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25 Jan 2005 : Column 55WH—continued

Rail Services (Worcestershire)

3.30 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to raise an important subject. Worcestershire is overlooked in so many ways and its two principal rail routes to England's first and second cities are no exception. They are the London line—the Cotswold line, in my case, via Pershore, Evesham and Honeybourne to Oxford—and the Birmingham line, or rather lines, via Droitwich and Bromsgrove, or via Hartlebury and Kidderminster.

This debate is timely for three separate reasons. The first is that the Government are on the verge of assuming responsibility for the Strategic Rail Authority, which is currently taking all the decisions on these lines. The second is that the route utilisation strategies have either just been published or are about to be published for both those routes. The third and most urgent reason is that the franchises are both being redrawn. The Central Trains franchise to Birmingham has been broken up into its component parts and on the Cotswold line a new, Greater Western franchise is being created.

I intend to concentrate on the Birmingham services as that is where I have had the greatest volume of complaints about the quality of service. However, I also attach great importance to the strategic potential of the Cotswold line. Complaints about the Birmingham services soared in late 2003, leading to a local meeting organised in Droitwich with commuters and attended, rather bravely I thought, by Mike Haigh and his colleagues from Central Trains. I pay tribute to him for coming into the lion's den and braving the wrath of the commuters.

For a period after that, things appeared to get better, but the volume of complaints has been rising again. I have heard from the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate in Worcester, Margaret Harper, how many people there have raised the issue with her, and I know from my own postbag just how bad things are for my Droitwich commuters.

Let us turn first to the Birmingham services. I received an e-mail a couple of days ago from Jeremy Batt of Ombersley, who said:

That sums up the situation.

I am grateful to Mike Haigh who has provided me with Central Trains' punctuality and reliability information for two key services in each direction, between Worcestershire and Birmingham. The 06.49 from Great Malvern achieves only 63.6 per cent punctuality within 10 minutes. The 07.09 does a bit better at 83.3 per cent but that still means that nearly 17   per cent of trains are arriving late, beyond 10 minutes. Coming back, for the 17.50 from New Street to Worcestershire, only 66.7 per cent of trains make it within 10 minutes and, for the 17.59, the figure is 79.1 per cent. Central Trains' own figures show that there is a real problem with punctuality on services in my constituency.
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I am particularly grateful to two of my constituents, Haydn Lloyd and Michael Norris, for the way they have kept me up-to-date with their experiences. Mr. Lloyd has sent me detailed logs of his commuting experiences between Droitwich and Birmingham, and I quote from his most recent letter, dated 19 December:

He summarises his position by saying:

Michael Norris, who is a particularly diligent correspondent, told Mr. Haigh in an e-mail of 5 January:

This gets a little complicated but it is important to concentrate as it shows how difficult these things are. He continues:

That may sound rather complicated, but it shows how frustrating it is for passengers at Birmingham stations trying to catch trains to Worcestershire. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Transport for the serious interest he has taken in overcrowding on trains when answering my parliamentary questions and correspondence. Overcrowding is a serious issue on trains to Birmingham.

In an e-mail on 17 October, Martin Whitehouse of Evesham said:

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The situation is very bad. That is just some anecdotal information portraying just how bad the services are in our county. At present, services are worse because of the overtime ban caused by the dispute over rest day working. We will not get into that, because it is an industrial relations dispute for Central Trains to sort out with its drivers.

Central Trains has made mistakes. Its timetabling has not always been up to the mark. It has allowed inadequate turnaround time for its trains. I am particularly critical of its failure to stop enough trains at Hartlebury, which would provide a valuable service to my constituents in what is an area of population growth.

On the subject of population growth, one fundamental problem is that passenger volumes are increasing sharply. There is natural population growth, a sharp increase in housing and the success of the Bull Ring development in Birmingham. All are driving more and more people on to the trains, but there has been no planning for increased capacity to cope with increased volumes on those services. The route utilisation strategy is imminent, and I hope that it will have some important and useful things to say about capacity on those services.

