Skip to main content

Rail Services (Paddington to Herefordshire)

Volume 550: debated on Tuesday 18 September 2012

Ensuring that my constituents have first-rate rail links has always been a top priority. Proper rail services are vital to businesses, local families and in helping to ensure that we are the greenest Government ever, but it has been apparent for many years that the railway service from London to Hereford is unacceptable. The timetable offered by First Great Western was poor, and that did not promote tourism or business investment in the area. In fact, it hardly worked at all.

The Department for Transport’s invitation to tender for the operation of the franchise should therefore serve as an opportunity to help to improve rail services across the United Kingdom, not allow them to remain poor or even unchanged. Sadly, that has so far been a missed opportunity. The invitation to tender only requires

“broadly the same number of trains to run between end-to-end destinations as is the case today”.

The Minister, who has entered the Chamber, might find my giving him the first page of my speech very helpful. I believe that what is in the invitation to tender will, at best, lead to a continuation of the status quo. At worst, it will decrease the number of direct trains going to and from Hereford. I am sure that the Minister agrees that that is not what he wants and it cannot be acceptable.

First, the rail services to and from Hereford must not get worse. I believe that, to guarantee that, First Great Western must not be awarded the Great Western rail franchise. Secondly and most importantly, we owe it to the constituents of Herefordshire actively to promote a vastly improved timetable. Currently, weekday connections from Hereford to London start at 5.35 am. That train is scheduled to arrive at London Paddington at 8.51 am. It is therefore near impossible for anyone living in Herefordshire to get to an office in London by 9 am. If the trains started just 35 minutes earlier, at 5 am, that would allow enough time to make it. At the end of the day, the trains do not leave late enough. On weekdays, the latest direct train leaves London Paddington at 7.22 pm, and on Sundays it is even earlier, at 5.42 pm. Those running times are extremely restrictive and only serve to isolate Herefordshire and its people. Crucially, there are only five direct trains between Hereford and London a day.

I, along with my hon. Friends the Members for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), want to see an hourly service. At the moment, trains start too late, finish too early and do not run frequently enough. Within the terms set out in the tender document, it is solely up to the new franchisee to decide whether those times will improve.

With proper investment to ensure more services, Herefordshire could begin to compete with Birmingham, Warwick and Newport, where people currently choose to travel. “The Eddington Transport Study” found that good transport links can support the regeneration of an area where there is existing potential. That was the case with the Jubilee line extension into the docklands area of east London. The Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses considered that investment in transport was one of the most economically productive areas of public spending. That was in a report by the Select Committee on Transport in 2010-11.

Herefordshire is trying to take part in a superfast broadband pilot for rural areas, and that should boost our local economy. Of course, a lack of good transport could undermine that excellent development. A report released last week by Sustrans has revealed that our current transport planning system is forcing people into buying cars that they cannot afford or leaving them stranded, denying people access to jobs, schools, hospitals and shops. Obviously, that is unacceptable.

North Herefordshire is a very rural constituency, and efficient transport links are fundamental to its prosperity. My constituents are losing faith in the railways, and that will lead to reduced demand. However, it does not have to be like that. It is up to us to provide the services in order to attract more passengers. Regular, reliable, affordable and punctual services will lead to more passengers and more commuter fares being fed through to the Exchequer. It will boost local economies and those further afield by enabling people to visit shops and restaurants more frequently.

Alongside timetable changes, I would like to encourage a more efficient train service. “The Eddington Transport Study” concluded that the most obvious and direct benefit of an improvement in transport is a reduction in the time spent travelling. My constituents have voiced concerns that, at present, connection times on indirect services offered by First Great Western are often too long or even too short to reach the connecting train. I was therefore saddened to read in a letter from the former Transport Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), that the invitation to tender allows for journeys that are now provided by through trains to be delivered using a connection. The invitation to tender obviously allows for a downgrade of our current service at a time when we urgently need an upgrade.

For train services to become a viable transport option for my constituents, the issues that I have set out need to be addressed. Furthermore, we need improved reliability, affordable fares and clean carriages. My constituents understand that delays occur, but First Great Western has a poor record of communicating information about those delays. Less than half of those surveyed for the Office of Rail Regulation’s national rail trends yearbook felt that First Great Western dealt well with delays. There have also been endless complaints about difficulty collecting fares on board at the end of the line. That not only loses revenue, but leads to inaccurate records, pushing up the price of fares for those who do pay and incorrectly reflecting demand.

