HC Deb 03 February 2004 vol 417 cc606-10
5. Mr. Desmond Swayne(Con) (New Forest, West)

What the role is of the Strategic Rail Authority in the rail review. [152275]

11. Bob Spink(Con) (Castle Point)

What recent representations he has received on the role of the Strategic Rail Authority. [152281]

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

The Strategic Rail Authority's role is set out in the Transport Act 2000. On 19 January, I announced a review of the organisation and structure of the railway industry. I expect to receive many representations in relation to every part of the industry.

Mr. Swayne

The right hon. Gentleman told us on 19 January: Of course, no Government Department can or should attempt to operate the railways'.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1077.] Can he tell us why No. 10 is sending in a hit team to four of the operating companies, apparently to do just that?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the newspapers. The particular article to which he refers is simply wrong. What is true is that the Department of Transport is rightly concerned about the low level of performance in some train operating companies, because we are spending substantial sums of public money on that. In conjunction with one or perhaps two members of the Prime Minister's delivery unit, we are working with train operating companies to see why it is that while some companies are improving their performance, others are not. I caution the hon. Gentleman not to believe everything that he reads in The Independent.

Bob Spink

I want to be generous, but this is yet another area in which the Government appear to be both muddled and confused, while public services and passengers in particular continue to suffer. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me to whom or to which body I should put the case for increased capacity for the Fenchurch Street line, which is much needed, and for the terminus station on Canvey island?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman must know the answer to this question because he has already been making representations to the SRA about that. The Fenchurch Street line, on which, by sheer coincidence, I travelled yesterday, has had new rolling stock, which was made possible only because of the investment made available by this Government, every penny of which was opposed by the Conservatives. The reliability of that line has improved to just under 90 per cent. —it is the second best performing train operating company in the south-east. If he wishes to make representations about additional stations, he should do it to the SRA. I am bound to say, however, that he cannot at the same time call on us to reduce substantially the amount of money spent on the railways.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody(Lab) (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend knows that most passengers simply want the services to improve and that there is currently a top-heavy bureaucracy in the railway industry. Will he give us an idea of the timetable for his review and some guarantees that, at the end of it, passengers will have a better service and certainly not a more expensive one?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend. I made it clear on 19 January that I believe that the organisation and structure of the railways need to be substantially simplified so that there is far greater clarity about who is responsible for operating the trains. I do not believe that all the current organisations are necessary; they can be rationalised. However, it is worth remembering that, despite all the industry's difficulties, last year it carried 1 billion passengers—the highest total for 40 years. Train performance traditionally dipped in the autumn, but it has improved because of the better performance of Network Rail.

My hon. Friend may have noticed an article in The Guardian, which is accurate, today. It states that performance in areas where Network Rail has taken the maintenance in-house has improved far more than elsewhere. That shows that the changes are making a difference.

Mr. Paul Truswell(Lab) (Pudsey)

Will the SRA and the review deal with the chronic overcrowding in west Yorkshire, including in my constituency? It is greater than in most parts of the country, including London and the south-east. Will he especially tackle the need for competitively priced rolling stock to meet current shortfalls and future demand?

Mr. Darling

The SRA is examining that. It has spent considerable sums of money in west Yorkshire in the past few years to try to improve capacity. However, as my hon. Friend knows, nearly one third of all the rolling stock in the country is being replaced and there will be new trains, including in Yorkshire. That will tackle some of the capacity problems as well as providing more comfortable and reliable trains.

I should have said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that we expect the review to be completed in the summer, as I stated on 19 January.

John Thurso(LD) (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Would the Secretary of State agree that although solutions to the immediate problems are important, it is critical for the review to identify and set out clearly a concept for the long-term structure and management of the railways? To achieve that, what is he doing to end the current confusion about who does what in the review—for example, train operating companies that wish to submit not to the SRA but to the Department? How can the SRA co-ordinate a review when its role is central to that review?

Mr. Darling

I agree that it is necessary to establish a structure that will take the industry forward for the next 10 or 20 years. There is near unanimity that the current structure is not suited for that.

Mr. James Gray(Con) (North Wiltshire)

You did it.

Mr. Darling

Who privatised the railways? Have we already forgotten?

