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West Coast Main Line (Commuter Services)

Volume 490: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2009

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Williams, and to have this opportunity to raise the concerns of my constituents in Milton Keynes.

I before E—infrastructure before expansion. That is the key to the future of Milton Keynes. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Williams.

I am here to highlight for the Minister my constituents’ concerns about the standard of train services from Milton Keynes to Euston. I am sure that the Minister will, in replying, be keen to talk about the investment that has gone into the west coast main line. Undoubtedly, there has been considerable investment. However, the concern is that the entire focus of the investment seems to be on long-distance travel. In the past two or three years, while my constituents have suffered over-running engineering works, industrial action, delays and poor rolling stock—problem after problem—it has seemed that their concerns have come as very much a second thought to the Government, who have been focusing on long-distance travel. For example, shortly before the last general election, there was an announcement about the new Milton Keynes upgraded station, with extended platforms and an extra platform. Yet now that the upgrade is in place it is clear that the real reason for it was to help with through-travel through Milton Keynes, rather than particularly to help Milton Keynes commuters. Indeed, we seem to be going backwards in Milton Keynes now that we face the prospect of the closure of the travel office. Is that a sign of future service cuts?

I shall not speak for too long, because I want to give the Minister ample opportunity to reply, but in the brief time I shall take I want to cover three different areas. First I want to say a few words about Virgin Trains; then I want to comment on London Midland.

On the matter of London Midland, has it been my hon. Friend’s experience, as it has been mine, that things seem to have got a lot worse since Silverlink lost the franchise? I had a letter this morning from a constituent, who says that things have got much worse since Silverlink went, and describes travelling on London Midland trains as a

“frustrating, tiring and expensive experience...far below what the passenger and subsidising tax payer is entitled to expect.”

Indeed, that has unfortunately been my experience, and I intend to go into detail about it when I say something about London Midland. Finally, just before I conclude, I want to ask a few questions about the Department’s proposed demand management regulation of fares.

To begin with Virgin Trains, gone are the days when Milton Keynes used to be, apart from, perhaps, Watford, the first stop on the inter-city line. It is now very much the penultimate stop on the commuter line. Commuters can no longer get on the rather efficient 32-minute trains provided by Virgin. There is no access to them at all, but it is actually worse than that. The appalling situation—I say this with a slight smile on my face—is rubbed in the face of commuters, who line the platform of Milton Keynes station as a Virgin train pulls up to allow passengers off but not allow anyone on, even though there are empty spaces and seats in the carriages. Can the Minister imagine seeing, on a cold winter’s day, a nice, half-full Virgin train, as he waits to get on his overcrowded London Midland commuter train with no seats, and being told that he is not allowed to get on? It is frankly mean. I understand that at the moment Virgin Trains is more interested in the long-distance routes, but there is spare capacity on the trains. Why, in the interim, when there is such overcrowding on commuter trains, can we not continue to allow people to get on to some of the trains that stop in Milton Keynes as the last stop southbound to London?

Virgin Trains, however, is not the focus of my remarks. I want to say more about London Midland. Since London Midland took over the franchise for the Milton Keynes Central to London Euston route—and it still covers the Bletchley to Bedford route—it is a matter of record that the service delivery has deteriorated markedly. Trains are unreliable. Many are subject to technical difficulties and there are crew shortages, rostering mistakes resulting in severe delays and many cancellations. Punctuality is poor and with many peak trains full, with standing room only, Milton Keynes commuters feel badly let down. Figures released by Network Rail in January 2009 show beyond any doubt that London Midland is the worst performing train operator in the UK. I have over the past few months received a deluge of correspondence from disappointed constituents, as has my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). Many of those constituents are now considering car-sharing schemes or, ironically at a time when the Government are forcing Milton Keynes to expand, even relocating away from the city. I could occupy the whole debate with London Midland, but I will just make a few key points.

In Leighton Buzzard London Midland has extended the car park without any regard to residents. Does my hon. Friend think that there should be some consideration of the effect of the structure, and what it looks like, on neighbouring residents?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. There should be much greater consultation.

As to London Midland’s performance for the route into London, its figure for trains arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time is 62.1 per cent., compared with an annual average of 76.5 per cent. and a target of 86.4 per cent. I am sure that the Minister agrees that those figures are unacceptable on what has been heralded as a brand new, refurbished railway using the latest trains. I am equally sure that he is aware that the delay-repay scheme is proving to be both lengthy and cumbersome. That is an issue that I have raised before in the House. Not only must passengers wait a considerable time for a response; with trains regularly delayed by 15 to 25 minutes, it is particularly irritating to commuters that compensation is paid only for delays over 30 minutes and that season ticket holders are not entitled to a refund. The scheme appears to offer no incentives for London Midland to improve, although I hope that that is one of many points that the Minister will respond to.

