My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently announced that we would not continue with the paused Great Western competition. He also confirmed that the Department would enter negotiations with First Great Western to secure arrangements for a further two and a half years, to September 2015. These negotiations are now in progress.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that under the original tender document there was much concern in Cornwall about the potential for the number of through services to be reduced, and that there are local ambitions to expand the use of the branch lines. Can he assure the House that those services will at the very least be protected at the current levels for the next couple of years?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am delighted to be able to tell him that during the period of the extension we will maintain today’s number of daily through services from London to Cornwall. The Truro to Falmouth service will remain at today’s levels and will no longer have to be funded by Cornwall county council, but through the high-level output specification intervention. The option for additional services on the St. Ives to Penzance branch from May 2014, subject to rolling stock availability, will be carried forward in this period.
My Reading East constituents, many of whom commute into London using the Great Western route, continually raise issues of service and cost of travel. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the voices of the regular passengers will be listened to during the franchising process and that the interests and service needs of passengers will be fully reflected in the final franchising contract?
Again, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As the House will know, he has done tremendous work fighting for his constituents through the work he did securing funding for the improvements to Reading station and the London-Heathrow spur for the Great Western line. I reassure him that when the Secretary of State makes his announcement in the spring about the future progress of the franchising programme, all franchises will be extremely mindful of the needs of passengers, including those on the Reading line, as we approach any successor franchise arrangements, and we are committed to working with the industry to reduce costs and to take into account the needs and requirements of passengers.
Passengers in the Bristol area are desperate to see an improvement to services on the Great Western line, particularly with regard to the issue of overcrowding. If people have paid for a seat, they should not expect to have to stand on an almost daily basis. Can the Minister assure me that the issue of capacity will be addressed in the franchise negotiations, and that there will be extra rolling stock on the line?
Yes, I would like to give some assurance to the hon. Lady. When franchises come up for the next stage of the process, we want to ensure that all passenger requirements, as well as the ability of companies to provide a first-class service to passengers, are considered fully.
The problem is that ever since the merger of Thames trains with First Great Western to form that franchise, the interests of commuters using the Great Western line have not sufficiently been addressed. We have the most crowded trains. In Slough, the service is slower than it used to be and there are fewer fast trains. What can the Minister do in the next two and a half years to improve the service for commuters on this line?
I can tell the hon. Lady that we are certainly looking at that and will continue do so, although I do not imagine that she was making those points in this House when the franchise was put together by her Government.
Is there not now a wonderful opportunity in this impasse to make sure any future franchise will ensure that the second-largest urban conurbation in the far south-west will retain direct rail services to London?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue on a number of occasions, and I understand fully why he does so. This is certainly an issue that can be considered when any future franchise bid is being prepared.