LTS Railway

– in Westminster Hall at 12:07 pm on 13 February 2001.

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Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Hornchurch 12:07, 13 February 2001

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I also thank the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, who will be responding to this debate. I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend, who was my Whip for a year. I saw a great deal of him then--probably a good deal more than he would have liked, considering my voting record.

Today's debate follows the debate that was introduced by Mr. Mackinlay two or three weeks ago, to which my hon. Friend the Minister responded, and it draws on the same issues and material. It is concerned with the c2c railway, which was known previously as the London Tilbury Southend railway, the LTS railway. For some reason that I cannot understand, the name was changed to c2c, which is an unfortunate acronym, as it gives rise to all sorts of nicknames. Carriages too crowded is one that circulates in Rainham in my constituency. As well as passing through my hon. Friend's constituency of Thurrock, the railway passes through Rainham in my constituency. I am concerned mainly with that part of the railway, the Tilbury loop.

I travel on the railway regularly--just about every day. I usually travel on the main line and sometimes on the Tilbury loop. The service is not great on either, but I shall concentrate on the service on the Tilbury loop. For many years my constituents who travel from Rainham--and some of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock who travel to Rainham and then catch the train from there--have had to put up with shoddy conditions, delays, cancellations and regular overcrowding.

More than two years ago I was one of the founder members of the Rainham rail users group, which is a fine campaigning organisation. We have met the management of c2c or LTS, or however they prefer to be known, many times, but it has not had an enormous impact. My constituents are enormously patient. They have been patient in the meetings, in their correspondence with the railway company and in putting up with all the delays and overcrowding.

Let me provide an example. One of the founding members of the Rainham rail users group who has chaired the group on more than one occasion recently wrote to me. She is not one of my constituents; she lives in Thurrock, but regularly travels from Rainham. She told me that she often had to travel in the guards van, once with 36 other people. That is clearly unacceptable. It is an anecdote, but it is an example of the conditions that people have to contend with on the railways.

Let me provide some figures. For the period ending March 2000, LTS had timetabled 109,717 trains, of which 13,132, or 12 per cent., were either late or cancelled--an unacceptably high figure. Short formations--when eight carriages are reduced to four, for example--have increased by 486 per cent. in the past few months.

The longstanding reason behind the delays, the overcrowding and the huge increase in short formations is the lack of new trains. Almost since privatisation began, we were promised new trains, and over the past three years, we have heard even more frequently--particularly from the engineering company Adtranz--that new trains are on their way. Brand new class 357 trains were ordered some time ago in preference to models with an existing safety certificate--another serious concern.

The Rainham rail users group was in continuous discussions and correspondence with LTS and was continuously given promises. I received a letter from Ken Bird, the managing director of LTS, on 2 July 1998. He pointed out in that letter, which exemplified the customary verbosity for which he was famous:

"We are currently investing £320 million in new trains... We are now at the tail end of removing what nationalisation meant for LTS Rail between 1975 and 1990, i.e. no investment. I know, I managed it." That is a bit rich. At the tail end of public ownership, the only significant investment in the LTS line over the past few years has been the £150 million signalling system. We are still waiting for the new trains. At the end of the letter, Ken Bird said:

"We are not there yet, but give me another 18 months and judge us then." That was more than 18 months ago, so it would be churlish not to judge LTS against its own criteria. It is now 18 months later and the class 357 trains are still not in service.

What happened? The trains started running in March last year, but promptly broke down. The software, among other things, went wrong and the trains did not work properly. I recall being stuck behind one for an hour in Limehouse on the way to a meeting in Hornchurch. That was a pretty regular problem while those trains were in operation. They all broke down and were all taken out of service. They may still be experimenting with two or three class 357 trains, but they are not in service, so we are stuck with the old slam-door stock, which is a minimum of 40 years old.

