Skip to main content

Railway Stations

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood.

My constituency includes the rail stations of Stevenage and Knebworth, both operated by First Capital Connect. We have sought the debate today to illustrate some of our difficulties in achieving station improvements in small towns and cities throughout the country. I will focus predominantly on my constituency of Stevenage, but I know that other Members present wish to intervene.

Stevenage station opened on its new site back in 1973, which was a few years before I was born. That illustrates the age of the station. It is an important hub for Hertfordshire, with Stansted airport on one side and Luton airport on the other; many services to the north of the country run by East Coast trains leave Stevenage, and the station sees more than 4 million passenger movements a year, with Knebworth station seeing almost half a million a year. Stevenage is quite a large and important regional train service hub. Bearing that in mind, First Capital Connect will be operating a 100-day peak service before, during and just after the Olympics, as hundreds of thousands of people use stations in my constituency to travel to King’s Cross to get across London to the Olympics. I am also proud that we will welcome the Olympic torch to Stevenage on 8 July; I look forward to a large boost to our local economy as a result.

I take the opportunity to commend the present and the previous Government for the fantastic transformations to King’s Cross and St Pancras railway stations. Both are iconic. I commute into King’s Cross every single day, from Stevenage, which is less than 30 miles away. My personal experience is that the station has improved a great deal. A lot of scaffolding was up for many years, but it has now been cleared away and, once again, the sunlight can be seen. There are similarities with Gatwick airport, with its departure and arrival lounges, and the station is looking much better.

King’s Cross is a category A station, the gateway to London for my constituents and millions of others, and yet, of my stations, Stevenage is category C and Knebworth category E. The Minister might be anticipating a long moan about the lack of investment in local train stations by all Governments and expecting me to lament the challenges that my constituents face trying to travel less than 30 miles to London, negotiating their way through all the obstacles, but the journey experience for passengers from my area has improved over the past few years, mainly due to the thousands of extra seats available at peak times. Nevertheless, I would like to reiterate on behalf of passengers, including myself, how annoying the annual increase in rail fares is and that we resent it predominantly because we do not feel that we are getting value for money, especially with the local council earning millions of pounds out of exorbitant car parking charges. I am lucky enough to be able to walk to the train station from my home in Stevenage, but many of my constituents are not as fortunate and have to pay large car parking charges on top of the large rail fares. For a 30-mile journey from Stevenage to King’s Cross, an annual travelcard costs well in excess of £4,000.

I would like to remain as positive as possible, however, because I am proud of my local area, so I will set out some of the improvements we have seen over the past five years, to Stevenage station in particular. A gate-line installation massively improved security and revenue protection along the whole line. The overbridge at Stevenage has a new kiosk, the toilets have been refurbished, the ticket office now has induction loops, the station has been repainted and there are food and drink vending machines. The ticket office is compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, cycle parking has been improved twice—three or four years ago, and last year it was increased by another 55%, with a £36,000 investment—and the waiting rooms have been refurbished. We now have four CCTV cameras installed and one thin film transistor or TFT-enhanced LCD display screen, so that we can all see what time the train is coming and how long it will be delayed for. We have DDA-compliant handrails to stairways. The Cambridge capacity study has reviewed and launched installation of dispatch equipment to allow for 12-car trains, so if we can obtain the rolling stock, thousands more seats will be available for even more of us to have a seat on our commute to London.

Network Rail’s national station improvement programme has led to platform seating being renewed, and station signage has been replaced. A new customer information service screen has been installed in the waiting room on platform 1, so people can sit down and not get wet when looking to see what time their train will come. Meeting point signage systems have also been installed. There has been a host of further welcome improvements to security in conjunction with British Transport Police, and both my local stations—Stevenage and Knebworth— are now fully accredited as safer stations. That is all good news, and positive.

