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24 Jan 2007 : Column 456WH—continued

24 Jan 2007 : Column 457WH

Peter Luff: I hope that the Minister will address that point when he winds up. The root of the problem could be the attempt, certainly on the Cotswold line, to run a more intensive railway service with fewer carriages. That leads to the frequent cancellation of services and to services running with inappropriate rolling stock. It is clearly ludicrous to go back to Thames Turbos and a journey of two and a half hours between Worcester and London.

Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but let me turn my fire back to First Great Western. A major contributory factor to the present situation has clearly been the extraordinary backlog of maintenance. I have no idea what is going on behind the scenes, but it is very bad. There seems to be enormous disaffection among First Great Western’s train drivers and crew, and the company really needs to get a grip on that. I am happy to concede that that is not something for which the Government can take responsibility.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): On that last point, the hon. Gentleman rightly says that the buck stops with the Minister, and that is also true as regards the management of First Great Western. The Government have a real influence over the company, but there is no doubt that it has been cutting every corner that it can now that it has the franchise—it is there to make a fast buck. It is deliberately understaffing catering and claiming that crews have not turned up, when, in fact, they have not been employed in the first place. The company is also about to replace the Travelling Chef operation with a massively more expensive alternative that will not actually cater for people. Furthermore, it has withdrawn the breakfast service on the early-morning train from Cornwall: it is a bit hard to think of a train that needs that service more, given that the journey takes commuters five or six hours. The Minister can have a direct influence on all that, because he, unlike the rest of us, is uniquely able to influence the rules under which the company must operate.

Mr. Vaizey: I take that point. I was trying to be even-handed in my criticism, but some hon. Members want to hold the Government to account on this, and I appreciate where they are coming from.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Cornwall.

Mr. Vaizey: They come from Cornwall, as well.

In the long term Network Rail has an incredibly important role to play in upgrading signalling, but also specifically in upgrading Reading, where I believe there is a £250 million proposal on the table. My experience of Network Rail has not been wholly wonderful. Milton Park, the business park next to Didcot, has proposed to pay for a new bridge into the business park over the railway line. Network Rail has not taken up that offer, which would not cost it a penny. It has been extremely dilatory, as far as Reading borough council is concerned, about working out what to do about Reading station. I hope that it will pull its finger out.

As I hope my opening remarks and other hon. Members’ interventions have shown, the situation as it stands is completely chaotic. In my view, the blame game should
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be played only so as to work out who is responsible for fixing the problem. Nine or 10 MPs of all political parties met me and First Great Western representatives 10 days ago, and we have all written to the Secretary of State and requested one crucial meeting. I hope that hon. Members who did not sign that letter but who are present for the debate will join as signatories to it. The idea is to sit down with representatives of First Great Western, the Government and Network Rail for an hour, half a day or a day—as long as it takes—to try to sort the problem out. The real frustration for Members of Parliament, where this is a constituency issue, is that whoever we meet will blame the other side. Until we have them all in a room together, telling us what is going on and what is possible, we cannot do our job as Members of Parliament, by going back to our constituents to tell them what can be changed and how we can help.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Peter Atkinson (in the Chair): Order. A considerable number of hon. Members want to contribute to the debate and the wind-ups should start at about 10.30, so I ask hon. Members to be brief; otherwise some will not get to speak.

9.52 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): The First Great Western timetable changes were a complete shambles, and very damaging for commuters from Oxford. I congratulate my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), on securing the debate. As you said, Mr. Atkinson, many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall keep my remarks brief.

My first point is that First Great Western and the Department for Transport need to learn the lessons of this fiasco. Thanks to the very swift and loud reaction from people commuting from Oxford, with their petition and complaints through the media, MPs and councillors, First Great Western moved quite quickly to change the new timetable, reinstating and amending a number of services from Monday last week. That was a welcome victory for the campaign. However, if the company were really in touch with and responding to its customers’ needs, the difficulty would never have happened in the first place.

Secondly, that is not to say that services from Oxford are now perfect: far from it. According to Ox Rail Action, the changes mean that local travellers have gone from losing 80 per cent. of their seats from Oxford in the morning peak to losing 20 per cent. The hon. Member for Wantage has already made the point about connections to Didcot and services going west, which is also important.

Thirdly, there is a need for thorough, continuing monitoring of the adequacy of provision, coupled with consultation with and representation of passengers, including, as we have heard, on the matter of the future of the franchise. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will press First Great Western in no uncertain terms on this matter, as I have, and as I know other colleagues here this morning have. I hope that he will give us a commitment to ensure that the monitoring of services and their capacity will be made public, and
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that he will insist on proper consultation procedures, not just in the immediate aftermath of this row, when it is all in the headlines, but on a continuing basis.