What do other bidders offer? The Department for Transport does not allow the details of other bids to be exposed, so we must put our faith in the DFT’s decision alone. I believe that urgent change is needed, so I urge the Minister to alter the terms set out in the invitation to tender document. I know that that is hard and I also know that his office would prefer him to have an easier life and to leave the document alone, but it must be remembered that 15 years is a long time for us to bear the responsibility of a diminished service.

At present, the tender does not push for the improvements that we on the line so desperately need, and worse, it allows for the current standards to slip. My constituents and I need reassurance that the awarded bidder will actively try to deal with the problems. The franchisee must remember to deliver on their promises. I believe that that should be enforced by the Government.

There have been a number of concerns about the franchising process—namely, those recently voiced by Virgin Rail Group. At a Select Committee sitting in the House of Commons, Virgin criticised the Department for Transport’s failure properly to assess the relative risks of the bids that it received. It asserts that premium payments depend almost entirely on projections of passenger numbers. I have reservations about First Great Western’s chance of achieving those passenger numbers, given its current record of service on the London-to-Hereford route.

In the course of its previous franchise, which has been under way since April 2006, First Great Western has seen a larger-than-expected decline in passenger numbers. That has meant that payments that it was scheduled to make to the Treasury have been reduced. With it having previously pulled out of the Great Western franchise, it would not seem sensible to re-award the franchise to First. That still leaves the Minister three other bidders. I know that he is aware of the shortcomings of the service and will redouble his efforts to deliver for the people.

Aside from the franchise agreement, I would like to draw attention to the need for infrastructure investment on the Paddington-to-Hereford line. As it is only a single-line track between Worcester and Hereford, only a limited number of services can run per day. As trains going in both directions need to share the same track, the capacity of the line is reduced. Also, if one train is delayed, there is an inevitable domino effect on all later trains—they are all delayed. I would like investment in that line to ensure that there is a passing place outside Ledbury. That would be an excellent way to help to improve services and ensure that Herefordshire achieves its potential. The Office of Rail Regulation yearbook confirmed that First Great Western Ltd paid the Government £103.7 million in 2010-11 and £110.1 million in 2011-12. It is fair to say therefore that some of that revenue could be re-invested into the infrastructure of the route.

I would be most grateful to the Minister if he focused on three key things that need to change. First, I would like to re-emphasise my belief that the invitation to tender document must be improved. At a time when we need to boost our economy and get Britain going again, it is all the more important that our rail services are as good as they can be. Allowing broadly the same number of trains to run between end-to-end destinations is simply not good enough. We need a guarantee that our service will improve, not a document that allows it to get worse.

Secondly, there is a vast need for infrastructure improvement due to the single track between Worcester and Hereford. It is clearly an enormous hindrance to an efficient running timetable and must be considered. Working with Network Rail, we could double parts of the line, which would undoubtedly help to secure more direct London-to-Hereford train services. Thirdly, and crucially, my priority is to ensure that there are more and better direct services on the London-to-Hereford route. That needs to happen now, without obstruction or delay.

I know that the Minister understands the difficulties my constituents face daily. I am confident that a new train operating company can transform the services. The appointment of the new operator must of course be taken very seriously, and so should the terms set out in the invitation to tender document. I recognise how difficult it is for him to do this, but he is a highly skilled and brilliant politician and this is his moment to rise to the challenge, to deliver for the people, to soar with the eagles and to ensure that we deliver on our election pledges for the environment, for growth, for Britain.

I am grateful for the opportunity to reply to that wonderful peroration from my hon. Friend the Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), whom I congratulate on securing the debate. He is now free to make his points because, I am sorry to say, he is no longer with us at the Department for Transport in the capacity in which he served previously.

As my hon. Friend said, on 27 July this year the Government issued the invitation to tender for the new Great Western franchise—Great Western, of course, being the description of the area, rather than implying which company might deliver the service. It is the future franchise operating train services on the route between London Paddington and Hereford, so the debate is timely and I welcome his contribution to it. The Great Western rail network plays an important role in the economy of the many parts of England and Wales it serves. Rail connectivity provides crucial support for jobs and growth, and delivering high-quality rail services is a means of tackling road congestion and pollution by encouraging modal shift.

My hon. Friend set out with great clarity the importance of the Great Western rail network to his constituency. The Government have prioritised investment in our rail network in response to passenger concerns about overcrowding and to support jobs and growth. The programme of capacity expansion to which we are committed is bigger than any seen since the Victorian era. He will be aware that there are now more people travelling on the network than at any time since 1929, even though the network is much reduced in size. I am happy to be able to tell him that the usage figures for Hereford station in his constituency show that in 2007-08 fewer than 900,000 people used the station annually, but the figure had reached over 1 million by 2010-11, so there has been significant growth in passenger numbers. The figures for Ledbury station show that in 2007-08, there were 162,000 annual usages, up to 189,000 for 2010-11; and the numbers for Colwall station have risen from 56,000 to 61,000. All three stations on the line, particularly Hereford, have shown significant growth, but I have not mentioned Leominster.

