Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 9 February 1998.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport) 7:12, 9 February 1998

I beg to move, That this House notes that rail privatisation by the Conservative Government has been a disaster, failing on many routes to deliver customer satisfaction, reliability or an integrated service; and therefore calls on the Government to work with the regulator to set and enforce standards, withhold grants in cases of persistent failure, and bring forward policies to deliver investment in a safe, reliable and affordable rail system at the heart of an integrated sustainable transport strategy. This is an important debate. As a nation, we travel to work on trains, we go to see our friends on the train, we conduct our business by train. The train network is and remains an integral part of British daily life. It will become even more important in future as we strive to cut the number of unnecessary car journeys. The arguments against rising car use are well rehearsed and I shall not go into too much detail now. The debate on the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill showed the cross-party consensus on the issue, although regrettably, Conservative Front Benchers oppose national targets for cutting unnecessary car use.

Car ownership is predicted to increase by as much as 40 per cent., and many roads and motorways are already at capacity. The rail network is vital to reducing the resulting congestion and air pollution. Rail can take a bigger proportion of travellers and freight, but will not do so if we cannot make it more attractive and reliable.

The apparently easy task of getting from A to B by train is often far from simple. I say that as one of the Members who has the furthest to travel, and regularly does so by train using the relatively good Great Western service. Still, I have seen the problems and I know from talking to the hard-working staff that they have seen them too.

For too many people, rail travel is a time-consuming, costly, unreliable and confusing process. A cursory flick through the national press of the past few months confirms this: "Privatisation comes off the rails"; "Rail companies attacked for poor service"; "Rail companies told to shape up"; "Rail complaints rise"; "Rail fares rise as service declines". These have all been national newspaper headlines since privatisation.

Meanwhile some people have reaped a bonanza: "£400 million profit", read the headlines as Porterbrook directors got rich when the rail leasing firm was sold to Stagecoach. No wonder the National Audit Office is investigating whether the Government have really achieved value for money in the brave new world of post-privatisation transport competition.

Is that really what the Conservative Government had in mind when they went ahead with one of the most ill-judged privatisations of recent years? They may have promised us an improved, cheaper and more efficient service, but that is not what we got. Liberal Democrats opposed the Conservative Government's privatisation; we never believed that it would deliver quality of service to rail users or the investment that the rail network needed.

We wanted to develop new investment partnerships with the private sector. We suggested opening up routes to private operators if the public sector would not or could not make that investment, but we did not believe that privatisation was the solution—and we have been proved right.

Taking the rail service industry back into public hands is now impractical—that horse has bolted. It is simply too expensive; and 18 years of Tory mismanagement have left many other services crumbling for want of cash: schools, hospitals and public housing, for instance. There are vast demands for public sector investment.

Government intervention cannot make the system perfect, either. Whoever owns the railways, we know that there will never be 100 per cent. punctuality and reliability—any more than car drivers can expect to have a good idea of when they will arrive in London from Cornwall. That form of transport is even less punctual and reliable—a point I often make to those who criticise the railways. There will always be a tree that falls on the line, a lorry that crashes into a bridge. The problems of the rail service today go far beyond all that.

A prime example would be bad management, which is when the Government have an obligation to intervene. The debacle of the cancellations of South West Trains last year is a case in point—cutting the number of train drivers to save money to the point where services cannot run because there are not enough drivers is obviously unacceptable. It was indeed the worst kind of mismanagement.

Never let us forget that the companies are subsidised by the taxpayer, and if services are not delivered owing to bad management decisions, the companies must be effectively penalised. Only when poor service directly equates to poor profits for those companies will things change; that has not yet happened.

The latest figures from the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising show that, compared with the corresponding figures for the previous year, performance figures to the end of 1997 have taken a marked turn for the worse. Punctuality deteriorated on nearly half the reported route groups. That triggered season ticket discounts on six routes: Anglia, Cross Country, Great North Eastern, Great Western, and two west coast train routes, North West and Scotland. Almost one third of all routes failed to meet their passenger charter targets. Great North Eastern, Great Western, Virgin Cross Country and Virgin West Coast Trains performed so badly in terms of punctuality that they were obliged to offer discounts to season ticket holders. They were so bad, in fact, that they had to return the annual basic funding on which they rely.

Reliability indicators were little better. They, too deteriorated on nearly half the routes, triggering season ticket discounts on two routes, Anglia and Regional Railways. Eighteen service groups failed to meet their passenger charter targets. In 1997, companies that performed badly in respect of train cancellations included South West Trains, Anglia, Central, Connex South Central and Connex South Eastern, LTS and Regional Railways North East.

Meanwhile, subsidies have increased vastly, up from £1 billion under British Rail the year before privatisation to about £2 billion now. Despite that, quality standards on many parts of the network are slipping. A tiny minority of customers received refunds—those who experienced the worst delays and who could afford to buy season tickets, or those who experienced the very worst delays provided that they were not due to natural causes. Even then, they were often entitled only to a percentage of their fare.

Having taken up cases before privatisation, I know from experience that British Rail was often far more generous than many of the present operators in giving such returns. Now, the operators generally work to agreements set through the regulator and will not go beyond those, whereas discretion was often used quite generously in the past if passengers had a genuine cause for complaint.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Is it not also a fact that, because many people travel with more than one rail operator, they find it difficult to pursue a complaint? For example, three operators may have all failed to deliver the rail service that they should have done.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

I agree. I was dictating a letter to just such a disgruntled passenger earlier. I have been trying to achieve some acceptance of responsibility, let alone compensation, on the part of three different operators. We have settled for agreeing between ourselves that the system is not working because we seem to be able to make no progress with the complaint. Here, I must congratulate Great Western Trains, which often gives full refunds voluntarily when it believes that a complaint is justified.

The truth is that the majority of passengers who are affected by delays do not come into categories that would entitle them to compensation on most lines and so receive not a penny back. On the contrary, the majority have experienced slipping standards combined with real-terms fare rises.

Anglia Railways, which runs commuter services from Essex and Suffolk to London's Liverpool Street station, produced the worst monthly performance since privatisation, when 37 per cent. of its trains from November to December ran late. Yet, in the first week of January, the company enjoyed a fare increase of 4.3 per cent. above inflation. Indeed, several of the worst performing companies, including Connex South Eastern, Connex South Central and Anglia Railways, increased their fares above the inflation rate early this year.

Faced with poor services and rising prices, the only option available to many customers was to complain, and that they have been doing in droves. Last summer, complaints soared by 96 per cent. They concerned reliability, overcrowding, punctuality, information at stations, the suitability of services and carriage cleanliness. Between June and September, the London regional passenger committee alone dealt with a record 769 complaints.

Also, hon. Members may not be entirely surprised to hear that complaints about Virgin West Coast were among the highest, rising by 83 per cent., while those about Connex South Central were up a massive 158 per cent. A pattern of certain names already seems to be emerging in my speech. Frankly, that is down to bad management.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) manages to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I know that he is keen to explore the figures further. I should risk unduly delaying the House if I went through all the figures that are available to show the size of the problem.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

The hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that I shall not do it, but I hope that he will tackle the real problems facing his constituents.

We are talking about bad management made worse by inadequate powers for the regulator and insufficient overall national co-ordination. I do not believe that it is a coincidence that the most heavily penalised rail company, Connex South Eastern, has failed to tackle management issues, such as the high incidence of drivers taking sick leave, or to cope with staff shortages at one of its main repair and maintenance depots. Is it any wonder that South West Trains, another familiar name, which encouraged drivers to take redundancy only to find that it did not have enough left, performed badly during the year in terms of train cancellations? It was fined just over £1.8 million, but in the same financial period it was awarded £1.7 million as a special performance bonus. In other words, for all the disruption and misery caused to passengers by poor management decisions, the company was fined a net £100,000 compared to the annual £63 million subsidy that it is paid by the taxpayer.

The train operating companies would no doubt argue that recent performance levels are better than they were shortly before privatisation, although if one speaks to them they tend to accept that their performance has been inadequate. South West Trains admitted as much to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown). It is true that the operating companies took on a difficult job post-privatisation. They are coping with the Conservative backlog of under-investment in rolling stock and infrastructure that will take years to make up.

However, the problems go deeper than that. No passenger who has had to stand on an empty platform, as I and a number of my constituents who have written to me have done, after a connection has left the station minutes before our train arrived, will accept that excuse. The late train that I arrived on was not late enough for the operator to be fined—often, it is a matter of minutes. The operator of the connecting service ensured that it left on time so that it did not risk a fine for running late. The passenger ends up stranded. In the old days, the passenger came first. Station staff had the flexibility to ensure that they met the connection. Now, the passenger is literally left behind and stranded passengers cannot even bask in the thought that the operating company will be penalised for the failure. On the contrary, because both the trains I mentioned were within the time limits, the operators were given a pat on the back and could hope for performance bonuses at the end of the year, as South West Trains discovered.

It is more than two years since the first private operators took over. Privatisation was meant to transform the service, which had been run down before privatisation by massive under-investment. By 1993–94, the year of privatisation, investment had dropped to just £817 million. Those failing train companies are now two years into a seven-year franchise. The major decisions on investment have to be taken early or the short franchises will preclude the value of investing.

The failure to deliver a much better quality service, despite a doubling of state subsidy to £2 billion, is a scandal. Too often, train operating companies are not even capable of organising the correct information on their services, let alone running them. The regulator's report on national rail inquiries speaks volumes. One in 10 travellers received the wrong information, only one in five inquiries about advance purchase tickets was correctly answered and one third of answers to inquiries about advance Sunday tickets were wrong. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I now have a rule. If I have to phone the National Rail Enquiry Service about a route that I do not know well, I phone twice to find out whether the information is the same—regularly, it is not.

Meanwhile, it is true that Railtrack's performance is improving and that the percentage of occasions on which it causes delays is dropping as the train operating companies' performance deteriorates. However, Railtrack is still responsible for 60 per cent. of passenger delays. While it has had some real success in maintaining the existing network, this year only 18 miles of track—the Heathrow express line—is scheduled for electrification, which is hardly a brave new world for our railways.

We cannot debate this subject without touching on the confusion in London and Continental Railways. If anything can sum up the 18 years of misguided Tory rule, it is the abject failure to get the high-speed link built. Let us look at what the taxpayer handed over: £1.4 billion in cash on delivery; the entire Eurostar operation running through the channel tunnel; hugely valuable land around King's Cross; and even the brand new terminus at Waterloo, which incidentally was built on time and within budget by the publicly owned British Rail, which the Conservatives would not trust to build the high-speed link.

If the Government can find a way of getting the link built, to get car and lorry traffic off the roads, it will help meet their objectives on CO2 and traffic congestion reduction and they will receive the full support of the Liberal Democrats. I hope that the search will be on for private sector partners, since it is hard to see how even more funding can be found from the taxpayer, however much Labour Back Benchers may welcome nationalisation. I have some sympathy for Ministers wrestling with this problem, which was caused by the Tories, but it is not easy to see the solutions. Perhaps Ministers will be able to tell us today of any progress that they have made. The privatised railway receives hundreds of millions of pounds in subsidy from taxpayers each year, and we expect high-quality services in return. Those are not my words, but the words of the Minister of Transport, speaking shortly after the general election. We agree, but does the Minister believe that we now have such a high-quality service? If not, are not firm leadership and tough action as overdue as so many of our train arrivals?

The Minister has said that the Government would use all the tools at their disposal to ensure that the public interest always comes first. The Labour party manifesto said that an increase in the number of passengers and amount of freight that was carried by rail was an overriding goal. We welcome and support those objectives but, despite the fact that the debate focuses on the botched privatisation of rail by the Conservative Government, we now have a Labour Government. They have been in office for nine months and have taken almost no discernible action on this issue. We are promised a White Paper soon and there are endless leaks about what may happen, but it is time for the House to know a little more about the Government's plans and how they will implement them. The Government must answer some key questions today.

The interim package of measures that was introduced in November last year—it is mentioned in the Government's amendment—was announced with a fanfare, but what, if any, changes for the better have resulted? On what occasions and to what effect has the Minister made use of the information provided? Everyone shares the concerns expressed in the so-called concordat with the regulator, but it is not obvious that things have changed in practice—as yet, action is another matter.

The Government said that the realisation of a range of objectives—including ensuring that public subsidies were used to enhance services and maximise value for money, and increasing safety and security from crime for rail users—would require primary legislation. When is such legislation likely to come before the House, as people want early action?

When will there be legislation to establish a new national rail authority, which was one of the pledges in Labour's manifesto? How will the authority work in practice? From the various leaks in the newspapers, it seems that there are plenty of ideas bubbling around, but they are not being debated in the House, as they are not being communicated to the people who will actually have to take the decisions.

How will the Government ensure that there is investment in the rail industry? We have heard much about public-private partnerships, but little detail of what that means. What examples can Ministers point to? More importantly, can they elaborate on the apparently well-briefed article in the Sunday papers that suggested that the Deputy Prime Minister might be winning his battle for change with the Treasury? It is important that we know whether progress is being made.