I am dismayed by the recently published west midlands regional spatial strategy, which shows no provision for increased investment in transport infrastructure to support the increase in housing in Worcester and Droitwich. We cannot keep cramming into those areas more people who want to commute to Birmingham, unless the transport infrastructure to take them there is provided. There are too many two-car units running, and as four-car units cannot even stop at Bromsgrove station, they are not used on the line. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) supports my view, but she cannot be present today. The Health and Safety Executive must be much more pragmatic about allowing four-car trains to stop at Bromsgrove. Selective door opening is not beyond comprehension; it could and should be achieved. The only long-term solution at Bromsgrove is an extension to enable it to take four-car trains with all doors opening. I hope that my party will include Bromsgrove in a list of priority schemes for improvements, but more must be done now.

Safety is not optional—overcrowded trains are not safe. We have seen some unpleasant accidents at level crossings recently. I was involved in one just over a year ago. People on a seriously overcrowded train could have a much worse experience than those on a train that is acceptably loaded.

Signalling, reliability and adequacy are not good enough. Major improvements are due in the Worcester area, I am told, by 2012, with some hinted at this year. However, we urgently need a new signalling section between Worcester and Droitwich to improve capacity on the line. It has been talked about for years, but when will it happen? In Worcester, improved track layout between Shrub Hill and Foregate Street stations would improve train service flexibility, but there is no sign of that happening. It is talked about, but there is a shift right in time terms all the time. It would be a tremendous improvement, offering flexibility to the operators of trains not only on the Birmingham but on the London services.
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There are too many speed restrictions on the line. It is a little known fact that 65 per cent. of all delays on the Birmingham services are still down to Network Rail and not Central Trains. I remain concerned about the primacy of Centro, the passenger transport executive for the west midlands, which seems to be able to call all the shots on the use of rolling stock and services in the wider west midlands. That means that my constituents are left with a worse service than those who have the good fortune to live in the conurbation.

The Government plan to make that problem worse by giving more powers to the passenger transport executives. The Secretary of State for Transport was helpful on that point in the House recently, so I hope that he will reconsider his proposals.

The size of the franchise area has been too big, which is a problem, although the size is being reduced, which I welcome in principle. However, concerns have been expressed about the continuation of through services in Worcestershire, between Malvern and Droitwich, for example. There are hints that Chiltern Railways, which is the favourite to take on the franchise, does not have the resources to do so. Concerns have also been expressed in the railways press about the thought that has been given to the proposal by the SRA and the Government and about whether they are making things up as they go along—I refer the Minister to the latest edition of Rail magazine.

Finally, information on the Birmingham services is a scandal, on trains and at stations, especially at New Street station, but also at University station, Droitwich station, Worcester Shrub Hill station and Foregate Street station. It is confusing for those who are not experts on how the services run to work out exactly what is happening.

That is a brief and rather rapid synopsis of the Birmingham services, but what of the London services? I am talking about a major inter-city route that has for decades been treated as a sideshow by successive nationalised and privatised operators of the railway. The line was downgraded by the old nationalised British Rail and it is now difficult to achieve the vital improvements that are needed. The line still suffers from a dreadful poverty of aspiration, particularly on the part of the SRA. Passenger volumes are high and growing, but could grow much more if the service were not so irregular and if the service in the middle of the day were better.

Two to three-hour gaps are a regular feature of the timetable. For example, the service from Evesham to London is okay in both directions at peak times and is serviced by the better Adelante trains. However, after 09.02 the next through train to London leaves at 12.37. There is a train at 13.37, an hour later, and then another three-hour gap, until 16.33. That is not the way to build passenger volume on a potentially lucrative route.

The remedies are more straightforward than on the Birmingham services, although I fully acknowledge that they have a price. For example, there could be minor signalling improvements to address the so-called Evesham double stop—the fact that an inter-city 125 pulls in at Evesham station, stops 100 yd later to exchange tokens at the Evesham signal box and then proceeds to Worcester on a single line section. That is
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ridiculous. Even the Severn Valley railway has more modern signalling arrangements than the public railway at that point in my constituency.

We should consider limited re-dualling of the long single track sections. I came here by train this morning and my train was 20 minutes late, largely because we had to wait for a unit coming on to the single line section approaching Moreton-in-Marsh. If there were some passing loops on those single sections, how much better things would be. Full re-dualling of the line should remain on the agenda. I recognise that that is an expensive item and would be some years away, but re-dualling must remain our aspiration for the line.

