§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]9.30 am
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
I am sure that I do not need to tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the past few months have been miserable ones for rail travellers in the south-west. The post-Hatfield investigation of gauge corner cracking and the worst floods on record have conspired to make railway disruption in the south-west the worst in the country.
Thanks to the engineering genius of Brunel, we in the south-west enjoy one of the best railway services in the country. In 1904, ours were the first trains to exceed 100 mph. Since the introduction of the InterCity 125 trains in the 1970s, it has been possible to travel between my Exeter constituency and London in two hours. The Minister will know that a travelling time of two hours to or from London is an important factor in business and investment.
Since Hatfield, we have been lucky to complete journeys between London and Exeter in three hours, and between London and Plymouth in four. Hardly a week has gone by without some stretch of the line between Paddington and Penzance being closed by Railtrack and passengers being shunted off the trains and on to buses. The main line between Exeter and Taunton is closed yet again this week, and next week it will be closed once more. On Monday, the important branch line between Exeter and north Devon was reopened for the first time since the floods in October. It was open for four hours. Deadlines were given after Hatfield, assuring us when the work would be finished: the first end date was December, followed by January, then Easter; it is now clear that the service will not be back to normal until well after that.
I recently attended a public meeting in Axminster, which is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery)—not exactly a bastion of socialism. The member of the audience who called for the re-nationalisation of the railways received the best applause of the evening. I do not want to go into that argument here, as it has been well rehearsed elsewhere. I mention it merely to illustrate the depth of frustration and anger among ordinary west country people at the quality of service that they have been offered by the railways in recent months.
I have in the past accepted the argument that it would be a waste of taxpayers' money further to line the pockets of the privatised railways by buying them back, especially as that money could be used for investment. However, to quote a former Conservative Minister, I believe that Railtrack is drinking in the last chance saloon. I hope that the Minister agrees.
236WH That is the sorry background to the debate. My reason for requesting it now is a recent decision made by First Great Western, which provides the inter-city service between London and the south-west, that will make matters even worse. Great Western, as most of us call the company, agreed some time ago to introduce a new half-hourly high-speed service between Cardiff and London. At some time in the past few months—we do not know when—the company became concerned that the new rolling stock that had been ordered for that service would not be delivered in time for the service to start in May, as scheduled. Rather than delay the introduction of the new Cardiff service, Great Western decided to take some of the high-speed trains that serve the south-west and use them on the Cardiff to London route. We in the south-west will have to put up with the old 1960s locomotives.
Coming on top of what we have suffered in the past few months, that decision is staggering. Great Western says that it was encouraged to make that change by the Strategic Rail Authority, because a failure to introduce the new Cardiff service on time would have been a breach of contract, which would have resulted in the company being fined. However, the introduction of the old 1960s trains in the south-west will mean a failure to meet maximum journey times, therefore a breach of contract will occur and, one assumes, fines will be levied.
The company and the Strategic Rail Authority say that only a small number of services will be affected, but that is simply not true. All services, including those still provided by the high-speed trains, will be slower to accommodate the slower 1960s locomotives in the timetable. Great Western's decision has been such a public relations disaster for the company in the south-west that the only possible reason for its being made is that the fine that would be levied for failing to introduce the new Cardiff service on time is by far the greater one. In effect, the travelling public in the south-west are being asked to make a further sacrifice to help Great Western out of a problem elsewhere.
What are we being offered in return? Free tea and coffee as we trundle along on the old, slow trains. Seriously, that is how Great Western representatives said that the company intended to compensate south-west passengers when they attended a meeting of the region's Labour Members of Parliament here at Westminster last month. As my excellent local paper, the Express and Echo, put it in a front-page editorial this week:The cost to individuals and businesses in terms of their time alone far exceeds the value of elevenses.I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that that offer simply added insult to injury.
Throughout this sorry saga, it has been extremely difficult to get straight answers to straight questions from either Great Western or the SRA. I am still waiting for replies to letters written a month ago. However, Great Western wrote to me last week, kindly inviting me to inspect the old 1960s rolling stock at Milton Keynes. The visit, which is scheduled to take all day, includes a buffet lunch. I have nothing against Milton Keynes, and I am sure that the food on offer would be delicious, but if Great Western honestly thinks that Members of Parliament have the time to go on a day trip to Milton Keynes to look at 40-year-old rolling stock, that says 237WH something about the company's grasp on reality. I am 40, so I remember the 1960s trains extremely well from my childhood.
My fellow west country Members of Parliament and I want simple answers to simple questions. How much would Great Western have been fined for delaying the introduction of the new Cardiff service? How much will it be fined for breaching its maximum journey times in the south-west? Does the SRA not recognise that all our trains—not just those that will exceed their maximum journey time—will be slower? What efforts have been made by Great Western to recover its losses from the company that has failed to deliver the new rolling stock on time? If such a provision was not written into the contract, why not? How much money is being allocated to compensate passengers in the south-west, who are again being asked to bear the brunt of other people's mistakes? To what extent has the SRA been standing up for passengers? So far it seems to be more concerned about making life easy for the train operating company than for its passengers.
When Great Western representatives met Labour Members of Parliament, we asked about the wider issue of post-Hatfield compensation. Hon. Members will be aware that Virgin Trains, which also runs trains in the south-west, has been offering half fares in recognition of the disruption that passengers have suffered since Hatfield. I have already mentioned Great Western's bad joke about free tea and coffee for passengers on the old trains; well, the company told us that it intended, as part of a wider post-Hatfield package, to offer ticket reductions to some off-peak leisure travellers. That is totally inadequate; it is not the leisure traveller but the regular traveller who is not a season ticket holder who has suffered most since Hatfield, yet such travellers stand to get absolutely nothing from Great Western's proposed compensation package.
Just in case hon. Members feel that they have not heard enough, in the past few days I have been told that First Great Western is planning to cut the number of services on which it offers restaurant facilities. I have written to the company for clarification. In addition, I learned from a recent article in Rail magazine that First Great Western is seeking a two-year extension of its current franchise from the SRA. Unless the company undertakes a rapid rethink of the way it treats the people of south-west England, that will be unacceptable.
