LTS Railway

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:27 pm on 13 February 2001.

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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C2c has withdrawn the trains from service while Adtranz, the manufacturer, carries out the necessary modifications.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.