Fourthly, capacity, overcrowding and the type of carriages that are used are a crucial aspect of the problem. One of the main complaints that I have received, after the sheer inadequacy of the new timetable that was initially proposed, was about the number of people having to stand, day after day. Standing is not acceptable on those services. People pay a lot of money for their season tickets, and they are entitled to a reasonable standard of comfort, and the opportunity to get on with some work or reading.

It is important to get those things right, and to assure people that the passengers’ voice will be heard. Everyone is mindful that there is due to be another timetable revision in December, and after what has just happened it is easy to understand why people fear the worst. The Thames valley services affect just about the most dynamic part of the UK economy; poor rail services have a very adverse impact on it.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it makes no sense for First Great Western to alleviate overcrowding at one point on the line, such as Henley, by instructing that trains should not stop at another point—viz. Goring? Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul it should lay on more services.

Mr. Smith: I absolutely agree. It is in the nature of a network and efficient commuter services—and, for that matter, efficient long-distance services—that everything is integrated and we should have a comprehensively acceptable standard of provision, rather than just shifting the problem from one place to another.

It is clear that First Great Western has lost public confidence and we need to hear from the Minister that he will insist that the quality of services and any changes to the timetable and capacity in future will put passengers’ needs first, and that his Department will be dedicated to making sure that that happens.

I would like to close by congratulating Oxford rail users and the Ox Rail Action group for the effective campaign that they have mounted. If one good thing has come out of all of this it is that there is now an organised and well supported group putting the passengers’ case. It had better be listened to, and I shall certainly join the hon. Member for Wantage and other hon. Members in taking the case to the Secretary of State.

9.57 am

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing the debate. I too applied for a debate on the subject and was unlucky, but the number of hon. Members here today demonstrates the strength of feeling. I thought that I had a large postbag, but clearly problems with the First Great Western franchise are much greater elsewhere.

The tale is one of unremitting misery. In my constituency First Great Western took over the old Wessex Trains franchise, which broadly covers the journey from Southampton to Bristol and sometimes Cardiff via
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Bath and Salisbury. The first sign of problems, as the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) hinted, was the draft timetable. At that stage the timetable was drawn up so that if one were a commuter living in a village who worked either in Salisbury or Southampton it would be necessary to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to catch a very early train from Dean, Dunbridge or Mottisfont. It would also be necessary to stay at work for quite a long time, because, depending on where the person lived and worked, they might not be able to get back until 7 in the evening. Understandably many people were rather unhappy at being forced to stay at their workplace longer than necessary. However, the problem was worse than that because the times of trains from the villages to Salisbury, which were relied on by quite a few schoolchildren, were changed such that they would all arrive at school late.

Those concerns were raised with the Minister’s predecessor and the timetable was improved slightly, but I had the feeling then that the train franchise company had proposed the worst possible scenario, so that any small improvement could be regarded as evidence of the company listening. I do not like to think that it was that cynical. Clearly we still have a substandard service, although it is better than the one that was originally proposed. The big problem is the number of peak-time trains that were cut. Although the overall reduction in seats is only about 20 per cent., there is a 50 to 60 per cent. reduction at peak times, which is causing great problems.

Also raised with the Minister at that time were concerns that the trains in the reduced service were to be reduced from three carriages to two. That seemed particularly perverse because, only a few years before, Wessex Trains had received permission to put on extra carriages because of the demand on the line. Again, we are not learning from the lessons of the past when designing new franchises. I support entirely the call for the draft timetable to be available for public scrutiny.

The public have reacted in droves. I want to give other hon. Members the chance to speak, so I shall simply highlight what is happening by giving some typical quotes from my constituents. A few people have asked why the franchise was given to a company that admitted in writing that it did not have enough carriages to run the service. That is still the case after 12 months. Many people are concerned about fares. A number of people have been caught out by fare increases and the change in the fare structure. One constituent said:

Constituents also say that overcrowding is a problem. One said:

Another problem with the franchise is its unreliability. Over the Christmas period in particular, a large number of trains were cancelled, simply did not arrive, or were terminated short of the expected destination.

