HC Deb 23 October 1973 vol 861 cc1217-24

3.53 a.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Thousands of my constituents earn their living in and around the City of London. For that purpose they travel daily into central London, mostly by rail. Over the years they have developed a high degree of knowledge and experience of the problems of commuter rail transport which, through the medium of the Orpington and District Rail Passengers' Association has been devoted to the improvement of surburban rail services and the interests of the passengers.

That is why the news which reached us in 1968, that British Rail was developing new high-density rolling stock for its suburban commuter rail services, aroused considerable interest. Despite all our efforts to ascertain what was being proposed and our express desire to be consulted about the new design, details of the proposed new train were refused to its prospective customers. As far as I know, there was no consultation with the travelling public and no invitation to put up ideas and suggestions while the new train was being designed.

Earlier this year, after years of planning and the reputed expenditure of £700,000 and a fanfare of trumpets, the new PEP train, the proposed new train for outer London commuter rail travel, was announced. The prototype is now in the course of a series of public trials in the London region. Its designers claim that it is the last word in artistic design and technical efficiency. Constructive suggestions for its improvement in detail have been invited. But as it has already reached an advanced stage, and as the existing passenger rolling stock has ceased to be ordered or supplied, there is a danger that no significant change in the design will be possible whatever the reaction of the public.

That short history and that attitude of indifference to public criticism is, I fear, all too characteristic of some sections of British Rail today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will therefore take a close personal interest in this matter. He wrote to me in a letter dated 31st August this year as follows: …when British Rail apply, as I understand they intend to, for infrastructure grant on the new stock, my Department will want to look closely at the opinions expressed by commuters and at any modifications which might result. The project will be judged on its merits and there will be no question of the commuters' views being ignored". I welcome that assurance, and I wish to draw the Minister's attention to one or two matters which I believe merit his particular interest.

The basic reason for the new train is the technical and other progress made in this field since the existing train—designed I believe in the 1930s—was introduced. The new design is, in terms of lighting, traction, braking and suspension, a big improvement on the existing train. It ought to be. But most of these developments are below the floor where rail commuters do not claim to have any expert knowledge. Above the floor it is a different matter. The new train—the prototype now to be seen in the London area—is in appearance similar to the London underground train used for short journeys on the District Line. The automatic opening and closing of doors, provided there are enough of them, may have advantages. But they determine the basic layout, and it is here that British Rail designers have made their biggest error.

The facts are not in dispute. The existing Southern Region 10-car commuter train has 936 seats. The PEP 10-car train has only 700 seats—a reduction of over 26 per cent. There is more standing space and, therefore, more room for more people to get in, but less room for passengers to travel comfortably. So far as British Rail is concerned, the objective seems to be the highest possible density of human flesh to the cubic foot. Until I saw the words printed in full on the Order Paper the other day, I did not know that the letters PEP stand for "Prototype electro-pneumatic". I thought they were short for "pack 'em in perpendicular". Certainly that version corresponds more closely with British Rail's attitude towards seating accommodation.

Indeed, seats appear to be regarded as a nuisance and annoyance to British Rail generally. One remembers how the new Euston station concourse first failed to provide any seats at all for the waiting public. Even today, most London terminals are inadequately provided with seats for members of the public.

Journeys made on commuter trains from areas such as my constituency can be up to, and sometimes beyond, an hour in duration. It is, unfortunately, common, at rush hour, for my constituents to be packed in like sardines and to stand all the way. How much worse is this experience going to be if the number of seats is reduced by 26 per cent.?

It is not only the availability of seats on the new trains which is objectionable. The seats themselves are uncomfortable. Their backs are too low, and they give no rest for the neck and head. The windows are too stiff. There are no hooks to hang on to in the aisles between the seats. The handrails provided at the back of the seats are too close for a handhold. The overhead handrail is too high, and is beyond the reach of a woman of average height, as are the luggage racks. The floor covering is of poor quality, easily scuffed, and held in place by tacks. The cushions are easily removed, and will be a standing invitation to vandals. In all those respects the existing train's design is superior.