Another bone of contention for commuters is the fact that London Midland has been cutting out stops on some services but not announcing that until passengers have boarded and left the station. The accusation is that that is being done to try to prop up the public performance measure. Despite London Midland’s efforts, the most recent PPM puts its Northampton to Euston route at the bottom of the league table for the UK. Indeed, the latest PPM is actually worse than when London Midland first took over the franchise.

Is the Minister really happy that London Midland appears to be heading in entirely the wrong direction? If he really wants to know just what my constituents think of London Midland, he need look no further than the recent Passenger Focus survey on customer satisfaction, which shows decline in a number of areas since autumn 2007. They include ticket buying, helpfulness of staff, punctuality and reliability, connections with other services, poor management at times of disruption, particularly at London Euston—I have several times experienced the fact that when a 12-car train arrives the automatic ticket barriers at Euston simply cannot cope—and poor communication with customers and its own booking office staff, who are regularly left to deal with the fallout when things go wrong. Perhaps the Minister could comment on the fact that the Govia Go-Ahead Group train operating companies take up all three bottom league table places for the London and south-east area—London Midland, Southern and Southeastern. What due diligence was exercised by the Department to satisfy the Minister that London Midland could deliver the quality of service it promised when the franchise was awarded?

The hon. Gentleman will know that some of his constituents, and a number of mine, use the Marston Vale line, the Bedford to Bletchley service. He is no doubt also aware that in May Govia, or London Midland, closed the Bletchley train maintenance depot. Subsequently the performance and service on the Bedford to Bletchley line has deteriorated so much that its rail users association has given me a petition, which I intend to hand to the managing director of London Midland later. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a need urgently to review the policy of closing that depot, and the policy of taking train crews from Bedford to Bletchley to try to bolster a failing service on the main line?

That is a reasonable point. I share the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for that line; it provides a vital service. I sense that he may be directing his comments to the Minister, and I hope that the Minister will reply.

All that I have said highlights what appalling value for money is being offered to commuters, with fares rising at RPI plus 1 per cent. every year until the end of the franchise in 2016. Since the initial disastrous first few days after the introduction of the new timetable in December—disastrous for commuters, at least—I understand that London Midland is taking some short-term steps to try to improve services. They include the deployment of additional senior and train crew management from Birmingham New Street and London Midland headquarters to the west coast depots. Together with various medium-term actions, such as a review of the timetable to address passenger and stakeholder-promoted improvements, London Midland hopes to improve performance; but, frankly, we will have to wait and see. However, it is clear that ongoing train crew rostering and industrial relations matters are slowing the progress of change.

I would be grateful if the Minister were to address the following key questions. Does he believe that London Midland is meeting its franchise obligations? My constituents believe that it is not; if it is, perhaps the benchmarks have been set too low. As I have tried to explain, London Midland train services have been poor for several months. How long does the service have to remain at that level before the Minister will act?

Following the statements made by the Transport Minister Lord Adonis to the Select Committee on Transport on 25 February 2009, to which I shall refer in a moment, will the Minister offer my constituents his personal assurance that no regulated fare rise will exceed RPI plus 1 per cent.? Why are there no non-stop services between Milton Keynes Central and Euston during the peak travelling period, as there used to be, yet there are non-stop services between similar-sized cities on other routes, such as Peterborough and Kings Cross or Reading and Paddington? Given the difficulties that London Midland and some other franchises are experiencing, coupled with the micro-management of those franchises by his Department, does the Minister believe that it is a proper way to run a national railway?

I turn my attention to the impact of the demand management regulation of fares on train services between Milton Keynes and London. Although full details of the plan do not yet appear to be in the public domain, I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to add some meat to the bones and confirm that the broad intention is as follows.

By charging higher fares during the demand management period—to laymen like me who are not versed in transport-speak it is the peak period—the Department for Transport hopes to persuade commuters to travel in the shoulders of the peak, slightly earlier or later. Passengers travelling during the peak of the demand management period will see fare rises by up to RPI plus X—currently 1 per cent.—plus another 5 per cent.

