HC Deb 05 July 1974 vol 876 cc905-16

4.6 p.m.

Mr. Carol Mather (Esher)

I have asked for this Adjournment debate to discuss the plight of commuters on the Guildford-Cobham-Waterloo line and the chronic lack of seating capacity on this line during peak hour services. The trouble has arisen largely as a result of the introduction of new rolling stock last October with, in my view, inadequate forethought on the part of the railway authorities in introducing that stock. It affects my constituents who use this line from Cobham, Stoke d'Abernon, Oxshott, Claygate and Hinchley Wood.

I should have raised the matter much earlier, fairly shortly after October, when there were many complaints and protests, but I had difficulty in making an appointment with the divisional manager of the South-West Division, five because he was at that time changing over with his successor, then because of the ASLEF dispute which made the arrangement of an appointment difficult, and finally because of the General Election. Since the election I have been waiting for a place in the Ballot for an adjournment debate, and this is the first opportunity I have had.

I do not deny that the present situation is rather better than it was in November, December, January, February and March. This has been so largely because the holiday season has started so that the pressure on the line is not as great as it was, and also because more people are using their cars during the summer season. But the basic problem remains, and it is likely to come up again in a serious way in the autumn after the holiday period.

The plight of commuters on this line was exacerbated by the ASLEF dispute during the winter months. On top of that the petrol crisis meant that those who had been accustomed to use their cars were thrown on to the railways again. Then, on 6th May, British Rail announced reductions on certain lines due to the chronic shortage of guards. This latter trouble has had only a marginal effect on the line but it has added to the general difficulty.

The shortage of guards and other staff has meant that there have been cancellations of services at very short notice and without warning, and that has loaded extra passengers on to the other trains. On a count on 8th May, the 7.42 a.m. train leaving Guildford with a capacity of 772 carried 1,333 passengers. That is the kind of thing that can happen when there are cancellations at short notice.

My constituents feel frustrated not only by the inconvenience of this kind of travel but when they are told by the British Railways South-West Division that there are plenty of seats, although their experience is that at peak hours they are standing all the way from the station where they board the train to Waterloo. What British Railways headquarters maintains is not borne out by the facts.

This has not been helped by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for London, which has also been consulted and which said that it recognised that some passengers who may have had seats before these changes in October now have to stand. It went on to say: But on the whole the new arrangements are an improvement on the old. People who have to stand because they cannot get seats naturally do not take that view, because it is not borne out by the facts.

There is no complaint about the new coaches, because they are much more commodious and much cleaner and they have corridor and lavatory facilities, but if there are not enough seats the comfort of the seats is of no avail. It can also be argued that on the comparatively short journey from Guildford to Waterloo corridor and other facilities are not necessary and simply take up the space that could be used for extra seats.

The new stock that is being introduced is of two types of coach. This new stock is to replace the existing outdated stock for commuter journeys. First there is to be the short-distance commuter coach, which will have some seats but mostly standing room, a very good idea for a short journey. The other type will be for the medium commuter type of journey, which is what I am talking about, and will be the main line type of coach with first-class and second-class compartments, corridors and lavatories. Previously we had only second-class without communication between the coaches. It used to four residents' associations whose memtrains with a capacity of 772 passengers, and the new trains will have a capacity of only 560 passengers.

The nub of the matter is that this represents a reduction of 212 seats, or 27 per cent., since the introduction of the changes in October. If one takes second-class seats only there is a reduction of 308 seats, or 40 per cent. If the complete restocking plan goes ahead as is intended, the situation will be unacceptable to my constituents. It is perfectly true that there are spare seats in the first-class compartments, but very few regular communters who have been used to travelling second-class will wish to pay the 50 per cent. more for the cost of a first-class ticket, especially with all the extra costs which are loaded on as a result of inflation.

Shortly before the introduction of the new stock in October 1973 British Railways recognised that there was a dilemma here and that there would be overcrowding as a result of the reduction in the number of seats. So they decided, as a temporary expedient, to continue to run the old all-second-class coaches on two peak-hour trains going to Waterloo. In addition, as a result of the large number of complaints from my constituents, they agreed at the last moment to have two other services running with mixed stock, new and old.

