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Rail Services (Enfield, North)

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of rail services to my constituency of Enfield, North. There are four sections of line serving the constituency. Apart from the loop line from King’s Cross and Moorgate to Hertford and Stevenage, which has a suburban service operated by First Group—serving stations at Enfield Chase, Gordon Hill and Crews Hill—all the other sections of railway are part of the Liverpool Street to West Anglia routes with stopping services operated by One. That has three sections of line in Enfield: the Enfield town line; the Southbury and Turkey Street loop to Cheshunt; and the West Anglia main line, which not only carries the Stansted express and through-trains to east Anglia, but provides local trains serving Brimsdown, Ponders End and Enfield Lock.

I refer to these services as essential because, unlike the situation in many other parts of north London, there are no rail alternatives for commuters from Enfield, North. The underground does not extend as far as Enfield, North and road transport into central London is barely an option, because of congestion, travelling time and the obvious environmental issues associated with heavy road traffic.

Until 2004, the train service through my constituency was operated by West Anglia Great Northern—WAGN. In 2004, One Railway, a member of the National Express Group plc, won the franchise for lines on the eastern side of Enfield North, while in 2006, First Capital Connect took over the franchise for the western routes. Under WAGN’s control, my constituents frequently experience delays, cancellations and severe overcrowding on their trains, with very little passenger information provided and stations very much in need of refurbishment.

Where are we today? Perhaps I can start with an overview of the King’s Cross-Moorgate-Hertford line. The main problem facing the loop line is capacity on the trains, and there are two main causes. The train lengths do not cope well with the recent and continuing growth in passenger use, including an expected 14 per cent. increase in passengers up to 2016, yet the Moorgate branch is limited to some six coaches. There is also a timetabling problem in going towards London that limits the ability to run more trains, as there only two inbound tracks between Alexandra Palace and Finsbury Park for all high-speed outer suburban and inner suburban services—instead of the three tracks in the direction away from London. Problems are also caused by a lack of track access.

West Anglia is one of the most severely pressurised rail corridors in the country, supporting a busy suburban network in north London, Essex and Hertfordshire as well as express services to Stansted airport and East Anglia. It serves one of the fastest growing regions in the UK, including the London-Stansted-Cambridge-Peterborough growth corridor, and the existing track struggles to cope with the travel demand. That can only get worse with an exceptionally high growth in passenger usage of 37 per cent. forecast by Network Rail by 2016. For the most part, the railways forming the West Anglia route network have just two tracks—one in each direction, with a short four-track section between Hackney Downs and Bethnal Green, but only two tracks into Liverpool Street.

In outer London, the West Anglia mainline timetable is a compromise between passenger demand and operability, which means having to mix fast and slow trains on the same track. Current services are susceptible to major delays for some very minor problems. This week, for example, a broken down train at Cheshunt in the morning peak led to a suspension of service and major disruption for thousands of commuters. If Network Rail proceeds with four-tracking, as proposed in its strategic business plan, such disruption and delay need not occur. I hope the Minister will be able to say something about that.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to creating a rail network that provides a fast, reliable and efficient service, particularly for inter-urban journeys. I know that more than £10 billion will be invested in enhancing capacity between 2009 and 1014, with overall Government support for the railway totalling over £15 billion, and I know that that represents a higher level of investment than existed in 2004-09 with a lower level of public expenditure. I welcome that degree of commitment to improving our railways. However, as the Minister knows—we have exchanged correspondence, he has been very helpful in discussions with me, and I know that he is pursuing the point further—I am concerned about the fact that the investment is not being translated into tangible benefits for my constituents who use the One Railway services.

I have already outlined the major problems, but according to the Office of Rail Regulation, One Railway received a £2.9 million subsidy for 2006-07, which appears to translate into only 0.1p per passenger kilometre. That seems very low in comparison with other rail operator subsidies. Moreover, it is a premium service, and One Railway will have to start paying money back to the Government rather than receiving a subsidy. In the light of that, I wonder about its bid. If the problems that I have described exist now, how is the position to improve with a lower level of subsidy, when the company has to start paying that money back to the Government? While I approve of the overall principle in relation to premium services, I am very concerned about that particular service, and about the One Railway franchise on the basis of its bid.

My postbag is regularly full of letters from angry and frustrated constituents who are fed up with the poor train service that they are experiencing. I therefore conducted a survey to gauge the most up-to-date views of local commuters and hear what they had to say about our local rail services. Over the past week I have been inundated with replies, and they are still pouring in. I thank all my constituents who took the time and trouble to complete the questionnaire. So far about 15 per cent. of people have responded, which I think everyone would agree is a high level of response, and which, unfortunately, demonstrates the level of dissatisfaction. I also thank a number of groups in my constituency—Enfield Disability Action, Enfield transport users group and the Enfield Lock action group—and councillors Chris Bond, Toby Simon, Geoff Robinson and Del Goddard for their ongoing work and support in seeking improvements in our rail service in Enfield.

