|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract: My Lords, I understood that we were discussing the Statement made by Mr. Michael Meacher in another place which is purely and simply an apology. While such mistakes are regrettable, they happen; they are not uncommon. This afternoon Mr. Dennis Skinner has pointed out that on 41 occasions--at the last count--the previous government made similar errors during their years in office.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I am sure he is right to say that this is not the first government to have sinned in this way. However, I repeated the apology because it arose from behaviour that was not appropriate, as my right honourable friend made clear.
Earl Peel: My Lords, I apologise to the Minister that I was not present when she repeated the Statement as yesterday I was told there would be no government Statement on the Floor of either House. However, that
Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I believe I am right in saying, with respect, that this is a debate to discuss the Government Statement. We should be wrong to involve ourselves in any way in what might be considered to be a Second Reading debate. My apologies to my noble friend.
Earl Peel: My Lords, perhaps I may simply ask the Minister a question which I believe is fundamental to the way in which these discussions go forward. Will she tell the House who is to facilitate the negotiations? When there are two sides, on the one hand the Ramblers' Association, it would be helpful to those of us who will be involved if there were clear guidance as to how the negotiations are to take place. If there is not, it will lead to all sorts of difficulties.
Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we are in the realm of consultation rather than negotiation, and the consultation document makes clear the areas on which the Government are seeking the views of all those with an interest, from either side, indeed from the many sides in the debate, as to how we square the circle of extending the rights of people to explore the open countryside with the responsibilities which clearly go with that extension.
So far as making a statement is concerned, perhaps it might help for clarification. The document is not being launched by an oral Statement in either House but, as such documents often are, in response to a Written Parliamentary Question. The Statement that I have repeated today is in response to a Private Notice Question referring to the availability of the document to non-governmental organisations before it was available to Members of either House.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that she has frankly admitted on behalf of the Government that an error of judgment was made on this occasion? We welcome the fact that an apology was made. In my view, and I suspect that of others, one should welcome that and leave the issue altogether. It contrasts extremely favourably with the record of the previous government. Mr. Michael Howard lost case after case in the courts and never expressed a single word of regret.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, before beginning my remarks, I should like to thank the large number of Members who have decided to speak in the debate. In particular, I extend a welcome to the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, who will make his maiden speech. I am
This debate is certainly very topical. We daily await the response of the Government to the failure of London and Continental Railways to fulfil its contract to build the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. At some time in the not so distant future (are we entering into the Civil Service lexicon again?) we shall have an announcement from the Government as to their plans for an integrated transport system. The inquiry into the Southall disaster last year has been postponed because the matter is sub judice pending a possible criminal prosecution; but until that postponement it filled a lot of media space in the past few days. This week's "Panorama" was devoted to the problems of two TOCs and there has been a plethora of reports from OPRAF, the rail regulator and many private organisations and pressure groups about the aftermath of privatisation, the present levels of service and investment, or containing advice about what should happen next. Hardly a day passes without a news story, usually a damaging story, about the railways.
In introducing this debate, I do not wish to enter into an argument over privatisation as such. Yet the current state of the railways is greatly affected by the results of privatisation, and I and my noble friends are bound to refer to those. My main theme is the need to expand the use and infrastructure of our railways in the context of an integrated transport policy. I shall also discuss the difficulties which the fragmentation of the network and the services put in the path of ensuring that the public interest is reflected in what actually happens in terms of service provision and network enhancement.
The environmental case for rail taking an increased share of passenger and freight movements is widely accepted. People understand and desire the benefits of reduced congestion, reduced air pollution and reduced wear and tear on our road system. At the same time, the safety case for rail is very high indeed. In theory, if all passenger journeys were transferred from road to rail, deaths would be reduced from 3,500 to 100 per annum. The greater use of the railways can also play its part in developing and redeveloping town and city centres, which chimes well with the Government's planning approach laid out in their recent Green Paper.
All in all, there is a strong public interest in maintaining and expanding rail services. But the current structure inhibits those objectives. For example, if we examine the infrastructure, the responsibility for maintaining, improving and presumably extending the track rests with Railtrack; but residual railway lands which might be needed for that are still in the ownership of the British Railways Property Board. Again, with passenger services divided among 25 different franchises it is possible for overall performance apparently to improve while important pockets of sub-standard service remain.
A recent report from the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) highlights some of those improvements, including better standards of performance in the National Rail Enquiry Service, ATOC's development of a code of practice for the
No wonder the national press, most of whose journalists live within the London commuter zone, finds bad news stories easier to come by than good news stories. I was alarmed to learn while doing the research for this debate that, of Connex South Central's 600 slam door trains, not one is due to be replaced during the period of its contract and that Connex South Central is the only train operating company which does not expect to reduce its fleet of slam door trains. So while one may admire the initiative of TOCs, which are increasing cross-country services in the Midlands or improving the stations which they lease, one cannot ignore the current under-performance of commuter services into London and the very large numbers of people who are affected by those poor services. Moreover, because of the separation of contract compliance and regulating functions and the curious way in which standards are built into the contract process, it is difficult to compare the levels of performance between different train operating companies. That is vividly illustrated by the most recent publication from OPRAF on customer satisfaction, which indicates different levels of benchmark for each company and different methods of measuring satisfaction, with different criteria as between one company and one element of service and another. Common criteria, benchmarks and assessment processes are urgently needed.
The financing of rail services and improvements in the infrastructure currently depend on high levels of public subsidy. It is the high track rents made possible by these subsidies which enable Railtrack to commit itself to historically high levels of overall investment; for example, the modernisation of the west coast main line signalling system. But what will happen to investment as subsidies begin to be phased out? Stop-go investment was a curse under the nationalised system. Does the new privatised system remove that curse? Certainly, the failure of London and Continental Railways to fulfil its contract in respect of the Channel Tunnel rail link is not reassuring. It is, in our view, essential that the Government ensure the full completion of that project. Not only would the completed CTRL make a contribution to environmental objectives, but the commercial benefit of the new line is not to be realised unless it is carried through Stratford and on to King's Cross-St. Pancras.
So far I have spoken largely of passenger services, but there is also great public interest and commercial benefit in expanding the role of the railways in freight movements. Yesterday I attended a meeting of the all-party Rail Freight Group at which the importance of completing the CTRL and thereby releasing pathways on the existing tracks for freight was once again emphasised.
Equally, documentation I have received from other freight organisations indicates their interest in investment in modernising the loading gauge so that the network can accept trains carrying 9 foot 6 inch containers and improving the possibility of carrying piggy-back road trailers by rail. One major company concludes that where the network capacity is concerned:
One thing that needs to be done is to create an even playing field between the railways and their chief competitors--private motor cars. Interestingly, some of the methods by which this could be done would also generate funds for investment in public transport, including the railways. We believe that the motor licence fee should be reduced, possibly in a way that rewards owners of more economical cars, while motorists should be asked to pay the full costs of using their cars via increased taxation of petrol. In places where congestion is particularly damaging, road pricing might be introduced. Local highways authorities could be enabled to monitor and recuperate the fines for illegal parking.
