HC Deb 17 March 1994 vol 239 cc1216-24 5.15 am
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I begin the debate which I have initiated on the impact on the commuters of the closure of Fenchurch Street station and Limehouse station for seven weeks this summer by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House, its servants and its officers for detaining them at this unearthly hour. I extend that apology to the Minister and to his colleague, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), who, on a personal level, are always courteous. Nevertheless, I shall not hesitate to criticise the Government and their stewardship of our railway network as it affects east London and Essex, despite the fact that the Minister has always been courteous and helpful to me about constituency matters.

The fact that Back-Benchers have to raise important issues at ridiculous hours of the day and night reflects the imbalance of the way in which we do things in this House. Before I depart from the House, my ambition is that the balance between Government business and BackBenchers' debates will have been altered. Government business should be held in the middle of the night and Back-Benchers' initiatives should be held during the day. I have already been in the Palace for 21 hours, working on parliamentary business. It is absurd that we hold these debate so late when the Minister, like me, has a full diary for the day ahead.

Having got that point off my chest, I state clearly that I do not question the urgent need for the resignalling works on the line that goes from Fenchurch Street to Southend, via my constituency of Thurrock and the constituency of Basildon; nor do I minimise the urgent need for Fenchurch Street station and other stations along that line to be refurbished and for the track to be renewed. Indeed, that work is long overdue, but I question whether, to complete those works, it is necessary to close Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations for seven weeks from 22 July. Had the Government and managers of Network SouthEast been alive to the decay of the London-Tilbury-Southend and Great Eastern lines and their stations, those closures would not have been necessary. They are a direct consequence of years of neglect and indifference by the Secretary of State and his predecessors under this Administration.

My constituents will suffer enormous additional delay and inconvenience as a result of that neglect. The impact will be quite awful for the thousands of commuters who travel from East Tilbury, Tilbury, Grays and, to a lesser extent, South Ockendon stations. They would wish me to place on record their considerable irritation at the inconvenience that they face this summer. The problem is not exclusive to my constituency but will affect thousands of commuters from Essex and east London, Southend, Shoeburyness, Basildon, Pitsea, Upminster, Dagenham Dock and particularly Barking. Some 19,000 commuters a day use Barking station and there is already considerable congestion and problems for commuters interlining from that station on their way to work in London.

When Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations close this summer, Network SouthEast intends that the bulk of commuters travelling from Essex will disembark at Barking and join the already heavily used, if not overloaded, District and Metropolitan underground lines from Barking. Commuters who normally interline with the docklands light railway at Limehouse station will have an additional problem to get to their place of work in the new docklands development area.

The closures will affect not only travellers to Barking but commuters living in Barking. Had my late colleague Jo Richardson still been with us, I am sure that she would have participated in this debate because of the enormous impact that the closure of Fenchurch Street station will have on the Barking and Dagenham constituents. I regret that no other hon. Members whose constituents will be affected by the closures are in the Chamber. In fairness, the right hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) is indisposed. He takes a keen interest in transport matters, having been a former Transport Secretary, and is also my chairman on the Transport Select Committee. I am sure that, had it been possible, he would have been here tonight. The inescapable fact remains, however, that there are Essex Conservative Members who should have been here tonight to speak up for their commuters, who will be greatly disadvantaged by the closures.

I have been a consistent and unashamed critic, not just of the Government and their transport policy, but of the managers of Network SouthEast, who do not respond as they should to the interests of commuters. They make cosmetic efforts to recognise those interests, but I am not satisfied that they properly champion consumers' interests in their dealings with the Government. Were they to fulfil the spirit of their duties as line managers they would join me in criticising the Government for their chronic underfunding of the lines, which in turn has led to the chaos of one of London's oldest mainline stations being closed for seven weeks in the summer.

