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National Express East Anglia

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 2 November 2010

It is a genuine delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me the opportunity to raise in Westminster Hall the issue of the performance of National Express East Anglia, which operates the Greater Anglia franchise. The issue really affects my constituents, so I welcome the Minister, who will listen to the concerns I raise. She has been incredibly helpful on issues relating to the commuters and the local rail service in my area, and she has heard about some of the quality-of-service issues I have had to raise previously.

By way of background, I should say that my constituency has four rail stations on the great eastern main line, which very much parallels the A12 through my constituency. The main stations, from west to east, are Hatfield Peverel, Witham, Kelvedon and Marks Tey. Marks Tey may be familiar to some Members, because it is at the junction with the Sudbury line, which crosses into Suffolk. There was a serious derailment there in August when a train collided with a sewage tanker. Witham is at the junction of the Witham to Braintree branch line. These are incredibly busy junctions, and total annual passenger usage for the four stations is close to 4 million.

The great eastern main line is a busy line. A lot of commuters travel to London, which takes under an hour, given London’s accessibility. As a result of its close proximity to London, my constituency has boomed, and that is also true of its housing developments. My constituency is very attractive for professionals working in London, particularly in the City and in Docklands.

Given the high fares that they pay, local commuters genuinely expect a good-quality service on their journeys and a good overall commuter experience. Let’s face it, a commuter paying a lot of money each day will want a reasonably pleasant journey. On that point, I should pay tribute to the Braintree and Witham rail users group and the Kelvedon rail users group, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr Newmark) would want to do so, too. Over the years, both groups have relentlessly fought on behalf of rail users on issues such as poor-quality train stations, the lack of ticket office staff, overcrowding, access to train stations and fares, which are going up constantly.

I want to draw a number of issues to the Minister’s attention. They relate predominantly to the Marks Tey train station and the new timetable that comes in from December, as well as to customer satisfaction levels and performance across the board, which I have touched on.

On customer satisfaction, a recent study highlighted the poor record of National Express in running train services in a reliable and punctual manner. Only 62% of National Express East Anglia passengers arrive in London on time and just 48% of those travelling from London arrive on time. The Minister will be aware that National Express has the second lowest customer satisfaction levels of any train operator in the country. The number of complaints it receives has soared, while the number of answers it supplies within 20 working days continues to fall. I get complaints from constituents about that. The situation is unacceptable, and constituents and commuters who use these services deserve better.

These matters need to be addressed, and I would welcome some reassurance from the Minister that many of them will be raised as and when the discussions on the franchising arrangements take place. Frankly, if National Express cannot provide the service that my constituents expect, local people would obviously welcome a new operator taking over. I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to meet later this month with one of my constituents, the chairman of the Kelvedon rail users group, Mr Mark Leslie, who has many issues to raise.

On poor performance, I have touched on satisfaction and punctuality, and I want now to move on to Marks Tey station. The Minister is well versed in what has happened and she is already aware of the appalling way in which National Express has handled the £2.4 million of taxpayers’ money that has been spent through the national station improvement programme. Network Rail described the development as a “programme of investment” that

“will give passengers what they want”.

Despite the promises of new facilities, however, there is a major issue.

One gentleman, local business man entrepreneur Mr Nigel Clark, who runs his business out of Marks Tey station, has been treated very badly during planning for the redevelopment of the station. He has been a stalwart of passengers at the station. Every day over the past decade, in all weather conditions, he has served commuters their morning coffees and newspapers from a stall on the platform. Since the plans were put together, however, he has effectively been made homeless.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Although few people in Brigg and Goole probably use the National Express East Anglia route, the quality of our stations is important. Some train operating companies have told me that if franchises lasted longer, companies could plan investment in stations much more and possibly increase it much more. Perhaps the Minister can address that when she responds.

That is a timely intervention. The development at Mark Tey station has come together quickly, and there was no local consultation. I presented the Minister with a petition bearing the signatures of more than 700 local commuters who were very distressed that Mr Clark’s service is being taken away from the station, but National Express completely ignored their views and those of Mr Clark. Planning and timing are important; as I said, however, the development has come together very quickly in Marks Tey. The frustrating aspect of the plans is that they made provision only for a “retail outlet” in the ticket office. That would then be offered to Mr Clark. I say retail outlet in inverted commas, because Mr Clark’s business is a stall.