All three of those measures would generate funds which could be hypothecated for use to support public transport. They would have the additional benefit of doing so at the level of both national and local government. I think it is generally agreed that co-operation between the public and the private sector is necessary to achieve the best results. No doubt others will have good ideas for creating what we believe to be the desirable outcome of partnership between the public and the private sector.
In responding to today's Question about London Transport, the Minister suggested that the Government were seeking such a partnership in that context. I hope we may take it that that is a good augury for future decisions.
Another element of our approach is the creation of a single rail authority to take over the role of both the rail regulator and OPRAF, as they have recently been modified by the Government. We think this would help to bring public interest into the system of franchise negotiation, standard and target setting and increase the "fit" between that and the regulatory machine.
Equally, we also hope to see an element of strategic planning of rail capacity and the establishment of clear priorities for improved services so that, for example, hard pressed London commuters could benefit as well as the inter-city passengers.
Many Members of this House have told stories during debates about railways and some may do so today. In The Times yesterday, a letter appeared in which a woman told how she went to Chester station to meet a train arriving at 1935. She queried the meaning of the message on the TV screen: "Expected 1951 on time". She was told that the train was currently running late but might arrive on time. After the train arrived 35 minutes late, at 2010 the screen still showed the same message. This time she was told: "Sorry love, the man who does the TV goes home at seven o'clock". She concluded: "Come back British Rail, all is forgiven".
Liberal Democrats do not want to return to the past. We recognise that our preferred option for privatisation which would have involved retaining Railtrack in public ownership is no longer a possibility. But we still insist that railways have a key and expanding role to play in an integrated transport system that is safe, user friendly, accessible and environmentally sustainable and which reflects the public as well as the private interest.
We acknowledge that the Government have begun the process of improved regulation and planning, but we would prefer the creation of a single rail authority which would replace both. We think that a partnership between the private and the public sector is necessary to ensure investment that satisfies the public interest as well as making economic sense.
We suggest that only a transparent fiscal regime can both ensure that the real costs of all modes of transport are appreciated by users and that the higher costs levied on the use of motor vehicles are seen to be devoted to the improvement and upgrading of public transport.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, on instituting the debate and on what I thought was an expert and thoughtful speech about the problems facing the railways. Perhaps I may first declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group and an adviser of Adtranz. I welcome the opportunity to have this informed debate which is much needed. I wish to concentrate on the strategy for growth in the railways. I would like to ask and, I hope, answer the question: does the present arrangement require some modification to deal with a growing railway, to deal
We have growth in the railways now. Passenger traffic is up 7 per cent., I believe that Connex South Eastern was up 17 per cent. Rail freight increased 15 per cent. if we exclude coal. As all noble Lords know, passengers and freight share the same tracks. There is every indication that this growth will continue. On the passenger side, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and many noble Lords have mentioned the serious overcrowding on passenger services. On freight, it is a different problem with the temporary lack of equipment for rail freight because of the growth. But that is being made good by new investment, we hope.
So the challenge for the railways now is how they deal with growth. The first necessity for passengers is usually longer trains. That seems to be constrained by the charging regime and the inability or unwillingness of ROSCOs to invest in new trains. It is the easiest solution. Another alternative is new construction, of which the Channel Tunnel rail link is the most pressing. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, it is necessary.
The third alternative is to increase capacity on existing lines. That usually means signalling, which is seen as the great white hope for the future for cost effective increasing of capacity and on which most upgrades of capacity are now based. I wish to pose the question whether the signalling industry, as it is at the moment, has the capability, with the client--which is usually Railtrack--to deliver on time and on budget. I see signalling as very much the Achilles heel of the railways industry at the moment. There is such a shortage of signalling engineers that some design is being done in Australia, presumably on the Internet, although I do not know. There is a real shortage of signalling engineers at the moment. That is because the present signalling is old, its life has expired, there is a lack of previous investment and so on. It is the cause of the capacity problems and it is the solution. Is the railway industry equipped to deliver? In this House we have talked about the Jubilee Line, this new moving block system which will not work for several years and the west coast main line which is an even more exciting example of a moving block system on four tracks simultaneously which will happen some time in the future. It needs to happen.
My question is: has the industry given up testing and trialling the new systems on little used branch lines before going into such high profile financially and in the public eye with lines such as the Jubilee Line and the west coast main line? It concerns me greatly that they are going into this without any testing. It is the first time in the world that such systems have been used--and on the west coast main line--and we have spoken of that enough in this House.
I move on to the question of passenger, freight and investment. If we look at Railtrack's revenue in round numbers, the company receives around £2 billion a year from passenger revenue and £200 million from freight. Of that passenger revenue, all but around £400 million
If one ignores the subsidy and looks at the way in which the money goes into Railtrack, it amounts to £400 million of non-government money for passengers and £200 million for freight. That is the way that I look at the balance of priority between passenger and freight in terms of how Railtrack should look at its investment. I do not recommend any change in the structure, but it concerns me that the passenger TOCs are able to reserve their capacity 10 or 15 years ahead, whereas freight generally reserves it only a few months ahead, when it knows where the traffic will come from. When one has a system where demand is growing as it is at the moment, he who applies for capacity last appears to have to pay the bill for any upgrade. It is unfair that the last person happens to be freight--my interest--just because passengers have long-term contracts and freight does not. I believe that a new mechanism is urgently required for sorting out the problem.
The rail regulator has a major part to play in ensuring that Railtrack invests and invests wisely for both passenger and freight. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, mentioned, is that enough? Is it reasonable to expect Railtrack to look 20 or 30 years ahead to growth, to new markets, speeds and frequency of trains? They may do--I do not believe they do at the moment--because they have a commercial interest. But the regulator has a growing role in making sure that the investment is targeted correctly and that the Government's proposal for a strategic rail authority should include some means of investment in strategic signalling, land and so forth for the future. There is an argument for investing in a way where some of the revenue could be returned to the industry after a time when the investment starts giving a return in operation. For instance, a lump sum, to start with, could go round the system and it would help to get things going.
In conclusion, the railways are growing. Industry should not be subject to major upheaval. I welcome the Government's policy. I suggested a few small changes, but the biggest change that I welcome is the change in the attitude of the Government who are committed to expanding the use of the railways for passengers and freight. I await the White Paper with great interest.
The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for introducing this debate. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, I come to the debate as an amateur, being one of those people, not least clergy, with a lifelong fascination for railways.
When I was a child that greatest of all railway bishops, Eric Tracy, wrote in my autograph book, "Good spotting. Stick to your Sunday school". On the whole people want to like railways. They spend millions of pounds supporting preserved lines and we need to create the conditions so that they are moved from seeing
Intelligent people accept that the railways as a system of transport which can move people in large numbers and freight in large quantities, make both economical and environmental sense. It has to be done and the Government must help to make it happen. The quality of life in our land is literally being destroyed by the daily choking experience on our roads. According to the British Lung Federation, air pollution from road traffic affects over one-third of the population, killing as many people each year as road traffic accidents and costing £11 billion. Increasingly, road rage is a sad by-product of overcrowded roads. Time and money is being lost and the quality of life impaired; physical and mental health is being adversely affected by frustration.
