HL Deb 05 February 1997 vol 577 cc1672-5

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the fulfilment of the obligations imposed on privatised railway companies to provide passengers with details of the cheapest fares and most rapid journey times available, including those fares and times relating to a competing company.

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

My Lords, following consultation with the rail industry, the independent rail regulator has issued a policy statement setting out his proposals for action to ensure that train operators meet their impartial retailing obligations. This statement announced the first ever network-wide survey which will establish current standards of service and pinpoint where specific improvements are needed.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the common denominator in the report of the regulator, statements in Which? magazine on behalf of consumers and the Department of the Environment's own round table is to be found in the following statement in the regulator's report: I expect the new passenger railway to do much better than it is doing today in providing information about railway services—in telling passengers what the railway network is offering, in prices, in choice, in availability, in making sure information is accurate and in encouraging passengers to use the railway with confidence"? Does the Minister agree that all of that indicates a very serious lapse on the part of those responsible for the provision of those services? Why does not the Minister for once support his own regulator?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the report shows that the independent regulator is doing exactly what he was set up to do—regulating. Despite concerns raised notably by the party opposite that the regulator would not have power, here he is investigating the impartial retailing of tickets and setting in motion a major survey to determine the situation more accurately. We support the regulator. We note that in his report he says that he is, persuaded by the operators' willingness to work with [him] to improve their retailing services. Indeed, their plans to expand their businesses depend on their product being sold better".

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister accept the shortcomings that have been referred to by all three of the organisations I have mentioned? Is the situation that the regulator describes in his report accurate? If his statement is not justified, can the Minister explain why?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we certainly support what the regulator has said. The document is a statement of policy as to how to achieve better results. To establish the current situation he has set up a major survey. That survey is now under way. We look forward to the results of that survey.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that at Brighton station, where four different railway companies operate, we have no complaints whatever to make? There is even new rolling stock on the Brighton line. Is it not time that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, stopped reading documents and travelled by train for a change?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, that would be a welcome development. It is right that there have been many attempts by the party opposite to put down railway privatisation. The fact is that there is now a growing acceptance that rail privatisation has been a success and that there are improved levels of service. For example, the number of complaints, which is quite a good measure, has fallen considerably, in one instance by a third. There are better and more services; there is more investment, notably investment in rolling stock. All of this is good news, and we look forward to further developments in the rail industry.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, received cheers from his colleagues on the opposite side of the House when he said that the rail service from Brighton was good. Is the Minister aware that a fortnight ago last Thursday a full trainload of people, which included Members of both your Lordships' House and the other place, was dumped on Rugby station at eight o'clock in the evening? Is he also aware that those individuals, including myself, were left in the bitter cold? There was no heat in the waiting room, they could not obtain a hot drink and they had to wait for two hours before a train picked them up. Is that not in flat contradiction to what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has just said? There are two standards which depend on where one happens to be in the country.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, no rail network can guarantee that there will never be any maintenance problem or any other problem. The fact is that there are very few people who believe in the good old days of British Rail. Most commentators when looking at the improvements in the services that are now offered contrast them very well indeed with what was provided before. While in the past there were complaints about old rolling stock, now we see investment in new rolling stock which should address the kind of problem that the noble Lord suffered.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that a number of visits are being made to this country post-privatisation by representatives of other European railways who are anxious to learn from the very successful experiment that we have conducted?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. It is the case that whenever representatives come to this country they are very interested in the developments that have occurred here. The move across Europe and elsewhere is very much in the direction that we have pioneered in the UK.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that whereas we may not all look back to a golden age of British Rail, some of us can remember a time when we could buy a ticket to any destination in the United Kingdom through a number of private companies without any difficulty whatever? Why can that standard not be achieved today?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, precisely that can be done now.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I am terribly puzzled by what has been said. We hear a great deal of criticism from the Benches opposite about the new railways. Does my noble friend know whether it is the intention of the party opposite to renationalise the railways?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I spend the odd moment or two scanning speeches from the Opposition on that issue. One hears of their desire for a publicly owned railway. There has been no clarification on the issue, and certainly I have heard no specific spending commitment this afternoon.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, people may be very happy in Brighton. Is the noble Viscount aware that in most of Wales people preferred the good old days?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord is himself a notable supporter of the good old days. But we have to look forward at how to develop the rail network in this country. There are a number of firms who want to invest in the railway network and put their money where their mouth is. That is what we have all been looking forward to for a very long time.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not a great pity that I have been unable to take the Minister or the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, with me on a number of recent rail adventures where my experience has been somewhat different from the Brighton line? Does the Minister accept that there is some justification in the criticisms? It is complacent to suggest that they can be just wiped away. They are real. They are experiences that are suffered by many people. It does not apply in every case, but overall the experience is very real. Should it not be accepted by the Government once and for all?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, rail privatisation has been under way for a relatively short time. For example, Railtrack has been in the private sector for only about nine months. Some of the franchises have been running for about a year. It is impressive that people have noticed an increase in the levels of service and that the level of complaints has fallen. A 30 per cent. drop in the number of passenger complaints during the months of July, August and September 1996 compared with the previous year must tell one something. As to the impartial retailing of tickets, we welcome the regulator's report and we look forward to the nationwide survey to determine what the situation is.