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Rail Services (Thurrock)

1 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Time is short, but I begin by expressing some well-intended and sincere courtesies--first, to you, Mrs. Michie. You travelled from beautiful Argyll to my constituency a while ago, and that visit was much appreciated. Although there is a great contrast between our constituencies, you will have seen the Lowryesque beauty along the river frontage at Thurrock.

I also welcome my real friend--I do not say that to everybody--the Minister. He and I have collaborated over many years and served on the Transport Committee under the distinguished leadership of the late Conservative Member, Robert Adley, who used the phrase, "Poll tax on wheels," in relation to rail privatisation. I mention that because many of the problems that I shall address have their roots in the absurd rail privatisation pushed through by the previous Administration in the face of criticism from Robert Adley and other Conservative Members who dominated the Transport Committee when the Minister and I were members of it.

I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who represents about a third of the borough of Thurrock and has two c2c railway stations in her constituency. I have six: South Ockendon; Chafford Hundred, which serves the Lakeside shopping centre; Purfleet; Grays; Tilbury; and East Tilbury. This is an aside, not the main thrust of my complaint, but c2c is a daft name for a railway and totally meaningless. It is indicative of the kind of people who are trying to run the service that they chose such an absurd name.

I have been seeking for a long time to initiate this debate and much of what I have to say pre-dates Hatfield, so it is no good the operators, or Railtrack for that matter, using it as an excuse when they read or comment on my observations. I shall also refer to the leasing companies: they, too, are signally failing my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon.

I have a catalogue of complaints--primarily against the rail operator, but also, to some extent, against Railtrack and the leasing companies. I raise them not only as the Member of Parliament representing constituents who are suffering from this service failure, but as a commuter and user of trains myself. I find, as does my council, that we can no longer acquiesce by our silence in abysmal service failure and ripping off the travelling public.

Following a council meeting on 29 November, the leader of the council wrote to the shadow Strategic Rail Authority to draw attention to a unanimously agreed motion

He continued:

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He reiterates the view that I share: if and when an opportunity arises to take the franchise away from those operators, the sooner it is taken away the better.

The vein running through all the complaints is that the company simply does not care and does not want the public to have access to it. If hon. Members think that that is an exaggeration, they should study the company letterhead--it does not contain a telephone number. What organisation, except c2c, does not have a telephone number on its letterhead? That is a small example of its general approach to customer communications, and my constituents find, as I do, that even if they can find a number for c2c and try to contact the company, the telephone rings and rings. There is rarely any response.

A constituent wrote to me at the beginning of January saying:

I understand that she works for c2c--

by the previous Tory Government--

Last summer, I contacted Bill O'Connor, the c2c operations manager, about the indicator boards all along the line and in particular at West Ham, where I encountered a failure. The boards are often changed after trains have departed, giving incorrect information about the destination of the departing train or one that is about to arrive. The company's failure to communicate was admitted in a letter to another constituent, Mr. B. Newell of Grays, on 8 January. Annette Ayers, the customer relations officer, said:

My constituent Pauline Cridland wrote to me on 2 November saying:

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right along the system.

That problem is compounded by frequent platform changes, mainly at Fenchurch Street. Severe congestion has caused safety hazards at Fenchurch Street when people have been told to get on a train to a particular destination, only to be informed that the platform has been changed. They either had to return to the overcrowded concourse or find a new train. That happens all too frequently.

On 21 September, I wrote to the same Bill O'Connor to complain about the problems caused by a train cancellation at Tilbury. Communication was totally absent and those of us on the platform were bewildered to see a fast train rush through past Tilbury Town station towards London. It did not stop to remedy the cancellation of the earlier train. When I tackled him about that, he tried to blame Railtrack, saying that it often demands the company to run trains past for operational reasons. I said that that was unacceptable and that I wanted from him documentation as to how often that happened. Mr. O'Connor then conceded that the operators sometimes decided to accelerate a train to pass through a station. I asked for a list showing when Railtrack had demanded that a train rush through stations leaving people on the platform, and how often the operator had made that decision. I got no reply, although I pressed him and pressed him. The letter that I eventually received still did not answer the question, which is indicative of the fact that the operators will blame Railtrack whenever they can. Railtrack may sometimes be to blame, but my view is that operators deliberately try to fudge the issue by blaming others when the failure is theirs.

