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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 24 January 2007

[Mr. Peter Atkinson in the Chair]

First Great Western

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): This is the first time that I have spoken under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson, and I look forward to being guided by you throughout the debate.

The debate is about First Great Western commuter services. I shall speak specifically about the services that run from Didcot Parkway railway station in my constituency, but I shall also make some remarks on behalf of other hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and the hon. Members for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), none of whom can be here. I also present apologies on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson), who had hoped to speak in the debate but is currently stuck on a First Great Western train between Reading and Paddington. If the debate was interactive, no doubt we could receive BlackBerry text messages from him, updating us on the service.

Didcot Parkway dominates the town of Didcot. It is the reason, pretty much, for the existence of Didcot, and every day it takes thousands of passengers to London as well as taking passengers to Swindon and Bristol. In December 2005, First Great Western re-won the rail franchise for a further seven years, with the opportunity to extend it for another three. Many colleagues, from all parties, were pleased with that result. We had no reason to doubt that First Great Western would provide a good service, and many of us—[Laughter.] That is my first remark on behalf of the hon. Member for Reading, West.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I apologise to hon. Members, including the Minister, because I shall not be able to stay for the whole debate, but I did introduce an Adjournment debate last week on this issue. Some of us were very concerned when First Great Western was given the whole franchise, not simply because it was First Great Western, but because we were concerned that the concept of merging a commuter franchise with a long-distance franchise meant that commuter services would lose out, and I am sure that that is exactly what has happened.

Mr. Vaizey: I certainly appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point. I know that, in her constituency, the loss of the separate franchise held by Thames Trains has had a very bad effect. Speaking personally, however, I had no problem with First Great Western winning the franchise at the time.

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Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead, I cannot stay for the whole debate, because of Select Committee business. I had hoped to be able to pour praise on the Minister for the announcement that he made about the potential redoubling of the Cotswold line, which could solve many of the problems in Worcestershire. I should like to express my gratitude to him at length, but I cannot do that. However, I have severe reservations about the management ability of First Great Western and, in particular, about its management of the franchise that we are debating. Repeatedly, its service between Worcestershire and London has descended into chaos, and that is true again now. The problems include very long delays, the wrong rolling stock and a timetable that does not enable my constituents, for example, to commute back to Worcester. I do not think that the company is up to the job.

Mr. Vaizey: I am coming to that point. I was speaking about my feelings 18 months ago. They have changed, I can assure hon. Members. At the time, the then Secretary of State for Transport, who is now the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, shared my optimism. He wrote to me to say that

He told Parliament that on both franchises the contracts would

At the time, First Great Western wrote to me, in memorable words:

It has certainly done that, but not in the way it intended.

Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. If First Great Western is the benchmark by which other rail companies will be judged, I am sure that it is very pleased with that. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, particularly on longer services, such as those from my area of Cornwall, customers find that refreshment services that are advertised are in fact not available for large parts of the journey? That is a particular inconvenience and could be a problem for many travellers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that issue ought to be addressed by the company?

Mr. Vaizey: That is absolutely the case. I understand that First Great Western is now also laying off some travelling chefs, and of course the trolley on commuter services is complete fiction because, as passengers are packed in like sardines, it would take a Houdini to get the trolley from one end of the train to the other.

First Great Western did carry out a consultation on the proposed new timetable that was to come into force in December 2006. The company heard from 9,500 separate correspondents, but one has to question
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whether it listened to a single one. One correspondent—me—wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport and to First Great Western on 5 September saying that

At the time, consulting only the timetable, I was blissfully unaware that shorter trains were also about to be brought into service. I met the head of First Great Western and the then Minister responsible for rail, who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). We saved one train, the 05.46, but nothing else was changed.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Will he join me in condemning the decision made by First Great Western to terminate the important 15.15 service between London Paddington and Swansea at Cardiff? Unlike its fellow Welsh operators, which are doing exceptionally well, First Great Western is at the bottom of the pile. The company has had to reverse a number of timetable decisions on services in England. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it should now do the same for Welsh customers?

Mr. Vaizey: I could not agree more. Since introducing the new timetable in December 2006, First Great Western has set

and created a new, very low benchmark by which all rail travel can be judged. To put it bluntly, since the introduction of the new timetable, commuters in my constituency using Didcot Parkway have received an abominable service. They have suffered a quadruple whammy. First, the new timetable means that there are fewer fast trains in the morning or evening. Secondly, the replacement of high-speed trains with Adelantes means that most trains arriving at Didcot are already full to the brim. Most commuters cannot get on at Didcot. If they do manage to get on, they are packed like sardines. I understand from the newspapers that the Office of Rail Regulation says that that is the safest way to travel now. Some people are even being forced to stand three to a lavatory. Thirdly, and to make matters even worse, it is now routine—a daily occurrence—for trains to be delayed or cancelled, and fourthly, to add insult to injury, all that has happened at the same time as massive fare increases and huge hikes in parking charges.

I shall give just a few specifics. There is now no train at all from Didcot to Paddington between 07.07 and 07.30. Seating capacity has been massively reduced. Some estimates are that it has fallen from 1,800 seats to just 600 at peak times. Two fast evening services from Paddington to Didcot have gone. There is barely a service between Oxford and Didcot in the morning now, and it is almost impossible to connect to any train leaving Didcot going west. For those travelling from
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Didcot to Swindon in the morning, the service is completely surreal. People get on the 07.41 and then have to wait at Swindon for 40 minutes to catch the 08.50. They therefore arrive at work late. If someone wants to get from Didcot to Bristol in time for work, they have to get the 06.24. A first-class season ticket now costs £6,800 a year; there has been a 15 per cent. increase this year. A second-class season ticket—now known by passengers as a “standing-class” ticket—now costs £3,800 and the price is due to rise to £4,250. Car park charges have risen by 60 per cent.