So we want our railways to work. It makes sense. But it seems that when it comes to railways we give full range to the British disease of pointing up and even embellishing the problems and the failures of the system and rarely celebrating its achievements. As a frequent traveller on the west coast main line, which badly needs new track, new signals, new rolling stock--you name it, we need it--we await the promises of Virgin Trains and Railtrack to be delivered. We have the bright red carriages now before us as hope for things to come.
I could regale your Lordships for many hours with stories of missed meetings and being late home through delayed trains. But how often do I speak of when the train is early into Euston or Preston as it was both ways last week and seven minutes early at lunchtime today; or on my recent journey from Blackpool to Cambridge, three companies and every connection on time? How often do I compare the relative comfort of sitting in a delayed train with refreshments available and the cheery announcements becoming ever more interesting as to why we are held up, with the utter frustration of sitting for hours in a traffic jam in isolation on the M6 with no idea of what is wrong or when we may move?
We want more people to travel; more companies to send their freight by rail. That needs important investment from both the public and private sectors. It needs an integrated transport policy by which the Government promote rail travel. But if that is to happen, it also needs more good news stories about the rail services to overcome the built-in resistance of switching from the car to rail where that is possible. There is a fine balance to achieve between genuine criticism to bring improvement to our rail system and that endless criticism which in itself creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.
There is good news, as we have already heard this evening. Freight companies like English, Welsh and Scottish, in imaginative ways are clearly increasing the amount of freight carried. Proposals for the so-called "piggy back" system for heavier lorries should be backed to the hilt so that those lorries can be taken off our roads. We need to encourage that developing partnership at local level between local authorities, the rail companies and keen local people which has led to increased passenger services, sometimes with
As a vice-president of the Railway Development Society I urge support for the suggested moratorium on the sale of the track bed of former lines, that which remains. They have a potential for being re-opened in a new age and not least as freight lines which would take traffic off our rural highways. For example, in the Peak District immense profits would come in all directions if the 20 miles of track between Buxton and Matlock were relaid.
As a countryside commissioner for England I am well aware that that is a challenge as the pressure mounts for more sites for housing in the coming years. Let us not underestimate the huge problems which years of under investment in the railways and perhaps the lack of political will to face the issue have created. But there is great potential, not because people want to move from the door-to-door convenience of the car, but because slowly but surely we are realising that health, the quality of life, and the beauty of the countryside is being destroyed before our eyes by over-dependence on road transport. I hope that this debate will increase that awareness and that the Government, as they promised, will give more attention to this subject and, indeed, risk perhaps some short-time unpopularity to shift resources from road to rail transport.
The Earl of Leicester: My Lords, I read in one of the obituaries of the late Enoch Powell that he was always nervous before a speech. If he was nervous! It is a great honour to speak in your Lordships' House and I very much appreciate that privilege.
I, too, am indebted to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for initiating the debate and for her very kind words of welcome. I confess that I am in awe of her detailed knowledge and I shall therefore speak in rather more general terms. My knowledge of the railways is limited to travelling on them a lot and to having led in the early 1980s a couple of deputations from my local authority to lobby various transport Ministers for better road and rail improvements in my part of Norfolk. But I am enthusiastic about the railways. That enthusiasm, I readily admit, is probably because I travel frequently on what I believe are two of the most competently-run lines in the country--the East Coast line to Scotland and my own local one from King's Lynn, via Cambridge to London. I admit that I would perhaps not enjoy travelling on the line on which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, is forced to travel. I understand that the level of service is appalling and is getting worse.
I can remember the so-called levels of service that we endured 20 to 25 years ago. I remember the old gateway to the east, Liverpool Street Station, with all its exotic sights, sounds and smells, where there were generally at
I know there is a lot wrong with the railways, stemming no doubt in part from the rush to privatisation and perhaps especially in the way Railtrack is constituted. I believe that it can almost hold the train operating companies to ransom with its track access charges. A very good example is Virgin CrossCountry. In the last year of British Rail ownership passenger receipts for that sector of the line were £102 million. Virgin now has to pay Railtrack access charges of £100 million and it has to pay another £50 million for train leasing, train maintenance and station maintenance. So it is small wonder that it needs a subsidy of £120 million in the first year of operation. In fact, as we all know, of the £2 billion paid in public subsidy to the train operating companies, half of that goes to Railtrack.
But there is good news as well. Railtrack tells us that it will have spent £10 billion--an enormous sum of money--by the year 2001. One of the reasons it is spending that amount of money is that there is a new spirit of optimism in the railways. For instance, the Chiltern Line is doing so well that it has persuaded Railtrack to re-lay 18 miles of double track between Princes Risborough and Bicester North, 20 years after it was singled, thus enabling Chiltern to double the frequency of its trains on that line. There are orders for brand new stock: 44 four-car units for London, Tilbury and Southend, the old misery line--it probably still is--and eight new eight-car trains for Gatwick Express. Those are only two of the new orders. Great North Eastern Railways is increasing passenger traffic to such an extent that, if it continues at this rate, in two years' time it will run out of not only trains but track as well.
Lastly, I turn to the Cinderella of the railways. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, some interesting facts and figures. What he did not tell us was that between 1945 and 1995 the amount of freight carried on the railways fell in every single year except 1984. This year it has gone up for the first time. The noble Lord mentioned a figure. That has been almost entirely due to the vigorous pursuit of business shown by English, Welsh and Scottish Railways. It has even persuaded those high priests of super-efficiency, the supermarkets, to move some of their gods--I should say
Since October Safeway has been moving 10,000 cases of soft drinks a week by rail--not much, only 40 lorry-loads off the roads every week, and still a long way to go to fulfil EWS's aim to increase freight by rail from the miserly 6 per cent. that it is at the moment to 15 per cent. of total freight traffic. What an enormous environmental benefit that will be!
I believe that the railways have an exciting future. I agree, as I am sure everyone here does, that the activities of the operating companies need to be regulated. But it is a question of degree. Too heavy a hand, and we will strangle them. Let us instead get the regulatory mechanisms right and allow them to flourish and the consumer to benefit.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I regard it as a particular honour and privilege on behalf of the House to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, on an extremely fine maiden speech. It was positive, articulate, well-informed and entertaining. It was very welcome indeed. It might even have been welcome at an earlier stage, for the noble Earl succeeded to his father in 1994. I notice that his family motto is "He is prudent who is patient". He has been very patient indeed and his speech was full of prudence--nothing that one would not have expected from someone who in various forms has represented his community for something in the region of 20 years. I very much hope--I am sure I am speaking for other noble Lords too--that we will have the benefit of his wisdom and prudence, and his patience with some of the rest of us, much more frequently in coming years. We all convey our congratulations to the noble Earl.