In October, I complained to the operations manager--wait for it, the same Bill O'Connor--about the fact that Tilbury Town station had no ticket machine on the upside. There was not even a machine dispensing permits to travel. It will not have escaped your notice, Mrs. Michie, that MPs have to have a rail ticket when travelling. Their spouses, too, have discovered that, and it is also true for the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They need and want to buy a ticket. Only last week, however--after I had secured my debate--did the company begin the process of installing the necessary ticket machine. I am told that it is now removing the machine on the downside, which will mean a further delay.

All that represents an abysmal failure on the operators' part to ensure that those who wish to buy tickets can do so, thus avoiding anxiety and embarrassment or missing a train--which often happens, especially if there is a queue at the booking office or if no booking office is open. That, too, often happens. Similar problems have occurred at Grays, where ticket machines have not been working. This Bill O'Connor, the operations manager, is either unable or unwilling to respond to my complaints and those of others, which is quite unacceptable.

My constituent Noel Edwards, who represents the cycling interest, says that c2c is wholly insensitive to the needs of cyclists. He says that the company is overbearing and too rigid, lacking flexibility in regard to the access that it gives cyclists. Because time is limited, I

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will pass my constituent's representations to the Minister, and, obviously, will refer them to c2c. I wanted to mention the matter, because the constituent--very courteously--had written to me about it.

There is another enormously irritating problem affecting those who, in the middle of the night--well, at about nine or 10 in the evening--want to return to Essex, and have to decide whether to travel to Fenchurch Street or Liverpool Street. It is absurd that the arrangements should change at that time of night. Moreover, after Hatfield--this is the one aspect of Hatfield that I shall mention--the system was altered to involve all trains leaving Fenchurch Street. Although I personally welcomed the change, some of my constituents may find it less convenient. The point is, however, that the company did not communicate with its customers--my constituents, and those of other Members--about what was an arbitrary and sudden alteration. We need some certainty in the evenings: we need to know whether we should catch our trains at Fenchurch Street or Liverpool Street. In fact, I think there should be only one terminus, and I hope the Minister will look into that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon will probably concentrate on the issue of rolling stock. Having engaged in informal chats with the Minister, I know that he shares my concern, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. The fact is, however, that we have clapped-out slam-door trains, almost as old as me. Not only are they old and decrepit; they often fail, which means reduced accommodation and overcrowding. We now need to blow the whistle: someone is to blame, and someone must pay. We certainly will not tolerate the situation any longer.

As I have said, this is a mean company. It is so mean that it will not even buy labels to put on its maps of the railway network to show, for instance, that there is a railway station at West Ham. That is so mean! I almost want to treat the company to some labels.

The point is not unimportant. We are talking about a major new station linking the network to the Jubilee line, which c2c will not even advertise on its maps. Furthermore, the station represents an important part of our transport strategy, and was provided at enormous expense by the taxpayer.

In the couple of minutes that remain, I want to raise important issues that are blurred, in that it is not clear whether the operator or Railtrack is responsible. For one thing, Tilbury Town station provides no access for disabled people. At a meeting with the Council, Railtrack and c2c on 12 December, I demanded an immediate remedy.

I should describe the station. All the residential accommodation is on the north side, facing towards Southend; there are no residential properties on the south side, which faces London. Any disabled person wishing to go to London, or to go west to Grays, must travel for a mile to reach the other side of the station. There is a footbridge, but disabled people will not be able to use it. That too is unacceptable.

Before anyone says, "It must have been the same for a hundred years," let me say that that is not so. In the old days there were platform ramps, but those--rightly, in fact--have been removed for safety reasons.

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We need an immediate remedy. I know that the Minister also has responsibility for mobility, and I know that--against his better judgment--he has agreed to visit my constituency soon and to look at the line. In the meantime, however, I hope he will press the operators at least to accept an interim remedy. I stress the word "interim". A bus, which is part of the network, waits for every train arrival at Tilbury Town station to take passengers to what was Tilbury Riverside station, which has now closed. It could be used to convey people from the north side to the south side, where the booking office is--a mile-long journey. We suggested that to c2c, but again there was no response, which I find deeply disappointing.

