Rail Services: East Hertfordshire

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 1st March 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford 11:00 am, 1st March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered rail services in East Hertfordshire.

The railways that serve my constituents encompass six stations and three branches, and they are run by two different companies. We have Govia Thameslink on what we call the Hertford loop, and the West Anglia route is run by Abellio Greater Anglia. All of our rail lines lead in and out of London, so as in most of Hertfordshire and, indeed, west Essex, they run north-south. Since Dr Beeching, we have had little east-west rail provision in Hertfordshire, which matters because it means that our economic links with London are fundamental. We face London, and our households are therefore increasingly reliant on London’s economy to provide work, which is why the quality of rail services matters so much for the people of Hertford and Stortford.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue as part of my ongoing campaign to ensure that we get a fair deal for my commuters. Today, I will focus on three principal issues: the reliability of the service and the compensation when things go wrong; the state of the rolling stock; and last, although perhaps most fundamental, the capacity of the system, particularly the need for four-tracking into London. I hope that the Minister will respond positively, as she always does, to the points I raise and the questions I ask.

I will start with punctuality and reliability. For many of my constituents, this has been a really bad year for commuting. It is true that punctuality has recently improved, but for many weeks in the past 12 months we have had periods in which, day after day, simply getting in and out of work has been a struggle. People fail to understand the cumulative impact. Of course it makes it difficult for people simply to do their daily work, but it also has a wider impact on family life and on the wider economy, too. The huge variation in performance, often between neighbouring days, simply makes people feel that this is not a service on which they can realistically rely.

Over the past year I have organised face-to-face meetings with the managing director of one of the rail companies, and I pay credit to Mr Burles from Abellio Greater Anglia for being willing to sit down and deal with the concerns of my commuters and his customers. Although he has accepted blame when his company has got things wrong, he has pointed out, not unreasonably, that 70% of the delays have been due to track or signalling problems, which are of course the responsibility of Network Rail. Although that is true, it is of no comfort to paying passengers from my constituency.

That leads me on to the question of compensation when things go wrong. As part of my campaign for a fair deal, I have lobbied our rail companies to ensure that when trains are delayed, commuters, who have paid up front, must be compensated. I have pressed both companies to make their rules clearer, which they have, and to move to automatic repayments for commuters, as c2c recently did on its lines. At present, both Govia Thameslink and Abellio Greater Anglia offer refunds for delays of 30 minutes or more, but taking into account that total journey times are often only 60 minutes, a 30-minute delay starting point frankly is inadequate, which is why I strongly support the Government’s—indeed the Minister’s—plans for phasing in refunds for delays of 15 minutes or more. When will that rule be introduced, both for Govia Thameslink and for the new Greater Anglia franchise, which starts in October? For example, will the new 15-minute rule be written into any new franchise agreement? I hope my hon. Friend can update us on that point.

There is also the question of how people claim compensation when things go wrong. Compensation should be automatic for regular commuters. They pay their money up front and, given that the rail company already has their financial details, an automatic electronic refund seems both fair and practical. I am delighted that the consumer body Which?, which has its principal base in my constituency, is now also campaigning for change, and I welcome its recent super-complaint to the regulator. Many hon. Members will know that the rail sector has been dragging its feet on this issue, so I hope that when the regulator replies later this month, we will get firm support for change and a positive reaction from the Department. Will the Minister set out the Government’s approach to that point? I appreciate that she cannot tell us what the answer will be, as we do not yet know the question.

The state of rolling stock on our lines is very poor indeed. We have carriages that go back 20 years or more—indeed, on the Hertford loop we have the old 313s that go back to the late 1970s. It is true that both of the current rail companies have invested substantial sums—many millions of pounds—in refurbishing what they inherited, but all too often we daily face clapped-out carriages with broken heating and very bad seating. Of course, looking at the wider infrastructure implications, trains in such condition will break down more often, so we have a cyclical problem. The key is the franchising system, which sets the standards. The length of any franchise tends to determine both the level and the timing of any investment.

