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East Midlands Trains

Volume 473: debated on Tuesday 11 March 2008

I am grateful to you for that, Mr. Bercow, and to the Minister for his early attendance. I shall start by giving some details about East Midlands Trains and train services in my constituency. On Saturday, I had the great privilege of attending the reopening of Idridgehay station. It has been reopened by the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway company, which plans to reopen the railway line down the Ecclesbourne valley to Duffield. The new train service will give people an important link from Wirksworth to Duffield, and will enable them to take advantage of East Midlands Trains services into Derby, from where they can connect to London.

I was pleased that the station reopened on Saturday. The opening was the culmination of a huge amount of work by a private company to restore the railway line, and was the first time that a passenger train had run on that line since 1947, although I do not blame any Governments for that. I compliment people at the company, and volunteers, for their dedication and for providing a good service. When the line is fully open in 2010, it will be very useful to the people who live in the area.

There have been some remarkable achievements with trains and train services in the midlands. Ten years ago, St. Pancras station was the worst station in London to come into. It was dark and desolate, and had few services. Today, it is without doubt the best station in London. It reopened recently and is now the hub for trains going to the continent, as it is the home base for Eurostar. That is a tremendous achievement, and anyone who has not visited it should go to see its tremendous refurbishment and the reawakening of the railway age at St. Pancras. Those are some of the positive aspects of what is happening with the rail industry.

When the Government took the franchise away from Midland Mainline and awarded it to East Midlands Trains, I was encouraged by what East Midlands Trains said it was going to do. It set out its programme and options in a booklet for passengers, which included:

“Faster journeys to Sheffield and Leicester from London as part of a new timetable being introduced in December 2008; Additional early morning train from Derby to cater for morning peak demand; A new daily direct service between London and Lincoln;”

and an hourly service between Nottingham and Matlock. I hope that the hourly service will coincide with connections, because the service from Matlock, which is a bit of distant cousin, currently arrives in Derby at times that are inconvenient for connections to London. That would make a huge difference to my constituency and to my constituents.

I want to talk specifically about an issue that I have raised in the House before: the poor deal that passengers get with Sunday services. Those services seem to have been almost forgotten, not necessarily by the train companies, but by Network Rail, which operates and makes decisions about repairs. I am concerned about its accountability, as it is not accountable to anyone but the Government, who therefore have total responsibility for its management and ownership. A few weeks ago, we had the ridiculous situation in which Network Rail was fined for over-running works around Rugby, only to find that the fine would go back to the Treasury and would then have to be lent or given back to Network Rail.

There are constantly poorer services for Sunday travellers. This morning, I asked the managing director of East Midlands Trains whether he had the occupancy rates for Sunday services. He replied that it has only been running the service for four months, so it does not have those rates; the records that Midland Mainline held were not passed on. Anyone who travels on a Sunday will see that there is huge usage by the travelling public at weekends. That is one pattern of rail travel that might be changing. Perhaps, 20 years ago, trains were not used so often on Sundays, but that has changed. I am sorry that the records on customers and predicted customer bases, which were obviously there when Midland Mainline was operating services, have not been passed on to the new operator. Will the Minister address that point?

East Midlands Trains took over services just four months ago. When it was announced as the preferred operator, I thought that some of its plans were encouraging and exciting, and I was looking forward to seeing it operate. I accept that it has to operate according to Network Rail’s decisions on track maintenance and negotiations, over a considerable period, about repairs. There is a planned investment programme, over the period of East Midlands Trains’ franchise, of £90 million, which should lead to better services. At the moment, however, for more than three months, Sunday trains are to be diverted around Manton, after they leave Leicester, which will add an hour to the journey.

On Saturdays and Sundays, trains are operated with fewer members of staff on board, so that when something goes wrong, extra pressure is put on them. As far as they are concerned, that affects their communication with the travelling public. I want to be absolutely clear that I have nothing but praise for how the members of staff behaved and responded to passengers’ concerns on the Sunday—I have to declare an interest—when I was on a train for almost six hours.

Leaflets have been published which say that I can go from Derby to Paris in six hours. Therefore, when on 2 March it took almost six hours to go from Derby to London, I was, shall we say, a little less than impressed with the service that I received. Of course, I am a Member of Parliament and can raise the matter here. I investigated the situation further and found that on that day there were 100 alterations to service, 13 train cancellations and 11 partial train cancellations. Many members of the travelling public were involved in the huge delays. It is how the problem came about that I now wish to discuss briefly.

