Rail Services (Maidenhead and Twyford)

– in the House of Commons at 11:01 pm on 7th February 2005.

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

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Secretary of State for the Family 11:05 pm, 7th February 2005

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce a subject that is of deep concern to my constituents and others who use the major train stations of Maidenhead and Twyford and the branch line stations of Cookham, Furze Platt and Wargrave in my constituency. I said that it was a matter of great concern to my constituents but it also causes them considerable disquiet and—dare I say it—distress because of the impact that the introduction of the new timetable in December 2004 has had on the services and their lives. I shall explain that to the Minister shortly.

It is sad to have to introduce this subject. For many years, my constituents and others who use the stations have benefited from a good rail service. Many fast and semi-fast services to and from Paddington were, by and large, reliable. I shall not pretend that they were perfect. At times, passengers experienced delays and frustrations. However, the rail service was good, yet, in the past couple of months, it has deteriorated significantly. The previous service was run by Thames Trains, which was, paradoxically, one of the few train operating companies that did not require a public subsidy. First Great Western is in a rather different position.

A year ago, there was a good service. Today, the picture is different: significant delays, longer journeys, fewer trains, fewer fast and semi-fast services, fewer carriages and significant, if not dangerous overcrowding in peak hours. That applies not only to my constituents who travel from Maidenhead and Twyford to Paddington, or, indeed, Reading, but to those who travel from London to Maidenhead to work. It is not only my constituents who suffer. The subject also exercises my hon. Friend Mr. Johnson and, as I know from an earlier conversation with her, Fiona Mactaggart. There are fewer services to Slough and the journeys are taking longer. I understand that, when the hon. Member for Slough was at the station this morning, commuters were keen to make their points to her about the serious problems that they were suffering. I had the same experience at stations in my constituency. Commuters were angry, frustrated and wanted to ensure that their view was being presented because of the sharp deterioration in the service that they have suffered in recent months.

I shall not read out all of the nearly 700 e-mails that I have received about the train services to Maidenhead and Twyford, but I shall quote just a few, to show the Minister the strength of feeling on this issue. Anu Shama wrote in an e-mail to First Great Western:

"The bottom line is, we are suffering every day . . . our previous Thames Trains service was extremely reliable and I had no issues with them for the last 6–7 years. Your management team has ruined a perfectly run train service".

Mark Knight wrote:

"I have lived in Maidenhead for 20 years and this is the worst service I can remember in all that time."

Julian Thurston, from Twyford, wrote:

"The service now is without a shadow of doubt many times worse than any previous service since I started commuting 20 years ago."

Sue Cox commented:

"I used to enjoy travelling to London from Maidenhead on the train, but not any more— what happened? First Great Western took over the franchise!"

I mentioned overcrowding. In an e-mail to First Great Western, Sylvie Nobes describes how, on 3 February, there was

"standing room only on leaving Maidenhead, cattle-truck conditions from Slough onwards. Desperate customers fight to board train at Southall. I remain bitterly disappointed and stressed at the current level of service you are offering customers from Maidenhead and Slough."

Nicholas Edwards has commented:

"It simply cannot be right that so many people are expected to stand on these trains. It cannot be safe."

The train delays and the new timetable are having a real impact on people's lives. They find that they are constantly late for work, for example. My constituent, Thalia Kenton, has described the problems of those who are trying to deal with child care and suffering from the train services at the same time. She explained:

"I am a working mother who rushes daily to work from 09.15–16.30 in London and my timings are key as my children are in nursery and cannot be dropped any earlier than 08.00 or fetched any later than 18.00."

She talked about having to catch the 08.39 train, which gets in 15 minutes later than the previous train used to:

"Fifteen minutes is an age in the life of any commuter, but for one in my position, working set, reduced hours who has no option to stay later or come in later it is nothing short of a disaster."

It is not only individuals who are suffering. Businesses are suffering, too. Macrovision, a business in my constituency, wrote to First Great Western to say:

"I do not believe that First Great Western Link has adequately considered the impact of this timetable change, as it is hugely important for the economy of Maidenhead and to the people who live and work there."

