HC Deb 30 April 1984 vol 59 cc166-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

3.2 am

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

The south eastern division of British Rail, southern, does an enormous job. Each weekday it carries thousands of people from the inner and outer London suburbs to London bridge, Charing cross and Cannon street, nearly all of them within a two-hour period in the morning, returning them during a similar period in the evening. It is a complex piece of organisation. It needs almost split-second timing, particularly over the stretch between New cross and London bridge.

It is obviously sensible that British Rail should review its timetables from time to time to take account of changes in travel patterns and demand, and of course it must plan within the financial constraints imposed on it. New timetables, due to be introduced on 14 May, incorporate a number of changes, many of them understandable and reasonable; for example, reducing the off peak pattern on most of the services from three to two trains per hour. In some cases services have been improved.

My particular concern is with Sundridge park and Bromley north stations, served by a branch line from Grove park, which provide for many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt).

Hitherto, in off peak hours, a shuttle service has been provided between Bromley north and Grove park and at peak hours there have been five through trains from Bromley north to Charing cross or Cannon street, and five similar through services back to Bromley north in the evening.

According to the new timetable, there will be but one through service in the morning, and for those for whom that is not convenient there will be simply a shuttle service to Grove park, where passengers will have to join the main line trains; and similarly in the evening there will he but one through train.

It is not surprising that there were protests when the details of these changes were finally elucidated. I use the expression "finally elucidated" because a feature of this whole matter has been the almost total lack of consultation with, or even advice to, those affected.

Local people are the fare-paying passengers from whom British Rail derives an income of some £700,000 a year. They are also the taxpayers who contribute to British Rail public service obligation grant, of which £266 million comes to London and the south east.

So I think it reasonable to expect that it, or those who represent it, might be consulted on any proposed changes. British Rail says that it has consulted the Transport Users Consultative Committee, but the secretary of the committee tells me that consultation was virtually nil. The committee had a meeting with British Rail in July 1983, at which the general outline service was discussed, but the Bromley north line was not mentioned. In November 1983 more detailed information was given about mainline services, but no information was made available about the south eastern suburban area. British Rail declined to arrange a meeting until after the information about the new services had gone to press. In other words, it gave the information but would not discuss it until after it had been printed. Even when it started to release information, it said nothing about south eastern suburban services.

The secretary of the TUCC tells me that he received the south eastern suburban timetable at about the middle of March when it had already been printed. It was clear by then that unless some directive was issued by Parliament or by a similar source there was no hope of the time-table being altered. He said:

Our committee deemed it totally disgraceful. So much for consultation with the TUCC.

British Rail said that it consulted the Greater London Council. I understand that some discussion took place at officer level about the general proposals but that there was no discussion at any level about the Bromley north line and no discussion in council. My opposite number, the GLC member within my constituency, had to wait six weeks for a reply to a letter in which he asked to be told exactly what was happening.

The London borough of Bromley was not consulted and understandably took exception to that and passed a critical resolution, which was conveyed to British Rail. In its reply British Rail stated:

we consulted the GLC. I have already referred to what that involved. It continued:

We intend no disrespect to London Boroughs, but the fact is that in railway timetable planning terms they are small areas, and experience has shown that they tend to express local views which do not help us a great deal. One would think that local views would be of some interest and importance to British Rail. Certainly I was not consulted about these matters. I shall not weary the House with details of the correspondence that I had with British Rail, including the long delays that I had to put up with in getting any replies and the inadequate information that I was given. Eventually, I had to get a copy of the new timetable from a constituent rather than from British Rail. The first time that British Rail took any initiative involving me was last week when it telephoned me, having discovered that I was intent on raising the issue in an Adjournment debate.

As the details of the proposals eventually leaked out, I received many letters of protest. Two ladies, Mrs. Caplin and Mrs. Brawn, did more than merely write to me. They organised a petition and quickly obtained 1,700 signatures. Off their own bat they arranged a public meeting in Bromley which attracted more than 300 people. To his credit, the divisional manager of British Rail, Mr. Peter Rayner, attended the meeting and sought to deal with the vigorous questions and criticisms from the floor. He admitted that he had not expected such a strong reaction and he promised to consider it. He has since said that he can add one further through train to the timetable. This will be at 7.37 am before the rush hour and will be of very limited help. There is to be an additional return train at 6.4 pm.