As I said, due to essential track and ballast renewal work, there is at present a diversion between Market Harborough and Kettering. Trains are diverted around Manton. Delays were worsened because, apparently, there was a theft of some 60 m of cable on the line. I find this rather odd: this bit of line is not used very much in the week, but, on the day when all the trains were being diverted, there was a theft of cable.

Some cable was stolen, and that basically brought that part of the network to a standstill for quite some time, during which communications to the passengers as to what was happening were totally unsatisfactory. It may well have been that the people controlling were not in a position to know fully what was going on. The first time the train came to a standstill, we were told that there was a freight train in front of us. After 30 minutes, we were told that that there was a passenger train and a freight train in front of us. Then, after an hour, we were told that there were two passenger trains and a freight train in front of us. After about two hours, we started to move again after being literally completely stationary on a very crowded train on a Sunday afternoon.

There was a problem for the members of staff on that train, because they were not being informed as to what was happening. They could tell the travelling public only what they were being told. As I said earlier, I have nothing but praise for the way in which they tried to tell us what was going on, but the information was appalling.

When we finally arrived in London, I was told that the theft of the cable had occurred some time during the late morning. Surely, if that was the case, the delays were known about before people boarded the trains. I do not know whether there has been a full investigation into what exactly happened on that day, or whether a report is available about the incident, but there certainly should be.

It is in the Government’s and everybody’s interest that more use be made of trains. Passenger miles have been going up over a very long period. I could almost say that they have dramatically increased since privatisation. I see that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I still regard the Department as Trade and Industry, but I realise that its name has changed—will be making an interesting speech today about the benefits of many more millionaires and entrepreneurs, and I welcome that sort of change, but I also say that the travelling public require a service that is satisfactory. The service that was given on that day by East Midlands Trains primarily, because it is the rail operator, but also by Network Rail, which stands back from this a little, was woefully inadequate.

I was asked by some of the passengers whether they would be entitled to a refund. The last time I was delayed on a train for more than an hour, I was able to get a refund. I was therefore surprised when I inquired whether passengers using the service would be entitled to a refund to be told that, because the delay was due to vandalism, it was outside what is laid out in the “National Rail Conditions of Carriage”. I have obtained a copy of the rules and regulations. You will not be surprised to learn, Mr. Bercow, that they run to 27 pages. There are more get-out clauses in those 27 pages than could be written by anybody I have yet to come across in the legal profession. The number of get-out clauses is quite amazing, but one of them is vandalism, along with the weather, acts of God, fire, police, terrorism—in fact, I am starting to wonder what actually does come into the area where compensation can be given.

I was therefore encouraged to receive a letter from the managing director of EMT, Tim Shoveller, in which he stated:

“Although our current Passenger’s Charter does not allow refunds for those delays which are beyond the control of the rail industry, for example trespass and vandalism, from 1 April 2009, we will be introducing a new scheme called ‘Delay Repay’. The ‘Delay Repay’ scheme, which is part of our franchised commitments, will ensure refunds for passengers who are delayed, irrespective of the cause of the delay.”

I very much welcome that, but I do not quite understand why the scheme cannot be operated until 1 April 2009. Can the Minister reassure me that it could be introduced far sooner than that? Such a scheme would have served me and some of the complainants on the day that I described. If Network Rail and EMT thought that they would actually lose money, there would be more pressure on them to get repairs done more quickly. More pressure would be put on Network Rail to respond more quickly to such cases. I accept that they are beyond their control, and I understand that the theft of cable is a growing problem as far as the rail network is concerned. It is disturbing to all of us who use the train service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) has sought the Minister’s and my permission to make a short contribution, so I shall try to sum up. Positive changes have been made to the rail network. Days such as the one that I described are rare, but they still cause huge inconvenience to the travelling public. I would like to be reassured that lessons will be learned from the incident, which I understand was quite large as far as the overall operation of the network is concerned, so that if anything like that happens again, passengers will be notified as soon as possible, perhaps before boarding.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing a debate that is important to those of us who live along the main line. In his concluding remarks, would he welcome the moves that EMT is making to bring about joint control of the track with Network Rail? Perhaps when that has been achieved, the sort of communications difficulties that obviously occurred on that particular day might be avoided.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I know is a regular user of the service, as are many others who have constituencies along the line. I hope that that will make an improvement, but I was not encouraged by what I saw on that day and have since learned about the incident. I know that there is a move towards a joint control room. It seems odd that that has taken so long, because the diversion around Manton has been used on many occasions in the past, and, much to my horror, I hear that it may be used in future years. It makes for a difficult, time-consuming service, irrespective of the fact that on the days when trains are diverted along that route, there is no reduction whatsoever in the price—passengers pay the same price for that service as they pay for a faster one.

