HC Deb 28 January 2003 vol 398 cc701-2
2. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

What recent assessment he has made of the (a) reliability and (b) punctuality of commuter train services to Birmingham; and if he will make a statement. [93530]

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

The Secretary of State's directions and guidance to the Strategic Rail Authority require it to work to a range of objectives, including reliability, punctuality, and overcrowding. Rail performance has improved slowly over the past 18 months, but remains well below what passengers have the right to expect. Our priority is therefore to secure significant improvement in rail performance. The SRA has announced measures that are expected to improve reliability and punctuality throughout the country, including Birmingham.

Mr. Luff

Nothing in the Secretary of State's reply suggested that he really understands just how serious the situation is for Birmingham's commuter services. For schoolchildren, business users, leisure users and the disabled, every journey is like a bad dream, and too many are like a nightmare, and they are getting worse, not better. Even the information that is provided on station platforms is inadequate—never mind overcrowding, punctuality and reliability. Will he throw his weight behind the campaign for a Worcester Parkway station, which would increase capacity on services to Birmingham, and will he do all that he can to ensure that Central train services from places such as Droitwich Spa become decent train services, not the journeys from hell that they are at present?

Mr. Darling

I will certainly look at that proposal, but, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport said a moment ago, the SRA announced changes to services, including the reduction of some 100 services out of 17,000 a clay, in order to improve the reliability and punctuality of services.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Birmingham. Just before Christmas, I visited the station at Birmingham, and I can appreciate the problems that are occurring. In the past, Railtrack oversold the amount of track that it had. There are too many trains trying to get through Birmingham New Street, in particular, which has seriously affected congestion and punctuality. That is why the SRA took the very sensible steps to take out some services—as I say, it is only 100 out of 17,000 a day—which will help.

As regards information, the hon. Gentleman has a good point. As I told the industry last week, it could tell people a lot more a lot sooner than it does. There seems to be a kind of cultural malaise that has prevailed for many years. There is no reason why train operators cannot be more straightforward with people wishing to travel, and if there is a problem, they should tell them about it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

In addition to improving punctuality and reliability, will my right hon. Friend accept that an important contribution to improving commuter trains to Birmingham generally would be an expansion of park-and-ride facilities? Discussions are going on at the moment about the creation of a station at Birmingham Great Park in my constituency and about the great need for park-and-ride at Longbridge station. Will he look into that to ensure that those plans are expedited?

Mr. Darling

Park-and-ride schemes are an extremely useful way of encouraging more people to use public transport—trains, as well as buses—and I shall certainly consider that. It is also worth noting that when the west coast main line upgrading is finished, that will improve capacity on services going to Birmingham and improve signalling and reliability.

All these measures—including the management measures taken by the SRA and the new investment going into the west coast main line—will improve reliability. As I said a few moments ago, there is no doubt that although there have been improvements, we still have a long way to go before train services improve to the standard that people rightly expect.