HC Deb 15 July 2003 vol 409 cc133-6
2. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

If he will make a statement on the extent to which (a) performance and (b) customers' complaints will be a material consideration when future rail franchises are awarded. [125435]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The Strategic Rail Authority must ensure that bids for franchises are evaluated on an objective and fair basis, and that the market is open to new entrants. The criteria therefore focus on compliance with the SRA's specification, bidders' ability to deliver and value for money. Improving performance is, of course, a fundamental objective for all franchises.

Andrew Mackinlay

I thank the Minister for that response. However, passengers are frustrated by the lack of a mechanism for their complaints to be heard, evaluated and determined in a consistent way. One of their complaints is often that they do not know how to complain. Complaints relate not merely to reliability, but to the inability to purchase a ticket, cleanliness, access to loos and so on. All franchises have the implied term or condition that there will be good services and a response to complaints, but people are frustrated. There is no passenger power, and there should be. I invite my right hon. Friend to address that matter, so that the SRA has to take into consideration the failure of train operators to respond reasonably to complaints and representations by the paying passengers. It is time he protected the passenger.

Mr. Darling

At the moment there does not appear to be any difficulty with people making complaints, since there are rather more of them than one would like.

Andrew Mackinlay

But they are not recorded.

Mr. Darling

Complaints are received and recorded, not only from individuals but from the rail passenger councils that have been set up across the country. It is more productive, however, to address the fundamental problems that give rise to complaints. The first thing is to improve reliability, and the second is to do what the SRA is doing—to change the franchising policy so that, in future, issues such as reliability and cleanliness are essential parts of holding a franchise. If train companies do not meet their obligations they can be taken off the track altogether, which did not happen in the system that we inherited.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Given that my constituents' trains are more crowded and less punctual than they were when the right hon. Gentleman started in government six years ago, and as he keeps going on about the year of delivery, can he give me an idea when the year of delivery might be?

Mr. Darling

Train services in the south-east and other parts of the country are slowly seeing reliability increase. Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example of one of the difficulties that we face. The Government of whom he was a member failed to make provision to upgrade and replace the power supply for trains running south of the River Thames. It is all very well for Conservative Members to say that trains ought to be better and more reliable, but we are making up for 18 years in which the Tory Government did not put enough money into trains.

The hon. Gentleman is right to express concern that the improvement is not as fast as it should be, but we are upgrading the power supply to get greater reliability of trains and replacing 40 per cent. of the rolling stock, nearly half of it on the London commuter services, which should improve reliability and quality of journey. The Conservatives neglected that, and did nothing about it in their rush to privatise the railways, with all the consequences that the hon. Gentleman's constituents and ours have to put up with.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the fact that as Network Rail lets shorter and shorter franchises,

it is taking more revenue risk than originally envisaged when the railways were privatised, the banks are learning that lesson, which is likely to make it more difficult to finance major infrastructure, both heavy rail and light schemes? What will he do about that?

Mr. Darling

Of course, it is the SRA that lets the franchises. It is right to move to a system that has far greater specification of the requirements of reliability, cleanliness, safety, and so on. One disadvantage of the longer-term, 15-year franchises was that towards the end of them the figures were unrealistic and more and more train companies said that they could not deliver. That does not make any sense. My hon. Friend has a point, in that the costs of some railway projects and light rail schemes—there is an example in Manchester—appear to be going up, up and away in an unjustified way. That is partly to do with the attitude of those in the private sector who are financing the projects. I am extremely concerned about that because we cannot allow industry to come to believe that if it names a price. we will simply pay it. That is not the case. Despite what has been said in the House, certainly from the Opposition Benches, private investment in the railways continues to be substantial, and it is one reason why we are able to invest so much in total, which will improve the railways.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Further to the reply that the Secretary of State has just given, he will know that the SRA has just renewed the South West Trains franchise, but only for three years. In conjunction with the SRA, will he consider longer franchises, because the longer the franchise the greater the incentive for the train operator to invest in rolling stock, stations, car parks and other improvements?

Mr. Darling

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman was around at the time when the railways were privatised. The idea then was that if a franchise were awarded for 15 or 20 years, train companies would come up with investment and eventually start paying money back into public funds, but that did not happen. Far too many train companies took the profits in the first two or three years and then came back to us and said, "Sorry, we can't deliver on our side of the bargain." We are moving to a far better system, whereby franchises will be let for seven years and will be renewable, but what companies are meant to produce in the way of reliability, comfort, safety and so on will be strictly specified.

On the right hon. Gentleman's specific point, the South West Trains franchise was continued for the next three years to allow for the introduction of new rolling stock to replace the mark 1 slam-door trains. After that, the franchise will be put out to tender in the proper way under the new system. I say to the right hon. Gentleman. and to all Opposition Members who still believe that privatisation will somehow make an improvement, that, as with so many things that the Conservative party did. the promises were never delivered.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is that not precisely why the Secretary of State should encourage the Strategic Rail Authority to chop off a few heads in the train operating companies? Frankly, passengers are getting sick to the back teeth of companies that could not run a jumble sale. Unless we make it very clear that the taxpayer will not go on funding incompetence as a career in very poor companies, everyone will suffer.

Mr. Darling

I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, the SRA made it clear last month in the case of Connex that it was not willing to carry on putting money into a company when it was not satisfied that there were adequate financial controls. That is a clear lesson to railway operators that high standards are rightly demanded, that the public expect them, and that the train companies must deliver. As I said earlier, the SRA will have the power under the new franchising system to get somebody off the tracks much more quickly and effectively if they do not deliver. That will make for a far better service.