HC Deb 03 July 2001 vol 371 cc126-7
1. Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

If he will make a statement about the future of rail services on the east coast main line. [651]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

I am currently considering a request from the Strategic Rail Authority for a direction under section 26 of the Railways Act 1993, relating to the potential award of an early replacement inter-city east coast franchise

Mr. Beith

Does the Secretary of State realise that most regular travellers on the east coast main line would be appalled if the franchise went to Virgin and not to GNER? Will he make the decision soon and, once it is made, will he recognise how important it will be for GNER to invest in the rolling stock that can add to the capacity of the line and for Railtrack to invest in line capacity and to end its lamentable performance, which has seen the quality of service reduced because of the speed restrictions on the line?

Mr. Byers

Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am a frequent traveller on the east coast main line, so I understand the importance of the franchise being awarded. The important point is that submissions from both bidders are given proper and due consideration, and that is happening at the moment. I would like to reach a decision on a direction as soon as possible, but it must take into account all the arguments that I shall need to reflect on. I do not intend to rush and make the wrong decision, but I am aware that the award of the franchise is keenly awaited by many travellers throughout the country.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

The east coast main line is an economic lifeline for Yorkshire and the north-east of England and its present franchise holder, GNER, is a major employer in my constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to maintain competition between the east coast main line and the west coast main line, with different companies operating the two franchises? Does he also agree that, because the modernisation of the west coast main line is already proceeding, any further delay will mean that the opportunity to modernise the east coast line will slip further and further behind?

Mr. Byers

I hope that the House will understand that it would be wrong of me in circumstances in which I am considering the information that I have received from the Strategic Rail Authority to enter into a debate about the merits of GNER or Virgin Stagecoach. However, I can tell the House that I am actively considering the merits of both bidders and I will reach a judgment in due course about the right way forward and as to whether I should make a direction to the Strategic Rail Authority. There are constraints on what I need to take into account and I will reflect seriously on the points that hon. Members have raised—I must do that—and be guided by the advice that I have received from the Strategic Rail Authority.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I wish to associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), but will the Secretary of State be more specific about when he thinks that a decision will be concluded? As a user of the railway line, he must understand that GNER is reckoned generally to be one of the most successful companies since privatisation. What kind of message will it send for confidence in investment in the railway structure if such success is rewarded by it losing the franchise?

Mr. Byers

I intend to make a decision on the direction as soon as possible. I hope that the House will understand the need to take all relevant factors into account, which is exactly what I am doing. I must give due consideration to the strengths of both bidders—GNER and Virgin Stagecoach—and need to reflect on that. Awarding a franchise is a significant part of improving the standards and quality of our railway network. From being in post for a little more than three weeks, I believe that one of our key levers with the Strategic Rail Authority is the franchising process. I want to ensure that we use that to the full, which is why on 16 July we will publish new procedures and guidance on the awarding of franchises.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will be aware, however, that this is the third time that the franchise is about to be awarded. Although we are delighted to hear that he is considering the whole issue of franchising, unless some decisions are taken quite soon, real problems will occur in the railway industry. I hope that when he looks for good value for money for the taxpayer, he will remember not only that the awarding of franchises is the key, but that it needs to be turned quickly.

Mr. Byers

I agree with my hon. Friend and she is right to highlight the important role that the awarding of franchises can and should play in the process of improving the quality of our railway services. However, she will also be aware that it is right that when I make the decision, I reflect properly on the strengths of the arguments. It would be improper of me not to do so. I can assure the House that whatever failings I have as a Secretary of State, making decisions is not one of them, and a decision will be made as soon as possible.

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