Rail Services (Portsmouth Harbour)

– in the House of Commons at 4:10 pm on 11th November 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Dr Thérèse Coffey.)

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport 4:17 pm, 11th November 2014

I am very grateful to have the opportunity once again to raise the issue of rail networks in the south of England, particularly with reference to the Portsmouth harbour area, which is part of my constituency. We have had a lot of rail-related news recently, with much discussion about the potential HS3 line and talk of a “northern powerhouse” and a proposed super-hub.

It is important that we start this journey in the north. We always hear about the north-south divide and the need to link up the deprived northern towns with the cities—or rather one particular city—of the prosperous south. This narrative relies on drawing the starkest possible contrast between the run-down, post-industrial centres of the north and the gleaming, global city of London, surrounded by leafy suburbs and sunlit shires. Of course, the truth is much more complex. Child poverty in the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency in Sheffield is less than a third of that in parts of Portsmouth. In my town of Gosport, which is on the other side of Portsmouth harbour, one in five children lives in poverty—about the same as in the centre of York.

Poverty does not respect geography. BAE’s decision to end centuries of shipbuilding in Portsmouth has exactly the same effect on working people on the south coast as a decision to shut down a mine in County Durham or to close a factory in east Lancashire would have in northern areas. Similarly, proximity to London is no use for people south of the capital if we cannot actually get there. It takes as long to get up to London from Portsmouth as it does to travel down from Doncaster—a journey twice as long. It is absolutely right that we are looking to improve our infrastructure across the country, but, as I will set out, we must ensure that some of the poorest communities in the country, who just happen to be in the south, are not left behind.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Independent, Portsmouth South

I suggest to the hon. Lady, and I hope she agrees, that the journey down from Doncaster to London would be a damn sight more comfortable than the journey up from Portsmouth.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the quality of the rolling stock we have to endure, which I will certainly talk about in due course.

My constituency is home to Gosport, the largest town in the UK without a railway station. Since the last election, £52 million of public and private money has been pumped into our fantastic new Solent enterprise zone at the disused Daedalus military airfield, but the state of our transport links does not reflect the potential of that investment. Even getting to the nearest station is famously difficult: when we want to catch a train, we must either fight our way up the peninsula to Fareham, on the pitifully inadequate roads, or head across to Portsmouth harbour on the Gosport ferry.

It must be said that business at these stations is booming. The number of passengers using Fareham railway station has gone from 1.5 million in 2009-10 to

1.7 million in 2012-13, while the figure for Portsmouth harbour has gone up from 1.8 million to 2.2 million in the same period—a 20% increase in just over three years. That reflects trends across the country, and the huge increase in demand since privatisation is a tribute to the success of our railways. However, it has been more successful for some than for others.

On journey speed, for example, someone travelling north out of London can be past Peterborough in 45 minutes—a distance of almost 100 miles. By contrast, the distance between Portsmouth and Southampton is just 20 miles, yet that train journey often takes more than an hour, with only two or three direct trains per hour. Inevitably, slow journey times and poor service frequency on the rail network mean that more and more people take to the roads, clogging up the already over-congested M27.

I mentioned earlier the painful journey times up to the capital. If passengers make the pilgrimage from Portsmouth to London, their journey to the busiest station in the UK is rarely pleasant. My hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt has spoken regularly about that, and Mr Hancock has alluded to the infamous class 450 carriages, the seats of which South West Trains itself found that 59% of passengers cannot squeeze into

“when their elbows are taken into account”.

Mobile reception is poor along the route and, should a passenger and their elbows manage to make it to Waterloo, they will arrive at a station so heaving that it sees more people in three hours every morning than Heathrow does in a full day.

Crushed on to little more than benches with limited mobile reception and no wi-fi before being spat out into the cauldron that is Waterloo station, it is little wonder that my constituents feel they are not getting value for money. People in the Portsmouth Harbour area pay a premium to travel in cramped conditions at a snail’s pace. I know that a chunk of the £38 billion the Government are due to invest in the railways will go to South West Trains, and that is, of course, welcome. Indeed, one could argue that it is not only welcome, but deserved. My constituents who travel by South West Trains—in fact, all those who do so—are already subsidising train lines in every other part of the country.

The House of Commons Library estimates that, unlike almost every other line that is subsidised by the Government, passengers on South West Trains will subsidise other train lines to the tune of £1.2 billon over the course of the franchise. Given the pressure on that part of the network, would it not be possible for South West Trains to keep hold of at least some of that money to reinvest in and upgrade the network in the south? This is not a case of asking for more money—we are simply asking for our own money back so that it can be invested in the area where it is needed most. Given the unique population pressures we face in the south-east—the south-east of England and London will grow at an unmatched rate over the coming decade—that seems both necessary and fair.

