HL Deb 19 April 1999 vol 599 cc933-6

2.43 p.m.

Lord Berkeley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to comply with Section 4 of the Railways Act 1993 in considering proposed new passenger train services from train operators; for example, from East Anglia to the south-west and north-west of London.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, decisions on approving access rights for new passenger services are a matter for the rail regulator. In deciding whether to approve rights the regulator will have regard to his duties under Section 4 of the Railways Act 1993, including the promotion of competition and the carriage of both passengers and freight by rail. In all cases other operators affected by a proposal will be consulted.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his helpful reply, I declare an interest as adviser to Adtranz. Is the Minister aware of proposals by GB Railways to run passenger services between Chelmsford and Basingstoke to create a kind of east-west Thameslink? Will my noble friend put pressure on the regulator and Railtrack, who I believe have the duty to provide capacity, to ensure that these services start as soon as possible?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, this is primarily a matter for the rail regulator. I understand he has indicated his belief, based on the evidence presented to him so far, that the proposed Ipswich to Basingstoke service would provide a range of new services and satisfy local and national transport needs. He has encouraged Anglia together with Railtrack to develop this service and other aspects of Anglia's proposals to a stage where they are capable of detailed examination. At the same time, he has urged full consultation with other affected operators.

Lord Cadman

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Government's procrastination with regard to the introduction of north of London Eurostar services to the regions is a contravention of this section of the Act?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not agree. The term "procrastination" should not be applied to a proper assessment of the facts. The Government have sought a further consultancy as to the viability of those potential regional Eurostar services north of London.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the major reason for privatisation of railway services was that British Rail was inefficient and that privatisation would provide a much better, cheaper and more reliable service? I understand that latest reports show that the services provided by the private organisations are worse than they were under British Rail. Is not the corollary of that the bringing back of railway services into full public ownership?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the reasons for what I have previously described in this House as a rushed and botched privatisation by the previous administration are not really matters for me. Certainly they claimed that privatisation would lead to greater efficiency. It is quite clear that while there is variable performance among rail operators efficiency as a whole has not significantly improved. My noble friend is probably referring specifically to the report which appeared in the media in the past few days related to Railtrack's performance in terms of the delay to trains and its policies on maintenance and renewal. That is primarily a matter for the regulator. But we have asked the regulator to look at the way in which Railtrack receives public subsidy. Once the regulator has reported we shall decide on the way ahead to deliver the rail system that passengers and operators deserve. Clearly we would prefer not to be starting from here. Nevertheless, we are determined to make this system work. The establishment of a strategic rail authority as foreseen by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister will lead to a more strategic approach to the railway system even under private ownership.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whatever one may say about privatisation—it has its defenders and critics—the number of rail passenger users has risen, almost for the first time since privatisation, and fares have risen by statute by no more than the rate of inflation, whereas in the days of British Rail they went up remorselessly by more than inflation every year?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am interested to hear that privatisation has its supporters, although they are not very vocal at the moment, in commenting generally on the system. There has been some improvement in services. The aim of the Government's strategic approach to railways is to bring the whole of the railway network up to and beyond the performance of the best. That is why we need a strategic approach, which is so sadly lacking, even if one accepts privatisation as a principle for running a railway.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will my noble friend take steps to improve the rail services from North to South Wales; otherwise, there will be nobody in the new Assembly?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that greater attention to the Welsh transport infrastructure as a result of the creation of the Assembly will benefit railway transport as well as the transport system in Wales in general.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, to return to the original Question, does the noble Lord agree that the development of cross-country services is a very good step in reducing the amount of unnecessary travel by car? Can the Minister say whether the advent of a strategic rail authority will enable the regulatory functions in relation to Railtrack's role in the development of the rail system to be performed more enthusiastically? If so, when can we expect the strategic rail authority to begin to carry out those functions?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I believe that the establishment of the strategic rail authority, even in its pre-legislative form, will increase the pressure on all operators within the industry to perform and will give greater strength to the regulator.

Putting the strategic rail authority on a statutory basis will depend to some extent on progress on other legislation. The Bill to do so will be produced by the department shortly and will indicate the direction in which our policy is going.

Cross-country services will not only benefit the rail network but they will also reduce pressures on the roads. That is also a serious strategic objective of our policy.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, following the supplementary question from the official spokesman from the Opposition, is it possible for the Minister to give noble Lords some details of the subsidies that go to rail at present?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord in overall detail, adding up all forms of subsidy. Subsidies go to Railtrack via the rail operators, to freight rail and to particular services. It may be of benefit to my noble friend and the spokesperson for the Opposition if we spell out the degree to which the public finances still effectively support the railway system in this country.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I invite the Minister to answer the question posed by his noble friend Lord Stoddart of Swindon; namely, if the railways are now that bad, and were that good when they were nationalised, why do not the Government re-nationalise them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we inherited the state of the railways.

Noble Lords


Lord Whitty

My Lords, the railway franchises were given out for a period of seven or 14 years. It is the intention of this Government to make those franchises work if possible. If it is not possible to do so under the current franchising system, clearly other solutions have to be sought. However, our immediate intent is to make those franchises work to the benefit of passengers.