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Rail Services (Milton Keynes)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 12th May 2004.

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Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West 12:00 am, 12th May 2004

My purpose in securing the debate is to highlight the importance of frequent and reliable rail services to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend Brian White. I want to speak on behalf of not only current users of such services to and from Milton Keynes but the extra users that will be generated over the next decade as a result of housing growth. I want to press the Minister to ensure that rail users from Milton Keynes benefit not only from the current west coast main line upgrade but from sustained investment in the railways to ensure that rail infrastructure matches the growth of the city.

It is also not my intention to criticise Virgin Trains, Silverlink or the Strategic Rail Authority. The problems that face my constituents and those of my hon. Friend and others along the west coast main line are a direct result of a deal that was done between Railtrack and Virgin Trains in the desperate privatisation that took place in the dying days of the previous Conservative Government. At that point, Virgin was given the exclusive use of the fast line, which forced all other passenger services and freight on to the slow line. That has severely constrained the options that are now open to the Strategic Rail Authority in allocating track space among the different operators.

The west coast main line modernisation was expected to benefit rail travellers from Milton Keynes. It will improve the reliability of all services, but I would contend that the other benefits of modernisation are not being shared equally between the different parts of the line. Off peak, my constituents will benefit from faster and more reliable Pendolino services northwards and to London. However, commuters from Milton Keynes are seriously concerned by their loss of access to the Virgin services at peak times and the consequent almost total reliance on Silverlink services during those times. They fear that the extra capacity that is being created by Silverlink will not fully compensate for the loss of access to seats on Virgin trains.

The success of Milton Keynes as a new city depends on its situation and on good transport links, and in particular those from north to south. There are three stations in Milton Keynes that are served by the west coast main line: Wolverton, Milton Keynes Central and Bletchley. The business community, and the continued growth of the local economy, depend on fast, frequent links from London, and from Birmingham and the north. The SRA estimates that 3,000 people commute daily to jobs in London, and an increasing number of people are commuting in to Milton Keynes from London, and from Birmingham and Northampton.

At present, travellers to London from Milton Keynes Central can choose between the inter-city Virgin services and the county services that are run by Silverlink. Journey times are shorter on the Virgin services and the Silverlink services are fast, semi-fast or slow, depending on the number of additional stops between Milton Keynes and Euston.

During the modernisation works on the west coast main line my constituents have been experiencing considerable disruption and delay. There has been a series of weekend blockades and longer blockades over the Easter break. Further reductions in services have been announced from 24 May until 20 June, not to mention a month-long blockade in the summer. For the most part travellers have accepted that inconvenience as a necessary part of the modernisation. However, they were expecting that, having borne the pain, they would benefit from the improvements once the work was complete. For some time, I have been lobbying the SRA for a fair deal for Milton Keynes commuters. The SRA is in the process of finalising the new timetable for September 2004 onwards, and the published version is causing considerable concern locally.

As I said, the introduction of the Virgin Pendolino services will reduce journey times, but at peak times many fewer will stop at Milton Keynes than the inter-city trains that they will replace, so that is of little direct benefit to Milton Keynes commuters. The reduction in Virgin trains stopping at Milton Keynes reduces the options for those travelling to London. It also affects those commuting into Milton Keynes from the north, as some of the trains from Birmingham will not now stop at Milton Keynes. However, I am pleased that the SRA has now responded to lobbying by adding one early-morning service that will go directly from Birmingham to Milton Keynes.

The Pendolinos will displace all the Silverlink services from the fast line to the slow line, and commuters fear that journey times will increase. The SRA says that, from December 2005, the slow line should be improved to allow speeds of up to 100 mph. It claims that Silverlink fast services will be two minutes faster than they are at present, although that will be 10 minutes slower than Pendolinos. To make more room for commuter services, all freight services have been removed from the slow line at peak times, which is welcome.

Of more concern to commuters than journey times are the fears that capacity will be inadequate to cope with commuter numbers. In the morning peak, there will be Virgin services at 6.40 and 7.06, but in the two-hour gap until the next stopping Virgin train, which is a time of very heavy usage, commuters will be reliant on Silverlink alone. Commuter trains are already extremely full, with some passengers forced to stand in both first and second class.

Regular commuters are concerned about the likely situation after September. The SRA argues that capacity will be maintained, as some Silverlink trains will be increased from eight carriages to 12, and all stations between Northampton and Euston except Bletchley—I shall return to that later—will be modified so that they can take 12-carriage units, or rather so that passengers can get on and off all 12-carriage units. According to the SRA, in the morning peak there will be an extra 600 seats on Silverlink trains and an extra 2,700 from London in the evening peak, when even fewer Virgin trains are available.

Despite that extra capacity, commuters remain concerned. There are added worries because of the reduction in train numbers from the other Milton Keynes stations—from Wolverton, where there is one fewer service in the morning though two extra in the evening, and from Bletchley. It is therefore possible that commuters may transfer from those two stations to Milton Keynes Central, adding to the pressure.

The situation has arisen because of the priority given to the fast Pendolino services, which are monopolising the fast track. However, I argue that the very fast acceleration and deceleration of Pendolinos means that a stop at Milton Keynes would not add significantly to journey times, and observation already shows that Pendolinos speeding through Milton Keynes are rarely full.

The SRA should be able to insist that more Pendolino services stop at Milton Keynes. In particular, both the extra Pendolinos that go through Northampton in the morning should also stop at Milton Keynes, as I was led to expect by letters from the SRA. It now seems to be proposed that only one should. It is unacceptable that travellers from Milton Keynes may be forced on to more crowded and usually slower trains when there is spare capacity on Pendolinos.