There are many reasons to feel hopeful about the medium and long-term future of rail services in the south-west. Railtrack and the rail companies have exciting investment plans for the region. We can expect faster services between Exeter and London to be introduced in a few years' time. Beyond Exeter, down to Penzance, even more time will be gained, owing to the new generation of tilting trains that can handle the bends of Devon and Cornwall much better. There is a prospect of more branch lines and stations being opened, and we can expect long overdue investment as well as improvements to the Exeter-Waterloo line. A railway renaissance in the south-west is in prospect. We need that desperately if our economic prospects are to continue to improve.
238WH None the less, the current situation is dire. The appalling rail services of the past few months, coupled with the devastating impact of foot and mouth, are beating the stuffing out of the region. Tourism—our most important industry—has already been affected by the state of the trains, and it now stands on the brink because of foot and mouth. In the past few years, Devon and Cornwall have had much to boast about economically, including record investment and employment. However, if we are to sustain that record, we can ill afford the impact on our transport infrastructure of the chaos of the past few months. On behalf of all the people of the south-west, I suggest that it is time for the Minister to get together with his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and do what he does best—bang some heads together.
It would be an understatement if I were to say that the managements of First Great Western, Railtrack and the SRA have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the past few months. By way of an aside, may I ask whether it is really acceptable that it is impossible to get anyone at those organisations to answer the telephone after 5.30 pm? All three have shown scant regard—nay, contempt—for the people whom they are supposed to serve: the travelling public. Their recent performance does not give me confidence that they can bring about the railway revival that the country and the Government want, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can persuade me otherwise.
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
I am sure that all hon. Members present congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on being imaginative and fortunate enough to secure a one-and-a-half-hour debate this morning I should really call the hon. Gentleman my hon. Friend, because I have known him since he was 12. His family have a home in my constituency not far from where I used to live. I pay tribute to his growth and development and to his ability, now that he has reached the age of 40, to make such a splendid speech. I knew when I saw him at the age of 12 that he had a great future ahead of him.
All those who work and live in the west country and those of us with constituencies there are sadly aware that the hon. Gentleman's speech was spot on. It is extremely unfortunate that his description of the situation is so accurate. It is not only rail that has been devastated. The Automobile Association has said:The South West…remains remote and isolated. Expenditure per kilometre of local roads is the lowest of any region of England.I am glad of the debate because it enables me to voice my concern about the transport network and transport infrastructure into the west country. I am not interested in blaming the Government, but in making them aware of the problems. I ask the Minister to look to the future and to find solutions. The debate provides an opportunity, not to ascribe blame, but to lay down markers as to ways in which we might resolve the problems.
The need for new railway lines is a major issue. I am a great train buff who wonders at Brunel's imagination in building a magnificent and scenic rail route between Exeter and Plymouth. The feat of engineering involved 239WH in driving that railway along the cliffs above the sea is amazing. In the past few years, Dawlish has suffered the effects of global warming: the encroaching sea constantly buffets the embankment there, damaging the track and necessitating regular closure. Railtrack has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds to shore up the gaps, but we know what will happen—King Canute did not succeed either. The sea will win when it wants to: not only will it destroy the track at Dawlish, but it will cut off the whole of the west country from main line traffic.
The Dawlish line is now the only one into Newton Abbot, Totnes, Plymouth and all stations to Penzance. Before the Beeching cuts, there was track between Exeter and Okehampton which continued to Plymouth. The Government must consider the introduction of new track before the sea washes away the existing structure. The area suffers damage from causes other than the sea; a few months ago an 80-tonne rock fell on the track at Teignmouth, which again caused the closure of the rail link near Dawlish. That incident was attributed to the change in rainfall patterns.
While I do not blame the Minister, I urge him to press Railtrack and all those involved in transport to plan a new route into Devon and Cornwall. I suggested—not without meeting the criticism that is typical in this country, especially from Liberal Democrats—the building of a new track alongside the A38 between Plymouth and Exeter. The two-hour mark is important between the capital and principal cities, but the two-and-a-half-hour mark is equally important. It should be possible to get from Plymouth to London in two and a half hours if new track were built through Haldon Hill, along the A38, straight into Plymouth. I am not wedded to that exact route, but I am wedded to the opening up of the west country. I want a commercial growth corridor to develop between Bristol and Plymouth that is as important as the existing London to Bristol corridor.
An increasing number of companies will not contemplate relocating in the west country because of the transport infrastructure. One company in my constituency is building an extension in Texas, because the work force and the transportation there are better than it can hope to find if it builds a factory in Totnes. A first-rate public transport infrastructure for the region is long overdue.
The Government might be concerned, as I am, about the multimodal study that was set up some two years ago to examine transport needs in the south-west. Rumour has it that there has not yet been a report, and that when it comes its proposed solution to our transport problems will be tolls on roads, no more rail, no more new roads and the focus of the west country to concentrate on Bristol rather than Plymouth and Exeter. I hope that the Minister will tell us that I am hopelessly wrong and that the multimodal study, whatever it is—it sounds like something from science fiction—will provide a more imaginative solution.
I have given the general background to the west country's appalling infrastructure problem in terms of road and rail. The future of rail is tenuous, and I shall give some vivid examples to support the hon. Member for Exeter. I am a great train user. I used to be a great plane user, having spent a long time in the aviation industry as lawyer, passenger and adviser to several airlines. I was persuaded by First Great Western to 240WH change my habits and no longer fly from Plymouth to London. My decision to go by train was also influenced by British Airways, which packed in the Heathrow link and flew to Gatwick instead without stopping at Exeter any more.