Hutchison 3G, which now employs some 1,400 people on its site in Maidenhead, deliberately sited its building close to the railway station so that it could support the sustainability agenda by encouraging people to use public transport. It says:

"One of the key factors in locating our offices in Maidenhead were the excellent train links that this provided for our employees, many of whom live in London, and for our business associates who regularly travel to Maidenhead for meetings . . . The effects of this change will make retention of our London based employees more difficult and increase the amount of time taken for our employees and business associates to travel to and from meetings and their homes."

Thames Valley chamber of commerce describes

"the slow stopping train, akin to the milk train service, creating the image of a sleepy backwater town", and says that

"the effect on Maidenhead's economy, and that of the Thames Valley, will be weakened by new businesses thinking twice of relocating due to its worsening rail links in and out of London."

Why has all this come about? It cannot be that very few people use these services. Indeed, in response to a question that I put to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, Mr. McNulty, he replied on 19 January that, in the nine months from April to December last year, there were more than 2,300,000 passenger journeys to and from Maidenhead, and more than 760,000 passenger journeys to and from Twyford. No, the Strategic Rail Authority made a decision to merge the franchises of First Great Western and Thames Trains into a single franchise, to put the emphasis on increasing the punctuality of long-distance services, and to move the commuter services from Maidenhead and Twyford from the fast line to the slow line. This has resulted in the creation of a timetable that has reduced the number of fast and semi-fast services to and from Paddington, and many journeys are now significantly slower than they used to be.

First Great Western Link, in its response to many people on this issue, is very clear about the role of the Strategic Rail Authority in this decision. It stated that any train operator bidding for the franchise would have had to deliver the same objectives. These included:

"To implement a timetable that would address overcrowding issues"— something of an irony, given that the overcrowding has now increased as a result of the timetable changes—and

"To reduce the number of services running in this area, (although at the same time increasing capacity on the remaining services). This is in line with the Strategic Rail Authority's view that less trains on this congested network would increase punctuality."

I have to tell the Minister that having fewer trains on this network has not increased punctuality; it has severely reduced punctuality. There are significant delays for passengers, and, moreover, longer journey times have been created. The Strategic Rail Authority's decision has not had the impact that it was intended to have.

First Great Western and, at the time when it announced the timetable changes, the Strategic Rail Authority, seem to have had a rather different opinion. It is very galling for my constituents to suffer such a deterioration in rail service while hearing on local radio, and seeing in advertisements and flyers from First Great Western, that the service is of benefit to customers and has improved. In December 2003, when the Strategic Rail Authority announced the timetable changes, it headed the announcement "Franchise Decision Means Big Improvements". It then listed a number of improvements that were all to services for Reading and the west.

Right at the end, the announcement said

"The new timetable means some increases in peak journey times on trains between London and Slough, Maidenhead and Twyford".

Some increases in peak journey times, indeed. It means that the service is now not providing those semi-fast services through to Paddington, but is causing considerable difficulty to commuters who—as I said earlier—are late for appointments and meetings, unable to juggle their child-care arrangements with their travelling arrangements, and suffering not only a severely reduced service but a very unpleasant experience on many trains owing to the present overcrowding.

Sadly, the Government have also taken the view that there is overall benefit in the new timetable. When I asked the Minister of State what response the Department for Transport had made to representations regarding the timetable changes, he replied

"The Department's response to representations related to the December 2004 timetable changes is that they deliver wider benefits through improvements to punctuality across the First Great Western and First Great Western Link franchises."—[Hansard, 24 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 37W.]

I reiterate to the Minister that that is not what is happening to my constituents and those who travel to my constituency from elsewhere. They are not seeing benefits and improvements; all they are seeing is a reduced and deteriorating service.

Where can we go from here? I urge the Minister to consider three stages—three sets of decisions that can be made. First, I hope that First Great Western will continue to look at the timetable, make immediate further changes to the timetable that is currently operating, and increase the number of carriages on some of the trains, not just so that services can be improved in terms of time but so that the dangerous levels of overcrowding from which many are suffering can be reduced. That is the immediate need.