Two years ago, I lobbied hard in this Chamber for new rolling stock to be a clear condition of the Great Northern-Thameslink franchise, including the Hertford loop. With that franchise let, I am pleased to see that Govia Thameslink is now committed to £200 million-worth of investment, which will deliver some 25 new climate-controlled, six-carriage units from 2018. That is a welcome improvement. Many of my commuters would say that it is a little overdue, but it is welcome none the less. I make the same point for commuters on my West Anglia route. That franchise is due to be awarded during the summer.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject, on which, certainly in the case of the West Anglia line, we have worked together closely and in united fashion to try to get improvements for our constituents. Does he agree that, although it is true that most of the problems have stemmed from Network Rail’s area of responsibility, failure of the rolling stock has been increasing lately as it is so tired and old? It is crucial not only for reliability that we have new rolling stock on the West Anglia line but that that rolling stock can take advantage of improvements in the rail line speeds that can be achieved. Those improvements can not be achieved using the existing rolling stock.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows more about the rail system than I have ever begun to understand. He is right that the link between rolling stock and infrastructure is sometimes not represented properly in decision making, with the net result that the paying passenger loses out.

That is why I would look at the invitation to tender documents for the new franchise. The documents do not specify new rolling stock as a precondition. Personally, I wish they did, but, to be fair, the Government have inserted much higher standards for rolling stock than we currently endure—I use that word carefully. From my reading of the tender documents, which I have here, the bidders would find it pretty difficult, if not impossible, not to include rolling stock in order to fulfil the wider franchise aims.

Following on from what my right hon. Friend said, I say to the Minister that, when considering bids, the Government need to ensure that an applicant has a clear commitment, first, to replacing all the existing stock and, secondly, to securing stock of at least the highest current standards. Most importantly, any new rolling stock resulting from the new franchise should come to the West Anglia route rather than go elsewhere in the franchise area or—even more galling—whizz past us on the Stansted Express. I appreciate that the Minister cannot get ahead of herself in the bidding process, but I hope that she will at least acknowledge those points in her remarks and take them away with her when considering any bids that come forth this summer.

Finally, I come to the capacity of the rail system itself. Frankly, the Hertford loop and the West Anglia lines are full to bursting at commuter time. The population is growing locally, as it is in north London, through Hertfordshire and in Cambridge, yet the capacity of the infrastructure, truth be told, is set largely by passenger numbers determined 20 or 30 years ago. As a result, the whole system is at full stretch, which is why, on the league table of the most overcrowded services, our lines—the West Anglia line and the Hertford loop—are at the top of the list of shame. It is also why when a small problem occurs the whole system often grinds to a halt: there is no slack or room for error.

The West Anglia line should have four tracks between Coppermill Junction and Broxbourne. That would double track capacity into London in a key area where many bottlenecks occur, especially at peak time. My right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst and I have been arguing that case for at least five years; we regarded ourselves as lone voices in the debate, but in the last 18 months we have been joined by colleagues from along the line and across the party political divide. We are also now backed by leading business voices, the principal local authorities, the universities and Stansted airport. We have the support of the Mayor of London and Transport for London—a prerequisite for any possibility of a Crossrail 2 development.

I strongly support the Government’s decision to establish a West Anglia taskforce, ably led by my right hon. Friend, who I know is busy preparing the business and financial case for that long-term investment, but I say to the House and to the Minister that as the full benefits of four-tracking are almost certainly some years away, we must also ensure that planned works for the current control period focus on reducing delays and congestion wherever possible. After all, if most delays on the West Anglia line relate to signalling or other infrastructure, we cannot wait until four-tracking is complete to start tackling the problem. Again, I ask the Minister to set out in her response what works are being undertaken by Network Rail over the next few years to improve the reliability of the service on the Hertford loop and the two West Anglia lines. When will those works start to show improvements for my constituency?

Commuters from my constituency pay a lot of money for a service that they all too often find unreliable, unpleasant or just unacceptable. We must ensure that when things go wrong, they are compensated properly and automatically. We must provide them with modern, clean and pleasant carriages in which to travel, and we must invest in key infrastructure to ensure that as demand for the service grows, the system can cope and can deliver people to work and home reliably and promptly. As the awarding of the new franchise for Greater Anglia nears, I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on the points that I have raised and respond to the questions that I have asked.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 11:14 am, 1st March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is always a pleasure to respond to debates called by my hon. Friend Mr Prisk and attended assiduously by our right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, because the arguments are always eloquently made and extremely well informed. I know that both of them have been dedicated for many years to securing the best possible service for their commuting constituents, as am I.