The beauty of the night train is that one can board a train at Paddington and stay in the compartment at Plymouth until 7.30. It disturbs one's sleep patterns to be called out at about 5 am in one's pyjamas and told that the coach will no longer come off at Plymouth and that one will have to travel on to Penzance or get off immediately. Several passengers, including me, found ourselves standing on the platform with our suitcases in our pyjamas and shoes on bare feet as the sleeper went straight down to Penzance. That became a regular feature of sleeper travel until I drew it to the attention of the excellent managing director of First Great Western, of whom I cannot speak highly enough. The trouble is that his railway has some problems, which I am sure that he is tackling.
Having stopped the Plymouth sleeper, there is now no hot water due to a problem controlling it. When people pressed the button, they either scalded themselves or the water came out cold. As the company does not want passengers burned, there is now only cold water. It reminds me of my school days, but at 6 am I would prefer not to be reminded of them. In addition, there is no heating. The company has decided that it is bad for passengers. Not surprisingly, I am now sometimes the only person in that sleeper coach. I understand why.
The former managing director of West Country Television keeps me advised of his transport movements. Since his company was taken over by Carlton he can afford to go by train, so he was travelling up from Plymouth on the 8.20 am train last Monday. He rang me at 14.20hrs, having reached only Reading after a six-hour journey. I make that journey regularly and I can confirm that it now takes longer to travel from London to Plymouth than it did in the 1930s.
We should go back to the 1930s—get rid of Railtrack and First Great Western and have some steam engines back. For steam engine buffs such as me, there are two lines in my constituency, one between Buckfastleigh and Totnes and the other linking Kingswear, Churston, Paignton and Torquay. Why not go back to the age of steam? It cannot be worse than our experience under First Great Western. The rolling stock is 25 years old. As the hon. Member for Exeter said, instead of its being repaired, we shall be given a tour of the coaches at Wolverton and shown how wonderful they are. I have always wanted to go to Wolverton. I am told that it is near Milton Keynes.
Travelling first class to Plymouth by train is more expensive than flying Apex to Gibraltar. It costs more to travel first class to Plymouth than to travel to any European city on an excursion return ticket with a major airline. A first-class ticket to Plymouth costs £176—and the price seems to go up by the day. When one buys a ticket at Paddington station, one expects to travel by train; if one wants to go by bus, one buys a ticket at Victoria coach station for about a quarter of the price of a rail ticket. However, every time I buy a rail ticket, I find myself travelling by bus. I sometimes wonder whether buying a bus ticket would result in one ending up travelling by rail.
241WH First Great Western says that one of the problems of investing in new rolling stock is that its franchise is not long enough and that a 20-year franchise is needed to make such an investment pay. I hope that the Minister will consider that point seriously, whichever company takes on the franchise. I wish to declare an interest: I am a shareholder in First Great Western—but it has been a very bad investment.
I am sure that the Minister has got the message from me and from the hon. Member for Exeter, although the hon. Gentleman's message is slightly different from mine. I am a great supporter of the railways, of the managing director of First Great Western and of the west country. We must ensure that we have the right infrastructure and that Railtrack and First Great Western deliver a proper 21st-century service to the people of the west country.
§ Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on achieving this important debate. Transport is necessary to all Members of Parliament, to allow us to travel between Westminster and our constituencies, but it is especially important to those of us who live in the further-flung constituencies.
As we often have to be in two or three places at once, it would useful to have a TARDIS, and I wonder whether the Minister would consider investing in some research and development along those lines. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) said that the multimodal transport study sounded rather like science fiction. Perhaps that is what we need. We certainly need to look to the future for transport in the south-west, and I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman mention some of the long-term strategic solutions.
The matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter are pressing. He referred to the frustration and anger felt by his constituents, but those emotions are felt more deeply the further west one goes. When the outrageous suggestion was made that we in the south-west should use old rolling stock and that south Wales should have the benefit of our already fairly old rolling stock, the reaction of my constituents in Plymouth was one of extreme anger.
My fine local evening newspaper, the Evening Herald, reported that Kimberly Watts-Fitzsimmons, a 19-year-old student from Plymouth who had been planning to catch a train to Southampton, had decided not to make the journey because of reports of delays and disruption. She told the reporter that she would not have felt certain of reaching the end of her journey. She said:Replacing the trains with older models is so typical down here. It is as if Devon and Cornwall are not important.That attitude is reflected in the outrageous suggestion made by First Great Western at the presentation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter referred that a free cup of tea would fit the bill.
The Minister knows that transport is at the top of the agenda of the business community in the south-west. I shall use my few minutes to refer to a representation made by a business man who uses the Plymouth to 242WH Paddington line several times a week to take him to his business in London. He was kind enough to send me a copy of the letter he sent to the managing director of First Great Western, in which he says:We in Plymouth have survived the problems during the three months ending December"—which affected the whole country—but these are now compounded by matters which I am sure are under the control of First Great Western.He wrote the letter on 12 February, but when I rang him just before this debate, he informed me that he had not yet received a reply. That speaks volumes about the company's attitude to a very good customer who probably spends considerably more than £10,000 a year on rail fares. That customer continues:We do understand, and appreciate, the disruption caused by the flooding and the apparently defective tracks.Many people were willing to put up with that disruption for quite a long time. I saw the effects of it when I visited the national rail inquiry service, where several hundred people in my constituency were valiantly trying to give out information so that both business people and others could make sense of the journeys that they had to make.
