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5.38 pm

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I shall use my time in the debate to be somewhat parochial and to consider what the strategic plan means for Wales and Welsh railway services.

I have been here since the start of the debate and listened to the arguments of Conservative Members. I am stunned that, in every contribution that they have made, there has been no whisper of an apology for the fact that rail services are in their current state as the result of what has happened, not overnight, but over 20 or 30 years. I shall cite some examples from my area that show that it is a travesty that the Opposition have not had the courtesy to apologise for the fact that this debate has had to be called today. The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to the Secretary of State taking responsibility. However, from a Back Bencher's and rail user's point of view, that is a refreshing and welcome change. Opposition Members have never taken responsibility.

I welcome the Strategic Rail Authority's plan and what it means for my area. I welcome the investment but, perhaps more than just the money, I welcome the overall co-ordination of rail services. I hope that we can stop the buck being passed, because I know from listening and talking to my constituents that one of passengers' major concerns is that, when they have a problem with the railways, they do not know where to go to obtain redress. That is why they come to me. They are stumped, in short. I write to rail companies and their responses often blame another rail company. Pinning them down has been one of the major problems for my constituents and passengers from west Wales.

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The railways are important to west Wales. From the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who saw the potential of having a railway junction in west Wales, which was also where ships could dock for transatlantic travel, we have had a long and noble tradition in the railways. We were fortunate to keep our rail link through the 1950s and 1960s and the days of Dr. Beeching. The railways are important because two ports still rely on them—Stena at Fishguard and Irish Ferries at Pembroke dock. Many of their passengers are foot passengers who travel by rail to cross to Ireland.

Our area is dependent on tourism. Part of our economic development strategy has been to preserve the beauty of the area and to encourage people to come to us by rail. We have tried to increase cycling and walking holidays, which has meant encouraging people to come by train. There are social considerations, too. Many people in Milford Haven, in my constituency, do not have personal transport. The rail link between Milford Haven and Haverfordwest is a valuable lifeline to our county town.

I mentioned the lack of an apology from the Tories. We can talk about money and the facts and figures until the cows come home, but it is the evidence on the ground that is important. In the 1980s, we lost our sleeper service to London. In the 1990s, before 1997, we lost our daily 125 service to London. That was an important factor for economic development; it prevented individuals from taking a day trip to London for business purposes or other reasons, because they cannot get back to Pembrokeshire and west Wales in the same day.

That problem was compounded by flawed privatisation, which is the most apt description of privatisation. Pre-privatisation, it took two hours 45 minutes to get from Paddington to Swansea; it now takes three hours. A cynical person could say that the extra 15 minutes were added on so that the privatised rail companies were less liable for compensation if things went wrong. Several hon. Members—notably from south-west England—have complained about journey times. I wonder whether their experience is the same as mine, because journey times in west Wales are certainly 15 minutes longer than they were pre-privatisation.

The other problem we face—again, it may be common to the south-west—is the replacement of train services by bus services. I inquired about that when it first happened because there seemed to be no logical reason, such as conflicting services, why the train should not carry on. The answer was simply a shortage of drivers. Since fragmentation and privatisation, drivers have been employed by different companies, so there is no pool of drivers to call on to take the trains to the end of the line. In addition to having an impact on links to the ferries, it also affects elderly and disabled passengers. They often catch the train because of the facilities and services that it offers and so that they do not have to lug their luggage on and off a bus.

Another important problem is that of local train connections. They have had a dramatic impact on train services to our area. The local linking train used to wait in Swansea for passengers from the mainline train. Post-privatisation, that changed. The train waits for a maximum of seven minutes because, after that, the other train operating company becomes liable for compensation.

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What are the benefits of that for passengers and customers? In my experience, privatisation has detracted from the service and removed choice and quality.

I mentioned my personal experience of passing the buck. I welcome the change at the top of the SRA. As a Member of Parliament who wrote to it, I have been unhappy that it appeared to be an apologist for the rail companies. The plan and the change at the top will, hopefully, lead to an improvement and to those companies being called to account across the board so that the buck can no longer be passed.

A pie chart in the SRA's strategic plan shows that Railtrack is responsible for 42 per cent. of rail delays whereas the train operators are responsible for 43 per cent. I had a meeting the other day with First Great Western trains. It gave me another pie chart that showed that Railtrack was responsible for 74 per cent. of the delays. Other reasons for delays, including the state of the fleet, were down to 26 per cent. That again shows the need for the vision and co-ordination that the SRA will offer from now on.

