HC Deb 15 November 1991 vol 198 cc1404-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

2.30 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Madam Deputy Speaker, I am going to tell you a horror story today which will wring your withers, which will make you very angry and which will make you understand the sense of frustration that has brought so many of my colleagues from south-east Essex here to support me. I am delighted that my right hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) and for Basildon (Mr. Amess) are here to back me up. Their presence will give the House a good idea of just how important we think the subject is.

We are here to talk about the Fenchurch Street line, which serves—if that is the right word—the people who live in our constituencies. It is easy to sum the line up: it is Britain's worst railway line. It is shabby, sloppy and slow. The carriages are shabby, the management is sloppy and the trains are slow. Half the trains now run at a quarter of their normal speed—if they run at all—because the electrical components have been allowed to deteriorate so badly.

More than 40,000 of our constituents use the line every day. It is not an option for them: this railway line is their lifeline to their jobs, connecting their homes to the places where they work. Our constituents are now discriminated against if it is known that they must travel to work on the Fenchurch Street line—yet, without the line, they cannot earn their living and they cannot be self-supporting.

British Rail admits that the rolling stock, the signalling and everything about the line is now 60 years out of date. We want to know why BR has done nothing about it. It is not as though our constituents have an alternative. They cannot go to work in their cars, because there is nowhere for them to park in central London and the main roads from our part of the world all badly need attention. The A13 and A127 are choked with lorries from Shell Haven, Fords in Dagenham and Tilbury docks in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. The line is not an option for our people; it is the way in which they get to work.

As I waited on the station today, we were given three excuses over the loudspeaker, which broadcasts such excuses every day. Two trains were cancelled this morning. One, which had a defect and had been travelling at a quarter of its proper speed, had to be taken off the line. People are piled into the carriages. On each train, one carriage travels empty because the electrical components are worn out and out of date and it is apparently beyond the wit of British Rail to get new components manufactured. Of course BR cannot buy them off the peg any more, because, in most parts of the country, those railway lines went out of business 30-odd years ago, but that is still no excuse.

When we get off the train we line up in a pathetic queue at the station master's office to get an excuse card. There are eight excuses on the card, and the station master religiously ticks one of the boxes so that, when we get to work, we can explain to our employers why we are late again. The excuses are: points failure, train failure, staff failure, signal failure, vandalism, storm damage and overhead power cable failure. Everything fails but the management of British Rail. Oh dear, no, it is nothing at all to do with them. We do not get just wet leaves on the line but dead sheep. That is not surprising, because the trains travel so slowly that the sheep feel that they have plenty of time to cross. However on one occasion, the signalman got the signal wrong and the train hit the sheep. On that day my constituents were turfed out at Purfleet and had to take taxis at a cost of £7. That is not rare; it is the sort of thing that people have to do all the time. They would much rather pay a bit more for a better service, but that option is not open to them.

Why is the line so neglected? Is it British Rail's biggest loss maker? No, it is not. It has a turnover of £62 million a year and is used by 40,000 people a day. It makes a profit and we should like to know where that profit has gone. It seems that it has been used to improve the lines in all parts of the region except ours.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

When I was in a position to look dispassionately at lines all over the country, it was universally agreed that this line was one of the worst two. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to implement the massive programme put forward this year by British Rail to improve the infrastructure and renew the rolling stock? Will she press the Minister to make sure that the Government give the go-ahead this year for such a programme?

Mrs. Gorman

I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend says. Thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon, we got Sir Bob Reid to experience what the rest of us have to experience, but British Rail could not even get the line right on Tuesday for Sir Bob's visit. A cancellation prevented my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point getting to Basildon on time. When we arrived our little cards were ticked to show that the 20-minute delay was due to a points failure. Even for the managing director of British Rail, BR could not get its act together.

I was delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point giving Sir Bob Reid the biggest flea in his ear that he has ever had. It was a salutary lesson and gratifying for the passengers to see somebody was taking up their cause and letting British Rail know what we thought about it. My right hon. Friend expressed the frustration felt by our constituents who are always late for work. They also feel impotent because nothing is ever done about the line.

Long before I came to the House, my colleagues had been badgering about the line, but still nothing has been done. That is simply not good enough, and this time around we intend to get some action. I have sympathy for members of the staff because although they are totally disillusioned, they want to help. They dish out little cards, as if people who are late for work have nothing better to do than to read them. The cards state: If you need help or have any comments about our services, please contact our Customers Service Team. Is not that wonderful? There is a customer service team but no solution for the prime need of customers, which is to get to work on time.

