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Fenchurch Street Line

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

10.36 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : All hon. Members are rightly looking forward to the summer recess. It gives us an opportunity to spend more time with our families. In my case that is initially a novelty. Over the past few years my summer recesses have been ruined by the breaking of a number of political storms. For example, one year the local health authority decided that it would close Basildon and Thurrock accident and emergency unit. Two days before the proposed closure, following a bloody row, we managed to keep the unit open and it is now the finest in the country.

Last year, the post office in Pitsea announced its closure and Tesco decided that it wanted to be the first to have a post office in one of its superstores. The whole matter developed into a fiasco and it was badly handled by both the protagonists.

Tonight, I want to share with the House the fact that on 23 July, for the first time in recent history, a main line station--Fenchurch Street--will close for seven weeks. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Minister has agreed with me that it is appropriate to allow our hon. Friends the Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) and for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) to intervene in the debate, should they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Sadly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) could not be here this evening, but I know that he supports the thrust of my argument.

The closure of Fenchurch Street station will undoubtedly have a devastating effect on a huge number of our constituents. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will comment on British Rail's closure arrangements, and also make some general remarks about the programme for the privatisation of the Fenchurch Street line. We all know that travelling in itself is not a pleasurable experience. Certainly it has not been a pleasurable experience for many commuters in our wonderful part of Essex. I must be very careful about how I relay the awful experience that I shared with my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and other hon. Members when we rode in a railway carriage with the present chairman of British Rail. I say that I must be careful because on the last occasion when I mentioned that experience in the House what I said was deliberately misinterpreted by some of our local socialist councillors, who do not commute to London and who also do not work. The journey that we shared with the chairman of British Rail was fairly frivolous : its purpose was to enable the chairman to experience the awful travelling conditions with us, although I am afraid that he did not acquit himself terribly well during the journey.

I make no criticism of the women and men who work for British Rail ; they do a magnificent job. What they require is leadership. It is no good senior management of British Rail bleating when we embark on a privatisation programme if they do not accept responsibility and line up behind the Government.

My constituency contains three stations--Pitsea, Laindon and Basildon. In spite of the economic downturn, an increasing number of my constituents now commute to

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London ; indeed, I think it would be fair to say that Basildon's constituents are the life blood of many firms in London. Sadly, however, their mode of travel means that they are often treated like cattle : the station has poor facilities in terms of toilets, restaurants, seating and access for the disabled.

When people actually get on to the trains, they are squashed together-- which is not always a pleasurable experience. At one point the service was so bad that British Rail gave out postcards to people getting off the trains, with a number of boxes for people to tick with the excuse that they could give their employers that day. On the return journey, travellers often found that they had to get off at Horndon on the Hill and walk down the track to their destinations. As if that were not bad enough, there are examples of trains going right through their stations. The line has been an absolute shambles, and the current industrial dispute--which Labour, as ever, supports : whatever the strike, Labour supports it regardless of the merits of the argument--is symptomatic of the problem.

I do not wish to be churlish ; I pay tribute to our own rail network, which will offer some sort of service tomorrow. I think it is magnificent that the network has done everything possible to get our commuters to their destination throughout this ridiculous dispute.

In one sense, the LTS--London, Tilbury and Southend--newsline customer letter, issued in spring this year, contained good news. It told us that vital engineering work was being carried out as part of an £83 million resignalling project, including renewal of tracks, overhead electrification and signalling between Fenchurch Street and Limehouse. According to the newsletter, much of the project has been completed owing to work being scheduled to take place at weekends and during the night. It states :

"We know this work will cause severe disruption for many of our customers and we have looked at other options. Unfortunately, the temporary closure of Fenchurch Street Station is essential if this part of the work is to be completed in the shortest time.

The date has been specifically chosen to be at a time when many passengers take their holiday and we hope that this advance warning will encourage others to take theirs at the same time."

Well, really. I hardly think that it will go down well with employers in London if everyone in our part of Essex decides to go on holiday and the idea that some of our constituents can take seven weeks off work is ridiculous.

The letter goes on :

"We are working closely with London Underground and Great Eastern to provide adequate alternatives but we realise that this closure will cause inconvenience to many of our passengers."

It certainly will cause inconvenience. It is being suggested that people from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East will be travelling to Liverpool Street station. I commuted to Liverpool Street for many years. I pay tribute to the Government for the wonderful way in which Liverpool Sreet has been transformed. However, Liverpool Street station is not that near to Fenchurch Street station and that will cause considerable difficulty for many of our constituents.

