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Train Services (Maidenhead and Twyford)

Volume 455: debated on Thursday 18 January 2007

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

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the House the problems that my constituents are suffering as a result of the appalling service that they are getting from First Great Western, and I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me that opportunity. Sadly, it is not the first time that I have had to complain in this Chamber about the services from First Great Western and the problems of the deteriorating train service. To put it in a nutshell, there are not enough fast and semi-fast services for my constituents in Maidenhead and Twyford, or at the branch-line stations of Furze Platt, Cookham and Wargrave. They are suffering considerable delays and cancellations, the service has become less reliable in recent months—it was by no means perfect previously—and they are now suffering chronic overcrowding on the key trains that take commuters into and from London.

Such problems have led the Maidenhead Advertiser, following the introduction in December of the new timetable, to state the following:

“Delays, disruption and people crammed in like sardines…welcome to our Third World rail service…It used to be a lottery to get a seat. Now it’s a lottery to get a train.”

It is an appalling service, and I am telling the Minister today that it is time for the Government to grasp the nettle and do something about the problems that they and First Great Western have caused to my constituents.

I have mentioned the stations in my constituency. Many of my constituents commute to London or to Reading and the west using those train services. Although Maidenhead is only a 45-minute drive from London, they want to use the trains and are committed to using them, but sadly, in recent years the service has deteriorated. There are companies that situated their headquarters in my constituency because the train service to and from London was good, and because there were other good transport links in the local area. So this is an important issue for Maidenhead’s economy, but it is also important for the economy of the wider Thames valley. If those companies move out, it is not only we in Maidenhead who will lose jobs and local economic vibrancy; the surrounding area, the south-east and the country as a whole will be affected.

Let me give the Minister, who has doubtless been briefed on this issue, a short history. We used to have a very good train service, run by Thames Trains, and the franchise for our local commuter services was different from that for the long-distance services. Sadly, the Government and the Strategic Rail Authority chose to merge the franchises in 2004, and in 2005 they announced that, as from last April, First Great Western would be granted the merged franchise for nine years, with a possible extension for a further three years. Since then—since First Great Western took the service over—it has been deteriorating year on year.

I will refrain from going through all the problems that we have had over the years; suffice it to say that last year I presented a petition with 2,500 signatures of constituents of mine who were concerned, worried and appalled by the train service, and who wanted the Government and FGW to take some action to improve it. Those 2,500 people were telling FGW that the timetable that it proposed to introduce in December 2006 would not work and would cause them considerable problems. Sadly, FGW chose not to listen and everything that my constituents forecast would happen as a result of that timetable has come to pass.

I do not want to go into details about individual trains—the Minister may be pleased to hear that—but I do wish to quote some of the many hundreds of emails and letters I have received from constituents raising the problems. Maurice Lawson, who is one of the passenger representatives on FGW’s customer panel, tells me:

“It is difficult to overstate the volume of dissatisfaction from Twyford and Maidenhead passengers with the present timetable and level of service.

I am receiving a greater and more continuous stream of complaints than ever before. The complaints cover the subjects of overcrowding and associated dangers, delays, cancellations, long journey times, lack of information, deficiency of morning services at Twyford and impossibility of getting a seat, hopeless evening services from Paddington to Twyford, huge dissatisfaction with the cost and the yet further impact of the January fares increase, the generally abysmal value for money, and the overall shambles of the whole system.”

Sarah Lawson says:

“When I first moved to Maidenhead three and a half years ago, one of the big attractions was that the commute was so good into London. At the time I worked in Canary Wharf and the whole commute took just over an hour, however the train timetable changed a couple of years ago making that commute impossible and so I had to move jobs. With this recent change, I have to take trains that make my day half an hour longer, and I am already struggling to keep it up.”

Jonathan Freeland wrote to say:

“My wife is 6 months pregnant and 20 mins standing is unreasonable and medically dangerous”—

The complaints of the hon. Lady’s constituents are similar to those of my constituents about the appalling service on the same line. Does she find it shocking that European Union regulations provide for a minimum amount of space for a cow, sheep or pig, but none prevents the grotesque overcrowding that human beings face daily on that line?