Leominster is on a slightly different line. A problem we face at the end of the line is the failure to collect fares, so although the Minister’s figures show an increase, the actual increase might be even greater, because there has been such an appalling effort made to collect the fares and therefore the statistics that go with them.

It is obviously right that people pay their fares and we take fare evasion seriously. It is not only a loss to the railway, but unfair on the passengers who pay for their tickets properly. The Department has focused on it, not least through rolling out smartcard arrangements and gating across franchise areas.

A number of the most ambitious and important changes will take place in the Great Western franchise area, so if you will forgive me, Mr Hollobone, I will refer to the line as a whole, as it is relevant to my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Government’s announcement that the Great Western main line between London and Oxford, on the route to Hereford, will be electrified has been warmly welcomed by all; that will be taken through to Newbury, Bristol and Swansea as well, and brand-new intercity express trains are planned for those routes. The bi-mode version of the new trains will be able to use electric power where new electrification has been installed, and run under their own power on sections of line beyond, so it is entirely possible that the new franchisee will want to run intercity express programme services with new trains to destinations such as Hereford. I am sure that my hon. Friend would welcome that if it came to pass. The Reading station area is being remodelled and the station itself rebuilt to modern standards, which will reduce delays. The Crossrail tunnels are already under construction there.

Ultimately, those projects will generate major benefits for passengers and for the economy of the area served by the new franchise, but delivering such an improvement programme is bound to have a short-term impact on services, so a major challenge for the new operator will therefore be to facilitate the efficient delivery of the programmes and maximise the benefits they can offer for passengers once completed, while minimising disruption during the introduction of the improvements. Franchise bidders will be expected to present robust proposals for minimising disruption during the upgrade works, with a keen focus on the needs of passengers.

This is not just “jam tomorrow”. A success story of Britain’s railways is the large number of additional passengers now using them, although that can of course bring crowding, and overcrowding. As the Department for Transport’s statistics show, train services on this part of the network have some of the highest levels of crowding, which my hon. Friend’s constituents have no doubt mentioned to him. I am therefore pleased to say that this year, additional carriages, funded by the Government, have been introduced on to First Great Western train services. The busiest services operated by high-speed trains, including some to and from Worcester, now have an additional standard class coach. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the recent arrival of five fully refurbished class 180 trains, which now operate nearly all services to and from Hereford and Worcester not operated by high-speed trains, bringing a much improved level of comfort for passengers. The turbo trains displaced from those services are being used to add extra capacity to First Great Western train services closer to London.

The Government’s plans are not limited to big, attention-grabbing schemes such as those. We recognise that the wider improvements will not benefit the largest number of passengers unless accessibility at stations is improved. The Government’s access for all scheme continues to fund improvements to access for disabled people at stations. I am pleased to say that improvements to accessibility are planned at stations on the route, with lifts and a new footbridge for Hereford; improvements, including a ramp, at Malvern Link station; and work under way to establish how lifts can be introduced to Worcester Shrub Hill station. Elsewhere, lifts have been installed at Leominster station in my hon. Friend’s constituency—indeed, he has been assiduous in pressing for that.

Shortly after taking office, the Government consulted on plans to reform the way the rail franchising system operates, and this is perhaps coming to the kernel of the issues my hon. Friend wanted to raise today.

Before the Minister leaves the access for all programme, I want to say that I am grateful for the lifts in Leominster. They were supposed to be monitored so that drunk people do not damage them and people do not get locked in. Unfortunately, they were not monitored as they should have been and people have been locked in. Can we make sure that the monitoring happens, and will he include Ledbury in the next round of the access for all scheme, because the demand there is equally important?

I am sorry to hear that there has been a problem with the lifts at Leominster. We will certainly pass on those comments to the train operating company and Network Rail. I am deeply surprised to find that my hon. Friend has anything approaching anti-social behaviour in his lovely constituency; nevertheless, I will take away what he says. We have allocated a further £100 million under the access for all programme in the forthcoming control period, and I will ensure that the position at Ledbury is examined at part of that process for ongoing works.