I am concerned about representations I have received from Mr. B. Sheppard, of East Tilbury residents and tenants association. He drew attention to the repeated failure of the automatic barriers at East Tilbury station, which have caused many delays. We are talking about an isolated community. I use the word "isolated" deliberately: if the road that contains the level crossing were not accessible, the community would be more or less cut off. Apart from the frustration experienced by residents finding barriers closed and apparently unliftable, there are serious problems for the emergency services. The matter has repeatedly been drawn to the attention of Railtrack and, to some extent, that of the operators, but we are not satisfied, and I hope that the Minister will apply pressure.

Let me raise another blurred issue. The late operators of the LTS line built a rather attractive new station at Tilbury, thus improving our environment. We now find, however, that--on land leased by the operators and owned by Railtrack--an unauthorised, illegal advertisement hoarding has been put up in front of the station. Despite being asked by my local authority to remove it, the company is disregarding those representations. It is unacceptable that a so-called responsible organisation should allow its agents to continue their illegal advertising despite requests by the local planning authority. It shows the organisation's disregard for the community.

Time does not allow me to raise the many more issues I should like to raise, but it is interesting to note that following the securing of an Adjournment debate it is possible to get some action after months of representations, on such matters as ticket machines. Yesterday the company's press officer telephoned me--the audacity of it!--asking what issues I intended to raise. He received no response, of course, but in such circumstances people start to panic.

C2c--silly name, as I have said--is a wholly-owned subsidiary of National Express. National Express should be ashamed of the way in which its company is managed. It cannot hide its responsibility, and I will not let it forget that if and when it seeks a franchise for another line, or the renewal of its present franchise.

1.18 pm

Angela Smith (Basildon): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on securing the debate--I envy him that--and also on his choice of debate. His forceful manner conveyed the frustration and anger felt by us and our constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving up some of his time to enable me to add weight to his arguments. We are not talking about isolated incidents, or about moaning

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constituents; we are talking about a day-in, day-out grind. People are having to deal with a second-rate service that is entirely inadequate for their needs.

In the last couple of days, my constituent Denise Cooper found that 13 of the 20 train journeys that she had to make to commute to London were delayed. I do not think that my constituents should tolerate that.

After many, many letters to c2c, I asked the director and general manager, Mr. Andrew Chivers, to meet me here at the House of Commons, and he did. We had a long discussion about what kind of service we should expect. The main problem seems to be the inadequacy of the current rolling stock and the fact that the new rolling stock that was ordered was untried, untested and had no track record--pardon the pun. However, it has been bought and paid for by c2c.

I want an assurance from c2c--I am sorry to say that I have not received one--that it is doing all it can to put pressure on Adtranz to deliver the trains that the line needs. This has gone on for more than two years and I am not satisfied that enough pressure is being brought to bear on behalf of my constituents. Following that meeting, I remained deeply dissatisfied.

On 15 December, I received a letter from Mr. Chivers in which he picked up on some of the issues that I had raised at the meeting, including my two local stations where disabled access is extremely poor. He said that he would report progress on new train introduction in mid-January 2001. It is now getting towards late January; the company's timekeeping in terms of keeping a promise to a Member of Parliament is indicative of the way in which it treats the people who pay for an inadequate rail service. If the company cannot respond to me on time, it is no wonder that it cannot run its trains on time.

I do not think it is too much for constituents in Thurrock to ask for a decent train service; a service that they are paying for. Trains are dirty, late and overcrowded. I wonder how long people will have to tolerate this before c2c gets its finger out and does something.

1.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I begin, as is usual, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services on the c2c network, formerly known as London, Tilbury and Southend--or LTS--Rail. I am grateful to my hon. Friend--a true friend--for his courtesy in giving me advance notice of his many issues of concern. In the course of this debate, my hon. Friend has fully justified his reputation as a most assiduous advocate of his constituents' interests. I agree to his request to visit his constituency and I hope to make arrangements to do so in due course.

I pay tribute also to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) for her vigorous representations on behalf of her constituents. I take seriously the issues that she has raised and I hope to deal with as many of them as possible in the rather constrained period that I have remaining to me in the debate.

The tragic accident at Hatfield and the subsequent widespread disruptions resulting from the imposition of emergency speed restrictions and Railtrack's track

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recovery programme have had huge ramifications for the railways. However, unlike the majority of train operators, c2c has not had to implement an emergency timetable and has managed to operate services pretty much as normal. My hon. Friends would argue that "normal" is not very satisfactory. The company has three speed restrictions in place. I know that Railtrack is working hard to remove all speed restrictions as soon as possible, and it is to be hoped that the remaining speed restrictions on c2c's network will be removed in the coming weeks.

