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Rail Service (West Anglia)

Volume 521: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bill Wiggin.)

So long ago is it, Mr Speaker, that I last took part in a debate in the House—almost 15 years—that you may forgive me for feeling that this is something like a maiden speech, although I realise that it is not, in the technical sense. Let me say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that I hope my return to Back-Bench advocacy may yield a rewarding response this evening.

I want to highlight the needs of all the people who make the 34.5 million journeys a year on the West Anglia railway line, which is part of the Greater Anglia franchise. The West Anglia line is really a cluster of lines, the main spine of which serves Cambridge from Liverpool Street as well as 14 other stations. Along that spine are 10 inner-London stations and spurs to Chingford, Enfield, Hertford and Stansted airport. I am grateful for the visible support of my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and for Enfield North (Nick de Bois), who are present, and I also pay tribute to those who, over the years, have worked together as a group to act as promoters of the need to improve the service on that line. They include my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love), all of whom have had similar problems in their constituencies in relation to this line. If it is not provocative of me to say so, we are all in this together.

Let me give a little history. In 1977, when I started commuting from Audley End, which is one of the big commuter stations on the West Anglia line, the best journey time to Liverpool Street was 47 minutes, but today it is rarely possible to do that journey in under an hour and it usually takes more than an hour. I am not criticising the current train operator; in fact, National Express East Anglia can point to increased punctuality levels in what has become a more relaxed timetable. It is the extra demand on the line due to the growth in passenger numbers, notably caused by the introduction of the Stansted Express, that has been behind the slowing down of the journeys that our constituents undertake.

I do, however, criticise successive Governments. The Government of my noble Friend, Baroness Thatcher, set the ball rolling so far as the expansion of Stansted is concerned, by agreeing to it being developed to a capacity of 15 million passengers per annum. The Government of Tony Blair decided that the M11 corridor should be a centre of expansion and also supported a second runway at Stansted with the capability of quadrupling the number of people using that airport.

One might have anticipated some joined-up thinking. If more houses were to be built, whether in the inner or outer-London areas, and there was to be a third London airport, with possibly 80 million passengers per annum, surely to goodness attention should have been given to rail access to that airport. But no; there has been absolutely nothing doing in terms of train and track capacity. The only thing that can be shown is construction of the spur to Stansted airport.

Inevitably, the result has been that overcrowding is worse, journey times are longer and even the Stansted Express has become less express, but of course fares have continued to rise. As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, some relief on overcrowding is in prospect. I am grateful for the fact that the previous Government did, at last, agree that 120 new carriages should be provided. The only fly in the ointment, as far as that was concerned, is that they were destined to be used largely to satisfy passengers to and from Stansted airport. That would include some of my commuters, but substantially the extra seating capacity covered people travelling only occasionally on the train. Regular commuters from other stations on the line—typically, commuters from Audley End pay about £3,600 a year for a standard season ticket—would have to make do with the type 317s, the principal stock used on the line.

“Tired” would be the politest word that could be applied to that type of train; it has a quixotic heating system and there are times when the doors stay closed, or, alternatively, stay open, neither attribute being particularly helpful to the running of a railway. During the recent cold snap, no fewer than 30 of the 60 four-car units that National Express had at its disposal for the West Anglia line were taken out of service as a result of problems in the traction motor caused by the snow.

I recently discovered that another threat is looming. Apparently, EU regulations in the making will forbid trains having their lavatory waste emptied on to the line. That is a particularly odious situation, especially when seen at Liverpool street. To fit what are politely known as retention tanks to the 317 stock would cost about £3 million, which is hardly an incentive to keep the carriages in service much longer.

The only way to improve journey times is of course to create more track. I am all in favour of a fast service to the airport. It ought to be possible to get to Stansted in 30 minutes, just as it is possible to get to Gatwick in 30 minutes. I am not against that in the slightest degree, but it cannot be done at the expense of improvements to services to stations in my constituency and beyond. It is important that a regular service be maintained for inner-London stations. The mix of fast and slow trains is impossible to achieve on a two-track system, so there has to be—at some point soon, one hopes—more track laid.

Network Rail, in the rail utilisation strategy on which it is working, has options for four-tracking certain sections of the line. There are what I describe as minimal and maxi options. I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not think the thing is worth doing unless one has four-tracking from Coppermill junction, south of Tottenham Hale, as far as Broxbourne. That will enable proper separation of the different types of service. However, it is being contemplated only for the control period that covers 2014 to 2019, so the implementation of even the minimal option is some way ahead. For a long period of years, we shall still suffer the restrictions that currently exist. Even then, of course, any movement on four-tracking will require finance.

With that tale of woe told, I now see the prospect—an opportunity—for improvement. The Department for Transport is working on a new franchise for Greater Anglia, which I believe is due to come into effect in 2013. I hope that the Government will construct a franchise that will place a requirement on the successful bidder to commit to new trains across the network, rather than just the few that we are going to get, which might all go to the Stansted Express. I also hope that there will be a commitment to helping with the implementation of some four-tracking along the stretch of line that I mentioned. If the Government do not want to go quite that far in the terms of the franchise, at the very least let the franchise encourage the provision of an incentive to the successful bidder to help to bring those things about.

The length of the franchise is absolutely crucial if the train operator is to be encouraged to become a partner with Network Rail on improving the railway line. That has been my opinion for some time, but I note that it is also the opinion of the Association of Train Operating Companies. I was delighted that, by happy coincidence, my right hon. Friend made a statement today indicating that the Government believe in longer franchises. I do not know whether the franchise could be as long as 20 or 22 years, but it is a crucial point, because the longer the franchise, the better our chance of ensuring that there will be more investment soon for the benefit of our passengers. My right hon. Friend has the chance tonight—the omens seem propitious—to provide words of comfort to many long-suffering passengers by saying that a faster and better train service will be delivered soon, and foreseeably soon, for people using all the stations on the West Anglia network.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on making a distinguished contribution on his return to debating from the Back Benches. I also congratulate him on securing a debate on such an important topic and for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the West Anglia rail line and the future for the franchise on the network.

My right hon. Friend assiduously defends the interests of his commuting constituents, and I am grateful for his frequent representations and suggestions for ways to improve how our railways are run. His long-standing interest and expertise on transport matters no doubt aids him in being such an able and effective advocate for his constituents.

Before I respond to the points made by my right hon. Friend, I shall update the House on the franchise arrangements on the West Anglia route. Last September, the Department for Transport issued a notice to National Express East Anglia exercising the Government’s contractual right to extend the current franchise by a little over six months. A written statement to the House in December announced that a short management contract would be let for the Greater Anglia franchise, which would be in place from February 2012. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, it was expected that a long-term franchise would begin in July 2013. The competition to let the short-term interim contract started last week.

The timetable has been put in place so that when we let the long-term Greater Anglia franchise, we can take on board the outcome of the recent consultation on rail franchising and the findings of the rail value for money study, which is chaired by Sir Roy McNulty. The study is aimed at reducing the costs of running the railways, thus making it easier to deliver the kind of improvements that my right hon. Friend has passionately called for in the debate.

Sir Roy McNulty’s work to date indicates that better alignment of incentives between Network Rail and train operators is a vital way to get costs down on the railways. We believe that the Greater Anglia franchise is a promising candidate for such a reform because it is less complex and more self-contained than some other lines, and there is already some alignment between the area covered by the franchise and Network Rail’s internal regional structures.

My right hon. Friend clearly highlighted the crowding problems on the lines serving his constituency and his general concern about the quality of the rolling stock that his constituents use every day. The Government are funding increased capacity on the National Express East Anglia franchise. One hundred and twenty new carriages will enter service over the next few months, with the first of the new rolling stock in operation from March. Although, as we have heard, those will be deployed primarily on the Stansted Express route, it is worth noting that during the peaks, that line serves commuters as well as airport passengers. I also note that my right hon. Friend mentioned his concerns about the growth of Stansted and the sufficiency of the supporting infrastructure.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and heartily endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I welcome the Government’s plans to invest in improving the rolling stock. Obviously, hard-pressed Harlow commuters who are crushed every day, particularly in the rush hours, would welcome any signal that the Government can accelerate the plans to improve the rolling stock.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. As I said, the rolling stock is due to come into service pretty soon—in the next few months in the case of the Stansted Express. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement about the provision of rolling stock elsewhere on the national rail network. Negotiations are under way with various train operators about those additional carriages.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will appreciate that, had the previous Government’s misguided plans for a second runway at Stansted gone ahead, it would have placed even more pressure on the surrounding infrastructure. That is one of the many reasons why the coalition has firmly ruled out a second runway.

As my right hon. Friend knows, National Express has also decided to operate some of the new units, which were originally destined for the Stansted Express, on Cambridge services. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s successful lobbying on that, because I am sure that it played an important part in the decision to deploy some of the new rolling stock carriages on Cambridge services. The introduction of new units on the Stansted Express and Cambridge services will, in turn, free up carriages that will be used to strengthen services across the Anglia network.

On 12 December National Express East Anglia introduced a new timetable, which saw 68 additional carriages brought into service, providing more than 4,000 additional seats for passengers during peak times. In addition, I can confirm that my officials are in discussion with National Express East Anglia to determine whether some Cambridge services can be speeded up from December 2011.

My right hon. Friend expressed his concerns about the relative speed of services. The change in times is largely due to the fact that the trains are stopping at more stations to meet the increasing demand from passengers at different locations. That is part of the reason for the change in journey times that he highlighted.

My right hon. Friend also set out his grave concerns about the poor performance of National Express East Anglia rolling stock during the sub-zero temperatures in November and December. Unfortunately, he is correct that the type of rolling stock operated on the West Anglia route has problems during the kind of severe weather that we experienced before Christmas. I am afraid that that has also been apparent with other train operators who use the same kind of vehicles.

Problems include snow ingress into traction motors and freezing door mechanisms. In some instances, the Kilfrost used to treat platforms affected door runners, stopping doors from closing. Those problems were compounded by issues with Network Rail’s infrastructure, including freezing points and icicles forming under bridges and interfering with overhead lines.

My officials met National Express East Anglia to discuss what actions they had taken to mitigate the effects of the extreme weather. Those include applying antifreeze to doors and deploying additional staff at stations along the route to try to deal with problems as they arise. Modifications to the traction motors are being investigated, and other mitigating actions are being urgently considered by the train operators in preparation for any recurrence of severe weather. Throughout the crisis, officials were in constant touch with the rail industry. The Secretary of State and I were in contact with the senior management of Network Rail and of a number of different train operators. Although disruption is inevitable with extreme weather conditions, we need to ensure that transport operators work as hard as they can to secure the best service deliverable in the circumstances.

In December, the Secretary of State asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of transport operators’ performance in England and their compliance with the recommendations that he made earlier in the year on winter resilience. The audit emphasised the importance of improving the information given to passengers in the event of disruption, and concluded that the rail industry is rather over-dependent on electronic provision of information. The Department for Transport expects transport operators to act on David Quarmby’s report.

As demand on the West Anglia route increases, changes will need to be made to the way in which services are delivered. Our response will depend on the extent of demand growth and, of course, on affordability. When competition is under way for the long Anglia franchise, starting in 2013, we will run a consultation to hear from local stakeholders what their priorities are for the rail network. I do not propose pre-empting that competition, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden urges bidders to consider putting forward proposals for new rolling stock on the line. Bidders may well want to make such proposals. I am sure that they will be interested in hearing from my right hon. Friend and other MPs what local people’s priorities are for the much needed improvements to the railways. Bidders for the longer franchise will also need to evaluate likely growth and passenger demand over the coming years.

We believe that our new approach to rail franchising, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, with longer and less prescriptive franchises, will incentivise train operators to invest in improved services, and better stations and rolling stock, as he suggests they should. We will require bidders to take into account stakeholder aspirations in the improvements that they propose making to passenger services under the Greater Anglia franchise. We will need to be confident that those competing for the franchise have fully understood which improvements matter most to the communities served by the line. We also want them to generate ideas on how to deliver those improvements in an affordable way.

My right hon. Friend hinted at the range of upgrades to the Anglia network that have been discussed. He felt that there was a need for additional tracks to deal with the overcrowding problem and to improve services. Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy recommended that the number of tracks on the route between Tottenham Hale and Broxbourne be increased from two to four, which is what my right hon. Friend called for. However, there may be alternatives that address the issues that the project is designed to solve, such as passing places on the line. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, there are mini and maxi options. The relative cost of all the options would have to be carefully assessed. As he acknowledged, no funding has yet been committed for delivering Anglia route utilisation projects beyond 2014, but our goal is to improve services for passengers, and that may well include infrastructure works in the next railway control period. I am sure that he will agree that decisions will have to be based on affordability, given the crisis in the public finances that we inherited from our predecessors.

A key goal in letting the Anglia franchise that commences in 2013 is to generate ideas for improving services, and to listen to the representations of people such as my right hon. Friend, who know well the concerns of their commuting constituents. The coalition’s franchise reforms, announced today in a written ministerial statement, are designed to ensure that the rail industry performs more efficiently and invests more in the kind of improvements highlighted by my right hon. Friend this evening.

We believe that our predecessors tried to exert too much control from Whitehall through lengthy and detailed specifications and complex management regimes. On too many issues they attempted to second-guess the professionals whose job it is to run train services. A significant downside of this command-and-control approach is that it provides the private sector with only limited incentives to invest in the facilities and improvements that passengers want. It also leaves the private sector with little scope to deploy innovation and enterprise in responding to passenger concerns.

That is why we have proposed a new approach, which chimes in with much of the appeal that my right hon. Friend made this evening. We will set demanding outcomes for the rail industry to achieve, but we will give the industry more flexibility and freedom in deciding how best to deliver those outcomes for passengers. We intend to reduce the involvement of the Government in the way services are configured, while continuing to mandate the provision of core levels of service.

I firmly believe that I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) that longer franchises will provide a stronger incentive for private sector investment in rolling stock, in stations and even potentially in broader infrastructure improvements. They will also make it easier for operators to invest in the long-term relationships that are so crucial for delivering reliable services and a successful railway—relationships with the work force, Network Rail, local authorities and, of course, passengers. As well as forming part of our strategy for reforming the franchise system, strengthening these pivotal relationships will be part of the valuable work being done under the auspices of the McNulty review to reduce the cost of running the railways for the benefit of both groups that fund them, taxpayers and fare payers.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.