I do share that concern and I know that the hon. Lady has been fighting on behalf of her constituents in Slough who suffer from the same problems as my constituents. It is appalling that if our constituents were chickens, cows or pigs, there would be rules about how many could be in a carriage at a time. Because they are people, there are no such rules. Sadly, the Office of Rail Regulation, which now has responsibility for health and safety on the railways, is doing nothing about the chronic overcrowding, which is not only miserable for those travelling in those circumstances, but downright dangerous, as many of my constituents have pointed out.

Jonathan Freeland continues:

“The consequence is that my wife will be going onto maternity leave earlier than would otherwise be the case—travel being the only reason.”

Richard Ashcroft has emailed me to say:

“What I object to strongly is the WILFUL DESTRUCTION of previously existing services to Maidenhead commuters.”

Janice Trounson writes:

“It is sad, when I look back over the 8 years that I have lived in Maidenhead, to see the service that was previously ‘enjoyed’ rapidly being eroded even further with each and every timetable change.”

What is sad is not only the problems caused by the timetable change, but the attitude of the rail company, which causes extra frustration for commuters. They email the company only to be told not to worry, it is just teething problems and it will all bed down in due course. Sometimes the train company does not seem to know what is happening. I had an email only yesterday from Jo Hulme who said that

“whilst waiting at Twyford for the 07:42 Oxford bound service we were treated to the platform announcement ‘this is a platform announcement. The computers are down and we can’t tell where the trains are’.”

That is symptomatic of the attitude that many of my constituents report from FGW. Sam Steele emailed me yesterday to say that he had asked FGW:

“Can you please take the time to truly listen to your passengers…This is not a PR exercise, it is a real problem for your passengers who have to live with these problems on a day to day basis.”

He goes on to say that people obviously have to be at work at certain times, and that

“just because FGW decide to change their train timetable doesn’t mean our bosses will suddenly think it’s OK for us to roll into work 15-20 minutes late. We all have commitments, and FGW’s commitment is to its passengers.”

The problem was summed up best by a gentleman whose name I shall not mention, as he is employed by FGW as a train driver. In his email, he states that

“the impression I get is that they are only interested in their HST long distance services and they have no idea how to organise and run a commuter based service…I have been on the railway 28 years, and the attitude of First Group towards anything they don’t agree with is that it’s lump it or like it.”

That is what my constituents are experiencing with their train service. They have complained but are not getting the responses that they need from the company.

That is not to say that FGW has not made some changes. On the contrary, it suddenly announced that changes would be made from Monday of this week. I have mentioned already last year’s petition of 2,500 signatures, and the key change that it secured was the introduction of the 0726 from Twyford, which stopped at Maidenhead and then went straight to Paddington. The train was empty at Twyford, so people could get seats, which were still available at Maidenhead. However, as part of the most recent “improvements” made by FGW, passengers are now allowed to get on the train at Oxford, and the result is that my constituents in Maidenhead find it harder to join the service. That is therefore no improvement at all.

I turn now to the problem of overcrowding. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) commented on it earlier, but FGW found a way around it. Last March, the Evening Standard reported that the 1806 Paddington to Oxford service that called at my constituency was the sixth most overcrowded in the country. However, it no longer features in the list—FGW has abolished it and it does not run any more. That is one way to get rid of the overcrowding problem, but the consequence is that other services are more overcrowded than they were before.

That is all the more bizarre, given that the franchise agreement between the Department of Transport and the rail companies requires each company to allocate rolling stock resources

“in such as manner as to reconcile its available capacity to passenger demand…so that instances of trains operating with passengers in excess of capacity are kept to a minimum.”

However, that is not happening with the FGW franchise that serves the stations in my constituency.