However, the business man goes on to say:What is making us extremely angry is the fact that even when travelling by bus from Plymouth to Tiverton Parkway we are required to pay a First Class Fare for this part of the journey both to and from Tiverton Parkway and are then presented with rolling stock on which there are little or no buffet facilities and minimal staff on duty.He describes how in February he madea profoundly unfortunate decision in travelling First Class from Plymouth to Paddington on Wednesday morning leaving Plymouth at 0730 hours. It is obvious from the 'special timetable' that the service between Plymouth and Exeter is now treated as a 'local' service since it stops not only at Newton Abbot and Totnes but also at Teignmouth and Dawlish. On leaving Exeter the train was supposed to stop at Tiverton Parkway, Taunton, Bristol, Swindon, Reading and Paddington. In fact, we also stopped at Bath, Chippenham, Didcot Parkway, Maidenhead and Slough"—all familiar to those of us who use the line—each time spending precious minutes, although the train was already running 20 minutes late, sitting in stations for no apparent reason other than I assume, to generate additional revenue. The most annoying aspect of this journey was the total lack of stores for the buffet since apparently they had not been ordered the previous day.So much for the offer of tea and coffee, which is ironic. He concludes his description of the journey thus:Instead of arriving at Paddington at 1209 we ultimately arrived at approximately 12.50!That man goes on to refer to the company's plans to transfer all the high-speed trains from the Penzance line, but I shall not go into detail, because other hon. Members have already done so. He says that the lack of information provided to regular customers such as him is "intolerable and dishonest". He has spoken to several other first-class and standard-class passengers and says that regular commuters now refer to the company as "the late Great Western".
The train is essential to that man's everyday business. He was looking forward to an early reply and explanation from the company, but has not yet received one. Instead, he has had a reply from the rail passenger committee, which says that it will be interesting to see First Great Western's response to his comments on 243WH first-class bus travel. I will also be interested to see it, because the company urgently needs to address that matter. The committee refers to changes and possible improvements in the refreshment facilities. Free cups of tea and coffee all round may be appropriate, but will certainly not be sufficient
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Perhaps the free cups of tea and coffee will give him some company for a short period, but he will have to do much more than that to have a viable business with customers.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the attention that he has given to my representations on behalf of constituents, particularly in connection with the deployment of high-speed trains, with which he will, no doubt, deal in his reply. I shall not go into the details of the rail passenger committee's comments, but I draw to his attention its reservation about whether the deployment of the old type 47 trains will give us an adequate service. In its letter to the business man whom I have quoted, the committee writes that itsgreatest fear is that an inadequate number of additional trainsets has been leased, with the result that even the reduced, slower, service will not in practice be maintained: there is literally no other main line rolling stock to be obtained, as it simply does not exist; all the more modern stock is fully utilised somewhere on the network. Given that 15 coach trains were once operated to Plymouth, pulled by 2 locos, there seems to be no excuse for overcrowding, but, if an inadequate amount of additional, albeit elderly, stock has been leased your fears may well be realised"—that is, the fears of the business man that the company will not provide the type of service that it claims is possible, even with the elderly rolling stock.
I understand from the response of the rail passenger committee to the business man that Mr. Christopher Irwin, the chairman of the committee, has it in mind to conduct a public mid-franchise review of First Great Western later this year, and he urges the man to make his views known at that time. I in turn urge my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that that mid-term review takes place, perhaps sooner rather than later. In connection with the fears of the rail passenger committee about whether the plans will in the interim give us a proper service in the south-west, I also urge my hon. Friend to impress upon the company that cups of tea are not good enough and that it must consider giving far more significant compensation, particularly in respect of the replacement bus, service that is such a frequent occurrence, especially for passengers from the Plymouth area.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
Order. I am pleased to say that, following a decision made in the House last night, four of us who chair business in Westminster Hall can now be called Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I apologise for that oversight. It gives me great pleasure to be able to refer to you as Mr. Deputy Speaker, Mr. Winterton.
244WH My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment announced this morning that unemployment has fallen to less than 1 million for the first time since the 1970s. A few people may be looking with anxiety to the future of their jobs—and so they should, if they work in some of the companies that are providing such poor service to our constituents. I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend's response to the points that have been made this morning.
§ 10.9 am
§ Mr. David Drew (Stroud)
I am delighted to take part in the debate, although I shall speak briefly because I do not want to intrude on the private grief of the south-west. We in Gloucestershire have our own difficulties, to which my hon. Friend the Minister has responded on a previous occasion, but I want to update the story and ask him to take the matter forward.
The issue of the railways is currently a difficult one for anyone who takes an interest in it, as we have been through a difficult year. I am pleased to say that my local service is almost back to normality, but we have, in effect, lost a year, as some of the proposals announced for last April have yet to take effect. We have had some pleasing news from First Great Western and from Virgin Trains, which wants to run a train through to Birmingham from Swindon—my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) is sitting next to me. We look forward to that service starting soon. However, we have lost a year, which is disappointing. Passenger numbers seem to be back up, but we have clearly not made progress.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make a state of the nation announcement about the services that have been promised. That would be pertinent, given that the refranchising process has begun. By chance, I had a quick word with Mike Taplin of Gloucestershire county council last week. He is worried about the speed at which refranchising is taking place and, in particular, about the role of the Strategic Rail Authority. As a result of hearing his concerns, I tabled some questions asking for clarification about what is happening, with particular reference to the Wessex franchise, which has caused some concern. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who introduced the debate—I congratulate him on doing so—nodding at that. Those of us who are not central to the Wessex deliberations but are affected by them none the less want to know whether there is serious bidding and whether we will get an improvement in the service rather than the deterioration that some of us fear.
My main reason for rising is to repeat my concerns about a serious lacuna in transport provision in the south-west. The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) has already referred to the south-west multimodal study of services between London and the south-west. I think that it is now lovingly referred to as SWARMS. I dread Hansard asking me what SWARMS stands for, as I am not sure who is swarming over our public transport system. Some of us are concerned about the way in which the railways figure in that study.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) spoke about the need for targets. I think that there is a black hole in Gloucestershire, down which the county disappears for the purposes of the 245WH multimodal study. To some extent, I am prepared to accept that in respect of roads, as I have strong views about whether we should build roads, but I would welcome comments from my hon. Friend the Minister about the strategy for the rail system, perhaps with reference to the august body that I mentioned.
I make no apology for mentioning once again the need to redouble the tracks between Kemble and Swindon on the Cheltenham-Swindon line, as doing so is key to the development of business opportunities. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton said that her local business people are keen on the development of the railways in the south-west, particularly in Gloucestershire. The Confederation of British Industry has identified the need to improve the line between Cheltenham and Swindon as the most important factor in holding back business development in the area, and general customers agree, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to re-examine the proposals. I know that, at long last, discussions are taking place behind the scenes, and I have managed to work with Mike Obst of Gloucestershire county council to push redoubling up the transport planning and political agenda.