I understand what the hon. Gentleman said. I accept that improvements had been made: anybody who comes into St. Pancras station can only marvel at what has been achieved there. However, we still need to, and must, learn lessons from incidents such as the one I have described so that people who rely on the trains for connections—I have heard many stories about people who have missed connections once they have arrived in London—are not put at a disadvantage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough asked if he could make a contribution, so I hope that he gets the chance to do so now.

Thank you, Mr. Bercow. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing from Mr. Speaker an extraordinarily important debate for people who have to use the railway line through the east midlands. I also welcome the Minister. I always find it difficult to criticise such an excellent, competent Minister, whom the Government always seem to put up to defend the indefensible. As always, I hope that Jim will fix it. I am grateful that we have a little more time than was originally expected, which enables me to make these few comments.

Midland Mainline, the previous franchise holder, was popular in my area. It was a good train operator that often won the train operator of the year award, the staff were friendly and I had no complaints from my constituents about the service. Lo and behold, it lost the franchise and along came East Midlands Trains. The managing director of that company, Mr. Tim Shoveller, kindly met me at the House of Commons. I am pleased to report that, despite what my constituents think, he does not carry a little fork and does not have two horns sticking out of his head. However, that is the feeling in the constituency.

We have had a downgraded service since East Midlands Trains took over the train service; there is no question about that. The frequency of the trains has been reduced and seat reservations for season ticket holders—the most important customers of the railway, who pay thousands of pounds out of their income each year to travel from Wellingborough to London—have been withdrawn. People are paying thousands of pounds a year, but they cannot get a seat and they cannot be guaranteed a seat from Wellingborough to London. That has caused the most enormous uproar. Of course, the trains were already overcrowded.

So the trains are overcrowded, the number of trains has been cut and people cannot get their seat reservation. My constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), are extremely annoyed about what has happened. I should like to blame East Midlands Trains and say that it had nothing to do with the Government, but unfortunately that is not so. The Government say that they will solve overcapacity and undercapacity by having lots more carriages—perhaps 1,300 or 1,500—but how many will East Midlands Trains get? It will get three more. So that will not solve the problem.

I talked to the managing director of East Midlands Trains and asked, “Why are you doing all these things? When you cut the service, why did you increase the cost of the fares by more than twice the rate of inflation? Did you do it to save money?” I then said, “What about the tea and coffee?” The nice thing about Midland Mainline was that it gave people a free cup of tea or coffee. East Midlands Trains took that away, saying, “Ah, that costs £1 million a year, Mr. Bone.” I said, “So what? You charge enough for your fares: you've just bumped them up enormously.” I was told, “It is all down to a problem that we have. It’s the Government.” I asked, “How can it be the Government? You run the service. The Government tell me that it is nothing to do with them and that you run it.” “Ah”, the managing director said, “it is because we have to pay the Government a premium for the service.”

I was told that my constituents who travel by rail are subsidising other people travelling by rail around the country. I thought that that was nonsense and could not possibly be true, so I asked the Secretary of State for Transport a parliamentary question. The reply I received says:

“Stagecoach Midland Rail Limited”—

that is, East Midlands Trains—

“will pay a premium of £133 million (net present value)”,

which will be a great deal more in actual cash terms,

“over the life of the franchise.”—[Official Report, 4 March 2008; Vol. 472, c. 2262W.]

The cuts are deliberately the Government's fault. I hope that the Minister will be able to sort that out and improve the service from Wellingborough to London.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding today, Mr. Bercow. I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) on securing this debate. I am reliably informed that the Government Chief Whip, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), suffered a similar experience on the train journey mentioned by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire, but later on the day in question. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman therefore accepts that this is not personal and that there is no attempt by the Government to make his life more difficult than it is at the moment. There may well be occasions when we would want to do that, but this was not one of them.

The right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) have raised some serious issues that I will try to address and, if I am unable to deal with all of those, I will ensure that we write to both of them.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris)—the rail Minister—apologises for not being able to respond to this debate personally, but he will be informed of the discussion. He will be pleased to hear some of the compliments made by the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire at the beginning of his speech and he will be dismayed to hear the accounts of the difficulties articulated by both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Wellingborough.

