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North Wales (Rail Services)

Volume 82: debated on Monday 1 July 1985

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Sainsbury.]

1.22 am

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport for coming here at this late hour to listen to the debate. I wish to make it plain that I am not setting out to denigrate British Rail. I enjoy travelling with it. The intercity service which I have used for many years has been, on the whole, clean, fast, comfortable, and remarkably punctual. Much of the tourist trade which is so vital to north Wales continues to arrive by rail, as it has for many generations, and in what is now the second consecutive bad year for the tourist industry we desperately need our trains.

In north Wales, there has, however, been a steady—I do not wish to say dramatic — deterioration in service over the years, not so much in speed, comfort and punctuality as in the convenience of the timetable and the facilities available.

I accept that where trains are not full the railway cannot go on running them indefinitely. Services must be cut to reduce losses. The problem with that process is that it feeds on itself. As services are reduced, fewer and fewer people use them and further cuts are required to reduce the loss and so on. However, it is no necessary part of this dismal downward spiral that facilities also be reduced. My first complaint against British Rail—it is the least that I shall voice tonight — is the extreme reluctance and dilatoriness that it has shown in allowing private caterers to take food and drink trolleys on trains on which it no longer operates an acceptable buffet service. Some headway is at last being made thanks to the efforts and persistence of enterprising individuals, among whom my constituent, Mr. Osbiston of Dyserth was one of the first, if not the first, in the area to offer a most attractive trolley service to British Rail travellers in the region.

I shall not renew my plea that decent rolling stock should be allocated to the north Wales line, although that is a sore point in north Wales. The new Sprinter units are coming in slowly, oh so slowly, to replace the bone rattling diesel multiple units in which it is impossible to read, let alone write and still less to drink a cup of coffee. They are being well received and represent a huge improvement. Nor shall I press for the electrification of the Crewe-Holyhead line, although there is a powerful lobby in north Wales arguing for it. I am not at all sure that it would be a justifiable investment, and the effect on the landscape where the train skirts the coastline would be deplorable.

The essence of a railway service is that it should be reasonably predictable. Hold-ups are, or should be, less frequent than on even the best roads, and journey times are shorter — or were when the trains ran direct from London to north Wales. In the past few years, an increasing number of trains have been routed to north Wales via Birmingham, thus adding three quarters of an hour to the journey time. Instead of running direct to and from north Wales, more and more trains now require a change at Crewe. I have no strong objection to either of those things, provided that there is a reasonable connection at Crewe and no excessive wait.

The main burden of my complaint concerns the effect on services to north Wales of the railway works being carried out at Crewe. I fully accept their necessity. I spent one night a few years ago with British Rail being taken round the signal boxes and junctions at Crewe station. All of my colleagues were as shattered as me at the primitiveness and inadequacy of the equipment, which has to handle the hundreds of trains that pass every day through this immensely complicated station layout. It is clear that the work has to be done, and I do not quarrel with the decision to do it all in one go. I have a serious complaint to make, however, about the period chosen—2 June to 21 July. It is just about the busiest holiday period of the year. Had it been possible to start the work two months earlier, the effect on train passengers — north Wales is still heavily dependent on the railway to bring in tourists—would have been much less.

Once the work started, the trains had to be diverted round Crewe, which has clearly resulted in longer journey times. That is a pity, and might lose us some day trippers, but we have to accept it. The real burden of my complaint is that we in north Wales, and a good many others who are served by Crewe and stations beyond it, do not know what we have to accept. A great deal of time and effort is required to find out, and the answer is quite likely to be wrong.

The remodelling of Crewe station started on 2 June, and had been planned several years ahead. On 13 May, and quite independently of the Crewe operation, British Rail introduced new timetables for the area. They are radically different from the old timetables to which travellers to and from north Wales had become accustomed and for which the convenient pocket timetables, which can readily be found in the Travel Office, were available at all stations along the route.

The new timetables are radically different, but as no new pocket timetables have been issued, it is not too easy to find out about trains. Why on earth have they not been issued? How are intending travellers expected to find out the new times of their trains? British Rail has two suggestions to offer. One is that one should buy its complete timetable, price £3, and far too big to go into an already bulging briefcase, let alone the most capacious of pockets. The other is that one should ring up British Rail inquiries and find out. Has anyone at British Rail ever tried doing that from a pay phone box—if one can find one that is not out of order—with no doors?