The only reason why National Express was willing to take any representations on board was that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made persistent representations to secure Mr Clark’s business in some shape or form. The Minister may be interested to hear that I have had a letter from National Express today saying that it has had positive engagement with Mr Clark, will take the dialogue on board and will secure a facility for him. Alas, I have also heard today from Mr Clark. He was told that he would have a new stand, but it was too small and inadequate to function on the platform, so it has been removed and put in the car park. Mr Clark is losing business because nobody comes through the car park in the morning to buy coffee and newspapers. Mr Clark needs to be on the station platform.

The poor performance of National Express really is in another realm. There has been no full consultation. Local passengers have been ignored. Mr Clark has been treated appallingly. The premise that National Express used in the consultation was based on some kind of national passenger survey results from Passenger Focus, which, for the record, is a quango receiving £7 million of public money. Given that we are spending vast sums of public money and that our policy is very much about localism and giving people the chance to have a say—that brings in issues of accountability and transparency in public spending—we should have had much more accountability and engagement.

I ask the Minister to review in full the details of the way in which National Express has performed in relation to Marks Tey. I would very much like a response from Passenger Focus. I wrote to the chief executive two months ago, but I have yet to receive a response about the background to the dialogue that has gone on. I have asked for the full evidence base for the decisions that have been taken. I would be grateful if the Minister informed me when all the contracts for the project were signed. It seems to have come together very quickly. I would welcome a reassurance that she will look again at Mr Clark’s situation and see whether there is any way to guarantee his future.

Another example of poor performance by National Express is in the consultation of commuters about timetable changes. Following the comprehensive spending review and the introduction of the retail price index plus 3% fare formula, commuters will pay significantly more for their tickets. Yet commuters using Kelvedon, who currently pay more than £3,500 for their season tickets, will lose a service in the new timetable, from December. The 18.38 from Liverpool Street will no longer stop there. That is more than inconvenient for hard-pressed commuters, who want to get home to be with their families, because the next train is not until 19.08. One of my constituents who contacted National Express was told that no alterations would be considered, and despite a request for an explanation for the changes, none has been forthcoming. Likewise, the 6.27 service from Witham to London will be lost. In both cases, commuters feel they will simply be paying more money for a reduced service. I trust that the Minister will help my constituents to obtain the explanations from National Express that have been denied them.

I know the Minister is considering and reviewing the franchising process, and that the Greater Anglia franchise is likely to be the first to be put out to tender, under new arrangements. I hope the Minister will take seriously many of the points I have made, and the views of my constituents—she will meet the Kelvedon rail user group later in the month—and reflect on them as part of the franchise review and the Greater Anglia tendering process. I welcome her attention and thank her for coming to the debate.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) in saying that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate her on securing the debate and on presenting her case with such energy and tenacity. It gives us a useful opportunity to consider the performance of rail services on the East Anglia franchise. I pay tribute to the energetic campaign she has run to champion the interests of her commuting constituents.

I want first to outline some of the Government’s broader plans for reform of the railways, because they may help to address a number of the issues that have been raised today. Secondly, I will focus on my hon. Friend’s concerns about the works under way at Marks Tey station, and Mr Clark’s retailing stand. Thirdly, I will consider the general performance of National Express East Anglia, and fourthly, I will attend to my hon. Friend’s points about the new timetable

Just a few months ago I announced that the NXEA franchise would be extended by a little over six months. I chose to exercise the Government’s contractual right to do that to allow the outcome of our consultation on rail franchising to be taken on board in the letting of the new franchise. That extension will also enable the interim conclusions of the McNulty study on rail value for money to inform our decisions on the future of rail services in East Anglia. Of course, I urge my hon. Friend to make her views about current services known when the re-let takes place. The record of all the bidders for the potential new franchise will be taken into account in assessing their suitability to take it on.

The Government believe that we need to reform the railways to ensure they deliver better value for money. My hon. Friend emphasised that concern. Unless we get costs down, we will not be able to bring about the improvements to services and capacity that passengers want, so we are committed to reforming Network Rail. When Labour established the company, it failed to put in place sufficiently robust accountability mechanisms to ensure that Network Rail would deliver value for money and high-quality performance at the level needed for a modern and successful railway. We need to tackle that accountability gap, and to get the people running our tracks and trains working more efficiently and cohesively together. We also need to modernise the franchising system. We propose to move to longer franchises to give the private sector the certainty it needs to help us deliver vital improvements, such as better services and stations. They should also help us in providing better rolling stock, which I know is a serious concern for my hon. Friend and many of her constituents.

The reforms are aimed at moving away from a system in which Whitehall specifies detailed and prescriptive inputs into franchises. Instead, we want a stronger focus on the quality of outcomes for passengers, giving more flexibility to the professionals who run our railways to apply innovation and enterprise in working out the best way to deliver those outcomes. Let me assure the House that the outcomes we set will be demanding for the franchise my hon. Friend is concerned about and for all the rest for which we have responsibility. Operators who do not comply with franchise requirements will face sanctions, including termination of the franchise in the most serious cases. I expect our reform plans for Network Rail and franchising to get the two sides of the rail industry working more cohesively together, and to ensure that they are more responsive to passenger needs. I therefore believe they will help to address a range of the issues raised by my hon. Friend this afternoon.

As to the national station improvement programme and the works that are under way at Marks Tey, a budget of £150 million has been allocated to the programme to improve the passenger environment at about 150 medium-sized stations in the current railway control period. The improvement scheme at Marks Tey station includes the provision of a modern ticket office building and booking hall area, and a small retailing opportunity. We hope that the project will give passengers protection from the weather, which they currently lack. It will also improve staff accommodation, which is apparently in such disrepair that the station office suffers from repeated flooding. The London-bound platform will be widened to improve circulation for passengers. New waiting shelters will also be installed on that platform. The station forecourt will be redesigned to provide a passenger pick-up and drop-off area and improvements to cycle and motorbike parking.

My hon. Friend is concerned that the work under way is not the best way to deploy taxpayers’ money. Decisions on how to deploy the budget were devolved to the rail industry, but they are overseen by an NSIP project delivery board and ultimately by the rail regulator, to ensure that proper checks are kept on the way in which the rail industry spends taxpayers’ money. I am informed that national passenger survey scores were taken into account in deciding which stations were most in need of improvement, but in addition—I know my hon. Friend is a little sceptical about their value—comments from local stakeholders were taken on board. I understand that with respect to Marks Tey, a value-for-money assessment was carried out by Network Rail and NXEA. NXEA consulted a range of stakeholders, including some local rail user groups and station tenants, local authorities, rail staff and Passenger Focus. It is unfortunate that the train operator’s customer surgeries at Marks Tey took place only fairly late in the day, after most of the key decisions had been made about the shape of the upgrade programme. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns about that, but I have received some assurance that customer feedback from an earlier point was taken on board in putting together the improvement proposals. Clearly it would have been preferable if NXEA had carried out those customer surgeries earlier.

I would welcome an assurance that for future developments of this nature, there will be greater transparency in the consultation and dialogue with communities. It is all well and good receiving a survey and ticking a box, but there is the question of understanding the intricacies of planning and the impact on the community and businesses. That should be taken into consideration.

I do not think it would appropriate for us to mandate a model for consultation, but across the board we encourage train operators to engage extensively with passengers and local stakeholders on decisions of this kind, and a range of other issues that are important for commuters.

National Express has advised my officials that passengers have commented on the queues and congestion caused by there being only one poorly positioned ticket window at Marks Tey. Passengers interchanging between the main line and Sudbury have also complained about the state of the toilets and the waiting shelters on platforms 3 and 4. However, it seems that improvement works at Marks Tey are designed to relieve those conditions.

The key issue for my hon. Friend today is the future of Nigel Clark’s newspaper and coffee retailing business. My hon. Friend has fought a robust campaign to secure the future of Mr Clark’s news stand and the service it provides to her commuting constituents. If I remember correctly, I prepared a briefing for the Prime Minister on the subject, so I know that my hon. Friend has taken the matter to the top; I am impressed by her determination. However, my answer must be the same as that which I gave in correspondence.

It is not for me, the Minister responsible for rail, or for the Department for Transport to dictate how train operators should structure retail opportunities at their stations. However, my hon. Friend knows that I have passed her concerns to NXEA, along with the petition that she delivered to me on the subject. She has put her concerns on the record, and fought a good campaign. It is for National Express and Mr Clark to resolve matters, no doubt assisted by my hon. Friend’s robust intervention. I understand that a six-month lease for a temporary unit has been agreed, although my hon. Friend has expressed some concern about its location. I hope that a longer term solution will be found in due course. I know that Mr Clark and others will have the chance to submit proposals for use of a new and permanent retail unit should they wish to do so. I hope that the matter will be resolved, and I urge both sides to find a satisfactory outcome.

I turn to the overall performance of NXEA. The latest period for which complete performance data are available shows that 90.9% of NXEA trains arrived on time. That is according to the moving annual average. However, those figures are aggregated across a diverse franchise that covers long-distance, rural and commuter services, so they do not necessarily reflect the experience of commuters using the services in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Nevertheless, as she pointed out, satisfaction with NXEA is lower than for train operators in other places, so there is clearly room for improvement, particularly in light of what she said today.

A key task for the Government and the Department for Transport is to protect the passenger and hold train operators to account for their performance, particularly in relation to some recent reliability problems. For example, in early summer NXEA suffered some significant problems with its fleet, which caused a large number of delays and cancellations. The Department took up the problem with NXEA. As a result, an emergency action plan has been adopted. Part of that plan involved hiring additional engineering staff, who were placed at Liverpool Street station to try to deal with technical faults on the spot, in order to keep the trains in service. I gather that that has had a positive impact and that fleet performance has improved considerably.

I emphasise that reliability issues on the rail network in my hon. Friend’s constituency are not solely down to National Express East Anglia. Another significant factor is the performance of Network Rail. According to the latest industry figures, approximately 70% of passenger delays on the line are caused by Network Rail or other train operators. A significant amount of work is under way to improve reliability on the great eastern main line route. Most of the overhead electrical equipment between Liverpool Street and Colchester stations dates from the late 1950s, and extensive renewal work is being undertaken by Network Rail on the Liverpool Street to Chelmsford section. That work is due to be completed by 2012, and it will provide real improvements in reliability. Problems with the ageing infrastructure are one reason for the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Every passenger dreads hearing the terrible words “planned engineering work”. However, when scheduling maintenance and renewals work, the rail industry always faces a difficult balancing act. On the one hand it needs to deliver the relevant work in an efficient and cost-effective manner; on the other it is essential to minimise disruption for passengers whenever possible. Because of the scale of work needed on the East Anglia routes, there has been a long series of weekend track possessions. No matter how much care is taken, is inevitable that possessions will cause some disruption, but on the routes in question it sometimes results from delays in Network Rail handing back possession to National Express East Anglia. If the possession overruns, the train operator does not gain access to the tracks at the scheduled time.

Such disruption can be considerable, especially for passengers facing the dreary Monday morning commute. It is such problems that we need to address in our rail reform programme; we must ensure that Network Rail becomes more responsive to customer concerns about issues such as track possessions and overruns, and that it improves its performance overall in providing an infrastructure that keeps services running. We are very focused on those reforms as well as on reforming the franchise system. The twin tracks of reform are designed to deliver the enhanced levels of improvement necessary to address the problems my hon. Friend has highlighted.

The Office of Rail Regulation is responsible for regulating Network Rail’s performance and its stewardship of the national network. In addition, I regularly meet senior representatives of the ORR and rail industry to discuss operational performance and the measures being taken to address problems. I have raised the issue of the performance of the East Anglia routes at this regular forum. In addition, officials at the Department for Transport are in regular contact with train operators to discuss service reliability; and targets for each operator are closely monitored.

The third concern raised by my hon. Friend relates to the timetable to be introduced in December. The Government are funding increased capacity for the NXEA franchise, but that has meant a significant recasting of the timetable. In order to get a timetable that maximises the efficient use of the network and ensures overall passenger benefits, a small number of stations are left with longer gaps between trains. My hon. Friend referred to two of them. Unfortunately, there is no getting away from the fact that difficult trade-offs have to be made and conflicts resolved between the various passenger groups. Efforts to get the maximum efficient use out of the network will sometimes mean that such conflicts are resolved in favour of the busier journeys.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend, and I emphasise that it is important that the operator endeavour to keep instances of extended gaps between services to a minimum. The new timetable was developed following extensive consultation during the summer of 2009. I have seen no evidence that the train operators acted unreasonably in making their decisions; but when the new franchise is re-let, timetabling with be considered afresh. That will give my hon. Friend an important opportunity to make further representation.

Our rail reforms are designed to make the rail industry perform more efficiently and respond more effectively to the sort of problems highlighted by my hon. Friend. Programmes to expand capacity on the East Anglia franchise and to renew and improve the infrastructure in order to ensure more reliable services are already under way. Although we had to take tough decisions on rail fares, we have made it clear that the three-year rail fare increase will enable us to deliver the upgrades that are vital to improving life for passengers and to securing our long-term economic competitiveness.