There are many more improvements to look forward to over the next few years, including plans to resurface platforms later this year. Network Rail plans to make minor extensions to the platforms so that we can have 12-car trains. Most important, access-for-all funding is allowing conversion of the goods lift to a fully automated passenger lift. That is costing £578,000, and disabled passengers will be able to use the lift, instead of waiting for a member of staff to unlock the goods lift, which is totally inappropriate. I welcome the additional funding, and that work is due to be completed in March 2014.

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s description of the improvements at Stevenage station. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Knebworth station in his constituency. Does he share my concern that investment in stations to make them more accessible and modern will be completely wasted if the Government press ahead with plans to close ticket offices? Knebworth is mentioned in the McNulty report as a station that may have its ticket office closed. Many people rely on staff at stations to help them.

I understand what the hon. Lady is suggesting, and I assure her that we are running a campaign to keep Knebworth station’s ticket office open. I am pleased that First Capital Connect has assured us that it has no plans to close the ticket office. I will refer later to the Government’s Command Paper, “Reforming our Railways”, and to giving more power to train operating companies to keep some stations open.

The hon. Gentleman said clearly that it was important to have a good rail service and modernised stations. Does he believe that potential for tourism could be realised from that work, and that that should happen along with modernisation of stations?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is potential for tourism. Stevenage is home to Knebworth park, which is the largest outdoor venue for concerts. Robbie Williams performed there in front of 250,000 people. Large events take place in my constituency every summer, and the railway station is the gateway for hundreds of thousands of people.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and the passion with which he is advocating the case for Stevenage. Does he accept that in the modernisation programme for the railways, it makes sense for some stations to be relocated so that they are in a modern context and a true gateway to the city? One such case is Oxford, which I am pressing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to put that on the record.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. When the new Stevenage station opened in 1973, it was relocated half a mile down the line nearer the town centre. There is sometimes a case for relocating stations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that work on the lift for disabled people at Stevenage in his constituency—the same is happening at Gloucester—has come later than we would have liked, because it was not done during the 13 years of the previous Government? However, it suggests that priorities such as helping disabled people on stations are finally in the right place.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am a Conservative MP, and I do not want to be party political, but I agree with him.

My final point is that we have high hopes of receiving money to improve the concourse under the national station improvement plan. I am not sure that Stevenage station will look as good as King’s Cross station, but we can hope.

I know that my hon. Friend strongly supports commuters in Stevenage. Does he agree that modernisation of train stations is a wonderful opportunity to improve passenger safety, particularly at night? At too many stations, such as Stone Crossing in my constituency, passengers feel intimidated when they return home late in the evening, particularly in winter when it is dark, and that puts them off using the railways.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I am the founder of the Knebworth and Stevenage rail user group, which I set up some years ago when I commuted to London for my previous job. Installation of the gate line at Stevenage made a massive difference to station security. First Capital Connect employs people to work with British Transport police, such as police community support officers, and contributes to some of the cost so that we have designated officers on our line. The number of incidents has shown that crime on the line has been reduced as that revenue has been secured. Often, it is people who have travelled without tickets who engage in minor crime. I agree with my hon. Friend.

We have given the Minister an easy ride so far. I have spoken about the great things being done at stations that are collectively improving passengers’ experience at stations in my constituency. However, the changes are incremental, and highlight the fact that the current system does not work. Network Rail effectively owns and manages station improvements, so in reality the money goes towards the big iconic category A projects, such as King’s Cross, when local stations also need investment. There is much more to do at my local stations, but major works are constrained by the relationship between Network Rail and the train operating companies.

In my constituency in Wales, the platforms at Tenby and Whitland stations are the responsibility of one organisation, the track is the responsibility of another, the trains are the responsibility of yet another, and the car park is often the responsibility of the local authority. How can we achieve the desired solution when so many different people can duck their responsibility?

My hon. Friend pre-empts two questions that I intend to ask the Minister at the end of my speech. They are excellent questions, which I hope the Minister will take on board. It is incumbent on all of us here to ensure that we move forward with the proposals coming down the line. The problem is that Network Rail is responsible for 2,500 stations throughout the country, and invests a huge amount of money in stations with low customer satisfaction and high footfall. Money will go to King’s Cross, where there are 25 million passenger movements a year, Leeds, where there are 21 million passenger movements a year, and other northern regional stations.