That could also be a sweetener to incentivise further improvements as part of the refranchising process. When that process comes around in September 2017, there simply must be commitments on better signalling to cut journey times—potentially even involving a change of signalling around Portsmouth to create more space further up the line—and, of course, refurbished carriages to increase capacity.

In addition, as I said earlier, one of the biggest problems at the London end of the line is the overcrowding at Waterloo. In the recent debate secured by my hon. Friend Mr Raab, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, who has responsibility for rail, said that a few winters ago she saw a wonderful production of “The Railway Children” on one of the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo. Down south, we do not need the theatre to experience the glamour of 1930s train travel. Our tracks operate on the same lay-out as those laid in 1936. As she said, it is good news that the platforms are coming back into service, but will the Minister give my constituents a timetable for that process?

Finally, better signalling, bigger carriages and longer platforms are all necessary, but they will not be sufficient. In London and the south-east, we will have an extra 2 million people in 10 years’ time, so although all the upgrades to the existing line that I have mentioned are desperately needed, they will be no more than a sticking plaster.

I understand the difficult decisions that this, and indeed the next, Government will have to take on spending—there is less than no money to spend—but if we are seriously committed to building infrastructure fit for the 21st century and want to protect communities along the south coast as we undergo deep economic changes, the only long-term solution will be the construction of another line south from London. That might radically cut journey times, increase capacity and tackle head-on the deprivation that is endemic in too many communities in the south. With that sort of radical thinking, we could create a southern engine to match our northern powerhouse.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Independent, Portsmouth South 4:26 pm, 11th November 2014

I congratulate my constituency neighbour Caroline Dinenage on her determination in getting this Adjournment debate. I welcome what she says. She has been consistent in putting her point of view in the House and in the media generally.

I must say that Portsmouth Harbour station has varied very little in the 60 years since I mudlarked underneath it as a kid. My goodness me, that station needs something done to it.

We have to look very carefully at train operators’ responsibilities to their passengers. As has rightly been said, this is a boom time for the railways. More people than ever are using our railways, and we should appreciate and be thankful for the fact that people take it seriously as a mode of transport. The last national census showed that close to 3,500 people a day commute by rail from the city of Portsmouth to different locations, but mostly to London.

From talking regularly to those commuters, I know the problems that they experience. There is sometimes a 20-minute delay while their train is held outside Waterloo station—they can see this House from their train window—perhaps to wait for other trains to go in, which makes them late for work. No sensible reason is ever given to passengers about why they have to sit on the train outside Waterloo for that length of time, and it causes them great problems in getting to work on time.

The poor state of the rolling stock has been talked about for at least two generations. I remember debates when I was first elected to the House 30 years ago in which we complained about the state of the rolling stock on the railway line from our city to other parts of the country. Something really needs to be done. The disabled and anybody with any back injury or back pain finds such a journey absolutely intolerable. That is why some of them have exercised their right to start reusing their car, which is the very thing we do not want.

We must understand that the general make-up of the railways since privatisation has in some instances been good for the country, but certainly when it comes to south of London, we are sadly denied the benefits that others receive. The hon. Lady was right to highlight the fact that commuters in the south will subsidise other parts of the network to the tune of £1.5 billion over the lifetime of the franchise, which cannot be right. As she rightly said, some of that money should be retained to improve the situation in our city.

I received a reply as recently as 4 November from the managing director of South West Trains to a letter about the appalling state of the trains and their lack of cleanliness. Constituents consistently write to me and speak to me about the untidiness of the trains. The reply from the managing director does not address that situation in any way. A constituent wrote to me as recently as yesterday, knowing that this debate was going to take place. I will quote directly:

“The stations in Portsmouth really do need improving. At night, they are poorly lit which is a matter of concern as they are used by children getting home from school in Portsmouth in winter.”

My constituent states that young kids frequently use the railways to go out in other parts of the area, and that:

“Poor lighting and limited staff means the risk of untoward incidents is high.”

I hope the Minister will ensure that in the conversations that the Department has with the rail operators, it brings home to them the need to tackle the issues that have been raised. I hope that Ministers will read carefully the Hansard report of this debate and take back to the rail operators the genuine reasons for concern that have been raised. The railways are booming but, sadly, many of the stations and much of the rolling stock are busted. That just is not good enough for the people whom the hon. Member for Gosport and I represent. They deserve better and they need to see better delivery of the service that they pay an awful lot of money to use.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:31 pm, 11th November 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Caroline Dinenage on securing this debate. I will do my best to address the points that she raised so eloquently. I apologise for being a poor substitute for the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, who has responsibility for rail. She is currently speaking in Westminster Hall, and even she cannot be in two places at the same time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport knows, the Portsmouth-to-London line is an essential artery that connects communities across Hampshire, Surrey and south-west London. As she said in her speech, it is not only up north that we need to deliver new jobs and prosperity on the back of infrastructure. She mentioned the problems following the cuts to defence jobs in her part of the world.