As it turns out, the only time when the new stock is running is at off-peak hours when few passengers are travelling. This completely defeats the object of the exercise, which was to improve services generally. In April I took a deputation to see the divisional manager of the South-West Region. I was supported by four residents' associations whose members use the line and we also had the support of the Esher Council before that council came to an end.

We had discussions with the divisional manager and I am afraid that we got no satisfaction from him. I quite accept that he has many technical difficulties. This does not alter our position and the difficulties we face. Furthermore, he disputed our contention that the trains running at peak hours were invariably overcrowded and that people were invariably standing. He produced count figures to show that on most of the trains there was an adequate number of seats. There was thus a difference of opinion between us.

The divisional manager agreed to have two further counts on 7th and 8th May. We found that in three out of five of the peak-hour services on 7th May there were more passengers than seats and in two out of four peak-hour services on 8th May—one was cancelled—there were more passengers than seats. On the other trains running at the peak hours it seemed that the passengers and seats actually matched. One would have thought that there was no reason why there should be difficulty.

That conceals the fact, however, that the passengers can be fitted into all the available seats only by the use of a computer, because someone boarding a train at one point cannot spend the rest of the journey moving up and down the train to find the odd vacant seat. This does not work well in practice. The human factor has been ignored.

We are very sceptical about the way in which these surveys are carried out. How can anyone survey a train which is on the move and is stopping at each station for only about a minute? It would be extremely difficult if there were one man waiting on the platform to count each coach during that one-minute period. If there is only one surveyor for a whole train, it must be even more difficult. It cannot be done at the terminal at Waterloo, because the passengers disembark from two trains at a time and may go through the same gate. When we saw the divisional manager we suggested that he might put on an extra train at peak hours to relieve the problem, or increase the length of the trains by adding extra coaches. We now have eight coaches and we suggested a further two. We accepted the divisional manager's argument that there would be signalling difficulties if that were done. The question of getting longer trains into Waterloo is a long-term project.

We also suggested that there might be some modification of existing stock to allow for more second-class seats. The problem is that the new stock was designed for two purposes, for main-line services and for short commuter journeys with people mostly standing. On this line we fall between two stools.

The worst misery and most passenger pressure is experienced on this line. The new design policy is inflexible and does not allow for experience of this sort being acted upon. British Railways have recognised that their policy has failed by doing two things—first, by keeping on the old stock, which cannot last for ever, at peak times, and by having mixed trains, also at peak times. All the old coaches are clue to be phased out fairly soon in any case, so this is only a temporary expedient.

There are signs that the increased cost of petrol and parking restrictions in London will put more pressure on the railways. One wonders what will happen when the old stock is replaced and the complete conversion is made. We should like to know British Railways' plans and policies in this respect. My hard-pressed, long-suffering but remarkably good-tempered constituents who travel on this line want to know, and I believe have the right to know, the answer to this question.

4.21 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I must congratulate the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) on arguing so strongly for the interests of his constituents. He will have seen from the first edition of today's Evening News that the main burden of his argument has been tackled. I knew from the correspondence which I have had with the hon. Gentleman most of the points which he would raise today.

However, the Secretary of State's rôle in such cases is very limited. The legislation relating to the British Railways Board makes it clear that the day-to-day management of its undertaking is a matter for the board. The case which the hon. Member has raised is very clearly such a matter. My rôle today must, therefore, be one of seeking to explain why the board has made the changes that it has made in the service: it would be for the board, and not the Secretary of State, to decide whether any further changes might be justified. Indeed, the hon. Member, by raising and discussing his point of view with the board earlier—he has been trying to arrange meetings since last October—has, in effect, already recognised this.

The hon. Member has outlined the events which have given rise to this debate, and I need not repeat them in detail. What I will do is to fill in the background. The service on the Guildford New Line, as it is called, is an outer suburban type of service. Until the last war, it was provided by a type of stock suitable for this, and which, incidentally, provided first-class accommodation. This was withdrawn during the war is an emergency measure, and not replaced. Since then, the service has been operated by inner suburban units. The board has never regarded these as really suitable for the service, and they are certainly not now up to the best modern standards in terms of comfort and amenity. This is why the board was anxious to replace them with new stock of a more suitable design. This became possible last year, and on 1st October the board introduced some of its standard outer suburban rolling stock on the service, a considerable improvement over the old stock.

