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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on securing this debate and on providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail services to Maidenhead and Twyford. There are regular direct rail services from both stations to London Paddington. A branch line to Marlow leaves the main line at Maidenhead and one to Henley-on-Thames leaves it at Twyford. Both branch lines have been proposed for designation as community railways under the strategy published by the Strategic Rail Authority in November 2004.

The new timetable introduced on 12 December 2004 is a fully integrated timetable covering both First Great Western and First Great Western Link. It is the most radical restructuring of services into London Paddington for more than a decade. The intended benefits of the new timetable include improved performance, increased capacity, reduced overcrowding and a clearer and more focused management approach to platform capacity at Paddington and Reading.

Before the timetable change in December 2004, there were 12 services between Maidenhead and London Paddington between 7 am and 10 am. There are now 17. The number of weekday services from Twyford to London Paddington between 7 am and 10 am was 13, and that has increased under the December timetable to 18 direct services. From London Paddington to Twyford between 4 pm and 7 pm, there are now 15 direct services, and between London Paddington and Maidenhead, 17 direct services, compared with 13 and 15 respectively before the timetable changes.

Both First Great Western Link and the Strategic Rail Authority are closely monitoring the performance of the new timetable to ensure that it meets its objectives, but it is too early yet to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Commuter operators are required to carry out passenger counts to demonstrate that adequate capacity is provided to accommodate the passengers expected throughout the morning and evening peak periods. That ensures that franchise operators properly address the issue of capacity requirements in peak periods, while accepting the reality that this is a walk-on service and forecasting demand in advance is not an exact science. Train operators must agree with the SRA a timetable and train plan, showing the proposed allocation of rolling stock to services, as necessary to comply with a contractual limit on overcrowding.
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Train operators are subject to financial penalties if they provide less than the agreed capacity. There are specified levels of overcrowding in peak periods that train operators should not exceed. They are 4.5 per cent. above capacity for either peak in isolation, or 3 per cent. for both peaks combined. Figures for First Great Western Link for the count in October 2004 were 2.5 per cent. in the morning peak, 1.5 per cent. in the evening peak, and 2.1 per cent. for both peaks combined. This is an average for all trains in the peak period. Where an operator of London commuter services exceeds levels of train crowding specified in the franchise contract, the SRA can, but is not obliged to, require the train operator to produce an action plan for providing more capacity and alleviating overcrowding.

It is an inescapable fact that the more heavily laden the train, the greater the number of passengers who are likely to be at risk in the event of an accident. Nevertheless, there is no evidence at present to suggest that overcrowding is, in itself, dangerous or actually causes accidents. All rolling stock is designed to run safely even when fully loaded, so the number of passengers does not affect a train's operating performance or its structural integrity.

The Rail Safety and Standards Board is currently researching the health and safety effects of crowding on passengers. First phase results are due to be published shortly. The aim of the work is to establish an understanding of the health and safety issues that may arise as a result of crowding on mainline and underground railways. The research seeks to identify all those situations in which crowding could lead directly to injury or make an accident worse.

Furthermore, the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 places a general duty on employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that workers and others, including passengers, are not exposed to health and safety risks. On the railways, that duty falls largely on train operating companies and on Network Rail, the infrastructure controller, to manage overcrowding on a day-to-day basis.

First Great Western Link ran 82.4 per cent. of its trains to time in the year to 30 September 2004, compared with 74.7 per cent. in the previous 12 months. The average figures for all London area commuter train operators were 84.4 per cent. and 79.7 per cent. respectively. The early weeks of a new timetable often see punctuality slip as the new arrangements become established. However, there is evidence that the new timetable is proving fairly robust. Both First Great Western Link and the SRA are monitoring punctuality and overcrowding. Changes have been incorporated thanks to experience already gained from the new timetable. For example, the 7.27 am service from Twyford is now running more reliably than it did when the timetable was first introduced in December and has been lengthened to 10 coaches.

Mrs. May: I am grateful to First Great Western Link for having doubled the number of coaches on the 7.27 am Adelante, following considerable pressure from me and the passengers to do something about that service. I am listening very carefully to the Minister's response. She quoted an increase in the number of services to Maidenhead and Twyford, but does she accept that the key issue of concern to my constituents
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is the length of journey time? That means that many of them are now crowding on to a smaller number of services because many of the services that have been introduced, to which the Minister refers, are now slower services stopping at every station. It is the length of journey time that is crucial. My constituents want it at 20 to 25 minutes, not at the 35 to 40 minutes that some of those other services take.

Charlotte Atkins: I appreciate the concerns of the right hon. Lady's constituents, and I am sure that those representations will have been taken up by the operators and will be looked at in the context of the complaints that they have received. However, the Department has so far received very few representations from the right hon. Lady's constituents, although obviously she has made representations on their behalf.

An Oxford to London Paddington service at around 8.15 is calling additionally at Maidenhead to help with overcrowding.

Regional planning assessments will form the basis for planning the development of the railway over the next five to 20 years. Those will consider the function of the railway within current and future land use and transport systems, and its role in supporting the economic and wider development objectives of local, regional,
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devolved and central Government. A key objective of the RPAs will be to maximise value for money in pursuit of the Government's objectives for the environment, safety, economy, accessibility and integration. The RPA for the south-west is due to be published in winter 2005.

The SRA's forthcoming great western main line route utilisation strategy was published for consultation in January and will examine service patterns on all train services using the London Paddington corridor, including consideration of the practicality and value of providing or changing commuter services to Maidenhead and Twyford.

Maidenhead and Twyford are well used stations with substantial numbers of commuters, making reliable, punctual services absolutely vital. The future of rail services from both towns is secure and the SRA will be working with First Great Western Link to improve the performance and quality of the services to and from them.

Today, we have had an opportunity to consider the services and for the right hon. Lady to make her points clearly. I am sure that those issues will be noted and taken up by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Question put and agreed to.

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