The managers make some attempt to acknowledge the interests of commuters. Just this morning, they issued commuters with a glossy brochure entitled, "LTS Newsline: Customer Newsletter". The banner headline reads: Station to shut for seven weeks". The second page of the document is headed: LTS moves towards shadow franchise". It goes on: The senior management team headed by Chris KinchinSmith, divisional director of LTS, has already expressed its initial willingness to mount a bid for the line, providing the terms of the franchise are acceptable. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that during the tortuous debates on rail privatisation, in the House and in the Select Committee, we were assured both by the Minister and by the chairman of British Rail that line managers who might be contemplating putting in a bid for a franchise should keep that interest separate from their operational role. Mr. Kinchin-Smith and his colleagues, in a document paid for by commuters through their fares, are flagging up an interest in bidding for a franchise—that clearly runs contrary to the spirit of those undertakings. I hope that the Minister will accept that, and that his Department will tick off people who are mixing up their responsibilities in this way.

Another sign that the legitimate interests of commuters are being ignored is the lack of facilities for the travelling public. The document also tells commuters that no toilets will be available for their use at Barking station, the main inter-line station, which is due to accommodate a great many more travellers this summer. That is symptomatic of the decay of the line and its understaffing by Network SouthEast and it is wholly unacceptable. It is not unreasonable to say that the line and its passengers must be properly looked after. It is a very bad state of affairs if they cannot provide WCs for commuters.

I move to the central issue of the debate—the closure of the Fenchurch Street main line station. Mr. Chris Kinchin-Smith says: We know this work will cause severe disruption for many of our customers". My word, he can say that again; it is the understatement of the year. He then argues that the temporary closure of Fenchurch Street station is essential.

As I have said, I have no way of testing whether it is essential or unavoidable now, but it could have been avoided had there been proper funding and planning of the refurbishment and restoration of the line in previous years. The Government and the line management failed to acknowledge that, despite the fact that I and other Labour Members have been drawing attention to the problems of the misery line for a number of years.

The management's document says that the station will be closed when many passengers take their holiday. That is very kind of them, but the fact that the work will be carried out in July or August will not greatly reduce the irritation to customers. We are not a town that has a "holiday week". Thurrock does not close down and nor does Essex. In the south-east of England, in modern times, holidays straddle the summer months. It is of no great consolation to us that the work will be conducted in the summer and it is nonsense to suggest that that is any great concession to the fare-paying customers.

In their document, the managers of network SouthEast also say: We are working closely with London Underground". I am not sure that that is so. Dear old London Underground has been told there about the closure of Fenchurch Street and Limehouse station and has to live with it.

In the past 24 hours, I have corresponded with the senior public affairs executive of London Underground. She replied: The eastern section of the District Line is currently operating the optimum level of service possible and therefore additional trains can not be provided by the line — that is the District line— during the 7 week closure period.". The management of London Underground are in no position significantly to abate the problems of commuters from Essex; nor can they do anything to affect the impact on the existing underground customers who will also suffer through increased congestion on already overcrowded underground trains.

I also criticise the management because their glossy and expensive document does not give much time or attention to the problems that will be faced exclusively by my constituents on the Tilbury loop line. The section headed, "Your Questions Answered", contains hardly any reference to mitigating the problems for my constituents, apart from telling us that present proposals include the Tilbury line and that all stopping services will terminate at Barking with onward travel by tube. It then gives us the good news that LTS tickets will be valid on the underground.

I have been fighting a continuing battle with Network SouthEast about its penalty fares scheme and how it relates to the closure of Fenchurch Street. I support the principle of the penalty fare scheme, but the management of Network SouthEast on the London-Tilbury-Southend line have been unable to maintain the ticket machines so that honest fare-paying passengers can purchase a ticket and avoid the embarrassment of having to defend their position when an inspector gets on the train. It is a wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs when, night after night on the main concourse of Fenchurch Street station, it is impossible, unless one has the exact fare, to purchase a ticket for use on that line. If Fenchurch Street station is to be refurbished, I hope that the management are able to get their act together. Apparently the machines there are supposed to be self-replenishing in change, but they do not self-replenish and the management seem incapable of arranging for people to empty them and fill them up with change.

The situation gets worse. If more people have to change at Barking on to London Underground, which is also introducing a penalty fares scheme from the beginning of this financial year, it makes it even more imperative that passengers are able to purchase a ticket or permit to travel at stations in Essex. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and ensure that the management of London Underground and Network SouthEast understand that that is a reasonable expectation and demand by the commuters in view of the penalty fares policy.

