The Peterborough MP Stewart Jackson made a number of contributions and a speech in a debate on East Coast Mainline Franchise on Thursday 20th June 2013.
Following is a selection of the transcript which can be viewed in full here
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con):
I speak not only as the representative of the fine railway town of Peterborough, but as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which has looked at different aspects of rail travel in recent years, including most recently the west coast main line franchising process, and as a commuter. Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), I travel frequently, although I am not always as familiar with the timetables as I should be. One Wednesday a few weeks ago I was running very fast through the brand spanking new, recently refurbished King’s Cross station in order to catch the 8 o’clock train. I clambered on board only to find after it departed that it was a fast service to York. I passed various Labour MPs in first class, while holding my standard ticket in hand, and then saw my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy). He asked what I was going to do, and I said I would have to get off at York and go back to Peterborough. With typical sympathy and pithy Yorkshire wit, he said, “I hope you’ve written to me to say you’re going to be in my constituency”—although I think it was probably the constituency of the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) that I was visiting.
This debate gives us an opportunity to look specifically at the major infrastructure challenges facing the east coast main line. I will focus not on a sterile argument about private being bad and public being good, but on the challenges and opportunities we face in looking at public policy on that line. In the past 10 years we have seen a 43% rise in passenger demand. By 2031 there will be a capacity gap of 1,500 seats in the busiest morning hour on suburban services into King’s Cross. Indeed, journeys from Peterborough and Cambridge are expected to rise by as much as 20% by 2016. I think it is fair to say that, irrespective of our party or our views on the debate about rail privatisation, we all have a common interest, on behalf of our constituents who commute, whether from Scotland, Yorkshire or Cambridgeshire, in safer, cleaner and more punctual trains and in value for money.
It would be unfair and churlish not to concede the progress we have seen in Peterborough. New work has begun and is due to be completed next year. We have three new platforms and platform extensions for the new Thameslink trains and the new inter-city trains. We have a new island platform and a new freight loop. The station has been remodelled over the past few years, and we have 150 new, safe and secure cycle racks to help to develop Peterborough as a local transport infrastructure hub.
It is vital that I make the point that Peterborough is dependent on the railway. Indeed, it is integral to the financial and economic viability of my constituency, given that it is 47 minutes away from central London and King’s Cross. I was delighted to welcome the Minister to Peterborough station last autumn to open, with Network Rail, the reconfigured, remodelled station.
We have to concentrate on value for money, which is a very important issue in the private-public debate. An East Coast train season ticket costs my constituents £6,888 a year—£7,472 with a travel card—which is about 25% of the average annual salary in Peterborough. A First Capital Connect season ticket costs £5,800 a year and £7,000 with a travel card.
Putting partisanship aside, the current provider of the service has done a good job, and I think that the Minister and the Secretary of State have conceded as much. It would be unfair not to concede that it has returned £640 million to the Exchequer by way of premiums since 2009—£187 million in the last financial year. The staff on East Coast trains at Peterborough do a superb job and I know many of them. They are hard-working, decent people with a public sector ethos and a commitment to doing a very good job. I am very proud that we have people who do that, even when the things that go wrong are not their fault, but that of Network Rail. They always smile and try to explain what has happened.
Nevertheless, the situation is not perfect. It is only fair to say that East Coast is the worst performing train company in terms of punctuality. [Hon. Members: “No!] It is true. Only 82.8% of East Coast services arrived on time in the period up to 31 March 2013, compared with 97% of services provided by c2c, which is owned by National Express and is the best performing train operating company. Hon. Members may groan, but those are the facts and we have to agree on them in order to improve the service.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government’s official timing period does not pick one month or two months as he has done, but considers the situation over one year, and over one year East Coast has performed substantially better than the operator on the west coast, which is the best comparator.
Mr Jackson: I think that is semantics. I made it clear that I was talking about the 12 months to 31 March 2013. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me to take issue with me, that is fine.
Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Jackson: No, I want to make some progress, but I will give way later to the hon. Gentleman, whom I know has a special interest in the subject.
The Labour Government accepted that public service provision by this train operating company was always going to be a short-term expedient because of a special set of circumstances on the east coast main line. As the Minister has said, in order to leverage key, private sector capital, it is important that we have a new, long-term private partner to innovate and drive up standards on the east coast main line.
It is all very well for Lord Adonis to have a road-to-Damascus conversion. Obviously, being in opposition concentrates one’s mind, but when he was a Minister he spoke out strongly for private sector provision on this particular line. I challenge the Labour party: is its policy now wholesale renationalisation of the railways, or is that just for the east coast main line? I know that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) would definitely give me a clear answer, but I am not sure that he and the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) would have a meeting of minds on the issue.
Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab):
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Although he is ridiculing us on the Labour Benches for supporting the concept of public ownership, most of the travelling public—70% of them—and even those of them who vote Conservative, support the idea of renationalising the railway industry.
If it is such a popular idea, why has the hon. Gentleman’s party not put it in its manifesto? Why in 13 years did it not repeal the Railways Act 1993 and go back to the good old days of British Rail, which did not get us to our destination very often or on time?
