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Train Overcrowding

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2007

The rail White Paper was published in July. It sets out the resources we intend to make available to the rail industry and the increases in capacity, as well as safety and performance, that we expect the industry to deliver in return. In addition to this, we have given the green light to Crossrail to relieve congestion on both rail and underground networks.

I am grateful for that answer, and the decision on Crossrail is particularly welcome. The c2c train operator on the Fenchurch Street line has done an excellent job. It is one of the best performing in the country and has improved reliability while keeping down ticket costs. However, overcrowding on that line is unacceptable and unsafe. My constituents who try to get on those trains at Benfleet station have difficulty finding seats. What will the right hon. Lady do to encourage further investment so that we can get more rolling stock, and will she support my campaign for an additional terminus station at Canvey Island?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks about Crossrail, which is a historic achievement under this Government. I understand his concerns about overcrowding—it is precisely for that reason that we are making the investment in capacity that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), has just outlined.

I also understand the hon. Gentleman’s desire for his constituents to benefit from Benfleet and Canvey Island. I know that c2c, a good operator, is already examining options for ways in which it might increase capacity on those routes.

The hon. Gentleman campaigns for a new station on Canvey Island; I understand that that is an expensive route to take. However, as he knows, if he comes up with a robust business case, with improved and significant private sector investment and a high level of benefits to cost, the Government will consider it.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows about overcrowding on the west coast main line. The train on which I travelled yesterday from Carlisle was horrendously overcrowded because of the cancellation of an earlier train. However, overcrowding is a day-to-day problem on the west coast main line. I do not understand why Virgin Trains proposes to run a train from London to Glasgow with only one stop at Preston, missing out Carlisle. That will put extra pressure on the other trains in the area in order to reduce the time by only three minutes. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister responsible for rail to meet me to discuss the matter before the timetable is agreed?

I shall certainly ask my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail to meet my hon. Friend—I should be delighted to do so. I am sure that he welcomes the £7 billion investment in the west coast main line upgrade. It has transformed the prospects for the route and means that far fewer people now choose to fly between London and Manchester but instead, like me, take the train. Of course, problems with overcrowding remain. They will be taken into account in any forthcoming spending plans. However, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that, given that the timetable is not yet finalised, he is happy to have discussions with my hon. Friend.

The right hon. Lady will know that congestion on the west coast main line is partly due to the fact that the trains have nine carriages. That is an increase of one on the original plan, which was for eight carriages. Negotiations are going on about providing a further two carriages to make 11 in all. However, Virgin Trains asks what profit is in that for the company if its franchise is to last only a short time. Will the Secretary of State look at the matter afresh and realise that if Virgin Trains is to provide two extra carriages per train at its expense, it needs a longer franchise period?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that such negotiations are never easy and that train-operating companies often come to the Department with requests for extensions to their franchises. He should consider the specific request that he mentioned in that spirit. My hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail assures me that he is optimistic that a deal about the extra carriages will be done. The west coast main line will benefit from greater train frequencies and more rolling stock as we deliver the single biggest increase in investment since the war.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, on the overcrowded Hove to London line, Network Rail is about to remove the trees from the cuttings? Is she or a member of her ministerial team willing to come and speak to representatives of my constituency, of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and experts from the university of Sussex, who are worried that the risk of landslip on that crowded line is greater than any danger posed by leaves on lines?

I appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend champions the concerns of her constituents. I understand that a meeting is already in the diary for tomorrow, when she will meet my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for rail. I am sure that she will use that opportunity to discuss those issues and ensure that the best solution is reached.