I must ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he really believes that LTS has correctly estimated and seriously thought through the enormous disruption and convenience to some 30,000 users of the line. Business these days is tough and making a sustainable profit is not easy. Employers' patience is already well stretched with genuine excuses from our constituents. It is not good enough in this day and age to say, "My train was late." I question whether the closure is necessary or whether the

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work could be done in the evening or at the weekend. I hope, for goodness sake, that we will not have the usual fiasco throughout the seven weeks where the work is done for the convenience of the contractors and that they fail to work all day and all night. We must ensure that the work is carried out throughout the entire seven weeks and that it is done to the highest possible quality because a huge amount of public money is being spent on this exercise.

The arrangements during the enforced closure are less than adequate. The press release from LTS dated 16 June is entitled : "Thanks a Million--LTS Rail gives its commuters a million pound loyalty payment."

Who is kidding who ? I hardly think that that is a windfall for our constituents. Anyone with any competence in mathematics can work out that a £50 rail voucher divided over seven weeks is not a great deal of money in compensation. Over the years, our constituents deserve better treatment than that. The offer is vague and totally inadequate.

LTS is suggesting that passengers spread their travelling time by travelling a little later or a little earlier than normal so as to avoid overcrowding. Here we go again. For whose convenience is the service operating ? It should be operating for the fare-paying passengers. British Rail is not paying people to use the trains. Some of my constituents want to cash in a proportion of their yearly season ticket to cover the seven weeks and use alternative transport. It is totally unacceptable that at the moment British Rail is saying no. I hope that LTS will look again at its arrangements.

LTS says that the station is scheduled to reopen on 11 September. I do not believe that the advertisements have given us sufficient information. I wish that our wonderful River Thames could be used throughout the disruption. However, I inquired today to find that the journey from Tilbury to the City takes three hours, so that is not a sensible proposal. However, I am sure that people could come up with other alternatives.

The Labour party does not support privatisation. Let there be no doubt in the minds of our constituents that the Labour party has always opposed privatisation. My constituents could not care less who runs British Rail as long as the journey is comfortable, delivered at an economic price and the trains get to the stations on time. The hypocrisy of socialists is shown clearly when they say to people on their doorsteps, "Isn't it shocking that your taxes are going up ? What we need is more investment in British Rail." Where the devil do they think that such investment will come from ?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Amess : No, I will not.

That investment will come from increased taxes. The idea that there is some nest egg where the money will come from is nonsense. Socialists must be honest with the general public. If the general public are not happy with the amount of taxes that is being collected now, they will never be happy with the taxation that the socialists have in mind for us.

Mr. Mackinlay : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. I hope that it is a genuine point of order ; this is only a half-hour debate.

Mr. Mackinlay : Of course it is, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I have your guidance ? The subject of this debate is exactly the same as the subject that I raised on the Adjournment some time ago. I invited the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) to join me for that debate, which was held in the early hours of the morning. He did not support me ; I sat alone with the Minister

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. As I suspected, that is not a genuine point of order but a misuse of the House's time and it is unfair on the hon. Member who has the half-hour Adjournment debate.

Mr. Amess : Thank you for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member is wrong. I phoned the Table Office at 4.30 am, but the debate had been held earlier. I am afraid that the days of honourable behaviour seem to be out of fashion. [Interruption.]

Can my right hon. Friend tell us who the bidders are for the Fenchurch Street line, what service they are offering managers and the general public and how precisely the privatisation programme will be carried out ? [Interruption.] Socialists could not care less about the rail service. They are interested only in how people vote, which is why they tried to target my constituency in the 1992 election. It did not work then, and I intend to ensure that it does not work next time.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Amess : No, I will not.

Socialists spread their poison by telling the general public that services will deteriorate and that fares will rocket. It is a joke to suggest that services will deteriorate. They say that there will not be an off-peak service and that people will lose their travel cards and their concessionary fares. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us some answers and make this a happy summer recess for everyone and ensure that our constituents get a better deal than the one announced by London, Tilbury and Southend. 10.52 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : I congratulate my hon. and dear Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on initiating a debate on a matter that concerns so many of our constituents--trying to ensure that they get a fair deal from British Rail while it still exists. Thank goodness it is now being phased out.

