Railways: Great Western Franchise — Question
2:36 pm

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Lord Berkeley (Labour)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether the new Great Western rail franchise specification for trains between Bath, Bristol, Newport and Cardiff, and intermediate stations, will take into account recent increases in population and demand.

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, recent increases in population and demand will indeed be taken into account. In drawing up the objectives for the new Great Western franchise, emphasis has been placed on the need to provide appropriate capacity for passengers, within the constraints of affordability and available infrastructure. We are looking closely at recent growth trends and forecast demand as part of the specification process.

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Lord Berkeley (Labour)

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Presumably he will have read-because I sent it to him-a report of the West of England Partnership's Joint Transport Executive Committee, which the committee will in fact discuss tomorrow, proposing a greater Bristol-area metro network with much more frequent regional trains and some extra new stations. Will he ensure that that kind of specification is included in the tender specification for the new franchise?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, the noble Lord raises an extremely important point. The Government's objective is to strike an equitable balance of stakeholder interests: the fare payer, the taxpayer, the long-distance business traveller and the commuter. These stakeholders are obviously in conflict. Because of this, we urge our friends in the west and south-west of England to reach a consensus on their priorities so that we can use our resources to progress them to best effect.

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Lord Bradshaw (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, the last Great Western franchise was almost a disaster from the day it was let. It has had to be rescued both with more rolling stock and more money. Will the Minister give an undertaking that, whichever bids are received for the new franchise, they are robust bids and, as it will be a 15-year franchise, that they will include quite a contribution of new ideas, new rolling stock and new infrastructure?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, my noble friend makes important points. Although value for money is high up on the agenda, given the challenges set by the McNulty review, the exact evaluation criteria are yet to be determined, but they will reflect the franchise objectives that, for clarity, are managing change, providing appropriate capacity, ensuring that the passenger experience continues to improve, operational and environmental performance, and delivering efficiencies.

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The Bishop of Exeter (Bishop)

My Lords, the Great Western franchise is one of the most complex in the country, with a clear demarcation between the London-Swansea axis and the London-Penzance axis. It is vital that fare balance is maintained in the specification to reflect the needs of the whole community. However, in the West Country, there are very real concerns about whether that will be the case. In particular, there is a high degree of uncertainty about the integrity of the franchise specification. Can the Minister offer a clear statement for the Department of Transport about whether the specification will be a guidance document only for bidders or whether it will be regarded as the default position? Does he recognise that the danger is that bidders will load the premium payment for the franchise at the expense of essential elements within the specification and that the south-west peninsula could be the loser?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate asked several extremely complicated questions, and I think it would be better if I wrote to him. However, I have confidence in the whole franchising process. We are determined to strike the right balance between the needs of all stakeholders. As I said in my response to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, there is a conflict between stakeholders that needs to be resolved.

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Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Labour)

My Lords, I will keep my question brief and simple. Will the Minister confirm that the present rolling stock on the line is quite inadequate, and that it would be totally unreasonable to expect it to continue to be used until electrification in 2018? In the circumstances, and with reference to his first Answer, will he confirm to the people in that part of the country who use the line that the franchise will invite new rolling stock?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, first, we need to be careful about being too specific about which rolling stock should be used. To do so would compromise the negotiations between the train operating company and the rolling stock company. However, a new fleet of IEP trains is expected to be provided for the franchise for InterCity services. This project was initiated by the previous Administration. The new operator is expected to take responsibility for the provision of other rolling stock on the franchise.

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Lord Cormack (Conservative)

If the Government attach such importance to value for money, why are they persisting with HS2?

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Baroness Corston (Labour)

My Lords, in his Answer to my noble friend Lord Berkeley, the Minister referred to conflicts in the greater Bristol and south-west England area. Will he confirm whether the department is looking kindly on the proposal for the greater Bristol metro?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, the document that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, referred to covers the Bristol metro. It would be very helpful to have a response from local stakeholders on how they want the balance to be struck between the needs of the metro system and those of longer-distance travellers.

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Baroness Randerson (Liberal Democrat)

Will the Minister give us an assurance that the franchise will be let in a manner that is compatible with the establishment of a south Wales valleys metro-a project on which there is a considerable degree of consensus and unanimity in the area?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, I am sure that officials take all relevant considerations into account, but I cannot comment on my noble friend's particular point.

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Lord Davies of Oldham (Labour)

My Lords, no doubt rail passengers will look with some hope-which we expect to be fulfilled-for the improvement of a service that has been the subject of considerable criticism and dismay among passengers right along the line. Will the Minister confirm that the terms of the franchise will allow fares to be increased by 8 per cent in 2013-14, and possibly thereafter?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, I am not aware of the noble Lord's particular point, but we cannot operate a railway system for free; it has to be paid for, and paid for by fares.

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Lord West of Spithead (Labour)

My Lords, on this Cornish patron saint's day, will the Minister support the continuance of the overnight sleeper service to Cornwall?

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Earl Attlee (Conservative)

My Lords, unfortunately I omitted to ask about the overnight sleeper service to Cornwall. However, some of my ministerial colleagues have great affection for that service.