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab):
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Let me make some progress and I will give way to the hon. Gentleman shortly.
The Labour party has to bear some responsibility for the series of events that culminated in the current situation. As in so many areas, this Government are having to tackle that legacy. The Labour Government should have been more flexible with Sea Containers and Great North Eastern Railway, which was a very popular provider: it had good staff, good management and was well liked. Obviously, it was undermined—this was out of its control—by the parlous financial situation of Sea Containers, but the previous Labour Government was pretty inflexible and allowed National Express to overbid hugely and deliver a poor level of service. I think that the National Express management team is pretty hopeless. In fairness, the Labour Government did not have much chance or choice to do anything differently at that stage. Nevertheless, unless Labour gives an unambiguous commitment to renationalisation across the network, old Labour hon. Gentlemen will be whistling in the wind.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I must make some progress, because Mr Deputy Speaker will reproach me otherwise.
It is worth mentioning that, in terms of premium, National Express paid £338 million to the Treasury between 2007 and 2010. It was not a basket case. It ran into difficulties as a direct result of the economic crisis and the less than benign economic circumstances, but it did pay in. As I have already told the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, the track access charges were significantly higher for National Express than they are for the current company.
I welcome the improvements in control period 4, which covers 2009 to 2014, including the new platform 0 at King’s Cross, the junction remodelling and in particular the removal of the major bottlenecks between Huntingdon and Peterborough and the overall budget of £240 million. I think we all welcome the new inter-city express trains, extra seats and the replacement of the slam-door rolling stock, which will come on stream in due course.
I am a fair-minded person, so I will admit that there have been mistakes in the franchising process. I challenged the Secretary of State about this in Transport questions a few months ago and the Public Accounts Committee looked at the issue, specifically on the west coast main line, in February and identified some key things. There was a failure to follow due procedures and, essentially, a failure of culture. There were Chinese walls between the permanent secretary and the franchise and procurement teams, which seemed strange and is unusual in the civil service. There was also a failure of oversight, with no one person being in charge of oversight and having responsibility for the franchising process from beginning to end.
In July 2011, the Public Accounts Committee published a report on Network Rail. Network Rail is an integral part of any debate about the east coast main line and its future. The Committee found that Network Rail was still less efficient than comparator organisations in Europe, but it did not know why. The Committee also found that the system of penalties and bonuses that were meant to drive improvements in efficiency were not doing so. Because it is an overly complex industry, the risk of poor value for money and inefficiency is endemic. Those were the key lessons of the PAC report.
There is a need to impose clear objectives on train operating companies to avoid overcrowding, or bear the costs of overcrowding. I am not convinced that the Department for Transport has addressed that important issue adequately. We need more clarity on the link between fares and new passenger places and on the balance of costs between the taxpayer and the passenger.
In its contribution to the debate about franchising, through the Brown report and the McNulty report, Passenger Focus has suggested some simple things that would improve the passenger experience, including right time performance information; better ticket information; making restrictions simpler and more apparent on ticket machines; and having performance indicators for the line of route and not just for the franchise as a whole. Those are simple things, but they would make the experience of our constituents who travel to the north of England, Scotland or London much better.
I will finish my remarks by talking a little about competition and open access. I welcome the consultation paper that was published this month, “On-rail competition: Consultation on options for change in open access”. Open access is an important issue that we need to look at. The east coast main line is a good example of open access. It has brought significant benefits to parts of the network. Only a small part of the passenger rail network is open to competitive pressures. On the east coast main line, two non-subsidised open access operators, Grand Central Trains and First Hull Trains, compete with the franchiser. They have shown that competition leads to more journeys, higher revenues for the train companies, lower fares, and more and happier passengers.
The Centre for Policy Studies publication in March showed that passenger journeys increased by 42% at stations that enjoy rail competition, compared with 27% at those without it; that revenue increased by 57% at those with competition, against 48% at those without it; and that average fares increased by only 11% at stations with competition, compared with 17% at stations without it. So the franchise holder faces competition and still pays an increased premium to the Government, as East Coast has done. Open access competition has led to more routes and more high-speed access to new locations, including in London.
As a one nation Conservative—I suppose we are all one nation now, whether one nation Labour or one nation Conservative—I think that it is important that we have good transport infrastructure to places such as
Sunderland, Hartlepool, Halifax, Hull and Bradford. All those places have seen a significant boost to their economic footprint and their direct access to markets. In the course of the public consultation on open access, we need to consider the benefits to local economies and, ultimately, to the taxpayer. Hitherto, the Office of Rail Regulation and the Department for Transport have set their face against open access and have been inflexible in the design of the franchise regime.
In conclusion, 20 years on from the Railways Act 1993, I believe that privatisation has been a success. Labour will not reverse it in government if it wins the next general election. The review of the franchise regime gives the industry an opportunity to facilitate more competition, more investment in our railways, more choice, and greater value for money and efficiency for our constituents. Ministers should seize this chance while they can.