The railways are a success story of recent times. Passenger numbers have doubled across the country over the past 15 years to the same levels as 1929, but on a network that is half the length. South West Trains operates about 1,700 services a day and about 222 million passenger journeys were made on South West Trains last year. London Waterloo is the UK’s busiest railway station and Clapham Junction station, which is operated by Stagecoach South Western Trains, is the busiest interchange, with somewhere in the region of 23 million interchanges each year.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issues of journey times and capacity on the route between Portsmouth and London. She mentioned the journey to Doncaster. I will be journeying to York this evening. That journey takes 1 hour and 50 minutes, which is not much longer than the journey down to Portsmouth. Indeed, if one includes the Gosport ferry, that journey takes much longer, even though it is over a much shorter distance.

There are issues of great concern for many passengers who use train services on the route from Portsmouth to London. Many travel for work, but people also travel for leisure, as Portsmouth offers many attractions for the visitor. That is not to mention the important connections to the Isle of Wight and to my hon. Friend’s constituency by the Gosport ferry, for which South West Trains will offer through fares from January. The provision of reliable rail services on the line is therefore enormously important for economic activity and growth along the route.

Nearly 7 million passenger journeys were made to and from Portsmouth stations during 2012-13. Investment has been made and continues to be made to improve the facilities at those stations through schemes such as the national stations improvement programme. Portsmouth stations are served by a number of train operators—South West Trains, Southern and First Great Western—meaning that Portsmouth is connected to much of the south of England and Wales. However, I agree that the speed of those journeys is somewhat slower than on other routes that connect our cities, with the 74-mile journey between Portsmouth and London Waterloo taking about 90 minutes. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are legitimate reasons for that, which must be borne in mind.

The Portsmouth main line is a two-track route between Portsmouth and Guildford, connecting the south coast to London. The route is powered by a 3rd rail DC supply, with a maximum line speed considerably lower than the 125 mph seen on East Coast or Great Western main lines, for example. The line speed south of Guildford falls below 90 mph to 85 mph or less—indeed, to only 40 mph in some locations—on many parts of the route, which is caused by gradients and curves in the line profile. Coupled with the relatively high number of stations at which the train calls along the route, that makes it difficult to increase the line speed of those services.

There are few places where faster trains can overtake slower ones. In the section between Guildford and Havant, the only location where overtaking is possible is at Haslemere. That is not to say that no thought has been given to improving those vital services. Although previous investigations into improving journey times have shown a high cost for minimal benefit, service frequency has been increased where possible. That has been of greater benefit to the large populations using the train service from stations along that route.

There is no quick fix, and I will not suggest there is. The Portsmouth mainline is full to capacity and South West Trains is already operating most peak services at maximum formation. There are constraints on infrastructure and rolling stock, and as we have heard, passengers face difficulties. I am not saying, however, that improvements are not possible, and with the right conditions, journey times can be improved and extra main line capacity added. It is vital that the necessary planning for such investment takes place, and that consideration is given to the needs of the railway as a whole, giving us options for how to meet the demand that is forecast to continue growing over the next 30 years.

The long-term planning process is designed to facilitate the strategic planning of the industry, taking into account the views of the rail industry, funders, specifiers and customers. Network Rail is publishing draft route studies for stakeholder consultation. The draft route study for Wessex is due to be published for consultation later this month. It will set out ideas and proposals for investment over the course of Network Rail control period 6, which runs from 2019 to 2024, and beyond.

Local authorities, including Portsmouth city council, have already had the opportunity to feed into that draft study. It is very much a collaborative process, and I am keen to see it continue. The route studies will be published on the Network Rail website, together with further information about the long-term planning process. I strongly encourage my hon. Friends and their constituents to embrace the opportunity to help us shape the future of that railway, in the collaborative spirit to which I alluded. It is incredibly important for those who use that part of the network to have a say in its future.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Independent, Portsmouth South

Will the Minister give an assurance that he will put pressure on train operators to work with the public to bring about improvements? It is one thing to have a consultation, but if nothing is delivered from that, it is a waste of time.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

Absolutely. When refranchising takes place, not only financial considerations, but other non-financial considerations such as those suggested by my hon. Friend, will be made. Towards the end of my remarks I will mention the rolling stock that is being used and the discomfort that some passengers may feel.