I have been an MP only for a short time, but I can assure you, Mr. Atkinson, that there are many important issues in my constituency. However, this issue has far exceeded any that I have come across. The very large bundle of papers that I am holding up represents the number of e-mails that I have received since the new timetable was introduced. It would be hard for me to exaggerate the enormous chaos that that is causing.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is extremely generous with his time. I have received more than 600 e-mails from my constituents about this issue. At Paddington last night, I saw the FGW strapline, “Transforming Travel”. It has indeed, for my constituents, transformed a good, reliable service with a good choice of fast and semi-fast trains for commuting to London into a very, very bad service, with a significant reduction in the number of trains available, and overcrowding. Does my hon. Friend agree that for commuters from the Thames valley, what is crucial is increasing the number of fast and semi-fast services into Paddington so that the overcrowding can be reduced and our constituents can have a decent service to get into London?

Mr. Vaizey: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. She represents her constituents, and the anger that we heard in her voice represents the anger felt by so many of them. Indeed, we need to increase not only the number of services, but the length of the trains. Quite a few commuters are returning to the car, which is not something that those of us who care about the environment want to see. Even worse, some commuters are honestly thinking of giving up their jobs, while others are even being told by their bosses that it might be better to leave.

Let me give just a flavour of some of the remarks that have been made to me over the past month. One commuter said:

Another commented:

Another said:

And so the comments go on.

Let me describe a typical week in the life of a commuter from Didcot. On Monday, the 7.19 was cancelled, the 7.30—the new train that First Great Western had trumpeted—was cancelled, the 7.36 was delayed until 7.54 and so it goes on. I came into the
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office yesterday to find a dozen e-mails from people who had seen the new 7:30 train, which was supposed to help my constituents, come into Didcot, slow down and then carry on without stopping. That was apparently because of driver diagram error, which is a new one on me. First Great Western has been fatally damaged by this chaos, and commuters now refer to it as Last Great Western or Forever Getting Worse. I suspect that there are plenty of other names, but they may be too rude for a family audience such as the one that we have with us today.

As I said at the beginning, I hope that hon. Members will indulge me while I briefly make some points on behalf of hon. Members who cannot be here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witney wrote to me to say:

Perhaps the Minister can confirm in his reply that serious efforts will be made in the short term to achieve a marked improvement in First Great Western’s performance along the Cotswold line and that there is a real prospect of redoubling the line in the medium term.

The hon. Member for Reading, West, who, as I said earlier, was optimistic about the First Great Western franchise, wrote to the chief executive to say that he had

In his letter, he raises many of the complaints that I have raised, but he also refers specifically to his concern that late-night trains no longer stop at Reading. The last train stops there at 10.30, and there has also been a reduction in the number of fast and semi-fast trains serving Tilehurst, Reading and Pangbourne.

In her note to me, the hon. Member for Slough highlighted similar issues—a reduction in service, overcrowding and worsening reliability. She says that local firms are suffering and quotes many of the e-mails from her constituents, who use phrases such as

She concludes by saying that

Let me return to my specific concerns about Didcot. At a time when Didcot has been designated a growth point in the south-east, when thousands of new houses are planned for Didcot and nearby Grove and when the Government say that they are committed to public transport and to getting people out of their cars, the present situation is completely and totally unacceptable. I repeat: the situation is completely and totally unacceptable, and it must be sorted out.

The great difficulty, of course, is that each side blames the other. Not to put too fine a point on it—I hope that I am not telling tales out of school—First Great Western blames the Government. It wrote to me, saying:

The Government responded on 2 November. They wrote to me, saying:

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If I were in a mischievous mood, I would put those words on a large billboard outside the Didcot Parkway station, but I would probably be responsible for starting a riot, so I will not.

In all my negotiations with First Great Western and my attempts to bring colleagues from all parties together to meet the company and sort the situation out, I have tried to avoid partisanship. However, the more I look into the situation, the more concerned I am about the effect of the Railways Act 2005, which gave the Government the power to set the timetable. Some of the current problems are the result of botched nationalisation, rather than botched privatisation, which is often the charge that Ministers make against any Conservative who takes issue with the state of the railways. I should remind hon. Members, however, that the Government have been in charge of the privatised railways five times longer than the previous Conservative Government.

In the past few days, the Evening Standard has run an important campaign on the issue. It has focused mainly on overcrowding, but it could have focused on a host of other issues, although there would have been no room in the newspaper for any other news. I was particularly taken by an article in yesterday’s edition by Christian Wolmar, the well-known transport journalist. He says, I am afraid, that

Having had my partisan outing, I want to look ahead to see what can be done to solve the problems for my constituents and those of the dozens of hon. Members present. First, the Minister must accept responsibility for the way in which the franchise was tendered. Transport 2000, the well-known transport lobbying group, told me:

I hope that the Minister notes the use of the word “imposed”. It is plainly silly for the Department to try to micro-manage such franchises, because they only end up taking the blame.

It is also bizarre that the specification of the timetable is kept confidential for commercial reasons when it is put out to tender. Presumably, all the train companies tendering for the specification see it, so there could be no issue of commercial confidentiality between them. It would be extremely helpful if members of the travelling public, most of whom know a great deal about the railway that they use every day, had a chance to see the tender and comment on how realistic it was.

What needs to change? First, obviously, I would like more train services. I would like to go back to the timetable before December 2006; it was not perfect, but people knew and understood it. I do not know whether, in asking for that, I am asking the Minister to wave a magic wand, but my commuters want that timetable. Secondly, the Minister must answer the charge that 32 rail carriages have been withdrawn from service at the Department’s behest. We want those carriages put back into service.

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