British Rail admits that the plan to produce pocket timetables "ran into difficulties" — nothing like the difficulties that passengers are now running into without them. But I suppose that BR would now argue that it would not have been much use printing the new timetables because the Crewe remodelling, which began only three weeks after the new timetables came into force, would have made them inapplicable anyway. In desperation I wrote on 12 June to the manager of the midland region in Birmingham and asked him how I could now get to my constituency by rail. So far I have not had so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a substantive reply.

I have managed to procure a document that purports to be a temporary timetable. It is called a "reissued" timetable, whatever that may mean. It gives the timing of the trains to north Wales during this period. It is illegible to the naked eye of anyone over 40. It has now been supplemented by a batch of scarcely more legible leaflets, each one covering a section of the journey. One is entitled "Crewe-Chester-North Wales". It is the only one that covers the north Wales stations. It also shows the connecting trains to and from London.

According to that timetable, there are only five trains a day from Rhyl to London, whereas until 12 May there were 14, and there are to be 13 when the remodelling at Crewe is finished. According to the timetable, there is no way to reach Chester from Euston before 12.30 pm or Rhyl before 2 pm. The position for the return journey is very slightly better with six trains, including two morning ones.

As a matter of fact, I do not believe that the situation is as bad as that. Travellers have been spotted on Rhyl station at 11 in the morning who claim to have come from London that same morning. It may be that there are morning trains, but it is just not possible to find out and, as I said, the midland region of British Rail does not answer letters.

I do not criticise British Rail for doing the work at Crewe—it had to be done. I could have wished that it had chosen a time of year less vital to our already hard-pressed tourist trade, a period during which, incidentally, anyone hoping to travel from London by coach to north Wales instead of by train will encounter the horrendous problems on the M1 near Hemel Hempstead during the first fortnight of July.

However, I understand that the work at Crewe must produce extensive changes to the schedule and a lengthening of journey times, but why, oh why does not British Rail take the trouble to get proper timetables printed and have intelligible notices put out well in advance at the railway stations concerned? Travelling by rail from London to north Wales at present is more akin to hitchhiking than travel by any scheduled service.

1.33 am

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) has said about British Rail's services to north Wales and how they have been affected by the modernisation works at present being undertaken at Crewe—and the failure to produce pocket timetables in good time before timetable changes take effect. I am sure that any of his constituents who have experienced problems will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these matters in the House today.

I should like, first of all, to explain why British Rail has decided to carry out this major work at Crewe, what the work involves and why it has chosen to do it now. First, why carry out the work? As my hon. Friend said the signalling at Crewe—most of which dates back to 1938 —has reached the end of its useful life. Signal failures became more frequent and BR concluded that early action was needed to prevent the old equipment from becoming a serious hindrance to service reliability and ultimately a safety hazard. BR decided that if it had to replace the signalling it would make sense to take the opportunity to modernise the track layout in the station area at the same time. After all, the tracks had been designed to cope with steam operation. They were complex and unwieldy and could not effectively handle the needs of today's modern railway. The opportunity to bring this up to date and simplify it was too good to miss.

When the work is completed, Crewe will be well equipped to handle present-day traffic requirements. Briefly summarised, the work will mean that one new signal box will replace six old ones; trains will be able to pass through the station at 80 mph instead of 20 to 30 mph, and stopping trains calling at the station will also he able to move more rapidly; the reduction in the number of points and crossovers, from 285 to 110 will mean lower costs and better reliability; new passenger facilities will be incorporated in the station and will include lounges, waiting rooms, buffet, bookstall and toilets with provision for the disabled; two lifts will be installed for use by disabled passengers; certain platforms will be extended to accommodate larger trains; and 47 visual display screens will give passengers full service information.

The end result will be a faster, more efficient and reliable service for BR's customers, who will also have the benefit of a greatly improved station environment at Crewe. BR will have simplified a vastly complex junction, making it cheaper to operate and maintain.