I welcome the Government’s Command Paper, “Reforming our Railways”, which was released last month, and is a huge step forward. The Minister of State for Transport welcomed the success of the national station improvement programme that was launched by the previous Government. The chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies has said that it is a great example of what the industry can achieve by working together, and has exceeded the original objective. I understand that that was to improve 150 stations, but that 250 have been improved because the train operating companies used more money efficiently and locally.

We must go further and faster, and not waste the opportunity of the new, longer franchises that we are about to give to train operating companies. We must change the landlord and tenant relationship for stations by moving towards fully repairing leases, and making the train companies responsible for the whole station and its upkeep, not just certain parts of it as under current leases. That is what passengers and the train operating companies want. They want the train operating companies to have the ability to get on with the job.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, will he consider introducing fully self-repairing leases in franchises for category C stations and below, thus allowing Network Rail to retain responsibility for bigger projects, and train operating companies to retain responsibility for smaller stations that are, as in my constituency, important regional hubs? That would provide train operating companies with a visual demonstration of their brand.

Secondly, the Command Paper welcomes devolving decisions to local level, but that is to large bodies such as councils and local enterprise partnerships, which many passengers believe are out of touch and irrelevant to their journey needs. I want to give train companies the funding, power and responsibility to improve our stations, and I want them to be directly accountable to local people. In a written question, I asked

“what arrangements are in place for the removal of rail franchises where rail passengers are dissatisfied with the service provided by their local rail operators”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 520, c. 517W.]

and the basic premise of the response was that no such obligation exists for passenger satisfaction. I urge the Minister to consider creating that obligation as part of any new franchise arrangements.

I am delighted to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing it. It is an important subject that is relevant to many smaller cities and towns and their railway stations.

When we talk about communication, we often talk about the internet, broadband, super broadband, how fast it is and how much information we can download and how quickly. It is the modern way of communication and, quite rightly, its success is important to cities such as Carlisle and towns such as Stevenage, as well as to the country. If we go back 160 years, however, the railways were starting to achieve exactly the same thing. They were connecting the country, reducing the communication time between places, and bringing people and businesses together. At that time, rail was a transport, communication and economic revolution, and it still matters today.

Carlisle Citadel station in my constituency was built in 1847 and extended in 1875. At that time it connected Carlisle to all parts of the country, including the major centres of London and Glasgow and across to the east and Newcastle. The station is a great example of Victorian architecture and construction, and in many respects it is still a fantastic building and extremely relevant. It is an important communication centre for local people who wish to get to London or to Newcastle, and rail travel is important for both passengers and freight.

However good the internet is, people and goods will still need to move around the country and we will still need the railway network. On the west coast line in particular, rail travel has improved enormously and passenger numbers have increased dramatically. Credit must be given to the previous Government for the amount of money that was invested in much of the west coast line, and particularly the rail lines that received about £10 billion of investment. Substantial investment has also gone into trains, and new carriages will soon be in use on the west coast line. Service on trains has improved enormously—I can pay testament to that as I have gone up and down the west coast line looking at what Virgin has done, and I think it is a great improvement.

There is, however, a missing link regarding investment in stations, especially those outside the major cities. My hon. Friend alluded to the fact that although some larger stations have received substantial investment and improved enormously, many of the smaller stations have missed out. A 2009 report stated that overall train passenger satisfaction stood at 81%, although satisfaction with stations was just 65%.

A 2009 report from the Department for Transport stated:

“Stations cannot be seen in isolation—they are part of the total journey experience. This was dramatically demonstrated to us in Spain where the new high speed lines offer a consistent world-class travel experience from modern stations to modern trains and re-generated cities. Stations are deeply entwined with their local community and effectively act as the gateway to both town and railway. They leave passengers with their lasting impressions of both—a dilapidated station is bad business for both town and railway.”

I completely agree.