I want to ask the Minister some questions. First, what compensation will commuters who are disadvantaged by the lengthy closure of Fenchurch Street station receive? They do not have a good service at the present time. Despite what the management say, the journeys are still erratic in terms of punctuality. Their problems will be compounded. I guess that the vast majority of commuters from Essex will have each day an additional three quarters of an hour travelling time, at least, to their place of work in London as a result of the closure. That is not fair when one bears in mind that commuters from Southend, if travelling only on the LTS line, pay £1,912 per annum for their season ticket. If they are travelling LTS and Great Eastern, the season ticket costs £2,056 per annum. In my constituency, commuters from Tilbury pay £1,564 per annum. At that price, bearing in mind the problems that they will experience this summer, they are entitled to a rebate. I hope that the Minister will consider that matter and make the appropriate recommendation to the management of Network SouthEast.

Secondly, is the Minister able to give me an assurance that when the work is complete following the closure of Fenchurch Street and Limehouse stations, there will be no further hiatus for commuters from Essex? I ask that because I have no confidence about the frankness of the management of Network SouthEast. For example, they did not mention the possibility of this closure until it was almost unavoidable. They must have known about it a year or two ago, but they did not tell us. I have a deep suspicion that there will be further closures of stations along the LTS line in the coming months or perhaps the next two years. If I am wrong, I would welcome that correction and reassurance from the Minister.

Thirdly, after significant sums of public money have been spent on refurbishing the LTS line and Fenchurch Street station, will the station be fully used to the advantage of the Essex commuters? Each evening, commuters wanting to get back to Essex are faced with the absurd irritation of having to look at the clock and decide whether to head for Fenchurch Street station or Liverpool Street station. About halfway through the evening, Fenchurch Street is closed and those travelling to Essex must use Liverpool Street.

Fenchurch Street is a mainline station. It services my constituents on the Tilbury loop, and many others who want to get to towns between London and Southend. I do not think it unreasonable to expect those people to be able to board a train at Fenchurch Street throughout the evening. I hope that, following the expenditure on Fenchurch street, that problem will be remedied and a proper service will be restored.

Although I have tempered my remarks, I hope that the Minister will understand why I legitimately accuse the Government of neglecting the line. They are, to a large extent, to blame for the problems that will be experienced this summer by my constituents and by people living throughout Essex and in east London. Some of the blame must lie with the management of Network SouthEast but, putting that aside, I hope that the Minister will tell us that he will have a further meeting with the management to establish whether the work can be completed without closing the station.

I feel that, although it might be inconvenient and involve some additional cost to Network SouthEast, the work could be completed in the middle of the night and over a series of weekends. It might take a good deal longer, but the disadvantage to computers would be a good deal less. I suspect that a seven-week closure of Fenchurch Street station is the easy way out for the management, rather than being truly unavoidable. I hope that the Minister will investigate that.

I also hope that the Minister will establish whether it will be possible to increase capacity on London Underground during the closure of Fenchurch Street—assuming that it goes ahead—and that he will ensure that passengers can purchase tickets from properly maintained machines, both on that line and throughout the Network SouthEast area. That is not happening now. Finally, I hope that commuters will be told about any other anticipated problems months, if not years, in advance, rather than those problems' being sprung on them with the minimum notice.

I expect the Minister to say that Network SouthEast has consulted local Members of Parliament, because that is what Network SouthEast told me today. It is true that Mr. Kinchin-Smith has invited me to meet him, and I look forward to arranging a mutually convenient date. What he has never done, however, is write to me, as a Member of Parliament, saying, "We have a problem: we are going to have to close Fenchurch Street station, which will affect your commuters." All I got was a press release, some weeks weeks ago—not even a letter. I do not protest about that discourtesy on my own behalf, but I am protesting on behalf of my constituents and other commuters from Essex. It shows the way in which the management of the line treat their customers.

I hope that we will receive some reassurance from the Minister and that, as a consequence, the enormous chaos will be avoided for commuters this summer.

5.44 am
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was courteous in apologising for the hour of the debate. That was kind of him, but there was no need to apologise. Ministers are never inconvenienced at coming to the House to answer a debate at any time. The hon. Member was courteous to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Officers of the House for keeping them up till this early hour. I should be happy to come at any hour because it is the responsibility of the Government and Ministers to answer legitimate concerns raised by Back Benchers.

