HC Deb 27 February 2001 vol 363 cc711-32 3.31 pm
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require railway passenger service providers to compensate passengers for late journeys and to ensure that passengers reach their ultimate rail destination. I start with a quote from a piece in The Daily Telegraph of 21 February 2001, supplied to me by Jeremy Goodwin, who happens to be a student at Aberystwyth university, headed "Rail Revenge": Pretoria's 91-year-old railway terminus has been extensively damaged after a mob of about 10,000 home-going commuters, angered by delays to train services caused by a series of signal failures, set it on fire. My Bill is prompted by the same angry sentiments, but seeks a less inflammatory solution.

German and French trains are so reliable that one can set one's clock by them. That is not so in the United Kingdom. British rail travellers are so used to being late that we are sometimes relieved and occasionally even amazed when we get there on time. Twice I have been so delayed—once by Great Western Railways and once by Virgin Trains—that I have missed the responsibilities that I had to conduct in the House of Commons.

More recently, one of my Montgomeryshire constituents was horrendously delayed, by four hours, owing to the failures of the Northern Spirit service. Northern Spirit's whole approach on that occasion showed that it had little or no appreciation of its responsibility to minimise the inconvenience of those delays.

In fact, before the Hatfield accident, things were not as bad as they may seem to have been. The Strategic Rail Authority's figures suggest that, between April and October 2000, for example, long-distance cross-country services were on time, or within 10 minutes of being on time, 81 per cent. of the time. The problem is that, when trains are late, the compensation systems let us down, so that, on top of the annoyance of the delay, one enters into a bartering situation, where the compensation seems to be in proportion to how loud one can shout.

UK rail travel compensation is, in the eyes of many of its users, something of a lottery. Also, it seems that, on occasion, operators do not deliver their passengers to their destination. That happened to one of my members of staff the other night. She was left at a station late at night, alone. That is not safe and it is not fair. It certainly should not be for the passenger to have to plead with rail staff for some way to finish the journey home.

There is a basic principle at stake. As with any other transaction, if the service is defective or cancelled, the customer should reasonably be able to expect the supplier of that service to make good the deficiency. That is how it should be in relation to the railways. That is what my Bill seeks to do.

My Bill would objectify the compensation process and guarantee the delivery of customers to their destination. It would accomplish those goals very simply by ensuring that, for every minute that a customer was delayed, 1 per cent. of the ticket price was refunded. As the system would kick in only after a 20-minute delay, the minimum compensation would be 20 per cent. of the ticket price. Initially, I had suggested that the process should commence after a delay of only 10 minutes. However, after representations From interested parties, I accept that such a system would be too strict and that the operators could be inundated with small claims. Additionally, as the rail passengers committee for Wales has pointed out, overly small claims could clog up the system and entail unreasonable administrative expense. I therefore think that 20 minutes is a reasonable starting point.

My Bill would also oblige operators to deliver their passengers to their destination, and not to leave them stranded in stations as a result of cancellations or missed connections. In other words, operators would absolutely and positively have to get their customers to their destination, if not on time, at least eventually. None of those proposals is rocket science. They would simply bring the rail system roughly into line with the way in which we operate in most other spheres in which customer and supplier enter contract—which is what happens when one buys a ticket.

Eurostar has proveed that such a system really can work. Eurostar's compensation system operates so that, if one is delayed for between 61 and 180 minutes, a voucher is issued for a free single journey. If one is delayed for more than 181 minutes, a 100 per cent. money refund is made for the delayed part of the journey. However, compensation is paid only when the delay was within Eurostar's control. I believe that that condition is reasonable, and it is not very different from what I am proposing. That condition also demonstrates that such a compensation system can run in tandem with a professional and profitable rail business.

I am therefore asking Ministers to accept the principle of such a system and to enter into a dialogue on it with passengers and rail operators, with the goal of creating an objective compensation system and a guarantee of arrival at the destination.

I accept that various issues will have to be thought through, such as who will pay when two rail operators both contribute to a delay. Additionally, what will happen when Railtrack is responsible for a delay? Will passengers claim compensation from the operator, who will subsequently work out appropriate compensation with Railtrack? Conversely, when would it be unfair to make operators pay for lateness? Would it be unfair to expect compensation if there had been a natural disaster? I should say that, by natural disaster, I do not mean leaves on the line, but earthquakes, flooding, or even the remote possibility of an asteroid taking out a large proportion of the British rail system.

There are probably other matters that I have not thought of that will have to be tidied up. However, the principle behind my proposals is simple enough: compensation proportionate to the delay and a guarantee of arrival—if not by railway then by other means—are the organisational responsibility of the operator.

I hope that the Government will commence that dialogue to examine what we can do to create such a system. I also assure the House that my proposals are not intended to punish the rail operators or as a way of hitting them over the head just because we are unhappy with the service. My proposals are intended simply to make sure that we have a system which ensures that, when consumers have bought the service of being delivered somewhere on time, they are compensated when their valuable time is lost.

I believe that if Ministers commit to those two principles, passengers everywhere will be very grateful. I also believe that such a system would take the lottery out of the current compensation system, which is so frustrating for those who have to negotiate with rail operators who have not delivered the purchased service. Best of all, such a system would also end the worry of being abandoned in the middle of nowhere because a train has been terminated far from home.

I am not looking for victories over the rail services, but for a sensible, common-sense system that everyone can understand and a process that every railway user can initiate. Such a system would also avoid the potential for frayed tempers when, very reasonably, passengers request a refund because Britain's rail service network has not achieved the standards that we would all expect it to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lembit Öpik, Mr. David Chidgey, Mr. Bob Russell, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Mr. Brian Cotter, Dr. Jenny Tonge, Mr. David Heath, Mr. David Rendel and Mr. Richard Livsey.

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