As ever, it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak about what I fully accept is not the most pressing issue on the railways today, and I make it clear at the outset that I know that many passengers on lines affected by the chaos from the new timetables on Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway would welcome any train, not just one that is comfortable.
The Transport Committee, on which I serve, is currently examining those matters, so in no way do I wish to diminish the importance and urgency of those issues, which I hope will be short term and resolved relatively soon. However, I wish to speak on a more longer-term, strategic issue for the railways: ensuring that passengers have a decent level of comfort while travelling by train. The problem is not a lack of investment in our railways—quite the reverse. Most franchises in the country have either had or are in line to have wonderful new trains that are technologically superior and will offer faster journey times, lower emissions and generally much better performance.
Train company order books are healthy, which is much to be welcomed, but there has been considerable criticism from passengers on the most recently introduced trains that the seats are—not to put too fine a point on it—extremely uncomfortable. The passengers have often paid large sums to travel on those trains. There has been particular criticism of the new Thameslink trains, the class 700s. They have what are described as “ironing board” seats, which are as comfortable as that name suggests; they also have minimal leg room and no tables on which to put a laptop or a cup of coffee.
Another line that has attracted considerable criticism is the Great Western. The intercity express programme trains—the flagship new rolling stock—are wonderfully technically superior, but the seats are not comfortable, and journeys can last for up to five hours for people who are travelling all the way down to Devon or Cornwall. Similarly, Eurostar has refurbished, or bought new trains, which are also wonderful—I travel on them regularly—but the seats are greatly inferior to those on the trains that they replaced.
My personal gripe is this. Is it really beyond our ability to align seats and windows? On too many trains, one ends up sitting next to a window pillar throughout the journey and can therefore see very little out of the window. The rot set in during the late 1970s, when the original generation of rolling stock—particularly the electric trains—was replaced by what are known as the mark 2 electric multiple units. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I grew up in the greater Glasgow area. We had a wonderful fleet of trains known as the Glasgow Blue Trains, which had wonderfully springy seats and very large windows. One could sit at the front of the train, look forward towards the driver’s cab and see what was coming. Then the trains were refurbished and made dreadfully uncomfortable. All the seats ended up being next to window pillars, and one could see very little. Technology and safety requirements have evolved, and today seats must conform to fire and crash safety regulations. In no way do I wish to diminish the importance of that.