British Rail claim to be sincerely interested in obtaining the opinions of rail commuters, yet the PEP train is being used mostly outside the rush hour periods when these defects are not so obvious. The Orpington and District Rail Passengers' Association has just completed a survey of passenger reactions to the PEP train. It distributed a questionnaire at Orpington and Petts Wood stations.

Passengers who had the opportunity of seeing and using the PEP train were invited to say whether they welcomed the new design or preferred a new train with a design similar to that of the existing trains. Altogether, 1,500 forms were returned, complete with names and addresses. Only 4 per cent. said they wanted the train with the new design, while 96 per cent. voted against it. I understand that a similar survey was recently conducted in the Sutton area, where the verdict was 12 to 1 against PEP.

That is solid evidence of the hostility of the travelling public to the new-fangled design. I ask my hon. Friend to heed it, to prevent British Rail from going ahead with a plan which will make the daily experience of my constituents even more uncomfortable and, above all, to insist on a higher ratio of seats to passengers. In short, I ask him to demand, as it were, more seats for British bottoms.

4.3 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Keith Speed)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for choosing this subject for debate. The hour is late, but I realise how important this matter is to my hon. Friend and to his constituents. I shall do my best to reply to the points that have been raised, but because of the nature of the issue I am in a certain amount of difficulty. I think that I should start by explaining the role of the Government in relation to British Rail, operations and developments.

Under the remit given to the British Railways Board under the 1962 and 1968 Transport Acts, it is up to British Rail to run the country's railway system and, where they decide that new development or investment is needed, to work out plans for submission to the Government. Only when these plans are submitted either for investment approval or for infrastructure grant does my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State become involved. I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware that so far that stage has not been reached with the PEP story. It is at present only an experimental train, undergoing trials to establish its technical performance, its suitability in service and to test public reaction to it. How these trials are conducted and evaluated is entirely a matter for British Rail. My Department is inevitably watching developments with some interest, but it would be quite wrong for it to intervene in what British Rail is doing.

Looking a couple of years or so into the future, if British Rail is satisfied that new investment in inner suburban rolling stock is needed and that the production version of PEP stock, modified as necessary in the light of the present and future trials, is the best design of stock for this type of service, then it will apply to the Secretary of State for investment approval and, no doubt, as I told my hon. Friend in my letter of 31st August, for infrastructure grant. At this point the matter will become of direct interest to the Government.

I can assure my hon. Friend, as I did in my letter to him, that in addition to studying the investment proposal in terms of its financial and social cost/benefit return, my right hon. and learned Friend will want to look at the wider implications of the proposal. In particular, he will pay particular attention to the opinions expressed by commuters who have been involved in the trials, and to any modifications which British Rail may have made to the design as a result. The project will be judged on its merits, and I can assure the House that there is certainly no question of commuters' views being ignored.

Having set out the formal position, I can now turn to the present trials, though it will be clear from what I have said that I shall be speaking almost entirely as a mouthpiece for British Rail.

The trials of PEP stock on the Southern Region, of which the trials in public service are a part, are being carried out as a part of British Rail's suburban stock replacement programme. Over the next 20 years or so, most of the present rolling stock used on suburban services will become life-expired. The need is most urgent on the Southern Region, where some 2,000 coaches which at present provide the whole of the inner suburban services will be reaching the end of their life. That is why PEP stock is being tested on the Southern Region, although British Rail hopes that it will lead to the final design for the new generation of inner suburban stock required on other regions. There are obviously economies of scale to be gained by standardisation.

A new development of this kind clearly requires thorough testing. By the time British Rail comes to make a decision about its suitability, the experimental train will have covered a quarter of a million miles. Engineering and opera- tional trials have been in progress since mid-1972, and will continue until the end of 1975. Passenger trials began in June 1973. During July the experimental train ran from Waterloo to Hampton Court, Shepperton and Chessington, and during August and September from Charing Cross and Cannon Street to Bromley North, Sevenoaks, via Orpington, and Dartford.