Like him, I wish to thank my noble friend Lady Thomas for the opportunity to speak on this important matter. It is a topical one. It is a matter of great concern and not just from a negative point of view. Stories of difficulties on the railways are legion and possibly always have been. But I should like to raise one specific issue in the realm of public transport and the railways. I refer to the importance of the integration of rail and other forms of transport.
There are those who are partisan for the railways. There is nothing wrong with that. There are all kinds of attachments, emotional, environmental and economic, in support of the railways, and there is much to be said for them, particularly when one thinks of the transport of people and goods over longer distances. However, it seems to me that one does not need to be partisan only for the railways to see their great value. If they are integrated with other forms of public transport they can together provide positive opportunities for us in creating an economically successful and environmentally sustainable future transport system.
Integration involves not only railways but buses. I refer not only to the large buses of the double-decker variety that we see outside your Lordships' House, but also to smaller buses, flexi-buses and indeed to the
In my own part of the world, where the railways have stayed within public ownership, transport in the form of the railways and the buses--the rural bus as well as the urban bus--has been concentrated in one holding company called Translink. Therefore it has been much easier to exploit that kind of co-operative venture than would have been the case had it been split between disparate companies. If not all the companies have goods for gods, certainly a lot of them have the financial recompense for a bit of a god, rather than one that is necessarily best for the community as a whole.
I would make a plea that we give some attention to rail transport. I believe there is a powerful appreciation within the community as a whole and I sense it tonight in your Lordships' House, that the railways deserve attention and resources and have a real contribution to make. I would also make a plea that this should not be done in isolation from other important parts of public transport. They must all work together, with interfaces and linkages with each other, so that it is possible for our citizens to pass smoothly and without difficulty or hiccup from one form of public transport to another. They should be sufficiently well integrated so that that can be a thoroughly successful and appealing alternative to the private car, which is otherwise, for most of us, the most integrated and convenient form of transport. A viable alternative in integrated public transport would require co-operation among the various forms of transport, with the railways being upgraded, together with other forms of transport.
I am grateful to my noble friend for this opportunity for a debate and hope that this notion of integration may gather as much momentum as the notion of the railways coming back to their former glory.
Lord Cadman: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this subject today. The state of the railways is indeed a topical subject, what with the financial problems of the CTRL, the impending modernisation of the west coast main line, plus the ThamesLink 2000 proposals, all of which are in some way linked together.
A couple of years into privatisation has resulted in much potential improvement, with some £500 million to be invested in around 450 new train sets comprising over 2,000 carriages. In addition, some £2.5 billion is to be spent on infrastructure improvements. Unfortunately,
Suddenly, all is changed. The railways are released, almost, into the world of being accountable to shareholders and their customers. The Government are not really involved, except in a degree of regulation and some considerable financial assistance which--and this is an important point--is finite. It is controlled and reducing over the length of the train operating companies' franchises.
Some train operating companies who have inherited modernised infrastructure have found it easy to attract new business, so much so that they have run up against capacity problems. One can cite here Great North Eastern and Chiltern Rail. Both are constrained by the length of their franchises, which are for seven years, and by physical constraints. It seems to take three or four years to acquire new trains. Thus, in a seven-year franchise, to sign a lease agreement on trains that have a life of 30 years is not good business practice. Should they not regain the franchise after seven years, what happens to their investment? Perhaps they just will not make it. They will carry on with what they have, and simply price off demand. This is what went on before. It does not work and it will make nonsense of any future integration.
Let us try listening to what these operating companies have to say instead of threatening them with greater regulation. Some bad mistakes have been made, but remember that all these firms are having to learn as they go on. Perhaps too many people have been let go. Let us get some of them back to provide some customer service. Let us be positive and say that there will be improvements. Let us be positive about increasing the length of some franchises. It will make better financial sense.
What about freight? This is one of the success stories of privatisation. Remember that the competition is with road, not with other freight companies. It is therefore no surprise that one company has taken most of the operation. So successful have they been in attracting new business, simply by being positive, that they have almost run out of capacity. There are plans to triple their business in 10 years.
The capacity of the whole railway system is going to be a problem. There may well be a necessity to regulate but, of course, that was not envisaged at the time of privatisation. British Rail had given up on freight. Freight was not really in the music of privatisation at all. However, the potential was realised and we have GWS and Freightliner providing most of the services. Remember that they do not receive any public subsidy, so the risk is theirs alone. They are having to start almost from scratch.
There are two other points I should quickly like to reinforce. The first is the CTRL. It is vitally important that this project is completed in its entirety, as approved by Parliament, and as quickly as possible. Despite what your Lordships may have heard in some sections of the media, this project is not all about saving half an hour on a trip to Paris. It is all about increasing capacity for other traffic, especially freight in the south coast area and south east generally, properly connecting the rest of the UK with the Channel Tunnel and achieving much regeneration of east London and north east Kent in the process. It should not be reduced to the status of an SNCF branch line by curtailment.
The other point is so-called surplus railway land. I propose to revisit this subject on another occasion. I should like to stress that the apparent rapid disposal of this asset is causing considerable concern. The rail freight market is expanding rapidly and there is going to be a real need for rail-accessible land to be made available for depots and loading facilities.
It is vital that local authorities and the Government are made aware that once these sites are lost it will be almost impossible, given planning problems, to replace them. All those involved in the railway freight market are agreed that something needs to be done quickly. They are all working together to identify sites and present their case. I hope that the Government will listen, because otherwise their much vaunted integrated transport initiative, to which I look forward, will be more or less useless.
The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I believe that the new age of the train is standing in the station. The environmental case for railway operation is better than ever. The question is: will we get on that train and enjoy the benefits, or will the train be cancelled because the system is in too much of a muddle? I do not blame the Government for the fragmented and unstable structure of the UK rail network--at least, I do not at present. I will allow the Government some time to come up with a rescue plan for an industry which should not be ailing. Mr. John Prescott's review towards an integrated transport system will have to bite on some tough bullets, but it will be worth it.
I would like to speak about Scottish and Irish railways. Scotland enjoys passenger train services provided by four TOCs: National Express, Scotrail, Sea Containers GNER, Virgin West Coast and Virgin Cross-Country. Freightwise, Scotland is also served by Wisconsin Central's EW & S, and any other private
It has to be regretted that the earlier contractions of the network leave the Scottish network with only two points of contact with the rest of the GB network, at Carlisle and Berwick. The loss of the Edinburgh to Carlisle line (the Waverley route) will show up increasingly in the future. However, all is not doom and gloom. Scotrail has announced several improvements. These range from bicycles going free--again; new stations at Dalgety Bay and at Drumfrochar; 47 new three-car train sets have been ordered; promotional fares are offered on the Dumfriesshire line; a new morning commuter service from Dingwall to Inverness has been announced; increased services between Bathgate and Edinburgh and in May 2000 there will be the start of a quarter-hourly Edinburgh to Glasgow service.
