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Franchising has been instrumental in improving the railways for passengers and as part of the enormous growth in rail usage since privatisation 20 years ago. Our approach to rail reform is about delivering an improved service for passengers through better teamwork between Network Rail and passenger rail franchises, and making Network Rail more customer focused by giving more power to its local route managers.
We now know that the Secretary of State is putting politics before the interests of passengers, and he is taking a dogmatic approach by ignoring what could improve our railway system. He has refused to allow the Mayor of London to take over suburban services, in spite of the fact that his predecessor thought that that was a good idea. The public are in favour of public ownership: 58% of people polled by Transport for London are in favour of the Mayor having greater control over suburban services and only 14% support his position. Is it not time that public ownership of our railways was considered by the Government, and are not the public in favour of it?
It is hardly a surprise that Conservative Members for constituencies outside London have doubts about a Labour Mayor inside London running local services, particularly when the Mayor delivered a business plan that did not offer improved capacity and was founded on a lot of uncosted promises. So far from this Mayor, we have seen a fare freeze that was not a fare freeze and a London of no rail strikes with a rail strike last Monday. I do not take the Mayor’s promises at face value, I am afraid. We have taken a partnership approach that also listens to the people of Kent, who are equally important in this franchise and said they should be equal partners with the people of London in designing it.
In 1993, the public sector British Rail withdrew services on the Cleethorpes to Sheffield line, making it a Saturdays-only service, which means that people in Gainsborough, Brigg and such towns cannot get to Cleethorpes to enjoy all that it has to offer. As yet, the private sector has not seen fit to restore that service to six days a week. Will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers meet me and Members for neighbouring constituencies to discuss the issue?
We are always happy to talk to my hon. Friend, who remains a doughty champion of his constituency, but he is right to make the point that if we turned the clock back 30 or 40 years to the days of British Rail, the debate in the House today would be about line closures, station closures and a reduction in services. Today, the issues are overcrowding due to numbers rising so fast, new stations, improved facilities and new trains. That is the difference between the policies we have followed and the policies Labour Members want to follow.
The Government’s franchising policy lies in tatters, with desperate attempts to retrofit contracts to protect operators’ profits and, as revealed yesterday, National Express taking the money and running, selling the c2c franchise to the Italian state. The Secretary of State’s director of passenger services awarded the disastrous Southern franchise, while owning shares in the company and advising the winner bidder. The country has had enough of these sleazy deals. Is it not way past time for franchising to be scrapped and the UK rail industry to be revitalised through public ownership?
The clock ticks ever backwards. The Opposition do not want inward investment or private sector investment in our railways, but, of course, we still do not hear from them any words on behalf of passengers about the strikes. The Labour party takes money from the rail unions and defends them when they are on strike, no matter what the inconvenience to passengers is. The Opposition are a disgrace. They should stand up and say that these strikes should stop. I will say one thing about the Mayor of London: at least he had the wit and wisdom this week to say that the strikes are wrong. I hear nothing from the hon. Gentleman about the strikes being wrong.