British Rail management is responsible for the line. As always, Sir Bob Reid tried to blame someone else—the Government. That is not good enough. He is paid to run British Rail and we want some action from him. The Government represent the people who use the line and they are the major shareholder. It is up to them to see that Sir Bob does the job for which he is paid. If he does not, they should sack him. At night, customers going to Fenchurch Street station find that they are locked out because of train delays and crowding on the platforms, which is almost lethal. Police outside the station—I almost said riot police—try to direct passengers to another method of getting home. My constituents tell me that they sometimes spend three hours on a journey that should take 45 minutes.

Furthermore, my constituents' democratic rights are threatened. During the May council elections last year, when the polls closed at 9 pm, my constituents were still coming off the trains and so were unable to vote. There were queues outside polling stations and the doors were shut in their faces. This is a disgrace because it takes the problem beyond that of being late for work.

We want action and we want it now and we have come here today in force to see that we have it. If I had my way, I would push on with privatising the whole of British Rail and make sure that this line was the first to go. It would be a real commercial proposition. Private management would not tolerate for one minute the level of service offered to our constituents.

Another option would be to allow British Rail to raise money in the ordinary commercial markets because, as the line makes a profit, it could pay for such borrowing. Under the present mandate, BR is not allowed to do this. Apparently, the line needs above £240 million invested in it, but right now it needs an immediate injection of £40 million to replace the signalling and the electrics so that the trains would at least run on time. Shabby old carriages that they are, at least they would reach their destination in the time that they are supposed to. Long term, we also want new carriages, which could be made available by leasing from the private sector. All these solutions are available and there is no reason why they should not be introduced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon has a great deal of practical experience in this matter and he has done as much as any of us to highlight the problem so I should like him to have the opportunity to give the House his views.

2.42 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on her magnificent speech. She is a woman of enormous energy and on this subject her energy has been deployed to good effect.

At the moment, there is much talk in the media about Essex man and Essex woman. They are rightly extremely angry about this service, just as Members of Parliament are. British Rail is not being blamed for this service. I and my parliamentary colleagues in Essex are being blamed. It is disgraceful that this is being allowed to happen. The general public are being given the impression, very quietly, that Members of Parliament are not being diligent in their duty in lobbying British Rail about its poor services. This is not the case.

I have not been a Member of Parliament for anywhere near as long as my right hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) but during the time that I have been here, I have been inundated with complaints from constituents on these subjects. Three years ago, there was a public meeting in Basildon on the subject. At that meeting, British Rail representatives gave—over the weeks after the meeting, I went to three railway stations which served my constituency and this was repeated—categorical assurances that there would be improvements. Instead, the service is even worse.

I have in my hand a letter dated June 1989 from the management of British Rail, talking about a 16 per cent. increase in passenger journeys, the opening of three new lines and 10 new stations, the electrification of 11 lines and the rebuilding or modernisation of 295 stations on Network SouthEast. What about our line? The letter says at the end: I hope that the enclosures are useful, and that your constituents start to see the improvements we are seeking over the course of the next few months. Here we are, on 15 November 1991. Why have not those promises been delivered? Why is BR allowing parliamentarians to be used as the fall guys?

Six weeks ago, spurred on by the Basildon commuter group—I pay tribute to Mr. Martin Rams and his hard-working committee—I participated with it on a public journey. I arrived at Basildon station, but the British Rail representatives did not turn up, and the train was 20 minutes late. When it pulled in two of the carriages were closed and only one fifth of my constituents could get on the train. When we arrived at Fenchurch street station the British Rail representative charged up to me. I said, "Unless there has been a death in the family, I do not wish to hear the excuse." At that point a card was thrust into my hand. A box on it was ticked "Staff shortages". I took a taxi and arrived at my office at the House. I insisted on speaking to the chairman of British Rail, Sir Robert Reid. When I eventually spoke to him, he agreed to join us on our journey. I was invited to travel on the 8.34 am train. I wrote to my colleagues, asking them to join me on that train.

There is no 8.34 train. It should have been the 8.24. That is the level of incompetence with which we are dealing.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

Is my hon. Friend aware that, although in a somewhat more incognito fashion than he and my right hon. and hon. Friends, I made two return journeys on the Fenchurch Street line on 12 November, one from London to Grays and back in the morning and one from London to Tilbury and back in the rush hour peak? I can tell him that I had the same problems with delayed trains and late running as those that he experienced. When I was coming into Fenchurch Street I met my hon. Friend coming out, with steam coming from his ears.

Mr. Amess

I appreciate the reinforcement that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) has given to my statement. I wonder sometimes whether there are certain people in society who think that we are exaggerating the difficulties that our constituents experience.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and I joined Sir Robert Reid on Tuesday, the journey was a fiasco. It was supposed to be a public relations exercise. It was an opportunity for my constituents, who are served at the stations of Laindon, Pitsea and Basildon, to see that British Rail was accepting responsibility. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point thought that he would be joining us from the 8.3 am train, but that train was cancelled.