Although c2c passengers have avoided the worst of the disruptions suffered by other passengers in recent months, c2c's performance in general--as my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon has made clear--has been far from satisfactory over the last year. In the autumn national passenger survey, only 63 per cent. of passengers were satisfied with their journey and 21 per cent. were dissatisfied. Only 33 per cent. of passengers thought c2c provided value for money. Compared with the 10 other train operators serving London and the south-east, only Silverlink trains scored lower than c2c on value for money.

The company has agreed with the shadow Strategic Rail Authority an action plan to address the concerns that the survey highlighted. My hon. Friends will be pleased to hear that this includes measures to improve communication with passengers, both on train running information at stations and in responding to feedback from passengers. The shadow Strategic Rail Authority is monitoring progress with the plan and I hope that tangible improvements will be seen in the near future.

I am pleased that, in recent weeks, there have been improvements in c2c's performance. However, I know that technical problems with new rolling stock introduced last year have caused widespread disruption and overcrowding, particularly on peak services. Passengers who had looked forward to travelling in comfort on new, reliable, state-of-the-art trains are understandably frustrated and disappointed.

Faulty electrics and software problems rendered the new trains unreliable and prone to breakdown. Of the 44 units that were contracted to be in operation by November 1999, only 12 have been introduced. These are currently being used to provide off-peak services only and will not be used for peak services until c2c is confident that they will provide a reliable service.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister asked Sir Alastair Morton, chairman of the shadow 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. Some progress has been made, but clearly there is much more to do. I assure my hon. Friends that Ministers will continue to meet manufacturers and make it clear to them that their current performance in delivering new, reliable stock is simply not acceptable. Manufacturers must redouble their efforts to provide new stock on time and to ensure that new stock is reliable from the word go.

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In the light of c2c's rolling stock delivery problems, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority negotiated with c2c a package of passenger benefits to compensate passengers for the late introduction of the new stock. This included an increase from 44 to 46 in the order of new units and a commitment to procure a second tranche of 26 new four-car trains to be delivered and in service by 30 June 2002 to deal with the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock--the replacement of c2c's remaining slam-door stock. The company is also committed to extending booking office hours at various stations.

Further passenger benefits were also negotiated in June last year when the shadow 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. Under the agreement, the c2c franchise is retained through to 2011. Prism committed itself to investing £20.5 million in areas to be agreed with the shadow Strategic Rail Authority. In addition, closed-circuit television will be fitted in all of the current order of 46 new trains.

Shortly after that deal was struck, the National Express group agreed to buy out Prism. I am pleased that National Express has undertaken to honour the obligations that Prism entered into and is currently working with the shadow 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 the Member for Thurrock also raised the issue of the access arrangements for disabled passengers at Tilbury. He may be aware that, under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, we have introduced accessibility regulations for new trains to ensure that disabled people, including wheelchair users, are able to travel by rail in safety and reasonable comfort.

I appreciate the serious difficulties that can arise for disabled people who wish to travel from stations where there is no accessible link between the platforms. The provisions of the Act should go some way to improving such access arrangements. Railway stations are covered by part III, which deals with access to goods, services and facilities. Since October 1999, station operators have had to take reasonable steps to change practices, policies or procedures which make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service; for example, by providing information in Braille to enable disabled people to use a service, and overcoming physical barriers by providing a service by a reasonable alternative method. There is no prescriptive regulation which sets down what is required, but in the case of a station with access to only one platform, it might be judged to involve the use of an accessible taxi to take the passenger between platforms.

From 2004, operators will have to take reasonable steps to remove, alter or provide a reasonable means of avoiding physical features that make it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to use a service; for example, by the provision of a ramp to allow wheelchair access to the station.

I regret that I am unable to pursue such matters in greater detail, but I hope that, in my brief remarks, I have been able to give some comfort to my hon. Friends about the planned improvements to rail services in their

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constituencies. Once the new rolling stock is fully introduced and the £20.5 million of additional investment comes to fruition, I am certain that c2c passengers will enjoy a more reliable and comfortable service.

It should not be forgotten that, not so many years ago, what is now the c2c network was frequently described in the press as British Rail's misery line. We hope that those days will be over in the foreseeable future.

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