HL Deb 21 January 1998 vol 584 cc1507-10

2.45 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied that overcrowding on Connex South Eastern trains does not pose a threat to public safety.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am advised that the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate does not consider that passenger overcrowding on Connex South Eastern trains causes any additional safety risks to passengers using those services.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. As the Minister of Transport has said that penalties for poor performance are still unsatisfactory, what will the Government now do to tighten regulations in relation to shortened trains as fines, insignificant against the public subsidy that is received, are clearly having no effect on Connex South Eastern?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we have made it clear that we shall not accept poor performance by train operators. We expect those poor performers to take immediate steps to improve their performance to satisfactory levels. As the House is aware, we are conducting a review of railway regulation. The Government's overriding goal is to win more passengers and freight on to the railways. That will be achieved only if there is a high quality service which meets passenger expectations. That must apply to areas such as gross overcrowding.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the concern expressed by the rail franchising director, Mr. O'Brien, who has referred to train reliability declining and has mentioned Connex and Virgin Trains in particular? What action are the Government taking to improve the quality of the regulatory system?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am aware of those concerns. The House will be aware also that there has been a series of fines on railway operating companies because of poor performance. We are looking at the regulatory framework. We intend to establish a more effective and accountable regulation of the rail industry. We are conducting a thorough review of rail regulations and the sanctions currently available to the regulators, to identify exactly what improvements need to be made. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister is this afternoon giving evidence to a Select Committee in another place on progress so far.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that franchise agreements of the train operating companies require them to limit overcrowding on trains? Does she recall also that about a year ago the franchising director appeared to forget to carry out his annual check? What does the Minister intend to do to tighten those regulations and ensure that the occasional but very serious congestion which is appearing on Connex South Eastern and many other networks on which noble Lords have travelled is brought within that overall agreement? Will she ensure that measures are taken to stop it happening in the future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there is a framework in which to control overcrowding through the franchise agreements between the franchising director and the train operating companies. All have a general obligation to avoid excessive overcrowding. Annual passenger counts are required by the franchising director and if there is evidence of systematic overcrowding he can take action or ensure that the companies alleviate the problem. The most obvious remedy is to lengthen the trains but a variety of different measures can be taken. I am sure that we should wish the franchising director to be robust in that regard.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I declare an interest as an irregular passenger on Connex South Eastern. Will the noble Baroness tell the House what compensation is available to travellers who find that their train regularly arrives late but who cannot claim compensation because the company—in this case, Connex South Eastern—has adjusted the timetable so that a journey which used to take 60 minutes now, according to the timetable, takes 75 minutes? What compensation is available under those circumstances?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord illustrates very well the fact that the regulatory framework is not always satisfactory in terms of meeting the expectations of passengers or when judged by the criteria that passengers would wish to use in assessing whether the service is satisfactory. That highlights even more why a review of the current structure of rail regulation is very necessary.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, will the Minister agree that, before privatisation, there was virtually no penalty that could be put on British Rail if the trains were overcrowded? Therefore, surely privatisation has at least brought some benefits to passengers.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, whenever claims of the benefits of privatisation for passengers are made from the Front Bench opposite, I know it is not a matter to which only I need to reply. Indeed, there are differing experiences as regards quality of service post-privatisation, and sometimes other Members of your Lordships' House wish to express their own personal experiences.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would be far better if Connex South Eastern, instead of spitefully and probably illegally pursuing Mr. Boddington for smoking on its trains, were to ensure that passengers had a decent, regular, comfortable and clean service? Indeed, on the wider aspect, would it not be better if we had far fewer train companies operating on the system on an integrated basis, whether it be under public or private ownership?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is right to point out that we need to look across the board at the rail system that we have to see how it can be improved. That is why we are conducting a strategic review and studying railways in the context of an integrated transport policy. I certainly agree that passengers do want a service from Connex which is clean and comfortable so that they can appreciate the environment in which they are travelling. I suspect that, for some of them, that would mean that other passengers were not smoking.

Baroness Masham of Ilion

My Lords, can the Minister say what facilities there are on Connex South Eastern for people using wheelchairs?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have an immediate response to the noble Baroness's question. However, I shall certainly undertake to write to her on the specifics in that respect.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, can the Minister say whether she is satisfied that the rolling stock leasing companies do not have any suitable rolling stock in store which could be leased to Connex South Eastern?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, that is a matter for Connex South Eastern, the regulator and Railtrack to consider. However, improving rolling stock is obviously one of the means which could lead to an improvement in the quality of passenger service.