The Government will determine the appropriate structure for the review. We have asked Richard Bowker at the SRA to evaluate the industry's representations, but we have always made it clear that people are free— and should even be encouraged—to make representations directly to the Department, and they are already doing that. The key point is to get a structure and an organisation that can run the railway efficiently and properly and which will last for the next 20 to 30 years. I am determined that that will happen.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz(Lab/Co-op) (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the SRA's roles should be to ensure quality rail links between all the major cities of Great Britain? Does he therefore share my hope that the SRA will make a contribution to upgrading Edinburgh Waverley in his constituency? It is an important station for rail links from many parts of Scotland to many parts of England.

Mr. Darling

As my hon. Friend knows, the SRA, Network Rail, the Scottish Executive and the city of Edinburgh council are all considering the best way in which to make improvements at Waverley station. Substantial sums have been invested in Waverley station on signalling, which improves several pathways in and out of the station. He and I know that the station needs investment and we are considering the best way to achieve that. My hon. Friend will also know that part of my review will examine ways of devolving more responsibility for railways to the Scottish Executive, among others.

Mr. Damian Green(Con) (Ashford)

The Secretary of State talks about simplification, but he will know that the way in which the review has been conducted so far seems designed to undermine the SRA. Some train operating companies received a letter from the SRA asking them to send it their submissions to the review, then received a letter from the Department saying, "No, you don't need to do that, please make your submissions to the Department." Is that just day-to-day, run of the mill incompetence, or can the Secretary of State confirm that there is now a full-time power struggle between parts of his Department and the SRA?

Mr. Darling

I think that the hon. Gentleman is confusing himself. In relation to the review, as I said just a moment ago in reply to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), it is the Government who will decide at the end of the day what proposals to make before they invite the House to consider the appropriate legislation that will no doubt follow. In relation to the SRA, I have made it clear on many occasions that it has done an extremely good job of bringing a great deal of order to the chaos left by the privatisation that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) supported.

Mr. Green

I am glad that the Secretary of State has now admitted, as he failed to a few minutes ago, that the current structure, to which he objects so much, was created by his Government when they set up the various bodies. At the last count, those who wanted complete, detailed control over the railways included Network Rail, the rail regulator, the Strategic Rail Authority, the Secretary of State and now, we hear, the Prime Minister. Does the Secretary of State understand why one senior rail figure said, at the weekend: We are being audited to death…I want to get on with my day job of running the railways"? Does he understand why passengers get angry when, as the services suffer delays and cancellations, the Government's response is more interference, more centralisation and more bureaucracy, none of which helps a single train to run on time?

Mr. Darling

If the hon. Gentleman himself had a policy, he might speak from a stronger position. The only policy that his party has is to hanker after the days of Railtrack, which were, of course, an absolute disaster for the railways.

There are two separate strands to what the hon. Gentleman says. First, on the structure and organisation of the railways, the increasingly common ground is that the present structure, which stems from the privatisation of 10 years ago, is simply not sustainable. We need to have a far more streamlined organisation that can run the railways effectively. Secondly, on train performance, I have said on many occasions—including just about every Question Time— that although performance is improving, it still has a long way to go.

The fundamental problems of our railways, however, are, first, that they did not have enough money invested in them over decades, for which the hon. Gentleman's party, which was in power for 18 years, must take its share of the blame. Secondly, the management of the railways needs to be improved. The review on which we have embarked is designed, among other things, to ensure that there is a more sensible management so that it is easier to make decisions. For example—I leave the hon. Gentleman with this thought—it cannot be right that following privatisation, the agreement of four separate organisations is needed to make a change to the timetable. That does not make any sense at all, and it is a direct consequence of the botched privatisation 10 years ago.

Mr. Clive Betts(Lab) (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Will my right hon. Friend look at the practice of the SRA in coming to initial agreements with train operators over service improvements as part of their franchise, then removing the requirement for such improvements without any apparent quid pro quo from the operators? In particular, would he look at the case of Midland Mainline? The SRA has now removed a requirement for that operator to improve journey times to London, and it is now about to defer a requirement for the operator to provide an hourly quick train service between Sheffield and Leeds. Both those decisions have been taken with no quid pro quo being required from Midland Mainline, with no thought for passengers' interests and with no reference to elected representatives.

Mr. Darling

I shall look at that. There are two problems with Midland Mainline at the moment. One is the undoubted disruption being caused by the works at St. Pancras station, although the first phase, to provide new platform facilities for Midland Mainline, will be completed later this year. The second is fleet reliability. It is not clear to me why this particular train company is having so much difficulty operating a fleet that is used by other train companies that have a higher standard of reliability. No train company should be let off the drive to improve standards, and I shall look at that particular case and come back to my hon. Friend on it.

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