Train Operating Companies: Yorkshire — [Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 19th December 2018.

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Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 9:30 am, 19th December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the performance of train operating companies in Yorkshire.

It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) and Kevin Hollinrake for co-sponsoring this important debate.

Back in June, I stood in the Commons Chamber in a rail debate and my opening words were, “What a mess”. Six months on, I have to repeat that statement: what a mess.

Seven months ago, I had a meeting with Northern rail just ahead of the implementation of the revised timetables. I was unequivocally assured that services would improve and that that would be the answer to a lot of the issues that my constituents were experiencing. I was told that the new timetables had been stress-tested and that everything would be fine. Instead, what we got was absolute, total and utter chaos—and I do not use that word lightly. Trains were delayed and cancelled day after day after day. People were late for work, school and college. Vital medical appointments and even funerals were missed, all because of a half-baked plan that was obviously unworkable from day one. In August, I met TransPennine Express and was given yet more warm words and platitudes, but once again there was very little action.

In my constituency, in the six-month aftermath of the May timetable, Dewsbury and Ravensthorpe stations were in the bottom 10 of all smaller stations in the UK for performance: the eighth and third worst respectively. My neighbouring constituency, Huddersfield, was in same bottom 10 of the league table for larger stations. Minister, I will not allow my constituents to receive such treatment from your Government. Things have to get better.

The picture across the whole of Yorkshire has been bleak, hence the title of the debate. Not a single station in Yorkshire was in the top 100 best performers. I am sure the Minister knows that, given that he also represents a Yorkshire constituency. According to The Yorkshire Post and On Time Trains, only 29% of services had been on time at York and Huddersfield stations since the May timetables were introduced. If we look at the 100 busiest stations in the UK, eight out of the top 10 worst stations for on-time performance in the past six months are within the so-called northern powerhouse, with York and Huddersfield being the two worst in the whole country. If we look at all stations in the UK, Slaithwaite, in the neighbouring constituency of Colne Valley—my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley will talk a little more about this later—has the worst service performance of any station. Again, eight of the 10 worst performing stations in the UK are within the northern powerhouse. In contrast, nine of the top 10 best performing stations in the country are in London. This country does not revolve around the capital city of London; there is much more beyond the M25.

Neither is the picture over recent months greatly improved. Using data from trains.im, the monthly performance figures show the region’s two biggest providers, Northern and TransPennine, offered an abysmal service in November, with only 67% and 65% of trains on time respectively—easily as bad as at the height of the timetable crisis and among the worst in recent years. Apart from Brexit and the NHS, this is the biggest item that comes into my mailbox. I do not know how many times I have seen pictures of timetable boards in various stations with lists of cancelled or delayed trains. It really is not good enough.

I must commend The Yorkshire Post—not always the biggest fan of my party—on the work it has done on this issue, which has been absolutely fantastic and is very much appreciated by the many beleaguered commuters who experience the chaos. Earlier this month, it reported that almost 80 trains a day were being cancelled, with overcrowded services frequently running with reduced numbers of carriages. A new timetable, implemented from last week, thankfully offers some small hope of improvement. The first week went better than the first week of the previous timetable, but that would not be hard to beat. When compared to figures over recent months, significant improvement is yet to be seen. From the available data this month, some 77.7% of Northern’s trains have been running on time, up a feeble 0.1% from May’s mayhem. TransPennine has achieved only 73.4% of trains on time this month, down on the 75.5% achieved in May, but up marginally on figures from June and July.

Passengers are understandably weary of promised improvements, and the Rail Minister’s assurance that the situation has stabilised will undoubtedly be met with a degree of cynicism. For six months, my constituents have been given nothing but empty promises and false assurances. It was bad enough through the summer, but we can add to their misery the recent dark, freezing cold mornings on station platforms that are less than adequate, many with little shelter from the elements, and barely fit for purpose. Compensation was promised, but for many it was never received. Hours were spent filling in forms to no avail. I have heard of rail users who purchase their tickets through corporate reduction schemes being refused compensation. Apparently, because they get a discount on their travel, they should not be entitled to refunds, despite the fact that many pay more than £1,000 a year and the level of inconvenience and lost work hours were the same for them as for everybody else.

An expanded compensation scheme has been announced this week for Northern’s customers, starting with 25% for 15 to 30 minutes’ delay. That is reportedly funded by the Government, not the privately owned operator. Sadly, it is far too little far too late. Why was the money not invested in our rail services to prevent the need for such an enhanced compensation scheme? Even as Northern warns that passengers will not see an improvement in services until May 2019, unbelievably its fares are set to rise by 3.2% in the new year. It is clear that regulated fares should be frozen into the new year. I call on the Minister to back the Transport Committee’s suggestion of discounts for those renewing their season tickets for 2019, meaning no price increase.

My constituent, Sophie, has been commuting from Mirfield in my constituency to Leeds every weekday for the past three years. Sophie is partially sighted and has to rely on public transport to get to work. She wrote to me last week to express her many grave concerns. She spoke about the issues at Mirfield station, which I have been raising for more than three years, and how the platforms lack basic facilities, with one being completely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Indeed, the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability points out that across Yorkshire and the Humber, 33% of train stations are not step-free, making them inaccessible for many disabled people.

Sophie also reports a lack of appropriate shelter against the cold winter elements and how nearly every morning she has to queue to buy a ticket when she arrives in Leeds because the train is so overcrowded that the conductor has not been able to pass through the train, and the one new ticket machine at Mirfield is on the opposite platform and is often out of order. Sophie feels incredibly grateful that she is still in employment. She says that it is solely down to her having an understanding boss who has afforded her the flexibility to work around the many train delays that she has had to endure. The past six months have been hell for Sophie and many people like her.

I also want to mention my constituent, Alex, who works near Manchester. He gets the train every morning from Dewsbury. He has had to take nearly two thirds of next year’s annual leave allocation because of the trains’ lack of punctuality. He feels he is getting to the point where he has to consider whether it is worth making that journey to work every day.