This mix of rural and urban commuter, shopper and tourist sector improvements reminds us of the very varied nature of providing a better service within the diversity that is Scotland. The range is from tackling urban and inter-urban road congestion and its associated environmental pollution to the provision of services in the remoter areas.
Finally, Scotrail has a lot to live up to, following its award as the best train operating company and the £5 million prize for doing so from the franchising director. Perhaps I may sum up the Scottish experience of the other companies thus: I live in Clackmannan, which is admirably placed 35 miles from Edinburgh and Glasgow. There is competition for my business on the Anglo-Scottish routes. At present GNER wins hands down. But, after looking at the Virgin-Railtrack plans for the upgrading of the west coast main line, as encapsulated in PUG 1 and PUG II, I believe that there will be a serious choice. Equally, I applaud the decision to increase the loading gauge on the west coast to accommodate piggyback freight trains. Like the reservation of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, mine has to be the introduction of transmission-based signalling to a major main line without it having been tested and developed on a minor line beforehand.
I would now like to cross the North Channel. In Northern Ireland we have a publicly-owned railway. As the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, has said, not only has NIR been integrated with the bus network to form Translink, it has also upgraded the international service in conjunction with Iarnrod Eireann. A quick view of the rail network of Ireland cannot help but notice the decimation in the border areas. Fortunately, progress in inter-governmental relations has paved the way for improvements. Had that arrived earlier, then the old Ulster transport authority would not have earned the soubriquet, "Ulster's Track Abandoners". The new Enterprise service is a symbol of the better relationship on the railway and also a symbol of European investment. The two systems now run a modern two-hour service between the two capitals, albeit using French train sets powered by Canadian diesels.
Much of the rolling stock on the Irish network is second-hand, usually ex-British Rail. There has been some admirable recycling, which underlies historic under-investment in NIR. For example, the Class 80 or Castle Class multiple units, were built on the salvaged underframes of scrapped BR Mark 1 carriages. How the managers of NIR must envy Iarnrod Eireann's new Japanese Sprinters, which now ply on the Dublin Western suburban routes, not to mention the Dart electric services on the coast. I wonder whether Railtrack has considered the adoption of CAWS (continuous automatic warning system) which is an in-cab computer signalling warning system used in the Dublin area. Might that system be compared with the transmission-based signalling system proposed for the west coast main line.
My final remarks have to be about the need for a sustained investment in the infrastructure and rolling stock. I see no reason why public funds should not be used. The benefits of a better railway network can be divided between users and non-users. Nothing will be achieved if the network is allowed to decline. The challenge for the UK government is to untangle the muddle in the network and allow it to thrive, as it cries out to do.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for initiating this debate. It seems clear that there is general agreement that the railways have an enormous contribution to make to this country, both in terms of our economic prosperity, the environment and the fast and effective journeys it ought to be able to offer to millions of passengers. The problem is that, as yet, we do not have a completely efficient and effective system in order to do that.
As the noble Earl, Lord Leicester, so eloquently said, over the past 20 to 30 years there have been improvements, and I would be the first to acknowledge that. But we also have to face the effect of privatisation and say that one of its adverse effects has been to undermine the national integrity of the railway system. There are many examples of that. They are the connections not now being held because they are operated by different companies; the accuracy of train information across the whole network is pretty poor; the complex fare structures that now exist make it sometimes very difficult for passengers seeking to make different return journeys across different company operators; the regulatory regime is often confused and patchy; and the sanctions available for poor performance are often inadequate. Finally, and most importantly, it seems that there is no focus for taking a strategic look at the development of the railways, not over the next two to three years, but over the next 20 to 30 years. The whole problem is summed up for me by the fast disappearance of cheap, walk-on fares in relation to many of the operating companies.
There was a very interesting report in yesterday's Independent which looked at the figures for fares between June 1995 and January 1998. In that period inflation rose by just over 9 per cent., but when one
I suggest that the price for privatisation has been paid for not by the people who drove that through nor by the railway companies or their shareholders, but by the travelling public. All these problems have been reflected in my own experience, living and travelling from Birmingham on many occasions and using the railway system. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to previous debates in your Lordships' House about the situation concerning the west coast main line. I make no apology for returning to that subject.
The railway system is very important to the city of Birmingham. It was partly responsible for its development as a great industrial city. In its days as the engineering window on the world the railways played a very important role. It also plays an important role now in the current regeneration of the economic prosperity of Birmingham and the West Midlands. Thousands upon thousands of visitors go to the National Exhibition Centre, the Convention Centre and the National Indoor Arena. The London to Birmingham line is particularly important to them and to our economic prosperity and also in attracting further investment into the city. So having an effective, efficient, fast railway is vital to our economic prosperity.
However, the experience over the past 12 months has been anything but that. The charter standard for punctuality is 90 per cent. of trains reaching their destination on time. As many of your Lordships will know, the railways' definition of "arriving punctually" is rather different from that of most people. If a train arrives up to nine minutes and 59 seconds late, it is still counted as being "punctual". Even on that lax definition and standard, Virgin's west coast main line signally fails to reach it.
I took note of the right reverend Prelate's point about searching for good news. The good news that I found in last year's performance is that out of 13 four-week periods, Virgin managed to reach that 90 per cent. target on five occasions. The bad news is that it did not do so on eight occasions and that in the four weeks to 8th November last year, punctuality was just under 83 per cent. That has caused frustration, misery and discomfort to many people.
Again, I take the right reverend Prelate's point that the line has been starved of investment for 30 years, but if one looks at the causes of the problems and at many of the defects and delays, one sees that they involve engine failures, points failures and signalling failures. I would put that down as much to poor management and poor attention to detail as to investment problems.
The other issue to which I draw your Lordships' attention is speed. The Birmingham to London line is 113 miles long and the journey takes on average 100 minutes. However, the journey from Doncaster on the east coast main line, which is 156 miles from London, takes the same 100 minutes. I know that Doncaster, being bottom of the Third Division, needs all
I welcome the intention of Railtrack and Virgin to upgrade the system. That is much needed. However, I am concerned that the intensity of investment will be in relation to the journeys from Euston to Manchester and Glasgow and that the spur coming off at Rugby for the journey to Birmingham is to have restricted investment. There is also concern that local railway services will suffer. I urge my noble friend the Minister to put as much pressure as she can on Virgin and Railtrack to ensure that the Birmingham line receives as much investment as other parts of the railway system.
I very much welcome the Government's intention to review and strengthen the regulatory process and to establish a railway authority which can ensure that we get the strategic direction that we require. I hope that we shall see the results coming through very quickly.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, for initiating this very important debate. I think that this is the first time that I have participated in a debate with the noble Baroness since I had the honour of congratulating her on her maiden speech back in November 1994. I would also like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Leicester on his excellent maiden speech. Dare I say it, but had Peers by succession been barred from taking part in this debate, there would have been just four speakers.
