6 April 1998

Steven Webb MP (Lib.Dem Northavon)

London—West Country Rail Services

The Great Western franchise and service between London and Bristol particularly concerns me. As a user of the service I have noticed, and other passengers have noticed, the deterioration in quality of the service. The very latest figures suggest that about one in five services is late, and that is the worst performance the Great Western has achieved since taking over the franchise over two years ago. So, we have a deteriorating service, and at the same time the newspapers are full of stories that the people who are running the service are making millions from a takeover.

So it seems the right time – if the takeover was going to be given permission – to press for improvements in the quality of the service. So that was why I raised the issue now.

There is plenty of power to act on this, at the point when a new takeover is being granted. The director of passenger rail franchising has the power to impose stricter conditions on the new people who are running the franchise, and indeed he did. So he imposed a fines regime for late or cancelled trains, negotiated more rolling stock and various improvements to stations and so on. This is just at the point at which things can be done. And one of the arguments is, this is the first franchise to be taken over. And what we are saying is, this has to set the precedent, and so we wanted a tough settlement on this one, so that future takeovers would know they would really have to improve the quality of service to passengers if they were going to go ahead.

Nothing grieves me more, really, than the railways getting bad publicity. One has to be very careful in campaigning in the way that I have done, not just putting people off travelling by train. That is the last thing we want to do. And if there is a demand – and there is growing demand – passenger numbers are rising, but could rise much more if there was a reliable effective transport system. The fact that in making a decision – Bristol to London is the sort of journey you could drive – if there was a good train service you would choose not to drive, and it is just those sorts of decisions where the environmental benefits are going to be particularly strong, because it is a major drive.

If you can encourage people to take it by train, then you will make a difference. Although all these things are only at the margins, it all helps. So this is why I want to see a tightly regulated rail service, properly invested in the track and so on, so that it becomes reliable and becomes the premier way to travel, and not merely secondary.

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