Liberal Democrats want a doubling of passenger numbers and a trebling of the amount of freight that is carried on Britain's railways; we shall have to make those changes if we are to meet the road traffic reduction targets and tackle global warming. In the longer term, we need to change current incentives—paid for at a huge cost to the taxpayer—for people to have company cars, to jump in their cars more often, to drive further and to own larger cars. Part of the money saved could be invested in public transport.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

I notice that the hon. Gentleman seems to be coming to the end of his speech. Before he does, will he outline the solutions that Liberal Democrats offer for all those problems? Will he say how his great aims of doubling this and achieving that will be met? Where will the money come from?

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

The hon. Gentleman was clearly thinking about his question; if he had been listening, he would have heard me answer his points just before he spoke. The Conservative party was not noted for listening in government, and I guess that we should not expect too much more from it in opposition.

We believe that a key policy is to ensure that local authorities have enough money to exploit public-private packages and the solutions that they offer in cities.

That could entail funds from road pricing, for example. Moreover, I am glad that the Government announced—I do not know whether the announcement was official—that local authorities will have access to money raised through fines from the enforcement of motor vehicle standards. That money will make a real difference to the investment flow, but that cannot happen until we have sorted out the management and regulation of the private sector companies that are currently making such a botched job of running our railways. It would be quite wrong to add subsidy to subsidy to solve a problem that is largely down to bad management.

I want a virtuous circle of investment and growth in the rail industry. We believe that the regulator's role needs toughening—I am glad that the Government agree, but we need action rather than words. We must encourage investment partnerships between the private and public sectors; again, we need action, not words. We need to co-ordinate a properly integrated rail network to replace the current divided network, which leaves passengers stranded at the station as the train chugs out from another platform.

It is time for the Government to act. The problems in the rail industry will not be solved overnight. The sooner we start, the sooner Britain will have a modern, safe, reliable and affordable rail network. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to explain how he intends to achieve that.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 7:34, 9 February 1998

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: deplores the previous Government's privatisation of the railways, which has made a large profit for a few, but has been a poor deal for the taxpayer and the passenger, and has fragmented the rail network; welcomes the Government's interim package of measures introduced in November 1997—new Objectives, Instructions and Guidance for the Franchising Director, new planning criteria for OPRAF and a Concordat with the Rail Regulator—which puts the interests of rail users first; and commends the Government's commitment to establish effective and accountable regulation and to set up a new rail authority so that passengers' legitimate expectations are met. I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for this chance to discuss the railways. I certainly welcome the opportunity to expose the mistakes that were made when the railway was privatised, and to highlight the proper role for the railway in an integrated transport policy.

I shall start by reminding the House of the shortcomings of the railway regime that we inherited last May, and shall then set out the Government's transport policy objectives. Finally, I shall describe what we have done, and what we intend to do in the longer term, to tackle the obvious flaws that we inherited.

Rail privatisation damaged the interests of passengers and taxpayers. As we said in our manifesto, it made fortunes for a few, but has been a poor deal for the taxpayer. For example, we can contrast the profits that have been made by train operators, Railtrack and the rolling stock companies with the industry's disappointing performance so far.

We inherited a privatisation that was ill thought out and implemented with indecent haste. As a result, mistakes were made, and the weaknesses of the system are clear for all to see. The extreme fragmentation of the industry will not benefit the passenger in the short or long term.

There is no focus for strategic planning or investment in the railway industry. The railways will receive £1.8 billion in passenger grants this year, which is more than 50 per cent. higher in real terms than the average grant paid to British Rail in the five years from 1989 to 1994. However, there is no mechanism for taking a long-term view of passenger and freight companies' plans and assessing whether they match the public interest.

This is not a commercial matter that can be left entirely to the fragmented rail industry. There is no reason why the sum of the plans produced by all the train operators and Railtrack should produce the best result for the user and the taxpayer. An overall vision is needed, but it is sadly lacking at present. That is an important reason why we need a national rail authority. Such an authority becomes all the more important if we are serious about promoting an integrated and sustainable transport strategy that will make rail an increasingly attractive alternative to cars and lorries.

The fragmentation of the industry has hindered planning and integration at the local and regional level. Local authorities that want to promote rail schemes and service improvements have had to pick their way through a maze of bodies and contracts.

More positively, passenger mileage has increased by 7 per cent. in the past year, reflecting the growth in the economy. However, not all the privatised train operators are delivering improved service standards. I do not say that all services have got worse, but the picture is decidedly patchy, as the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell effectively argued. Passengers have a right to expect better overall performance. The franchising director recently said that performance levels generally continue to concern and disappoint me. We are not talking only about overcrowding, punctuality and reliability. The House will not need reminding of the well-publicised failures in such key aspects of integrated transport as ticketing and passenger information. We should consider how important it is to have simple and reliable information about fares and then contrast that with the present confusion.

Since privatisation, those fares that are not regulated have been shooting up and down. I am not against train operators being innovative and offering a good product, but part of the legacy of fragmentation has been to make it harder for people to know what fares are available. The appalling early performance of the National Rail Enquiry Service has not helped.

We also inherited a hotchpotch of responsibilities split between the franchising director and the Rail Regulator. More importantly, the powers available to the regulatory authorities are insufficient. The existing sanctions available under the Railways Act 1993 are complex, take a long time to implement and allow only limited scope for financial penalties on operators. Penalties can be avoided altogether by an operator who takes swift corrective action after a contractual breach has occurred.

Regulation is another fundamental weakness in the railway regime. Railtrack, a monopoly supplier, was soon judged by the regulator to be inadequately regulated. It got off to a slow start, building up a significant backlog of investment, and in January 1997 the Rail Regulator condemned as wholly unacceptable Railtrack's £700 million investment shortfall. When we took office, we also found great concern that Railtrack was not responsive to proposals for increasing capacity, especially for rail freight.

The key rolling stock leasing companies—the ROSCOs—are not regulated at all, but we hear frequent complaints about their performance.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the way in which Railtrack has confused maintenance and capital investment? It is important that the public should realise that Railtrack—unlike British Rail, which made it clear what was investment and what was maintenance—is confusing the figures so neatly that, even taking into account the inadequate sums that my right hon. Friend mentioned, it is clear that the company is not performing properly. It should be required to be far more transparent.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My hon. Friend makes an important point based on her experience and knowledge of the industry. It is true that we need higher investment in the railways and we look to Railtrack to deliver that.

We found on taking office that the sale of British Rail's channel tunnel business, Railfreight Distribution, was in limbo, awaiting clearance from the European Commission; there was no national strategy for giving freight a sufficient priority on the network; and we discovered a long history of underspending of even the modest budgets set aside by the previous Administration for rail freight grants.

I have described the flawed regime that we inherited in May. Over the past nine months, we have started the task of ensuring that rail plays a full part in an integrated transport policy. We regard our railway as a national asset, and one that we need to make better use of. The concept of an integrated transport policy has captured people's imagination, showing the importance of transport and the dissatisfaction with the current situation. The public mood for change reinforced our determination to launch last June a fundamental review of transport policy.

Our objectives are clear. They are to provide for a strong and sustainable economy, to achieve a more inclusive society, and to protect and improve the environment. We are not looking at transport in isolation. We are considering the links between transport and wider Government objectives and policies, for example, on health, sustainable development and social exclusion.

It is clear that the car and the lorry will remain an integral part of our society and that the road network will play a crucial part in people's lives, but we want to reduce car dependency. The forecast growth in road traffic of between a third and a half by 2016 is unacceptable because of its wider consequences. We must learn to strike a better balance between the various modes of transport.

I shall say a few words about what we have achieved so far. On 6 November 1997, I announced three new measures to boost investment, protect passengers' rights and ensure that private rail operators provide high-quality services. First, we issued the franchising director with new objectives which deal with the real issues that matter most to passengers—investment in decent rolling stock and stations, high standards of punctuality and reliability, and the protection of passenger rights.

The overriding priority left to the franchising director by the previous Government was to privatise rail services as quickly as possible. The new objectives make it the franchising director's principal aim to win more passengers on to the railway, to ensure improvements in the quality of rail services and to manage franchise contracts tightly in the public interest. In short, they make passengers' interests paramount. That is especially the case in respect of enforcement action by the franchising director. When contravention of a franchise agreement is material, the franchising director is to take prompt action that secures additional benefits as compensation for passengers. In other words, the passenger benefits rather than just the Exchequer. In more extreme cases, the franchising director is to have recourse to his powers to make enforcement notices specifying fines.

The new guidance to the franchising director is beginning to bring results. For example, he has today announced that he has secured measures to alleviate the serious overcrowding that is affecting key parts of the Connex South Central services. As soon as it became clear that Connex would exceed the load factors in the franchise agreement, the franchising director directed Connex to provide additional capacity quickly. The measures agreed with the franchising director include the allocation of higher-capacity rolling stock, the leasing of additional units, and the lengthening of some trains. The additional capacity is to be fully in place by April.

The franchising director has said that he intends to ensure that all the London commuter operators take swift action to reduce severe overcrowding, where network capacity is available. He has assured me that he will continue to require urgent action if train operators might breach their load factor limits.

The new objectives emphasise the importance of improving the security of rail passengers, not least of women, for whom personal security is a significant issue. The objectives also refer to the promotion of the use of bicycles, and the need to ensure, as far as possible, that the railway provides suitable facilities for cyclists.

The new objectives for the franchising director also make investment a priority. With that in mind, I set out on 6 November a set of planning criteria that will provide an effective framework for developing and implementing worthwhile rail investment, which will improve the range and quality of the services available to rail users. We have asked the franchising director to ensure that local authorities and other potential promoters of rail investment are given clear and well-publicised advice on the mechanism for appraising and delivering new investment.

The third element in our interim railways package, which I announced on 6 November, is a voluntary concordat between Ministers and the Rail Regulator. Firm, fair and accountable regulation is essential for passengers and for the industry on which they depend. We inherited a regulatory structure which—remarkably lid not give the regulator any formal indication of what the Government wanted for the railways. The concordat bridges that gap.

We welcomed the Rail Regulator's voluntary agreement with Railtrack last year, which amended its licence so that the regulator could better ensure that Railtrack invests in the network at the right levels and for the best results. If it proves necessary, we will not hesitate to tighten regulation by legislation. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has also asked the Rail Regulator to undertake a thorough and fundamental examination of all the issues raised by the current arrangements for the supply of rolling stock to train operating companies.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Office)

Before the Minister finishes listing the Government's achievements, can he tell the House what they have done about the national rail inquiry line? The Minister correctly identified the inquiry line as a major problem. I have found that I need a four-call approach—the first two to get different prices, the third to be told that the service does not exist and the fourth directly to the train operating company to get the true answer. What have the Government done about that major problem at the first point of contact with the railway system?

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have raised the issue with the Rail Regulator several times. We have been informed that the service is improving, and when I have used it I have found it to be satisfactory. However, I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comments and I will draw them to the attention of the Rail Regulator. The hon. Gentleman should understand that we have to operate within the current legislative framework and it is up to the Rail Regulator to enforce the measures necessary to improve that vital service.

The Government expect the rolling stock companies, and the rest of the industry, to promote the use and development of the railway in the way that best meets the needs of passengers and taxpayers. We have already taken action to boost the take-up of freight grants.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

On rolling stock, given that the franchisees—the train operating companies—show reluctance to invest as their franchises near the end of a period, will the new regulatory powers that the Government have taken in relation to the rolling stock companies be used to ensure that ROSCOs take risks by investing in new rolling stock against a guarantee that future franchises will require future franchisees to take on rolling stock that has been purchased by the current franchisee or ROSCO in the event that the franchise passes from one company to another?

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The franchise system depends on the ROSCOs. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced that the regulator will examine the position of ROSCOs and consider what additional regulatory measures may be required. The regulator is to report back by mid-April, which will give us plenty of opportunity to take a decision on that in advance of any legislation that we may introduce. The Government expect the rolling stock companies and the rest of the industry to promote the use and development of the railway in the way that best meets the needs of passengers and taxpayers.

We have already taken action to boost the take-up of freight grants. We have published new guidance for prospective applicants that cuts through much of the previous red tape. Last year, the Government spent £15 million on direct freight grants; the budget this year is £30 million, almost all of which is likely to be taken up. For 1998–99, despite public expenditure pressures, we have increased funding to £40 million. That is what I meant when I said at Question Time that when it comes to freight, this Government put their money where their mouth is.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

I am listening carefully, but the Minister has not yet said specifically what the Government intend to do to drive freight haulage off the roads and on to the rail system. It is obvious that road haulage is responsible for many accidents and delays on the roads.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We have massively increased the opportunity to take up grants for investment in rail freight. I shall explain the progress that we have made in respect of the channel tunnel. He would agree that the channel tunnel, if nothing else, should drive more freight on to the railways.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

Does the Minister agree that saying that the Government should take measures to move transport from lorries and on to rail is an oversimplification? Are not the majority of heavy goods vehicle journeys 40 miles or less? If such lorry movements were discouraged, many lorries would have to travel further to get to rail heads.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

The hon. Gentleman is right that the railway comes into its own only for longer journeys, unless there is a dedicated arrangement such as those that used to exist between collieries and electricity power stations. For the normal network, rail is economically viable only for reasonably long journeys. The House will agree that there is great scope for many fairly long journeys that currently go by road to go by rail.

At European level in December, the United Kingdom and French Governments, the railways—Railfreight Distribution and SNCF—and Eurotunnel agreed arrangements to facilitate the development of rail freight traffic through the tunnel and beyond, not only by Railfreight Distribution but by potential new entrants to the market.

The hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell mentioned the future of the channel tunnel rail link. I am glad that he agrees that it would not have been right to give another £1.2 billion to London and Continental Railways. I think that the House appreciated that the Deputy Prime Minister came straight away that evening to explain the situation. The position is that LCR has been given 30 days. In that time, it is possible for it to produce a revised proposal to enable the link to be built. We want a fast link, as my right hon. Friend made clear. The hon. Gentleman will understand that while those negotiations are continuing, as they are, it would be inappropriate for a Minister to say any more than what was said when my right hon. Friend made his announcement.

Much has been achieved over the past nine months, but what we have been able to do has inevitably been limited by the current legal framework. For example, our commitment to create a new rail authority requires legislation. We will work up the details of our proposals for inclusion in the White Paper on transport in the spring.

Our White Paper will also set out how we intend to ensure a high standard of safety across all modes of transport. Railways already have a good safety record. The latest figures published by the Health and Safety Executive show that the improving trend was maintained in 1996–97. However, as the tragedy in Southall and last week's near miss at Paddington remind us, safety on the railways must be pursued with energy and vigilance. The railway inspectorate's last annual report revealed that some operators have tried to reduce safety levels to the minimum allowed, saying that maintaining, or improving on, the status quo is too costly. The House will agree that there can be no question of putting profit before safety. We look to the independent Health and Safety Commission, as the safety regulator, to ensure that standards are maintained, and improved where necessary. Last month, I wrote to the chairman of the commission making it clear that he should bring forward any formal proposals on automatic train protection and mark I rolling stock that the commission considers necessary. We will, of course, consult the commission on our legislative proposals for the railways.

We will also work in partnership with the railway companies where it is in the public interest. For example, Railtrack's investment in security and station regeneration provides opportunities for partnership locally and nationally. We also want to encourage the best examples of transport integration by the new operators. For example, integrated rail-bus ticketing and information provision was introduced in the west midlands in October. The scheme involves 50 bus companies and six train operators in the region, making it probably the largest example of integrated ticketing outside the London travelcard area.

The areas for action on railways that I have described will complement our wider plans for developing an integrated transport strategy. The White Paper will set out a strategic framework for sustainable transport policy for this Parliament and beyond. We are determined to establish a new framework to enable rail to play a full role in overall transport policy. We shall not hesitate to take action to remedy the defects that I have described.

Photo of Betty Williams Betty Williams Labour, Conwy

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the plight of disabled people? We talk about integrated transport policy; for some, that meant that they could put their invalid cars on trains. A constituent, since rail privatisation, has been unable to do that. We must recognise the plight and rights of disabled people. That is what equality really means.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

My hon. Friend raises an important point. On the disabled, the House will agree that we need to move forward on every transport mode, including the railways.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

This is a crucial point. I have a constituent who was travelling with more than one operator and so was unable to discover whether it was possible to be met at unstaffed stations or to come back. No one could give a guarantee on that to my constituent.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Minister of State, Department for Transport, Minister of State (Transport), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If he provides me with details of the case, I will write to him.

Train operators have entered freely into competitive contracts that said that they needed to provide a good and improving service. The public have a right to expect decent, clean, safe and reliable services. We are determined to ensure by effective and accountable regulation that the industry delivers that continuous improvement in the quality of services.

There is a consensus that we want more people and goods to travel by rail. For reasons of economy, safety and the environment, there is a powerful case for increasing the role of the railways in our transport system, for both passengers and freight. We have already taken steps to put rail users first. In the coming months, we intend to build on that progress and provide a railway of which we can be proud.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London) 7:58, 9 February 1998

We start the debate from the fairly bizarre position that the real Opposition are in the business of defending one of Britain's great national assets against attack from the Government and their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

I start from the fundamental premise that, at the moment, the privatised rail service is not performing as well as we would wish, but its long-term future is not just good, but excellent. We believe that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were wrong to oppose the privatisation of the railways, and that by the next general election they will defend that policy. They will do so by claiming that, having moved round a few deckchairs and having imposed a few extra burdens on the private sector, the improvements already in the pipeline will have occurred only as a result of their shuffling of the pack.

At first sight, no one can accuse the Liberal Democrats of inconsistency. Their motion attacks my party for introducing rail privatisation. It is clear that they feel that they are still fighting the previous election rather than looking to the future, unlike the Conservatives. A closer reading of the Liberal Democrat motion, however, reveals that there has been an important and subtle shift in that party's position. It likes to portray itself as being committed to a market-based, competitive economy, yet in reality it remains an inherently interventionist party, committed to public ownership.

The Liberal Democrats' socialist tendencies towards state ownership are most vividly illustrated by their commitment to retain public control of Railtrack. In their 1995 policy document, entitled "Transporting People", they stated: The Liberal Democrats would re-acquire a controlling interest in Railtrack. That was reiterated in their 1997 manifesto, in which they said that they would provide for the legislation to do so. According to tonight's motion, however, it seems that the Liberal Democrats have subtly abandoned that commitment, because they simply call on the Government to bring forward polices to deliver investment in a safe, reliable and affordable rail system". The last dinosaur has gone. One of the great achievements of the Conservative party in the past 18 years was the destruction of socialism. We have now achieved a double whammy by bringing the Liberal Democrat party into the 20th century, and we are pleased to take the credit for that.

I do not believe that anyone would seriously argue for the renationalisation of anything in the private sector. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister is desperately trying to take over Eurostar, but I suspect that the Treasury might spoil his urge to have a live train set to play with.

I should like to set out why we believe privatisation works. The effects of state ownership and control of nationalised industries were devastating. Those industries performed poorly. They were the creatures of politicians and their officials, who were, in turn, remote from customers and employees alike. Those industries were under the iron grip of the Treasury. There was a lack of motivation, because managements were unable to motivate their work forces with proper incentives. Civil servants were drawn into the role of management. Perhaps the worst aspect of state ownership was the massive misallocation of public money through state-directed investment, which responded to but never quite met the demands of the state, industry, management or the trade unions.

A few figures illustrate the impact of privatisation. Between 1983 and 1985, public investment in gas, electricity and water averaged £2.7 billion. Just seven years later, in 1991–92, when all three were in private hands, investment had more than doubled—an increase significantly greater than the rise in the retail prices index. Privatisation has given the consumer greater choice and value. It has also promoted wider share ownership, giving ordinary people a direct stake in the success of British industry.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the privatisation of the railways has been perfect in every way? If not, what mistakes will he now admit to?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

The jury is still out on that, but I shall be quite candid—I believe that in the long term it will be a success, and I intend to set out exactly why.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Would the hon. Gentleman care to tell the House what he means by long term? Does he mean within this Parliament, this year, within the next decade or in the foreseeable future? That improvement seems to be long delayed, like those in many of the services to which he is attached.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

I am glad that the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip was able to get his intervention in for the benefit of Hansard.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

If anything is talking of cheap shots, it is the terms of the motion.

I believe that in six years' time there will be a clear and demonstrable improvement in services, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and everyone in the House will happily defend.

The real success of privatisation has been the realisation of management's ability in the privatised sector to respond to the challenge of coping with the pressures that are part and parcel of being in the private sector. Not unsurprisingly, not a single senior management team in any of the more than 100 privatised companies would prefer to return to state ownership. No one seriously believes that companies such as British Airways or British Telecom should return to the public sector. Even the Labour party has dropped the rhetoric that the only reason for not doing so is the cost involved. It now admits that it was wrong.

I suspect that the Labour Government are now embarrassed by the comments of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is well known for saying: British Airways would be the pantomime horse of capitalism if it is anything at all. It was the Liberal Democrat energy spokesman, the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), now the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman—he is not here today—who said during the electricity privatisation debate that privatisation would "result in higher prices for the whole population and especially for those on low incomes."

When he turned his hand to the Gas Bill, he said: 16 million British gas consumers can expect only one result—to pay increased gas prices, higher than the rate of inflation, for years to come."—[Official Report, 10 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 793.] As the Liberal Democrats wipe the egg off their faces, let us consider what the Prime Minister said of electricity privatisation when he was Opposition energy spokesman: the idea that we will have an influx of power stations, all competing on the grid, is nonsense."—[Official Report, 12 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 683.] He was, of course, right in one respect—his recent decision to stop any more gas-fired power stations coming on to the grid is his attempt to make that quite ridiculous remark a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party will also be wrong about the privatised railways. It is easy, but wrong to conclude that the present state of affairs on the railways represents the way in which services will continue—it is just a snapshot. It is no surprise that the railways should be struggling at the moment, because all industries have struggled in the first couple of years after their privatisation. In 1985, The Observer ran an article about British Telecom under the heading: Telecom fails to raise tone and the sub-heading: Victor Smart reports on how BT's image and its service to the public have fared in the year since privatisation. A year later, the Financial Times said: Almost two thirds of large companies believe that British Telecom's services have either deteriorated or stayed the same since privatisation, according to a survey". It is no surprise that in these early days of rail privatisation, the railways are getting a bad press. A bad patch at the beginning is a common feature of every privatisation.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Given that we are discussing transport, the hon. Gentleman might want to hone in on one of our domestic transport issues. Can he outline for us when bus privatisation will prove a success?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

The Liberal Democrats are grubbing around to make interventions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will not go into detail about the buses. All I know is that more passengers are travelling more miles, on cheaper, more efficient and better-quality buses than ever was the case before privatisation.

The latest figures from the Rail Regulator confirm that Britain's 25 private train operators are still achieving performance figures above those attained before privatisation, despite the slight fall in performance improvement shown in the regulator's bulletin. Those independent figures directly refute the misleading allegation that train services are now worse than they were before privatisation.

Although we acknowledge the disappointing trend for the past quarter, overall performance levels are noticeably better than those recorded between 1993 and 1995 under British Rail and those in 1995–96 during the process of privatisation. Accusations that service levels have declined since the completion of privatisation in March 1997 are irrelevant, as more than half the franchises were in the private sector by October 1996, when performances were improving.

One cannot deny the fact that the new railways are performing better than their predecessors. More train services are being run; 8 per cent. more passenger journeys are being made every year; and there has been a welcome increase of 7 per cent. in passenger mileage. The true picture is that the railways are growing. The train operators are investing heavily, adding new services, providing new routes and building a better railway for the future.

The wave of facts speaks for itself. When in opposition, Labour tried to argue that the level of subsidy would go on rising; in truth, the contractual payment to franchisees falls from today's level to zero by 2005, at which time the franchisees start to repay the Government, and by 2011, they will be paying the Government nearly quarter of a billion pounds a year as a negative franchise payment. Labour said that services would be cut, but the opposite is true: there are 138 extra trains a day and 29,000 extra trains a year, with an increase in the number of train miles of 2.1 per cent.

Labour said that fares would rise, but they have fallen every year: in 1995, the rail fare component in the retail prices index was 4.4 per cent., in 1996, it was 3.7 per cent. and in 1997 2.3 per cent. In 1998, the figure will be near the RPI increase, but all will welcome the 7.5 per cent. cut in Thameslink's fares this year. In 1999, overall fares will fall by 1 per cent. per annum. Compare that with the 45 per cent. fare increase between 1980 and 1995. When in opposition, Labour said that freight on the railways would be eliminated, but the long-term decline in freight has been reversed, with English, Welsh and Scottish Railways—the UK's largest rail freight operator—aiming to triple rail freight's market share in the next 10 years. There are 280 locomotives and at least 2,500 new wagons on order, leading to the reopening of the Thrall works in York to meet the demand of new investment.

It would be helpful to look at an independent assessment of the train operators' performance, and no one could provide a more objective assessment than the chairman of the central rail users consultative committee, who from the outset makes it clear that, as a statutory body representing the interests of rail users, the committee was impartial and neither for nor against rail privatisation.

Its concern has been to speak up for and protect the passenger. In his 1997 statement, the chairman said: this is the year when more people use the trains again—by up to 8 per cent. With new money, both public and private, new rules and incentives, a new structure to give greater freedom to act and many new people involved". He rightly draws attention to the hullabaloo surrounding the industry as it battles to deliver the services that the nation expects. He continues: The rapid transfer from BR has been accompanied, though at lower volume, by the debate on the pros and cons of privatisation with criticism always loudest and leading to the distortion of the real issues; sadly, one swallow is still enough to make a summer". He poses two questions: first, has the basis been laid for the reinvigoration of our railways; and, secondly, is this the new age of the train and will the continuous loss of market share for both rail and public transport be reversed at last? I believe that the answer to both those questions is yes.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

The right hon. Gentleman quotes that gentleman with such approval, but can he tell us whether the members of the committee are elected and, if not, by whom are they appointed? How wide is the representation of women and young people? If it is true that, by accident, there is a large number of retired members of the Conservative party on the committee, can he explain that?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

I am told that the Labour party has always supported the committee. I believe that appointments are made by the Government, and if the hon. Lady is volunteering for the job, I am sure that the Minister has heard her plea—that might be the solution to his problems.

In answering the two questions posed by the chairman of the central rail users consultative committee, one has only to look at the level of investment and the management of that investment to realise the naivety of the motion in urging the Government to introduce policies to deliver investment. The level of current investment in the railways is staggering and makes a mockery of the claims of the Government and their coalition partners that the railways are in crisis. Over the next 10 years, Railtrack plans to spend more than £10 billion, with more than £2 billion on renewing track, more than £2 billion on signalling modernisation schemes and more than £2 billion on structures and stations.