Unfortunately, when the class 357s came into service for that brief period last year, c2c jumped the gun and prematurely scrapped much of its old slam-door stock. It was then left short of trains, because when the new trains went out of service, there was insufficient stock. It has since leased in some more of the old slam-door stock, but it is simply not sufficient. The company admits quite freely that it is well down on the stock that it needs to provide a suitable service for LTS or c2c customers. To give an example in respect of the new trains, c2c is now on software package 10.5. Obviously, it started with software package 1 and is now on 10.5. Apparently, in November all the software went back to its supplier in Switzerland.

I also point out that Adtranz ran out of penalties. In the original agreement between c2c and Adtranz there were obviously penalties in the event that Adtranz was late in supplying the trains. That agreement was so poorly put together that there are now no more penalties, so presumably Adtranz could take from now until doomsday to supply the new trains. There would be no more penalties, so it could carry on in its own sweet way.

The former managing director, Ken Bird, who is no longer in place, consistently promised wonderful improvements to the stations, including Rainham. I regularly asked him specifically about Rainham and I know that certain other Members of Parliament asked him about improvements to stations in their constituencies. The stations now have automatic ticket barriers. I admit that c2c successfully installed the automatic ticket barriers, but they are simply insufficient to cope with the volume of people going through the station in peak hours, so they are left open. I was talking to one of my constituents two days ago and he said that every time he goes through, the barriers are open. People can wander in and out of the station because the barriers cannot cope with the volumes of people.

There is no public address system at Rainham station, and the waiting room is still awaiting renovation. It has no window, no door and no heating. The toilets are also awaiting renovation and the clock on the London-bound platform is inoperative. One or two of my more cynical correspondents would say that it is so that people do not know when a train is late. I am not entirely sure that that is the case, but that is the local suspicion that exists.

In the summer of last year, National Express decided to take over Prism, the parent company of c2c. The directors of Prism recommended that the takeover should go ahead. Some vested interests may have been involved because certain Prism directors benefited from this takeover to the tune of £37 million. I made a few what I thought were quite mild, liberal and well-judged comments in the local press, as I always do. I then received an interesting letter from the new general manager of c2c, who attacked me in what I considered to be fairly harsh terms for pointing out that these directors had no right to benefit to the tune of £37 million. He took exception to the comments that I had made and continued:

"It is quite wrong and misleading to give people the impression that the income from a sale is some kind of undeserved additional payment that the directors are granting themselves." Well I though that that was exactly what it was. It was some kind of additional payment. Some of the directors become multi-millionaires overnight simply because of the way in which privatisation was structured when the Conservatives decided to rush it through and turn back the British railway system, not to pre-1948, but to pre-1924--it was broken up to that extent. We are now experiencing rationalisation, which some of our political opponents describe as a very good thing--something that they supported from the beginning. It is funny that they did not do that when they sold the network off. People such as the directors of Prism are benefiting enormously from takeovers, mergers and so on.

I have to say that Mr. Chivers had the grace to apologise for the remarks that he made in his letter. However, it says it all that while the directors and shareholders of these companies make a fortune out of takeovers and the process of rationalisation, the travelling public--my constituents and those of many other hon. Members--continue to suffer from poor conditions, overcrowding and lack of investment. We were always told that privatisation would result in investment and that these wonderful private companies would pour money into the railways.

During all my meetings, and in all my correspondence with c2c, it has always been a case of jam tomorrow. We were told, "Don't worry. There will be new trains, the station will be renovated and it will be like a palace the next time you travel. The trains will be like travelling palaces; they go at enormous speed and they are air-conditioned. They are superb."

Three and a half years after I was elected to Parliament and started taking up my constituents' concerns, we are in precisely the same situation--slam-door stock and very poor conditions.

As a footnote to the National Express takeover, I was recently told by Councillor Harry Webb of Havering council, who has campaigned for a long time for proper cycle racks at Rainham station, that National Express had decided to freeze all capital investment. Perhaps it is because so much money is pouring out into the pockets of shareholders and directors that the company can no longer put money into facilities that people need, such as bike racks. The plan to install secure bike racks at Rainham station has been cancelled because of the freeze on capital investment. It seems that the Government's laudable vision of integrated transport is being undermined by the people at National Express who make these sweeping decisions.

