Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

East Coast Main Line debate 12.11.13

Sharon called a Westminster Hall debate on the Government's plans to re-privatise the East Coast Main Line.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It has been brought to my attention that today’s debate coincides with the beginning of a new documentary series on Sky about East Coast trains and the staff who work on them, so I want to assure you that the only interest I have to declare is as a regular traveller on East Coast trains and as an MP whose constituents are similarly frequent travellers; I definitely do not have an interest as a public relations executive for East Coast or BSkyB. The reason why my colleagues and I wanted this debate was not to promote that programme, but to discuss developments in a process that will have a significant impact on the staff and travellers featured in it.

It has been just over five months since we discussed the plans in a debate in this Chamber called by my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald). As I did then, I pay tribute to hon. Members who have led the campaign in Parliament so successfully, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore), who is in her place, and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I thought and hoped that the strength of feeling and argument shown then, and in debates since, might have caused the Government at least to enter one of their now trademark pauses. There is still time for them to do so. In fact, we have not seen a pause, a rethink or any evidence that they are listening to the chorus of opposition to their plans, even among their own voters.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend will make a powerful speech in favour of the east coast main line. Is it not a fact that only about one in five—21%—of the general public supports the re-privatisation of the east coast main line, so why is Tory dogma prevailing?

Mrs Hodgson: That is a very good question, which the Minister will perhaps answer. For all of us here and our constituents, that is the question, and our only answer is that dogma and ideology are forcing re-privatisation to go ahead. The Government have pressed on regardless, and the tendering process is well under way, which is why my colleagues and I thought it was time for another debate.

Karl McCartney (Lincoln) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made an interesting intervention in which he mentioned that the Opposition are blaming the current Government. Will the hon. Lady tell me exactly how many train companies were renationalised in the 13 years of the Labour Government?

Mrs Hodgson: We are not talking about the renationalisation of the east coast main line—it has already been nationalised—but about how to stop it from being re-privatised. The point is that it is already in national ownership.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I suggest that there have been many changes at East Coast in the past few years. In fact, for the first time in a long time, it seems to working well, to the point that the east coast main line has a record level of customer satisfaction. The company has won 13 industry awards since 2012, including as Britain’s top employer. It is surely endorsement enough that so many Opposition Members who travel on East Coast trains week in, week out want to fight for it to remain as it is and against changing it again.

Mrs Hodgson: That is the point—the east coast main line does not need to change. The process might ultimately lead to a significantly worse deal for all our constituents, as well as for the Exchequer, when there is absolutely no need to go down such a path.

As I and others said in the last debate, East Coast is doing very well under the current arrangement, both for passengers and the Exchequer. Since the failure of National Express, thousands more services have been timetabled; hundreds of thousands more passengers have used services; significant investment has been made in passenger comfort and stations, including at Newcastle; customer satisfaction has been at record highs, notwithstanding the recent blip; and complaints have been handled in a timely way 98% of the time, compared with 73% of the time under private ownership.

Karl McCartney: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs Hodgson: No, I will not. I will make some progress, because many hon. Members want to speak.

This is the people’s railway. It is delivering real improvements for our constituents, unencumbered by the primary purpose of having to pay dividends. That is not to say that Directly Operated Railways is squandering millions on such trivial things as improving the experience of their customers and therefore winning more of them; it is also chipping in a lot of money to the Exchequer. By the end of this financial year, it will have returned £800 million to the Treasury and put the rest of its surplus of nearly £50 million back into the service. It of course gets the lowest rates of public subsidy of all the train operators, except London commuter services.

Ministers have always talked about the need for a private operator to bring in extra investment, but have failed to make clear how much will be brought in by this process. What investment we know about appears to come from the public purse. Just as with Royal Mail, Ministers seem to be privatising the profit, while keeping the ongoing costs on the public books.