The train service for my constituents is appalling, and it has deteriorated significantly from what it was in the past. I have talked about FGW, but the Government cannot exonerate themselves of all blame, as FGW bid for the franchise against the timetable specification that the Government set out.

In that specification, the Government in their wisdom included the provision that trains running on the single-track service between Twyford and Henley, via Wargrave and Shiplake, did not have to stop at all stations. Given that the Government take that sort of attitude to train services, it is perhaps little wonder that we have the current problems.

Although the timetable specification set by the Government was not good enough, I do not believe that FGW fought hard enough to improve it in the interests of my constituents in Maidenhead and Twyford. Neither do I believe that FGW is able to run a commuter service that is capable of satisfying my constituents.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I hope that he will give me some positive news, and say that the Government will take action against FGW in respect of its franchise on the part of the line about which I am concerned. I hope too that they will act to ensure that my constituents see immediate improvements, rather than years of a deteriorating service. They need a decent train service, with good numbers of fast and semi-fast trains that are not constantly delayed or cancelled. In addition, overcrowding needs to be reduced so that passengers can get to work in reasonable comfort. In that way, they will be able to deliver the economic value for the country that is their objective.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on securing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss train services in Maidenhead and Twyford.

I accept that the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) feel extremely strongly about the issue, as they should. They have raised issues of serious concern to their constituents. However, such an important debate should be conducted in more measured terms than those being used in the right hon. Lady’s local media. Describing any rail service in the United Kingdom as comparable to those in the third world does not help us to get to the nub of the problem. Apart from the fact that such headlines are wildly incorrect, I suspect that their authors are invariably people who have never travelled on a third-world railway.

After a number of difficult years, Britain’s railways nationally and in the south-east are a success story, whatever the right hon. Lady may suggest. Performance has improved markedly over recent years, with the renewed focus of Network Rail and the train operators on punctuality.

The current franchise system is delivering. More than 1 billion passenger journeys were made last year—40 per cent. more than 10 years ago. Britain’s railways are the fastest growing in Europe, and that strong growth is expected to continue. The Government intend to support the growth on Britain’s railways by spending an average of £88 million a week on the network. Network Rail has embarked on a nationwide infrastructure renewals programme, worth more than £2 billion a year. Thanks to investment from the public and private sectors, Britain has one of the youngest train fleets in Europe.

Increased investment in such initiatives as integrated control centres has improved punctuality to pre-Hatfield levels. On average across the country, more than 85 per cent. of trains have run on time over the past 12 months, as measured by the industry-standard public performance measure—the PPM. Further improvements are targeted for March 2008.

I realise that the picture my hon. Friend paints is true nationally, but I must advise him that that national improvement is not reflected on commuter lines throughout the whole First Great Western franchise. Our services, which are critical to Britain’s economy, are later, with more delays and more overcrowding, so I hope that he will use his powers to remedy that situation.

My hon. Friend pre-empts my further comments. First Great Western’s performance has been below the national level. In the latest period for which figures are available, only 84 per cent. of FGW trains ran on time, as measured by the PPM.

Statistics tell only part of the story, however. What really matters is the experience for each passenger undertaking a journey, so I take on board the personal testimonies of constituents that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead shared with the House. That is why it is important that concerted action is taken by all the parties involved to improve performance.

Overcrowding is crucial in individual passenger’s experience of rail services. Does the Minister stand by the comments of Dr. Mike Mitchell to a Committee of the House? He said that people should expect to have to stand on trains for half an hour and that

“there are alternatives…if one travels off-peak”.

People who are going to work cannot travel off-peak. Furthermore, after spending several thousand pounds on a season ticket, they do not expect to have to travel crammed against other people day in, day out.

I accept that although performance was the biggest issue facing the rail industry four or five years ago, the situation has changed and now the biggest issue is capacity. That is why the Government will publish a high-level output specification in July, in which we shall explain exactly the outputs we require from the industry in terms of capacity and other factors, as well as how much money is available to pay for those outputs. That is in addition to the commitments we have received from various franchise operators, including FGW, about additional rolling stock. On infrastructure, I hope that we shall see progress on the Crossrail and Thameslink projects, both of which are vital if we are to improve the capacity of the rail industry.