It is vital for our rail network that stations are modernised and that the passenger experience is greatly improved. If I may be parochial, Carlisle station has huge opportunities, but over the past 40 years it has seen little investment. The station now contains just two coffee shops and one newsagent, and not a lot else. It could be given an improved layout, and much of it could be refurbished which would enhance it enormously. New facilities such as shops and coffee bars could be encouraged, and there is the potential to create a transport hub by redesigning the entrances and the whole station. The transport network must work closely with local authorities to try and ensure that the passenger experience is greatly improved.

Such improvements are needed not only in Carlisle but in many of our stations and smaller cities and towns up and down the country. I would like to see the Government accept the need for such modernisation, and encourage stations, railway companies, local authorities and developers to work together to achieve improvements for our smaller stations. Where possible, seed money could be used to help kick-start such developments and improvements, but most importantly of all—this is critical—all future franchise agreements should include contractual obligations on rail companies to invest, upgrade and improve our stations, especially those outwith the major centres.

With your indulgence, Mr Hood, I have three quick points. First, King’s Cross cost the same as the entire northern hub project, which would benefit the entire north; secondly, we must consider the importance of parking at our local stations—it is a nightmare at Marsden, Honley and Brockholes in my patch; thirdly, does my hon. Friend acknowledge the important role played by rail user groups and friends of stations in looking after their local stations?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. Just as broadband is vital to the future economy, so is the success of the railway network and its stations. I hope that the Government will ensure that the modernisation of stations is made a priority.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Hood. I remember that in one of my first outings in this place, you were chairing a deeply worthy Committee on some European legislation, of which I was a member back in 1997. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) on securing this debate on an important issue for many passengers across the network. Nine Members have already contributed to this half-hour debate, which shows the enthusiasm and interest in this subject felt by Members across the House.

The Government understand that the quality of stations is important for passengers, and we are committed to facilitating investment in station improvements through reforms to how the railways are run. We are granting longer rail franchises in order to give train operators the incentive to invest in the improvements that passengers want, including better stations.

To pick up one of my hon. Friend’s questions and the repairing leases to which he referred, we are committed to giving train operators full responsibility for the management and operation of many stations, and we are starting that process now in stations covered by the shorter Greater Anglia franchise, and the West Coast Railways franchise—my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) will be particularly interested in that.

The comprehensive spending review secured funding for a range of major station improvements to be completed over the next few years, including at Reading, Birmingham New Street, Blackfriars and London Bridge. We are also continuing to fund other improvements through the national stations improvement programme, the Access for All programme, and the station commercial project facility. Further funding for station improvements for 2014-19 will be considered as part of the high-level output specification process, with an announcement about further investment expected in the summer.

Over the past two years we have seen record levels of investment in the rail industry; this is the biggest programme of investment since Victorian times, and it is set against the backdrop of a difficult economic situation, both for public finances and in the country more generally. As a rail enthusiast from the Lib-Dem Benches, I believe that this is the most pro-rail Government that this country has seen for decades.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage mentioned rail fares, and I hope he has noticed that the coalition Government have decided to retain the previous Government’s arrangement of RPI plus 1% this year, in recognition of the challenges that we face. A major programme of investment is taking place on the railways and it must be paid for. Part of the Government’s challenge is to drive down the cost of the railways to ensure that the public and the taxpayer get best value for money from investments across the network.

I would like to make some progress and address the points raised by my hon. Friend, but if there is time at the end of the debate, I will give way to the hon. Lady. As my hon. Friend mentioned, Stevenage has already benefited from the national stations improvement programme, and almost £100,000 has been spent on new waiting shelters, seating and station signage. A further £150,000 is due to be spent on a full refurbishment of the concourse area, with work expected to commence later this year. Although Stevenage is already deemed to be accessible, as my hon. Friend rightly mentioned, we are ploughing in money from the Access for All programme to convert two of the goods lifts to passenger lifts, at a cost of £578,000. In addition, Access for All money has already been used to fund the installation of ticket office induction loops, a low-level, split-level ticket office counter, handrails to existing staircases and compliant “Meeting Point” signage.