I have campaigned for the new cycle racks at Rainham station; Councillor Harry Webb has campaigned for a long time. He is a well-known and very effective local councillor who is being undermined by people in an office miles away deciding, at the stroke of a pen, not to invest. That says it all about the process that LTS and c2c have gone through over the last few years.

Before I allow the Minister to respond, I would like to thank the Rainham rail users group, which has done a superb job over the past two and a half years. It is a great campaigning organisation and very patient. In particular, I would like to thank Les Bragger, one of my constituents who works in the City and uses the railway line every day. He has put an enormous amount of effort into collating the facts and figures that he sends me. I meet the Rainham rail users group regularly and I hope that at some point there will be some genuine improvements to the service. It is really not good enough that in 2001 people have to travel in slam-door guards vans when they go to work in the City. I look forward to what my hon. Friend has to say.

Photo of Mr George Stevenson Mr George Stevenson Labour, Stoke-on-Trent South

Order. I advise the hon. Gentleman that according to the rules, these half-hour debates are restricted to the hon. Member who has secured the debate and the Minister replying. However, as we have extra time, I am prepared to accept an intervention from the hon. Member for Upminster, who may wish to make his point as briefly as possible. I am sure the Minister will take note of what he says.

Photo of Mr Keith Darvill Mr Keith Darvill Labour, Upminster

I intervene on Mr. Cryer and congratulate him on introducing the debate. Does he agree that some of the problems to which he has referred lead to significant overcrowding in trains from Rainham in his constituency and from Upminster into Fenchurch Street station? Part of the problem that our constituents have in accommodating the problems that we have all experienced during our travels on those lines is that they make travel unsafe.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Hornchurch

My hon. Friend raises a matter that I took up with the Health and Safety Executive. We now have such a state of overcrowding on the LTS line that I was concerned that there was some breach of health and safety legislation. I wrote to the HSE which tried to address the problem honestly, but there was nothing much that it could say apart from the fact that it becomes hazardous when there is a crash, which is a fairly obvious statement. It said that c2c was not contravening any health and safety legislation or regulations and that overcrowding became dangerous if the train stopped suddenly, there was a crash or it bumped into something. That is fairly obvious, and I should have thought that prevention was better than cure.

We were told by many people connected with c2c that the new class 357 trains would not be four-car units but only eight-car units and larger. That was part of the plan to encourage people to travel during off-peak times. Many people in the City, for instance, work flexi-time so they can go in later or earlier and can travel when the trains are less busy. There were going to be longer units, but precisely the reverse has happened. We now have more and more four-car units, even during the rush hour. I regularly travel during the rush hour on both routes and the four-car trains are enormously overcrowded.

Interestingly, the new class 357 trains, if they finally appear, will encourage people to stand because they have fewer seats than the old slam-door stock. Their capacity overall is slightly bigger, but that capacity relies on more people standing. That is slightly worrying. I have travelled on the new trains and when they work they are quite nice. They are quite comfortable, but it is worrying that the railway company seems to be encouraging people to stand. We have had some notorious accidents over the past few years on our railways and I should have thought that it was safer for passengers to sit.

Mr. Darvill is quite right. The overcrowding on some of these old stock carriages can be quite alarming and it reaches worrying proportions at times. I have travelled on trains from time to time that are so overcrowded that one wonders whether people will start to faint. The great hope is that at some point the class 357 trains will come into service and there will be improvements. There has always been a history of jam tomorrow with c2c. We are told not to worry and that there will be great improvements, but they simply have not happened.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 12:27, 13 February 2001

May I begin, as is usual, by congratulating Mr. Cryer on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services in Havering on the c2c network--formerly known as London, Tilbury, Southend or LTS Rail. I should also like to thank him for his courtesy in giving me notice of some of the key issues that he wished to raise in the debate. It was useful also to hear Mr. Darvill, whose constituents have a great interest in this matter.