The Minister is being very generous with his time, but I would like to point out that, unless it is extended to Reading, Crossrail will make life worse, not better, for my constituents. Unless it is extended to Reading, it will not be possible to run the sort of fast and semi-fast services that my constituents need.

I rather suspect that I should not have brought that issue up—first because it has obviously inspired the right hon. Lady’s ire, and because we are not likely to agree on it. My own and the Government’s position is that Crossrail will provide a vital infrastructure link to the capital and to the UK.

First Great Western, Network Rail and the other train operators who operate in the FGW franchise area—including the freight train companies—all have an important part to play. Under the new franchise, First Great Western is committed to spending substantial sums of money on improving the reliability of the whole of its train fleet.

High-speed trains, which the right hon. Lady mentioned, are receiving new engines, other reliability modifications to the power cars and upgrades to the passenger coaches. Twenty-two re-engined high-speed train power cars are already in service in the franchise area, and I understand from FGW that they are proving to be very much more reliable than the older engines—and much more environmentally friendly. Only yesterday, I had the opportunity to see the first fully redesigned and refurbished high-speed train to enter service. It has two re-engined power cars and new-look passenger coaches. Its engines are also more efficient as they use 15 per cent. less fuel than their predecessors.

As the right hon. Lady mentioned, the First Great Western franchise is not just about longer distance services. FGW’s services in the Thames valley, including those stopping at Maidenhead and Twyford, are another very important part of the franchise. They serve the needs of commuters and other passengers to London and to other towns and cities in the area, including such key regional centres as Reading and Slough. The lines to Marlow and Henley-on-Thames also form an important part of that transport system.

I should therefore like to confirm that the new franchise also commits First Great Western to a series of reliability modifications to the turbo trains used on most of the Thames valley services. Additionally, FGW is committed to funding line speed improvements on the slower relief lines between Reading and London Paddington. Network Rail is also working hard to improve performance in that area and it is undertaking a very large amount of work to that end. In particular, it is renewing and improving its infrastructure across the whole area on which FGW operates train services. That covers track, signalling systems and civil engineering structures such as bridges and embankments. I meet Network Rail on a regular basis to discuss performance on the network. I know that all the train operators in the area meet on a regular basis with Network Rail and that plans are in place to reduce the levels of delay that they cause each other.

I have placed particular emphasis on performance because I know how important it is to passengers in the Maidenhead and Twyford areas. The new franchise agreement also brings other significant investments and improvements to FGW’s passenger facilities. In particular, FGW has committed to a widespread programme of station improvements.

I would like to say a few words about timetables. The First Great Western main line serves a number of different markets, including travel from stations such as Maidenhead and Twyford, longer distance passenger traffic and heavy freight trains. Demand in all those markets has grown steadily, so I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree that creating a timetable that meets each of those needs is a significant challenge.

First Great Western introduced a new timetable on 10 December 2006. The timetable is based on the Department for Transport’s specification included in the franchise agreement. May I say at this point that the right hon. Lady may have been misled in that the Department for Transport—and the Strategic Rail Authority before it—did not and does not specify timetables? The minimum specification and service level commitment do not specify timetables. The writing of timetables is up to Network Rail and the train operating company.

I do not intend to have a long interaction with the Minister about the meaning of a timetable, but the second service level commitment does specify the number of trains that will stop at particular stations and run between particular stations within a particular time frame. Around that, First Great Western will decide on the precise times for the timetable. The real problem for my constituents—and, I suspect, for those of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart)—is that the majority of services now go on the slow relief line rather than on the fast main line. The Government and First Great Western could solve many of the problems for my constituents if more of those services from Maidenhead and Twyford went back on to the fast main line. It is the specification for the overall service that has led First Great Western to put them on the slow relief line. Put them back on the main line and then we could be satisfied with a better service.