Railways are very much in my blood on both sides of my family and indeed the first Lord Palmer was a director of the Great Western Railway for 47 years, 42 of which he served as vice-chairman. I must declare an interest as a frequent traveller on the Great North Eastern Railway Line. The chief executive happens to be a distant cousin of mine. As a child, I had much pleasure driving our steam engines, shunting our biscuits from our factory in Reading onto the main line.
As my voting record showed when we were debating the Railways Bill, I was dead against privatisation. The railways have played an incredibly important part in the success of our nation and it is amazing to think that in 1921, 735,000 people were employed on the railways, which represented 3.8 per cent. of the country's workforce. Today there are almost 67,000 people employed on the railways, which is just 0.3 per cent. of our total workforce.
In the main, it appears that GNER and GWR are performing well but the situation is still far from perfect. I believe passionately that the Government must do everything they can to encourage the rail companies to woo freight and passengers off the roads.
In 1923, 349 million tonnes of freight were carried on the railways and today this figure is just 101 million tonnes. I also believe that the large grocery chains should be further encouraged to transport more of their goods by rail rather than blocking the arteries of our road network. It is exciting that EWS has just started trading with Tesco, Sainsburys and Safeway. When
Before coming to the main point of my speech, I would like to air four small points. First, I urge the Government to get the rail companies to allow a greater degree of flexibility on tickets. I put my daughter on the 7.35 train to Exeter last week and was appalled at the overcrowding and yet people dare to complain about live exports of animals. I also would ask Her Majesty's Government to persuade the rail companies that return tickets should be valid for periods longer than one month. In addition, when new rolling stock is commissioned, there should be better provision for luggage.
Finally on these small points, I would like to reiterate the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, at col. 167 of Hansard of 8th May 1996 when he deplored the fact that there is no station at Edinburgh airport. Bearing in mind that the people of Scotland have voted for a devolved parliament, a station at the airport must become a No. 1 priority.
It is encouraging that there has been a great improvement in rail infrastructure, particularly on the Great Western line. To give one small example, car park vandalism is down by 40 per cent. and in my native Reading by as much as 70 per cent. Industrial relations have greatly improved, and I believe the rail companies and the unions deserve much credit for this.
I believe passionately that our railway network has a buoyant future but that future is dependent on one thing, as other noble Lords have mentioned, and that is investment. One of the reasons that GNER is performing so well is that there has been a massive financial investment on the east coast line over the past 10 years prior to privatisation. Another reason for GNER's great success is the high calibre of its staff at all levels who have received excellent training. I think it is also worth mentioning the enormous change in the quality of food served on board and I reckon now that the food served on GNER can challenge any restaurant in the land. The main reason why the west coast line is so under-performing is that, as other noble Lords have said, there has been virtually no investment over the past 30 years.
One of the problems about financial investment in the railways, whether it be rolling stock or infrastructure, is that it has to be on a massive scale. To give one small example, a new nine-coach 225 set costs £15 million and has the capacity to carry 555 passengers. While some updating may be necessary along the way, the assets must be fundamentally sound for at least 25 years to give any realistic chance of a commercial payback. It must also be appreciated that the gestation period to bring forward a project on this scale would probably be
I have one final plea. The new regime must be allowed and encouraged to flourish, and be kept free of as many regulations as possible. Where there is regulation, it must be there to encourage competition, not to stifle it.
Lord Methuen: My Lords, I too welcome this debate introduced by my noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood. I declare an interest in so far as I am a companion member of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers, which is the professional body that is responsible for that subject.
The United Kingdom railway system forms a vital part of our transport system which is now in a critical state, as many other noble Lords have said. Our railways are essential to us from an economic and environmental viewpoint for the carriage of both passengers and freight. The critical state of railways is not just a UK problem; it is a Europe-wide problem. We debated this issue on 12th June of last year when the House considered the report of Sub-Committee B of the European Communities Committee on the Community's railway strategy. It is essential that the UK has an integrated transport policy which maximises its use of public transport. I make a plea to the Government via the Minister that greater consideration be given to urban light rail systems in places like Birmingham and the Manchester extension. That has not been mentioned before.
In this country we have a different set of problems to those elsewhere in Europe characterised by the recent privatisation of the system, the very dense commuter traffic in the south-east and the comparatively short distances over which most freight is conveyed. All of this was made worse by the starvation of investment in infrastructure and rolling stock in the run up to privatisation. This shows up particularly in the state of the west coast main line. This was the subject of very substantial investment involving electrification and resignalling during the 1960s. I was one of the engineers involved in that. We now have to make a new and even more substantial investment to bring it up to date. This is particularly so for matters such as the structure gauge, which means altering bridges and tunnels in order to put piggyback trains through them.
This lack of investment demonstrates the dilemma that faces engineers. We have a new generation of tilting trains that are needed to cope with the Victorian engineering of the west coast main line with its sharp curves and steep gradients and the new concept of moving block signalling, already mentioned by a number of speakers, which will safely allow greater track occupancy and directly communicate with the driver in his cab, giving him information about the speed that he is permitted to go. The system has digital displays. These systems are beginning to come in. This
Noble Lords may be interested to learn that when we were installing the Victoria Line we ran no fewer than three prototype systems. First, we ran it on extra capacity up beyond Acton where there is a four-track main line. When the start button was pressed to set the first automatic train in operation it went backwards because the circuit diagrams were incorrect. We then tried it at Turnham Green in-service carrying passengers between two stations. Finally, we installed it on the Woodford-Hainault line as a full scale prototype. It was then installed on the Victoria Line proper when the Tubes were commissioned. We were remarkably successful in experiencing very few problems in getting the whole system to work.
My previous remarks referred to investment in existing lines. But surely we should be looking for investment in new lines such as Cross-Rail and the reinstatement of lines removed in the Dr. Beeching era. Only by making that investment will we persuade people not to use their cars for all journeys or manage to take heavy freight off the roads. That is the direction in which we should be moving; but, unfortunately, we have a scenario in which the British Rail Property Board is disposing of critical chords, trackbeds and other land where freight operations might in the future be reinstated. One particular line that might be reinstated is the Dumfries-Stranraer line which would avoid an enormous detour almost up to Glasgow and back again. I am pleased to hear that Derbyshire County Council is considering an investigation into the feasibility of restoring the line between Matlock and Buxton, referred to by the right reverend Prelate, in order to reduce the number of cars entering the Peak District. It might be possible to encourage some mineral traffic back onto that line. The problem is that many of the currently used quarries are a considerable distance from the track and most of the quarries that are on it have been abandoned. Surely, this is the kind of initiative that the Government should encourage in their integrated transport policy.
As a member of the Select Committee of this House on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, I particularly hope that the Minister can enlighten the House as to the state of negotiations on the future of this link following the demise of London and Continental Railways. It is essential that that link is built in toto in order to maximise the benefits particularly to the north of the country by the provision of links to both the west coast main line and east coast main line at St. Pancras to encourage regeneration of the east coast corridor and provide relief for the North Kent commuter lines. That in turn will release capacity for freight on the Kent lines.