But the old adage "One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs" applies in this case. The work that BR is undertaking at Crewe cannot be done without some temporary disruption of the normal train services. Having considered the impact that the work would have on its customers, British Rail decided to tackle the programme in three phases. Phase I, which I am glad to say has been completed, consisted of the work that could be done without serious disruption to services. This included the new signal box, signalling renewals, platform alterations, building refurbishment, preliminary track works, overhead line foundations and the removal of the present overhead power lines. Phase II covers the shutdown of Crewe for a seven-week period from 2 June to 21 July, when the new tracks and overhead equipment will be installed. This work cannot be carried out without inflicting serious disruption to services. The third phase, planned for July to October this year, covers work which cannot be carried out until the first two phases are completed, and will involve final adjustments to the overhead line equipment and the new track. Services will not be affected during the third phase.

I know that the aspect which principally concerns my hon. Friend this evening is the virtual shutdown, during a seven-week period, of Crewe station. There is no doubt that BR has taken a radical step in tackling the scheme in this way, but BR believes that by concentrating the phase into a short period, rather than spreading it over weekends — as is the normal procedure for such works — inconvenience to passengers and disruption to normal rail services will be kept to a minimum. If the work were undertaken during weekends, passengers would face delays and diversions at weekends which could last for up to four years. The quicker the work is completed, the sooner passengers will benefit from it.

By concentrating the works, BR is providing its engineers with a more cost-effective and efficient way of handling its permanent way staff and machinery. Machinery is being intensively worked for seven weeks, instead of standing at the trackside for five days out of seven. Engineering staff resources can be concentrated on Crewe for the seven weeks and the engineers can get straight on with the job, instead of having to spend some of each weekend making good for normal running the next day. In all, BR expects to save about £1 million by tackling phase II during this seven week period.

Some people might ask as my hon. Friend has, why, if the work has to be carried out in one tranche, BR is doing it in the summer, when people are travelling and the inconvenience caused is greater than it might otherwise be. BR had deliberately timed the shutdown to coincide with the time of the year when the weather is, or should be, at its best and daylight at its maximum. Both the spring bank holiday and the main summer holiday period have thus been avoided. I am glad to be able to assure my hon. Friend that phase II is proceeding well, and BR expects to complete it on schedule.

BR has, of course, made alternative arrangements while Crewe station is closed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand if I do not give the full details. In summary, inter-city services continue to travel through Crewe with little effect on their scheduled timings and there are a number of special replacement bus and coach services from rail locations to Crewe and special rail shuttle services between Crewe and Chester and Stafford.

As for the north Wales services, to which my hon. Friend has understandably drawn attention, in the present timetable, as in the 1984 timetable, there are six through services each day from London to north Wales and a further nine services each day from London to Crewe enabling connections to be made to north Wales. The only change is that most of the through services are now quicker than they were in 1984.

Under the temporary arrangements during phase II, the six through services remain. In addition, there are four services on which connections can be made to north Wales with one change at Stafford and a further four services involving changes at both Stafford and Crewe. So of the nine daily services enabling connections to be made to north Wales eight are operating during phase II.

In the opposite direction there are six through services, all of which remain during the temporary work, but of the 10 connecting services in the 1985 timetable only six are operating during the phase II work at Crewe, one involving a change at Stafford and five involving changes at Stafford and Crewe. I understand that journey times for passengers travelling on through trains or changing only at Stafford have been increased by about 10 minutes. The worst affected are those making two changes. For the seven weeks of phase II their journeys will take on average an hour longer because BR cannot provide good scheduled connections for people making those changes while all services are temporarily disrupted by the work.

BR recognises that the level of service performance during the first week of the Crewe shutdown was less than satisfactory and I convey BR's apologies to my hon. Friend for that. The temporary arrangements have now bedded down and I understand that the situation is somewhat improved. BR is well aware of the problems that passengers face and the inconvenience caused by the delays. It is constantly striving to improve matters, although we must all recognise that during this period it is impossible completely to maintain acceptable standards of punctuality.