My hon. Friend raised many interesting points, and in the time available I will focus on three of them. On the important issue of compensation, ultimately we all want the same thing: a timely and reliable train service. If we had that, there would be no need for compensation because passengers would not be delayed. We are working hard as a Department and an industry to deliver solutions to the problems he mentioned, particularly failures by Network Rail. He is absolutely right to say that Abellio Greater Anglia has worked extremely hard to solve many of its own internal issues, and of course there are still problems, such as trains breaking down, partly as a result of the ageing fleet, but ultimately everything hinges on the relationship between Network Rail and the operator. We will shortly publish the results of the Nicola Shaw review, which considers some of the fundamental questions about how to join up Network Rail’s activities and those of operators in ways that focus entirely on delivering for both passengers and freight customers. I cannot say more about it, but I look forward to seeing the proposals.

It is important when things do not work that passengers have quick, easy and in many cases automatic access to appropriate compensation. We have some of the most generous compensation schemes in Europe for rail passengers. Through the “delay repay” scheme, we already offer relatively generous levels of compensation: passengers can claim back 50% of their ticket price if they are delayed for 30 minutes or more. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, given that the average journey time from Hertford East to Liverpool Street is only 49 minutes, that is not necessarily particularly helpful for his constituents. We want the system to be even better, which is why we committed in our manifesto—the Chancellor has since confirmed that commitment—to reduce the threshold for compensation from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. I intend to announce the details of the change in the next few months. It is always a commercial negotiation when we deal with the rail industry, and we want to ensure that we secure the right deal for taxpayers.

Given the timing of the franchise competition, to which my hon. Friend referred, that will become an in-franchise change for both Abellio Greater Anglia and Govia Thameslink Railway, which already operates as the franchise holder. It is entirely consistent with what we have done in many cases. We intend to roll out the system right across England, so it will become a relevant negotiation to have with franchise operators.

Of course, we are not standing still on compensation. We made some changes last year to the national conditions of carriage so that passengers can claim compensation in cash instead of rail vouchers. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the industry must do better. I pay tribute to Which?—a fine consumer-focused campaigning organisation. We are considering the responses to the Which? super-complaint and working with Transport Focus to ensure that operators publicise the compensation that they offer, because the data suggest that only 12% of passengers who are entitled to compensation bother to claim it. That is unacceptable. We want to ensure that the offer is widely publicised and available.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that last week c2c, which runs the franchises into London from the east, introduced a pence per minute automatic delay scheme. If a train is delayed for more than two minutes, passengers will start to receive compensation automatically if they are registered for a c2c smartcard ticket. He will be pleased to know that Abellio Greater Anglia, which is also part of the south-east flexible ticketing programme funded by the Government, will introduce its own smartcard next month. It is expected to launch in Cambridge and then roll out across the network, giving the operator the opportunity to introduce a similar system to c2c’s, so that signed-up smartcard users can receive compensation automatically, without having to do anything about it. I am sure that we all welcome that.

Photo of Mark Prisk Mark Prisk Conservative, Hertford and Stortford

The Minister’s comments are encouraging. To return to the advent of the new franchise, she described the 15-minute rule as an in-franchise agreement. Does that mean it will be discussed at the time the franchise is let, or will it be negotiated across that period and perhaps introduced later?

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

The proposal is to introduce it across all UK franchises at the same time. We will not wait for franchise renewal to come up; it will be introduced. In some cases, where it cannot be introduced as a franchise commitment, it will be funded by Government. We have funding for that, and we are absolutely determined to do it.

The second issue my hon. Friend spoke about is rolling stock. As he pointed out, many of his constituents travel on trains that date from the 1970s, which was a fine decade for fashion but not necessarily a fine one for train quality. Although those trains are still running reliably, which is a tribute to the way they were made and the way they are maintained, they are the oldest electric rolling stock in the country. As both he and our right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden know, the bidders for the new East Anglia franchise have been challenged to specify a massive improvement in the quality of the trains they will run.

In fact, the way we let franchising now is based on both the financial aspects of the bid and the quality that will be delivered. That quality is referred to as the Q score and the weighting for rolling stock quality has never been higher than in this franchise. It is the most significant weighting that has ever been given to rolling stock and we absolutely expect that bidders will include new rolling stock in their bids. That is because, as has been pointed out, the journey time improvements in particular cannot be achieved with the speeds that the existing rolling stock can achieve.

As always, there is a balance to be struck between taxpayers and fare payers, so rather than specify exactly what bidders should do, we have given them the freedom to deliver what they think will give the best performance for passengers. Having visited the CrossCountry franchise only last week and seen the refurbished class 170 trains, I can assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that customers often cannot tell whether a train is new or refurbished to 21st century standards, because in either case it will have the appropriate toilet facilities, and brand new seating and lighting. To all intents and purposes, it looks and feels like a brand new train. That quality is what we are looking for bidders to propose, and my expectation is that the bids will include a high concentration of new rolling stock.