The new stock also made it possible to provide first-class accommodation on about half the trains during the peak period, and on all off-peak trains. Between Guildford and Hinchley Wood, the line serves a catchment area which the board felt would provide a very satisfactory market for such a facility. This had indeed existed up to the last war, and the board had wished to restore it. The commercial results justified the decision. By 19th November the number of first-class season tickets originating from stations on the line had reached 246. The full first-class potential should bring an increase in revenue of nearly £20,000 in a full year. As the service, in common with many other commuter services, makes a loss, this improvement was welcome both to the board and to the Government, which would otherwise have had to pay a higher grant on the service.

Unfortunately, the industrial dispute last winter took its toll. The service became unreliable—although the new units ran, the older ones did not—and some passengers switched to services on the main line through Woking and Surbiton. On the trains that did run, second-class passengers crowded into first-class compartments, and first-class passengers, quite understandably, saw no point in paying extra for their tickets. By 28th March the number of first-class season tickets had declined to 109, although I understand from British Rail that the figure is now picking up again and the board expects this to continue.

Throughout its planning and since the service changes, the board has kept the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for London fully informed of what it has proposed and what has happened as a result. Before the change was made, the TUCC, which is, after all, the statutory "watchdog" of passengers' interests, supported the board's wish to introduce new rolling stock on the service, which would also permit some first-class accommodation, subject to the reservation which I will mention shortly. Nothing has hap- pened since then to make the TUCC change its views. Indeed, I understand that it is now pressing the board to introduce first-class travel on all trains on the line.

Mr. Mather

The original intention was that first-class and second-class accommodation should be introduced on the line—that is, the new stock. Because of difficulties, British Rail temporarily kept on some old stock. Do I understand from the Minister that the TUCC is pressing that all the accommodation should be new stock, first-class and second-class together?

Mr. Carmichael

One assumes that the TUCC knows what is happening. It is the watchdog and investigates matters which passengers ask it to investigate. I understand that the TUCC is pressing the board to introduce first-class travel on all the trains on the line.

Mr. Mather

Does not the Minister think that that is extraordinary? It does not tie up with what my constituents and users of the line have told me. Is it not odd that the TUCC should be urging something contrary to what I have been told?

Mr. Carmichael

The hon. Gentleman will realise that I am acting only for the Secretary of State, although he has no locus. There are often at least two views on any one subject. I have every faith that the hon. Gentleman truly represents his constituents' views, but he will probably not be surprised to find that other constituents may go to another body for representation, particularly to the TUCC. This is a matter which he will ultimately need to take up with the TUCC and the British Railways Board. My information is as I have stated.

I should make clear that for some years some peak services on this line have been full to capacity with some standing. There has not been heavy overcrowding—certainly not by the standards that some commuters on south-eastern division services have to face—but sufficient to mean that some passengers, especially from the stations closest to London, such as Hinchley Wood, have been unable to get a seat on some trains. The TUCC, as I mentioned before, was concerned that the new stock might lead to increased standing on trains already full. Whilst the old stock provided 772 seats in an 8-car train, the new stock would provide only 560. The Railways Board was well aware of this problem, and evolved an operating pattern which was designed to deal with it. Some old stock was retained for use in the peak period, either for use on its own on the most heavily loaded trains or coupled to new stock where the load was lighter. Thus, in the morning peak hour two trains are composed entirely of old stock, two trains of mixed stock, giving a capacity of 666 seats, and one entirely of new stock. In the evening three trains are composed of old stock, one of mixed stock, and one of new stock.

Passenger counts taken at Hinchley Wood in the morning and Waterloo in the evening in May this year showed that only one train in each direction composed entirely or partly of the new stock had any standing passengers. The TUCC has considered the amount of standing on these trains and does not regard it as unacceptable.

