LTS Railway

Part of the debate – 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.