HC Deb 17 December 2002 vol 396 cc680-1
4. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

When the successful bid for the all-Wales rail franchise will be announced. [85904]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

The Strategic Rail Authority has asked for best and final offers to be submitted by bidders in February 2003. It expects that a preferred bidder will be announced in spring 2003.

Mr. Llwyd

Bearing it in mind that Wales has the worst railway services in the whole of the UK in terms of frequency, punctuality and so on, what does the Minister think will be the ultimate effect of the direction from the SRA to cut the franchise bids by 20 per cent? In a rural context, common sense dictates fewer services.

Mr. Spellar

The SRA has actually asked bidders to look at what would happen under reduced subsidy levels. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Wales received a subsidy last year of 14.3p per passenger kilometre, compared with a national average of 3.4p. The SRA is saying that companies should be looking at how they can bear down on their costs. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the train operators, Network Rail and the contractors must consider how the public— the travelling public and the taxpaying public—are to get value for money out of the rail system. That is a proper question to ask, and one that any responsible Government would support.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the advent of an all-Wales rail franchise should not diminish the importance of services into England? Does he share my profound regret that a town such as Wrexham, the capital of north Wales, still does not have a decent rail service to London, which is a constant drain on the developing industry there?

Mr. Spellar

I fully accept my hon. Friend's point with regard to Wrexham. North Wales will benefit from the upgrade of the west coast main line, which will significantly improve journey times to north Wales. My hon. Friend will also be aware that in co-operation with the Welsh Executive, we have been looking at improving the road network in that area. I accept that there will be further problems to deal with. There have been decades of under-investment, which we cannot remedy overnight. We are, however, taking significant steps in that direction.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

The Minister knows that First Great Western recently put forward a proposal to link Wales to London by high-speed line. The Strategic Rail Authority gave that proposal a very negative response. Is it now the Government's policy that the private sector should not be involved in developing ideas for the enhancement of the rail infrastructure?

Mr. Spellar

No, we are certainly not saying that. The SRA is clearly saying to train operators, and rightly so, that their first priority must be to ensure that the franchises that they already have run efficiently and effectively, are reliable and provide customer satisfaction. There is much work to be done in the future as regards enhancements, but the key thing is to run the system as it is in order to cater for the travelling public and for freight. Train operators should be focusing all their efforts on that. Once we have got that sorted out, they should look at future enhancements.