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Local opposition has been exacerbated by the use of heavy-handed tactics to close the bridge on occasion. East Midland Trains has randomly shut the bridge to pedestrians, as it did one morning in May 2009, and it introduced human ticket barriers in February 2010. When, in September 2010, it was faced with angry residents who wanted to cross the bridge that it had closed without notice, it called in British Transport police, who handed out 45 cautions.

Underlining all that is the refusal of the Department for Transport and East Midlands Trains to acknowledge that Sheffield station is not just where you catch a train—it is a key part of the lives of the local people.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a good case for keeping the bridge barrier free. Is it not the case that people from all over the city, who work at places such as Sheffield Hallam could recently expect to get off the tram at the stop called “Sheffield Hallam” to access their place of work?

Paul Blomfield: My hon. Friend makes an important point. In stressing the communities that I represent in Norfolk Park and Park Hill, I do not want to underestimate the impact of closing the bridge on the wider city. That is a crucial tram stop, which is widely used by people coming to work during the day, people studying at Hallam university, and those coming to the cinemas and theatres in the evening. That bridge is crucial for them.

Before the Minister makes the point, I recognise that there is a problem with revenue loss, although attempts to gain accurate information on the scale of the problem have met brick walls. The Minister quantified it in a letter to me, at £2.3 million, only today, but we need more analysis. Fare evasion must be tackled, but barriers are not the one-size-fits-all answer that the Department for Transport seems to believe.

The problem of revenue loss lies with local services—main line services have cracked it through effective ticket checks on trains—but it is not simply deliberate fare evasion. I regularly travel on local services and it is often a challenge to pay. For example, I can join the train at an unstaffed station where I cannot buy a ticket.

The train companies could make much better efforts to collect fares, and on the busy trains, at peak times, when it can be difficult for ticket collectors, they could deploy staff on the platform. They could also install ticket machines at unstaffed stations. They could do a number of things. Barriers are the easy solution for the Department for Transport and the train companies, which are guilty—if hon. Members will forgive the pun—of tunnel vision, because they are ignoring the wider interests of the city. The station and its bridge were rebuilt with public money, so why are the needs of the public not being put first? Our taxes paid for the station improvements, yet the Department for Transport wants to relegate the needs of the public behind those of the train companies.

That raises important questions on future franchising arrangements and what control communities have and should have over our stations. The current franchise expires in 2015, and it is vital that the new round of tendering, which will begin in the next couple of years,

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takes into account local views, so that the DFT and franchisees are not locked into an agreement that will damage our city.

This issue emerged under the previous Government, but let me reflect on how they dealt with it. The Transport Secretary at the time, Lord Adonis, listened to local people and challenged the policy of his officials, who appear to be the driving force behind the move to barriers. He listened, he came to Sheffield, he looked at the position, he attended a meeting of RASC and he responded to their concerns by announcing a clear and unequivocal commitment that there would be no barriers at Sheffield unless pedestrian access was maintained.

I want to know why the current Government will not honour that commitment and look forward to the Minister’s remarks.

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I have some experience of this problem in Derby. The station was gated, and although the authorities claim that pedestrian access has been maintained, it is complicated and difficult for pedestrians to gain access. Some need to obtain certification from the college on the other side of the railway line. That has caused local residents to object, so if my hon. Friend can prevent similar difficulties arising in Sheffield, I am four-square behind him, because I wish we did not have to contend with those problems in Derby.

Paul Blomfield: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I am aware of the situation in Derby. When EMT floated a similar proposal to tackle the problem in Sheffield, we drew heavily on the Derby experience in dismissing it as an impractical and unworkable solution.

That is one reason so many people are opposed to barriers. Indeed, when in opposition, the Minister wrote to a concerned rail expert on the matter. This is from his letter:

“Whilst barriers do work very well in some circumstances...it is by no means proven that revenue protection and passenger safety is achieved in others. For these reasons, I am opposed to the proposed new barriers at Sheffield and York railway stations.”

Will the Minister confirm that that is still his view and, if not, why has he changed his mind?

I look forward to the Minister’s response and his answers to these questions. Is he willing to travel to Sheffield and meet RASC to ensure that he properly considers the issues I have raised tonight?

Will the Minister provide a full breakdown of the revenue loss and explain exactly how it is calculated? What impact assessment has the Department conducted to evaluate the wider consequences for Sheffield, beyond the interests of the Department and the rail companies?