My hon. Friend asked whether it was possible to get to Chester or north Wales in the morning and referred in an amusing aside to someone whom he had seen on the platform. If my hon. Friend is going to his constituency, he can catch the 6.50 am train from Euston arriving at Chester at 10.10, Rhyl at 10.54, Colwyn bay at 11.8 and Holyhead at 12.10. During the phase II work at Crewe the journey will take about 10 minutes longer. If my hon. Friend does not wish to get up quite so early, there are other connections to Rhyl and Colwyn bay from Euston at 7.50 am and 8.55 am arriving at Rhyl at 11.31 and 12.22 respectively.

I am glad to hear that, but perhaps my hon. Friend will point out to BR that although those trains exist they do not appear in the only timetable covering services to north Wales.

I am sorry to hear that they are not in the timetable available to my hon. Friend. I have another timetable here which may be of help to him. I take his point about the timetables and I shall deal with that in a moment. I would wish to draw my hon. Friend's points to the attention of British Rail. They are matters for the board, and I understand that my hon. Friend has already put his points direct to British Rail. I have seen a copy of his letter and the reply that has been sent to him. I am sorry that it has not yet reached him, but perhaps he can raise that point with services other than British Rail. I hope that the response will lessen his concern and that he will forgive me if I do not repeat the points that he will find in that letter.

I am, however, entirely at one with my hon. Friend in his concern that new timetables should be made available in good time for travellers to see how any revised timings may affect their trains. I was pleased to see that British Rail produced its main timetable, together with a special supplement giving details of certain services that will alter due to the Crewe modernisation works, on 29 March—six weeks before the new timetable came into operation. I believe that British Rail sent copies of that timetable to all hon. Members in the north Wales area.

The question of pocket, or local, timetables is left to British Rail's regional managers. That is where my hon. Friend identified a particular problem. I understand that the London Midland region, whose rail services are the subject of this debate, did not issue the full range of pocket timetables this year. The main reason was the move earlier this year of London Midland region staff from London to new offices at Birmingham and the fact that many staff involved in timetabling preparations opted not to make the move to Birmingham. British Rail hopes that next year it will be able to produce the full range of pocket timetables.

My hon. Friend also drew attention to the size of print of these timetables. While I was waiting for the early hours of the morning to reach this point, I peered at them. I recognise the difficulty that my hon. Friend raises. I shall also draw that to the attention of the appropriate part of the British Rail organisation.

Although London Midland region did not produce a pocket timetable for the north Wales line, I understand that Gwynedd county council published its own pocket version, which was available to passengers. I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not receive one.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the improvement in catering from private services and asked for more progress. I shall raise this with the chairman of British Rail, whom I hope to see later this week. I recognise, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that anything that improves the attractiveness of the services provided by British Rail, including the provision of better catering services, helps to attract and hold more passengers. That is to the benefit of the whole of British Rail and those who work for it. Indeed, I recently heard high praise for some of the private trolley operations that have been provided on some of the services in north Wales.

I believe that my hon. Friend has also told British Rail that he has had difficulty in getting responses to telephone inquiries for information about the times of trains. I know that it can be frustrating when the ringing tone seems to last for ever, but British Rail tries to answer most calls within 30 seconds. Most of its telephone inquiry bureaux are already equipped with a call queueing system which stores incoming calls in sequence so that each inquiry is answered in strict rotation. The Llandudno Junction and Chester bureaux already have such systems, but with the present works at Crewe these bureaux are handling considerably more calls than usual. I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that British Rail is developing proposals to increase the staff and reorganise the office at the Chester bureau. It has also recently installed monitoring equipment at the Llandudno Junction bureau and plans to increase the number of staff on a temporary basis to cover the summer period.

This year's normal timetable shows the same level of Inter-City service on the north Wales line as last year. That is six trains each way a day, and in most cases Journey times are reduced. Southbound trains are nearly half an hour quicker and northbound trains nearly a quarter of an hour quicker. British Rail has also introduced a new through service between north and south Wales. Overall, therefore, the prospects for these north Wales services, once the Crewe modernisation is complete, look rather bright.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take some confidence from that fact. Meanwhile, I have undertaken to draw the points that he has made to the attention of British Rail. I am sure that his constituents will feel that they have been well served by him at this hour of the morning, when he has raised these matters on their behalf.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Two o' clock.