Rail still has an enormous amount to offer its customers and the country from an environmental point of view. However, Railtrack and the train operating companies must get their act together to offer a reliable, quality service at the right price and with adequate investment for both passengers and freight.
Lord Harding of Petherton: My Lords, I have listened to some very well researched and technically knowledgeable speeches this evening, not least that of the noble Lord, Lord Methuen, who has just spoken. I have no technical knowledge of railways but I should like to make some general remarks from my experience.
I travel regularly by train to London from the west country and have done so for the past six-and-a-half years. I noticed a marked improvement in punctuality and standards of service in the year or so running up to privatisation. This continued after the private companies were set up. However, in my experience in the past year standards have slipped, which is very disappointing. Recently punctuality has been uneven. For a period it is very good and then for a few days, or perhaps one day a week, the train on which I travel is late, sometimes by up to half an hour. The regulator has quite rightly pointed this out and warned the railway companies that their standards must improve.
However, to say, as some do, that performance in both punctuality and service is now worse than under British Rail is not my experience. Matters are definitely much better than they were under nationalisation on the Great Western line on which I travel and on South West Trains which my wife and I use occasionally. It will take time for the private railway companies to turn the railways in this country into an efficient, comfortable and agreeable way to travel. It is essential that that should happen. If we want people to use their cars less, as I am sure we all do--although by "people" we usually mean anyone but ourselves--the railways must improve.
It has been said by some that the contracts for the railway companies' franchises are not long enough for significant investment in new rolling stock to be made. Can the Minister comment on that? It has also been said by critics of rail privatisation and the way it was designed and implemented by the previous Government that insufficient guarantees on improved performance were written into the contracts. The same critics say that some railway companies merely cram as many passengers onto their trains to make as much money as possible during the time of their franchise without making the significant investments that are clearly necessary. I also ask the noble Baroness to comment on that matter. I hope that the criticisms I have outlined are not true.
I watched the recent Panorama programme on BBC1 about railway privatisation and how it was working. The negative comments on the current state and future prospects of the railways in Britain reinforced these critical views. Apart from some hype by Richard Branson about what he will be able to do--I hope it is true--as one would suspect of a Panorama programme a gloomy presentation was made which showed little hope for the future. I was very pleased to hear the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn give hope to the railways. His contribution was very positive in that direction.
It will not help future investment in the railways to hear a large part of the media making such criticisms, encouraged by the Save Our Railways organisation. I do not know what that organisation's agenda is, but it does not seem to have any positive contribution to make.
Punctuality is absolutely essential if more people are to travel by rail. There is nothing more annoying than to arrive half an hour late for a meeting, an appointment, or for work in the morning. Next time the person affected will go by car so that he or she can ensure that they arrive on time. If they are late, they can blame themselves for not starting earlier.
Punctuality is not the only aspect which affects travel by rail. Overcrowding is also a great disincentive. I have not experienced it myself but I understand that many commuter trains into London are grossly overcrowded.
The politeness and helpfulness of staff is also important, as is the speedy relaying of information the travelling public. These services have definitely improved since the days of British Rail. However there is still some way to go. Perhaps because I am deaf, I find it very irritating that the loudspeaker systems are not correctly adjusted or are too old, and I find it impossible to hear the details of the announcements. It is not because the announcements are too soft but because they are indistinct. That is a sign of bad management. I wonder whether some of the managers spend too much time sitting in their offices and not enough finding out what is happening on the ground. That was impressed on me by my commanding officer when I was doing a certain job.
All enterprises and businesses should be run by private companies. Governments and public corporations do not run things well. Railways by their very nature are, to some extent, monopoly providers and must be regulated. There must be stringent safety rules which are strictly adhered to.
I hope that the Government will give the railway companies the encouragement to invest and improve rail services. It will take time to improve things. Railways all over the world are making a come-back and the new technology on fast trains, particularly in Japan, will make a big difference to the attractiveness of rail travel.
Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I am clearly not alone in your Lordships' House when I confess that as a young boy I wanted to be a train driver. However, I was probably luckier than most--with the notable exception
In common with many other people, I have been very sad to see the remorseless decline of the rail system. I am therefore particularly grateful to my noble friend for having introduced this debate, and at a particularly appropriate time.
It is appropriate for three reasons. First, the decline in real use has been reversed, and that is good news. Secondly, the concern for the future and for the future direction of transport policy in relation to railways has never been more acute, and that is bad news. Thirdly, it looks as though the Government will do something about it, and that is an opportunity.
Whilst the decline to which I refer has in part been caused by the increasing comfort and convenience of the motor car, coupled with the massive extension of the road network, and in part by an equally considerable increase in the variety and efficiency of regional air transport, there is a third and very important reason: that is the hostile political climate under which the railways have operated, stretching back decades, perhaps even beyond the infamous Dr. Beeching.
It is very telling that when governments in the past have referred to expenditure on roads it has been called "investment in infrastructure", but whenever they have referred to similar expenditure on the railway it is described as "a subsidy". Until such time as we are prepared to regard expenditure on rail infrastructure as an investment--and perhaps even to consider road expenditure as a subsidy--then we will not have the political will to do anything to improve its current dilapidated state.
As my noble friend pointed out, it is vital when considering the future of the railways that one makes a correct comparison--what one might term "an apples for apples comparison"--with other forms of transport. The cancellation of the motor rail service is an example. In common with other noble Lords, I was a regular user of the motor rail service, making two or three return journeys a year. The service was well used, as I often witnessed, and yet in the run-up to privatisation the service was closed. The reason given at the time was that it was simply too costly to run.
A few weeks ago I discovered from a friend, who is travelling to Scotland for the first time, that an enterprising road haulage contractor is now running a regular service transporting cars by road from the home counties to Inverness. Your car is picked up and transported overnight to Inverness whilst you make your way by air or rail as you see fit. From April, the cost of this service is £390 including VAT, which is considerably cheaper than the old motor rail used to be. That this service now exists not only demonstrates that the strong demand is still there but, more importantly, it underlines just how prejudicial policies have been against the rail network and in favour of road transport.
This example demonstrates how important it is that we develop in our future transport policy as a sine qua non a consistent approach to road and rail. Nowhere is this more required than in how we look at the cost of provision of these services.
For example, the only reason why de-regulated buses have proliferated and can offer a cheaper service is because they bear virtually no infrastructure costs. The same is true for road freight. It is difficult to get accurate figures and I am grateful to Mr. Simon Miller of Railtrack for providing me with some. Rail freight users pay 100 per cent. of the cost of service provision; rail passengers pay on average 60 per cent. of the full cost of service, which will rise to 80 per cent. on current franchise commitments. This compares with road users paying on average about 30 per cent. of the full internal cost of motoring at point of use. These are the hard costs and take no account of external collateral or social costs of these choices.
