§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]2.12 am
§ Mrs. Christine Butler (Castle Point)
I feel that we have come on a long, wearisome and tedious journey tonight. I take the unusual step of apologising to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has borne it out so well. Although I know that he has visited some of the subject matter of the debate previously this year, I have about 4,500 daily reasons to be here. Those are my travelling constituents, the poor commuters who have to make these journeys daily on the train to get to work and back. My focus will be on the peak hours when commuters have to travel.
Castle Point has one of the highest out-commuting rates that I know of. Practically two thirds of its work force leave the borough daily to go to work. Some of them go just over the border to Basildon or Southend, some go a little further to Chelmsford, some go to parts of north and east London. Many of them work in the City. Approximately 3,000—I am going on bald figures—take the whole journey to Fenchurch Street and back on the train.
Because we have such a large commuting outflow, we are not just engaged with railways. If we look at the patterns, we will see that roads, too, figure largely. I know that the Under-Secretary of State went to Castle Point briefly last year and saw for himself some of the problems of congestion there. In my constituency, we have some traffic hot spots of which he is aware and which I hope he will revisit soon. One of them is the Sadler's Farm roundabout system, which I believe should become a grade-separated junction, especially in view of its strategic location in the south-east Essex economy and in the overall Essex economy.
In my maiden speech, I dealt with another hot spot—Canvey way. I distinctly remember describing in that speech the slowly moving convoys of traffic coming on to and leaving the island in the morning. I do not think that I have left that subject for very long at any time in this Parliament.
Access to Canvey island is perhaps an even more contentious and important issue. I was delighted when Castle Point was included in the Thames Gateway regeneration project, making it a regeneration area. As such, last summer, its name shone out of a Government document stating that the Government wished to examine the potential for improved access to Canvey island.
All that is very relevant. Traditionally, we have been a low-employment area. I am sure that hon. Members will agree that our long-term objective must be to ensure the creation of more quality jobs within the borough to help to mitigate the effects of excessive out-commuting, which has become so necessary in the post-war period as the community of Castle Point has built up.
It is therefore essential that the journeys that people have to make by train should be comfortable, pleasant and reliable. Sadly, that has not been the case. Traditionally— 879 even in the good old days of British Rail—the line between Southend and Fenchurch Street has been known as the misery line.
§ Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problems with the service extend throughout the whole length of the line? As a regular commuter and traveller on the line, I can confirm that the trains are drafty, unclean and, frankly, bone-shaking. Recently, I was talking to two county councillors who represent areas surrounding Laindon station, which is a slow train stopping station. They told me that when the trains are being difficult, the fast trains continue to be fast but the slow trains do not stop at all. The result is that there are no trains at all at Laindon station. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a misjudgment by management of how to run a proper service?
§ Mrs. Butler
Not only I, but very many of my constituents would have some sympathy with that view. In recent months, when they have seen the so-called new rolling stock coming toward the station platform, they have simply groaned because they know that the new trains simply do not work and would cause further delay to their journey. A young man from my constituency works the early shift in one of the cafeterias in Portcullis House and tries to catch a train at 5.30 am. Sometimes, however, he has been two hours late for work. Hon. Members will appreciate how such a difficult situation could impinge not only on people's work, but on their entire life. Although one would think that people welcomed the new trains, they do not.
I hear now that Adtranz is being tasked with putting these matters back in order. I have, however, collected some interesting information from various people. I thought I would give the railway travellers association—of which I am privileged to be honorary president—and C2C, which is the company itself, Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority a chance to have a say on the various issues. Among the papers is a curious picture of a train being tested in Czechoslovakia. Although I believe that it was a one-off situation, I hear that there was not scope within the United Kingdom to do justice to the required testing arrangements. In fact it is all very curious. I cannot but think that there is more to it, and that the new company, C2C, could have moved matters along in a more timely fashion. It is a subsidiary of the great National Express group, and I had thought that the company would bring more investment promise to the problem than did the previous franchisee, Prism Rail.