People have been frustrated and disappointed in their attempts to get trains running and to improve services. I have tried to meet Railtrack, the SRA and the train operating companies, with mixed success. It is most disappointing to find that they do not even talk to one another—or, if they do, they come back with slightly different messages, which is unacceptable. Will my hon. Friend the Minister kickstart proper discussions to ensure that we have a 21st-century rail service that can actually move people around? Such discussions would enable those in my parochial backyard to see that our rail service could be useful and something of which we are genuinely proud.
§ Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on securing today's debate. I should declare an interest as a small shareholder in the South Devon and Torbay Steam Railway Society, which gives me a dividend of roughly £2 a year, on which I pay about 40p in tax.
There are three railway lines or routes into the far south-west, which I will split into the London to Exeter and the Exeter thereon parts. First, there is the front-door route, which is the old Brunel route from Paddington via Westbury to Exeter. Secondly, there is the side-door Paddington to Exeter via Bristol line, which train operators have been using recently to project that they are adding more services, whereas in fact they are merely increasing journey times to London from the south-west, which makes them less useful, and adding more London to Bristol services. Thirdly, there is the back-door line—the old Southern Railway route from Waterloo to Exeter—on which some operators go beyond Exeter. There is a daily service from Paignton and from Penzance to Waterloo. The service from Exeter to the rest of the county includes several branch lines—the Barnstaple, Exmouth and Torbay branch lines—and the rest of the main line to Plymouth.
There is a wonderful opportunity for competition in a privatised railway service because of the alternative routes in and out of the region. The problem is that the 246WH infrastructure on all routes is old and decrepit and that necessary investment is taking place on only the side-door route, which is the route that we do not want because it is the least direct and has potentially the longest journey time. A number of old routes have fallen into disrepair: the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) mentioned the old route via Okehampton; there was another route past Exeter—an alternative to Newton Abbot—that went through the Teign valley and linked Christow, Ashburton and Buckfastleigh, but that is long gone, mostly built over and impossible to bring back. New routes that would speed up journey times have also been suggested. One is to take the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot through Haldon Hill to bypass the seaside route, which would be an extraordinarily expensive feat of engineering, but probably no more so in modern terms than Brunel's seaboard route.
The hon. Member for Totnes suggested bypassing that route all the way to Plymouth, but that would also bypass Totnes and the great railway town of Newton Abbot. In talks with Railtrack representatives on Monday about the possibility of such a plan, they said that it could be done. A feasibility study would be needed, the permission of all the landowners along the route would have to be sought and the councils involved would have to be consulted; then, assuming that a funding package could be assembled, such a scheme might be possible in three decades. It is a long-term proposal, which my constituents would oppose as we already lie on a branch line some distance from the main route. The hon. Gentleman's proposal would put us even further away from that route than we are now.
However, Railtrack assured me that the work being done on the coastal route between Exeter and Newton Abbot is both substantial and successful and should see the line safely through at least the next two decades. The foundations are being underpinned to prevent further slippage of the ballast upon which the rails rest, which can be breached in strong storm conditions. Thus, there is a future for that stretch of railway, which is considered by many in the west country to be our shop window—the starter for journeys into the west country that whets people's appetite for the rolling hills and the beauty further down the track. The important thing is to reduce journey times, to increase reliability and to ensure that there is a good, modern link with the capital.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
My hon. Friend will recall our discussion with Railtrack in which it was made clear that the long-term prospects of major rerouting in three decades—the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) may be prepared to wait for 30 years but most of us are not—ran the risk of diverting attention from action that is necessary now and of insufficient sums being spent on upgrading the route and tackling the various engineering difficulties throughout Cornwall. My hon. Friend, inadvertently, did not mention the route beyond Plymouth, which is extremely important. No doubt he will come to it in a moment.
§ Mr. Sanders
I certainly was going to mention it. My hon. Friend knows that to get anywhere else by rail, people in Cornwall must go through the beautiful county of Devon, so whatever happens there is crucial to the future of rail services the other side of the Tamar.
247WH The Government and the companies must consider the three options and decide which route to invest in. For example, there is more likely to be a future for the Paddington-Bristol line than for the Westbury line, which links only to Taunton. The Paddington-Bristol line goes on to Wales, or north to Gloucestershire and other destinations, or south into Somerset. There is more potential business in that line and a greater return on investment is likely.
The Waterloo line is the most overlooked. Large parts of the line between Yeovil junction and Exeter are single track because one part of the track was ripped up in a cost-cutting exercise about 20 years ago. If it was double-tracked, it would speed up journey times. If services could be introduced on a double-tracked line on the Waterloo route and the train became an express service after it had passed through Devon and Cornwall, journey times would be significantly reduced to the point where competition would be possible with the fastest times on the Paddington route. That sort of competition in the railway services linking Devon with the rest of the country would lend to an increase in passenger numbers and inward investment, and Adjournment debates such as this one would become unnecessary.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's response. As he knows from my correspondence about the need for a Kingskerswell bypass and improved road building on the A303-A30, which is still short of dual carriageway into the capital, the west country is poorly served by road as well as rail. The railway line north of Exeter has vulnerable points at Cowley bridge when the water rises too high and the bridge is closed to traffic, all rail services to most of Devon and all of Cornwall, except for the Waterloo link, are cut off. That line, too, is vulnerable where it is single tracked, because there are no passing points when a train breaks down. That route must be examined—
§ Mr. Steen
It will just be a quickie. I merely wanted to express my support for the hon. Gentleman's approach. I would willingly forgo my campaign for a new line between Exeter and Plymouth if existing services were improved. His views on Waterloo and Exeter are interesting and important: I agree entirely that competition is lacking.