Many hon. Members present will have been to the all-party west line group meeting a couple of weeks ago to hear a presentation from Railtrack and Virgin. The effects of the proposed £600 million improvement of the line will be dramatic: it currently takes five hours and 20 minutes to get from London to Glasgow; in four years' time, it will be four hours and 20 minutes; and in seven years' time, it will be three hours and 50 minutes—I hope that that answers the earlier intervention by the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the hon. Member for North Cornwall. Most revealing of all was the companies' assertion that it is current rolling stock that causes 90 per cent. of unreliability—replace the rolling stock and the quality of service improves. That is a tribute to the policy of privatisation and it is why such policies will work.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) called him right honourable—I am glad that he has been demoted.

On the question of investment, I live in the Harrogate area and regularly use the Harrogate to York line. Users of that line suffer constant delays and interruptions to services. We have the most appalling 30-year-old rolling stock, and the reason why the company will not invest in new rolling stock is the seven-year franchise of which the hon. Gentleman seems so proud. How are we going to get companies to invest millions of pounds in new rolling stock, on seven-year franchises?

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

Not by renationalisation, which is what the hon. Gentleman's party wanted until the election.

In respect of the west coast line, the imminent announcement of a £500 million investment in 55 tilting trains is welcome. Already, Virgin's passenger numbers are up as a result of marketing never envisaged by the old British Rail. Under the old regime, the Treasury would never have allowed Virgin its new £15 single fare from Euston to Glasgow. If anything gets people off the road and on to the railways, it will be a positive approach like that. When the industry was nationalised, the Treasury would have insisted on a fare rise to help out with the public sector borrowing requirement. That is the benefit of being unleashed from the Treasury. That is why I believe that the chairman of the central rail users consultative committee can be reassured that the answer to both his questions is yes.

It should come as no surprise that John Welsby, the British Rail chairman, said only four weeks ago in the Sir Robert Reid lecture: The privatisation regime has swept aside the debilitating uncertainty of the annual public expenditure round; investment programmes can be planned over several years forward with much greater confidence; and there is greater freedom for the participants to make use of financing mechanisms such as leasing which are standard practice in the private sector but which were denied to the public sector corporations. He continued: If, as a public corporation, BR had been granted the scale of Government funding which is now committed, the promises of continuity that have been made, and the flexibility that now exists to make use of the array of commercial financing mechanisms, we would have thought that the millennium had not only arrived early but had also brought with it the sort of glorious benefaction that is the stuff of dreams.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

The hon. Gentleman says "Tosh," but those are the words of the man whom the Deputy Prime Minister has just appointed special adviser on the railways.

Hon. Members may ask, "If the railways are so good, why is it that I don't know about it?" The truth is that good-news railway stories are simply not being reported.

I have here—or at least I did have—a list of 100 new initiatives for a better passenger railway system from the train operators. Sadly, not one has been reported. I say to Labour and Liberal Democrat Members: it is dangerous to believe that what one reads in the newspapers is what is happening on the railways. It is not.

The rebirth of and renewed interest in new railways is prompting a new excitement. The Wensleydale Railway Association wants to restore 18 of the 40 miles of railway line from Northallerton in Yorkshire to Garsdale. That is a unique, imaginative and fresh idea, which deserves to succeed. Its desire to lay track on old BR routes where the existing tracks have been removed by local authorities shows a spirit of enterprise that could never have existed under the old regime.

Elsewhere, one of the most successful reinstatements of a route that has long been closed to passengers has been the Nottingham to Worksop Robin Hood line, reopened in stages since 1993. The successful implementation of such a project, involving the co-operation of local authorities and other parties outside the industry, is doubly commendable.

New services can be expected. North West Trains is promoting a through service, direct from Manchester airport to London Euston. In the midlands, the Birmingham to Rudgley town service, already considerably developed over recent years, is to be extended through to Stafford. Great Western Trains and Thames Trains are co-operating on a joint venture that will see a through passenger service introduced between Bristol Temple Meads and Oxford. Through my constituency, Connex South Central is introducing an additional hourly London Victoria to Brighton fast service.

The wording of the motion is lacking in vision, ignorant of the past and without an understanding of the future. The Conservative party is the party with the clarity and understanding of management and business today. It introduced a policy that is turning one of Britain's great national assets, which used to struggle manfully but always just fail, into a service that will match the success of other privatised industries—that is something of which the nation will, in time, be proud.

The decline of the railways started in the previous generation, as illustrated by the Beeching cuts. Now, when we consider the ambitions of the promoters of the Robin Hood line and the Wensleydale line, we realise that it is the Conservative party that has reversed the trend, bringing life and quality of service back to our railways. Its actions are bringing out the best of the private sector, private management and private finance. I urge the House to treat this squalid little motion with the contempt that it deserves and to ignore it.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich 8:21, 9 February 1998

I did enjoy that speech. I had not realised that the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) had such a delightful sense of humour. I know that it must be complicated for him to take over such a case in the House at present, but his speech was very engaging. The fact that it bore no relationship to anything, let alone reality, pleased me enormously. We should have more amusing speeches like that in the House of Commons.

To look at the matter seriously is to consider a railway system that is now in a total state of fragmentation and chaos. If I have one thing to say tonight to my hon. Friend the Minister, it is that I welcome the fact that the Government have taken urgent action to look at what is happening in the railway industry, to consider the means of putting it together in a usable form and to promise to come forward, not only with a White Paper, but with clear plans for the strategic rail authority.

The same John Welsby who has been quoted in the debate is worth quoting in another way. In a beautiful document, the British Railways Board's annual report and accounts, he states: The privatisation process imposed considerable costs upon the Board, notably in fees for lawyers, accountants and other consultants and professionals. In 1996/97, those costs amounted to £58 million, bringing the total privatisation costs for the Board"— that is just one part of it— to £349 million since 1992/93—in addition to the costs imposed by the Government, Railtrack and others.Net sales proceeds during 1996/97 amounted to £253.4 million, bringing the total net proceeds for sales by the Board to some £820 million since the privatisation process began. How much has the taxpayer paid for London and Continental Railways so far? Let us be serious for a moment. The brutal and deliberate lopping of the railway system by the previous Government was done for one reason only: to pass directly to many of their friends considerable numbers of assets. If anyone doubts that, he has only to look at the profits made by individuals who became involved, either in individual franchises or, in the case of the rolling stock companies, in particular assets that they could sell for astonishing and frightening profits.

We have only to look at the way in which, when there was any difficulty, those same companies came roaring back to the taxpayer saying, "What we would really like from you is extra money to enable us to perform the tasks that we said we were going to perform when we took over the franchise." In addition, the taxpayer is paying at least 50 per cent. more to get half the services that he received under British Rail.

If the amount of money that has been thrown away on privatisation had been spent on the west coast main line, we should now have modern rails and modern trains, and many of the orders that were placed before the privatisation of British Rail would have been fulfilled. There would have been jobs in that industry and passengers at every level would be enjoying a first-class service.

I am not alone in receiving frantic telephone calls from constituents who are not Labour voters complaining that they, as business men, have been dumped on a Milton Keynes platform at 4.30 pm on a Sunday, with no explanation, no train and no clear view of where to go to get an alternative service. I am not alone in receiving constant complaints about the inability of timetables to relate to the way in which trains run. I am not alone in being told by many of my constituents that what is happening now is a disgrace and certainly not an integrated or properly run railway system.

The late, lamented Robert Adley told us what would happen and it has happened almost exactly as his report said it would when privatisation was first mooted. Worse than that, we must realise that some things have still not been brought into the light of day. It is important to realise that Railtrack is not differentiating between the figure that it spends on maintenance and capital investment. That company is cash rich with taxpayers' money. It is a company that began to do many of the things required of it only when it was told very firmly that unless it did so, within six months it would be in severe trouble. It is a company that is seriously contemplating taking over the running of other companies. That may be a way in which to divert some of the taxpayers' money back into investment, but let us not imagine that that company is marked either by high quality of management or by a high commitment to the railway industry.

Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall merely make one or two points. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Transport Sub-Committee when it was taking evidence on the strategic rail authority, and was so open and ready to exchange views. That report will be of great help to the House when it is printed and I certainly welcome the opportunity to go into considerable depth over the changes that we believe will be necessary.

There are certain things that we should record. The fragmentation of the system means that many of the franchisees are already beginning to think of excuses for not fulfilling their existing conditions. Many of them are using the argument that if they were allowed to extend their franchises, they would be able to do exactly what they promised to do in the first instance, although there is no evidence of that or any reason to believe that they are capable of producing the level of service that they initially promised.

I seriously counsel my right hon. and hon. Friends against extending the franchises. If companies cannot deliver the level of service that they have promised, given the enormous amount of taxpayers' money that most of them are walking away with, they do not deserve to be allowed to continue without severe penalties. We must consider the relationship between the penalties and the public subsidy. There is no point in penalising a company because it is not performing its tasks properly if it gets more money from the taxpayer at the end of the year than if it had performed properly. That is not only bizarre but unjustified. We must look at how we find out about the consumer's view. Many well-meaning people may be involved, but we must ensure that the consumer is properly represented.

We must examine the abuses of rolling stock companies. It is extraordinary that they were flagrantly left outside the control machinery. Those companies do what they like, make as much profit as they want and direct whatever terms and conditions they please to the people who use them. They are not restricted in any way.

The Government not only understand the need for a properly integrated transport system, but are working towards that. Theirs is the first serious attempt for a long time to find out what is happening. They are considering not how they can hand over assets to somebody in the City, but how to provide a good rail transport system. However, I have a warning on one aspect. As a result of the conditions that were laid on it, the British Rail Property Board is increasingly selling sites that many people will need, especially in relation to freight. That land will be needed if we are to develop new and integrated services, and ensure the movement of freight from road to rail that we require. If British Rail persists in selling railway land because it is constrained by its existing terms, that will be counter-productive. It will not be in anybody's interests and will undermine what we seek to do.

The people who ran a 100-year-old system and kept it together with love and string are much missed. Their lack can be seen throughout the system, and the replacement of people who knew about railways by engaging young people who know nothing about them is not the way in which to achieve customer satisfaction. The private companies should look at that.

Our strategic rail authority must be given proper powers. It must have the ability to make the private companies sit up and take notice, and that means refusing to give them large amounts of money while trying to penalise them by saying that they ought to pay some money back. That is nonsense and it cannot be allowed to continue. Some famous franchises will soon fall in. Some companies will refuse to invest, and the nearer that they get to the end of the franchise, the less they will perform in the manner that they have promised. It is remarkable that we hear a great deal about what they intend to do in 2005. It would be helpful if I knew what they intend to do next week. When I use the train at the weekends, I would like to travel on one that arrives at a time that roughly corresponds to the timetable, has proper seats and is operated in a way that bears some relationship to what passengers want.

This country needs a good transport system. Above all, it needs a good, new railway system. Oddly, because the Conservatives were so brutal in their transfer of state assets to their friends and in their destruction of so much of the railways, they may have given us the chance to start at square one and build a modern, bright system that is worthy of Britain in the new century. I think that we can do it but, having listened to the hilarious tales from the Opposition, I know that we shall not do it with any assistance from them.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:33, 9 February 1998

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I agree with much of her damning analysis of privatisation. The rail network is in a sorry state. For many people, it is a second-class, unreliable service and it has been atomised by a privatisation that made no sense. It has been returned to a sort of Victorian structure, and that was done not for any good reason, but for the reasons that have been set out by the hon. Lady. Privatisation was driven by dogmatism and followed a scorched earth policy in an attempt to get everything finished and out of the way before the general election. That is no way to serve rail users or the general public.

The contribution by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, was incredible. Even he admitted that, at least for the time being, matters had got worse rather than better. There was a touching Panglossian optimism that at some time in the future, everything would be all right. The Conservative view of rail privatisation is mariana. I prefer to make a judgment on what has happened so far rather than rely on vague promises of better things to come from the party that caused the present state of the railways. The hon. Member for Croydon, South reminded me why, after 18 years, it was so important to remove the Conservatives from office on 1 May. Much as I might disagree with the Labour party, at least we are on the same planet.

I endorse the remarks by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich about the sale of British Rail land. I shall give an example from my constituency. A parcel of land next to Newhaven Town station served as a taxi rank. It was held by BR and not by Railtrack or Connex South Central, the operator. Despite my protestations and those of the relevant local councils, the land was sold. As a consequence, there is nowhere for taxis to park at that station and people who depended on taxis no longer use the station, but choose instead to drive long distances.

Another parcel of land in Newhaven is owned by what is left of BR, and English, Welsh and Scottish Railways is interested in using it for rail freight sidings. The company has been on site and has told me that it is vital that that parcel of land is not sold. It would cost the Government nothing to put an immediate moratorium on the sale of all land that is currently held by BR until it has been assessed under the Government's new integrated transport policy to see what land could be used. The previous Government identified parcels of land for sale, but they had no interest in developing the railways. I think that the current Government are interested in that and they should review that land.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Transport)

My hon. Friend addresses an important issue which was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). Since the general election, there has been a series of auctions of land in which rail operators expressed an interest for rail use. However, that land was sold to developers for other uses. In the context of the Government working towards an integrated transport strategy and making better use of the railways, it makes no sense to remove future development potential for rail services.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and I hope that when the Minister replies, she will address that point.