I should like to say how much I appreciate the presence of my right hon. Friend the Minister. We know that he is here on duty and how much he cares about the Fenchurch Street line--the misery line--which has been one of the disgraces of our public railway service for many years and on which our constituents have experienced the misery of travelling. Not only have signals failed over and again but carriages have been packed. We even had a dead sheep on the line that had not been removed, which gave new meaning to the phrase, "travelling like cattle".

I congratulate the Government on their recent £50 million investment in reviving signals on the line. They have done the best that they can in a hopeless situation. As we have now had the good sense to bring in the private

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sector, I look forward, as I have for many years, to hearing the good news of the company that is likely to get to run our railway. Nobody could possibly run it more inefficiently and ineffectively than British Rail. I congratulate and support my hon. Friend, and look forward with great pleasure to what the Minister is to tell us.

10.54 pm

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Does the Minister agree that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) should speak in the debate ? There are only 12 minutes of it left.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) indicated assent .

Dr. Spink : I shall be very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As well as the resignalling project--I congratulate the Government on providing the funds for that £100 million project--two further advances are needed. One is new rolling stock, and 25 of the 317 sliding- door trains will cascade down from the great northern line to our line at the end of 1995. That will be a great advantage to all our constituents.

The other great change needed is an improvement in the management and worker culture, methods and motivation on our line. That will come through the franchise arrangements, which I strongly welcome. I understand that the new management team of LTS Rail, headed by Chris Kinchin-Smith, has now formally registered its intention to bid for the franchise, with employee participation.

I welcome that, but I tell those people that over the coming months we shall watch most carefully developments in the culture, attitudes and motivation of managers and employees on the line. We shall watch especially carefully the way in which they handle the resignalling project. I hope that they will take on board the points so eloquently made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess). 10.56 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on the great fight that he is putting up for Basildon and for rail passengers-- [Interruption.] --despite the harassment from the Opposition, which seems quite out of place.

I want to make two points. First, we are delighted that the resignalling is going ahead. The line has been starved of investment and it is great that we are to get new signalling, especially as some of the signalling for Fenchurch Street is a little older than me. New signalling represents a big step forward.

Secondly, it must be said that, although the line has been dreadful, there has been a dramatic improvement since Chris Kinchin-Smith and his predecessor took over. My constituents feel that things are getting much better.

I also want to ask two questions. First, when on earth will the Government tell us what is the profit or loss on the Fenchurch Street line ? I have been asking that question for years, and the Minister says that he will tell me when the time is ripe. That is rather like the Government saying that they will tell me when we shall reform the common agricultural policy. I should like to know the figures.

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Secondly, could the Minister tell us what the benefits of privatisation will be ? Unlike the young enthusiasts, as one of the older Members, I have always had some doubts in my mind. However, as we shall be one of the first lines to be privatised, we shall probably derive some bonuses.

The people of Southend have had a bad time. Things are getting a bit better now, but we should like to know what the glorious opportunities ahead are. Will we get cheaper fares ? That would be great. Will we get newer trains ? That would be great too. If the Minister would say when the time will be ripe to tell us the actual financial position of the Fenchurch Street line, I should be more than grateful. Of course, we pay tribute to the huge interest that he has taken in the line.

10.58 pm

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : I pay tribute to my colleagues, not only to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess), who led them, but to my hon. Friends the Members for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), for their continued interest in the future of the line.

Clearly the resignalling scheme is essential ; it will cost about £100 million. The signalling system is worn out, and the reason for 20 per cent. of the faults on the line is that system's ineffectiveness. Everyone welcomes the resignalling.

It is a radical solution to close the station for seven weeks, but I have looked into the question carefully and sought advice from the railway experts, especially those at Railtrack, and I am convinced that closure for seven weeks, although a great burden upon my hon. Friends' constituents, is better than the alternative, which could well be three or more years of part-time working at nights and weekends. That is no way to run a railway. Indeed, I had ministerial responsibility for the docklands light railway, and we all learnt something from that about the ability to run a railway and to improve the infrastructure. Seven weeks is a relatively short period, and I believe that it represents the correct way forward, bearing in mind that the signal box has to be removed, the track realigned at the station and all the old signalling removed.