According to the findings of my survey so far, most Enfield commuters recognise that some improvements have been made by One Railway and First Capital Connect. First Capital Connect has told me that it is

“committed to providing customers with the best service”

that it can provide, and believes that it has made “real and tangible progress” in tackling issues such as performance, punctuality and quality of service. We have seen some improvements to both Enfield Chase and Gordon Hill stations, but as they were in a pretty poor state of repair originally, we started from a very low base. I believe that further improvements are planned for all three stations over the next few years, and very necessary and welcome they will be. As I have said, rolling stock is a problem: we need longer trains.

When One Railway took on the franchise for the Great Eastern line, it aimed to make improvements to the timetable and upgrades to stations and rolling stock. It made a commitment to invest £11.3 million in station improvements on the overall lines, with 50 of the 250 stations to be upgraded within 18 months. One Railway asserts that the Lee Valley area, which includes Enfield, has seen

“a vast improvement in services”.

However, that too was from a very low base, and it must be said that most of the correspondence I receive about rail services in Enfield concerns One Railway. Yes, I receive complaints about First Capital Connect, but the vast majority are about One Railway, and they are often much more serious complaints.

Improvements across both services are a step in the right direction, but a major problem that is still experienced on both networks, but particularly on the One Railway service, is delays and cancellations. According to my survey, all rail users in Enfield complain of delays and cancellations, but particularly users at Enfield Chase on the First Capital Connect line, and Enfield Lock, Turkey Street and Brimsdown on the One railway line. Constituents tell me that trains are often withdrawn without any explanation, sometimes hours in advance, and the public are not even informed. In fact, One Railway has told me that there were 22 cancellations in the space of just four weeks in September and October this year.

Delays are particularly problematic during the peak-time service from Ponders End into London Liverpool Street station, which constituents tell me is often late four days a week. Meanwhile, on the Turkey Street and Southbury line, constituents have noted daily delays—interspersed with cancellations—of 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and on several occasions half an hour. On the First Capital Connect service, the 9.14 at Enfield Chase is late on an almost daily basis and regularly cancelled—which in fact means that it often flies through the station without stopping, which is incredibly frustrating for constituents, presumably because it wants to make a target time at its point of destination. This happens at peak time for services.

Understandably, these problems continue to cause regular, and sometimes serious, overcrowding on the trains. We already have a capacity problem, and the running late and the not stopping make it worse. This is an issue which 73 per cent. of people I surveyed in Enfield said they often experience—a figure which is simply too high. While there have been some additional trains to Enfield Lock to help address some of this problem—as I have said, only four-tracking will ultimately resolve this issue—those using Brimsdown station are particularly affected by overcrowding, as there have been no additional stopping trains along that part of the line.

Indeed, in the survey results that I have collated to date, 90 per cent. of commuters said they often experience overcrowding at Brimsdown station. With over 200,000 passenger journeys through Brimsdown, this is a very serious matter indeed. An increase in residential development on the former industrial sites in the Brimsdown area, and up the eastern side of Enfield generally, has meant that more people need to use the train service. One Railway must meet that demand. More commuters mean more money for One Railway, and we want to see improved services as an absolute priority.

First Capital Connect has told me that it is working to maintain what it considers to be “exceptional” punctuality and reliability on the route, while One has told me that its main priority is to maintain the improved performance of the service. My constituents feel they are being taken for a ride—but not a ride on a clean reliable service that runs to time. Many Enfield residents using these services are regularly late for work and other engagements, which simply is not good enough. We have also had problems with changing timetables, and huge amounts of pressure has had to be applied by local groups and people to get reasonable timetables reinstated. Sometimes in peak running times a whole hour will pass without a train, which is totally unacceptable.

Another problem brought to my attention is customer service at some of our local stations. While conducting my survey, I was at Enfield Lock station just two Fridays ago from 7.30 through until 9 o’clock. There was only one member of staff issuing tickets. The ticket machine was not working, which I understand is a regular occurrence. There was a huge queue of people wanting tickets, stretching out of the station. The train comes in, and their choice is either to get on the train without a ticket or miss the train. A large number of them regularly miss their train for that reason, which is unacceptable.