The movement of freight by rail has been a sorry tale over the past 10 years and the service has been greatly damaged by the uncertainty of privatisation. In 1986, 9 per cent. of freight was moved by rail, but by 1995, that figure was down to just 6 per cent. In 1985, British Rail or its customers owned 54,500 wagons, but by 1994, the number had dropped to 27,500—a halving of the number of wagons. Freight has been badly hit.

In view of the situation that it inherited, English, Welsh and Scottish Railways is doing a reasonably good job. However, it is not sufficient for the Government simply to rely on rail freight grants, welcome as they are. I welcome the fact that they have been increased, but there is only so much that the rail freight company can do in terms of flexible, customer-focused services or investment in rolling stock or competitive pricing—which it has to do.

The problem of the infrastructure needs to be addressed. For example, the width of tunnels presents a problem. Some of the rolling stock cannot use Railtrack tunnels. A contract to move a commodity from Newhaven port through this country was lost because of unsuitable Railtrack tunnels north of Lewes. Similar problems must be happening throughout the country and there is a need to look at Railtrack's infrastructure if there is to be a revival of rail freight.

There is the question of signalling and track, and the consistency of track between this country and others with regard to the channel tunnel. What are the Government doing to deal with the infrastructure problems that rail freight companies face? What is the Government's strategic plan for freight? Are they prepared to set a target for the amount of freight that will be carried by rail, in either gross or percentage terms, in, say, the next five years? Unless they are prepared to set an objective, they are unlikely to get anywhere near it.

What is the Government's position on the tendency to move towards bigger and bigger lorries? Will they once and for all halt the move from 32-tonne to 44-tonne lorries, and possibly 48-tonne lorries? Notwithstanding access to freight heads, the bigger the lorries, the bigger the tendency to move freight by road at the expense of rail.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) has said, it is important that the channel tunnel is sorted out as soon as possible. I have considerable sympathy for the Government, who have inherited a complete mess from the previous Administration, but it is important to achieve the right economies of scale and distance, so that the channel tunnel is an attractive through route for rail freight, otherwise the problems involving distance will reoccur.

I have travelled on Eurostar. It is a national embarrassment that people can travel from Paris or Brussels to the channel tunnel at high speed, only to have to clank behind commuter trains all the way to Waterloo. I feel ashamed to have to experience that with people who have come from France. What on earth do they think? However, the Government are right not to be held to ransom by private piranhas. I hope that the Government will continue to adopt that policy, but I shall also look for a constructive way forward to ensure that the channel tunnel works in future.

Language is not everything, but it is important. Over the years, I for one have become fed up of hearing money that is put into roads called investment and money that is put into rail called subsidy. We must change that use of language.

I look for an assurance from the Government tonight that, when they conduct their review of trunk roads, they will look at all the alternative means of delivering transport along particular corridors, rather than simply, as the previous Government did, look at the potential for a particular road. I give one example. I declare an interest because I live next to a level crossing on a trunk road—next to the rail line and the A27 between Lewes and Polegate.

The previous scheme, which was identified by the previous Government, was for an horrific flyover through an area of outstanding natural beauty, next to a site of special scientific interest, next to a national nature reserve, and through the most beautiful countryside in Sussex. They wanted to add another four lanes to the existing two lanes between Lewes and Polegate at a cost of some £90 million. However, at no point was any assessment made of the potential of the existing parallel dual carriageway—that is to say, the railway line from Lewes to Polegate, on which the trains trundle along three-quarters empty, and which could meet significant transport needs.

Whenever anybody tried to raise the matter—Members of Parliament, councils or whoever—the Department of Transport told them that the railway line was not relevant and had to be considered separately. Roads and railways must be examined together. I argue, unusually for a Member of Parliament, not for lots of money to be spent on a big trunk road in my constituency; I want it spent on the parallel railway, to achieve a transfer of traffic, particularly passenger traffic, from road to rail. The stations along that line are based in town centres and near employment centres. That means that it is possible to achieve a transfer in this case.

Are the Government committed to capital investment in new rail lines, and not simply to moving the goal posts financially for train operating companies, rolling stock companies or whatever? In the same way as Governments have often been prepared to invest real money in roads, are this Government prepared to invest that money in railways as well?

I think in particular of a case with which the Minister is familiar—the Lewes-Uckfield line. I am sorry to be so parochial, but these examples reflect the position nationwide. One piece of rail land—the track bed is still there—six miles long was removed by the county council in 1969 to build a road bridge. That has left Uckfield straggling down from London, with a short gap to the junction at Lewes. The county council has put together a case for the re-establishment of that line, which could be done at relatively little cost compared with the cost of building new roads.

If the Government are serious about getting people back on to rail, they need to identify, first, all the lines that are at present run for freight purposes only—there are many of those—and to find out whether they could be used for passenger traffic as well. Secondly, they need to find out where track beds are in place and rail lines can be re-established. I would welcome a Government commitment to examine those two things.

The Government need to examine rolling stock. I will not repeat points about rolling stock companies, which have been well made. Suffice it to say that, like the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Croydon, South, I travel on Connex South Central and the trains that I travel on are similar to the ones that appeared in the Beatles film "A Hard Day's Night"—I think that they are probably the same ones—from the early 1960s. The ones on the Uckfield-Oxted line further north probably come from "Brief Encounter" because they are almost pre-BR. That is a national disgrace, as well as unsafe.

Connex South Central is in many ways trying hard, but it has a policy of eliminating bicycles from trains. It is making integrated transport well-nigh impossible. People cannot take the bike to the station, get on a train and use the bike at the other end, which is an important transport pattern for many people. I hope that the Minister will consider some means of ensuring that bicycles can be kept on trains and that train operating companies are not allowed to bar them, as I fear will happen.

The public need safe stations, particularly at night and for women. They need frequent, reliable services, new, attractive rolling stock, and available timetable information that they can access with the knowledge and confidence that it is correct. They need cheap fares. One of the key ways in which to get people back on to rail is to have cheaper fares. At present, the most expensive public transport journey in the world is one stop on the London underground. It is more expensive per mile than Concorde. That is nonsense and needs to be dealt with. We need investment in track and signalling, and the reopening and reuse for passengers of lines, where applicable.

Socially, economically and especially environmentally, the future is rail. I hope that the new Government, who I think understand the issues and mean well, will have the courage to follow that through and ensure that their application is as good as their words have been.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 8:47, 9 February 1998

The description by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) of the operation of the rail services since privatisation would not be recognised by anyone who uses the rail services to travel to and from London. The undue haste with which they were privatised and sold off very cheaply has resulted in passenger service requirements that are too low and in rail operators receiving bonuses for operating at levels that are lower than those that were provided by British Rail.

There is also an enormous cost to the taxpayer. The arrangements for sell-off cost the taxpayer about £550 million. On top of that, with debt write-offs, it cost the taxpayer £2.3 billion just to privatise British Rail. Its book value at the time of privatisation was set at £4.3 billion, and it was sold for £1.9 billion. That led to a cash bonanza for one or two people who took over some of the franchises.

For example, the Porterbrook rolling stock leasing company was sold for £527 million; seven months later, it was sold for £825 million, a profit of about £300 million. Similarly, Eversholt was sold for £580 million and sold on for £726 million, a profit of about £140 million, only one year later.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South described the rail services in his constituency as having improved. A September article in The Independent said that 300 trains had been cut from one flagship route, which I assume serves the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. He described Connex South Central, which runs the line, as a model of privatisation. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman's constituents would make the same defence of privatisation that he made.

My constituents are forced to suffer the services provided by Connex, which in December was the worst performing rail operator and, as a result, suffered the highest penalty. Two or three trains a day are either cancelled or are more than five minutes late, with only 70 per cent. arriving less than five minutes late.

Overcrowding is an enormous problem across London—certainly on Connex trains. When I investigated the matter before I was elected, I was surprised to discover that pixies really do exist—people in excess of capacity. People travelling to work in the rush hour would take little comfort from being described as pixies as they squash themselves on to trains that have been reduced in length since privatisation.

My constituents have horror stories about their travel to work. One said that he arrived at New Cross station only to be told that his train was no longer heading in the direction he thought it was, and that he would have to change trains. He then discovered that a similar fate had befallen a number of other people. It was virtually impossible to step out of the train on to the central platform, which had rail tracks on either side, because it was packed with people waiting for trains.

Someone working in my office travels out from New Cross to Eltham in the rush hour. She was surprised to find that her train was packed as she was travelling towards Kent when most people were travelling towards central London. She then discovered that trains to Cannon Street were no longer stopping at New Cross, so if people wanted to get a train to Cannon Street, they had to go back to Lewisham, get off and then get on another train to their destination.

Nine out of 10 companies run overcrowded trains, especially during the rush hour. For London services, the average length of a train is now eight coaches, whereas it was 10 under British Rail. Overcrowding is usually based on a two-day study of a rail service. However, because it is such a short sample period, that does not take into account any overcrowding due to delays or cancellations.

Connex fares have risen by 2.9 per cent., and would have been greater had they not been held down because of the operator's appalling performance. Had it performed better, it would have been allowed to charge even higher fares.

People are now forced to pay extra for railcards, on the basis that they are travelling across several different operator services. They do not—most travel only on the rail service from their point of embarkation to central London, and then continue their journey on London Transport rather than by rail. Only a limited number of people should be forced to pay the additional costs that have been imposed on the assumption that passengers travel across a range of operator services.

The number of complaints has also risen. During the first six months, there were more complaints about rail services than there were for the whole of the previous year under British Rail.

Drivers of both network trains and freight trains tell horror stories about their daily experiences. One driver who works for English, Welsh and Scottish Freight complained to me because the flexible rostering that applied until July last year has been changed and he is being forced regularly to work a 12-hour shift—on a train that weighs several thousand tonnes. He claims that driver fatigue is now a serious problem.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take that issue on board in any future monitoring of operator services. People should listen to the day-to-day concerns of the drivers, who say that we are playing a game of Russian roulette on London's rail network—not just with freight trains, but with passenger trains.

I understand that one operator has an attendance management scheme that means that, if a driver is off work for even a single day due to sickness, his pay is immediately stopped. That results in drivers deciding that, if they are going to have that amount of pay stopped, they might as well take an equivalent number of days off sick. I will not name the rail operator concerned, as I do not want to cause problems for the drivers, but the knock-on effect of that practice is a disrupted and unreliable service.

Freight drivers are given personal facilities breaks, but often in places where there are no facilities—no toilets and nowhere to eat. They have to make their own arrangements.

Privatisation of the rail service has led to all those problems, which go against health and safety needs and the interests of the public. Those problems need to be tackled. We should be aware of the concerns felt by those employed in the rail services, so that we can tackle some of the dangers.

Rail privatisation has led to a worse service, and, I believe, increased danger for both the public and the people who work on the railways. Hit squads have been sent into local authorities to tackle education problems. I want my hon. Friend the Minister to think about sending hit squads into rail operators if they cannot fulfil their contracts. We should put in managers who will deliver the sort of services that the people of London who travel or work on the service want and deserve.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale 8:57, 9 February 1998

We heard a very interesting speech by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor)—sadly, he is no longer in the Chamber—who said that everything wrong with the rail service had resulted from 18 years of under-in vestment by the Conservative party. Those who travelled on British Rail before May 1979 will be astonished to hear that services were so excellent—or that they constantly ran on time, trains were clean and there was never industrial action.

The hon. Member went on to say that another failing of 18 years of Conservative government was that we had not built the channel tunnel high-speed rail link. It is worth noting that, although a channel tunnel had been talked about since the time of Napoleon, the tunnel was built only under the previous Conservative Government. Therefore, before we start complaining about a link to the tunnel, we should note that a Conservative Government built the tunnel.

The hon. Member was challenged by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mr. Day) on how he would pay for his grand ambitions. It turned out that his strategy for paying for those grand Liberal Democrat ambitions was to enable local authorities to use the ticket fees and fines generated by car use. Therefore, doubling passenger numbers and rebuilding thousands of miles of track will be accomplished by using fees from car parking tickets. That is a little unusual.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) also favoured us with a very entertaining speech. Sadly, she, too, is no longer in the Chamber. I hope that she will forgive me if I use a technical term for her speech: it was utter tosh. She said that, if British Rail had carried on exactly as it had been, we would be living in nirvana—with a first-class service and trains that were clean, speedy and efficient and with no prospects of any problems. She seems to have forgotten what British Rail was like.

In its heyday, in the 1960s and 1970s, British Rail was a service that brought people together on dirty, draughty and litter-strewn platforms, making them listen to people on speakers who sounded as though they were gargling in battery acid. Passengers would be shepherded by surly, unco-operative and uninformative staff into a collection of cattle trucks, and would not be delivered to their destination in anything remotely approaching their timetable. At the end of their experience, they would be told that the problem lay with—in accelerating order—nature, God and the secretary general of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen.

Let us not forget that one of the great things we have lost because of the break-up of the old British Rail is the possibility of further national rail strikes—which were recurrent if not annual events during the days of British Rail. When British Rail existed, the rail system was not run for the passenger or even for Ministers: it was run for Mr. Sidney Weighell of the National Union of Railwaymen, who was subsequently the ASLEF secretary general. We have made progress in moving beyond that situation.