In my meeting with First Great Western, we obviously focused on a Welsh perspective. I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two things that I think can improve services in Wales. I also want to show that investment further up the line can have a dramatic impact on our services. It has been brought to my attention that there is no signalling in the Severn tunnel, which means that there is a seven-minute gap between every train that goes through it. If signalling were put in the middle of the tunnel, capacity would be increased and trains could go through every four minutes. Clearly, that would have a dramatic impact on the service to Wales in terms of capacity and reliability. I am told that only £2 million of investment is needed to do that, which seems a small sum in terms of the benefits that it could bring to Wales.

Junctions at Cardiff and Newport, which are especially slow, add to journey times and affect track capacity. That is another issue. First Great Western raised several problems further down the line. With regard to Swindon and Didcot, the joint use by slower freight trains has an impact on services to Wales. There are also concerns about the Reading bottleneck. That is a good example of how investment all the way down the line in the UK has an effect on the whole of Wales.

As a rail user, I have one small additional matter to raise: car parks. In my area, it can be a 40-mile journey to the nearest station to get a long-distance train. One problem is the lack of car parks and the security in them. Friends of mine have returned after four days to find the wheels missing from their cars. If we are to meet the Government's targets for rail use, it is vital that the problem of secure car parking be addressed.

Finally, one welcome feature in the strategic plan that has not been mentioned is the idea of providing accessibility for all and what that offers for disabled people on trains. The fact that all new vehicles will be fully accessible and that additional funding will be available to make all stations accessible is important, especially if rail is to play an increasing role in public transport in this country.

5.48 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I do not think that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) should be in any way apologetic for

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taking a parochial view in the debate. If the debate is to serve any purpose, and I think that it serves many, it is for us to express on behalf of our constituents the cri de coeur that derives from their daily experience of public transport. If there is one thing that unites the House, it is the lamentable state of the railway system.

All hon. Members recognise that the travelling public's patience with the railway system is exhausted. They have to go through a daily misery, whether it is on the trains, the tube system in London or in the alternative forms of private transport on the roads that they choose to use instead of public transport—there is a knock-on effect. The most common sentiment that I discern among my constituents is a fatal resignation to the idea that the trains will not do the job that they want them to do. They are resigned to the fact that they will not arrive when they expect them to and that things are not getting any better.

Not only is that view expressed by people throughout Britain, but it is alarming to note that it is also expressed abroad. I draw the House's attention to an article in Le Monde this morning—I shall not attempt to read it out in French. Under a heading that includes the phrase "the worst railway misery in Europe", the article states:

I suspect that that series of dots leads on to a gallic shrug. If that is the impression gaining currency both in this country and abroad, something must be done.

My constituency is served by several railway systems, not least of which is South West Trains. I do not want to dwell on SWT's problems today, save to say that the mud wrestling in misguided pursuit of machismo that has featured in industrial relations within that company does neither the railway industry nor passengers any good. The sooner a settlement is reached, the better for all concerned.

For every person in my constituency who struggles with SWT, there is a person who shares the experience of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire of trying to use First Great Western, which operates the alternative route to London, or someone who has attempted to use the almost mythological cross-country service—everyone knows that starting in the south-west and trying to get anywhere other than London involves at least a day's journey, because the connections simply do not work—or local services. I am not over-sentimental about filling the gaps that Dr. Beeching left behind, although I remember as a child seeing from my bedroom window the old Cheddar Valley steam train. That track will not be brought back into service, but there are serious questions to be answered about infrastructure and the provision of better local services.

The knock-on effect of not providing a rail service is misery on our roads. It is instructive that on the first day of the industrial action on SWT it was almost impossible to use the A303 and M3. I am told that the traffic was backed up from London all the way to Winchester, which is not something that anyone with an appointment in London was prepared to countenance.

Our constituents expect, and it is reasonable to do so, reliability, efficiency, safety and affordability in their train services. They are sick and tired of the merry-go-round of excuses. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire mentioned the buck passing from one company to another,

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each denying responsibility for the day's delays in the service. There is a merry-go-round of excuses at official level, among Ministers, Departments, and the various bodies charged with regulating the rail industry. Those merry-go-rounds are now matched by the carousel of consultants, some of whom have scant experience of the rail system, who have been brought into advise Ministers and the rail service. What on earth John Birt's role can be, I do not understand. No expert on the police, he does not appear to have improved that service, and he is certainly no expert on trains—indeed, it is reported with some degree of authority that he is averse to using trains in both his personal and business life.

Now we have the strategic plan. As is typical of the railway system, it is late in arriving, we are not quite sure in which direction it is going, and there is no indication that it will ever reach its destination. Those of us from the west country who read that compendious document find little to support investment in the west of England. The best expression of any interest in the west country is the glossy picture in the section headed "Conclusions", which shows Bristol Temple Meads station. Unfortunately, there is no train in sight, only a rather nice new bus. That says everything about the services we can expect to receive.

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