Why was there a reversal of the previous Labour Government’s commitment that there should be no barriers at Sheffield unless pedestrian access was maintained, and will the Minister tell the House who took that decision? Will he state whether it is the Department’s policy that every railway station should be gated? That seems to be the case from the incremental promotion of gating through franchise agreements, but if that is so, should that policy not be open to full debate?

Will the Minister say whether he now believes, as many in his Department do, that ticket barriers are the only solution to tackling fare evasion? Is it right that the

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DFT are making decisions from Whitehall about stations around the country without taking into account the local situation? Will he undertake to consult local communities before concluding the next franchise agreements for the management of local stations?

The words of my constituents tonight demonstrate that this is a disagreement not just between the Minister and me, but between the people of Sheffield and the micro-mismanagement of the DFT. The Department’s intransigence in pressing this deeply damaging proposal will have a huge impact on our city. I hope that tonight will take us one step closer to a resolution of this issue.

In conclusion, let me quote two of my constituents. Mark Doel says:

“This government says that it believes in devolving power to the local people. Well, the local people have spoken with one voice.”

Roger Donnison sums up Sheffield’s case perfectly:

“All of the recent investment in and around the station has been based on open access via the footbridge. Integration of the railway with the tram, and of Park Hill with the city centre will be lost without it.”

6.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I am pleased to respond to this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it and on putting forcefully the views of his constituents and others in Sheffield.

I fully recognise that there are local concerns regarding the access across the railway at Sheffield and I appreciate the points that the hon. Gentleman made about this long-running and sensitive issue. Let me assure him that I am fully aware of the issues and concerns that surround the proposed gating at Sheffield station. I have had representations not just from him but from other MPs in Sheffield, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who has made his views very plain on this matter as well. I want to be helpful and find a constructive way in which to resolve this matter, and I shall ask the hon. Gentleman for his help in that.

Let me deal with why we are where we are and answer some of the questions that have been raised. A key factor is the cost to the railway. There is another factor, which is access, but the loss of revenue is important. The hon. Gentleman refers to the letter that I sent to him. The costs of ticketless travel relating to Sheffield station is estimated at between 3% and 18%. The sum of £2.3 million a year was given to me by officials and was based on the minimum figure. If it were 18%, the amount would be £13.8 million a year. The hon. Gentleman will agree, as will all Members, that we simply cannot allow money to continue to haemorrhage from Sheffield in this way and that a solution needs to be found that captures the lost revenue as a matter of urgency. This is money that should be going to the railway to help improve services and, at the moment, it is being lost. It is also unfair that many people are paying for their tickets while others are able to travel apparently free of charge. That is not fair on the people who buy the tickets.

Normally with ticketless travel of this magnitude, train operating companies consider ticket-gating options. The magnitude of this issue at Sheffield was such, as the hon. Gentleman rightly and fairly said, that the previous

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Labour Government put an obligation on East Midlands Trains, when it won the franchise in 2009, to install gates at Sheffield. It should be clear, therefore, that this was an obligation on East Midlands Trains and was not something that it wanted to pursue itself.

Paul Blomfield: There was an obligation to install barriers or, if that proved unviable, to investigate other revenue protection measures. Will the Minister confirm that?

Norman Baker: Yes. My understanding was that the company was required to provide barriers, but I am looking to officials to see whether that is in fact the nuance of it. If there is any further information, I will give it to the hon. Gentleman before I finish my speech.

On ticket barriers—I want to talk about other aspects of the matter too, so the hon. Gentleman should not misinterpret what I say in the next few paragraphs—ticket gates are an efficient and proven method of significantly reducing ticketless travel and increasing rail revenue. That increased revenue has the effect of reducing the costs of the railways, as he will appreciate, for both taxpayers and rail passengers. As he will be aware, the cost of running the railways has increased by 60% in real terms since 1996-97. Sir Roy McNulty’s independent study estimates that UK rail costs are about 30% higher per passenger mile than those of our European competitors, so there is a big issue with general efficiency. Sir Roy McNulty’s study also goes on to state that the evidence suggests that

“the widespread introduction of gating at stations could reduce revenue lost through ticket evasion or the deliberate purchase of “wrong” tickets…The DfT data regarding rates of ticketless travel suggest it is about 12% in London compared with about 7% elsewhere.”