The thinking behind the changes is difficult to understand. There is obviously a demand for the present service and British Rail has the figures. British Rail has had some part in recent developments at Bromley, north, where a bus station, car park and office blocks have been constructed. It seems curious to couple with that development proposals to provide a poorer rather than a better train service. The general manager of British Rail claims that BR is tailoring services to meet demand.

Clearly, in this instance BR is not meeting passengers' needs. Instead of boarding the train at Bromley north or Sundridge park and going through to Charing cross or Cannon street, most passengers will now be subjected to inconvenience by having to alight at Grove park, crossing the bridge and either rushing to a waiting train or waiting for the connection, which may be cancelled, on an open station. That will be especially unpleasant in bad weather. Conditions will be particularly difficult for disabled passengers. Because it is a main-line train, by the time the train reaches Grove park it will be full, as I know from my regular train travel. Passengers know from experience that they must stand, because a similar system operated for a period while engineering work occurred. British Rail says in a letter to the local council:

Whilst we appreciate that trains between Grove Park and London will have substantial loads when they reach Grove Park, the length of time passengers will need to stand is within accepted tolerances. I am not sure to whom those tolerances are acceptable, but they are unacceptable to my constituents. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State remembers that some years ago we travelled on that line. The trains were crowded then, and they are still.

Far from attracting customers, BR seem bent on driving them away from this line. Many people will find that it will be easier for them to take their cars to another station on the main line to catch the train or even to drive all the way up to town. The local fear is that BR will say that the line is not being adequately used, and will close it down altogether.

I remind BR of its response to the Serpell report. Under the heading "Customer Service", BR said:

Our preoccupation in this increasingly competitive industry is with our customers. Some of the options outlined in the Reports for cost reductions would, in our view, impact adversely on service standards by reducing quality; consequently they would reduce revenue. I suggest that BR should re-read that paragraph in the light of the proposals for the Bromley north line.

I realise that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State cannot be responsible for timetable details, but he is responsible for seeing that BR does its job properly. I ask him first to convey to BR, and endorse, my criticisms of its failure to consult and to seek assurances that in future BR will involve interested parties, including especially Members of Parliament. Because of the recent exchanges, the general manager says that he will seek to consult, but he has said that before. The House understands that I have a certain lack of faith in those assurances. British Rail should consult also the local passenger association. Earlier this year such an association did not exist, but because of this business there is now an active local passenger association. British Rail must include in the discussions the TUCC and especially the borough council in view of the GLC's approaching demise.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend to press BR to review the timetable with a view to reinstating adequate peak-hour services as soon as possible. While doing so, perhaps BR could consider improving the very poor late evening service. The last train at 9.34 pm from Charing Cross is useless for theatre and concert goers.

It may seem inappropriate to use parliamentary time to discuss a couple of stations on a short branch line, but this is not simply a matter of personal convenience or inconvenience. The south-east London suburbs depend on train services. They are our life-blood. We have no underground service. Thousands of people rely on train services to get to and from work. When buying houses people consider shops, schools and not least but most important, transport. Commuter facilities are a vital element and the quality of the train service is a most important factor. The matter is well summed up by a constituent who writes that the rumoured plans strike at the heart of his working life.

I regret that in this instance British Rail has failed to take into account the implications of the proposed changes. I hope that as a result of my raising the matter today it will now do so.

3.15 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has said about the Bromley north services. Many of his constituents are quite naturally concerned about the changes proposed by British Rail, and I am sure that they will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter in the House at this late—or rather early—hour of the morning. My hon. Friend mentioned that he and I had often travelled on that line together in years gone by, so I am not unfamiliar with the problems to which he draws attention.

I should begin by saying that the level of services on particular routes and the timetabling of those services are matters entirely for British Rail, and Ministers have no powers to intervene. The Government have, however, set broad strategic objectives for British Rail, and we are, of course, interested in the way in which it carries them out. We have made it clear that we consider that an efficient railway has a vital role to play in the transport system and that we fully recognise the social value of rail services. Last year the public service obligation grant was about £855 million—a very substantial sum by any reckoning. This year's figure will be similar, and about one third of it is likely to go to support services in London and the south-east.