Those who listen to our debates on the radio must wonder why three or even four times a year we have an all-night debate. It is one of the rare opportunities for Back-Bench Members to debate for longer than the normal half-hour Adjournment debate issues of relevance to their constituencies. It is a good use of Parliament's time. It brings the Government properly to account and allows issues to be properly explored. I would rue the day that these proceedings were in any way curtailed or changed. They provide a valuable opportunity for Back-Bench Members such as the hon. Member for Thurrock to raise various issues.

The hon. Member referred to the late Jo Richardson. This is the first opportunity that I have had to pay my tribute to her. When I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the Ministry of Defence, I had many occasions to talk to the late Jo Richardson because she was my Minister's pair. I always had courteous and friendly relations with her. We will long remember her contribution to the House.

The hon. Member for Thurrock referred to several of my colleagues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon (Mr. Amess), for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) have all been consistent in raising concerns about the London-Tilbury and Southend line on behalf of their constituents. They have been very assiduous. The fact that they are not in the Chamber now is no reflection upon their zeal, which is shared by the hon. Member for Thurrock, in looking after the interests of their constituents.

As many hon. Members will know, the London, Tilbury and Southend line is one of the undoubted rail success stories of recent years. The hon. Member for Thurrock referred to its performance as erratic. I would have shared that view if he had been referring to two or three years ago. I do not believe that that is a fair description of the service now. I have travelled on the line on a number of occasions during the past four years and I have spent a great deal of time talking to commuters about the quality of service on the line.

From those visits, one thing above all is clear—the London, Tilbury and Southend line is no longer the misery line of the late 1980s. The figures show that it is now one of the best performing commuter lines in the south-east. On average, over the past 12 months, 92 per cent. of LTS peak services have arrived at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time. Given the acknowledged poor punctuality and reliability of a just a few years ago, that represents a real turnaround.

It is important to remember that no new equipment has been available to the line over that period. The improvement is the result of the efforts of LTS management and staff and shows what can be achieved when there is a shared determination to provide a better service to passengers. I pay tribute to Mr. Kinchin-Smith, his predecessors and all British Rail staff, from the most senior to the most junior, for the tremendous improvement in the quality of service brought about over the past 12 months. It is a great credit to them. They have been successful without the completion of resignalling, without the delivery of new rolling stock and with the difficulties of running a 19th century railway line.

Further improvements are on the way. I said that the LTS has had no new equipment recently, but that is now about to change. The line is undergoing a major resignalling programme costing £83 million, which involves replacing equipment installed in the 1960s. The present 16 signal boxes are being replaced by a single state-of-the-art control centre at Upminster and the power supply is being upgraded and junctions improved.

Improvements on that scale cannot be made without some inconvenience to passengers, although British Rail has shown that disruption can be minimised by careful planning and consultation with rail users. Hon. Members may know that Charing Cross and Waterloo East stations were closed for three weeks last summer to allow essential work to be carried out so that the new 12-car Networker trains could be accommodated there. During that period, trains were diverted into Cannon Street and Victoria. By the careful timing of the work during the peak holiday season, when passenger numbers are at their lowest, and by warning passengers well in advance—the closure was first advertised more than a year beforehand and frequently thereafter—British Rail ensured that inconvenience was kept to an absolute minimum. It sensibly employed the media, including advertisements in local newspapers, to ensure the widest possible dissemination of information. The result was that many of those who were affected were impressed by the sensible and professional way in which the necessary closures were handled. No doubt some who were able to do so, knowing the details of the work so far in advance, arranged their holidays to avoid the closures.

Mr. Mackinlay

I am not surprised that the Minister and Network SouthEast pray in aid the closures on the old Southern region last year, but the right hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. Alternatives were offered during those closures, but the position that we are debating is not comparable. There will be major inconvenience to my commuters, whereas there was some irritation for people on the old Southern region railway, some of which they could overcome with relatively minimal delay.

Mr. Freeman

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress, I will deal specifically with his point, which I understand.

