Rail Franchising

Part of NHS Winter Crisis – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 10th January 2018.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge 6:18 pm, 10th January 2018

I would like to engage the House on the question whether franchising works. My local radio station, BBC Radio Cambridgeshire, will next week be celebrating 25 years since this country started on the journey from British Rail to anything but British rail. I remember it rather well because I went to a Railtrack meeting at the time and asked what I thought was a naive question: “Who is going to sort out the problems of who is responsible when things go wrong?” We might think now that people would have thought about that point then, but it is still being argued about 25 years on.

When I talk to people in the industry, they tell me about the small army of people who spend their time not helping passengers or improving the railways, but arguing over who is responsible for paying when things go wrong. Of course, there are so many opportunities to game the system. There are so many ways in which operators can make their trains just not quite late enough to incur any penalties.

I made a bit of a social gaffe at a dinner recently. I was sitting next to someone from a train operating company and asked a rather unfortunate question, which was, “What exactly is the point in train operating companies?” I wondered, like most people would, “You don’t own any trains; you don’t own any tracks, so what do you do?” They said, “Ah—we sell tickets and we innovate.” That explained it—“Kind of like ticket touts, then?” I suspect I am not going to be invited back for a follow-up. That is the problem with many of these people. It is a very complicated system.

My hon. Friends have already raised some of the issues on two of the routes that serve my city of Cambridge. I am grateful for the piece in The Sunday Times that was mentioned, where we learned a bit more about the East Anglia franchise—its £3.7 billion price tag. The managing director was right to describe it as “scary”. That was negotiated in and around the time of the referendum in 2016, and, amazingly, renegotiated very hurriedly in the days afterwards—completely out of public sight, as usual, and all shrouded in commercial confidentiality. Within six months, the company had sold a 40% stake of itself to a Japanese company. Does any of this matter? I think it does. These are our public services being bought and sold, speculated on and turned into financial instruments, when what we actually need is an environmentally sustainable, cost-effective, reliable, sensible transport system that people in my constituency can afford.

With regard to the other route, I am afraid that a National Audit Office report revealed, as also eloquently explained by some of my hon. Friends, the appalling levels of service that constituents of mine are suffering. Many of them are paying almost £5,000 a year for a season ticket—a huge amount for the many young people in my constituency to have to bear.

In conclusion, I say to the train operating companies: take a look at the station clock. Tick TOC, your time is up—just like mine.