Are the alternatives capable of handling the 25,000 to 30,000 commuters ? I believe so, especially for those from Laindon, Basildon and Pitsea. I have looked into the alternatives. They include London, Tilbury and Southend trains crossing over to the Great Eastern line and running into Liverpool Street. We believe that some passengers will take that option--perhaps a half. Some trains will run through to Barking and passengers will be able to get off at either Upminster or Barking. Their tickets will be valid on the underground, so they can take the District line services into Tower Hill, Aldgate East and Liverpool Street. There will be a shuttle rail service from Upminster to Romford on the Great Eastern line and more trains will stop at Romford on the Great Eastern Line. Finally, there will be buses to take passengers who prefer to get on the Great Eastern line directly. I can confirm that LTS season tickets will be valid on the buses and on the underground, so there will be no additional payments. I can also tell the House that Ministers will watch developments in July, August and September. There will be duty Ministers, including myself, in the Department. If there are complaints from the travelling public or from

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Members of Parliament, we shall pay immediate attention to them. I can also tell my hon. Friends that we shall ensure that there is a free telephone line for passengers to ask about the availability of alternative services and to complain if the alternative services are not available. I understand that leaflets for passengers will be published shortly. Indeed, there will be an exhibition at Fenchurch Street this Friday.

On franchising, to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East in particular, let me describe the chronology of events and then go on to say what I think the advantages are. We intend that the LTS line should be in the first group of franchises. The intention is that it will be franchised by the end of next year. The pre-qualification procedure will commence at the end of 1994 and the tender documentation will go out to the potential franchisees some time in the spring of next year. I shall then be able to answer my hon. Friend's question because we shall publish the financial data on that line and the other five lines in the first six on or about 1 April 1995.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Minister give way ?

Mr. Freeman : I shall not. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me. I have only a few minutes.

That data will be made available to the House in as much detail as possible because it is a matter of great interest not only to my hon. Friends but to others. I believe that with the line resignalled--we expect that to be completed by next April--and with new modern rolling stock, which will not replace all the rolling stock on the line but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point rightly said, will improve the existing stock--a process that I hope will continue through franchising--we shall have a line that, when it is franchised, will be a first-class performer.

There is interest, and not only from the existing management group. I pay tribute to what the management have achieved. Indeed, I dissociate myself from the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon about the chairman of British Rail. I understand his comments, but I pay tribute to what the chairman, other senior managers and, in particular, the management of the LTS line have achieved. I have looked up the figures for punctuality. We have gone from 78.6 per cent. in 1991, to 89.7 per cent. in 1992 and to 92.8 per cent. in 1993. That is a remarkable achievement, bearing in mind that we do not yet have the fruits of fresh investment in the line. That is a tribute to the management and staff of the line, together with the interest taken by my hon. Friends and by the Department of Transport. They have encouraged and drawn to the attention of the British Rail management the need to improve services. That is a real improvement in punctuality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East asked

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what the advantages are and why we are going through the whole process. We have debated the matter many times before. There are three main advantages. The first is that we shall bring additional private sector capital on to the railways. When the franchise is let, it will have access to private sector capital. That will undoubtedly produce an improvement in investment. It will not happen overnight, but we shall see improvements in the facilities at stations, the improvement of car parking and better information systems available to the travelling public because we shall be freed from Treasury restraint and from the Department's budget.

Secondly, we shall have a management system delegated to the management and the owners of the line. The present management of the LTS line will be involved in future in running the line, whoever is the owner of the franchise company. I very much hope that the present management group will have an equity interest--I hope, a significant equity interest--in the franchise company. I hope that that hope turns out to be reality. However, we want other companies to participate in the franchising process and I am quite confident that that will happen.

I forecast that we shall also get a reduction in fares on the line--not necessarily in the peak period, that would be too much to ask, but for off- peak services, excursion service and contracted services.

Mr. Wilson rose

Mr. Freeman : The hon. Gentleman is tempting me, but I hope that he will forgive me if I respond to the debate. I forecast that we will get those reductions in fares, which will bring a wider benefit to the travelling public. I invite my hon. Friends to visit the line for the ninth time as and when we have franchising.

I believe that, when it is franchised, "the misery line", as it has been depicted in the past, will turn out to mean that the London, Tilbury to Southend line, as a privatised line, will be one of the most successful lines serving the London terminuses. I repeat the commitment that I have given to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon that, during the summer and the seven weeks of inconvenience and disruption, which I believe is sadly inevitable in the best interests of the railway to get the job done quickly, Ministers at the Department of Transport will monitor the situation. We want as few as possible of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon to be inconvenienced. I am quite certain that, with co-operation, with the determination of Railtrack and the management of the London, Tilbury to Southend line, the job will be done properly and quickly and will be completed on time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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