I would not argue—any more than my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) would—that the current system is perfect. I myself have had some complaints about local services, and believe that there is considerable scope for improvement. None the less, I believe that some positive developments are already occurring, and I agree with my hon. Friend's comments on the InterCity west coast main line.

Like the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, I represent a constituency that is some distance from the House—rather more than 250 miles away—and, like him, when I can, I prefer to travel by train. I am an unabashed fan of rail and think that, at its best, rail can be cleaner, faster, cheaper and more effective and relaxing than almost any other available mode of transport. I will therefore continue to argue very strongly for better progress on the InterCity west coast main line. However, I believe that, in Richard Branson and Brian Barrett—the twin heads of Virgin Rail—we have people who are far more likely to deliver more progress on the line over a period of years than British Rail management would ever have achieved.

Only today, I received in my post an invitation from Railtrack to attend the unveiling of a spectacular new project to rebuild and refurbish the grade 2 listed Victorian station at Grange-over-Sands in my constituency. That project was possible only because of a combination of private sector money from Railtrack, national lottery funding and co-operation by both Grange town council and South Lakeland district council. Such imaginative public-private partnerships—to use a phrase that often rings from the lips of Ministers—have been possible because of privatisation, and would not have happened without it.

We have to notice that privatisation is always controversial, and always resisted. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South quite rightly pointed out how, in the early stages, every privatisation has been criticised and attacked—invariably by Labour Members and almost invariably by Liberal Democrat Members. However, after the passage of five or 10 years, we discover not only that they do not attempt to reverse privatisation, but that they do not repeat their original opposition to it; such is the success that almost always accompanies privatisations.

I believe that, in time, rail privatisation will take its place with the privatisations of British Telecom and British Airways.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the people of Inverness are happy with the state of the British Airways privatisation?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

Undoubtedly the hon. Gentleman knows more about the people of Inverness than do I. However, before British Airways was privatised, it was the nation's most embarrassing airline. Now—to coin a phrase—it is the world's favourite airline. If he is saying that it is now the Liberal Democrats' policy to renationalise British Airways, their magic penny on income tax—which has already managed to pay for education, transport, health and all the rest of it—is being stretched even further. Now the magic penny will apparently stretch to renationalise British Airways. I think not. As I was saying, rail privatisation will take its place alongside the privatisation of British Airways and British Telecom not only as a proven success and something that leads to a better service for British businesses and citizens alike, but as something that is envied and increasingly copied around the world.

I conclude by making four points to the Minister, who has listened patiently throughout the debate. The first is a genuine "thank you" to her for helping a constituent of mine who had difficulty obtaining a railcard after some benefit changes. I am grateful to her for her assistance in dealing with that problem.

The second thought that I should like to leave with the Minister is that I hope she will not take from this debate—I am sure she will not—the view that the enthusiasm for rail, which has been expressed by all parties, is an excuse for a war against the motorist. Many people have no realistic alternative to road transport to meet their daily needs. In that connection, 1 received a letter this very morning from a constituent, Mr. D. Harrison of Sedgwick, who wrote: The problem is 'What Public Transport?'. I live in the village of Sedgwick which is four miles south of Kendal. There is one bus on Wednesday morning but how do we carry a weeks shopping on a mini-bus? I am registered disabled and have to run a car, otherwise I would be a virtual prisoner at home. I cannot walk any great distance without becoming very tired so you can see why a car is essential. This is not someone who is making a party political point. Of course he would like to use public transport if it was a viable alternative, but it is not and will not be. The same is true for many of my constituents and others. We would all like bus services to be improved and investment in rail increased, but for many people the car will remain essential.

I ask the Minister to pass on to her colleague in another place, the Minister for Roads, my enthusiastic support and that of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) for the A590 bypass improvement. Again, there is no possible rail alternative for the link between Barrow and the rest of the United Kingdom—it is going to be that road and no other. I ask the Minister to bear in mind the fact that rail must play its part in the overall transport package; in many circumstances, it cannot be a substitute for road transport.

Thirdly, the InterCity west coast main line has many uses to Members of all parties who represent that side of the country. Naturally, I take a particular interest in the station of Oxenholme on that line. It is the gateway to the Lake district and serves the town of Kendal, the main population centre in my constituency.

When the Minister is reviewing future provision on that line with Virgin and Railtrack—something that has excited many of my constituents—I ask her to bear in mind the need to make sure that trains continue to stop at Oxenholme, and that progress on accelerating journey times between London and Glasgow is not obtained by cutting some of the stops en route. That form of progress would not commend itself to my constituents or to the many tourists from this country and beyond who wish to stop at the Lake district.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a role for the Government in the management and running of the railways, given his appeal to the Minister to intervene?

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

I have never doubted that for a moment. The hon. Gentleman has been a party to the extraordinary attacks on private and free enterprise—"private piranhas" was the memorable phrase used. We have heard much about the terrible lack of investment in the railways—I think that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich mentioned a century—but I would ask the hon. Gentleman to consider how the railway system was built 100 years ago, which was when his party was last in power. His party often invokes the memory of William Ewart Gladstone, but he would be spinning in his grave at the thought that the private sector, which built the railway network in his day, should now, according to the vision of his own party, be completely supplanted in favour of the state sector.

There is a value and a virtue in, and a role for, both the public and private sectors in rail and all other forms of transport. The Conservatives came to that recognition a long time ago. Sadly, the Liberal Democrats appear trapped, not in the 19th century, when the Liberal party had more common sense than it has now, but in a sort of 1942 or 1943 time warp. There was a time when most things had to be run by the public sector, but we are not at war now—time has moved on.

Fourthly, I have been in correspondence with the Minister on several occasions on behalf of my constituent Mr. David Kelly of Oxenholme, who has been mounting a sensible campaign on rail transport and the dangers of over-carrying. People are unable to get off trains on time at certain stops because they are not given sufficient warning time.

Mr. Kelly's sister, an elderly lady, was over-carried from Oxenholme to Carlisle, and died some time later of a heart attack that he believes was brought on by that terrible event. The Minister has been very helpful to me in correspondence, and has answered some parliamentary questions on the matter. However, I ask her again to bear in mind the case for providing proper equipment, so that staff on the station platform can communicate with train drivers and thereby minimise the chance of over-carrying.

It has become clear during the debate that no party can claim a monopoly of care or concern about rail. Everyone is concerned about rail. However, it is also clear that a safe future for rail will not result from the embarrassed and quiet socialism of the Government or the overt socialism of the day trippers on the Liberal Democrat Benches; it will come only from the Conservative party, which has a clear strategy for rail and—in the policies that we introduced before the election and are being carried forward now—has set out a realistic strategy for producing a better British rail system for the future.

Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones Labour, Alyn and Deeside 9:11, 9 February 1998

I am glad to follow the fluid speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins). However, he should know that the great W. E. Gladstone, who lived in my constituency, produced a scheme to nationalise the railways in Britain. I thank the Liberal Democrats for shrewdly choosing the subject of the debate. I listened carefully to the speech of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), which was engaging but rather too sanguine. I very much support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friends.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport made a very convincing speech. The previous Government's privatisation of the railways made a large profit for a few but has been a poor deal for the taxpayer and the passenger and has fragmented the rail network.

One of Britain's biggest problems is traffic pollution, and my constituency suffers massive traffic jams day in, day out. I cannot accurately estimate the impact on the health of my constituents, but I know that it is serious. The more that the Government can implement policies that will put more car drivers on to our railways, the better. That is one reason why I shall support the Government tonight.

The railway line in my area runs from Wrexham through my constituency to Birkenhead on the Wirral. There are many stations and most of them are located in my constituency. They include Shotton, Hawarden, Buckley, Penyffordd, Hope, Caergwrle and Cefn-y-Bedd. They are in dire and urgent need of modernisation, development and investment. They are cold, dark, windswept and desolate. They have no closed circuit television, no security whatsoever and the parking is often dire. There is no staff member to turn to and no modern means of communication with another centre that can give advice and assistance to any luckless passenger. I want those stations to be served by a rail service that is more punctual, has more frequent trains and rolling stock that is modern and up to date. I should like the advertised services to be reliable.

North West Trains has small plans for some meagre investment. I thank it for that and welcome the proposed investment, but it will not come early enough to satisfy my constituents. I want the Welsh Office, Railtrack, the Welsh Development Agency and North West Trains to get together urgently and come forward with a convincing, up-to-date development strategy for my constituents' rail line. Nothing less will do. I urge the authorities to bear that in mind.

Buckley is a key station, serving one of the biggest towns in north-east Wales, but it is found at the end of a long, dark, lonely lane. It has no efficient lighting, no waiting room and no members of staff. Most of the time, it is a ghost station. It is uninviting and forbidding and is a daunting prospect for any of my constituents early in the morning or in the evenings when it is dark and very lonely.

Alongside the station is a factory owned by Optec. It is soon to close and the 70 or 80 workers will lose their jobs in a month or so after nearly 10 years' loyal service. We should have a better chance of finding a new tenant for the soon-to-be-vacated factory if the station across the road from it were modern and had up-to-date facilities. The county council and the Welsh Development Agency would then be able to attract investment to the factory. I am sure that that would result in more customers for Buckley station. I want the development agency and the county council to find a new tenant and work on plans to upgrade the ancient and uninviting station.

As I have said, the line links Wrexham and Birkenhead. It is used by commuters, shoppers, students and workers. It goes through many communities in my constituency and can enhance my constituents' prosperity if North West Trains puts in adequate and urgent investment. It runs beside the famous Deeside industrial park, which I believe is the finest in western Europe. I have suggested to the Welsh Development Agency, Flintshire county council, North West Trains and Railtrack that a station should be built on the industrial park, which employs more than 4,000 people. It would not cost the earth and would make the industrial park even more inviting for inward investment.

Wales badly needs the railways that it has. In addition to the Wrexham to Birkenhead line, the Shrewsbury to Newport line, the central Wales line and the Cambrian coast line are vital to the future of Wales, its society, its communities and its economy. I ask my right hon. Friend and his Ministers to bear that in mind in their plans.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury 9:18, 9 February 1998

For two reasons, I am glad that I changed my mind and decided to listen to, and partake in, the debate. First, it has convinced me that the Liberal Democrats have lost their touch on community politics. I shall come back to that later. Secondly, we have heard some good speeches. The Minister gave a clear exposition of the Government's position and difficulties. Then we heard a remarkable speech from the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). It is always a pleasure to hear her in full sail on those issues. As usual, I disagreed with much of what she said, but she spoke with great knowledge and commitment, which is worth hearing in the House.

In these debates, we are always likely to hear complaints and whinges and the trivialisation of very serious issues. I have for some years believed that transport as a political issue has been far too low down the political agenda over the past 50 years. I therefore look forward to the Minister's winding-up speech. I look forward even more to her Department's White Paper on integrated transport. I hope that it will get the nation thinking about priorities and not just—justifiable—whingeing about many of the problems that we all have to face daily. This debate has been rather sad. Both the motion and the amendment are pretty silly.

I was a sceptical convert to privatisation. I believed that the rail system had gone too far for the private sector to be able to reclaim it, but the more that I understood the issues in my time as a Transport Minister, the more I realised that privatisation was the only realistic option if we were to achieve the sort of revolution in transport that I am convinced is necessary. I thought, too, that the cruel Beeching cuts had done far too much damage to our network to make it possible to reclaim the railway system.

People sometimes think that there was a golden age of the railways; I do not think that there ever was. Perhaps there was the golden age of steam, but that is about as far as it goes. There was certainly a romantic age of the railway. Indeed, we have heard several stories about little two-coach trains puffing across the countryside on picturesque branch lines. I suppose that the Rev. W. V. Awdry has a lot to answer for. There was romance in the great express trains of my youth and that of many hon. Members, with the Flying Scotsman, with sleepers to Mallaig and Fort William and observation cars, or the Cornish riviera express, which was a regular mode of transport for me for some years. There was less romance on the old Southern Railways line from Waterloo to Salisbury and Exeter, which rattled along on pretty inadequate track.

My hopes of romantic sleepers from regional railways to places such as Bordeaux via the channel tunnel with the introduction of the Eurotunnel services were dashed when it all went horribly wrong. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is laughing, but he better listen carefully to why it went wrong. Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money was wasted on ridiculous coaches in the last gasps of the nationalised industry's procurement process. I went to Birmingham to see the coaches under construction. I was told by the people who were building them that they would not work. They were so badly procured that they would either have had to run the trains at full speed and switch off the compartment lights or have had the lights on and slowed down. There was not enough power; it was that bad.

We should be concerned with the reality. I am not going to get into arguments for and against nationalisation. We have rehearsed them many times. I shall specifically leave out the great deal that I should like to say on that issue and concentrate on one aspect that has not been mentioned in the debate: the good news in our local railways. I shall not miss out some of the bad news, but I shall above all point out that the people who are running the railways—the staff, whether they drive or clean the trains, as well as the management—have an investment in the future in their own employment, and deserve our thanks and not just brickbats all the time.