Therefore, to pick up my hon. Friend’s point, I would not necessarily agree that the current system does not work. What I have outlined demonstrates that it does work. However, I would agree that transferring more responsibility to train companies is likely to improve matters even further. Network Rail, of course, has responsibility for some of the major stations in our country. It has done a fantastic job at King’s Cross and at St Pancras with Eurostar. We are now seeing the belief in railways restated. For a long time, stations were regarded as something to be embarrassed about by the railway industry. That was the case back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Now, there is a new confidence about the railways. The way King’s Cross has been re-engineered demonstrates that. However, it is right that we should have that benefit translated across the network and not simply at the big stations. My hon. Friend is right to make that point.

It is planned to spend £100,000 of money from the national stations improvement programme to improve the waiting shelters at Knebworth station. My hon. Friend will know that some Access for All money was used to fund smaller-scale improvements to the staircase and signage there as well.

The national stations improvement programme is a good example of the members of the industry working together to deliver benefits for passengers. It is the case that £150 million has been made available over five years to improve passenger facilities at busy stations in England and Wales that the public have identified as not up to scratch. The choice of schemes has been managed at local level, with Network Rail and train companies working together to agree the most efficient way to deliver the upgrades. About £101 million of that money has been spent so far on improving stations, and about 100 projects have been completed so far, benefiting more than 240 stations. In addition, many schemes have attracted third-party contributions, whether from local authorities or other funding bodies. The £26 million of additional money has allowed us to provide even more improvements.

NSIP is also helping to fund an information zoning initiative at stations in England. The aim is to make it easier for passengers to find appropriate information in different parts of stations, including information about local transport facilities for onward travel. We regard the end-to-end journey concept as very important if we are to make rail travel work as well as it can.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle will know, I hope, that £450,000 of NSIP money has been spent on improving Carlisle station, including renovating the waiting room on the London-bound platform, refurbishing the existing waiting room and constructing a new seated waiting area and gateway to the historic Settle-Carlisle line. As I also hope he knows, we plan to spend a further £1.8 million of Access for All money on providing a new accessible route, with two new lifts, at Carlisle station. Works are currently scheduled to start on site in October 2013.

I should say that the Access for All programme is delivered with DFT money. Therefore, that is not in the gift of Network Rail. The coalition Government have made it a priority to try to improve disabled access at stations. That is why we have continued with that programme.

On that point, does the Minister agree that it is important that we encourage the franchisees to invest their money in the stations, in addition to the taxpayers’ money?

Yes, indeed. We agree with that point, and in relation to all the transport funding that we have identified, whether for railways or elsewhere, we have tried as far as possible to drive down costs and get better value for money, but also to unlock match funding, whether from local authorities, transport operators or wherever. We have been successful at doing that. If people look at the development pool scheme and local authority schemes, for example, they will see that we have managed to proceed with a huge number of those that would not otherwise have gone ahead, because of those approaches, which have driven down costs and got extra funding from elsewhere. We entirely endorse that approach.

How can the Minister claim that this is a rail-friendly Government when fares are due to rise by RPI plus 3% for the rest of this Parliament and 675 category E stations face losing all their staff?

I am sorry that I let the hon. Lady intervene to disrupt what was a unified approach to improving the railways. Nevertheless, let me say for the record that the RPI plus 1% arrangement, which is the one in place this year, was introduced by the previous Labour Government for about 10 years. Indeed, they reversed RPI minus 1% and made it RPI plus 1%, so Labour Members are probably not in a good position to argue about rail fares. In addition, I will say that no decisions have been taken on closing ticket offices. There is a recommendation in the McNulty report about ticket offices. No decisions have been taken on that yet. It does not help the railway to talk down the railway and make up scare stories about ticket offices in front of constituents.