I understand that plans for more capacity in years to come are of little comfort to passengers who are experiencing delays and crowding today. That is why we have continued to invest in today’s railway to increase capacity where possible within existing constraints. I am pleased that the Government have pledged more than £38 billion of support for the rail industry up to 2019, improving the capacity and quality of a network that is experiencing vast growth in demand. My hon. Friend will be happy to hear that that includes significant investment on the South West Trains network.

In early September this year my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who has just joined us in the Chamber, joined with South West Trains to announce the latest capacity enhancement to be contracted. Some 150 new vehicles are being manufactured by Siemens to be put into passenger use on South West Trains by the start of 2018.

Photo of Caroline Dinenage Caroline Dinenage Conservative, Gosport

We are grateful that South West Trains is putting that investment into its rolling stock, but unfortunately not a single one of those carriages will be in use on the route down to Portsmouth. Will the Minister comment on that point?

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As we see rolling stock introduced, it will cascade down, so that benefits will be felt not only by those using the new rolling stock. When Stagecoach South Western Trains introduces these new trains, existing fleets will be cascaded which will see a further four evening peak services strengthened on the Portsmouth main line to maximum formation, addressing some of the under-capacity issues. This is part of plans to provide capacity for an extra 24,000 peak-time passengers each day. This is in addition to the 108 additional carriages that are already starting to arrive and are being put into passenger service, to increase capacity each day by 23,000 in the peaks. A similar cascade is also adding capacity to a number of peak services from Portsmouth.

Over the same period, Network Rail will carry out some major enhancement and renewal works in and around the Waterloo area at a cost of several hundred million pounds. Signalling is an important part of our rail infrastructure. It is often forgotten, but it can be low-hanging fruit in efforts to gain additional capacity. The signalling system that covers much of the suburban network needs to be renewed and, as part of that project, a new turn-back facility will be created at Hounslow so that an additional four services can operate in the peak.

By 2017, Network Rail will have carried out works to bring the remaining four platforms at the former Waterloo international terminal back into full operational use—from its current theatrical use, which we have heard about—for scheduled domestic services, restoring a vital piece of the south-western route infrastructure for railway use. Having those extra platforms available is also essential in the plans that have been developed to then extend platforms 1 to 4 at Waterloo, which serve the main suburban routes, so that they can accommodate 10-car length trains. This removes the last constraint that has hampered plans to increase main suburban capacity from a maximum eight-car operation for many years.

All of this takes time and considerable effort in planning to minimise the impact on passengers as these major engineering schemes are implemented. There will undoubtedly be significant levels of disruption at times, but high quality communication about what this means to passengers and their daily journey will be key.

My hon. Friend mentioned the infamous 450 carriages and their 3 plus 2 seating configuration, which can make the journey elbow to elbow for some people. As people get bigger, that will be an even greater problem. As my hon. Friend Mr Hancock said, some people with back pain cannot use those trains.

I have heard the passionate calls from hon. Members about the rolling stock on the Portsmouth to London line. The class 450s that were put in place by Stagecoach South Western Trains on that route following the 2006 franchise competition have increased the amount of seating capacity available. Operational constraints of the route ruled out any additional services, so this was South West Trains’ solution to the requirement to accommodate demand within those constraints.

The train operator takes the decision on where to deploy the rolling stock across the franchise network to address capacity issues as efficiently as possible. Stagecoach South Western Trains has chosen to deploy a mixture of class 444s—the white ones—and 450s on services between Portsmouth and London. The 10-car formation class 444 provides 598 seats, whereas a 12-car maximum formation class 450 provides 738 seats. The additional seats provided by the class 450s provide vital capacity for passengers closer to London.

My hon. Friend Mr Turner could not be here for this debate as he is chairing a debate in Westminster Hall, but he wanted to raise the issue of passengers who cross the Solent after their train journey. All too often, the trains depart a couple of minutes before the ferries, which means a wait of half an hour, or even an hour in the evenings. I am aware of the problems, and we support the idea of a taskforce to look at the transport issues on the island. I encourage my hon. Friend to work with the Isle of Wight council to establish that taskforce. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has written recently to the leader of the council to invite them to meet.

The solutions that we have contracted will address the capacity issues on the Windsor and main suburban routes, but we know that capacity issues remain on the main line. We are doing what we can in the short term to add more capacity where this is possible. However, we know that more is needed, as has been made clear during this evening’s debate. We expect the industry to continue to work in the same collaborative way to address and implement a significant solution for the main line in control period 6, and the planning process for that is under way.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.