The problems are not all the fault of the private railway companies. One of my constituents wrote to me before Christmas because his granddaughter had had to stand all the way from London to Edinburgh. The chief executive of Great North Eastern wrote to my constituent pointing out that, since the company took over the franchise at the end of April 1996, the number of passengers had increased by just under 14 per cent. That was placing a great deal of pressure on the company's rolling stock; 90 per cent. of all trains were in service every day compared with just over 80 per cent. two years before. Mr. Garnett told me that he was desperately keen to order additional trains, to which end he approached the Government in October 1997 with a proposal that would require an extension to the franchise—but there had been no answer from the Government. Meanwhile, the problem of congestion gets steadily worse.

Members of Parliament also receive complaints about Railtrack. I reckon that about a third of the delays and failures on my local line are down to Railtrack. One of the problems of the Regional Railways line between Bristol and Portsmouth is the fact that the company inherited poor track and a backlog of under-investment. I have been mystified by Railtrack's attitude to safety, which must be paramount. I refer specifically to a bridge known as Broken Cross railway bridge, at Ford in my constituency. Laverstock and Ford parish council wrote to me on 29 December to say that the structure of the bridge comprises bits of wood, rope and hazard tape". It is clearly very dangerous. Michael Wheway, clerk to the council, says that there is little to prevent the unwary motorist driving through the flimsy structure and finishing up on the railway line. Repeated requests to Railtrack have not even produced a response. I wrote to Railtrack on 5 January but have not had an answer either. It is high time Railtrack attended to the problem. The remarks of the parish council clerk are no exaggeration.

I said earlier that the Liberal Democrats have lost their touch. Let me explain: I am all for fair criticism when things go wrong—with South West Trains, with Railtrack or anywhere else—but the little campaign that the Liberal Democrats have been waging with respect to South West Trains has been unfair, badly researched and unhelpful. Of course there have been problems on the line. The campaign circulated a long list of them—selectively—to the local media and Members of Parliament. Of the 57 complaints recorded, 16 could be directly attributed to South West Trains, and 19 to Railtrack; 19 did not include enough information to know who was to blame, and three were extremely doubtful complaints. Claiming that that constituted a massive attack on South West Trains just did not wash: it was not fair and it did not work.

We cannot afford complacency—I am certainly not complacent. For many years, I have gone with all-party delegations, including the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and many others, to discuss improvements to the line; by and large we have got what we asked for. We have had new trains, new loops, new signalling, new investment in stations. That adds up to a considerable improvement. By all means let us attack failure, but we should not blame all the problems on the company. There are suicides on the line, people are taken ill just before they are due to drive trains—for goodness' sake, let us be sensible.

This morning, I went to Salisbury station to talk to commuters and staff. First, the Waterloo to Exeter train arrived early. The conductor, who has worked on the railway for 30 years, said: Things are 100 per cent. better than they were in the old days. A cleaner on the trains said that more people were being employed to clean more trains at the new Salisbury depot. He did point out, incidentally, that it is customers who make the mess. I talked to a guard who had worked on the railways for 26 years. He said that they were doing pretty well now, although there had been a bad patch before Christmas. He was worried about breakdowns in the air conditioning. What irony! A few years ago, he would have been worrying about what happened when he tapped the wheel; now he worries about whether the air conditioning can cope in the summer.

The travel centre staff at the railway station were busy when I went in. They said that their commonest complaint was about connections between trains and they are right, as that is a problem. Railway staff are almost unfailingly good-humoured now and the cheerfulness of the conductors has meant a revolution in customer relations. Let us give them credit where it is due.

Similarly, South West Trains has said that it will provide cycle facilities at Salisbury station and recognises the problems. Also on that line, Stagecoach has promised and delivered an integrated bus service and one can buy a ticket on the bus to go straight through to Waterloo station.

I met the management of South West Trains only last week. It is happy to consider the opening of new railway stations, particularly the possibility of one at Porton to serve the Porton Down Government establishment, which is good news.

Let us recognise the problems where they exist. However, for most people, most of the time and on most of their journeys, there is no choice of mode between car, bus, train or plane. Where there is a choice, I warmly welcome attempts to encourage the use of public transport, if and where it can cope. I must reserve judgment on the forthcoming White Paper on integrated transport. I just hope that we have more judgment and less squabbling.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:30, 9 February 1998

Tonight we have heard much dissatisfaction and occasional satisfaction expressed about standards of train services, disappointment at the level of investment in our railways and opposition to the previous Government's privatisation policy. I shall briefly comment on some of the contributions to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) outlined our position with clarity and forcefulness. In turn, the Minister outlined the Government's position and made an announcement that is particularly welcome to me, which is that the franchising director is to force Connex South Central to tackle overcrowding—I am a regular sufferer of Connex South Central's service.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), the Opposition spokesman, concentrated a significant proportion of his speech on the privatisation of other industries. I wonder why. By recognising that if there are to be improvements, they will happen only in five or six years, he appeared to be making a grudging apology for the disaster of rail privatisation to date. His contribution was entertaining in some ways. At one point, he mentioned the 45 per cent. increase in fares between 1980 and 1995—a very damning increase in comparison to the increases introduced by the privatised rail companies, but of course, the Conservative Government were in power at that time.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London)

That is the whole point. We privatised the railways because of the increases under the nationalised service.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for illuminating me on that point. He also spoke frequently of his fixation with the coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but I will not comment further on that.

The speech by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is unfortunately not in her seat, underlined her knowledge and commitment. I congratulate her on her ability to speak so fluently without reference to notes. I wish that I could do the same. She made an interesting point about the sale of land and the British Rail Property Board, which is now known as Railtrack Property. One concrete example of which hon. Members may be aware, is that of Battersea dogs' home. Although I am wholly supportive of the Battersea dogs' home, it has purchased land that could have been used for a rail exchange facility for a concrete plant. Battersea dogs do not require linking to the rail network, whereas the aggregates plant could usefully have been linked in and I am afraid that that is not going to happen.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) raised concerns about how we can achieve the shift of freight from road to rail. I will listen with interest to the Minister's response. He also called for Concorde to replace London Underground, as travel per mile is cheaper on Concorde than it is on the underground. I look forward to that improvement in service.

As the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) said, driver fatigue is a major problem. The fact that the number of drivers has been reduced from 17,000 to 11,000 over the past six years may have some bearing on that.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) expressed support for the railways, but then talked about a war against motorists. Liberal Democrats are certainly not conducting a war against motorists, so I do not know to whom he is referring.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) highlighted security problems in stations in his constituency. Such problems may have been exacerbated by the fact that the number of station staff has more than halved over the past six years.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned bridges—I shall return to that point later—and suggested that Liberal Democrats in his constituency had lost touch with our campaign on rail services. Unfortunately, he was the only Member of Parliament in the area not to support the campaign.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

That is misleading. I told the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that his evidence was so poor and badly researched that we should check it with South West Trains before we agreed how to proceed. He wanted to proceed before he knew the facts.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

If that were so, it applied equally to all the other Members of Parliament who supported what my right hon. Friend was saying.

I was amused that the only maintenance problem that the hon. Member for Salisbury could identify concerned air-conditioning units. I have experienced many more significant maintenance problems on railways than that.

Whatever hon. Members think about the privatisation of British Rail, the fact is that the expense of its implementation and the continuing costs to the taxpayer have, according to the Union Bank of Switzerland, left Britain with the highest rail fares in the world. It is essential for sustainability that the railways play a greater role in moving freight and people, but that will happen only if day-to-day operational standards improve rapidly and large-scale investment is sustained for many years.

We welcome the National Audit Office's insistence that the rail franchising director tighten up procedures for verifying the train performance information that is supplied by the train operating companies and Railtrack. We would go further; we believe that existing performance standards should be raised. Some of the train operating companies are meeting the standards, but the official complaints figures—which other hon. Members have cited and which were highlighted in the excellent report by Save Our Railways, "The Impact of Privatisation"—have increased by 96 per cent. since last year.

We believe—as does the industry—that that is because the previous Government set abysmally low standards to ensure that privatisation was seen as a success. Their definition of success was not that there should be greater customer satisfaction after privatisation but that there should be sufficient private companies bidding to run services. Under the current standards regime—which, we are told, is very demanding—suburban trains that arrive up to five minutes late are considered to have arrived on time; similarly, inter-city trains can arrive up to 10 minutes late and still be on time.

We believe not only that existing standards should be strengthened, but that other standards should be introduced and that a wider range of indicators should be used. The train operating companies should not be allowed to slacken timetables to inflate the apparent rate of train punctuality. Surveys of customer satisfaction, undertaken by the franchisees as a condition of their contracts, should be the subject of independent scrutiny. Standards of cleanliness, which are not currently measured, should be measured.

With tougher standards should go tougher penalties. Other hon. Members have referred to the penalty that South West Trains experienced, but a £100,000 fine is a pinprick in comparison to the £63 million that the company receives in subsidy. I am sure that Connex has already shrugged off the derisory fine imposed on it.

Train operating companies can do much to improve their services, but under-investment is a serious problem. Everyone accepts that large sums of money are needed to modernise the network. For 20 years, the west coast main line has awaited improvements. All over the country, the rail service has bottlenecks, and antiquated track layouts and signalling.

As well as financing improvements in those areas, money must be found for other projects, such as the London underground, which creaks and groans under a £1.2 billion backlog of outstanding repairs. Only today, we heard that it has suffered a further setback with the Jubilee line extension being delayed by another six months, making it more than a year late.

The official Opposition have no solution other than the privatisation of London Underground. One would have thought that with the collapse of London and Continental's channel tunnel link, the creation of yet more fat cats after the sale of the docklands light railway and the high levels of customer dissatisfaction with the train operating companies, the Conservatives would have made their praise of privatisation less conspicuous. The new Government still maintain a deathly silence on the issue of London Underground and the tube's future.

Hon. Members have mentioned the fast link to the channel tunnel. The sums involved are beyond the financing capacity of the Government, who today ruled out—until 2003, at the earliest—the possibility of using daily congestion charges, thereby discarding a possible source of revenue that could be used to finance transport improvements. Therefore, private sources must be tapped, and we recognise that. In such circumstances, it is the Government's duty to create conditions in which the private sector will invest. The limited public funds that are available should be used to lever in private funds on the best possible terms.

The good intentions expressed in the objectives and the concordat that the Minister of Transport mentioned will not help to secure private funding. For instance, the document mentions providing guidance and assistance … to local authorities … about securing finance for railways". That will be useful, but with local authorities facing a shortfall in their budgets of up to £1 billion they are hardly in a position to fund substantial improvements in the railways. We will therefore be dependent on the private sector.

In a few weeks, Railtrack will publish its third network management statement. We sincerely hope that it will accept the role in which it has been cast and act as the steward of the network. We will expect an imaginative plan from the company to enhance the capability of the network and we look to it to use the strength of its balance sheet to finance improvements.

We remind Railtrack that its primary duty is to the existing railway network, which includes 55,000 bridges. Many of those bridges are reaching the end of their design life and will cost no less than £11 billion to maintain and renew. Railtrack has allowed just over £1 billion for such work, but it must fulfil its principal duties before directing its efforts to other projects.

In return, the Rail Regulator must consider access charges and must ensure that the network is prioritised, instead of profit for shareholders. It may be necessary to extend franchises, if that is the only way to obtain investment. If the Government will not provide investment, it must come from somewhere and franchise extensions may be a possible source. Many hon. Members mentioned the rolling stock companies. Their fat cats have already lapped up the cream and the saucer is now empty.

It is too late to do anything about the vast sums that were extracted by the people who originally bought the ROSCOs. Now, we must work with the companies to find out how we can secure the investment necessary to deal with the 1,300 mark I carriages that still operate and that, according to the Clapham disaster inquiry, should be phased out by the end of the century.

We look forward to the challenging performance standards, the creation of conditions for greater private sector investment and a quick resolution of the position of the ROSCOs. We look forward to what we hope will be a far-sighted and comprehensive network management statement from Railtrack that will show that the company has the foresight and strength to think strategically and beyond its shareholders.

I believe that none of the measures that I have outlined requires legislation. We hope that they will all be well in hand by the time that the White Paper is published. By then, the Government will have been in office for nearly a year. Any subsequent legislation will no doubt take a further year, and setting up a strategic rail authority may take even longer. We cannot wait that long for an upsurge of investment in our railways. We call on the Minister—the fat controller of the railways, if he will pardon the expression—to be bold and take on board our proposals. He should not call for another review, consultation or reorganisation but accept our proposals so that we can get the train out of the station, in comfort and on time.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 9:45, 9 February 1998

This has been an interesting debate, inasmuch as, with, I think, three exceptions, every contribution has been critical of the previous Administration's policy of rail privatisation, and very critical of the services that are being provided on our railways; underlined the failure in respect of the investment level that the previous Administration promised would flow from their policies; and highlighted the importance of a properly integrated, fully functioning railway system for our people. We share those views. We regard our railways as central in carrying both more passengers and more freight and in playing an ever increasing role in an integrated transport strategy, to ensure that we can begin to offer real choices to the travelling public and move away from over-dependence on the private car.