§ Mr. Sanders
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The water here is always more pleasant than south-west water—and certainly a good deal cheaper. I shall end on that note.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
It is a pleasure to see you in your place chairing our proceedings today, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on initiating our important debate. We have heard a sorry catalogue of woe that has had a tremendous impact on the south-west which as a region 248WH has not been well treated by Governments of all political persuasions. Our local authority grants are less than other regions' and our road network attracts less investment.
The clear point emerging from this morning's debate is the economic impact of disruption to the rail network. From London, it is possible to reach Manchester and Leeds much quicker than parts of the south-west.
§ Mr. Syms
The economic prospects of the south-west are somewhat disparate. I represent one of the richer areas of the region, in south-east Dorset, and Wiltshire, too, is fairly well off, but as one moves westwards, especially as one passes into Cornwall, the problems of unemployment and deprivation become more apparent. Cornwall's picturesque scenery makes it is easy to forget how many problems need to be tackled in the county. Great attention is given to inner-city areas, but Cornwall has been deprived of the attention that it deserves given its economic prospects.
Lying at the end of the railway line adds to Cornwall's difficulty. The disruption that has been continuing for some months must have had an adverse impact on inward investment and on people with businesses in the south-west travelling to other areas to drum up business. It is a serious problem and I hope that the Minister will assure us today that things will get better.
The rail network has witnessed a tremendous 26 per cent. increase in passenger numbers in the past five years—due in part to privatisation and in part to rising GDP—which has put tremendous pressure on the network. Much of it is ageing after decades of under-investment, so it struggles to cope with the increase. Recent tragic accidents have led to a loss of confidence among both passengers and rail industry management. I will not describe it as over-reaction, but part of the fallout of the Hatfield crash is that the many repairs and speed reductions have made it extremely difficult for the network to provide anything like a normal service in any particular region. More recent difficulties, including the collision the other day and what looks like a genuine accident near Selby, have not helped the general situation. It is vital that the Government, the Strategic Rail Authority, the train operating companies and Railtrack do what they can to improve public confidence in a means of travel that remains comparatively safe. Rail is an industry of the future, not of the past. As I listened to the contributions today I reflected on the fact that if Isambard Kingdom Brunel were head of Railtrack, confidence would be higher and we would have made a great deal more progress.
There have been many good contributions today. When my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) started to reminisce about the childhood of the hon. Member for Exeter, I thought we might be treated to some stories, but we did not get that far. The hon. Member for Exeter set the general scene very well and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes described how it affects both him and other south-west Members of Parliament and their constituents. He talked about the difficulties of sleeper services, heating, water and ticket costs, and made a good point about buying tickets to travel on the train and finding himself on the bus and vice versa. It has been a good debate.
249WH The SRA made an announcement yesterday about its future plans. It unveiled a £60 billion overhaul of the railways, although it warned that it did not think that Railtrack had the financial and management capability to carry out much of what it regarded as the future. There has been press speculation about disagreements between Sir Alastair Morton and the Department, so the Minister might take this opportunity to express confidence in the Government's appointee. Hon. Members would be interested to hear any comments about that announcement and the impact that it may have.
The multimodal study has also been mentioned. This has been a wonderful Government for consultants. People have looked at problems, but they have not always come forward with solutions, even after four years of Labour Government. We shall look to the Minister for an indication of when the study will report and what solutions it might offer to the difficult traffic problems in the south-west. We need clear answers on those matters from the Minister.
There is no doubt that the disruption, particularly the problems with First Great Western, has greatly upset people in the south-west. Many hon. Members have full mailbags on the subject. In view of the assurances that had been given, I have asked Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions whether Easter will be the date for getting the rail network back to normal. Is that still the date or has it slipped again? A number of hon. Members pointed out that we were originally told December, then January and now Easter.
It is particularly important that we get the rail network back by Easter, because it is an important time of the year for the many people working in the tourist industry. Foot and mouth in rural areas is having a dreadful effect on the tourist industry. Until the rail network gets back to normal, those areas that are not affected by foot and mouth but that rely on tourism, such as Torquay and other places in the south-west, will be in difficulty. The Government must give assurances that the network will return to normal, that passengers can be confident that they will arrive at their destination at about the right time, and that the situation will improve, not worsen.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) on securing the debate on rail services between London and the south-west. I also congratulate him on the forcefulness and eloquence of his speech.
The debate has been unexpectedly wide-ranging and there have been many valuable contributions, several of which reflected the considerable concern that is felt in the south-west about transport. I am unable to respond to them in detail, as I must focus on the key issue of the redeployment of rolling stock on First Great Western services, but I will study the record of the debate in the Official Report and write, where possible, to hon. Members to respond to their questions.
250WH First, I must firmly rebut any suggestions that the Government have neglected the transport concerns of the south-west. In December 2000, we announced our local transport settlement, which awarded a doubling of investment to local transport in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset. That included major schemes such as the north corridor for the benefit of Plymouth, the western bypass for Barnstaple—
§ Mr. Hill
I will give way after I have concluded the roll of honour.
Taunton benefits from the north-west package scheme and Cornwall from the Camelford bypass. All those schemes have been warmly welcomed. I had the pleasure of visiting Plymouth and Taunton as part of the roll out of the announcements. Last week, I was in Cornwall to share in the county's celebration of its becoming the first county to receive a centre of transport excellence award. I also announced a £500,000 investment in bus projects in the county.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
I thank my hon. Friend for the investment in the northern corridor. During his recent visit to the south-west, he had a memorable experience of our air transport. I hope that he will continue to examine that important aspect of travel, as it is of particular importance to business travellers. It is crucial for business investment in Plymouth that our airport is extended.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The debate is about rail services rather than air services, but I am sure that the Minister will be able to slip in a response.
§ Mr. Hill
It was our recognition of the importance of those airport facilities that led to the announcement on the Plymouth north corridor transport scheme, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome for that news.