The changes to the timetable are somewhat perverse. Many of my constituents who travel from Romsey or Southampton to Cardiff sometimes have to change trains at Bristol Temple Meads. On some services, they no longer have seven minutes to change trains because
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the interval between the services has been changed to three minutes. I know that we are trying to encourage the public to be healthy, but one gentleman told me about an occasion when he had to make such a connection, saying:

Clearly, some common sense has to be used when the services are designed.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the problems with maintenance and the lack of rolling stock, which is something of a mystery because there seem to be carriages available. There are quite a few sitting in warm storage—I do not quite understand what that means—at Eastleigh depot, waiting to be used. I gather that there are other carriages at other depots. It has been suggested that they have been put to one side because First Great Western is struggling to meet the repayment terms of the franchise. A huge amount of money was offered for that franchise, and many people thought that the Government were benefiting at the expense of the commuter. Sadly, that seems to have been the case.

10.3 am

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I, too, shall be brief, as other hon. Members want to speak. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing the debate.

As I am sure the Minister is aware, there was a protest on Monday in the Bristol area by commuters coming in from Bath and Somerset in which members of a campaign group called More Train, Less Strain handed out fake tickets to commuters. It is telling that First Great Western chose not to challenge the people who used the fake tickets because they realised how much uproar it would cause. The headline in the Bristol Evening Post the next day read, “Fake tickets, real anger”, which just about sums it up. There is real anger among commuters in the Bristol area about what has happened to their rail services since the December timetable was introduced. That anger drove people to stand on a railway platform at 6.30 am in the cold and dark to hand out fake tickets because they simply did not know what else to do. They ran the risk of prosecution, a £1,000 fine or imprisonment because they have reached breaking point.

The service has been appallingly unreliable since the new timetable was introduced, with delays, cancellations, short formations and overcrowding. Some of those problems were there before, but whenever I speak to First Great Western it says that they are due to maintenance problems. A new depot in my constituency at St. Philip’s Marsh is supposedly about to open, but I am told by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers that it still looks like a building site. We seem to be given one excuse after another.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend and apologise for my lateness. I would have liked to speak in the debate, but the train was an hour late thanks to First Great Western, which is absolutely typical.

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I have a question on the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and I disclose my interest with the RMT. There are contractual difficulties with First Great Western that need to be sorted out, but the issue that seems to be of greatest dispute with the Government is that of how many sets the company is able to run. It would be useful to know whose figures are correct, because there are significant differences between what used to run on those lines and what now runs. Will my hon. Friend comment on that?

Kerry McCarthy: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was about to come to that point. We had a problem in getting our heads around the issue because of what happened in the Bristol area in the 48 hours before the new timetable was introduced. The trains there had been cut, but suddenly—almost overnight—their number increased from 51 to 57 to 60, and then in December extra trains were brought in. I believe that another eight trains were borrowed on Monday from the TransPennine franchise to deal with the protest.

There is also a problem with the short formation of trains. I have been told, anecdotally, that there is a huge amount of rolling stock sitting on the sidings that could be brought into service. We need to get to the bottom of how many trains the company has access to, how much it is prepared to invest in its rolling stock and what service it can run on that basis.

The short formation of trains and the problems caused by cancellations seem to be the main issues affecting Bristol commuters, some of whom have to stand all the way to work. I accept that some people might have to stand on short journeys, but some of them are having to stand for significantly longer periods. Many people cannot even get on to the trains. Sometimes, when a train has been cancelled, eight carriages-worth of commuters—in the past, there would have been two four-carriage trains—are trying to squeeze on to a two-carriage unit, so many people are left standing on the platform. Those people rely on trains to get them to and from work every morning and evening from Monday to Friday every week; their jobs depend on it. However, they miss important meetings, they cannot pick their children up from school because they have to stay late at work, and they lose performance bonuses. To add insult to injury, they are also being asked to pay more for the service.

First Great Western owes the travelling public an explanation of why the problems are being allowed to happen. There is clearly management failure. They seem to be dealing with matters on a firefighting basis: whoever shouts the loudest suddenly gets the temporary improvement in their service. A couple of weeks ago we were told that several branch lines in Cornwall were being closed so that we could have extra trains in the Bristol area. That is good news for me as a Bristol MP, but I imagine that it is not quite so attractive to people in the Cornwall area.

After my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) intervened, I mentioned that we have had some additional units. We want confirmation from First Great Western that those units are here to stay and that the improvement is to be permanent. We also need to know that the company is going to do more to improve the service. It may be that the franchise agreement simply is not
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deliverable on the current specification, but when First Great Western bid for it, it knew what it was getting into. There has been significant investment in our rail services in the past few years. First Great Western went into the franchise on the promise that it could run a decent service for commuters. If it is really saying that it cannot deliver that, it is time for it to put its hands up and say so to the public and to let someone who can run the service take over.

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