As I said, with three exceptions, every hon. Member has criticised, with no small expertise, the previous Government's rail privatisation policy and highlighted the desperate situation that flowed from it. The identity of those who did not accept what we regard as a proven fact was hardly remarkable; it came as no surprise. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) decimated in her inimitable way the contribution of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). He said that his was the only party that was looking to the future. His ability to rewrite history and his inability to acknowledge the damage caused to our country by the political dogma of rail privatisation suggest that the future for his party is bleak.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South seemed unaware of the fact that what he called—I am probably paraphrasing—the socialist dogma of taking back Eurostar into public ownership is a requirement of an agreement drawn up by and driven through by his party. If London and Continental Railways invokes section 77 of that agreement, as it did in saying that it could not complete its contract, and after 30 days, that is still the situation, the Government of the day are required to take back the Eurostar service and ensure that it runs and continues to carry passengers and play its part.

The hon. Gentleman totally ignored the actual costs of privatisation, but my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich had all those figures at the tip of her tongue. She made abundantly clear the scale of the waste that had produced services of which every hon. Member, with the exception of the hon. Members for Croydon, South and for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), was critical. It is hardly surprising that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale should praise the previous Administration's policy on rail privatisation, because I understand that before he entered the House he was press secretary to a previous Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney).

I should like to refer to the themes that hon. Members have referred to tonight. The debate began with a contribution from the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor), who asked about the specific functions of the Government's proposed new rail authority. No firm decisions have as yet been made, but it was stated in our manifesto that that authority would combine the functions of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and some of those that are currently the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. We do not necessarily regard those functions as the exclusive limitations of the authority's remit. The likely areas of responsibility for the new authority will probably also include managing existing franchise contracts; developing a strategic vision for investment in the network; promoting integration between rail and other modes of transport; promoting voluntary action by train operators to win passengers; and promoting the needs of disabled passengers. Their needs were highlighted not only by the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell, but by my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who, in an intervention, spoke about the difficulties of a constituent. If disabled people wish to travel, they should contact the relevant train operating company to be given advice. In general, an escort will be arranged.

As for the more general needs of disabled passengers, the Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that there must be strong consumer representation on our new rail authority, which will consider specific issues such as rail accessibility, which the regulator is also considering.

The contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich was typically pithy. She asked about appointments to rail users consultative committees. We wish to broaden their membership along the lines that my hon. Friend has detailed. We should like that membership to include people who use the railways and more young people. We also want vacancies on such committees to be filled through open advertisements, and there should be competition for those committee posts in accordance with the Nolan principles.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich and the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) spoke about rail freight and the need to ensure that railway land was available for the development of that traffic—the Government want to encourage that sector. We were asked what we were doing to stop the sale of railway land. In effect, Railtrack consults freight operators before disposing of land that might have a future use. Hon. Members also raised the possibility of a freeze on the sale of British Rail land. At the moment, BR is bound by statute to divest itself of surplus property at market value, but in the context of developing an integrated transport policy, we are examining whether planning guidance might be strengthened to protect suitable land for future rail use.

Hon. Members also asked what we are doing to encourage more freight on to the railways. The new freight companies are winning new traffic on to rail; English, Welsh and Scottish Railways aims to triple traffic in 10 years and Freightliner aims to increase the volume of container traffic by 50 per cent. in five years.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport also outlined the measures that we have taken to improve the freight facilities grant not only in financial terms, but by cutting red tape. We have also secured commitments from the French Government and Eurotunnel to get a better deal for rail freight carried through the channel tunnel and beyond, not only by EWS but by potential new entrants to the market. In the context of the development of an integrated transport policy, we are considering what other measures might be introduced to encourage rail freight.

On the theme of service to the travelling public, the hon. Member for Lewes and others, including the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, raised the issue of bicycles on our trains. Only last year, I launched a code of practice providing for cyclists, and we encourage all train and station operators to adopt the code. Train operators are required by their franchise agreements to ensure that facilities are made available for the carriage of bicycles on trains, as far as is reasonably practicable; and the Government's new objectives, instructions and guidance to the franchising director now require that when a franchisee plans to order new rolling stock, he must discuss the provision of suitable space for accommodating bicycles with the franchise operator.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) raised the issue of what he perceives to be dangerous working practices, which might not only cause harm to employees, but create possible dangers for the travelling public. Employers have a statutory duty to ensure that employees in safety-critical posts do not work such hours as would be liable to cause fatigue. The Health and Safety Commission has issued a statutory code of practice interpreting that duty; and the Health and Safety Executive's railway inspectorate is aware of drivers' concerns about new working patterns and is monitoring the situation carefully. However, if my hon. Friend would like to write to me stating specific details, I should be happy to look into the matter.

As I said, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale was one of three speakers who could find nothing but good in the previous Government's practice of rail privatisation. He remarked on the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who has dedicatedly served the House and her constituents for a considerable time and who honours the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Transport Sub-Committee by her chairmanship. For the hon. Gentleman to dub her remarks as utter tosh was quite outrageous and scandalous. He raised several constituency issues, not least that of over-carrying, about which he has written to me.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the point that if we are to win more passengers on to our railways, the service provided by the train operating companies must be of the highest possible quality. Many Labour Members made the point that vast amounts of public money are being spent on our railways. The Government are determined to ensure that that vast sum produces a high-quality service, and that view will be part and parcel of all our policies, including our White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), who mentioned my birthplace, Birkenhead, more than once, raised the issue of stations. Again, there has to be co-operation between Railtrack, the train operating companies and those most concerned to ensure that stations, services and our whole railway system are improved for the benefit of individual travellers and the country as a whole.

In his balanced contribution, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) raised many of the issues that had been touched on by other hon. Members tonight. He also spoke about a bridge, but has not yet written to me on that subject. If Railtrack does not come to hear about what he said tonight, perhaps he should write to me, as a letter from me might help to move things along.

Tonight's debate has clearly demonstrated that the privatised railway system has not been the panacea promised by the previous Administration. It has a regulatory structure that often confuses; there is no long-term strategy for the development of the network; and—most important—passengers are not getting the service that they have a legitimate right to expect. Those are fundamental problems, and the Government are determined to address and to solve them. That is not to say that private train companies have not made improvements in some areas: I welcome the initiatives introduced by several train operating companies in respect of joint ticketing for bus and rail—a point also made by the hon. Member for Salisbury.

However, in opening the debate for the Government, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport set out in some detail the shortcomings of the railways as we found them last May. He also acknowledged that the reforms needed to remedy those failings cannot be made overnight. We shall need new legislation to establish the new rail authority and to implement some of the proposals that we plan to set out in our White Paper in the spring, on integrated transport policy. Those measures will build on the ones that we have already taken within the constraints imposed by the current complex regulatory structures. Those improvements have been widely welcomed as an important first step in creating the conditions for the railways to operate first and foremost in the public interest. That is what we have said we will do; that is what we are committed to do; and that is what we will deliver.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 40, Noes 296.

Division No. 158][9.59 pm
Allan, RichardHughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyJones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Baker, NormanKeetch, Paul
Ballard, Mrs JackieLivsey, Richard
Beith, Rt Hon A JMaclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Brake, TomMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Brand, Dr PeterMoore, Michael
Breed, ColinOaten, Mark
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Öpik, Lembit
Burnett, JohnRendel, David
Burstow, PaulRussell, Bob (Colchester)
Cable, Dr VincentSanders, Adrian
Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Chidgey, DavidTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Cotter, BrianTonge, Dr Jenny
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Wallace, James
Fearn, RonnieWebb, Steve
Foster, Don (Bath)Willis, Phil
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Harris, Dr EvanTellers for the Ayes:
Harvey, NickMr. Paul Tyler and Mr. Donald Gorrie.
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)
Abbott, Ms DianeDavis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Ainger, NickDean, Mrs Janet
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Denham, John
Allen, GrahamDismore, Andrew
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Donohoe, Brian H
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Doran, Frank
Armstrong, Ms HilaryDowd, Jim
Ashton, JoeDrew, David
Atkins, CharlotteDrown, Ms Julia
Austin, JohnDunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Barnes, HarryEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Bayley, HughEagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs MargaretEdwards, Huw
Begg, Miss AnneEfford, Clive
Bennett, Andrew FEllman, Mrs Louise
Benton, JoeEnnis, Jeff
Berry, RogerEtherington, Bill
Best, HaroldFatchett, Derek
Betts, CliveField, Rt Hon Frank
Blackman, LizFitzsimons, Lorna
Blears, Ms HazelFlynn, Paul
Blizzard, BobFollett, Barbara
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidFoster, Michael J (Worcester)
Borrow, DavidFoulkes, George
Bradshaw, BenGalbraith, Sam
Brinton, Mrs HelenGalloway, George
Brown, Rt Hon GordonGeorge, Bruce (Walsall S)
(Dunfermline E)Gerrard, Neil
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Gibson, Dr Ian
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Godsiff, Roger
Buck, Ms KarenGoggins, Paul
Burgon, ColinGolding, Mrs Llin
Butler, Mrs ChristineGordon, Mrs Eileen
Caborn, RichardGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Grocott, Bruce
Canavan, DennisGrogan, John
Caplin, IvorGunnell, John
Casale, RogerHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caton, MartinHamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Cawsey, IanHanson, David
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Chaytor, DavidHealey, John
Chisholm, MalcolmHenderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clapham, MichaelHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Hepburn, Stephen
Clark, Dr LyndaHeppell, John
(Edinburgh Pentlands)Hesford, Stephen
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Hill, Keith
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Hinchliffe, David
Clwyd, AnnHome Robertson, John
Coaker, VernonHope, Phil
Coffey, Ms AnnHopkins, Kelvin
Cohen, HarryHowarth, Alan (Newport E)
Coleman, IainHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Colman, TonyHowells, Dr Kim
Connarty, MichaelHoyle, Lindsay
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretfotd)
Corbett, RobinHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Corbyn, JeremyHurst, Alan
Corston, Ms JeanHutton, John
Crausby, DavidIddon, Dr Brian
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Illsley, Eric
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cummings, JohnJenkins, Brian
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr JohnJohnson, Miss Melanie
(Copeland)(Welwyn Hatfield)
Dalyell, TamJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Darvill, KeithJones, Ms Jenny
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)(Wolverh'ton SW)
Davidson, IanJones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Keeble, Ms SallyPrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Primarolo, Dawn
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)Prosser, Gwyn
Khabra, Piara SPurchase, Ken
Kinq, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Kumar, Dr AshokQuin, Ms Joyce
Ladyman, Dr StephenRadice, Giles
Laxton, BobRapson, Syd
Lepper, DavidRaynsford, Nick
Levitt, TomRobinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)Rooney, Terry
Linton, MartinRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Livingstone, KenRowlands, Ted
Lock, DavidRoy, Frank
Love, AndrewRuane, Chris
McAllion, John
McAvoy, ThomasRuddock, Ms Joan
McCabe, SteveRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McCafferty, Ms ChrisRyan, Ms Joan
McFall, JohnSalter, Martin
McGuire, Mrs AnneSavidge, Malcolm
McIsaac, ShonaSawford, Phil
McKenna, Mrs RosemarySedgemore, Brian
Mackinlay, AndrewSheerman, Barry
McLeish, HenrySheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McNamara, KevinShort, Rt Hon Clare
McNulty, TonySingh, Marsha
Mactaggart, Fiona
McWalter, TonySkinner, Dennis
McWilliam, JohnSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Mahon, Mrs AliceSmith, Angela (Basildon)
Mallaber, JudySmith, Miss Geraldine
Mandelson, Peter (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Marek, Dr JohnSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Snape, Peter
Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Martlew, EricSoley, Clive
Meacher, Rt Hon MichaelSpellar, John
Meale, AlanSquire, Ms Rachel
Michael, AlunSteinberg, Gerry
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Stevenson, George
Milburn, AlanStewart, David (Inverness E)
Miller, AndrewStinchcombe, Paul
Mitchell, AustinStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Moffatt, LauraStringer, Graham
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Moran, Ms MargaretStuart, Ms Gisela
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)(Dewsbury)
Morley, ElliotThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)Timms, Stephen
Mountford, KaliTipping, Paddy
Mudie, GeorgeTouhig, Don
Mullin, ChrisTrickett, Jon
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Truswell, Paul
Naysmith, Dr DougTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
O'Hara, EddieTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Olner, BillTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Organ, Mrs DianaVaz, Keith
Osborne, Ms SandraVis, Dr Rudi
Palmer, Dr NickWalley, Ms Joan
Pearson, IanWareing, Robert N
Pendry, TomWatts, David
Pickthall, ColinWhite, Brian
Pike, Peter LWhitehead, Dr Alan
Plaskitt, JamesWicks, Malcolm
Pollard, Kerry
Pond, ChrisWilliams, Rt Hon Alan
Pope, Greg(Swansea W)
Pound, StephenWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Powell, Sir RaymondWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Wills, MichaelWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Winnick, DavidWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)Wyatt, Derek
Wise, AudreyTellers for the Noes:
Wood, MikeMr. David Clelland and Mr. David Jamieson.
Wray, James

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MADAM SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House deplores the previous Government's privatisation of the railways, which has made a large profit for a few, but has been a poor deal for the taxpayer and the passenger, and has fragmented the rail network; welcomes the Government's interim package of measures introduced in November 1997—new Objectives, Instructions and Guidance for the Franchising Director, new planning criteria for OPRAF and a Concordat with the Rail Regulator—which puts the interests of rail users first; and commends the Government's commitment to establish effective and accountable regulation and to set up a new rail authority so that passengers' legitimate expectations are met.