Rail Performance

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Commons Hansard
30 Nov 2006

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am sorry to intervene again; the Minister is being very generous. The passenger watchdog has condemned the decision to cut trains coming from Scotland, via my Carlisle constituency, to the south coast and the South-West. Passengers will not thank us for sending them to Birmingham New Street - probably the worst station in Britain. I apologise to any Birmingham Members, but it is so bad that it will cost a fortune to upgrade it. Changing the franchise at this time will, I am sorry to say, only stir up trouble for the Government in future.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I disagree. The passenger flow figures that I have seen show that fewer passengers will need to change at Birmingham New Street. In fact, very few passengers travelling from the South-West up to Birmingham New Street continue their journey beyond it. I understand my hon. Friend's point, but I hope that in the near future we will be able to look again at the figures and see the results of the new cross-country franchise. We should be able to see whether the Department for Transport's predictions proved correct as well as optimistic.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is not it a fact, however, that a franchisee can give back the franchise to the Government at a fairly minimal cost? Ministers do not therefore have a strong bargaining position.

Mr. Harris: A franchisee's financial liabilities must be met before it walks away from a contract. I am sure that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not mentioning any specific companies to which his comments might refer.

We intend to publish a long-term vision for the railways - the high-level output specification - next year. The HLOS is a significant innovation. For the first time, Government will lay out clearly what is expected from the railway - not in detail, as that will be for the industry to finalise, but requirements for performance, safety and capacity will be set.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The hon. Gentleman is very gracious in giving way. Will he take this opportunity to apologise for the Conservatives' privatisation of the railways, and does he realise that an apology will not make the people forgive or forget what they did?

Chris Grayling: We can always count on the enthusiasm of the Government, and the Labour party in general, for debating the issues of 10 years ago rather than the issues of the future. It is true that there have been some real highs and lows on the railways in the decade since privatisation, but, as the Minister rightly said, the practical reality is that today, 10 years after privatisation, the railways carry more passengers each year than a rather larger network did before the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I trust that the shadow Minister's embarrassment saves me from having to say anything more.

Chris Grayling: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I thought I had turned off my mobile telephone.

The achievement I was referring to is an astounding one, given that at the time of privatisation 10 years ago the received wisdom about our rail network was that it was in a long spiral of decline - that there would be a long decline in passenger usage and rail freight. Those have been reversed over the past 10 years. As the Minister rightly said, we have a growing railway, but that - particularly when it has grown as much as ours over the past 10 years - creates its own set of problems. That is where the challenge of the next 10 years lies.


Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): We welcome the opportunity to debate rail performance. It is perhaps appropriate that I am standing in for my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who is perhaps the only Member of Parliament who does not have any rails in his constituency.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): What about the Western Isles?

Mr. Leech: Quite possibly.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the west coast main line, and it will be nice for the staff if he wants a cup of coffee on the way home this evening. However, the Manchester to London service has improved a great deal, and the journey now takes two hours and 10 minutes. The British Airways shuttle has almost been destroyed, because people have swapped air for rail travel, so can he say something good about the Manchester service?

Mr. Leech: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me acknowledge the improvements that have been made. I was suggesting, however, that the service on some London to Manchester trains was not as good as it was on others. I made the point that the staff who work on Virgin trains do a good job but, unfortunately, some trains operate with reduced staff and thus a reduced service.


4.04 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My hon. Friend is a lucky Minister. Over the past 10 years, there have been Ministers with responsibility for the railways who have stood at the Dispatch Box and said that they had put billions of pounds into railways but there had been no improvement. Now, even the Opposition recognise the improvement.

I shall speak about the west coast main line, which will not surprise the House. I have been speaking about the west coast main line for nearly 20 years now. I have probably raised the matter more often than any other Member, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), but she has been in the House quite a lot longer than I have. The line is a success and we should celebrate that. We should thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), for without him putting Railtrack into administration, the west coast main line would not have been upgraded.

When Opposition Members mention the present problems, those are the problems of success. I find it difficult to accept their arguments. One way in which the Conservatives will reduce capacity if they ever get back into power is by doing what they always do - they will create a recession. People will not have to travel and will not be able to afford to travel. That is what the Conservatives did twice when they were last in power.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) who speaks for the Opposition, said that he was deeply concerned that the ROSCOs would be investigated, because that may put off investment. They set up the ROSCOs, and they knew that there was a shortage of rolling stock. We are told that the Conservative party is not the party of big business. Who owns the ROSCOs but the big banks? We must have the investigation, but there is a problem in the rolling stock factories that we still have, and those are fewer than we used to have.