The unfortunate, regrettable and lengthy delay experienced on the East Midlands Trains midland main line service on Sunday 2 March 2008 had two causes. The first was scheduled major engineering works on the midland main line and the second was an incidence of cable theft on the diversionary route that had to be used as a consequence of the closure of a section of the main line.

The closure of the midland main line was due to planned Network Rail major engineering works and essential heavy maintenance on Saturday nights and Sundays between 3 February and 23 March 2008. That resulted in train services being diverted off the midland main line, south of Barrow upon Soar, to the diversionary route line via Manton and Corby—part of which, from Corby to Kettering, is currently a freight-only route—rejoining the midland main line north of Kettering. Consequently, journey times were longer than normal due to services running over a slower route than on the main line. The diversionary route south of Corby towards Kettering is also single line, which severely restricts capacity and increases journey times. The section of track that was closed is two-track and there is no possibility of carrying out the necessary works without the diversion. The cycle of engineering works means that this route will have to be closed at weekends each year at this time. I understand that this will be frustrating for weekend passengers. Disruption is an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of maintenance work that is essential for the continuing drive to deliver a safer, faster and more reliable rail network.

Increasing demand for travel has brought a growth in passenger services on the network and the introduction of newer, faster trains—Class 222s on the midland main line—has resulted in increased maintenance work across the network. Maintenance and renewal work is specifically programmed to avoid impacting on peak commuter travel periods when many more people use the trains. The alternative to major engineering work would be temporary speed restrictions, which would affect many more passengers commuting and travelling every working day. Using temporary speed restrictions would not stop, but would only serve to slow the degradation of the track and would eventually result in more extensive engineering work to provide continued use of the line.

As maintenance and renewal work is frequently carried out at weekends, leisure fares are available all day on Saturdays and Sundays and higher business fares do not apply. National Rail Enquiries has details of engineering works and extended journey times, which are published on train operating companies' websites and at stations.

The first that East Midlands Trains knew about the disruption was the failure of signals in the Corby area. The true nature of the disruption was known only later in the evening, which resulted in some confusing communication from staff to passengers, as the right hon. Gentleman explained. As he said, staff endeavour to provide as much information to customers as they possibly can—they did so at the time—but clearly they are reliant on accurate information being supplied to them.

A joint Network Rail and East Midlands Trains control centre is being created in Derby, which will enable the sharing of information and allow people to work together to manage any incidents, including providing timely and accurate communications to staff and passengers. That will be completed by May this year and therefore ought to overcome the difficulties raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

Over the past two years, a cross-industry possessions review led by the independent Office of Rail Regulation has been examining how to address best the growing mismatch between the increasing demand for travel and the service availability of the rail network. That has produced a new cross-industry consensus and a determination to develop ways to enable major reductions in the disruption that arises from engineering works. Critically, how to do so without compromising the safety of passengers and staff will also be considered. Network Rail, which is responsible for programming all engineering, renewal and maintenance work, is leading the development of a strategy to deliver on that so that, within seven years, rail users should enjoy a seven-day railway service. The strategy includes initiatives to reduce the typical duration of renewals works to track and bridges from 54 hours over a weekend to eight hours or less overnight.

The second cause of the delay was the theft of 200m of signal cable near Corby on Sunday, which I am advised happened at around 5pm—I know that the right hon. Gentleman said that he was advised that it happened earlier. That put signals out of action and delayed all consequent services. Trains could not be diverted back on to the main line because Network Rail engineers had started their activities and work was in progress. The diversionary route south of Corby is single line, and the emergency procedures in such cases entail trains being allowed through the single line section only if an authorised staff member is travelling on the train—known as a human token. That ensures total safety in the absence of signals and prevents more than one train being present on the single line section at any one time. There is an initial delay while procedures are put in place and staff located to operate them, and a further delay as the authorised person switches from one train to the next. Without signal cable, individual points have to be manually operated.

The British Transport Police are well aware of the widespread problem of cable theft and are trying to tackle it. They encourage better housekeeping and security to discourage theft in the first place and use helicopter patrols and covert and overt police action. They have also targeted scrapyards and metal dealers. Because of the risk to lives and the disruption that it can cause to train services, the BTP chief constable has described line side cable theft as

“one of the biggest challenges after terrorism”.

