HL Deb 21 February 2005 vol 669 cc983-6

2.50 p.m.

Lord Dubs

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to improve co-ordination between Network Rail and the train operating companies so that passengers are able to book tickets and reserve seats at a reasonable time before travelling.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords. in 2004, the Office of Rail Regulation required Network Rail to commit to a staged recovery of compliance with the condition in its network licence requiring 12 weeks' advance notice of timetable changes for engineering works. The Office of Rail Regulation is closely monitoring the recovery process and has met individual train operators and convened industry meetings in order to promote co-operation between Network Rail and train operators.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am not sure what comment to make about that Answer. I did not understand a word of what my noble friend said—or, at least, in so far as I understood it, it belies reality. Is he aware that the result of an attempt to book tickets a few days ago on the West Coast Main Line was that the railway company said on the phone that it was not taking bookings; that the station refused to take bookings; and that it was possible to make a booking on the Internet, only to discover after the event that there were no reserved seats because it was not sure whether the train would run at the time stated? Is he aware that the result is that people who want to buy reasonably economic tickets are having to pay at the last minute the very highest prices and that people with disabilities can hardly make plans to travel at all? Is not this an absolute shambles?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend did not understand the Answer; perhaps it was not as explicit as it might have been. The position is straightforward: we want Network Rail and its engineering works to hand over to train operating companies access to the rail 12 weeks in advance so that the companies can take bookings 12 weeks in advance. That was the custom in the past. It was ruined by the Hatfield disaster and we have been working since that time, through the renewal of the track and engineering works, to get back to the 12-week period. The good news is that we will be on target with the 12-week period in September of this year. The bad news, as my noble friend has accurately reflected, is that the period before Easter, which we hoped would be six weeks, is, for four operating companies, four weeks or less.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I do not want to prolong this, but the problem exists before all public holidays in this country. People are not able to buy tickets in advance and cannot make plans to travel. Therefore, they are forced to travel by road. Will the noble Lord impress on the management of Network Rail—and I have no idea how that is done because the government structures are so obscure—that it must adhere to its target date and, what is more, that it must not occupy the railway on every public holiday, which is grossly wasteful of taxpayers' money and thoroughly upsets everyone's travelling arrangements?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, save one. The position is not obscure: the Office of Rail Regulation has told Network Rail, which has responsibility for engineering works on the track, that it is to meet the schedule of 12 weeks' compliance by September of this year. It sought to reach a compliance of six weeks for this Easter, and has failed in that respect. The Office of Rail Regulation called a meeting of the industry and brought in Network Rail last week to identify the latest state of affairs. I agree with the noble Lord that for people to plan their journeys intelligently those 12 weeks are required, and that is what we expect to achieve by September of this year.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, to follow up the point made by my noble friend Lord Dubs about the non-availability of the cheapest fares, is the Minister aware that First Great Western has been completely unable to offer any Apex tickets to any of its destinations at weekends for the past six or nine months? That has a particular bearing on the very large number of people who wish to travel to Cardiff for sporting events at the Millennium Stadium. I declare an interest, as its deputy chairman. The unavailability of those tickets is forcing people to pay twice as much for those journeys as they would otherwise have paid.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, my noble friend mentioned First Great Western, which is opening bookings for Good Friday this coming Friday—four weeks in advance—and for Easter Saturday to the following Friday on Tuesday 8 March, giving a two-week margin. It was called in with other train operators because the Office of Rail Regulation does not consider this to be remotely satisfactory. That is why it has been made quite clear to the industry that compliance must be achieved by September.

Baroness Golding

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that you can no longer buy tickets at railway stations on the West Coast Main Line to go on Eurostar and that you have to go to Waterloo to pick them up? Does he think that that is being done for the convenience of passengers?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, we have obviously had enormous strategic problems with the railways. The whole House will recognise that there are major reasons for that. However, I think that my noble friend will recognise that it is not in the interests of train operating companies to make the purchase of tickets difficult. Recently there has been great difficulty in booking tickets in advance and in making reservations, and that is to be deplored. The Office of Rail Regulation has made it absolutely clear that that is not to continue. The train operating companies are turning away good customers if they are not providing an adequate ticket reservation process, and it is in their interests eventually to do so.

Baroness Wall of New Barnet

My Lords, would my noble friend like to hear a different story? In the past two months I travelled to Manchester from London Euston and last week I went to Liverpool from London Euston. On both occasions, I booked on the Internet, reserved a ticket and paid less for a first-class ticket than I would have paid for what used to be called second class.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I am always impressed by the richness of experience in your Lordships' House. At times, that can be quite helpful at the Dispatch Box.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is there not an argument for bringing Virgin into the department and asking whether, in the light of immense public concern nationally, it can devise an interim system to enable people to buy cheap tickets?

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, the whole purpose of the meeting at the Office of Rail Regulation last week was to make it clear that improvements were necessary. However, I sought to say in my original, somewhat obscure—although technically accurate—Answer that the biggest single problem for the train operating companies is access to the track in sufficient time. That difficulty relates to the whole issue of Network Rail and the maintenance and upkeep of the track.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, would not all these problems and many others be solved if we returned to a fully integrated railway system under public control? Was not that what the Labour Party promised before the general election of nineteen forty—

Noble Lords


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I meant 1997, my Lords—I go back a long way.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, I note the noble Lord's movement in his contribution from independent to old Labour. It was not unknown, under the former ownership of British Rail, for there to be difficulties with train timetables.

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