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Lord Islwyn: My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that on a recent visit to Newport in South Wales, the Deputy Prime Minister described our railways as a national disgrace? Does she also appreciate that complaints are at an all-time record level and yet those same train operators will, this year, receive a subsidy of £1.6 billion? That will happen whether the trains are late or on time. Surely incentives are needed to encourage punctuality and reliability. Consideration should now be given to sacking some of those poor-performing train operators.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, my noble friend is right. Poor performance by train operators will not be tolerated by this Government and we have warned train operators that those who fail to meet the required standard will have no future in the railway industry.
On 26th November, transport Ministers met with train operators and Railtrack and agreed an action plan to tackle performance problems. Those agreed measures include 800 new train drivers, 500 new vehicles and a joint hit squad to identify and tackle the worst 50 black spots; a national troubleshooter team to tackle punctuality problems; and a new national passenger survey to find out what passengers think about their services in particular parts of the country.
Lord Gainford: My Lords, does the Minister believe that it may be helpful to let it be known that some of our services on the railways are efficient? Congratulations and thanks to them might help the whole system. I declare an interest. When travelling to London by train to attend your Lordships' House, my journey starts with a local train which plies between
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am absolutely delighted to be able to join with a user of the railway system in complimenting good quality service provision. All I can say is that if it is possible to achieve that there, it must be possible to ensure that we achieve across the country those very high standards which give the noble Lord such satisfaction. We must seek to achieve that in the Abergavenny region where my noble friend who asked the Question lives.
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, the noble Baroness has acknowledged the damaging effect which delays and unreliability of rail services cause in discouraging the use of rail by passengers and freight. When will it be possible to ensure that evidence of delays and the cost evidence of those delays is used to encourage better performance and, indeed, an improved and increased infrastructure? That has been used for many years in encouraging the construction of new roads. What additional powers will the strategic rail authority have to deal with that issue?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. We believe it is extremely important to have agreed criteria against which to look at the problems concerned. The previous government took the view that there were sufficient commercial incentives for inter-city operators. But they have failed to achieve the high level needed in certain areas. The franchising director has recently imposed on Great Western a penalty scheme for lateness and cancellations. With regard to the strategic rail authority and the shadow authority which we shall set up in advance of the necessary legislation, we believe it will be able to co-ordinate and bring together the very points to which the noble Baroness referred.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, tempts me into speculation about whether the service may be better if there were more women in charge, but that would be an unfair comment. It is certainly the case that of those who use public transport, the majority are women. Therefore, any consideration of the needs of consumers is bound to have regard to the needs of women and particularly those travelling with children or the elderly.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, bearing in mind the contribution and experience of the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, in running British Railways a few years ago and his assistance to the Government in ensuring that the legislative timetable runs on time, do the Government have any plans to recruit him to the strategic rail authority?
Lord Burnham: My Lords, to what extent do the Government consider that the number of complaints which are now being received reflects the increased sensitivity of the public towards the expectations which were aroused as a result of privatisation rather than the increase in unpunctuality itself?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, there is a worrying increase in complaint figures. It may be fair to say that there was a not a uniform opinion across the country that privatisation would lead to better services. Many people felt that it would not. I do not believe that it is fair for the noble Lord to imply that people have raised the standards of their expectations. My own experience of the West Coast Line is that I have maintained the same standards of expectation but the meeting of those expectations has not been as good as it was before.
The Lord Bishop of Ely: My Lords, is the Minister as worried as I am about the ideological precedence for boasting that the trains run on time? Is she aware also that camel trains appeared to run on time in the days of Herod the King?
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am sure the right reverend Prelate would expect me to say that even those who are capable of the most heinous crimes have some good qualities and therefore one can assume that those good qualities occur in other people without necessarily the bad qualities. Fortunately, even having regard to the record of the last government, the services of camel trains can neither be attributed to them as a success nor, were they ever to fail, be blamed on them.
The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, when a train is running late or arrives late at a destination an anonymous voice from a tannoy--not God--informs the weary passengers that, owing to circumstances beyond the control of the railway authorities, the train will be delayed. Will the noble Baroness impress upon the railway authorities that even if they cannot achieve efficiency, they might achieve good manners and be more informative as to the reasons and the timing when the train may arrive at a destination? In that way the passengers--the customers--can make alternative arrangements.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, makes a valid point. I was invited earlier to pay tribute to the North-West Line and in my experience of that line, that information is given. I am aware that circumstances arise where conditions are difficult; for example, a train may be delayed because of a tragedy on the line and reasons of that sort. However, I shall certainly pass on the noble Lord's comments to ensure that a uniformly good service is carried out in that regard.
Those who run the trains in the north west inherited a good service in that respect. Indeed, on one occasion I was once informed that the reason a train was late was that the guard did not manage to catch the train and we had to wait for him to run up the track.
The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. However, does he acknowledge that there is some confusion in relation to the amount of funding national museums believe they require for universal free entry and what the Government propose is required? If so, how do the Government propose to resolve that discrepancy? If the Government have their figures wrong, will they be prepared to top them up to ensure that national museums will be free for all in the year 2001, as the Government pledged?
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