With regard to the Access for All programme, we are taking steps, as I mentioned, to allow better access for disabled people. The £370 million programme is designed to provide an obstacle-free route at 153 priority stations by 2015, and more than 70 of those projects have already been completed. To get the best value for money, that funding has been targeted at the busiest stations, although about one third of the stations were selected to ensure a fair geographical spread across the country.

To ensure that local or less busy stations are not forgotten—category 3, 4 or 5 stations are very important—we also offer train operators an annual fund to deliver smaller-scale access improvements. Since 2006, the Department for Transport has offered more than £25 million towards a total investment of more than £70 million for smaller-scale, locally focused access improvements at stations. More than 1,000 stations have benefited so far from a variety of new facilities, including accessible toilets, customer information systems, new ticket hall features and better signage and lighting. In the past year alone under this Government, 74 projects delivered improvements at 136 different stations.

Will the Minister, with his officials, look at the proposals for relocating Oxford station that have been put forward by the Oxford Civic Society?

I am certainly happy to look at those. We are increasingly devolving responsibility for transport matters down to local council level, and it is right to do that. People in Oxford are in a better position to know what is best for them than people in Westminster are, if I may say so. I would be interested in those proposals. There are, I think—I am speaking from memory—proposals to improve the situation at Oxford anyway by getting more trains running through it, and of course the electrification programme that the Government announced will hugely benefit Oxford and points west. We therefore have to ensure that we do not now spend money that will be rendered useless by further changes subsequently. However, I will be interested in proposals for Oxford. It is a station that I know quite well, not least because my mother-in-law lives there—not at the station, but nearby. [Laughter.] She is not the station mistress.

There is also the station commercial project facility, to which I referred. Up to £100 million of Network Rail funding has been set aside for commercially focused projects at stations through the station commercial project facility. That programme has been successful and a third and final tranche of bids are currently being considered for the fund. So far, the scheme has awarded about £82 million of funding to 38 individual schemes across the country, including improved car parking, better station retail and commercial facilities and new gate lines.

I should also mention perhaps the local sustainable transport fund, for which I am responsible. It is a brand-new fund that this Government created; £560 million is being distributed to improve local transport. That is an increase even above all the amalgamated pots of money that the previous Government had. It is an increase for local sustainable transport. Funding has been used across the country in certain locations where local councils have bid for it appropriately in order to improve rail facilities at local stations and, in at least one case, to reopen a station—at Stratford-on-Avon. That is another fund that is available for station improvements and it has been used for that purpose.

We are keen to improve cycle-rail integration—to improve cycle facilities at stations. That is important for the end-to-end journey. On 7 February, I announced £15 million of new funding for sustainable travel projects that will be hugely beneficial to communities and cyclists up and down England, helping to create jobs and reduce our carbon footprints while making cycling safer and more convenient.

As well as the £8 million for projects to enhance walking and cycling routes across England given to Sustrans, £7 million is being allocated through the cycle rail working group to improve integration between cycle and rail at stations. The position is that 30 cycle-rail schemes covering improvements at 141 stations will provide 7,500 new cycle spaces. Of that money, £145,000 is going to Letchworth, St Albans and Royston for almost 250 additional cycle spaces, and £500,000 is going towards a cycle hub at Cambridge with space for 3,000 bikes.

Network Rail has agreed to invest a further £7 million of the money that it has available in improving cycle facilities at stations, including safe routes and access. Part of that funding is being used to deliver innovative cycle hub schemes at Liverpool, Sheffield and York. The Department contributed £500,000 towards the first cycle hub, at Leeds, which incorporates secure cycle storage with cycle hire, retail and repair facilities. It is the first of its kind in the UK. In London, a hub at Waterloo will be completed before the Olympics, and Transport for London is working on plans for a similar scheme at London Victoria.

Train operating company accountability to passengers, which was the subject of the second question that my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage raised, is being considered by Ministers—notably, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, but also others—as part of the refranchising process. The discussions are ongoing, but the point that my hon. Friend made about ensuring that passengers are happy is well taken; it has been taken on board. It is something that we have also pursued in relation to community lines through the identification of community lines up and down the country.