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady’s criticism is that the Government specifies too much or does not specify enough. Does she believe that it is a Minister’s job to specify which services should run on which lines? That is not my job—at least I hope that it is not.

The Government do not specify timetables. It is up to train operating companies to decide how best to provide the service level commitment contained in the franchise agreement.

The Government could help in a particular way. My constituents and those of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) are part of the engine of the UK’s economy. If the Government were in a position to produce an analytical tool that outlined the wealth generated by particular kinds of train journeys, we could use that to persuade First Great Western to stop destroying businesses in places such as Maidenhead and Slough and to stop damaging the commuting experience for our constituents, who are moving into London.

If my hon. Friend finds this area of economic policy interesting, I am sure that she will have read the Eddington report, published at the end of last year, which explores the impact of transport on the national and regional economies.

Before I continue, I want to say something more about the controversial issue of whether the Government specify timetables. The Front-Bench colleagues of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead have criticised the Government for being too involved in specifying timetables. Her party does not believe that the Government should have that role. It seems to believe that all rail services, everywhere in Great Britain, should be decided by train operating companies at the behest of the open market. I have to tell her—I am happy to give way to her again—that the Government believe that it is our duty to specify a minimum level of service. We believe strongly in a train service that is provided by the private sector and specified by the public sector. It seems that her party is committed to a service provided by the private sector and specified by the private sector. I would be interested to know whether she agrees.

In any tender process, bids are always made against a particular specification of service. What used to happen was that the train company had considerable flexibility around that specification to be able to add services and improve and enhance those services. That is what Thames Trains did and that is why we had a better service from Thames Trains. Now, the Government are much more prescriptive about—

We can tell First Great Western that the Minister is shaking his head and that when it tells us that the Government are being prescriptive, that is not the case and it can widely vary the timetable. However, First Great Western needs the agreement of the Government and Network Rail to vary that timetable.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to place on the record that the service level commitments contained in franchises are minimum levels of specification. Train operating companies have every right, and are encouraged, to add to that minimum level of service. There is some discontent and a lot of misinformation being circulated in the south-west of the country and the Bristol area. That is not an area that affects her constituency, but it is still the First Great Western franchise. That misinformation has accused the Government of ordering First Great Western to remove carriages from trains. We have been accused of forbidding First Great Western to increase the length of trains. That is nonsense. I am happy to put on the record that the minimum service level commitment is a minimum level. Train operating companies should add value to those levels.

I hope that I will be able to get to the end of my speech in the time left, although I suspect that I will not. First Great Western carried out a public consultation exercise in February and March last year in which it asked for passengers’ comments on its draft timetable. Several thousand responses were received—I expect that one was from the right hon. Lady—and they included comments about train services from both Maidenhead and Twyford and the associated branch lines to Marlow and Henley-on-Thames. In response to those comments, First Great Western was able to make several changes to its initial draft timetable, including introducing faster through services to London Paddington station. During the course of 2006, First Great Western continued to review the timetable and made several further changes, including some that commenced on Monday 15 January—the beginning of this week.

I know from correspondence that I have read that there has been considerable discontent in both Maidenhead and Twyford about both the Department’s specification and the timetable implemented by First Great Western. I look to First Great Western, as I do to all train operators, to listen to its passengers and stakeholders and to make changes to meet their needs. However, it is important to recognise that the high demand for train slots on this key corridor means that it might not be possible for all aspirations to be met fully.

I do not think that timetable changes can be blamed as the sole reason for the increase in overcrowding on trains in the right hon. Lady’s constituency. The fact is that demand for train travel has increased by 40 per cent. over the past 10 years. Even without timetable changes, it was inevitable that trains would become busier.

We are delivering for passengers and taxpayers. They are benefiting from improved performance and there has been investment in new trains and stations. New franchises such as First Great Western will result in yet further significant sums being spent to improve services for passengers, and I am sure that that is something on which the right hon. Lady and I can agree.

The motion having been made after Six o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Seven o’clock.