I was aware of the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter about the late delivery of new class 180 rolling stock, which has necessitated the transfer of rolling stock to the Cardiff route. I have corresponded with him on the issue, as has the SRA. The House is aware that the Government are unhappy with the performance of rolling stock manufacturers. Last year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister asked Sir Alastair Morton, the chairman of the SRA, to set up a pan-industry working group to identify and tackle the problems being encountered in bringing new stock into service. Although some progress has been made, the problems on Great Western show that there is much more to do.
I assure hon. Members that Ministers will continue to put pressure on rolling stock manufacturers and make it clear that their performance in delivering new stock is unacceptable. Manufacturers must ensure that they provide new stock on time and that it is reliable from the outset. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will soon meet rolling stock manufacturers and other key players in the rolling stock acceptance process to ensure that efforts to improve delivery times and reliability are redoubled.
§ Mr. Hill
In fact, few companies in the United Kingdom make rolling stock. Much of it is delivered by companies based in Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, and one problem is that the companies are unused to delivering new rolling stock to the British rail system. Notwithstanding the difficulties that we have experienced with the railway system in recent years, the problem is actually a positive reflection of the system's expansion, because new demands are being placed on rolling stock manufacturers.
There are also technical considerations. In carrying out trials, long lengths of track are required so that adequate speeds can be built up to test stock, but such track does not exist in this country—it is available in Switzerland, but not in the United Kingdom. We are working on the possibility of securing provision that would aid proper testing in advance of the delivery of rolling stock. The subject is an interesting one, and I dare say that the hon. Gentleman and I could discuss it at length, but I must return to the key issues that concern my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter.
As my hon. Friend knows, the transfer of rolling stock has been brought about by the delay in delivery of the class 180 rolling stock. As a result, First Great Western has been forced to implement contingency plans to enable it to meet franchise commitments. First Great Western has a franchise commitment to provide a half-hourly service from London to Cardiff via Bristol from May; currently, the service is hourly for most of the day. To meet the commitment, First Great Western will, as a stopgap, transfer to the Cardiff route some of its high-speed trains that are currently in use on services to the south-west. Locomotive-hauled carriages with class 47 locomotives will, in turn, be introduced as a stopgap on some services to the south-west.
Although it is clearly not ideal, the SRA has agreed to the transfer of rolling stock because it was thought to be the most appropriate way to enable First Great Western to meet its franchise commitments and minimise disruption to passengers. High-speed trains running at 125 mph are required on the Cardiff route to meet the commitment to a half-hourly service, which would not be possible using locomotive-hauled stock that has a maximum speed of only 95 mph. The two high-speed train sets that will be transferred will be used to provide eight services on the London to Cardiff route—four in each direction. First Great Western is able to provide the full timetable only by transferring stock.
§ Mr. Hill
With respect, I will not. Should the relatively limited time available allow, I shall return to the hon. Gentleman, because I want to talk about Waterloo.
The effect on services to the west of England will be relatively minor. At present, there are 16 services to Plymouth in the timetable, seven of which continue to Penzance; in the opposite direction, 14 services are provided, of which seven start at Penzance. Mathematicians in the Chamber will appreciate that that is a total of 30 services, most of which are operated 252WH by high-speed trains. Only two are operated by locomotive-hauled stock, and a further four services will be provided by locomotive-hauled stock from May; therefore, only six services out of the 30 in both directions will be locomotive-hauled. The stock is not a great deal older than the high-speed trains, and will be refurbished before it is introduced. As a result, the degree of comfort offered will be equal to if not better than on the high-speed trains currently in use. I also understand that First Great Western has invited representatives from several rail interest organisations to its depot at Wolverton to view the stock before and after refurbishment—indeed, the invitation has been extended to local Members of Parliament, and I dare say that the visit could be made without benefit of a buffet lunch.
Three out of the four services that will become locomotive-hauled from May will exceed the maximum journey time specified in the passenger service requirement: one will exceed it by 10 minutes, one by 12 minutes and one by 27 minutes, the last making three additional stops on the way to London, at Pewsey, Castle Cary and Newbury. The Strategic Rail Authority has granted First Great Western temporary derogations from the maximum journey times for those three services for the duration of the summer 2001 timetable.
The Strategic Rail Authority considers that First Great Western has made efforts to honour its franchise commitment to provide the half-hourly service to Cardiff despite the late delivery of new stock, and that the company has tried to minimise adverse effects on passengers. However, on the advice of the Strategic Rail Authority, First Great Western is considering compensating benefits for passengers in the south-west. I understand that it will release details shortly. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter that the compensation offered should constitute more than an occasional free lunch or a cup of coffee.
The locomotive-hauled stock will be kept on lease for two years. Therefore, even when it has been replaced, First Great Western will have it on the sidelines for use for special events or when other stock is unavailable.
§ Mr. Sanders
Why are the franchise requirements for the Cardiff service more important than those for the south-west?
§ Mr. Hill
I understand that key question and I did try to answer it. The answer in a nutshell is that to meet the franchise requirements for the Cardiff service, half-hourly services will be required from May. The services that First Great Western will be providing to the south-west comply with the passenger service requirements written into the contract for the south-west. First Great Western is not prioritising one service rather than another, but trying to comply with both contract requirements in terms of its franchise?
§ Mr. Bradshaw
I am extremely pleased to hear a suggestion that the offer of compensation may be about 253WH to be improved. Should not First Great Western compensate passengers for the full difference between the sum that the company would have been fined for breaking the Cardiff contract and the sum that it might be fined for breaking the south-west contract? Clearly, the first fine would have been much greater than the second will be. Furthermore, why do rail companies not write into their contracts with providers a provision that if rolling stock is late, compensation should be received? That compensation could be passed on to passengers, or, if necessary, the providers could be sued.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Will my hon. Friend also respond, either now or later, to the point made by the rail passengers committee in relation to whether sufficient rolling stock has been leased to maintain services as predicted?
§ Mr. Hill
I am not sure that I shall respond to that point in this debate, but I shall follow it up in writing.