We will also for the first time hold the successful bidder to account contractually for the improvements that they propose for the franchise. We are introducing a contractual customer experience regime, with tough penalties if the operator fails to deliver. At the moment, we have lots of feedback and information, but this will be the first time that we have contractualised those customer experience obligations, with financial penalties if the successful bidder fails to deliver.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we will see improvements on Great Northern lines, and his constituents will see those improvements even sooner. The deal that was announced last week to replace the wonderful 1976 trains with 25 new six-car trains will bring benefits in 2018. It is worth mentioning that the deal, which is worth just over £200 million, will create jobs right across the UK supply chain from Poole to Hebburn and provide much-needed capacity. My hon. Friend pointed out the capacity problems on the routes, so we can all welcome the improvement.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of what can be done about track capacity. Indeed, he and our right hon. Friend are not lone voices. Our hon. Friend Mr Walker campaigns vigorously on this issue, and support is growing. I am well aware of vocal support for a four-track solution to this long-standing problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford will be aware that it is a difficult problem in terms of the layout of the track and what surrounds it, and in terms of the platforming restrictions at Liverpool Street. However, as time goes on and as the proposals for developments along the Lea valley come to fruition, the economic case that can be made for this work on the track grows ever stronger.

Although there is no four-tracking solution currently on the cards, I remain interested and I am always happy to discuss the subject with my hon. Friend and the broader group of interested people. However, a three-tracking scheme is being delivered in the current period—it will be done by 2019—between Tottenham Hale and Stratford, which will help to relieve some of the capacity squeeze closer to London.

My hon. Friend invited me to specify other works that will be going on. I do not have the details about other works, but I will write to him to let him know what other enhancements and renewals are taking place on his local lines.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Conservative, Saffron Walden

On that point, although I appreciate that the Minister does not have responsibility for airports, there is a problem. Stansted is the only airport in the London system that has sufficient capacity to handle such demand as cannot be satisfied at Gatwick or Heathrow until the Government have decided where an extra runway will be. The problem is that airlines are reluctant to go to Stansted because of the poor quality of the Stansted Express—indeed, trading standards were expressing an interest and wondering whether or not it is right to call it an express, in view of the congestion on the line. Also, that issue has to be reconciled with the ambitions of Transport for London to run a superior Metro service.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will be pleased to know that I think my very first ministerial engagement was to go and welcome the launch of the new Stansted Express, which is the new connection going from Cambridge, which will operate with increased frequency compared with the old service. At that time, I visited Stansted airport, where the new operators of the service take a muscular approach to wanting to deliver more flights and are also very vocal about the restrictions of the rail service. I was pleased that Abellio Greater Anglia was able to work with Stansted to deliver a very early morning service from Liverpool Street, because previously people were going to the airport and sleeping there in order to catch their early morning flights. The growth of Stansted and of the whole region is a very strong supporting point for the underlying investment case for improving track capacity outside Liverpool Street.

Such work always requires us to bring together the voices of the local community, the local MPs, the local airports and the developers who would like to benefit, and to consider the social value that the railway network could bring to people locally if it was improved. It is a difficult case to make but it is certainly one that I would be very interested to hear.

Before I conclude, I wanted to point out that some comfort is being provided by the current passenger satisfaction scores that Abellio Greater Anglia is delivering. In the six months between spring 2015 and autumn 2015, passenger satisfaction rose by six percentage points, which I think is among the highest scores that the company has ever achieved. In particular, there have been improvements in areas that the franchise holder can influence: passenger satisfaction was up by 17% in the company’s dealing with delays; by eight percentage points in its provision of information at stations; and by 11% in its provision of information during journey. What we want is an operator that is very responsive to the needs of its passengers, so that when things go wrong it is absolutely committed to providing information and compensation.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising such important matters. I feel that we are on the cusp of a rail renaissance in this country. We have a Government who are committed to spending almost £40 billion during the next five years on improving the rail network, but that money ultimately has to be seen to benefit customers; it will all be wasted if customers do not see and feel the benefit of it.

I am happy that I have been able to set out for my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend some assurances around the introduction of the compensation offer at 15 minutes and around the fact that new trains have already been contracted to run on the Great Northern lines. Also, I confidently expect that the rolling stock offer that bidders on the AGA franchise will put forward will be better than anything that people in the constituencies of both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend have seen up to now.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.