To assist in the fight against cable theft, Network Rail and East Midlands Trains have jointly offered a £10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of cable thieves who stole cable in January at Pye Bridge between Derby and Chesterfield. That demonstrates a serious commitment to supporting the police in efforts to fight this type of crime. On Monday 28 January 2008, the BTP conducted a day of action and undertook a number of operations to target metal thieves and clamp down on copper cable theft from the railway. Notable success was achieved and four men were convicted in Leeds in February 2007. In addition, three men were jailed for a total of 17 years in London and in Cleveland an operation involving 30 officers resulted in 10 arrests.

If passengers experience delays on top of the extended journey times set out in the national rail timetable, normal delay provisions in the operating company’s passenger’s charter prevail. There are currently two types of compensation payable to passengers of East Midlands Trains. One form of compensation is vouchers or cash given to holders of tickets for problems with one-off journeys. In practice, that is valid for all types of single, return or seven-day tickets. The second form of compensation applies to holders of season tickets valid for one month or longer. The season ticket compensation scheme is not valid on Sundays, but compensation for other tickets is available. For season tickets, a discount is given on season ticket renewal at the time of purchase. Delays and cancellations caused by incidents beyond the control of the rail industry are excluded from both compensation schemes, as the right hon. Gentleman has said. Such incidents include security alerts, vandalism and trespass.

As the right hon. Gentleman outlined, from 2009 the two sets of arrangements will become one and the new “delay repay” regime will apply to all ticket holders, which will compensate all passengers for delays regardless of cause. That is a new departure for the rail industry and has changed years of custom and practice. The scheme is being phased in to allow for systems to be altered, staff to be trained and passengers to be informed. That is one of the many tasks that the new franchise has committed to in the first years of operation and was negotiated as part of the bidding process.

Is the Minister saying that that will be available across the whole rail network or will it just be applicable to that particular franchise? I realise that he may wish to obtain further information on that point, but it would be interesting to know the answer.

As I understand it, I am advised that it is for the franchise operations. However, on that question and the questions about whether it is possible to advance the introduction of the arrangements, I will ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport who is responsible for rail, to write to the right hon. Gentleman. As I say, because it was part of the negotiations for the franchise, I suspect that that part of the contract will have to be honoured. However, I am happy to consider that matter on his behalf and respond in writing in due course.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough raised the issue of services at Wellingborough. There are currently two trains an hour to London, Leicester and further north. A new timetable will be introduced in December 2008 that will provide a service of two trains an hour from Wellingborough to London and one an hour from Wellingborough to Leicester, supplemented by extra trains at peak times. The reduction in services from Wellingborough northbound is due to the introduction of a new Corby to London service. Capacity constraints on the main line mean that the Corby service cannot be introduced without the reduction in services at Wellingborough.

The reduction of northbound services from Wellingborough reflects existing travel patterns. Industry records show that there are relatively few journeys from Wellingborough to points north. The December 2008 timetable will allow faster journey times to Sheffield and Derby because fast trains will no longer have to stop at some of the intermediate stations that will be served by the revised Wellingborough to London trains, which will start from Kettering. There is a franchise obligation in the new east midlands franchise to spend £2.6 million by 31 March 2014 on enhancements or refurbishment at 11 premier stations, one of which is Wellingborough.

The right hon. Member for West Derbyshire asked about the figures being passed from franchisee to franchisee. The matter that he raised was part of the considerations on deficiencies in the previous franchise arrangements, so it is now incumbent on new franchisees to pass on those passenger numbers and data when they pass on their franchises to subsequent operators. That will ensure that the deficiency that has been spotted is dealt with in future. Historically, that is the reason why it was not dealt with in the past.

In conclusion, since 1996, rail passenger kilometres have increased by 45 per cent. People are now travelling further by rail than in any other year.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough mentioned the small number of additional carriages that are destined for the east midlands main line. Does the Minister agree that if the service to Corby that has been mentioned is to be provided and the increased need for capacity on the main line is to be met, the Department ought to encourage the industry to revisit those projections and ensure that that main line gets the additional carriages that it needs to deal with existing capacity problems, never mind deal with predicted growth?

I am happy to ensure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is informed of the points on capacity made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and the hon. Member for Wellingborough, and that he is told of the request for the matter to be revisited.

In 2003-04, for the first time since 1961, more than a billion rail journeys were made and the number of rail journeys increased further in each of the next three years. We have committed £15 billion in Government support for the railway up to 2014, so that the industry can plan against a secure funding commitment. Among other things, the money will procure the 1,300 new carriages, as mentioned in previous debates.

I thank the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire for initiating this debate. I hope that I have covered at least some of the concerns that he and other hon. Members have expressed and that I have offered them the prospect that matters are in hand.