I shall now explore the relationship between Ministers and the Strategic Rail Authority. During my brief parliamentary career, I have noticed that Ministers are generally required to intervene in practically every aspect of our society, economy and public policy, despite the desire often expressed by all political parties to roll back the frontiers of the state. However, neither Ministers nor the SRA have direct control over the deployment of rolling stock. Rail services are provided under a franchise agreement, compliance with which is monitored by the SRA, having regard to Ministers' directions and guidance. Franchise agreements typically specify the outputs that should be provided, such as the number and the quality of services, but they do not specify how a train operator must provide such outputs.
If rolling stock is fit for use—if it has the necessary safety acceptance—its deployment is a decision for the train operator. The SRA has the power to intervene only if there is a failure to meet contractual commitments. Such intervention includes the derogations agreed with First Great Western for the three services that exceed the permitted maximum journey times.
§ Mr. Tyler
Will the Minister confirm that he and the SRA will be prepared to intervene if the outcome of the change of arrangements that he has outlined—giving priority to Cardiff rather than the south-west—turns out to be even more disadvantageous to the south-west and the predicted journey times prove to be overly optimistic?
§ Mr. Hill
If the service outputs set out in franchise requirements are not met, the SRA has the right to intervene. Ministers will scrutinise the SRA's activities in such cases, especially in the light of the powerful passions that have been evinced in this debate. I congratulate all hon. Members from the south-west on their forceful observations on the matter, which I am certain will have been carefully noted by First Great Western.
254WH I emphasise that the substitution of the high-speed trains is a temporary measure. High-speed trains will be restored to west country services as new trains become available on the Cardiff route. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter is concerned about the service that is provided to his constituents, but it would be inappropriate to continue to criticise First Great Western on that matter given that, in truth, it is reacting to the failings of Alsthom Transport. I hope that my hon. Friend will draw some comfort from First Great Western's efforts to minimise disruption and inconvenience. I also hope that the debate acts as a timely reminder to Alsthom to deliver the new stock as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend and other hon. Members rightly raised the need for passengers to be adequately compensated for the disruption that they have suffered and, in some cases, continue to suffer. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomed the industry's announcement of two compensation packages worth £70 million for passengers whose journeys were severely disrupted by speed restrictions and flooding. Passengers who hold season tickets of a month or longer can claim up to four weeks' free travel. Weekly and daily ticket holders will be able to claim compensation under train operators' passenger charters. While disruptions continue I urge the industry to consider all compensation claims sympathetically and to deal with them quickly, but compensation packages alone cannot make up for delays and inconvenience experienced by passengers. Train operators must work hard to rebuild passenger confidence and I urge them to consider other ways to attract passengers back on to the railways.
I look to the future of train services in the south-west. I am pleased that a number of improvements to such services are in the pipeline. First Great Western will introduce 40 new vehicles later in the year, with a further 30 to be introduced next year. I understand that Railtrack and the SRA are assessing various options for improving the Great Western main line, focusing on the relief of bottlenecks on the route, which are a significant cause of delays. That work should bring tangible improvements for passengers in the south-west.
As for the franchise replacement process, the replacement of the current short franchises is essential to the delivery of a better railway. The SRA has already begun a programme of franchise replacements to put in place new contracts that will facilitate the achievement of those goals. Franchise replacement aims to secure a sustained improvement in performance and a step change in customer service through increased levels of investment. The SRA is working to replace the shorter term franchises, but has not ruled out replacing the longer term franchises, of which Great Western is one, should the opportunity arise.
Earlier this month, the SRA announced that seven companies and consortiums had prequalified to submit proposals for the new Wessex franchise, which will comprise services currently provided by Wales and West Passenger Trains in the west country and some of the services provided by South West Trains, including the line from Waterloo to Exeter referred to by the hon. Member for Torbay. The SRA has stated that one of the key objectives of the Wessex franchise is to increase track capacity on that line to enable a more frequent service to be run, thus providing an alternative to the 255WH busy A303 and the Great Western main line. The seven bidders will now submit proposals to the SRA for consideration. The authority is encouraging those parties to consult local partners so that their aspirations can be taken into account in formulating bids.
South West Trains' franchise is also subject to replacement negotiations and the SRA is considering the best and final offers of three parties. It has stated that providing relief for capacity constraints on the approach to Waterloo is a prerequisite for the replacement of the franchise. However, with the transfer of the Exeter-Waterloo service to the Wessex franchise, the franchisee will no longer provide long-distance services to the south-west. I understand that a decision on the preferred bidder is expected shortly.
In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter and other hon. Members are encouraged by the planned improvements to rail services to the south-west. As today's debate has shown, there is still some way to go before we can achieve our vision for the railways set out in our 10-year plan for transport. The legacy of years of neglect cannot be turned around overnight, but through the Transport Act 2000, the establishment of the SRA and the £60 billion that we have earmarked for the railways, a framework has been put in place to turn that vision into reality.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
That decision does not lie entirely with me. If the hon. Gentleman wants to address the House for the second time, he may do so only with the permission of the House as a whole. Is the House in accord?
§ Mr. Steen
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House for giving me the opportunity to speak for another two minutes. I do not expect the Minister to reply, but I ask him, in the spirit of support for all who have spoken, whether it would be possible for him to meet the managing director of First Great Western after this debate to discuss the issues that have been raised by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents; he should be interested in the comments of both individual Members and their constituents. Each individual point should be raised because the problem relates not only to rolling stock, but to Railtrack itself. Although the managing director accepts many of the criticisms that I have made and many of the problems that we have highlighted, he has encountered major problems with the way in which Railtrack manages its affairs.
The Minister mentioned the lack of management, and that is one of the problems that we face in Railtrack. We lack engineers, experience and knowledge. I do not suggest that we should import more than rolling stock from Switzerland and Canada, but we must address the shortcomings of Railtrack's management, which is compounding the problems and making matters difficult for First Great Western.
§ Mrs. Gilroy
Will the hon. Gentleman draw the Minister's attention back to his point about the role of rolling stock supply companies, especially Alsthom? We did not fully cover that in debate.