Secondly, the Minister will know that later this week Network Rail will hold its timetabling conference, which will set the timetable not for later in the summer but for 2006—that is, from December 2005 to December 2006. That timetable needs to make the changes that are needed to ensure that we return to the level of service that we experienced when Thames Trains was in charge. We certainly need services to be returned to the fast line rather than being shunted on to the slow line if we are to see the service that people need and deserve from an economically vibrant part of the country and an important economic hub in the south-east—namely an important part of the Thames valley.

This is the third aspect that I want the Minister to consider. The current franchise runs out in April 2006. Later this year, decisions will be made about the franchisee for the 10-year period after that. There is a slight difficulty over that process. It is being started by the Strategic Rail Authority—which, of course, is being abolished by the Government—and will be finished by the Department for Transport. I urge the Department to ensure that the franchise specification for these services returns us to the level of service that was available to my constituents before First Great Western took over the merged franchise in April 2004. Only a return to that level of service will ensure that my constituents in Maidenhead, Twyford, Cookham, Wargrave and Furze Platt and others who use those services will be able to enjoy the sort of service that is needed. That will ensure not only that they can carry on with their lives working in London, Reading or round about, but that we can retain the economic vibrancy of that important part of the Thames valley.

I urge the Minister to look seriously at the issues that I have raised. This is not simply about one or two people grumbling that their trains are late. It is a significant issue for my constituents and others. They have seen a severe reduction in service.

The Government want people to be able to enjoy a better work-life balance. They want sustainability and to encourage people on to public transport. All those agendas are being reversed through the action of the Strategic Rail Authority in merging the franchise, in requiring fewer trains to be put on and in putting trains for commuters on the slow lines. People are now getting into their cars rather than using the trains. That is not what the Government want. It is not what I want. I want a good level of rail service to Maidenhead, Twyford and the other stations in my constituency. I urge the Minister to look seriously at taking the action that is necessary through the agencies available to the Government to ensure that the timetable for 2006 is better and that the franchise arrangements return us to the level of service that Maidenhead, Twyford and the rest of my constituency not only need but deserve.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 11:21 pm, 7th February 2005

I congratulate Mrs. May on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services to Maidenhead and Twyford. There are regular direct rail services from both stations to London Paddington. A branch line to Marlow leaves the main line at Maidenhead and one to Henley-on-Thames leaves it at Twyford. Both branch lines have been proposed for designation as community railways under the strategy published by the Strategic Rail Authority in November 2004.

The new timetable introduced on 12 December 2004 is a fully integrated timetable covering both First Great Western and First Great Western Link. It is the most radical restructuring of services into London Paddington for more than a decade. The intended benefits of the new timetable include improved performance, increased capacity, reduced overcrowding and a clearer and more focused management approach to platform capacity at Paddington and Reading.

Before the timetable change in December 2004, there were 12 services between Maidenhead and London Paddington between 7 am and 10 am. There are now 17. The number of weekday services from Twyford to London Paddington between 7 am and 10 am was 13, and that has increased under the December timetable to 18 direct services. From London Paddington to Twyford between 4 pm and 7 pm, there are now 15 direct services, and between London Paddington and Maidenhead, 17 direct services, compared with 13 and 15 respectively before the timetable changes.

Both First Great Western Link and the Strategic Rail Authority are closely monitoring the performance of the new timetable to ensure that it meets its objectives, but it is too early yet to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Commuter operators are required to carry out passenger counts to demonstrate that adequate capacity is provided to accommodate the passengers expected throughout the morning and evening peak periods. That ensures that franchise operators properly address the issue of capacity requirements in peak periods, while accepting the reality that this is a walk-on service and forecasting demand in advance is not an exact science. Train operators must agree with the SRA a timetable and train plan, showing the proposed allocation of rolling stock to services, as necessary to comply with a contractual limit on overcrowding.