In addition, gated barriers at stations can bring a number of benefits to station users, rail passengers and the industry. Gates at stations are staffed when in use and therefore provide benefits to passengers in terms of safety and security through staff visibility. They also make it more difficult for non-ticket holders to access the railway, which potentially contributes to more enjoyable travel for fare-paying passengers.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether it was policy to require gating everywhere. I think it is a matter of horses for courses and each railway line and each station is different. It would not be sensible, for example, to install gating on very lightly used rural stations. That would be nonsensical in terms of the cost-benefit ratio. The Department and the train companies will estimate the likely consequence of not having a proper method to ensure ticketless travel is tackled—and I shall come to that in a moment—set against the cost of gating. He may be interested to know, for example, that I have recently required the installation of gating at Gatwick airport, a hole in the Southern network that has caused ticketless travel and been a magnet for those who wish to access the railway without paying.

Angela Smith: The point is, however, that as far as Sheffield is concerned, many of those found to be travelling without tickets boarded the trains at some of the rural stations to which the Minister has just referred.

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Clearly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) pointed out, the problem is that we have a scarcity of East Midlands Trains staff on the trains to ensure that people have paid for their tickets at stations further down the lines that serve Sheffield.

Norman Baker: Let me try to deal with the point about staff on trains. It is partly about franchise requirements—and, by the way, I am advised by officials that the barrier obligation is ongoing for East Midlands Trains, although alternatives would be considered if gating was not installed by a particular date, which I must say is an interesting franchise condition.

Members will appreciate that there is a significant cost to having staff on trains. Train companies employ revenue protection officers on a regular basis, but it is not possible—particularly on busy trains—to have any guarantee that the conductor, particularly when the train is busy and when there are frequent stops on the service, will be able to get through the train and check all the tickets. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said in his introduction that he is often unable to buy a ticket to travel on the train.

Chris Williamson: In view of his comments about the cost of train managers, will the Minister confirm that the plan to introduce more gates is part of a long-term Government plan to de-staff or run down the number of staff working on the railways? Is that behind his plans?

Norman Baker: I would not infer that at all. As I said a moment ago, if there are gates, staff are needed in case someone gets stuck in them. If the gates are unstaffed, they have to be left open. Gates are in fact a guarantee of staff on the station.

Angela Smith: The Minister mentions a problem with staff getting around to check all tickets on busy trains, but that underlines the fact that on the Penistone line, in particular, which runs into Sheffield station—it is a busy commuter route from Huddersfield and serves my constituents—we have a lack of capacity. So perhaps one answer is to have not just more staff on trains, but more trains.

Norman Baker: I entirely sympathise, but the hon. Lady makes a wider point, and I hope she notices that, notwithstanding our difficult economic situation and inheritance, we now have the biggest investment in railways since Victorian times, a commitment to improve rolling stock on several lines, an electrification programme that has extended way beyond what was originally anticipated and a tram-train pilot in Sheffield. There is a great deal of investment in transport, and any fair-minded person would look at the Government’s investment portfolio and conclude that, since May 2010, transport and, in particular, railways have done rather well.

The Chancellor’s growth statement included several roads that the hon. Lady may notice, but what was not picked up was that £1.4 billion extra is being allocated for rail, as against £1 billion for roads. So we are seeing massive investment in the railways, and that includes—[ Interruption ]—I wish she would not chunter in the background; I am trying to answer her questions—investment in rolling stock. There is a commitment to new rolling stock for the east coast main line and for the

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First Great Western line; new rolling stock is being introduced to the Thameslink programme; and we are continuing with our intention to bring in 2,700 new carriages.

I fully accept that we have a problem on the railways, in that more people than at any time since 1929 now travel by rail—if that is a problem—on a network that is between a half and two-thirds of the size it was in 1929. I call it a success in some ways, but it is called a problem in terms of its consequences. The public’s perception of their journey is also much more favourable than was the case even 10 or 15 years ago, and people now regard trains as safe, more punctual and more pleasant to use. That is a problem of success, so the inevitable consequence is that we have to follow people’s increased use of trains, which has largely been recession-resistant, and ensure that there are sufficient orders to pick up extra passengers.