Passenger market research was conducted during many of these journeys by independent consultants experienced in this field, usually by interviewing passengers on the train to assess their reactions. To give passengers a clear picture of various design alternatives, there are variations in the fittings and colour scheme of each car on the train. The routes have been chosen to reflect the widest possible range of travelling conditions, in particular to include the maximum number of stations with high rates of loading and interchange and to include lines with long and short station spacings.

To obtain a normal cross-section of passengers, it is essential that the train should operate a scheduled service. While it is obviously necessary to judge the train's performance in rush-hour conditions, with only one train available it is possible to run only a few trips during the rush hour. This has caused some commuters to suppose that the results of the market research will inevitably be biased against their views. This is the fear that some of my hon. Friend's constituents have.

In fact, the consultants carrying out the research are using a sampling technique designed to avoid any bias of this kind. Among the main features for research evaluation are the standing and seating conditions, ventilation and lighting, the riding quality and the door operation. Some of these features, to judge by reports in the Press, my postbag and the points made in this debate, have given rise to considerable public criticism. So I should make it clear that British Rail is not trying to present the travelling public with a fait accompli, otherwise there would be no point in the present trials. Many of the features can be changed. But there are constraints.

Thus, British Rail has taken the view that all future suburban rolling stock should have automatic door operation. In principle, I think that we should all agree that this is sensible and desirable, not least on safety grounds. Sliding doors require large vestibules, which un, doubtedly improves conditions for those who stand, whether by choice or necessity—and there are passengers who prefer to stand—but it also results, as my hon. Friend said, in a reduction in seating. My figures are slightly different, being for four-car stock: there is a reduction from 370–430 in present four-car stock to 280 in the experimental train.

The seating capacity can be increased by eliminating one set of doors per coach—which would give 316 seats per four-car set—and further increased by going from four-across seating to five-across seating—which would give around 395 seats per four-car set. But this increased seating capacity can be achieved only at the expense of a progressive increase in the loading and unloading times of the train at stations as door space is reduced and movement within each coach constrained; and the increased time at stations means that the number of trains which it is possible to run is inevitably reduced.

At lot of thought will need to be given to finding out the optimum arrangement for any given type of service, and this is one of the points that British Rail will be examining in the light of the present trials.

When the passenger trials are completed, the information collected will be assessed by the consultants. They are expected to report their findings in December to the Southern Region, which hopes to make a public statement in the New Year. The experimental train will then undergo further operational and engineering trials for two years. This will include further public trials, probably early next year, to test the experimental train in winter operating conditions.

Only when all these trials have been completed, and design modifications made in the light of them, will the British Railways Board come to the Secretary of State with proposals for a production design. It will also need to consider, and make proposals about, the precise services on which the new type of stock would be used. It might, for instance, not be used on all the routes operated by the present inner suburban stock. The critical factor will be the length of journey time on the service, and in particular the length of time for which it is reasonable to expect passengers to stand. I take my hon. Friend's point about some journeys being up to an hour long.

The PEP stock would certainly not be a cheap option. At present price levels, it will cost considerably more per vehicle than the type of stock which it is designed to replace; and, incidentally, the only present alternative to the experimental stock, modified in whatever ways are physically possible and economically sensible to take account of unsatisfactory features thrown up by the trials, seems to be an up-dated version of the existing stock. I remind my hon. Friend that we are talking here about stock which will be in service up to the year 2000 and perhaps beyond.

To sum up, I assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of PEP stock being forced on the travelling public quite against its wishes. British Rail is fully conscious of its responsibility here, and will no doubt take note of the points that have been made in this debate. The Government for their part will certainly ensure that all the necessary factors have been considered before they decide whether to authorise the production of the new stock.

I give my hon. Friend a personal assurance that I shall myself keep closely in touch with developments in this situation. Indeed, I hope to have a ride on the train at some point in the not-too-distant future so that I may make my personal evaluations.

I hope that what I have said will le-assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that these trials are going ahead in a genuine way to try to find out what the public think about the train. They are by no means a foregone conclusion. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that message back, and I assure him again that I am grateful to him for having raised this important matter tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Four o'clock a.m.