HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc702-5
3. Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough)

What action he will take about the causes and effects of overcrowding on trains. [93531]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

As I said a moment ago, the directions that I issued to the SRA require it to work to a range of objectives, which include tackling overcrowding.

Mrs. Clark

I am grateful for that reply. However, the question arose from my personal experience after Christmas of travelling from Leicester to Peterborough about which I wrote to my right hon. Friend. There were long delays and appalling overcrowding, and pensioners and children were sitting on the floor in the train. That occurs frequently on that line, because of the inability of Birmingham New Street station to cope with the increase in Virgin trains. Thankfully, I had to experience that only once, but it affects some of my constituents in Peterborough daily. What does my right hon. Friend intend to do about it, and when?

Mr. Darling

On the last point, as I have just said, and as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport said, there are problems at Birmingham. The SRA decided to reduce some of the services going through that station to ensure greater reliability and punctuality of services. Part of the reason for the overcrowding is that train services are not reliable and are not running on time, so they get busier and busier. The Virgin cross-country route, to which my hon. Friend referred, is one of the routes on which there will be a reduction in some services. That will allow the size of trains to be increased from four carriages to eight, which will help with overcrowding. In addition, some 4,000 new railway carriages have been ordered; there are about 1,500 in service.

The SRA study into the way in which the line is used, will improve reliability and punctuality, and changes will be made in relation to the London stations. There will be one operator at most stations, rather than several, which will allow trains to get in and out of stations more quickly. All these steps, together with the upgrades of the west coast main line, the channel tunnel rail link and other measures, will help, but I agree with my hon. Friend that for people to stand for long periods in trains is unnecessary and unacceptable, which is why we are determined to do something about it. It is interesting that the Conservatives never make any constructive suggestions to help that process. We are taking the measures that I described. Some of them are difficult, but they will make a difference.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Is the Secretary of State aware that more than 3,000 residents of Canvey island travel by train each day using Benfleet station, where they find that the trains are often overcrowded when they arrive at the station? Is it time that we seriously considered providing a terminus station on Canvey island, so that we can cut train overcrowding and road congestion?

Mr. Darling

I cannot answer that specific question. It would be unwise for me to commit myself to building a new terminus without having considered all the implications. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the continued increased rate of investment going into the railways, which will mean more trains, improved rolling stock, and the management changes that the SRA is making in relation to franchising and the use of the network, will gradually mean better reliability and punctuality and reduce overcrowding. In relation to a number of London lines, measures are already in place to make sure that overcrowding is tackled. It will take time. There is no doubt that the railways have been through a difficult time over the past few years, as I think even the hon. Gentleman's party has acknowledged, but I am confident that the SRA is taking the right steps gradually to deal with two problems: a legacy of underinvestment, and the fact that some 20 per cent. more people are using the railways, which is a good thing, although the industry has been too slow and hitherto has not been properly managed to make sure that we can deal with the increased use. That is now in hand.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the crazy situation affecting Virgin trains at Wakefield station, where passengers are allowed to alight from the train, but not to board it? That means that passengers have to travel to Leeds to catch a train to go through Wakefield, which is causing congestion and extra traffic into Leeds. Will my right hon. Friend take it upon himself to try to rectify that barmy situation, whereby people can get off a train, but cannot get on the train at the same station? It is just crazy.

Mr. Darling

I have some sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. I heard on the radio the other day a man giving what I would regard as a not wholly convincing answer as to why that was being done. If a train stops at a station, passengers have a reasonable expectation that they can get on or off. Not only can I give him the undertaking that he seeks, but I am already on that case.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Secretary of State will recall the number of occasions on which his Government have made the same commitment to reduce overcrowding. They did so in October 2001, when in paragraph 44 of their response to the Select Committee's report on rail investment, they stated: On commuter services, the priorities will be reductions in overcrowding and better reliability. How does he square that commitment, which has been made repeatedly, with the Strategic Rail Authority's announcement that it is going to cancel 100 trains a day?

Mr. Darling

Let me explain yet again to the hon. Lady what the problem is. There are parts of the network where too many trains are running along the available track. The problem is acute in Birmingham, as has been said. Anyone who considers the railway for a moment will see that the difficulty is that, without a reduction in the number of services, that problem would be exacerbated.

Perhaps it would help the hon. Lady if I gave her an example of the sort of problem with which we are dealing. On one service, an average of six passengers were using a train that was built to carry 140 people. Surely, if taking that train out of service allows more trains to run more reliably, that is the right thing to do. Let me give her another Birmingham example. From October last year, as a response to the Virgin cross-country service, Central trains increased the number of services that it was running from two trains an hour to five. The result was congestion, as the trains simply could not get into the station. The SRA has reduced the number to four trains an hour, so the number of services has increased on the original number, but there is better management.

No matter what Government are in power, the railways need to be managed properly. Indeed, it is an indictment of the Government whom the hon. Lady supported in the past that they did not manage the railways properly. What the SRA has announced is essential to ensure better reliability and punctuality. I am very sorry that she cannot see that.