One answer is to invest in high-speed rail, and, if the Secretary of State concludes when she makes her statement in due course that she wishes to pursue the Y-shape proposal, her decision will significantly benefit the Sheffield area, as well as everywhere else in the country. So I assure the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) that we are doing our best to ensure that there is real investment in carriages and infrastructure. That is quite a long answer to her point, but I hope it assures her that we take rail extremely seriously. Indeed, I would not be doing my job of lobbying within the Government if that were not the case, but I am happy to say that it is.

Let me return to the subject in hand. The welcome increase in the number of passengers using rail services in south Yorkshire—this point follows on from the one I have just made—has also brought problems that the Department is managing in conjunction with local stakeholders. For example, additional rail vehicles have been introduced to provide more capacity. Unmanned local stations are cheap to operate and improve access to rail services, but that does not make it any easier for on-train staff to collect and issue more tickets on board busy trains. Sheffield, as I have mentioned, has a particularly high level of ticketless travel.

Paul Blomfield: In my experience and, certainly, that of others, the problem is not just with busy trains, because companies could make more effort to collect revenue from trains on which it is perfectly easy for collectors to navigate the carriages. On busy trains, which are limited to certain peak times, it would also be possible to deploy ticket collectors on platforms at the station. Has there been a proper economic assessment of that idea, as a revenue-side way of dealing with the problem, in comparison with the capital side? My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) made the point that it could be a win-win for us, because it would not only tackle fare evasion, but create more jobs.

Norman Baker: I am not going to stand here this evening and say that everything possible has been done by East Midlands Trains, or Midland Mainline before it—or, for that matter, any other train company—to minimise the amount of ticketless travel on its trains. Some companies do better than others. It may well be the case—I just do not know—that there is more scope for staff on trains to—

Paul Blomfield: You should know if you’re driving the policy.

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Norman Baker: With respect, I should not know what happens on every single train across the country, because we are now moving into an era in which we avoid micro-management of the trains. We are setting the high-level objectives; we are not seeking to micro-manage every train, let alone every passenger on the network. However, as a general principle, it is right that train companies should try to minimise ticketless travel by whatever means they can; indeed, it is in their interests to do so. As to whether a cost-benefit analysis has been carried out to see whether such measures are more effective, to be honest, I am not sure that one has been, although I will check that and write to the hon. Gentleman.

What I would say, however, is that the problem is a bit like when the police stop drivers speeding: when the police are there, they are effective, both at the time and for about a week afterwards, but then the average speed of the motor vehicles on those roads rises again. A gating solution is a permanent solution; a solution involving people, unless they are permanently there, is not a permanent solution and is less effective than gating. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman about the point that he has raised.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): But the Minister has said that gates have to be staffed. In fact, my experience of East Midlands Trains—not in Sheffield, but in Nottingham—is that gates are regularly unstaffed, so they are doing nothing to prevent fare evasion.

Norman Baker: If a train company operates gates without regularly staffing them, that will lead to a loss of income, and it is responsible for dealing with that. However, travelling the network extensively as I do, I do not often come across gates that have been left open.

East Midlands Trains, along with Midland Mainline before it, has undertaken manual staffed barriers of ticket inspectors on selective days to ensure that all passengers passing through Sheffield station are in possession of a valid ticket—perhaps those were the instances to which the hon. Member for Sheffield Central referred in his introductory remarks. The increased revenue collected at the station on those days, both by the inspectors and through increased sales at the ticket office, indicates that between 3% and 18% of travel at Sheffield is ticketless—that is where the figure comes from. That means that at least £2.3 million is lost to the railway each year through ticketless travel in the area. I want to deal with that, but I also want to deal with the point that the hon. Gentleman raised—quite understandably—about the views of people in Sheffield and those who perhaps do not want to travel by train, but do want to use the bridge.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the station bridge in Sheffield to which he referred is not a right of way. It may be an established route in a non-legal sense, but it is not an official right of way. In fact, he will know that the bridge is locked shut every night after the last train, presumably to prevent it from becoming a right of way. However, I know that for many people—including students, residents and visitors—it has become the most convenient thoroughfare for crossing the railway. I also accept the point about access to the tram stop. As I am keen to promote light rail and low-carbon forms of transport, that is a point that I take seriously. However, although the bridge is not a right of way, I understand

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that Sheffield council has promoted it as part of the “gold route” access strategy for its redevelopment of the Park Hill area on the east side of the city.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important to try to ensure that, through the installation of gates—if that is what occurs—the railway does not cut a community in two, and that the community is provided with a satisfactory and easy way of gaining access across the railway. We therefore looked at a number of options, including: the refurbishment of the existing public bridge to the south of the station; the refurbishment and extension of the station goods bridge; dividing the current station bridge to provide separate lanes for railway passengers and public access across the station, which is a solution that I was particularly keen on; building a new bridge at the north end of the station platforms; and building a new bridge crossing over the railway tunnels at the north end of the station. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, in 2009 the Department for Transport commissioned Network Rail to undertake a feasibility study to look into those options. The report has previously been released to Sheffield city council and the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive. As he requested on 17 November, I have also sent him a copy of the report.

