HC Deb 10 March 1997 vol 292 cc5-8
4. Dr. Goodson-Wickes

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what recent consultations he has had with the chief executive of Stagecoach Holdings plc about the operation of South West Trains. [17756]

The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

The performance of franchised train operators is a matter for the franchising director. [Interruption.] Just wait. I have discussed the situation with Mr. Brian Cox and Mr. Peter Cotton of South West Trains.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

Does my hon. Friend agree that the recent running, or rather re-running, of South West Trains by Stagecoach has been characterised by gross incompetence on the part of that company's management? However, does he further agree that that is an unacceptable exception to the general rule that privatisation has brought improved punctuality, reliability, information to passengers and, above all, investment? [Interruption.] That is in stark contrast to the bad old days of British Rail, when passengers were at the mercy of so many Labour Members, sponsored by the very trade unions that were meant to be running that inadequate system.

Mr. Watts

Yes. My hon. Friend will know that I described the handling of the situation by South West Trains as inept. The good news for him and his constituents is that from Easter South West Trains will be back to its original timetable. He will be aware that since the emergency timetable was introduced in the middle of February the number of peak-hour cancellations into London was reduced to one, and that of the remaining services cancelled 24 are outside the passenger service requirement: services between West Croydon and Guildford, which were introduced with the franchise as part of the new arrangements and are also served by Network SouthCentral. The arrangements were made to minimise the impact on passengers, particularly those coming into London during the peak hour.

Mrs. Dunwoody

If the Minister wants to be taken seriously, he should talk to the passengers who have had to wait for many hours on Waterloo station. What fines will be imposed on South West Trains for its behaviour to date? Unless they are punitive, no one will take him seriously.

Mr. Watts

The penalties for poor performance are as set out in the franchise agreement, and are of the order of £600 per train in the peak hour. They will be imposed in the normal way, when the performance figures for an accounting period are determined.

Mr. Norris

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary to hear Labour Members urging the franchising director to fine South West Trains for its acknowledged errors and mistakes when, under the previous nationalised railway, such nonsense occurred regularly and the only redress for passengers was the usual unintelligible announcement of some vague excuse? Is not the reality that this time, South West Trains will be made to pay for its mistake, and that there is real accountability? Does he agree that the one thing that we can guarantee is that this problem will not happen again?

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend is right. There was no regime to ensure that poor performance in the public sector was penalised. We have a regime that will penalise those responsible for poor performance. We expect far better of the private sector than we became used to accepting from the public sector. We are determined to ensure that passengers enjoy the better standards of service to which they are entitled.

Mr. Chidgey

Can the Minister confirm reports that South West Trains mark 1 slam-door coaches will not be replaced until 2007? Does he remember that after the Clapham rail disaster some years ago, which injured many people including some of my constituents, the Health and Safety Executive condemned slam-door coaches as increasing the risk to passenger safety? Does he agree that not only passenger interests but passenger safety are being compromised by the inept rail privatisation programme?

Mr. Watts

No. On the contrary, I can confirm that South West Trains intends to buy £90 million of new rolling stock to replace some of the mark 1 stock that it inherited from British Rail. On safety in general, the hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that the rolling stock is inherently unsafe. The matter is under review by the Health and Safety Executive, which will report its conclusions in due course.

Mr. Tracey

My hon. Friend will, like all of us, recall that the situation is just as bad as the old British Rail system. I welcome his message from South West Trains that services will be back to normal from Easter, but will he take the message back that it must maintain total consistency of service thereafter and accelerate the programme of improvements such as closed circuit television in car parks at stations such as Surbiton in my constituency?

Mr. Watts

I assure my hon. Friend that that message is understood clearly by South West Trains. He is right that the regrettable level of cancellations that passengers have suffered recently is no worse than the pattern of cancellations that was commonplace throughout the decades of state ownership.

Mr. Andrew Smith

How much penalty has South West Trains paid to date under the performance regime and has it broken the franchise agreement?

Mr. Watts

As I said in reply to an earlier question South West Trains will pay £600 for every cancelled peak-hour train. It would be foolish to try to give a total, because, as I said, there is still one scheduled peak-hour service to London that is being cancelled under the emergency timetable.

Mr. Forman

Does the Minister agree that the real point of these exchanges is that we expect better things and higher standards from a privatised railway, and on the whole we are likely to get that? Is he aware that those of my constituents who travel regularly to London Bridge from Carshalton Beeches and Wallington expect the 8.07 from Carshalton Beeches to arrive on time and for that train to go on to Wallington at 8.10, and to be there on time? As one of those who travels from those stations regularly, it is distressing to find that cancellations take place. Will my hon. Friend make extra efforts to ensure that such cancellations are the exception rather than the rule?

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend is right that we expect higher standards of performance from the private sector. We will continue to demand that those higher standards are delivered. I am sure that my hon. Friend would also acknowledge, however, that until the unfortunate past month of regular cancellations, the reliability and punctuality of South West Trains was very much better when compared year on year with the services provided in the last year of operation under British Rail.

Taking the year as the basis of comparison provides a more valid measure of the performance of the company than studying a period of four weeks in which it has handled matters ineptly. It is now taking rapid steps to deliver the standard of service that it wishes to deliver to its customers, and which we demand that it should deliver.