We could look to the Strategic Rail Authority, and subsequently the Government, to give a higher priority to service levels on the existing infrastructure. I know that First Great Western was anxious to do more on service levels, but that the SRA was not prepared to back it. One major weakness is parking. Parking at Worcester Shrub Hill station is a real problem and I still think that Worcester Parkway station would be one way of encouraging people to drive to the railway and then take a train to their destinations.

Worcester Parkway station is discussed in the route utilisation strategy a little dismissively. The strategy seems to suggest that the station is relevant only for Worcester to London services, but it would also be important for Birmingham to Worcester services. The strategy does not refer to the north-south aspect of that station, so I hope that the Strategic Rail Authority, and subsequently the Government, will consider the proposal afresh.

The route utilisation strategy is in some ways helpful, but overall a disappointment. It acknowledges the impact of single track sections, which is good, although it is a little optimistic about the impact of Adelante trains on the route, it does not acknowledge the infrequency of service outside peak hours and does not acknowledge any possibility of infrastructure improvements to improve service levels on the line. Page 33 of the strategy says that the stakeholder aspiration is to have a full hourly service on the line, but that that is not recommended. The strategy says that potential demand is

and recommends:

In other words, the strategy recommends tinkering at the margins. That is not good enough on a line that could deliver so much more for the county.

On page 39, we read about the possibility of reducing first-class accommodation on the inter-city 125s that serve the line to increase the standard-class accommodation. I came down this morning. I admit I travelled first class, and it was full. The prospect of reducing first-class accommodation seems to be ludicrous. We should be looking at increasing overall capacity of the line, and not fiddling with the construction and configuration of inter-city 125s.
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Finally, in the route utilisation strategy, we read with some hope that the aspiration for a so-called "clockface" timetable—an hourly service, in other words—between Oxford and Worcester is not entirely dismissed. It is:

That is the extent of the SRA's aspiration for these crucial services.

I have rattled through a list of things, and I gave the Minister some guidance in advance of the kind of things I would be saying, which I hope was helpful. A range of things should and could be done to improve the Droitwich service to Birmingham, involving both Government and regional operators and organisations. It is complex, but it can be done. On the London services, it is fundamentally about improving the infrastructure of the line, but no one is talking about that.

I use the train as much as I can, not as much as I would like, because of the timings of some of the services. This morning, as I said, I was 20 minutes late. Last week, and I see the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) here, we were both 35 or 40 minutes late. The service is not good enough and needs to be improved. I hope the Minister will have some words of encouragement for our hard-pressed commuters.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for us to discuss rail services in Worcestershire. He has raised a number of concerns, which I will try to address.

The White Paper, "The Future of Rail", published in July 2004, envisaged that the Strategic Rail Authority would be wound up and its responsibilities transferred to various bodies, including the Department for Transport. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those changes will not be detrimental to the efficient re-letting of franchises during the transitional period. The White Paper also announced our intention to consider how rail passenger franchises could be best aligned with Network Rail's regional and route structure.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): I emphasise the fact that the Department will have a stronger role to play in terms of the organisation of rail services in Worcestershire. Sub-regional capitals such as Worcester need to have a top-class rail service to the regional capital—Birmingham—if my constituents and those of colleagues in Worcestershire are to gain the economic, social and wider environmental benefits that rail services and good public transport links can have. I urge my hon. Friend to use the Department's newfound influence to put right the historic wrong of the way rail services in Worcestershire have been built up over time.

Charlotte Atkins : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is important that we are now taking control of the railway industry by bringing it back in-house to ensure that the issues that arose from privatisation, where we had a disjointed railway service, can be
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addressed and that areas such as Worcestershire, and Worcester in particular, can benefit from much more joined-up thinking.

Mr. Luff : I do not wish to introduce a partisan note, but with, for example, the London service, the major damage to the railway was done well before privatisation. It is not a function of privatisation that we have a problem in the county. It is much more deep-rooted than that.

Charlotte Atkins : The hon. Gentleman has almost implied that privatisation did cause damage. I accept the point that he makes.

The changing of the franchise map is part of the commitment to improve the efficiency of our railways. Those changes will help to encourage joint working between track and train in order to deliver an improved service to customers and help to ensure that efficiency savings through economies of scale are maximised.

