million to 22.3 million. The number of passengers travelling to Manchester airport has increased by 67 per cent. In 2004-05, the punctuality figure was very low-74 per cent., which was one of the worst. The franchise now has one of the best figures for punctuality-more than 90 per cent.

There is a real case for extension of the franchise, which I think is allowed. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed whether that is the case. The House of Commons Library brief for the debate, which is very helpful as always, suggests that a five-year extension is possible. I remind hon. Members that the franchise, as I understand it, runs out in February 2012.

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My researcher kindly looked up a parliamentary question in May 2009, when the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), said of the trans-Pennine franchise:

I am not quite sure what that means, but I believe that there is potential to extend the franchise. I am in my third term as Selby's MP. The second term was dominated, in relation to transport, by complaints from commuters on the line. I am not saying that I do not still receive some complaints, but the situation is an awful lot better. In terms of stability and continuation of service, it would be a very popular move in Yorkshire and the Humber if the franchise was extended.

Chris Mole: It may be helpful if I advise hon. Members that the general approach to franchise extensions is to monitor performance towards the end of the franchise period against a set of criteria. The norm if those criteria are met is to grant a franchise extension. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that that is not what happened with the Greater Anglia franchise, but that was an exception resulting from what happened with National Express, the parent company for the east coast.

Mr. Grogan: The Minister has been most helpful. We are approaching the end of the franchise, so if there is no extension-it is only two years away-there will be a need for clarity over the next 12 months about what is to happen.

The Northern Rail franchise runs out in September 2013. Northern is the workhorse of the Yorkshire franchises. We have already heard about the need for additional rolling stock and so on, which prompts me to reflect on the remarks of the hon. Member for Wimbledon about more flexibility in timetabling. We have a largely privatised rail service and it needs a fairly strong centre, in the Department for Transport or elsewhere, to knock heads together among the franchisees to get some sort of overall strategy for the rail network.

In recent months, we have been in the mire of the recession, and I believe that if train companies had been allowed to cut services and thin out the timetable they would have done so. It would have been inevitable in recent months, and passengers in Yorkshire and elsewhere would have lost out. Many people depend on Northern Rail services. When the specification for the new franchise after 2013 is drawn up, I would make one plea. The Leeds to Goole line, which goes through my constituency, calls at Whitley Bridge and Hensall as well as Goole, which is a small market town, not dissimilar to Selby and not far from it. Selby has an excellent commuter service to Leeds, but Goole has only two trains a day. The town is under-served, which is not logical or sensible. With a new franchise, a case could be made for having more services.

Moving swiftly on to those services that are not part of a franchise-the open access services, which have played a real part in improving rail services in recent years-there has been a change in the Department for Transport's attitude over the past five or six years. The fear was that open access services could devalue some
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of the franchises and that the Department wanted to strangle some of them at birth-at an official level, that was true five or six years ago. However, there has been a change. Indeed, I have heard the Minister speak warmly about such services and their potential, and I hope that he will do so again.

Selby benefits from Hull Trains, which provides a pretty efficient service. I think that the economic value of a train service is a bit like having a championship or first division football club in the area. At King's Cross station, one can see Selby's name on the destination board; it is a direct service from London. I know that some of my hon. Friends in the north-east are equally pleased that the Grand Central railway now takes people from Sunderland and Hartlepool directly to London.

I understand that there are proposals to link the great city of Bradford directly to London, and also to provide a fast service from there to Manchester. Ian Yeowart, who helped to start Grand Central, is now trying to get options on paths-I understand that that is the proper technical term-to run various new services, including a cross-Pennine link from Hull to Liverpool, a fast link between Bradford and Manchester, and services linking London and Barnsley, Penistone and Huddersfield. Those are all interesting ideas, yet none of the main train companies has ever shown an interest in linking those towns and cities with London. I hope that the open access proposals get a fair wind.

It may seem an odd thing to say at the end of February, as we approach spring, but I have always felt that the Government could do a little more about Boxing day services. When the franchises come up for renewal-most of them will do so over the next six or seven years-I hope that Ministers ask the new franchisees to make a commitment to running Boxing day services. Manchester airport station is on the First TransPennine line. Boxing day is the most popular day of the year for travel at the airport, yet one cannot get there by train. Frankly, that would not be allowed at London's airports, which are all linked by trains on Boxing day.

I am a great admirer of Lord Adonis and of his plans for high-speed rail. He has put rail on the map. However, he has missed a trick. I am pleased that both Opposition spokesmen agree that there should be some provision for people going to the sales, attending sporting matches and so on. When Ministers consider their arguments privately, they must see that they do not stand up. Every other country in Europe manages it, and most run services on Christmas day, although I do not suggest that we should do so.

Chris Mole indicated dissent.

Mr. Grogan: I would be interested to hear the Minister's list of countries that do not run trains on 26 December.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Does my hon. Friend not agree that a really good starting point would be more Sunday services?

Mr. Grogan: Indeed it would. Ministers have two arguments against running trains over Christmas. The first is that railway workers deserve time off over the holiday period; but then they say that engineering works are necessary. It is a rather contradictory argument.

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As I said, every other country in Europe manages to run some services over Christmas and also keep up maintenance standards. Ministers are losing the argument, and they should do so with good grace. Even before the next election-I predict that we will have a majority of 75-the Government should make an announcement about the new franchises.

Chris Mole: Would my hon. Friend have the good grace to acknowledge that at least 50 per cent. more services ran during this Christmas period than the previous Christmas?

Mr. Grogan: Yes; of course I will admit that, but it is 50 per cent. of a very small base figure. However, there is a regional bias. I am pretty sure that we had not one service in God's own county of Yorkshire, but there were rather a lot in the south-east where Department for Transport civil servants tend to live.

Mrs. Ellman: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee considered that matter? We have urged greater efficiency in Network Rail's maintenance work, which could include doing more work off-line. That would allow the railways to be used more frequently, thus meeting the needs of the travelling public.

Mr. Grogan: My case is getting stronger with every contribution. It would be such a pity if, at the next election, two party manifestos contained a commitment to move on that question but the party that I love had not quite made that move. I hope that it will reflect on the matter.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough about the importance of integrated transport authorities. We in Selby are looking forward to the west Yorkshire MetroCard system being extended. It has already been extended to Skipton and Harrogate, and it will be a great boon to commuters in the years ahead.

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