I should now explain what the timetable changes are and why they have come about. The reduction in loaded train miles over the whole passenger network which British Rail will introduce with the May timetable amounts to less that 1 per cent. In London and the south-east, where the main impact of the changes falls, the reduction is still only 2 per cent.

British Rail has made a number of comments to explain these reductions. In the first place, it points out that they are a response to changes in travel pattern which in turn reflect changes in population and employment in the south-east. British Rail's surveys show that the number of passengers coming into central London on its southern region in the peak hours has declined by over 12 per cent. in the past four years.

Secondly, British Rail has described the changes in the 1984 timetable for southern region as a further stage in its response to the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, whose report on London and south-east commuter services published in October 1980 urged a review of all services to avoid duplication and to ensure that the best use was made of the resources available. After all, the PSO is taxpayers' money.

Against this background, it seems inevitable that some services need to be adjusted, both peak and off peak.

Services have been reduced where demand has fallen and where, in British Rail's view, the existing service frequency no longer provides value for money. Elsewhere, where a demand is high or likely to increase, improvements are planned. For example, the new non-stop Victoria-Gatwick service will make Gatwick the nearest airport to Westminster in terms of time.

I know that British Rail has written to my hon. Friend informing him of the service changes planned for Bromley north, but for the benefit of the wider audience I should take this opportunity to outline them now. The present service in the morning peak consists of five through trains from Bromley north to London and four through trains in the opposite direction. In the evening peak, there are five trains in each direction. Off peak, a 20-minute interval shuttle service operates between Bromley north and Grove park. Passengers change at Grove park for services to Cannon street, London bridge and Charing cross. The peak hour through services and the off peak shuttle services all call also at Sundridge park on the same branch line.

Under the new timetable, which comes into effect on 14 May, British Rail originally proposed that there would be one through train from Bromley north to Charing cross in the morning peak and one through train in the opposite direction in the evening peak. The capacity of the morning through train to Charing cross was to be increased to accommodate extra passengers who currently use other through services. However, as my hon. Friend noted in his speech, British Rail has now decided to run, on a trial basis, an additional through service at the start of the morning peak from Bromley north to Cannon street. I have, however, noted my hon. Friend's comment about the timing of that service.

Apart from these peak hour through services, Bromley north and Sundridge park will be served by a shuttle service between Bromley north and Grove park. The shuttle will run at approximately 10-minute intervals in the peak periods, providing a more frequent service than the existing 20-minute interval peak hour through services. So passengers using Bromley north and Sundridge park in the peak periods will actually have more trains, although they will have to change at Grove park. I am told that under BR's new timetable passengers from Bromley north to Cannon street travelling in the peak periods are likely in most cases to have slightly quicker journeys than at present.

British Rail has explained that its decision to withdraw the peak period through services reflects the fact that at present these trains are much more lightly loaded than those on other routes at these times of day. They range from 36 to 93 per cent. full at the point of maximum loading. My hon. Friend will note that if a peak loading in the rush hour can be as low as 36 per cent., there is at least a prima facie case for saying that a better distribution of the service on other parts of the network which are overcrowded would be reasonable, taking all the travellers in turn.

British Rail believes that it would not make economic sense to perpetuate all these through services. Nor would it be fair to passengers on other lines, who are at the moment travelling in more uncomfortable conditions, if British Rail were not to use to better advantage the permanent way and terminal facilities now occupied by the Bromley north trains.

I recognise that it is of little comfort to my hon. Friend's constituents to be told that people on other services are worse off and will have some improvement. What particularly bothers my hon. Friend's constituents is the thought that, having got a seat at Bromley north or Sundridge park, and having trooped over the foot bridge at Grove park, they will then have to stand all the way into London. I have to say that for some people this will be true. But the overcrowding problem is not as bad as it is sometimes made out.

British Rail estimates that from 14 May only two trains leaving Grove park in the peak hour will be loaded beyond their seating capacity. That does not mean that only two trains will have standing passengers. All regular travellers know that trains can often be jam-packed at the front, when there are still empty seats at the back. My hon. Friend will be familiar, as I am, with the way in which, on trains coming into Charing cross and Cannon street, people crowd to the front because they wish to rush through the barrier at the first opportunity, while seats are available further back in the train. Most of my hon. Friend's constituents should be able to get a seat if they want one. I am sure that, if BR's estimate is wrong, it will be the first to say so. I look to BR to keep an open mind and to be prepared to make further adjustments if experience suggests that would be appropriate. I give my hon. Friend that assurance.