Again according to Railtrack, road activity is variously estimated to have external costs ranging from anything between £10.9 billion a year up to £52.9 billion a year. The comparable external costs of rail transport are negligible. The plain fact is that road users are not paying for the full cost of their transport decisions.
The same discrimination appears when it comes to investment. Something in the order of £9 billion was spent on roads last year, whereas Railtrack are rightly proud of the fact that their increased expenditure will only total £1.5 billion a year.
There is one area where the Government can have an impact without increasing public expenditure or amending the terms of the franchises, and that is the area of fiscal policy. We are one of the very few countries in the world which has taken the cult of the company car to the extreme. Like many others I benefit from a company car, but under the present system there is no incentive for me or my company to change. If the benefit of a company car were to be fully taxed, and particularly if scale charges for petrol were to be fully abolished and replaced by genuine business mileage to be claimed from the company, I foresee two effects. The first is a reduction in the number of cars given as perks. The second is companies paying people in cash which would then be taxed in the normal way.
On the other side of the equation, I should like to see, at least for a limited period, some or all of the cost of rail season tickets being tax allowable. That would encourage more use of the railways by creating greater revenue streams and better cashflow.
Finally, I cannot take part in a debate in your Lordships' House without mentioning tourism. Recently at a lunch, I spoke to the chief executive of the BHA. We were talking generally about tourism and I asked him what, if he had one wish, he would wish for to improve tourism in this country. He thought for a moment and said, "Transport, and particularly the railways". We must not underestimate the value to all businesses, particularly tourism, of having an integrated and efficient transport system, in particular an efficient rail system.
The key to achieving the shift in emphasis which we all desire and to achieving the levels of investment necessary to make railways the first choice for passengers and freight alike is a change in the political language and climate in relation to the railway system. In that regard, I am glad that the Government are committed and I am sure that their heart is in the right place. But we need to see some real commitment if these good wishes are to be turned into reality.
Lord Milverton: My Lords, I am pleased to be able to join in the debate because my family and I are rail users and we enjoy it. As regards late trains, often it is not the fault of Great Western Trains, Thames Trains, Connex South Eastern or Virgin--the lines on which my family and I often travel--but as a result of signalling and points failure. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, was right in saying that there must be more research and more money invested so that signals and points do not so often fail, causing late running trains. Furthermore, as often happens on the Great Western Trains, for example, a truck manages to damage a bridge, which also results in late running trains. We must not automatically blame the company. Perhaps the Government will give the House encouragement by stating that Railtrack will be helped to make such improvements. I also suggest greater liaison between companies and the consumers. The various companies should provide more reliable and understandable information about connections.
It can be seen that the rolling stock of Great Western Trains is good and is improving. Perhaps it is not as good as it could be, but on the whole it is very good. Its staff are helpful, pleasant and courteous.
Overcrowding has been mentioned. Sometimes trains are so overcrowded that one cannot walk down the corridors. Would not there be an uproar if such a train were involved in a crash? Would not the question be asked, "Why was that allowed?"? The issue of overcrowding on trains must be investigated. It is not allowed in buses and cars and it should not be allowed on trains.
Connex South Eastern and Thames Trains are the poorest companies. They are not impressive and are dirty. I travel from Great Bedwyn, where the line begins, and often an inspector has not appeared by the time the train reaches London. There is no ticket office at Great Bedwyn station so one purchases a ticket from the inspector when he comes through the train. That has happened to my family and I on several occasions.
I think Virgin Trains need a great deal of improvement. They are poor and untidy and often the staff are unhelpful. With all due respect to Richard Branson, perhaps he needs to stop floating about around the world. Perhaps he needs to take a little more time taking note of his Virgin railways in order to see what they are doing. Someone told me that he used to travel on his trains and take note, but perhaps he is tired of that. Perhaps the Government could suggest to Mr. Branson that he takes more note of what is happening on his railways.
My family and I have sometimes travelled on the north east line. I am sure that people are right in saying it is the best. Great Western Trains is slowly catching up, but during all our journeys on the north east line its coaches and service have been superb and excellent.
How nice it would be to see the continuation of the improvement of the freight service. How nice it would be to see the busy freight yards which one used to see. How sad it is to see freight yards disappearing leaving untidy tracks. We can all remember the busy freight yards and it would be lovely to see them again. One now sees monster lorries and it is good that they are being put on rails.
It would also be nice to see the re-opening of old lines, as has been mentioned. In Marlborough, where I live, there used to be two stations and one could travel to Swindon or to Cardiff. What terrible journeys they were. Perhaps at the time, closing so many lines was considered the right thing to do economically, but many people took pleasure in travelling on those minor lines. If Her Majesty's Government want more people to use their cars less, public transport must be improved. There must be more co-ordination between the railway and bus companies. I am sure that it could be improved.
I hope that the Government can encourage us by stating that the railways will continue to improve, the north east line being the example to follow. I hope that they will encourage bus companies to work with the railways. That should be possible because National Express has bought some railways. My family and I have never used its lines, so I can speak only of Great Western Trains, the north east line, Thames Trains, Connex South Eastern and Virgin Trains. Of those, Great Western Trains certainly is the best. I believe that today the railways are better than in the days of the London, north east, southern, midland and Scottish lines. Indeed, I heard that by comparison those companies were not financially better off.
Lord Razzall: My Lords, it falls to me to wind up the debate on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. I suspect that my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank is somewhat surprised to discover that I do so as the member of the new "gang of only four"; that is, the four non-hereditary Peers participating in today's debate. Perhaps when the Government saw the Motion tabled by my noble friend Lady Thomas they wondered why we had not waited because a White Paper is promised in the Spring. It may well be that a number of points made in today's debate could have been made in response to that White Paper. However, the speeches of so many noble Lords this evening have indicated why the state of the railways is an important issue for us to debate today.
I have listened to the speeches of noble Lords and two fundamental reasons have emerged. First, it is quite apparent that in the aftermath of the Kyoto summit the environmental significance of the railways cannot be over-estimated. We are facing forecasts that indicate that car use will increase by one-third to one-half by 2016,
The second reason that the debate is so germane today is that this House can no longer ignore the fact that for many members of the public privatisation has so far proved to be a failure. Many noble Lords this evening have given anecdotal evidence of their own experiences as to why it is a failure. As the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, indicated, any process that has resulted in the reputation for sanctity to which Richard Branson has become accustomed being ruined as a result of the performance of Virgin Trains is anecdotal evidence enough.
However, we also have statistical evidence from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising. From the 1997 figures we learn that punctuality deteriorated during 1997 on nearly half the reported route groups. The reliability indicators deteriorated on nearly half the reported route groups. Eighteen service groups failed to reach their passenger targets. Train cancellations were significantly worse.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said, a major cause of that has been the exacerbation of the problem by a lack of national co-ordination. Many noble Lords have indicated what that lack of co-ordination means in practice. We have a hit and miss record on any national timetable inquiry. Indeed, many people have said that they always phone twice to check that the second result is the same as the first.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page