The Minister will say that decisions should not be taken on the basis of ideology, and to an extent I agree, although I must of course confess to having a default opinion when it comes to the ownership of public services. However, the returns to the Treasury and the improvements in services provide the business case in support of our argument that the line should remain directly operated. Perhaps that is why nearly half of Tory voters oppose the Government plans. If anyone is guilty of ideological decision making on this issue, it is surely the Government.

As if the west coast main line shambles, which cost taxpayers £55 million, was not bad enough, the contract extensions for other franchises—the Government have had to negotiate them so that they could bring forward the east coast main line tender—will cost taxpayers millions more in lost revenue. For example, First Great Western paid £126 million in premiums last year, but will pay only £17 million next year, as a result of the extension terms it has been given by the Government. Ministers are actually throwing money away hand over fist, just so they can make a point of privatising a franchise that they know is doing perfectly well in public hands.

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is it not ironic that the Government want to return the east coast main line to the private sector when it is clearly succeeding very well in the public sector, while the private sector has failed twice on that line?

Mrs Hodgson: That is exactly the point. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the Government clearly do not think that a state-owned company can run the franchise viably and deliver the investment in service improvements that we want.

How ironic it is that many of the probable bidders for the service are subsidiaries of state-owned railways. Eurostar and Keolis have confirmed that they will team up to bid for the franchise. As the Minister will be aware, those two companies are majority-owned by the National Society of French Railways—SNCF—which is France’s state-owned operator. Arriva, which already operates so many franchises, including the Tyne and Wear Metro in the north-east, and has received much Government investment over the past few years, will probably throw its hat into the ring. It is of course owned by Deutsche Bahn. Abellio, which, with Serco, runs Northern Rail trains in my area, might well be tempted. It is a part of the Dutch state-owned rail operator. The Government are therefore quite happy for the east coast main line to be run for public benefit—just as long as the British public do not benefit.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Does not the way in which contracts are handed out to such foreign, state-owned companies mean that taxpayers in the Netherlands, France and Germany will gain at the expense of British ones?

Mrs Hodgson: Yes, I agree. That is exactly the point. Instead of profits generated by the franchise benefiting British commuters through investment in service improvement and dividends to the Treasury, the Government prefer profits to be channelled to other European countries, in some cases to subsidise fares in those countries. If we are to achieve the modal shift from cars to rail that we need to ease pressure on our trunk roads and to reduce carbon emissions, we must have the investment and the ambitious targets and standards in place to ensure that services are reliable and can carry on improving. Unfortunately, it appears that the Government intend to put that improvement into reverse over the next few years.

It was brought to my attention yesterday that in the past couple of weeks, the Office of Rail Regulation has published a document setting out the desired outputs for the whole rail network for the next five-year control period. That document makes it clear that the standards expected of whichever company wins the east coast franchise will be significantly lower than the national average, and possibly even lower than those of most European routes. For example, the national standard for cancelled or seriously late trains—which I have had some experience of on the east coast over the past month: the fault for that lay not with the company but with all the storms and so on—is no more than 2.2% of journeys. The east coast’s standard will be 4.2%.The national standard for just mildly late trains, which can be anything between 10 minutes and two hours, will be 8.1% in the first year. For the east coast, it will be 17%, which is more than double the national standard, and equates to more than one in six journeys. That rate will be required to come down to 12% by 2018-19, but it will still be much higher than the national rate of 7.5%.

Over the control period, we could see an additional 15,500 trains officially late and more than 2,500 trains cancelled without the operator being deemed to be breaching its required standards. Why should the east coast be given a lower standard? It is way below what the public would expect, and way below the standards set by Labour for the current control period. The apparent loosening of the required standards does not appear in any of the preceding documents on which the public have been consulted, but has now appeared at a point when they can no longer have their say. Will the Minister explain why the standards are set so low and have been revealed in a document on which the public will not be consulted? Will he give us an assurance today that that is in no way linked to the tendering process, or the Government’s desire to get the most money for the franchise to hold up as a sign of success? If we move the goalposts and make things easier for whichever train operator comes in, it makes the deal more attractive to them, and that is what seems to be going on here.