I implore my hon. Friend the Minister to help my colleagues and myself in Essex. We need his help even more than we have before to ensure that British Rail takes our complaints seriously and to ensure that the railways service is improved dramatically.

2.47 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I shall be brief because I know that my hon. Friend the Minister wishes to reply.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has said, my train was cancelled and Bod Reid's train out of Fenchurch Street station was jammed and accordingly was late. That is the way it goes. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) for raising the matter. The line is a scandal and a disgrace. I would, as a start, sack the entire management. During a meeting with Bob Reid I asked for an explanation. He replied plaintively and said, "The signalling is 60 years old." He did not even know that the signalling was changed after the war when the line was electrified. Of course, if the signalling is defective that is a potent cause of delay and a reason why trains are cancelled. Apart from those consequences, it could be a recipe for disaster.

My hon. Friend the Minister must understand that we want action now. The line should be given complete priority. We know that British Rail has been receiving more money from the Government. Let some of it be devoted to ending the scandal to which my hon. Friends and I have referred.

2.48 pm
Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

I shall be extremely brief. As I have recently said, I travelled on the line, but in a somewhat more incognito fashion than my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and others I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister also travels the line and that he speaks to the long suffering passengers and to ordinary station staff. He will learn that although the management that is responsible for the line is appalling, there are more than 90 members of it. We do not get very good results. Station staff, unless they are inspectors, are not allowed to stop passengers, even if they think that they are fiddling and travelling without a ticket. Accordingly, there is a massive loss of revenue. Money is also being wasted in employing various levels of management that are not needed.

Even in a period when British Rail has had the largest investment programme since the 1960s, since the change from steam to diesel, it seems that the line has been left permeditatively at the end of the queue by British Rail. The line is carrying an ever-increasing number of commuters. It is an important passenger and freight line serving south-west and south-east Essex and the east of London. Enough is enough is enough. The line needs to be rejuvenated, it needs investment, and we need that to start on Monday.

2.49 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Patrick McLoughlin)

I congratulate and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) for the concise way in which she introduced the debate and then gave time for others of our hon. Friends to speak. They, too, have serious concerns and I was well and truly exercised by the way in which they made their effective case.

I assure my hon. Friends that the Government take their concerns seriously. We are all well aware of how important an efficient rail service is to the everyday lives of travellers, especially those who have to travel to work. Delays and cancellations, old and unreliable trains, signal and points failures and even leaves on the line are problems that most of us have encountered. I certainly have great sympathy with those who are affected by frequent disruption to their journeys. There is nothing more annoying, especially when people are working to a timetable.

In the short time available to me, I wish to reiterate the Government's commitment to British Rail. We want more traffic, both passenger and freight, carried by rail. That can be achieved only if rail travel is an attractive alternative. We fully appreciate that. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) who was one Secretary of State for Transport who managed to secure significant investment funding for British Rail. He ensured that rather than over-subsidising British Rail, it received proper investment. He was responsible for important changes.

Our commitment to British Rail is undoubted. On InterCity, the electrification of the east coast main line and the provision of new InterCity 225 trains have just been completed at a cost of £450 million. On regional railways, the entire fleet of diesel trains is being renewed so that by the end of the next year all diesel vehicles will be under eight years old. In addition, more than 100 new stations have opened on those routes since 1982.

The south-east has the most intensively used urban rail network in Europe. It serves a catchment area with a population equal to that of the whole of Australia and it runs 93 million train miles every year. Network SouthEast is vital to London. It carries more than 40 per cent. of commuters into central London—almost half a million workers a day. Without it, road congestion would be intolerable and the environment and the economy of the city would suffer.

We all want Network SouthEast to provide a modern and efficient rail service and British Rail is committed to the progressive renewal of the system. More than 1,000 new vehicles have been introduced since 1986 and many improvements have been made to infrastructure. Network SouthEast is now pursuing a programme of total route modernisation to spread those benefits to the entire network.

I realise that that does not go very far in reassuring my hon. Friends' constituents and those who have to use the line. I am trying to show the Government's commitment to British Rail and to point out the important changes being made. Network SouthEast has to concentrate on a few routes at a time, modernising trains, tracks, stations and signals to gain the maximum benefits from investment.

The process of total route modernisation has already begun. The Chiltern line once suffered by far the worst service on Network SouthEast—although I am reluctant to say that, having heard my hon. Friends' complaints about their line. I understand that the Chiltern line was worse even than theirs.

Mrs. Gorman


Mr. McLoughlin

I said that I was reluctant to say that.

The Networker turbo diesel trains are now being delivered and will run to new, faster timetables in the new year. Every aspect of the service on the Chiltern line has been improved and performance has already shown significant improvements, even though the full fleet of trains has not yet entered service. The project cost more than £75 million.