I understand that First Capital Connect is planning to reduce staffing at Enfield Chase station and three other stations on the line. At present, we have one full-time and one part-time member of staff at Enfield Chase, and two ticket windows open during peak times. The plan is to get rid of the part-time job, so we will have one ticket window open. Already in peak time the queue often goes out of the station and on to the pavement—which means a queue of roughly six, 10 or 12 people. It would be completely unacceptable for one ticket window to close because the number of staff was reduced. Train operating companies tell us that they are trying to improve customer service, but this is a peculiar way of doing that. People who live around Enfield Chase and use the stations on the line will be outraged at this shameful decision, and I urge First Capital Connect to rethink it.

As I have said, the state of the rolling stock is also a concern. I understand that First Capital Connect is refreshing its entire fleet of trains, and that is most welcome. I am not sure when it will happen, so a little further information would be helpful. I believe that there are also plans to replace rolling stock on the West Anglia routes. I ask that the local stopping services be given the new trains rather than just the older fast through trains. It is not the fast through service alone that should be given the new trains, because that would be unfair and unacceptable—although that is what seems to happen. We should not be second-class citizens in terms of our trains and travel, simply because we use a local service and the fast through trains presumably provide more of the income.

The lack of access for people with mobility impairment is another issue that needs to be addressed. The Enfield Disability Action group has described spontaneous travel by rail as “impossible”. Of the nine stations situated in my constituency, only three are accessible—the other six all have steps up to the platform. Disabled people who wish to use the train service are required to notify the train operator 24 hours in advance of their journey, because often no staff are on site to assist—that is true even where there are no stairs. It is wrong that disabled rail users face that situation, and the issue must be addressed.

Obviously, I cannot cover every issue today. I have tried to put both the positive case and my constituents’ problems. I think that the Minister would have to agree that there are many problems and that the solutions are a long time coming down the line. I want to mention safety, because I am regularly informed by rail users that CCTV at stations is not working. As I have mentioned, stations are often not staffed and constituents have told me that there is also a persistent problem of yobbish behaviour on the trains. I am pleased at the work that the British Transport police are doing with our train operating companies. We would benefit from that being stepped up.

I ask the Minister and the Government to share our determination, and to call on First Capital Connect and One Railway to fulfil their commitment to delivering real improvements for their customers and for the people of Enfield, who have a right to expect that. I spoke out last year against the disproportionate rail and tube price hikes—in some cases there was a 30 per cent. increase—and the people in Enfield do not feel that they are getting a service that could possibly justify those increases. I hope that the Minister will be able to address these issues, and I must impress upon him that this is a serious problem, because the overground rail service is the main way in and out of Enfield for most people there.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) on securing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss some important issues. I pay tribute to her for the huge amount of work that she has done on behalf of her constituents, who are also members of the travelling public. One example of that work is the survey that she mentioned. I am aware that she has had a surprisingly large response to it. The information that she has gathered will doubtless help her, and I hope that it will help me as the Minister responsible for rail services. If she wants to discuss any of the issues raised in the survey after this debate, I would be happy to do so.

I am not sure that I will be able to address all the many important issues that my right hon. Friend raised. I will do my best in the time allotted to me, but if I am not able to cover them or she wishes to raise any other issue, I will be happy to meet her at a time convenient to both of us.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the doubling of track on part of the Lea valley line. She will know that consideration has already been given to doubling part of the track to provide additional capacity in relation to the extension of Stansted airport. Funding decisions for that work will have to await the outcome of the British Airports Authority inquiry into airport expansion, which will not happen until 2008.

My right hon. Friend also mentioned franchise payments, an issue that she and I have discussed elsewhere. I do not accept the argument that a particular train operating company’s performance should be judged according to the level of subsidy that it receives. There are many freight train operating companies that pay premiums rather than receive public subsidy, and there should be no difference in the level of service that those companies provide compared to those companies that receive a public subsidy. As it happens, One is committed to paying a premium over the length of its franchise. There are particular and anomalous reasons why it was given a subsidy of £2.9 million in the year that she mentions, the details of which I shall not go into tonight. It is an area for more discussion between us.

In addition, my right hon. Friend talked about rolling stock allocation and made a powerful argument for new rolling stock on her lines. It is not appropriate for Ministers or civil servants at the Department for Transport to decide on every occasion which part of the new rolling stock procurement—which is being procured through the high-level output specification—should be allocated to which line. Those are decisions best taken by the TOCs themselves, and the rolling stock plan will be published in January in consultation with the train industry. The plan will give more detail about the allocation of the new rolling stock.

My right hon. Friend talked about the problem of late trains not stopping at, and therefore not serving, stations in her constituency. TOCs have targets and are incentivised not to miss out particular stations. Such a service counts against the efficiency targets of the TOCs. I am happy to discuss that point further with her and with the managing directors of the companies that she mentioned.