If the Government are to go through with the privatisation, it is important that the Exchequer get as much cash as possible now and over the course of the contract. However, we cannot sacrifice performance standards to achieve that goal, because people will just give up on trains that are allowed to be late on one in six, one in seven or even one in eight journeys.

If the proposal is not linked to the tendering process, perhaps it is related to the fact that investment in tackling congestion over the coming control period will be less than half the £500 million that the Labour Government allocated. That investment has resulted in improvements in north London, flyovers at Doncaster and Hitchin, and the upgrading of a parallel route for slow freight between Doncaster and Peterborough. Will the Minister assure us that service standards are not being lowered to match the investment the Government are prepared to make? Our constituents rightly expect not just a punctual service but a decent service, particularly when they might be on the train for three or four hours or more when travelling to or from the north-east or Scotland—it can take up to six hours to get all the way up to Inverness.

Will the Minister rule out the introduction of a lower-tier or third-class service, which is allegedly in the prospectus that was sent to potential bidders? Indeed, will he rule out any degradation of standard-class service in a three-class system by a future operator?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): There is no suggestion of a third-class service in the prospectus. One version of the document was leaked, but even that did not refer to a third class, but to the possibility of a service between standard and first class. Some might like to call it premium economy. No one has ever called it third class. Can we just lay that myth to rest?

Mrs Hodgson: I am sure the Minister is aware that the National Society of French Railways introduced a “no frills” service in France this year, below standard class. If Keolis and Eurostar win the contract, will he guarantee that we will not see the same here? I am happy to give way to the Minister if he wants to make that guarantee now; perhaps he will make it in his closing remarks. By way of assurance, perhaps he could place a copy of the document in question in the Library. I know he said that such a claim was never in the document, but if there is such a document, could he place it in the Library so the public can see that we are not being sold down the river—or in this case down the railway line? The Government are always keen to bolster their transparency credentials, and this would be an excellent way of conducting themselves in an open and honest way.

Stephen Hammond: This Government are so open and transparent that all those documents are available for the hon. Lady to see now. I am surprised she did not choose to read them before the debate today.

Mrs Hodgson: I will go away and look more closely at the matter. I may have missed the part to which the Minister refers. Perhaps he could write to me about it, so we can be assured that there will not be a third-class rail service.

I will conclude because many Members wish to speak in the debate. I leave the Minister with the words of one of his departmental predecessors, the noble Lord Adonis. He was regularly cited by Ministers as being against public ownership when he was Secretary of State, and that was correct. However, given the success of Directly Operated Railways, he recently had this to say:

“In the last four years East Coast has established itself as one of the best train operating companies in the country, both operationally and commercially…This has fundamentally changed the situation, and it is right and proper that East Coast should be allowed to continue as a public sector comparator to the existing private franchises.”

Lord Adonis is a wise man. He had an opinion. He looked at the evidence that contradicted his opinion and, like many a wise man before him, accepted that his opinion had been wrong and changed his mind. There is still time for the Minister and his colleagues to demonstrate similar wisdom and halt this process before more money is spent by the Department and the companies that might bid. They should accept that this experiment in public ownership, forced upon a reluctant Secretary of State at the time by the failure of a private provider, has been a success and can continue to be a success.

Karl McCartney: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs Hodgson: No, I am just winding up. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will get his chance to speak in a moment.

Most importantly, it is time for the Government to put British passengers and taxpayers first, before taking profits out of the system—especially where such profits then go to subsidise passengers in other countries. As I said in June, I hope the Minister will listen to what parliamentarians are telling him here today. We have already had the shambles over the west coast main line. It is in everyone’s interests for the Government not to make the wrong decision on the east coast main line as well. Let us call off the tender and give Directly Operated Railways the stability and support it needs to carry on improving services and sending much-needed cash back to the Treasury. At the very least, let us allow it to bid to run the service again in the coming years, and weigh up the public benefit that that would provide in a fair and open way. Come on, Minister: it is public versus private. Surely he is up for that.

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