Total route modernisation is also in progress on the busy Kent link lines, where almost 500 new Networker vehicles are on order. Old and unreliable slam-door trains need to be replaced when they reach the end of their useful life and associated fixed works will enable longer trains to run and so reduce overcrowding. The total cost of the Kent project is almost £700 million. All that adds up to a great deal of money—around £1 million a day over the past financial year for Network SouthEast alone. The Government are supporting the highest level of investment in the railways since the changeover from steam in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Much of the credit for that lies with my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West.

As part of our expenditure proposals this autumn, we were able to add nearly £1 billion to our existing plans for British Rail for 1992–93. British Rail's total external finances—including borrowing and grant—will amount to more than £2 billion next year. That is a substantial increase which will allow BR to proceed with investment despite the problems it faces in relation to forecasts for revenues and asset sales. That level of investment clearly shows our commitment to ensure that we improve the rail service for everyone and particularly people suffering on the worst lines.

Of course, not all those projects can be realised overnight; nor can they be realised everywhere at once. It is up to BR to set its priorities within the available resources. We give it the resources and it is right for BR to come to us and tell us where it believes those resources should be spent. We are doing what we can. There must be a rolling programme that will bring benefits of modernisation to the network as projects become necessary, worth while and affordable.

I want now to consider the specific points made by my colleagues about the London, Tilbury and Southend line. I acknowledge that the quality of the service on that line is quite unacceptable. I did not need to be convinced of that and the point has been endorsed today by the strong representations of my colleagues and by other colleagues who have not been present today for various reasons.

The poor service is due to the age of the equipment, not lack of will on BR's part. The staff are doing their utmost to provide the best possible service with the equipment. As has been said, one must have sympathy with the staff, particularly those who have to deal directly with the customers. It must be very frustrating for them. They try to do the best they can, but always meet a barrage of criticism.

The problem has recently been exacerbated by electrical faults on some trains. Immediate action was taken to ensure the safety of passengers, but regrettably that further reduced the number of seats available. Assessment of all trains is continuing and those which do not show a deterioration will return to normal running as soon as possible. Where faults have been identified, they are being corrected, but that is taking longer than we and BR had hoped. Overcrowding has been minimised by the introduction of rolling stock from other lines and retention of units which were due to be transferred elsewhere.

British Rail is doing what it can to make the situation tolerable for passengers. I realise that in some cases passengers can become more annoyed when they receive explanatory cards, but that is an attempt to tell them about the problems. I accept that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay probably do not find that reassuring.

Such action is, of course, only a short-term measure. The longer-term solution is re-equipment. The Department has recently received proposals from BR for the complete modernisation of the London, Tilbury and Southend line. Those proposals are being dealt with as a matter of the highest priority. Discussions have already begun between officials and BR with a view to decisions being taken very quickly.

The total cost of the project is about £260 million. It consists of the complete renewal of the signalling system; the introduction of modern trains; and various smaller improvements. It is a very large and complex project and parts of the appraisal have yet to be completed. However, Ministers are determined that the project should be taken forward as quickly as possible without any unnecessary delay. To this end, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has agreed that BR should go ahead with the renewal of the signalling system without waiting for the remainder of the project to be approved. I understand that Sir Bob Reid, the chairman of BR, is today announcing that £50 million will be allocated to the signalling work.

The signalling system is the most critical part of the project, as parts of the existing system are more than 40 years old. I accept the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). It is an important element within the overall project and the Department is satisfied that it can proceed without prejudicing decisions that have yet to be taken on the rolling stock and other aspects of the project. The Government's decision to provide a substantial increase in funding for investment in the railways has enabled BR to allocate money to the project. Had it not been for the increases announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his autumn statement, that would not have happened. I hope that that shows our concern.

Mr. Channon

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's kind remarks. He has made a most encouraging statement this afternoon and my hon. Friends and I are very grateful. Will he press ahead with the rolling stock as soon as possible?

Mr. McLoughlin

We will be considering the rest of the appraisal as a matter of priority. Work will begin immediately on the specification for the design of the scheme with a view to placing contracts as soon as possible. Resignalling is awkward and trains must be kept running on time. Therefore, it will take some time for all the resignalling to be completed.

Work on the remainder of the project is continuing and it has a very high priority. I hope that it will not be too long before decisions can be taken on the remainder of the scheme and the appraisal and the investment needed to provide a modern and efficient network. We all want to see that and it will not be long delayed by the Department.

My right hon. and hon. Friends have today dramatically illustrated the way in which their constituents feel about the need for improvements. I hope that my announcement today and the announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State before the appraisal, in very unusual terms, will go some way to help those people who use the line to understand that the Government are very committed and determined to—

The motion having been made at half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.