Train operators are subject to financial penalties if they provide less than the agreed capacity. There are specified levels of overcrowding in peak periods that train operators should not exceed. They are 4.5 per cent. above capacity for either peak in isolation, or 3 per cent. for both peaks combined. Figures for First Great Western Link for the count in October 2004 were 2.5 per cent. in the morning peak, 1.5 per cent. in the evening peak, and 2.1 per cent. for both peaks combined. This is an average for all trains in the peak period. Where an operator of London commuter services exceeds levels of train crowding specified in the franchise contract, the SRA can, but is not obliged to, require the train operator to produce an action plan for providing more capacity and alleviating overcrowding.

It is an inescapable fact that the more heavily laden the train, the greater the number of passengers who are likely to be at risk in the event of an accident. Nevertheless, there is no evidence at present to suggest that overcrowding is, in itself, dangerous or actually causes accidents. All rolling stock is designed to run safely even when fully loaded, so the number of passengers does not affect a train's operating performance or its structural integrity.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board is currently researching the health and safety effects of crowding on passengers. First phase results are due to be published shortly. The aim of the work is to establish an understanding of the health and safety issues that may arise as a result of crowding on mainline and underground railways. The research seeks to identify all those situations in which crowding could lead directly to injury or make an accident worse.

Furthermore, the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 places a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers and others, including passengers, are not exposed to health and safety risks. On the railways, that duty falls largely on train operating companies and on Network Rail, the infrastructure controller, to manage overcrowding on a day-to-day basis.

First Great Western Link ran 82.4 per cent. of its trains to time in the year to 30 September 2004, compared with 74.7 per cent. in the previous 12 months. The average figures for all London area commuter train operators were 84.4 per cent. and 79.7 per cent. respectively. The early weeks of a new timetable often see punctuality slip as the new arrangements become established. However, there is evidence that the new timetable is proving fairly robust. Both First Great Western Link and the SRA are monitoring punctuality and overcrowding. Changes have been incorporated thanks to experience already gained from the new timetable. For example, the 7.27 am service from Twyford is now running more reliably than it did when the timetable was first introduced in December and has been lengthened to 10 coaches.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Secretary of State for the Family

I am grateful to First Great Western Link for having doubled the number of coaches on the 7.27 am Adelante, following considerable pressure from me and the passengers to do something about that service. I am listening very carefully to the Minister's response. She quoted an increase in the number of services to Maidenhead and Twyford, but does she accept that the key issue of concern to my constituents is the length of journey time? That means that many of them are now crowding on to a smaller number of services because many of the services that have been introduced, to which the Minister refers, are now slower services stopping at every station. It is the length of journey time that is crucial. My constituents want it at 20 to 25 minutes, not at the 35 to 40 minutes that some of those other services take.

Photo of Charlotte Atkins Charlotte Atkins Assistant Whip, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I appreciate the concerns of the right hon. Lady's constituents, and I am sure that those representations will have been taken up by the operators and will be looked at in the context of the complaints that they have received. However, the Department has so far received very few representations from the right hon. Lady's constituents, although obviously she has made representations on their behalf.

An Oxford to London Paddington service at around 8.15 is calling additionally at Maidenhead to help with overcrowding.

Regional planning assessments will form the basis for planning the development of the railway over the next five to 20 years. Those will consider the function of the railway within current and future land use and transport systems, and its role in supporting the economic and wider development objectives of local, regional, devolved and central Government. A key objective of the RPAs will be to maximise value for money in pursuit of the Government's objectives for the environment, safety, economy, accessibility and integration. The RPA for the south-west is due to be published in winter 2005.

The SRA's forthcoming great western main line route utilisation strategy was published for consultation in January and will examine service patterns on all train services using the London Paddington corridor, including consideration of the practicality and value of providing or changing commuter services to Maidenhead and Twyford.

Maidenhead and Twyford are well used stations with substantial numbers of commuters, making reliable, punctual services absolutely vital. The future of rail services from both towns is secure and the SRA will be working with First Great Western Link to improve the performance and quality of the services to and from them.

Today, we have had an opportunity to consider the services and for the right hon. Lady to make her points clearly. I am sure that those issues will be noted and taken up by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Twelve o'clock.