HL Deb 07 February 1996 vol 569 cc238-40

3.19 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will amend the Passenger's Charter to guarantee adequate waiting room accommodation for railway passengers on every manned railway station.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, it is for passenger service operators to decide what to include in their Passenger's Charter. But under their franchise agreements operators will be contractually required to provide weather-proof waiting accommodation or other adequate shelter.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

But is the Minister saying that the Government are not prepared to include in the Passenger's Charter the right of rail passengers to have the comfort and necessary shelter of a railway waiting room? Is he not aware that there are rumours of certain of the bidders for railway franchises declaring that they will close down all the waiting rooms on a certain line? Therefore, is it not clear that if, as the Government claim, the privatised rail companies are not to be allowed to increase prices above inflation or to cut services, the only way that they can provide a dividend for their shareholders is by shedding jobs, and that means shedding some of the comforts which have to be manned on these stations?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the way that the new operators will be able to increase their businesses is by attracting more people onto the railways. We believe that by providing better facilities, not only on the trains but also at the stations, they will succeed in attracting more people onto the railways. It is in their very commercial interest to do so. However, the new arrangements do provide more protection under the franchise agreement than exists at the moment for British Rail.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, in order to be politically correct, would it not be right to refer to these railway stations as being personed rather than manned?

Viscount Goschen

Quite possibly, my Lords, but I do not believe it is an issue which Her Majesty's Government have given detailed examination.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the inclement weather of yesterday hundreds of railway passengers were marooned on stations in terrible conditions and that only the minimum of waiting accommodation was available and in some cases none at all? Is it not about time that the Government turned their attention to this issue? Is he aware that Stockport station outside Manchester has seen little, if any, improvement over a great number of years?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am glad that the noble Lord is looking forward, as I am, to the wholesale privatisation of the railways. This is the biggest structural change we have seen in the railways. We believe that great benefit will come to passengers, at stations as well as on the track.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is the Minister aware that his hallucinations about the success of privatisation do not coincide very well with the events of the past couple of days, with two major allegations of fraud involving franchisees? Will he reply to my noble friend Lady Castle, who said that there was a case where, despite what the noble Viscount said, a franchisee has either said that he does not intend to provide waiting accommodation or has already taken action in that regard?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I have explained that under the franchise agreements there are requirements and new protections which do not exist at the moment that will come to bear under the franchising process. If the House really wants to know about franchising it just has to look at what has happened with the two franchises that have been successfully let. We have now seen real commitments to increasing the provision of services on stations. Indeed, one of the franchisees has included the issue of stations in its agreement with the franchising director.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, as the Minister has chosen not to reply to the point that I made which was raised by my noble friend Lady Castle, will he comment on this point? Is it right that a franchisee has already indicated that waiting accommodation is to be shut down? If that is right, what action is to be taken in relation to the contractual arrangements that have been made with that franchisee?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord has clearly not been listening. I have answered the noble Baroness in detail and I have answered the noble Lord in detail. The franchise agreement specifies requirements upon the operator to whom the franchise is let. There is provision in the detail of the Act and the franchising director is bound to take that up with the operator. That adequately covers this point. As franchises come to be let, the franchising director has to be satisfied that these requirements are met. These are new provisions. They did not exist under British Rail. We shall therefore see better stations. One has only to look at what has happened with the two new franchises that have been let, with the commitments to capital investment in the stations, to see what will happen under privatisation.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, will the Government clarify something for me? Travelling on the railway one sees stations with signs on them saying "This station is owned by Railtrack". My understanding is that Railtrack encompasses all the infrastructure of the railway while the operators arc to run the trains on the tracks. From the Minister's answers, it seems that that is not a correct understanding. Can the Minister explain where the dividing line comes? Does Railtrack, the provider of the infrastructure, have to provide the platforms or the stations? What is the operator's responsibility and what is Railtrack' s responsibility?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, Railtrack owns the stations. They are leased to the operators.