I have been on horrendous journeys on the old slam-door trains. In the middle of winter, one could not close windows that had fallen down. On other occasions, carriages have been locked because of incidents in which they have separated while in motion.
I have asked Railtrack and C2C for their views on breakdowns and similar matters. At this very late hour, I shall not go through all the responses. However, according to C2C, the major problems are to do with overhead signalling and circuits, while Railtrack has admitted that a lot of broken rails remain. It claims that the trend is decreasing: where two or three years ago there were 18 broken rails, this year there were only 11, but I suggest that that is 11 too many. 880 I have been offered reasons for the problems that my constituents encounter, but I cannot accept that the answers are good enough. The problems have lasted for decades. When the railways were privatised, Conservative Members jumped up and down with glee, saying that everything would be fine tomorrow. It has not been fine. We have had promises, but tomorrow never comes.
The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is the Opposition spokesman on transport matters. He is not present, but he has put the problem down to the Government, saying that the people involved are not able to manage a fragmented service. I thought that that was rather amusing. If I may use the expression, I am pleased that the Government are trying to get matters back on track.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is working on the matter, but I hope that he succeeds in getting on to the train manufacturers and in pinning the Strategic Rail Authority down to some specific date after which penalties will be imposed. However, I fear that Adtranz has run out of the penalty area and so cannot be penalised. I hope that the Government will contact the SRA on this issue. It would be a very poor do if that cannot be done.
Moreover, the problem of overcrowding on trains now represents a very sad state of affairs. Excuses have been offered, such as overloading as a result of the Hatfield crash, but that was only temporary. Undercapacity and overcrowding have amounted to a continual nightmare. People should not have to buy full-price tickets for standing all the way to Fenchurch street station. They often return at night, very weary, on dirty and overcrowded trains, when they have to stand all over again.
I hope that the criteria on which the contract with the present company stands might be reconsidered. I understand that that might be difficult, but there is no absolute deadline for improvement and the matter could be dealt with by the SRA. The authority was somewhat hesitant about telling me what was being done to monitor the situation on the line and about setting out its abilities in regard to enforcement. I am worried by the fact that the enforcement powers are limited. I want the authority to get its teeth into the problem and bite on it harder.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Mrs. Butler) on securing the debate and providing a further opportunity for the House to discuss C2C rail services. I was grateful for my hon. Friend's apology to me at the beginning of her speech, but let me assure her that there is nowhere else I would rather have been this evening than here, anticipating this debate.
I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) for his contribution. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) in her place. I know that she and her constituents share many of the concerns that have been expressed by my hon Friend the Member for Castle Point.
As my hon. Friend's comments clearly portrayed, C2C's performance over the past year has been far from satisfactory. The House will know from my comments in two very recent debates that C2C escaped the widespread disruption suffered by other train operators following the 881 emergency speed restrictions imposed by Railtrack post-Hatfield. However, C2C's performance has been badly affected by problems of its own, notably problems with the introduction of new rolling stock. Unfortunately, owing to problems with software and faulty electrics, only 12 of the 44 new units have been operational at any one time. Considering that these trains should have been in service in November 1999, that is a lamentable and unacceptable record.
The new stock has been withdrawn from service until Adtranz rectifies the problems. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes C2C's decision to set Adtranz a benchmark quality target for the new trains. As a result, the trains will not enter into full service until they can clock up 10,000 miles between significant malfunctions or breakdowns.
Understandably, passengers who were looking forward to travelling in comfort on brand-new trains are unhappy about the return of older-style trains It is clear that the replacement trains do not offer the same levels of comfort and, because of their age, they come with their own reliability problems. Unfortunately, C2C was left with no choice but to replace the faulty new stock until Adtranz could demonstrate its reliability.
A further two new units are now to be procured in this first delivery of new stock, and a second tranche of 26 units must be delivered and in service by 30 June 2002. This will see the complete replacement of C2C's remaining slam-door stock and offer some recompense to passengers for the disruption that they have had to endure.
Let me say a word about fare levels on C2C. The autumn 2000 national passenger survey found that only 33 per cent. of passengers thought that C2C offered value for money. So I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents welcomed the Strategic Rail Authority's decision to cap C2C's regulated fares increases to an average of 0.3 per cent. as a result of the poor performance over the year to July 2000—a fall of 3 per cent. in real terms.
I was pleased that C2C chose to reduce many fares in January. For instance, the cheap day return from Benfleet to Chafford Hundred was reduced by 27 per cent. from £5.40 to £3.90, and the standard return from Benfleet to London was reduced by 90p.
It is easy enough to criticise train operators—as, indeed, I have done in this and the previous two debates on C2C. However, I firmly believe that it is only right that we applaud train operators when they offer initiatives that are firmly in passengers' interests.
I know that my hon. Friend has serious concerns about Benfleet, the only rail station in her Castle Point constituency. Benfleet is classed as one of C2C's core stations, and I am pleased that it has been accredited with secure station status, along with more than 20 of C2C's other stations. The scheme—a joint initiative between my Department, the Strategic Rail Authority and the British Transport police—awards accreditation to stations that reach specified standards in design and management and demonstrate reductions in the crime level and in passengers' perception of crime.
I was also pleased to learn that since C2C—or LTS Rail, as it was previously known—took over the franchise, Benfleet has been fitted with cycle racks, a tactile map for the visually impaired and a disabled toilet with baby changing facilities. Those are all welcome 882 improvements and I hope that the provision of such facilities will be considered at other stations in the network.
My hon. Friend also has concerns about the need for improved rail links to her constituency. Local authorities are responsible for planning transport in their areas. If there is a demand for a new station—for example, a rail link to Canvey island—it will be for Essex county council to approach Railtrack and C2C in the first instance.
We have made additional funds available to the SRA to support non-commercial schemes that are consistent with our integrated transport policy and can represent value for money. Sponsors of schemes can apply to the SRA for rail passenger partnership—RPP—funding; bidding guidance has been sent to all local authorities. The SRA will assess proposals against planning criteria that have been approved by Ministers. A new station or link could possibly qualify for RPP funding if the SRA judged that it met the necessary criteria.
My hon. Friend has concerns about bus services to Benfleet and Pitsea stations. I understand that a number of services are already provided in the Benfleet and Pitsea area, although I accept that there will always be scope for improvements. I hope that some of the initiatives that I have mentioned previously will help to bring any necessary improvements to the services in the area.
More generally, my hon. Friend will recall that I visited her in Canvey island last year, when she emphasised to me, in no uncertain terms, the importance attached by local people to the need for improvements to transport access to the area. We have considered carefully the proposals in the local transport plan for Essex, including two schemes aimed at improving access to Canvey island. One of the proposals was a high-quality bus link to improve transport from Canvey island to rail stations in the surrounding area.
My hon. Friend will also be aware from our earlier contacts on the matter that, at the time of the local transport capital settlement last December, we did not have sufficient information to form a view on both schemes. We are keen, however, to work with Essex county council to assist it in completing the necessary work for the schemes to be evaluated against our criteria, in time for a decision to be made next December.
We hope that the necessary work can be completed by July this year and a revised bid re-submitted, along with the local transport plan annual progress report, for a decision to be possible in the next local transport plan.
In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend is encouraged by the plans that lie ahead for rail services in her constituency. Our plans to deliver a high-quality rail network that can play a full part in a truly integrated transport system will require substantial investment and coherent strategic direction over the next 10 years.
In our 10-year transport plan, we announced £60 billion for the railways—the largest rail spending programme for more than a century. We still have some way to go before we can deliver our vision, but we are determined to work with the rail industry and others to turn our vision into reality.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Three o'clock.