HL Deb 04 February 1998 vol 585 cc640-2

2.53 p.m.

Lord Evans of Parkside asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to improve the quality of rail travel throughout Great Britain.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman):

My Lords, the Government's overriding goal is to win more passengers and freight on to the railways. We are committed to creating a new rail authority, and to introducing more effective and accountable regulation of the railway.

Lord Evans of Parkside:

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, does she accept that much of Britain's privatised railway network, which has received billions of pounds in subsidies at the taxpayers' expense, is a shambles and is getting worse by the week? Does she also accept that there is very little realistic hope of persuading people to leave their cars at home if they doubt whether the train will turn up on time—or even at all? Will my noble friend acknowledge that what is required is a much stronger role for the railway regulators and a willingness, if necessary, to take the worst performing railway companies back into the public sector?

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is in all our interests to have high quality public transport services so that travellers have real choice about how they make journeys. We are very concerned about poor performance by train operators and we are committed to establishing a more effective and accountable regulation of the rail industry that will produce the quality of services that passengers have the right to expect. We are conducting a thorough review of rail regulation and of the sanctions currently available to regulators to identify exactly what improvements we need to make.

Lord Palmer:

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that in order to ease overcrowding on the east coast line the simplest solution would be to extend the franchise currently granted to GNER, thus enabling that company to invest in more rolling stock?

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, I note the noble Lord's comments, and I know of his interest and concern about that line. Requests for franchise extensions, such as that received from GNER, will be considered on their merits. However, there need to be convincing arguments of public interest and value for money to justify renegotiation of contracts which were freely entered into following a competitive process.

Lord Renton:

My Lords, in order to relieve congestion on the roads and to add to the advantages of rail travel, will the Government consider restoring and increasing the Motorail services?

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting suggestion which fits very well with the theme of integration we are considering in the context of an integrated transport White Paper. I shall certainly take the noble Lord's views into account.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos:

My Lords, will my noble friend, whom I respect, do her utmost to improve the service between Anglesey and Euston station, which is the oldest named train service in the world? Will she also ensure that the service is improved to the extent that I can be here in time for Questions?

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will want me to ensure that my noble friend is in his place for Questions. I know that there is great concern about that particular rail service and that we need to look at how we can improve performance. However, I also know that Members of your Lordships' House can indicate other geographical regions of the country equally in need of improvements in their rail services.

Lord Brabazon of Tara:

My Lords, the Minister says that it is the Government's ambition to get more passengers travelling on the railways. Does she not agree that privatisation is achieving just that, with passenger journeys up by 7.5 per cent. since privatisation, some companies reporting an increase of 15 per cent.; freight up by 15 per cent.; 29,000 more trains in the timetable this winter compared with last winter; and over 2,000 new coach and rolling stock orders? Railtrack is set to invest £10 billion in the next 10 years. Has not privatisation achieved exactly what the Government want?

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, as I have pointed out to the House previously, considering the amount of public subsidy going into the privatised services we would expect to see some improvements. In fact, we see a great diminution of service, as experienced by many Members of your Lordships' House and the travelling public. It never ceases to amaze me that noble Lords opposite seem to consider that privatisation has been such a huge success when the experience of thousands of travellers says exactly the opposite.

Lord Barnett:

My Lords, may I declare an interest, having travelled on the north-west rail route for over 30 years, man and boy? May I invite my noble friend to inform the shadow Minister that if he travelled on the north-west route he would learn something about how privatisation works in practice? May I also ask my noble friend to invite Richard Branson to take time off from flying around the world in a balloon to try travelling on the north-west route? It might improve.

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, I am not sure about extending invitations to Mr. Branson, given current circumstances. My noble friend illustrates the point I was making earlier to my noble friend Lord Cledwyn. People in many areas are concerned about the quality of their rail service. Comments such as we have just heard are often made about Virgin Trains.

Lord Methuen:

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Midland Main Line has now "improved" its service to such an extent that one cannot use a first-class ticket on its trains? One needs either a premium-class ticket, which includes food, or a business-class ticket. Parliamentarians are unable to use that because it is necessary to book a return seat and we cannot know on which train we are able to travel. That is not very helpful.

Baroness Hayman:

My Lords, I note the comments of the noble Lord. I was not aware of those particular benefits of privatisation, as the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, would categorise them. Once again they illustrate that everything is far from perfect in the privatised rail industry.