I am pleased that c2c's performance has improved in recent weeks. Latest figures for the four-week period up to 6 January show that 87.8 per cent. of services arrived at their destination on time. That compares with 74.5 per cent. and 75.5 per cent in the previous two four-week periods. I hope that that upward trend in performance continues. However, as my hon. Friend has made clear today, regular users of the c2c network in his constituency will testify that performance over the past year has been far from satisfactory.

C2c has avoided the worst of the disruption caused by Railtrack's rail recovery programme, but problems with the introduction of new rolling stock have caused widespread disruption, overcrowding and frustration for the many passengers who rely on the service as their main method of getting to and from London. Disappointingly, out of an original order of 44 new units, which should have been in operation by November 1999, only 12 have been operational at any one time. Faulty electrics and software problems have made the trains prone to breakdown and not capable of providing a reliable service.

C2c has withdrawn the trains from service while Adtranz, the manufacturer, carries out the necessary modifications. I appreciate that the replacement mark I trains do not offer the same comfort as the new trains. Indeed, they have their own performance problems due to their age. I understand that c2c's last customer satisfaction survey showed that passengers were unhappy with the cleanliness of the trains, and that c2c has agreed an action plan with the Strategic Rail Authority to address that problem.

My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware that all mark I slam-door stock on the network must be replaced by the end of 2004. For c2c to provide a reliable service, it felt that it had no choice but to withdraw the new trains until Adtranz could show that they were capable of performing reliably. C2c has set Adtranz a benchmark quality target for the new stock, and will not introduce the trains until they can clock up 10,000 miles between significant malfunctions or breakdowns.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister asked Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, to set up a pan-industry working group to identify and tackle the problems being encountered in bringing new stock into service. Although some progress has been made, episodes such as the c2c saga show that there is clearly much more to do.

I can reassure the House that Ministers will continue to put pressure on rolling stock manufacturers, and will make it clear that their current performance in delivering new stock is not acceptable. Manufacturers must ensure that they provide new stock on time, and that it is reliable from the word go. I am pleased that a package of passenger benefits was negotiated by the Strategic Rail Authority to compensate passengers for the disruption that they have had to endure as a result of the problems with the new rolling stock. The order of new trains was increased from 44 to 46, and c2c made a commitment to procure a second tranche of 26 new trains to be delivered and in service by 30 June 2002. That will achieve the complete replacement of the c2c's remaining slam-door stock. C2c is also committed to extending booking office opening hours at many of its stations.

My hon. Friend also referred to unacceptable overcrowding on c2c services. I understand that passengers travelling on the line from Rainham have experienced unacceptable levels of overcrowding on some journeys as a result of the problems with the late delivery of rolling stock. The Strategic Rail Authority monitors overcrowding on commuter services into London, and has powers to take action should passenger counts show that contractual levels of overcrowding are being broken. The last passenger counts showed that c2c remained within its contractual limit. However, the results of the autumn 2000 counts will shortly be published by the Strategic Rail Authority, and if c2c is above the limit, it will be obliged to implement an action plan to remedy the problem.

Considering the problems that c2c has experienced over the past year, it will have come as no surprise to my hon. Friend to discover that last year's autumn national passenger survey found that only 63 per cent. of passengers were satisfied with their journey, and 21 per cent. were dissatisfied. When I debated this matter a fortnight ago with Mr. Mackinlay and for Basildon (Angela Smith), they were surprised that as many as 63 per cent. of passengers were satisfied with these services, but that was what the survey found. More to the point, only 33 per cent. of passengers thought that c2c offered value for money. Compared with the 10 other London train operators, only Silverlink scored lower. However, I have been assured by c2c's managing director that it is taking the concerns of passengers highlighted in the survey extremely seriously. C2c has agreed an action plan with the Strategic Rail Authority to address the problem areas, and I hope that tangible improvements will be seen in the near future.