The report recommended that the options of extending the station goods bridge and of trying to split the existing station bridge be discarded, as they were both impracticable and excessively complicated. The report recommended further investigation of the remaining options. We have explored those options at some length, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), the then Transport Secretary, and I have visited Sheffield station separately to look at them for ourselves.

In answer to the point about Lord Adonis, I must say that he was a very competent Transport Secretary—and I never hesitate to say that.

Paul Blomfield: He listened.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman says that Lord Adonis listened; well, we have listened. He went to Sheffield and I have gone to Sheffield. As far as the commitment to no barriers is concerned, there are no barriers there yet, and we are 19 months or thereabouts into this Government. We could have dealt with the matter on day one, but we did not because of the sensitivity of the issue and because we wanted to reach a satisfactory conclusion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman gets some reassurance from that.

Based on the Department’s discussions with Sheffield council over the last two years, a possible alternative to the station bridge has been identified in the form of the building of a new public bridge over the north end of the station platforms. I understand that, as part of its long-term city regeneration plans, Sheffield city council already envisages replacing the existing bridge to the south of the station and building a new bridge over the railway tunnels to the north of the station. The construction of a bridge to the north might address the requirements of both the railway and local stakeholders.

In addition, we are looking at a number of ways in which continued access across the railway for local users could be maintained by using the existing station

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bridge, while also capturing lost revenue. I stress that we have not yet reached a conclusion: we are looking at these matters in the round in order to find the best options for a solution. For example, East Midlands Trains has offered to provide “timed passes” to local residents and others, which would allow them to pass through any gates and continue to use the station bridge to cross the railway. Officials have been investigating the feasibility of gating at platform level and I have to say that there are serious objections to that as well, particularly in terms of practicality, as some accesses are very narrow and would not be wide enough for the gates, causing congestion. Staff would be required on every single platform, which is hugely expensive—probably more than the ticketless travel costs. Although this may appear to be an attractive option, I am afraid that it does not work. All these potential solutions are in addition to the existing alternative routes that bridge the railway in the proximity of Sheffield station. We have to deal, however, with the problem of ticketless travel.

I said that I wanted to be constructive—and I do—because this is a serious issue for people in Sheffield and a serious issue for the railway. I am keen to resolve the issue constructively and in a way that I hope addresses the interests of all involved. I want to make the hon. Member for Sheffield Central and other hon. Members an offer tonight. [Interruption.] I am not going to ask anyone to put their hands into their pockets; there is no need to worry. The Secretary of State and I are happy to have a round table meeting with all Sheffield MPs, representatives from the council and perhaps a representative from the campaign group. They can come down here—and I will look at the diary and see whether we can go up there—to look at the options openly and frankly in order to make progress. We have nothing to hide; we are happy to share the information to try to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The Secretary of State is keen to achieve that as well. We will both be involved.

The two objectives that we provisionally set are as follows. The first is that we must end, or significantly deal with, ticketless travel on the railway. The second is that we seek to meet the legitimate aspirations of people in Sheffield to be able to cross the railway without restriction. We want to achieve both those objectives. Provided people are signed up to achieving them, we should be able to make some progress. I hope that hon. Members will find that response helpful.

Paul Blomfield: I welcome the Minister’s offer, with those caveats. We share the desire to tackle ticketless travel and I welcome the Minister’s aspirations to address the concerns expressed by local residents and local organisations. The sort of meeting he describes, involving the local campaign group as he mentioned, would be a positive step forward. I thank him for that.

Norman Baker: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s response. We will try to make progress. As the last Government recognised and as we now recognise, this is not an easy issue, but we are determined to make progress, and I believe that with good will on all sides we can do so. I will write to him and his colleagues in Sheffield shortly.

Question put and agreed to.

6.39 pm

House adjourned.