Department for Transport: Railways

Commons Hansard
9 Mar 2009

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who always speaks in railways debates. In the unlikely event of a Lib Dem Government, how much extra subsidy would his party put into the railways?

Norman Baker: We have set out in great detail in our policy paper the benefits of high speed rail and other rail improvements. Those come down to a £30 surcharge on domestic flights - we have been very open about that - and a lorry road user charge, and we have indicated how we would get more money out of existing train operating companies. That is all in black and white. I am happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of our paper. We are the only one of the three parties to specify how we would pay for improvements to the railway service in this country.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The hon. Gentleman suggests that we should have a 30-year franchise so that people could plan ahead but then says that it would have to be reviewed every five years. I presume that it could therefore be cancelled every five years, so it would really be a five-year franchise.

Norman Baker: The position is clear; I am sorry if I did not make it clear to the hon. Gentleman. A franchise would be awarded for 30 years, but there would be five-year checks to ensure that the franchise conditions were being met, and if so the franchise would automatically stay with the company that was awarded it in the first place rather than being re-tendered. The alternative is what we have at the moment, whereby, for example, the Southern franchise is being re-tendered for a period of five years and eight or 10 months. With the best will in the world, what can a train company possibly do in that period other than paint the stations and sort out one or two car parks? It cannot possibly make the necessary investment.


7.58 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): On 12 February I spoke in a debate in Westminster Hall. The Chair of the Transport Committee has indicated that repeating that debate would be frowned upon, so I decided to look at an earlier speech, one that I made in a debate on the railways in this House 21 years ago. I will stay in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

That debate was about the closure of the Settle to Carlisle railway line. It was a very good Adjournment debate, which happened to take an hour and a half. Some of my hon. Friends spoke, including Peter Pike from Burnley and the late Bob Cryer from Bradford, and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). The reason for the debate was that British Rail wanted to close the line, but the Conservative Government wanted to privatise it. Of course, nothing happened and it was saved. April will be the 20th anniversary of the saving of the Settle to Carlisle railway line and, hopefully, we will have an Adjournment debate about that anniversary, when we can pat everybody on the back and say what a good idea it was. That was the last attempt by any Government of any colour to close a major railway line. In many ways, it was the start of the renaissance of the railways. Unfortunately, the Conservative party decided to go through the trauma of privatisation. It discounted it in the case of the Settle line, but went for the big experiment.

We have heard comments about Network Rail, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, reminded people that Network Rail may not be perfect, but it is a lot better than what we had under Railtrack. I remind hon. Members about that. It cost about £8.8 million to upgrade the west coast main line.

Daniel Kawczynski: Billion.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I thank the hon. Gentleman for correcting me: it cost £8.8 billion. The estimate given by Railtrack was £13 billion, and nobody in this Chamber believes that it would ever have been completed by Railtrack. I would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), the Secretary of State who had the courage to put Railtrack into administration. If he had not done so, we would not be talking about a successful railway today. Hon. Members should remember that our railways have the most advanced rolling stock of anywhere in Europe, but listening to the comments from the Liberal Democrat spokesman, one would not believe it. We have the most passengers using the railways since the 1950s and there has been a massive increase in freight. That has all taken place over the past 10 years.

We are talking about a railway that is successful, but it still has problems. A very good report was published last month, called "Fares and Ticketing Study". When looking at it carefully, I found that it asked a lot of questions, one of which is: "What is the cost of a rail ticket?" The answer, of course, is that nobody knows. One day it is this, the next it is that, and if we look a bit later, we find the price has gone up again. I would like some sort of price list on the window at the station saying how much people will actually pay for a ticket. There is no doubt that the train companies are creating confusion, which is benefiting them.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) mentioned that people can get a £5 ticket, and I am sure he is right, but many of us believe that it is easier to win the lottery than to get such cheap tickets. We just do not know about them. There is no transparency, but there should be. We need transparency from the train companies. The Government did a lot of work simplifying the fares this summer, because they used to be even more complicated, but we need to know their true cost. We need a system whereby the difference between the highest price and the cheapest price is reduced.

On the Manchester to London line, there is now a fast, efficient train every 20 minutes. We almost have a system whereby someone can walk to the station, get the train and go - it does not matter if they miss one because they can catch the next one. However, people cannot do that because they would then have to pay the highest price, which penalises them. Even though we have a train every 20 minutes, people have to book, sometimes weeks in advance, to get a reasonable price.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a strong case for including in the franchise an obligation on the train operating company to offer the customer the very best value fare that is available, rather than, as is the case at the moment, the customer having to search hard to find that fare?

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I agree totally with my hon. Friend. For someone travelling from Carlisle to London, it may be cheaper to buy a single to Preston, and then one from Preston to Crewe, and then one to London. That makes no sense. If British Rail did one thing, it was to tell people the price of a ticket, and they knew what they were paying for. That is not now the case. The Government tried to simplify matters, but we have to go return to this issue and give people reasonable value for money.

The Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, made pertinent references to the price of the tickets. I am not sure that any of us in this Chamber have yet said that we should increase the subsidy. If we are to reduce the price, or keep it the same, we can do two things: we can increase the subsidy or we can reduce the amount of investment in the railways. The latter would be a major problem for us. It could easily be done and nobody would notice. My understanding is that the Conservative policy is to build a high-speed line from existing resources. That would mean that the maintenance of the rest of the line and the upgrade of the rest of the railways would be reduced - it is a sleight of hand. We need to decide among ourselves whether there will be extra subsidy, or whether money will come from the fare box.

During the previous debate, I made the point that there are parts of the country - my constituency is one - where people rarely use the train. Unlike London, their public transport system is made up of buses, and in urban areas those buses are not subsidised. In the big commuter areas, fares are considerably subsidised. If we are saying to my constituents, who might get on a train once or twice a year, that they should pay more subsidy to the railways so that other people will benefit, we should make that clear. But people should remember that not everybody uses a train very often.

I am conscious that I am coming to the end of my time. We have a railway that we can be proud of, but we are reaching a point where we are going to hit major problems. To get out of the recession and overcome the problems that the rail companies have, we will have to put in more subsidy. What we must not do is lose track of what we are about: creating a better railway for the future. We will get over this recession. We may have to put more money in, and perhaps later we can take it out again, but we should not start making major cuts that would mean we did not have a railway that was fit for purpose when we came out of the recession.

8.07 p.m.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Will my hon. Friend give way on the issue of the high-speed link between Manchester and Leeds?

Graham Stringer: I want to make four or five points, then I will give way.


Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Obviously, I do not agree with my hon. Friend about where the railway line should go, but that is not the point that I want to make. He said that a line between Manchester and Leeds would be good for the environment. I believe that that is a myth, because conventional trains use much less energy than a high-speed train, and nobody catches a plane from Manchester to Leeds. A high-speed line may have many benefits, but not environmental benefits.

Graham Stringer: Carbon dioxide costs become negative at over 200 mph approximately. There is a big change around point at that speed. Of course, very few people fly between Leeds and Manchester, but having a route the whole length of the country would take some passengers off aeroplanes.

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