The supposed advantage is that passengers who travel outside the peak period may pay less for their journeys. We should be clear about this; under the plan, commuters who lack work flexibility, who are forced to travel during peak hours, face yet another inflation-busting fare rise next year, on top of that already suffered this year, yet they will still have to suffer the appalling service that I have outlined.

Although the plan to be implemented is complicated, with any peak period potentially being split into more than one demand management period, I understand that during those periods the bidder will be free to do various things. The bidder will be able to vary the price charged for travel in the peak, by time and/or day, as they see fit, subject to the demand management fares regulation. The bidder will be free also to vary the nature of the products offered—that is, tickets—for travelling in the peak; for example, it will no longer be compulsory to offer the classic, unlimited-journey, seven-day, monthly or longer season tickets. Although the London commuter fares basket will continue to operate, those flows designated as demand management flows currently within the basket will be removed, as will those that currently sit within the Birmingham commuter fares basket and the protected fares basket.

I understand that under the timetable for introducing this policy, London Midland is expected to reach agreement with the Department for Transport on its plans by October 2009, with a likely introduction date of January 2010. Indeed, I believe that London Midland has already placed an order with a company to deliver the smartcard ticketing technology necessary to measure the number of passengers travelling at particular times. Particularly alarming, however, is the fact that the Department for Transport does not intend to consult passengers before the introduction of that policy. Will the Minister confirm that that is not true, and that there will be full consultation before any such plans are introduced?

Given the broad thrust of the policy that I have outlined, I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments made by Lord Adonis in response to questions during the Transport Committee’s hearing on rail fares and franchises on Wednesday 25 February. Lord Adonis said:

“The point of regulation is to protect the passengers, especially commuters and others, who have little choice but to travel by rail.”

He went on to say:

“I can tell the Committee that we propose to accept one of the main Passenger Focus recommendations. Although the average fares cap is RPI+1% a year in most areas, many people face higher increases in regulated fares because operators have freedom to increase some fares by up to 5% above the average increase. Passenger Focus have recommended that restrictions should be placed on this flexibility and I am happy to tell the Committee that the Government proposes to do just that. In a time of economic stringency I do not think it acceptable for individual commuters to face significantly above average fare increases. The Government’s intention is, therefore, that in future the cap should apply to individual regulated fares, not just to the average of each fares basket. My officials will talk to the train operators about the practical implications of making this change, but we are determined it should take effect from this coming year’s fare changes.”

Although I and my local rail users group welcome that announcement, and Lord Adonis’s view that he does not think it acceptable for individual commuters to face significantly above-inflation fare increases, I am struggling to reconcile that with the fare rises proposed under the Department for Transport’s policy on demand management regulation, which could result in fare increases of 6 per cent. above RPI for travelling during peak hours. Crucially, I hope that the Minister will clarify that Lord Adonis is indeed correct, and that the current fare structure outlined by the demand management regulation will not be introduced. If it is, I fear that it may well be the final blow for the long-suffering Milton Keynes commuter.

If the Minister answers no other question, will he answer this one? Will the demand management of fares be coming to Milton Keynes any time soon?

I shall endeavour to answer the questions asked by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) in the few moments that remain. I congratulate him on securing the debate about an important issue for his constituents and other rail users on the west coast main line.

It is right that we have invested substantially in the west coast main line. That line is experiencing a record number of passenger and freight journeys. In the White Paper “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, we set out the high-level output specification—HLOS—and how we intend to introduce improvements over the next control period, which ends in March 2014, and the moneys required to do so. The public performance measure to which the hon. Gentleman referred was that of London Midland, but overall the investment that we have been making in the railways is paying dividends in bringing higher levels of reliance and performance for a record number of passengers travelling on the railways. However, those successes raise further issues that need to be dealt with, not least in the interest of passengers represented by hon. Members in the Chamber.

The Department does not consider the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to be second rate compared with long-distance travellers, and it does give them more than a second’s thought. I am also happy to put on record that London Midland’s performance is unacceptable, which is why steps have been taken, and continue to be taken, to rectify the situation. I shall run through those steps and outline the sustainable changes, not short-term quick fixes, that are required. The Government’s clear policy is financial commitment to improving performance across the network, and I share hon. Members’ concerns about the performance of both commuter and long-distance services using the west coast main line. The Department is taking a very active role in pushing for improved performance from the operators using the main line and from Network Rail, which is responsible for infrastructure, as hon. Members will be well aware.

The £8.9 billion west coast main line upgrade has brought tremendous improvements for many travellers, including those in major population centres such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. The line also conveys more than 40 per cent. of the nation’s rail freight. In 2003, the Strategic Rail Authority laid out its strategy for the west coast route modernisation project and emphasised the importance of providing the extra growth required in London outer-suburban services, while taking account of population growth plans in the Northampton and Milton Keynes areas. It was also necessary to accommodate commuter trains affected by the increase in the number of long-distance passenger trains, because slower commuter trains could no longer share the fast lines between Euston and Milton Keynes with longer distance trains operating at full-peak frequencies at 125 mph.

Furthermore, it was foreseen that the ability of the long-distance services to handle peak commuter loads from Milton Keynes would be reduced, primarily because line capacity would not permit many peak hour stops, and also because the capacity of the new trains on the route would be needed for the traffic growth in the long-distance markets. To address those problems, four particular steps were taken: first, the maximum speed on the slow lines between Euston and Northampton was increased to 100 mph to maintain the best possible journey times, despite the change from the fast to the slow lines; secondly, high-performance electric trains—the 350 Desiros—were introduced on the Northampton, Milton Keynes and Euston services to exploit the faster line speeds; thirdly, 12-car trains, instead of eight-car trains, were introduced and platforms were lengthened between London and Northampton; and fourthly simplified timetable patterns were introduced with greater in-built resilience and fewer conflicting moves across busier corridors to ensure improved reliability and punctuality.

With respect to London Midland, how many extra seats will be available to passengers at Leighton Buzzard? The amount of available seating is critical, given housing growth and the fact that the services start further north and have more people on them. Can the Minister help me on that point?

I am certainly willing to help and shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the answer.

Although the overall performance of the railways has improved tremendously, the performance of commuter services on the west coast main line in the south has indisputably fallen. On 14 December 2008, a planned commissioning timetable was put in place on the west coast main line to allow a phased introduction of the high-frequency timetable. At the same time, the London Midland franchise made several changes and improvements: it reinstated direct services from Birmingham to London; and it introduced a new hourly service along the Trent valley lines, as part of the new direct Crewe-Northampton-London service. In addition, a new service from Milton Keynes to East Croydon was introduced, operated by Southern railway, which came into being in the middle of February and provides additional connectivity for commuters.

As hon. Members have said, however, some operational performances have been unacceptable. The commissioning timetable, which has placed additional pressures on the work loads of London Midland train crews, combined with high levels of sickness and low levels of staff volunteering for overtime, led to an unacceptably high level of cancellations prior to Christmas. In addition, engineering and infrastructure failures impacted on engineering works at Milton Keynes Central during late December last year. All that affected performance. Again, in the first few weeks of the year, a number of engineering infrastructure failures and incidents occurred. Network Rail is investigating them, but they do not appear to have been linked. However, steps will be taken and lessons learned. In addition, of course, we must remember the heavy snowfall in early February. All that has led to unacceptable performances.

The hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred to the delay-repay scheme, which he believes is not working acceptably, but it was supposed to be a simple and quick scheme. The figures for London Midland, which I particularly wanted to see, show that, in period 11—prior to February—a substantial number of reclaims were made, as one would expect, bearing in mind the difficulties experienced. However, that led to a delay in processing, and for the first time there has been a small build up in outstanding claims. Refunds are available on 30-minute delays and beyond, and of course season ticket holders can claim. They are entitled to the same scale of refund based on the daily proportional cost of the ticket.

My noble Friend Lord Adonis is due to meet London Midland and Network Rail. We are keen to govern and monitor the performance of all train operators and regular meetings are held to that effect. I expect London Midland and Network Rail to appear before his performance group shortly. I have put on record the steps taken with other franchisees to introduce remedial plans. First Great Western is one example where improvements have been made.

Demand management falls under the franchise agreement, but it could not be introduced without the Government’s full agreement and without going through the necessary processes. No indications have been given that that will happen, but we have taken steps before to delay the introduction of demand management, and we could do so again. However, that is not currently exercising London Midland to the extent implied by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. It is concerned with improving performance, and that has started to pay off with the introduction of new rolling stock.

I reiterate what my noble Friend said to the Select Committee. Prices will fall if the retail prices index is negative in July, even with the plus 1 per cent. Furthermore, the basket will be removed to deny the flexibility for increases on selected regulated fares of RPI plus 1 per cent. plus 5 per cent. That flexibility will not exist in future timetables. We have taken a number of steps to begin to rectify the situation, but issues remain to be addressed. I guarantee to hon. Members in the Chamber, and to others who have made representations, including the hon. Gentleman’s Milton Keynes colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), that we will continue to take the steps required.