I have been describing the procedures followed by British Rail in relation to closures involving Charing Cross and Waterloo East stations. They are what passengers should be able to expect when improvements on this scale are carried out. Management on the LTS intend to ensure that their passengers are equally well treated when Fenchurch Street station is closed for seven weeks. The LTS has produced a code of practice on how the resignalling project will be carried out. It has been endorsed by the Southend rail travellers association and supported by other statutory and voluntary representative bodies. It is also publishing a regular newsletter, "LTS Newsline", from which the hon. Gentleman quoted, which is keeping passengers fully up to date on progress and service alterations.

As with the closure of Charing Cross and Waterloo East, information will be disseminated via local press and radio. LTS commuters have the added advantage of the Pride system, the colour television monitors at each station which provide instant information.

The closure of Fenchurch Street for this period is unavoidable. The hon. Gentleman said that it could have been avoided if the Government had provided substantial funds at an early stage. That is not so. The station requires complete remodelling. Several miles of track and overhead power lines need to be replaced. The signal box currently just outside the station must be dismantled. All that work should take seven weeks. My information is that if it were carried out during the night and at the weekend, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, it would take three years, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would tolerate that for a moment on behalf of his constituents. All our experience of major rail infrastructure work shows that it is much better to concentrate the work into a short period. That inconvenience, which is regretted, is much better than spreading it over a substantial period.

While the station is closed, some LTS services will run into Liverpool Street and others will terminate at Barking where passengers will be able to transfer to London Underground's District line on which their tickets will be valid. In addition, bus services will be provided between LTS and Great Eastern stations that are in relative proximity. London Underground services from Upninster and Barking, where there are LTS interchanges, will be strengthened.

British Rail is in no doubt that the result of the project will be a great improvement in signal reliability which, it says, is the biggest single factor contributing to delays at the moment. There will be more crossovers which allow services to bypass failed trains or engineering works without causing serious disruption; better centralised control and co-ordination from the new centre at Upminster; and a more versatile and easily maintained terminus at Fenchurch Street.

When the important work is complete—British Rail hopes by next spring—the already much improved service should improve still further. I shall ensure that the hon. Member for Thurrock and all my hon. Friends who represent constituencies along the line are invited to the formal opening of the new service. More modern trains for the LTS service are due to become available in 1995–96 as a result of £150 million leasing facility that the Government announced in 1992.

The LTS line will be one of the first to be franchised under the Railways Act 1993. The Government believe that the improved performance of the past few years will be pursued even more vigorously when the LTS is an independent company competing for business in the market and subject to the rewards and penalties of the proposed franchise system. With new signalling, more modern trains and, most important, a real incentive and desire to meet the needs of its users, the LTS will be in the vanguard of the move towards the new-style rail service that we all want.

The hon. Gentleman asked me four questions. I shall examine the matter of the ticket machines at Fenchurch Street and the rebates and I shall write to him. Those are perfectly valid matters to raise. He also asked whether there would be any further problems and said that he had deep suspicions about further closures. I am advised that, once the work is finished next spring, the infrastructure work will be complete for the foreseeable future and, with the arrival of new trains, the hon. Gentleman's constituents will not experience any significant disruption to services.

The hon. Gentleman also asked for an assurance that the station would be fully used. He complained about the closure of the station in the early evening. We hope that the line will be franchised next year and, with more capital, freedom and innovation, there may well be a change in the pattern of railway services. I share his view that it would be advantageous for the people of Essex if services were expanded. If that is possible, and if it makes economic sense, I should welcome it.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked me to tick off Mr. Chris Kinchin-Smith, but I decline to do so. I am delighted that there is an interest in organising a management buy-out by Mr. Kinchin-Smith and his colleagues. Mr. John Welsby, the chief executive of British Rail, has just issued new guidelines to BR management on how they should discharge their responsibilities for running the railway services and prepare a bid. The hon. Gentleman may wish to know that I answered a parliamentary question, drawing attention to the fact that I had placed in the Library a copy of the guidelines that should resolve the problem of dual responsibility for management of the line and the preparation of the bid. Far from ticking off Mr. Kinchin-Smith, I congratulate him and his staff on the management of the line and on preparing to bid for the franchise.

Mr. Irvine Patnick (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.