My right hon. Friend also talked about the importance of access to train stations, and that is crucial. She will know that the Government have launched an access for all strategy, which will make available £370 million in funding over 10 years to provide access arrangements for people who are incapacitated in some way. So far, 92 stations in England have been identified to receive part of that money and another tranche will be announced this month. I expect that right my right hon. Friend would welcome the inclusion of any of her stations in that. The method for identifying stations to receive access for all funding is based on the incidence of disability as identified in the 2001 census, weighted according to footfall. We try to ensure that we attend to the stations that most need that money.

In terms of ticket offices, my right hon. Friend will be interested to learn that we have not had any request from First Capital Connect or One to reduce the number of hours that ticket offices remain open. It is a condition of the franchise agreement that requests for reducing the hours of ticket offices come to the Secretary of State.

The First Capital Connect franchise commenced on 1 April 2006, bringing together the former Thameslink and Great Northern franchises. The franchise has a maximum length of nine years, but there are two points during the franchise term which could result in the franchise ending at an earlier point. I am aware that my right hon. Friend’s constituency is served by First Capital Connect Great Northern services on the Hertford loop from Moorgate.

Performance on First Capital Connect has improved consistently since the company started operation and the franchise has also delivered all its commitments up to this point. The latest period for which complete performance data are available shows that First Capital Connect achieved a public performance measure—the industry standard measure—of a moving annual average of trains arriving on time of 88.69 per cent. That represents a 1.78 per cent. improvement on the joint performance improvement plan target agreed with Network Rail for the period. Overall in the year to date, First Capital Connect’s public performance measure, or PPM, for the moving annual average is 0.77 per cent. better than the joint performance improvement plan.

I would add that the previous eight weeks are traditionally difficult for the rail network because of leaf fall and the effect of leaves on the line, which causes a drop in performance throughout the country. In the railway period from 19 August to 15 September this year, First Capital Connect delivered 96.04 per cent. PPM on the Great Northern route, which represents the best PPM figure for the route since franchising began in the early 1990s.

First Capital Connect’s delay minute moving annual average has reduced from 11,344 delay minutes per period when the franchise started to 9,717 delay minutes. In addition, in 2007 First Capital Connect has delivered a 15 per cent. reduction in fleet failures and a 40 per cent. improvement in cancellations compared with 2006. The franchise agreement requires First Capital Connect to meet three performance benchmarks: cancellations, capacity and delay minutes. The train operating company has complied with all those in each railway period since the franchise began.

As required in the franchise agreement, First Capital Connect has invested heavily since April 2006 to improve customer service, security and station quality. The Department for Transport has ensured that First Capital Connect has fulfilled its obligation to invest £16.1 million in the first year of its franchise. That includes £2.8 million on improving the quality of stations by refurbishing waiting rooms and toilets, installing new waiting shelters and repainting many of the stations that it operates.

I am aware that Enfield, North is also served by the One franchise. The franchise finishes on 31 March 2011. There is a continuation review period that runs from November 2008 to November 2009. If One meets its performance targets during that period, the franchise is automatically extended to 31 March 2014. Performance on the franchise has improved since the franchise commenced and all franchise commitments have been delivered to date.

I know that my right hon. Friend wanted me to address other issues and I apologise that, in the time left, I will not be able to cover them all. As I said at the beginning, I am more than happy to meet her to discuss some of the outstanding issues. Rail travel in the south-east is in a healthy state. There continues to be strong demand for travel in the region, much of it focused on movements to and from London, although increasingly the market is growing in urban areas away from the capital. As demand increases, capacity provision becomes a greater challenge. The Government are addressing that challenge by means of the policies I have outlined here and that were outlined when we published our high level output specification in July of this year. There has already been significant investment in new rolling stock and refurbishment programmes designed to provide a more appropriate environment for London commuters to travel to work.

The Department for Transport remains committed to providing additional capacity, and supports the delivery of innovative and pragmatic solutions to address the issue. The off-peak business and leisure markets represent a huge opportunity for the railway to increase its market share, and this is promoted further by the congestion difficulties faced by road users in the region. As we have demonstrated through recent franchise awards, the franchise replacement process provides a good opportunity to bring about improvements to capacity and service provision and to ensure that the taxpayer receives good value for money.

Having said all that, I take right my right hon. Friend’s criticisms on board. The issues that she raised are extremely important to her and to her constituents. Ministers must never forget that the whole point of providing a railway service is not for politicians, or the media, but for passengers.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Six o’clock.