HC Deb 09 March 1999 vol 327 cc161-3
6. Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

What steps he is taking to assess the views of railway passengers on the performance of train operating companies. [73417]

The Minister of Transport (Dr. John Reid)

At the national rail summit, on 25 February, we made it clear that service to passengers is paramount—which is why we are undertaking a national passenger survey.

Mr. Browne

It will not have escaped railway passengers' attention that it took a Labour Government to put their interests first. Undoubtedly, the majority of railway operators will be intending to act positively in response to the message that was delivered to them at the national rail summit. However, what message does my right hon. Friend have for companies that do not intend to respond positively, or fail in responding positively, to that message—by failing to pull their socks up and deliver the services that passengers rightly demand and are paying for?

Dr. Reid

I should send two messages to such companies: first, that they do not have a long-term future in the industry; and, secondly, that the central criterion of the performance on which the judgment will be based is the passenger himself or herself: the passenger has to be king when we judge the value of rail services. We are therefore introducing a national passenger survey—to ensure that we have a standardised form of assessment throughout the industry, so that we may discover exactly what passengers think of individual companies and of the industry overall, and so that we may supplement the very important role that is already being played by the rail users consultative committee. We very much welcomed the consultative committee's presence at the railway summit, and I hope that the majority of progressive companies also welcomed it.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

Is the Minister aware that most of my constituents are railway passengers, and that they have a high regard for train operators who have invested in new rolling stock—so that my constituents may be treated as passengers and not like cattle? When he is considering the award or renewal of franchises, will he consider granting a 10-year franchise, so that train operators have greater encouragement to make, and are able to amortise, long-term investment in new rolling stock?

Dr. Reid

We have already clearly stated our view that we shall be flexible and constructive in our attitude towards the renegotiation of franchises. However, we act as the champion of passengers. Therefore, if any railway company wants access to the market—which is what the franchises deliver to railway companies—it will have to deliver benefits to us for passengers themselves. We shall be flexible on a range of issues in renegotiating franchises, but, ultimately, railway companies themselves will have to deliver to passengers a much better service than they have hitherto delivered. We require annual improvement. The litmus test of improvement will be whether passengers receive the performance that they deserve.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

If my right hon. Friend needs to know what passengers think about rail services, may I invite him to talk to those who have booked first-class tickets on Virgin from Euston to events at the national exhibition centre, near Birmingham—but cannot get a seat? He could speak also to those who turn up at Erdington station, on the Central railway line, just after 8 o'clock in the morning—to try to get to work on time—but regularly find that trains that are supposed to be running do not arrive. What can he do to turn promise into performance, and complaint into improvement?

Dr. Reid

We have already made a start. Until November 1998, the railway companies themselves were exclusively competitive and there was no network approach. In November, the Deputy Prime Minister and I brought the companies together to deal with the consequent problems of congestion and delay. It was agreed that there would be 800 new drivers and 500 pieces of new rolling stock over the next 12 months, and that there would be a joint Railtrack-railway companies initiative to tackle congestion black spots. For the first time, the whole industry acted together. We not only built on that action at the summit, on 25 February, but shall return to it year on year. We made it absolutely plain that current levels of punctuality, reliability and overall performance are unacceptable, and that the Government intend to ensure that there are year-on-year improvements in performance.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Is the Minister aware that there is deep dissatisfaction at the chronic delays on the Great Western service to south Wales, Cardiff and beyond? Trains that arrive on time are now the exception rather than the rule. Although a great deal of fault lies with Great Western, does not Railtrack also have much to answer for and are not delays often caused by deficiencies in the infrastructure? Can the Minister assure us that we will get the investment that is needed? It would probably be preferable to the large-scale investment that the Welsh Office envisage to upgrade the M4 and build a new road to Cardiff Wales airport.

Dr. Reid

The range of views expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House testifies to the fact that there are problems throughout the nations and the regions of Britain. I repeat that the current standards of reliability and punctuality are unacceptable. As for future investment, Railtrack is due to invest about £17 billion between 1997 and 2007. However, as the regulator has made plain, more investment is necessary because the money that Railtrack distributes in dividends is inordinate compared with the risks taken. The regulator is considering that, as will the strategic rail authority, and the Government are keen to see it implemented.