People are flocking back to the west coast main line because it is reliable and comfortable, with the exception of the disabled toilets, which have a habit of springing open when one least expects it. I was a little surprised by the press release from the National Audit Office. It seemed to be more about grabbing attention for the NAO than about what was in the report. The NAO report sets out how the west coast main line was upgraded, how the costs were brought down and how Network Rail got it right. Its earlier report deals with the Strategic Rail Authority, which deserves a great deal of praise for setting out the blueprint.

There are still one or two problems on the west coast main line. The Secretary of State for Transport had to answer questions from the Select Committee on Transport about why it was necessary to appoint a large City law firm to deal with the franchise problems of the west coast main line with Virgin. The answer was that because Mr. Branson employs a lot of lawyers, he had to too. Mr. Branson did well from the situation created by Railtrack. I think he got about £550 million extra. At present he should be paying hundreds of millions of pounds back to the Treasury, but I suspect he is still enjoying the subsidy. Perhaps I am more critical than my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich of the franchising system. It will not last the passage of time.

Ticketing and pricing are issues. For a previous Select Committee report I asked the Travel Office to tell me how many different fares there were between my constituency of Carlisle and London. The answer was 29. There is no clarity in that. People try to book cheap tickets early, but they have all gone, so have to travel off-peak or pay the full price. People give up.

Mr. Drew: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest frustrations in buying a ticket before getting on a train - all the emphasis is on buying a ticket before getting on a train - is when a non-regular traveller in front tries to negotiate with ticket staff exactly what fare they should pay? I have seen many people miss trains when they cannot get a ticket because of these arguments.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I agree. The other option is to give up arguing and get on the train, but then the full fare is payable without any discounts. Virgin has brought in that new rule.

The NAO commented on a capacity problem for the future. I think it was talking about 10 or 15 years ahead. The Government must take that seriously. There are some fairly straightforward solutions to capacity, but they will not solve the problem entirely. One is to lengthen the Pendolino and Voyager trains. Unfortunately, the Alstrom factory in Birmingham has now closed down. If the line is restarted, it will probably be in France, but that needs to happen. I understand that negotiations are going on with the Minister to ensure that those extra carriages are ordered. I hope that they are forthcoming.

It will probably be necessary to change the signalling system and that will cost money. On the original plan Pendolinos were built to go at 140 mph and we were to have a new signalling system at the cutting edge, but that never happened and the trains can travel at only 125 mph and must keep a safe distance apart. Once the new technology has been developed, it will have to be installed on the west coat main line. That will allow trains to travel at 140 mph and run closer together, so capacity will be increased.

I have campaigned successfully over the years for the upgrade of the west coast main line. Indeed, I have been fanatical about it. In reality that has been all right in the medium term, but the Government must look at a high speed line between the south and the north of England. I hope that the report to be published tomorrow will recommend that. I look forward to a debate with the Minister when we have read the report.

4.49 p.m.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): First, will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is advocating that more public money should be spent on infrastructure - and therefore taxes put up? Secondly, does he accept that a lot of the problems in our infrastructure were caused by 18 years of Conservative Government?

Mr. Ellwood: I opened my remarks by saying that we are where we are. We can go back in time and talk about those 18 years, but we can also go back and discuss what Labour Governments have achieved with the rail network. However, I think that the hon. Gentleman and I can agree that there has been a lack of investment by a series of Administrations compared with that made by our continental colleagues. That is the bottom line.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's other question, the money must come from a combination of a public and a private partnership, but he will have to wait a little longer to find out the detail of what the Conservatives propose on that because, despite the turmoil on the Government Front Bench, we are not expecting a general election just yet.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): It is churlish to challenge my hon. Friend when he said such nice things about me, but he said that as a result of the new cross-country franchise fewer people would have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, is it not correct that my constituents and his constituents travelling from Scotland to the south of England and the South-West must change there?

Mr. Harris: That is correct, as I made clear in an intervention on the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell. Through services such as services from Glasgow to Penzance will alter, so customers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. However, passengers on other services will no longer have to change there. According to our passenger figures, fewer passengers will have to change at Birmingham New Street. There are alternative changing points, too, including Wolverhampton, where some of the facilities are better than those at Birmingham New Street. In the invitation to tender, companies that have expressed an interest in the franchise are asked to provide evidence of robust processes to demonstrate that they will provide a proper service, including information and guidance, to people who have to change at Birmingham New Street.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB