HC Deb 12 February 2002 vol 380 cc181-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

10.14 pm
Mr. John Horam (Orpington)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about rail services in Bromley and to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who is in the Chamber because she is as concerned about those rail services as I am. I tell the Minister, who is listening with his usual assiduity, that many thousands of people commute daily from stations such as Orpington, Petts Wood, Chelsfield and St. Mary Cray, in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend. Those people make a massive contribution to London's economy, which now represents one fifth of the United Kingdom's entire economy.

Some 21 per cent. of our national income comes from London, and my constituents make a huge contribution to that. Indeed, the public revenues, which the Minister is here to represent on this occasion, receive a net contribution of £13 billion to £23 billion, depending on how it is calculated, from London, to which my commuting constituents make a solid contribution. I could say of them what John Milton, one of our great English poets, said in addressing Parliament: Lords and Commons of England—Consider what nation it is whereof you are and of which you are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of quick, ingenious and piercing spirit; acute to invent, subtile and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point that human capacity can soar to. Such are my constituents—they are the very backbone of our economy and nation in my view and in that of many others. As they commute in and out of our great metropolis, they deserve a good commuter rail service, but the fact is that they are not getting that service today.

I have raised this issue continually, as the Minister is well aware because he has replied to at least two of those debates. In this Session, I have raised it time and again. I referred to the commuting problems of my constituents on 26 June in the debate on the Loyal Address. I raised the issue in Westminster Hall in the debate on transport in the south-east, which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I did so again in the debate on Railtrack initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on 13 November, and in the Christmas Adjournment debate on 19 December, and I also asked a question when the Transport Secretary introduced his strategic rail plan on 14 January. The Select Committee on Environmental Audit, of which I have the privilege to be the Chairman, also had the interesting experience of cross-questioning the Secretary of State.

I have raised the issue on several occasions in the House because it is a daily problem for my constituents, and I am very concerned about their daily problems. In addition, in December, with the help of my friends in the Orpington Conservative association, I stood outside the four stations—not all at once, obviously—in my constituency and handed out questionnaires, which my constituents were happy enough to fill in. I have here the responses, or at least a proportion of them, and I should be happy to pass them to the Minister if he would like to look at them.

I am a one-man focus group so far as the Minister is concerned. I can tell him that a great deal of pain is expressed in those pages; they contain my constituents' honest comments on the rail service that they receive. Their main complaint is overcrowding, closely followed by punctuality—perhaps I should rephrase that as delays or non-punctuality—further followed by the fact that there are few late-night trains and by the lack of disabled access. However, there was very little criticism of the staff. Both the station staff and the train staff were universally praised for the concerns that they have shown. The staff should be praised, because it is not their fault that the train services are bad.

I took all the information to Mr. Olivier Brousse, the managing director of Connex South Eastern. We had a useful conversation and I formed a favourable impression of his managerial capacities. I also gained the impression that he was doing his best to provide a good rail service to commuters in my constituency but that he needed the proper support. Subsequent to that meeting, Mr. Brousse's chief of staff wrote to me to say: Thank you for taking the time to meet Olivier last week to discuss the Connex rail network. The letter confirmed: Your recent passenger survey reflects the concerns of our passengers across the south-east and I am grateful to you for detailing the most common complaints. My remarks are therefore reinforced by the views of the managing director of the rail company providing the service to my constituents.

As the House knows, the Government have regrettably ceased to publish figures for the punctuality of train services and will not do so until March. I do not quite know why that it is—

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

We do know.

Mr. Horam

Well, we suspect that we know even if we have yet to receive a formal explanation.

The Government reckoned without the assiduity of the shadow Minister for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). He invoked the passengers charter, which says that train companies must publish monthly their figures for punctuality, and he has put together the figures. They show that, since Railtrack was put into administration in September, delays on the south-east Kent link line have increased by 47 per cent. and that delays on the south-east Kent coast line have increased by 58 per cent. That represents a huge collapse in punctuality since Railtrack was taken into administration. Mr. Brousse also told me that the number of seats lost per day has risen from 24,000 to 100,000, and that fact further explains the overcrowding on the service.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

I am listening to my hon. Friend carefully, because his experience mirrors mine. However, there are only four railway stations in his constituency whereas there are 13 in mine.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the simplest solutions to overcrowding would be to lengthen the trains? To lengthen the trains, it is necessary to lengthen the platforms, but the Government's takeover and renationalisation of Railtrack means that there is little chance of being able to carry out the development that will lengthen the platforms and help to relieve the problem of overcrowding.

Mr. Horam

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I shall come to that exact point and direct questions to the Minister that I hope he will be able to answer.

Apart from the ongoing problem of overcrowding that my hon. Friend and I have mentioned, there has been a disastrous collapse in punctuality following the events of September. The managing director of Connex South Eastern was quite plain about the causes of that. He said that it resulted from the collapse of morale of Railtrack staff that had followed the Government's decisions. The staff simply do not know what sort of company they are working for. Decisions are being delayed, so they do not know what sort of company they will work for. They do not know whether it will be a German company, a private company or a Government-sponsored company. They are in a state of confusion and that obviously affects their morale.

Although things have been better since Christmas, the improvement is fragile. I share the opinion of the managing director of Connex South Eastern that if the Railtrack problem is not resolved inside six months there is a danger of losing key staff and the situation will spiral further downwards. When will Railtrack come out of administration? When will we have some certainty about its future? The Minister will recall that the Secretary of State said on "Breakfast with Frost" that that will take just over six months, but it has already been nearly six months. Are the Government talking about another six months? Will it happen this autumn?

The Minister may also be aware of the power supply problem. We have had the wrong leaves and the wrong snow; we now have the wrong power. The new 375 trains are too powerful for the electric current that is used on the south-eastern track. They are coming into service in the next few months and cannot be used except in "a degraded form", to quote the managing director. They will have to go much more slowly so that they do not overload the power system, which means that punctuality will again be unsatisfactory. When will that problem be resolved?

Overcrowding, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham referred, is also a problem. The phrase "cattle-truck commuting" has been used to describe how people are so squashed into carriages that they have less room than many animals do when we transport them around the country. As a consequence, we have the phenomenon of rail rage. The House may not be familiar with that term, although we have all heard of road rage. I have witnessed rail rage at Charing Cross station in the evening when too many people are trying to get on to a train. Inevitably, the unsatisfactory rail service puts pressure on people, forces them into disputes and causes friction and anger. The Government must pay attention to that.

As my hon. Friend said, the solution in the medium term is to lengthen platforms and re-site signal boxes so that instead of the usual four-car or six-car trains, 12-car trains can be used to carry more people, especially during peak travelling times. I have a copy of the shortened version of the strategic plan, which is beautifully presented. It contains the commitment that by 2005 most of the 11,000 platforms throughout the country will be lengthened and the problem will be addressed. Will all the stations on the Connex lines—the Kent link and the Kent coast line—that serve Bromley be lengthened so that we have 12-car trains to tackle the problem of overcrowding? Will that be resolved by 2005?

Mrs. Lait

Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that no Liberal Democrats are present to listen to his clear exposition of the problems that commuters face in Bromley?

Mr. Horam

This is a matter on which we could have a measure of cross-party agreement. The Minister is here, and I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). His constituency is far from Bromley, but he is still interested in these matters. It is disappointing that there are no Liberal Democrat Members present, and in view of what they have said in the past it is rather surprising.

I should like an answer to the crucial question of whether platforms at all the stations along the line from Orpington, Beckenham, St. Mary Cray and Chelsfield will be lengthened so that they can take trains long enough to resolve the problem of overcrowding.

It has been suggested that the toilets and seats should be removed from coaches to cram in more people. That is a desperate measure, and it would be a move backwards, not forwards, if people could not even get a seat on the train or go to the toilet. I hope that the Minister will comment on that. From Orpington, it may take 25 or 30 minutes to get to central London, so there must be no question of removing the seats and toilets from those trains. What, then, is being suggested? Are we talking only about very short journeys, of perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, in which case the train is more like a tube train and it may be acceptable to have no seats or toilets?

On my final point, safety, I shall be brief, as I want to give the Minister time to reply fully on this important matter. Like Conservative Members, he knows that the railways have a history of being very safe; and they remain so. Whether nationalised or privatised, the railways are the safest mode of transport, although the issue of safety was not well handled by the Deputy Prime Minister when he was in charge of these matters, or by the Government as a whole. There are still worries about safety, particularly in overcrowded trains such as those from Bromley and Orpington. People wonder, "What if something goes wrong while I am packed into this train like a sardine?"

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham may know that there was a derailment at Beckenham junction only 10 days ago. There were two serious incidents of signals passed at danger near Orpington in which, fortunately, no one was killed or seriously injured, and there was a fire on a train from Orpington to central London. I understand from the strategic plan that the train protection and warning system will be in place by 2003. Does that mean that all the trains coming from Bromley and Orpington will have the TPWS installed by the end of next year, so that the sort of accidents that occurred last year and continue this year will no longer be possible?

I invite the Minister to remember my initial remarks, which were that this debate concerns the most important people—the backbone of this country's economy—who come from Bromley every day to run London's economy. They deserve, and are certainly sorely in need of, a sensible and comfortable daily commute in and out of London.

10.34 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) on securing this debate. He noted my assiduity in listening to him, which I always do, and I noted his assiduity in raising this matter in the House on so many occasions.

I was sorry that the tone of the debate was somewhat lowered by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I believe that the Speaker's guidelines are that no reference should be made to Members of other parties who may or may not be in the Chamber during half-hour debates. Perhaps the hon. Lady should refresh her memory in that respect. She also mentioned the renationalisation of Railtrack, and some may harbour an ambition to do that, but I am sorry to disappoint her: Railtrack is in administration and will come out of administration when that is what the administrator advises.

I am aware of the contribution made by the people of south-east England to our economy. The hon. Member for Orpington said that they were the most important; some might differ from him on that point, but I shall not engage him on it tonight. We recognise the importance to our economy of the south-east and those who travel daily to work. I hope he will note that I have the good grace to admit there are transport problems—he described them as a daily problem for his constituents. In return, he might have the good grace to admit that those problems did not start on 1 May 1997.

I have little time to respond to the debate, but let me first address the current performance of Connex South Eastern, which provides the service to and from Bromley North and Bromley South. The latest figures published by the Strategic Rail Authority for the period 1 April 2001 to 13 October 2001 show that 83.9 per cent. of Connex South Eastern services arrived within five minutes of their scheduled arrival time. Since those statistics were published, I understand from the SRA that performance has deteriorated, mainly due to adverse weather conditions and a consequential increase in infrastructure and train failures. The hon. Gentleman cited the figures for recent months, but I am sure that if he looks back over many years, he will see that performance figures tend to deteriorate at this time of year, and generally pick up as the weather improves.

Connex is well aware that improvements are necessary. On 10 January, it launched a new performance drive—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with it. Called "Over 90", it is aimed at achieving more than 90 per cent. peak punctuality. I understand the current results are encouraging.

The plan for the future of the railway published on 14 January by the SRA identifies priorities for improving Britain's rail network to ensure that the Government's growth targets are met. The plan outlines how improvements for passengers and freight customers will be delivered in the medium and short term, and also sets out our long-term ideas for the next decade.

Although rail traffic has grown substantially since privatisation, which requires extra trains, the existing infrastructure has sometimes failed to match network capacity, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. That has inevitably led to operating difficulties and poor perception of our railways. However, there is no question but that Britain's railways have a key role to play in the economy, in reducing road congestion, in offering a safe form of travel, in protecting the environment, and in safeguarding health and promoting social inclusion.

London and the south-east will benefit vastly from the strategic plan, as travel to and from London is the major source of demand for passenger rail travel: 70 per cent. of journeys nationally are made on the London and south-east network. The London and south-east area suffers from the worst overcrowding: the numbers passing daily through the main London terminals are now at an historic high. Measures will be taken to tackle overcrowding on all 10 London train operating companies. That may require longer trains, longer platforms and increased track capacity.

Early developments on the Connex South Eastern franchise will ensure the introduction of 210 vehicles of new class 375 rolling stock by 2002; I will say more about that shortly, if there is time. The company will also invest £40.5 million in rolling stock reliability improvements for class 465, 466 and 508 trains. Connex South Eastern has 145 stations eligible for upgraded facilities under the incremental output statements scheme described in the strategic plan, with which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is familiar. The works are due to be completed by the end of 2004 and could include facilities such as waiting rooms, toilets, security and information systems.

Significant capacity will be freed on the existing network in 2007, when the channel tunnel rail link is planned to open. It will offer fast domestic services from Kent, with new trains, and will contribute to a major reduction in overcrowding, as well as reducing the number of Eurostar trains running through Orpington from 2003 and through Bromley from 2007. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that as an improvement.

In common with other train operating companies, Connex is required to remove all mark 1, slam-door rolling stock from service by 31 December 2004. The obligation to replace this stock is contained within its current franchise agreement.

Connex has 55 new trains, which are currently undergoing tests and modifications, which must be completed before they can go into passenger service.

The hon. Gentleman talked about power supply. The Strategic Rail Authority is leading a cross-industry team that is charged with overseeing the programme for replacing the slam-door trains in the Southern region and ensuring that the future electric power and infrastructure improvements are capable of meeting both the 2004 deadline for replacement and longer-term needs. I am assured that currently there are no vehicles sitting idle because of power supply problems. I am sure that that will be good news for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Horam

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jamieson

I will give way, but I will be inhibited from responding to some of his other points.

Mr. Horam

Does what the Minister says mean that the power supply problem will be solved by the end of 2004?

Mr. Jamieson

I am saying that the power supply problems, as they exist, will be addressed by that time. It is hoped and anticipated that the problems will be dealt with in that time. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is difficult to make an assessment because the amount of power required for the new units and how many will come into commission by that time are matters for the company. Another factor is delivery from the rolling stock companies. As I have said, that would certainly be our ambition.

The Strategic Rail Authority has funded a number of workstreams aimed at identifying the enhancements to the network that might be necessary. Last month it agreed funding for the establishment of a dedicated project team within Railtrack charged with continuing this work, and putting a plan together to resource and deliver it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the strategic plan objective for Connex to extend platforms to accommodate 12-car trains to increase capacity and reduce overcrowding. Extended platforms on the Dartford via Bexleyheath and Sidcup routes will be included in the Thameslink 2000 project while extending platforms on the Gillingham and Dartford via Greenwich route is also proposed in the strategic plan. I hope that that is also good news for the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman was also concerned that Railtrack in administration may be affecting morale and subsequent performance. Railtrack was a company that failed. It had massive cost overruns, and in the end it was incapable of delivering the improvements that we and its customers had every right to see. I hope to see Railtrack come out of administration quickly, but the length of administration is set by the administrator, who has duties both to its railway and to the shareholders of Railtrack plc, and to is creditors. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares the Government's objective that the process can be completed as quickly as possible.

It is not surprising that uncertainty has affected Railtrack staff since the company went into administration, but the Government remain committed to providing £30 billion of support to the railways over the 10-year plan. Railtrack being taken into administration has not altered that commitment one jot. I am sure that that will be good news to the hon. Gentleman.

We now have an opportunity to meet the ambition that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents have to create and operate a better railway system. It will be for the administrator to make recommendations to Ministers on the most appropriate structure for Railtrack to emerge from administration.

This has been a short but useful debate. Sadly, I have not had the time to cover all the points made by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Beckenham—

The motion having been made after Ten 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 sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.