There is some good news. Increases in rail fares are never welcome by passengers, especially when the service delivered falls below their expectations. I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents welcomed the decision by the franchising director to cap c2c's fare increases this year as a result of poor performance over the year to July 2000. The average permitted increase for c2c's regulated fares was just 0.3 per cent., which is 3 per cent. below inflation.

In June last year, further passenger benefits were secured when the Strategic Rail Authority reached an agreement with Prism Rail, then the franchisee of c2c, on the restructuring of the group's portfolio of passenger rail franchises. Prism committed to invest £20.5 million in areas to be agreed with the Strategic Rail Authority, and in addition will fit closed circuit television to the current order of 46 new vehicles. Under the agreement, the c2c franchise is retained through to 2011, and its other franchises are being restructured to facilitate the Strategic Rail Authority's franchise replacement programme.

Shortly after that deal was struck, the National Express group agreed to buy out Prism. The deal was accepted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on 17 January following a consultation exercise in November last year.

My hon. Friend expresses concern about the payments made to Prism directors as part of the takeover deal. Decisions on whether to make such payments are a matter for the companies involved. However, I am pleased that National Express has undertaken to honour the obligations Prism entered into and are currently working with the Strategic Rail Authority, the rail passengers committee for eastern England and other local stakeholders to determine the best use of the committed £20.5 million.

My hon. Friend also criticises Rainham station for its various inadequacies. C2c has an obligation in its franchise agreement regularly to clean and maintain its station, and to ensure that minimum standards of facilities are met in respect of shelter, information and lighting. The Strategic Rail Authority recently secured additional customer information screens at the station to remedy some minor breaches of the franchise plan discovered during an inspection of the station last summer.

As part of an on-going exercise nationwide, the Strategic Rail Authority is considering various options for improving stations, and is discussing with Railtrack possible work at Rainham. I understand that there are no commitments as yet, but I hope that the discussions will lead to real benefits for passengers.

As I said, Prism is now a wholly owned subsidiary of National Express, which is committed to meeting all the contractual commitments that Prism had entered into with the Strategic Rail Authority.

C2c had a commitment to install bike racks at six stations that previously did not have them, but Rainham was not one of the stations chosen. As I have stated, the Strategic Rail Authority is negotiating with c2c over the £20.5 million investment secured as part of the restructuring package. My hon. Friend and the redoubtable Councillor Harry Webb may like to contact the authority expressing their wish for bicycle facilities to be provided at Rainham. We are keen to encourage integrated transport, and I would welcome any improvements for cyclists. However, Ministers are not party to such negotiations.

I accept that the quality of service experienced by passengers on c2c since privatisation, as with much of the rail network, has not lived up to expectations. We inherited a railway system that was suffering from years of under-investment, fragmented by privatisation, and with no framework for the strategic planning of the industry as a whole. Since 1997, we have been working to turn the railways around, but delivering our plans for a rail renaissance will require substantial investment and coherent strategic direction over the next 10 years. We intend to achieve those plans through implementation of our 10-year transport plan, new powers in the Transport Act 2000, new resources and new longer franchise agreements.

We want to deliver a bigger and better railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of safety, service and comfort. As we set out in the 10-year transport plan, we want 50 per cent. more passengers and 80 per cent. more rail freight. We want longer franchises in return for investment in additional capacity, better performance and better customer service.

I hope that my hon. Friend is encouraged by the planned improvements that lie ahead for the future of rail services nationally and, critically, in his constituency. Once the new rolling stock is fully introduced and the £20.5 million of additional investment comes to fruition, I am sure that his constituents will experience a more reliable and comfortable service.

Not so many years ago, the c2c network was frequently described as British Rail's misery line. As today's debate has shown, we still have some way to go before we can achieve our vision for the railways. The legacy of years of neglect cannot be turned around over night, but we expect the privatised train operating companies and Railtrack to work in partnership with one another and the Strategic Rail Authority to turn the vision of our 10-year plan into reality.

Sitting suspended.