HL Deb 02 March 2004 vol 658 cc544-8

2.47 p.m.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the present state of train overcrowding meets the criteria for safety of staff and passengers laid down by the Health and Safety Executive; and what action they intend to take.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the Health and Safety Executive does not limit the number of passengers who can travel on trains. All train operating companies are required by their franchise agreements to address excessive crowding. Specific contractual limits are set in London and on some commuter routes into Edinburgh. Regular counts must be conducted to monitor compliance. The Strategic Rail Authority can require an action plan to be drawn up for dealing with any capacity shortfall.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. I am certain that many noble Lords are well aware of the efficiency, cleanliness and reliability of the train services of our continental colleagues and wonder why our trains run so badly, break down and run against time. Is it the case that resources and finance have not been put into the system to make our train services more efficient and that it is high time that more resources were allocated? Can the Minister assure the House that any improvements envisaged will be properly funded and resourced as a matter of extreme urgency?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Viscount has hit upon the salient point that there has been under-investment in our railway for several decades, and we shall not make up those deficiencies overnight. I want to bring to his attention the obviously welcome news that we are doubling investment in the railways from £2.1 billion as it was in 2001–02 to £4.3 billion in 2005–06. We are also ensuring that one-quarter of the rolling stock is replenished in the next few years. As the noble Viscount has rightly identified, the background to these improvements is the backlog to be made up.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, given that crowding on trains is a problem, is there not an even greater problem with crowding on platforms, to such an extent that Victoria station has been closed for that reason at least twice in the past month?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, crowding on platforms is a more acute problem for the London Underground than for surface trains. As the noble Baroness has indicated, there are several stations where access to the platform needs to be controlled. This is a reflection of the vastly greater use of our public transport system, demonstrated by the numbers seeking to get on our trains and Tube lines. The problem with regard to overland trains is largely restricted to where the trains are longer than the platforms at some stations. Special consideration is given to that, and it is monitored very carefully indeed, because it is an obvious safety problem.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, do the Government have any plans to remove the responsibility for safety on the railways from the Health and Safety Executive, and put that responsibility back—dare one say it—into the hands of the railways?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Viscount will know that the Railway Inspectorate is part of the Health and Safety Executive's responsibility, and it is incorporated in that body. We are satisfied that railway safety issues are properly addressed. These issues are monitored by those people who have experience of our railways.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is clear under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 that it is the responsibility of the railway operators to implement all health and safety obligations themselves?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend is right; it is the responsibility of the operating companies. The original Question related to crowding. I make clear to the House that crowding is of great concern to our fellow citizens in terms of comfort and well-being on trains. It is not a particular safety concern. There is no indication that rail safety is compromised or that injuries are occasioned significantly by crowding on trains.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's last statement. Health and safety is not compromised, but there is grotesque overcrowding in a lot of our provincial cities, and it is not through lack of funding; it is due to the way that the money is spent. Will the Government address the subject of how the money devoted to our railways is being spent? It is a huge sum of money. Although the Minister speaks of more money being spent, value for money and the relief of overcrowding —which is the job of the SRA—need to be addressed.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the House will recognise that the noble Lord speaks with considerable experience on these matters. The Government are not prepared to see these large sums of public investment in the railways being used ineffectually. We are concerned about exactly the issue that he stated: the question of the value for money of this investment. We are carrying out a review—which will be concluded in June—of the overall structure and control of the railway system, to ensure that we have effective management to match the increased resources.

Earl Peel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if animals were subjected to the same level of overcrowding in transport as human beings are in the train service in this country, that would almost certainly be in breach of European regulations?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I have heard that point made on a number of occasions. I would not want to underestimate at all the discomfort caused—largely for commuters, but not solely for commuters—by excessive crowding, particularly on our peak travel services. That is why we are addressing the issue with these significant infusions of public money.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, has my noble friend noticed that as the nation seems to get fatter and fatter, the seats on our trains get thinner and thinner? Can he, as part of the this review, ensure that when new rolling stock is commissioned, rather than the train operators seeking to push as many people as possible into confined spaces, the operators will be reminded that the benefit of train travel is that we actually travel in comfort?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, that is an interesting question, and I am grateful to my noble friend for asking it. He is right that train design is subject to the most minute calculations in order to use the available space in the most effective way possible. The new rolling stock coming on stream is designed to improve the quality of the passenger experience, but that is measured overwhelmingly in one facet—the reliability of the train arriving on time at its pick-up points and its destination. That is why we must ensure that the ever-growing numbers of the travelling public are carried punctually by our trains.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the Minister spoke of value for money. Does he think that the leasing charges charged by the rolling stock companies to the train operating companies amount to good value for money? I understand that some of them are as high as 20 or 25 per cent of the value of the train per annum.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, several figures on the supposed profitability of these companies have been bandied about in recent months, and some of them are wildly exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is important that they give value for money. That is the role of the Rail Regulator, who has not felt the need to call into question the operating and charging systems of these companies, but would undoubtedly do so if he thought that excessive profits were being made.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that the Government will not resort to the policy of their predecessors when dealing with the problem of' overcrowding and attempt to choke off demand for rail travel by fare increases far above the rate of inflation? He may recall that during one year in the 1970s fares rose on four occasions, putting the rate of fare increases far above the inflation rate of the time. Is it not much more sensible to invest in new capacity and to cope with the demands of' the travelling public who want to travel by train in a safe and efficient way?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because it is recognised that wider society benefits from greater use of rail, which is the safest form of travel and the most convenient means of access to our city centres. We need this investment to guarantee that the journey is a good deal more comfortable than it is for some of our citizens at present.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that fares went up so rapidly and to such a high level in the 1970s because throughout the 1970s first the Conservative government and then the Labour government continued between them to raise money by cutting the investment programme seven times in six years?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, who also has enormous experience of the railways, has been even-handed in his comment on previous governments with regard to past fare rises. He was kept only by the brevity of our questions from adding that this Government are investing more heavily in the rail system than any other.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is it not time that we ended the anachronism of first-class compartments, particularly on short-haul commuter travel? Nothing more enrages the commuter than being jammed in against the door of an empty first-class compartment.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord is not speaking from bitter experience. It is for the train operating companies to judge whether they can raise sufficient revenue from their first-class provision. The noble Lord will recognise that the amount of such provision on commuter trains is limited. With the new rolling stock, it is likely to be even more limited, for the very factors that he identified.