On 19 October 2004, the Secretary of State made a statement on the number of franchises, which included the announcement that, following the expiry of the current Central Trains franchise in 2006, its routes will be distributed into the Silverlink, Chiltern, Virgin Cross Country, Midland Mainline and Northern franchises. Work on remapping the routes currently in the Central Trains franchise is at an early stage and no decisions have yet been made on any potential changes to service levels and patterns.

Among the changes to the franchise map announced by the Secretary of State in his statement was the formation of a new Greater Western franchise from existing First Great Western, First Great Western Link, formerly Thames Trains, and Wessex Trains services, following the expiry of current arrangements. The invitation to tender for those services will be issued in the summer and the new franchise is due to run from April 2006. The decision to form the new franchise followed extensive consultation with passenger groups, local and regional stakeholders and the rail industry on the SRA's policy for single franchise operations at major London stations.

The specification for and procurement of the new franchise will be informed by the Greater Western main line route utilisation strategy, which the SRA published for consultation in January. The deadline for responses is 8 April. The RUS aims to make the most efficient use of the existing network, balancing service provision, maintenance access and performance levels, while taking into account anticipated changes in demand. The RUS has come about primarily because of the congestion of train services into Birmingham and rising passenger demand, which we accept. It looks specifically at current crowding and future demand, and will devise a strategy to meet that.

In the consultation document, the SRA acknowledges the aspirations of stakeholders for additional capacity to Worcester and the north Cotswolds. That has been considered as one of a number of options. The RUS notes:

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The SRA's current view is that:

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern about the issues at Evesham. We know that that arises from a rather strange situation where drivers need to stop alongside the signal box to obtain a token from the signalman, giving them permission to pass safely through the single track stretch. Clearly, that should be resolved. Network Rail is examining the possibility of altering the token system, so that the exchange could take place using equipment on the station platform instead of outside the signal box, with the double stopping that exists at present. That would avoid the need to stop twice. The work could be undertaken by the end of 2006, but precise details are not available yet.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Worcester Parkway. Worcester Shrub Hill is not well placed for current passenger demand and if a new parkway station were to replace Shrub Hill it is thought that it would have a strong business case. That would be further strengthened if a new parkway station were linked to and part funded by new development. The SRA is prepared to consider the replacement of Shrub Hill in these circumstances. The local authority has been invited to consider ways of improving the business case for Worcester Parkway.

The SRA says:

possibly providing

The new December 2004 timetable, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, introduced 125 mph class 180 Adelante trains, offering greater capacity and improved on-board facilities to First Great Western Link direct services from Great Malvern to London. For passengers wishing to travel during the day, there are direct trains at 12.21 and 13.21 from Worcester Shrub Hill to London Paddington, each scheduled to take two hours four minutes.

I accept that the hon. Gentleman will set those improvements against the reduction in the number of direct services. However, although the December timetable slightly altered the departure times of daytime services, involving a change at Oxford, the journey time remains the same. Furthermore, many journey opportunities are still offered by connections at Oxford on the Great Western line and from Birmingham on Chiltern and Virgin West Coast services.

Chiltern Railways currently operates as far as Kidderminster on a limited basis, with five trains to London in the morning and five back in the evening, as an extension of its Birmingham Snow Hill to London Marylebone services. Chiltern Railways also offers the hon. Gentleman's constituents regular access to stations to London Marylebone through connections provided
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by Central Trains at Snow Hill. If Chiltern Railways were to operate services beyond Kidderminster, additional rolling stock would need to be secured for the mileage.

Services from Birmingham to Worcestershire will be considered in the forthcoming west midlands route utilisation strategy, which is due for publication in February. There will be a 12-week consultation on that. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has raised his concerns about overcrowding, particularly on the Central Trains route, on many occasions. The RUS will look specifically at that issue.

The hon. Gentleman raised the health and safety issue of train doors opening at the platform at Bromsgrove. Selective door opening would be a possibility, but would
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obviously be expensive as all vehicles would have to be modified to include that as an option. Again, cost becomes a crucial issue.

In conclusion, future planning will be informed by the route utilisation strategies on which the SRA is consulting. The Greater Western main line RUS was published earlier this month, and the west midlands RUS is due to be published in February. Those will be used to develop the Greater Western franchise and to examine services between Worcestershire and Birmingham. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other stakeholders, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), will play a full and valuable role in developing the conclusions.

Question put and agreed to.

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