I know that my hon. Friend has been particularly concerned about British Rail's arrangements for consulting users of services and those representing them before introducing substantial changes in the passenger timetable. It is something that he has raised with me more than once and it is, I know, a concern that is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

On another occasion I explained to the House that the long process of revising a timetable involves consultation with the transport users' consultative committees, county councils and commuter groups.

It is a two-stage process. As soon as it can, BR circulates to local authorities its plans for routes and service frequencies. In the case of the 1984 timetable for southern region, this was done on 24 June 1983. But until they have actual timings as well as the frequency and route specifications, the local authorities cannot make detailed comments—for example, about connections with bus services.

The second stage is to circulate draft timings for the services, but it takes British Rail some time to develop its proposals in such detail, and they were not available until September 1983. There is therefore not a great deal of time for further and detailed consultation before the timetable plans have to be firmed up by British Rail. However, suggestions come up as a result of that consultation and British Rail takes account of them. In the case of the 1984 timetable, I understand that a number of useful suggestions were made during the consultation and the original proposals were amended to take account of them. The reinstatement of one of the through services from Bromley north is an example of what can happen in this consultation process.

In view of the concern previously expressed about the arrangements for consultation and advance information about timetable changes, I undertook to draw British Rail's attention to this aspect of its service planning and I wrote to the chairman of the British Railways Board about the issue on 6 February. My hon. Friend has himself raised the matter during Question time. Mr. Reid has replied to my letter and I would like to quote from the letter he has sent to me. I think it contains news that my hon. Friend will welcome. Mr. Reid explains, first that, in the light of the suggestions made in the House, British Rail has reviewed its procedures for discussing timetable changes with customers. He goes on to say:

In determining our arrangements for discussing timetable changes with our customers, we have, I believe, to draw a distinction between, on the one hand, detailed consultation in drawing up the plans with TUCCs, County Councils, and commuters' associations; and, on the other hand, once plans are broadly agreed, the briefing of MPs and the press on the policy issues and the key points of the changes proposed.

In this instance the extent of our detailed consultation is not in doubt . . . However our efforts subsequently, to brief and inform MPs and the wider public at large about the alterations and the reasons for them, appeared to have been less effective than in previous years . . . I am anxious to ensure that we ourselves give Members a better understanding in future.

I am sure we can with advantage do more to take the initiative in briefing Members at an earlier stage so they are properly equipped to deal with problems raised by their constituents. In future years, therefore, a summary of key timetable changes in the London and South East sector will be sent to MPs in the late Autumn of each year and there will then be opportunity to brief members more extensively on any areas which cause concern.

The letter continues, but in view of the lateness of the hour I shall not go through it all in detail but will send a copy of it to my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have expressed worry to me about British Rail's practice in this area.

I hope that what I have said this morning, and what my hon. Friend has heard from British Rail at meetings about the 1984 timetable changes and in the latest letter which British Rail sent to him on 22 March explaining the proposals and illustrating how the adjustments in services are designed to improve the match between supply and demand, will at least give him some reassurance that he can pass on to his constituents.

In his statement in the board's 1983 annual report, which was published on 18 April, the British Rail chairman emphasised the need to satisfy the customer by giving value for money: by improving the match between supply and demand, to improve the efficiency of its operations, make room for improved standards of service and new investment, and reduce the cost to the taxpayer.

Substantial investment in the southern region is designed to improve services on the commuter network. Later this morning, I shall open an important new stage in the Brighton resignalling project at a total cost of about £120 million. Smaller scale investments take place all the time to improve information facilities for passengers, to improve standards of cleanliness on trains, and to carry out improvements to stations and station facilities. All this is very much in line with the strategic objectives which the Government set the Railways Board to provide services to customers which are reliable, attractive and punctual at acceptable fares and charges. Having said that, there are aspects of what my hon. Friend said which call to be brought to the attention of British Rail and I undertake to ensure that the chairman gets a copy of the report of this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty nine minutes past Three o'clock am.