It is important to realise that the majority of standing which occurs, at least in the morning peak, occurs on the trains formed of older stock—and that these trains were up to capacity before the new stock was introduced. In other words, the effect of introducing the new stock on the amount of standing on the line is marginal. This is clearly shown by the latest British Rail passenger counts on the services. Even these tend to overstate the case. Firstly, although there may be standing on some trains when they leave Hinchley Wood in the morning, nearly all trains stop at Surbiton, a few minutes further up the line, and observation shows that more people alight there than were standing at Hinchley Wood. In other words, passengers standing at Hinchley Wood have the chance of getting a seat at Surbiton.

Secondly, observation shows that even on peak hour trains where there is standing there are nearly always seats available in other parts of the train, either at the back in the morning or at the front in the evening. In other words, it would appear that people prefer to stand rather than walk down the train to find a seat, and perhaps take slightly longer getting out at the other end. This is an interesting point which I have discussed with railway people in other contexts. This is a well-known phenomenon to railway operators. But it shows that, whatever passengers may say about their dislike of standing, they vote rather differently with their feet—they are prepared to stand for 20 minutes or more to save the time taken to walk down the platform at the other end.

However, I cannot deny that a small number of commuters on the Guildford-Cobham-Waterloo line have found their regular trains more crowded since the introduction of new stock. There are a number of ways in which their "plight", as the hon. Member has called it, might be alleviated. First, the new stock might be withdrawn and the old stock brought back into service. I cannot think that this would please the majority of passengers. As I said at the beginning, the old stock was never really suitable for this type of service, and it was ageing. For the majority of passengers on trains where the new stock is used, it represents a marked advance in comfort and amenity. I doubt whether they would wish to lose it, and I believe the TUCC would oppose such a move.

Secondly, an additional train might be run during the peak period. However, there are no free paths to and from Waterloo at this time, and an extra train could run only if there were a corresponding reduction in some other service. I doubt whether the users of that other service would be prepared to accept this.

The only other way to provide more seating would be to run 10-coach trains instead of the present 8-coach trains. This would have the further advantage of allowing first-class accommodation to be provided on all trains. However, station platforms on the line would have to be lengthened at an estimated cost of £300,000 and, more importantly, similar lengthening would be necessary at Guildford; lengthening would be expensive, because the trains terminate in a bay platform, and signalling and pointwork would have to be moved. There would also be the cost of providing additional rolling stock. The Railways Board is examining what can be done, but, even if lengthening proves physically possible, there must be serious doubts about whether the expenditure would rank high amongst its capital investment priorities for London's commuter services.

Mr. Mather

Is it not extraordinary that, even though British Rail thought it necessary to keep on the old stock with the extra seats after the changes had taken place in October to deal with the problem, the TUCC maintains that there is no problem? I cannot understand this situation because it appears extraordinary. The stories I hear from my constituents are quite different. The TUCC says that there is no problem, but four residents' associations have been in touch with me ever since last October on this matter and British Rail agrees that there is a problem.

Mr. Carmichael

This is one of the points on which there is a conflict on how great the problem is. In terms of many commuter trains in London, or in any other big cities in the world, it is not a serious problem. I agree that it is a serious matter for the individual who has to stand for 20 minutes or half an hour. It depends who is looking at the problem. The TUCC looks at the situation on the old Dover-Chatham line against, say, the hon. Gentleman's line and decides that in relation to the one line there is no problem. However, it is a matter of judgment, opinion and experience, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will take up the matter even more fully with the TUCC and perhaps will obtain more information in that way.

During the peak periods the British Railways Board has taken care to ensure that the capacity of the most heavily overloaded trains has not been altered. Fewer passengers face worse travelling conditions now than have benefited from the introduction of first-class accommodation, let alone from the increased comfort in the second-class accommodation. To bring back the old stock on all services—the only way in which seating capacity could be immediately increased—would undoubtedly be unpopular.

The comfort of commuters on this line might be further improved by the provision of longer trains, if this proved practicable and if it came high enough on the board's order of investment priorities. But there must be serious doubts about the latter. Passengers on many other commuter lines into London experience worse overcrowding, often made worse recently by a reduction in services due to staff shortages. The line under discussion has been fortunate enough to escape such timetable reductions during the peak periods, and most passengers have the privilege of enjoying a frequent service operated with Southern Region's most modern and comfortable outer suburban stock.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock.