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Portsmouth-London Railway Line

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2011

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

I wonder, Mr Speaker, whether on your outreach trips up and down the country you travel by rail. If you do, I wonder whether you like to look at your speech en route and to travel with your elbows. These are pertinent questions should you intend to come to Portsmouth to give us the benefit of your wisdom, for it seems that South West Trains expects its passengers not only not to work while travelling in standard class but not to have elbows either. A report commissioned by South West Trains on the ergonomics of its class 450 carriages, which are now on half the Portsmouth-London line, found that 59% of people, when their elbows are taken into account, will not fit into the seats. My admittedly anecdotal evidence shows that most people prefer to travel with their elbows most of the time. The only sense that one can make of that bald admission by South West Trains is that it explains why there are no arm rests on those services.

Allow me to describe the conditions in the class 450 Desiro carriage. The seats are arranged in a two-plus-three formation, so there are five seats across the width of the train. Each seat is 43 cm wide, but, crucially, there is no space between them. They are hard, they have no arm rests and the seat closest to the window is compromised by the heating channel encroaching into the foot space. Earlier today, I took the liberty of measuring out, on this very Bench, 129 cm from the Gangway and invited three hon. Friends to attempt to squeeze themselves into the space they would have for a 90-minute journey on the London-Portsmouth line. I am sorry to say that if my hon. Friends had been in a class 450 carriage, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) would have been 90% in the aisle. I hardly need to remind the House that this is the usual seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), who, as we all know, is not a man to be crowded. We are accustomed to regular games of sardines as we squeeze ourselves into a Chamber with too few seats; if we cannot do it, what hope do others have? Crucially, we are content with this arrangement; we approved of the decisions of our predecessors to create a Chamber deliberately short of seats, but Portsmouth commuters are not content to play sardines every day.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Is she aware that this issue affects not only Portsmouth commuters but many of my constituents in Liss, Liphook and Petersfield, and that the same trains are used on the Alton line? Sometimes it is an issue not just of comfort but of health and safety—people with back trouble and so on.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has done a tremendous amount of work liaising with his constituents, especially those who commute to London, on this issue. He might also be aware that in 2005, when the 550 operated from Waterloo to Basingstoke and Alton, the Rail Passengers Council—the forerunner of Passenger Focus—said that the 450’s seating arrangements were

“only reasonable for the route on which they were run”—

that is, not suitable for a mainline service. Why, then, were those unsuitable carriages introduced to the Portsmouth-London line on 65% of the services in October 2006, before being scaled back again to 49% late in 2007? South West Trains claims that it met an urgent need to address overcrowding on the route, based on the 2005-06 passenger figures—a full 12-carriage rake of 450s having 140 more seats than the 10-carriage 444 rakes. Those passengers-in-excess-of-capacity figures for peak times showed that of the 23 services operated with the 444 carriages, only five showed standing figures of almost 100 or more, the worst being 272.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am sure she would agree that South West Trains makes easyJet look luxurious. But the real problem, surely, was the way in which the figures were massaged to suit the financial interests of South West Trains rather than the interests of the paying passengers. Does she agree that we should be a little more optimistic that the Minister this time will be a bit more successful in persuading South West Trains to do something about that than was her Labour predecessor, who tried and never got anywhere?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come to precisely those points and lay them before the House. I make no judgments, but I think the figures will speak for themselves. I also wish to offer the Minister some solutions, because it is part of the frustration for many commuters that the answers in terms of volumes of rolling stock are there.

Overcrowding is concentrated between Waterloo and Woking—the leg of the route that just takes the first 25 minutes. It should be recognised that trains between those stations operate about every four minutes. Those commuters have options, and the journey is suitable for a 450 carriage. Also, it seems that it is acceptable to have 97 people standing, as the eight-carriage 450 service—the 6.32, I believe, from Haslemere—that showed that figure did not need to expand. Admittedly, there is not the option there simply add a single coach, but the point remains.

Further undermining the argument that overcrowding must be addressed is the fact that the 140 extra seats cannot actually be used. People either cannot fit into them or choose not to. Portsmouth city council’s March 2010 survey found that 80% of people boarding south of Haslemere are not confident of getting a seat at busy times in a 450 carriage.

The residents of Gosport hugely appreciate my hon. Friend’s securing of this Adjournment debate. I wonder whether she understands that South West Trains has an awareness that it is not just commuters from Portsmouth who board those trains; it is also commuters who then go across to the Isle of Wight, and of course those who catch a ferry over to Gosport, which is one of the largest towns in the country without its own railway station.

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. South West Trains cannot be anything other than aware of the enormous numbers of people who have been affected. As my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) said, the problems have been going on for many years, and it is a source of great frustration that no solution has yet been found.

Returning to the number of seats and the difficulty of getting a seat south of Haslemere at busy times, 25% of people cannot find a seat at all. If it were a simple matter of the number of seats, there would not be such problems. We have a situation in which similar numbers of people might end up standing, but in a much narrower gangway. Network Rail reports that food sales at its stations are up 5%. I am sure Portsmouth residents are doing their bit, stocking up before boarding in the knowledge that the at-seat trolley service will be hauled up somewhere around the lavatory, where it will be in good company with the similarly impeded train guard.

The Association of Train Operating Companies reported 1.32 billion passenger journeys in 2010, 7% up on 2009 and 37% up on 2000—indeed, a number not seen since commuters could enjoy the charms of steam power. We should not allow this top-line figure to distort the true pattern of travel on individual lines. Even as a response to increased demand, the provision of more unusable seats is hardly adequate. In any case, surely it was a disproportionate response to replace 450s on more than 50% of weekday services, when only 10 or so out of 133 weekday services showed high numbers of standing passengers.

We must wonder why, if overcrowding were the only motivation for change, services that were not overcrowded or had only, say, 10 standing passengers were replaced with the 450s. Outside peak times, the service is not at all stressed, yet during the week 53% of services are formed of 450 trains. Although I do not make any allegations—I merely offer the House the information—the carriage leasing company, Angel Trains, has confirmed that the 444 is as much as 20% more expensive to lease than the 450.

In the face of repeated lobbying from passengers of South West Trains, the company has held firm to the line that it must increase capacity. It has succeeded in increasing the number of seats. It has not succeeded in increasing the number of places to sit. A seat on which one cannot sit is a seat in name only. South West Trains dismisses criticism of the 450 carriages as mere “comfort” concerns and a simple preference for the 444. Well, quite. The 444s have two plus two seating, tables, arm rests and seats 45 cm wide, with a 4 cm space between them. What’s not to like?

What makes the situation even more frustrating for commuters is that South West Trains has 45 carriage units of 444 carriages. Passenger groups have devised service diagrams that show that a full 444 service could be operated with just over half that number. There is thus no need for passengers to endure the discomfort that at present is their lot. I accept that service programmes are a complex business and changes could have implications for other lines, although my research shows that these would not be detrimental.

The cause of passengers is not helped by the fact that there are no departmental guidelines on comfort. Comfort does not feature in any rail franchise agreements, or for that matter in the recent Reforming Rail Franchising consultation. However, the Department for Transport is alive to the dangers of inadequate provision being foisted upon passengers. The national rail franchise terms state that, excluding additional passenger services,

“the Franchisee shall maintain the composition of the Train Fleet during the Franchise Term, unless the Secretary of State otherwise agrees, such that there are no changes to the Train Fleet, including changes:

(a) to the classes or types;

(b) to the interior configurations; or

(c) which may reduce the journey time capabilities, of any rolling stock vehicles specified in the Train Fleet.”

It is true that franchises might be negotiated with a change of stock in mind, but patently the Department accepts the need to protect passengers. Furthermore, the coalition programme for government states:

“We will grant longer franchises in order to give operators the incentive to invest in the improvements passengers want.”

Such improvements include better services, better stations, longer trains and better rolling stock. The problem is that there is no incentive for train operating companies on mainline routes, as they operate in a protected market, and frequently have a monopoly. Contrary to what some TOCs said in their submissions to the consultation, inter-city lines have less competition than suburban lines. Cars and coaches are simply not viable alternatives, and certainly not if one hopes to work while travelling.

It is with hope and expectation, therefore, that I seize on the Government’s statement in their response to the franchise consultation:

“For intercity services revenue incentives may be sufficient to encourage operators to continue to strive to maintain and improve service quality. However, we may ask bidders to commit to quality improvements which are within their control, such as onboard environment; station environment; customer service and information.”

First, what is the need for better comfort, if not to improve the onboard environment? The Department for Transport should produce guidelines on passenger comfort for each type of railway line, and they should become mandatory minimum requirements in future rail franchise agreements. It should be made plain to franchise holders that failure to meet the guidelines before renewal dates will compromise their suitability to continue as operators.

Secondly, it is within the control of South West Trains to improve its service now. It has the carriages; the rail passenger groups have the service diagrams. If South West Trains contends that it could restore the 444 services to the London-Portsmouth line only by leasing more of them and putting up prices, I would ask why prices did not come down when the cheaper 450s were introduced. I hope that the Minister will prevail on South West Trains to look at how the distribution of carriages could be realigned so that no service is disadvantaged by the improvements to the Portsmouth line. South West Trains and the Department should look at what carriage capacity is available, and open dialogues with other TOCs if necessary.

Thirdly and finally, I would ask that a meeting be convened at which departmental Ministers and officials, Members of Parliament and passengers groups can discuss with South West Trains what must change and how quickly it can be done. People such as David Habershon, Bruce Oliver and John Holland, who have done so much to represent their fellow commuters, and to help me prepare for this debate, should be able to address their concerns directly to SWT executives across the table. Commuters on the London-Portsmouth line pay handsomely for their rail tickets. In return they should be able to travel to our capital for business or pleasure without being in discomfort or running the risk of doing themselves harm. South West Trains does a good job in many respects. It has the power to put right what it has got wrong, and I hope that it will do so in short order.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) on securing this debate. She made her case with great clarity and determination—she is a steadfast defender of her constituents’ interests. The first question that I should like to answer concerns the meeting she requested: I would be happy to meet her to discuss this further.

I fully appreciate how important rail services are for the residents of Portsmouth North—my hon. Friend’s constituents—and I am very much aware of the concerns that have been raised about the provision of class 450 rolling stock on the London-Portsmouth main line, which is an essential artery connecting communities across Hampshire, Surrey and south-west London. The provision of reliable rail services on the line is enormously important for economic activity and growth along the route. Nearly 7 million passenger journeys were made to and from Portsmouth stations in 2009-10.

To answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend, some explanation is required of the contractual history of the SWT franchise. The current Stagecoach South Western Trains franchise was competitively tendered by the previous Government in 2006, with the contract commencing in February 2007. All bidders were required to give a commitment to lease both the class 450 and the class 444 rolling stock for the life of the franchise term, because the Strategic Rail Authority—a body now disbanded but which at the time handled franchise decisions for the Government of the day—gave a statutory undertaking to the rolling stock company that owned the trains. That arrangement, known as a section 54 undertaking, was part of the funding package agreed to replace the older slam-door stock, which had operated in the south-west since the ’60s.

New-build class 444s and 450 electric multiple units were phased in between 2001 and 2007. If the previous Government had not required the operator to lease the trains, the taxpayer might have been left to foot the whole bill. Although the section 54 undertaking requires SWT to lease the trains, the operator takes the decisions on where to deploy the rolling stock across the different parts of the franchise network to address capacity problems as efficiently as possible.

As we have heard from my hon. Friend, SWT deploys a mixture of class 444s and 450s on services between Portsmouth and London. A 10-car maximum formation class 444 provides 598 seats, whereas a 12-car maximum formation class 450 provides 738 seats. My hon. Friend is rightly and understandably focused on the concerns of her constituents, but the train operator needs to balance the competing interests of different communities that use the services provided by the franchise.

Is the Minister in a position to ask her Department to examine the figures that justified the decision by South West Trains to move the rolling stock away from Portsmouth to elsewhere? Is she able to argue that those figures are somewhat arbitrary to say the least and totally misleading in most cases?

I am always happy to respond to the concerns of colleagues; I am happy to look at the numbers again and ask my officials to do that. As I shall point out later, however, there are very real capacity problems on the line that would be difficult to address without the use of class 450s.

The key part of my argument, which I hope the Minister will understand, is that South West Trains has not addressed overcrowding on the line. The fact that spaces for people to sit are provided does not mean that people have space to sit down. The group of people who suffer overcrowding potentially are the same group of people who suffer painful and uncomfortable seats. They are the same group of people who are asking for the new trains.

I very much understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but in reality we—the Government and the train operator—have to balance the interests of different communities along the line. Even if it were affordable to replace all the 450s with class 444s, and even if they were used on all services, it would have a significant detrimental impact on people further up the line, many of whom would not be able to get a seat as a result. I shall come to that in a moment, however.

The most recent route utilisation strategy work makes it clear that the infrastructure is just too full to deliver additional trains. That leaves limited options for relieving overcrowding, one of which is to use longer trains with more seats, which the operator has chosen to do. The seats on the 450s provide vital capacity for passengers closer to London. If SWT were to use class 444s for all Portsmouth services, it would worsen peak crowding problems from stations such as Guildford and Woking. More passengers would have to stand between Woking and London than do today, and removing 450s from the Portsmouth to London route might have other knock-on effects, such as displacing the class 450 carriages on to the Weymouth line, where journey times are even longer than from Portsmouth to London.

We all accept that key crowding between Portsmouth to London occurs during peak hours. In response to public concern of the sort that my hon. Friend has raised, SWT has promised to use 444s in the off-peak where it can. The extent to which it can do this, though, is dependent on complex issues to do with timetabling and the availability of trains and train crew. These complexities flow from the intense use we make of our railways and the need to deploy rolling stock and staff in a way that generates maximum passenger benefits. That means that some off-peak trains have to be class 450s to ensure that they are in the right place for the peak-time slots.

My hon. Friend set out her view that three-plus-two seating is not suitable for services on journeys of the 90-or-so minutes that her constituents face in getting to London. I can understand her concerns. However, three-plus-two seating is currently deployed on a number of routes with comparable journey times—for example, journeys between London stations and Margate, and London Liverpool Street and Ipswich. Issues of health and safety are the responsibility of Her Majesty’s railway inspectorate and the Office of Rail Regulation. Neither of those bodies, I am afraid, has sought to restrict the use of class 450s on longer-distance journeys.

At the heart of my hon. Friend’s speech is the request that the Government should introduce new requirements on rolling stock seating into current and future franchises. I hope that she will understand that to intervene in the current franchise and require SWT to change its rolling stock would involve renegotiating contractual terms. This always comes at a cost to the taxpayer—a cost that I am afraid we can ill afford when we are striving to address levels of borrowing inherited from the previous Government which are the highest in our peacetime history. Looking forward to what might be included in the next franchise, she will be aware that the decisions that the Government make on the railways are constrained by a number of factors, including infrastructure capacity, affordability and value for money.

The experiences of my hon. Friend’s constituents reflect some of the very difficult trade-offs that are made on our railways every day of the year. I acknowledge, of course, that many passengers in Portsmouth would probably prefer the environment and the seating pattern of class 444 carriages rather than class 450s. However, for the practical reasons that I set out in my response about crowding levels further up the line and infrastructure limitations, I would be unwise to make promises on the pattern of rolling stock use on the Portsmouth line in the future. Changes of the sort that she would like in relation to the seating patterns on trains would have a significant impact on the affordability of the franchise process.

As well as these practical considerations, there is another reason why I am reluctant to make declarations on rolling stock deployment on the south-western franchise in years to come. We are in the process of reforming franchises, and we have recently completed a consultation on this. A significant element of the approach that we propose would involve giving railway professionals greater flexibility to make key operational decisions to enable them to react more effectively to passenger needs and to run their services in a more commercial way. We do not envisage specifying detailed operational issues such as the seating layout of rolling stock required on specific routes, as we do not believe that it makes sense to take that sort of decision in Whitehall. We want instead to put in place the right incentives to ensure that operators respond to passengers during the period of their franchises. We will therefore be looking to include demanding requirements on service quality.

I would very much like to hear from the Minister a commitment on this and an understanding of the implications of these types of seating, especially over long journeys. While I acknowledge that these trains are being used for longer journeys elsewhere, this is causing a tremendous amount of physical damage. People are having to employ osteopaths and chiropractors and are really suffering. It is not just a comfort but a health and safety issue. There are a wide range of options—for example, sticking the different trains together when they get to Guildford. Often, trains join up when they get to Guildford, and class 450 carriages can be put on when they get to Guildford and Woking to allow other commuters to use them. If they are in operation down in Portsmouth, people will sit on the comfier seats first. Also, there is other rolling stock that the Department is trying to do something with—I think that they are called class 460s and they used to be on the Gatwick line. There must be a solution to this out there, and I urge the Minister to pull the train operating companies together to try to find it.

I am happy to work with my hon. Friend and the train operating company to see whether there are alternatives that have not been considered which can be brought into play without unfairly compromising the interests of passengers on a different part of the route, and without affecting the affordability of the franchise for taxpayers and fare payers. I encourage her to continue this dialogue with the train operator, and I am happy to take part in that. I think she will accept that I cannot promise to issue a directive to train operating companies on the detail of the seating plans of their rolling stock. That would not be affordable and it is not the right long-term option for the management of the railways in this country.

I appreciate the opportunity to debate this issue with my hon. Friend. As I have said, I am happy to continue to work with her to see whether a compromise can be found. I look forward to meeting her, and perhaps other colleagues who have attended this debate, to discuss the matter further.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.