Returning to the franchising system, the new Great Western operator is being given greater flexibility to respond to customer demand in a commercial way within a framework set by the franchise that protects key outcomes for passengers, taxpayers and the economy. I will mention in passing that both coalition parties endorsed that general approach in the run-up to the general election and subsequently in the coalition agreement. The requirements on the new operator are set out in the invitation to tender published on 27 July. Our starting point for the development of the new train service specification has been the current level of train services, rather than the lower contracted minimum in the existing First Great Western franchise agreement. My hon. Friend will know that services have been added since the last franchise was set, so it is important to recognise that we are taking the current high level rather than the low level that existed under the previous Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. I urge him to ensure that the high level goes to the end of the line. My understanding is that the tender document insists on a number of services per day and increases the number of those to Worcester and Malvern, but it needs to reach the end of the line at Hereford and not just raise the game halfway. That is really the nub of the argument.

I take my hon. Friend’s point and I will come on to give more details about how the franchise system will work in respect of his constituency.

We expect the franchise to include requirements on passenger satisfaction—for example, in relation to stations—and we have set stretching objectives for managing the changes I described a moment ago to deliver an operationally sound and efficient railway that provides enough capacity for passengers. The new franchise will be for 15 years, and we believe that the increased certainty will encourage private sector investment in the railways. A longer franchise should also make it easier for the new operator to build the long-term working relationships with Network Rail and other stakeholders, such as local authorities, that are crucial to an efficient and successful railway. The initial alliancing project in South West Trains has shown good initial results.

Part of the Government’s approach is to provide greater flexibility for operators to react to their passengers’ changing needs as well as to commercial opportunities, and to support operators in delivering a more efficient operation. That is why we have adopted and developed a less prescriptive approach to franchise specification that seeks to avoid the micro-management of the past while protecting key services. In doing so, we have sought to balance the needs of passengers, the railway industry and the wider economy.

The Government believe it is right to give operators greater say in how to deploy their train fleet more efficiently, for example—this is my hon. Friend’s point—by permitting a connecting service where a through train is currently provided and by redefining the relationship between journey flows and station calls. In respect of my hon. Friend’s constituency, bidders for the franchise must continue to provide, as an absolute minimum, 16 services in each direction between London and Worcester each weekday. However, we are aware that about 60% of passengers from London to Hereford choose to change trains at Newport or Birmingham, so we considered whether it is appropriate to prescribe the detail of the exact current service pattern for the next 15 years. Accordingly, we decided that, of the 16 trains to Worcester, eight must provide easy connections to Great Malvern and five to Hereford, as a minimum. The connection must be to another of the franchisee’s services, not to a different operator. As such, operators will need to consider whether to run through-trains or to lease additional rolling stock to provide a connecting train, if that is what they wish to do. As I said, it is entirely possible that through-services will prove to be the more viable option for those operators. If there is a connection, it must not require excessive waiting time and must provide an accessible route that can be navigated easily by passengers with luggage, those travelling with children, or people with disabilities.

Operators are, of course, free to continue to provide through-journeys or a higher frequency of services, as has recently been illustrated by the west coast franchise competition. In that respect, the Government’s policy is to mandate today’s service levels more flexibly and to encourage bidders to propose investment and improvements over the longer term of the franchise. We will look closely at bidders’ proposals later this year, but in the meantime I encourage my hon. Friend to speak to the bidders to set out what he wants for his constituents.

In addition, we have mandated that, as a minimum, Worcester should receive 85 daily calls, measured as station departures—47 at Shrub Hill and 38 at Foregate Street. A minimum of 71 calls per week day will be required for Malvern Link, Great Malvern, Colwall, Ledbury and Hereford stations, but the operator can allocate them in a way that best meets demand. That is designed to guarantee a comparable level of service to today’s, without prescribing the timetable itself.

My hon. Friend is concerned that the new franchise arrangements may lead to a diminution of services in his constituency. By not micro-managing or setting in stone exactly what has to be delivered, we are giving bidders an opportunity to provide an improved level of service for his constituency. Indeed, with railway numbers increasing year on year, as they have been, it is important to give space to a successful bidder to improve services and if possible, if they choose to do so, within the franchise arrangements to increase the number of through-services. That is not an impossible outcome. We are engaged in the biggest rail building programme since Victorian times. We are looking at how to increase, not decrease, the extent to which people can travel by train. If I may say so, we should therefore see the arrangement not as a threat, but as an opportunity for franchise bidders to develop services that do more to meet the needs of passengers than would a rigorous, rigid franchise arrangement.

I fully accept and welcome the Minister’s intentions. What he is trying to do is very good. Does he agree that the easiest way to demonstrate that flexibility and achieve improvement is simply to increase the number of compulsory journeys, by perhaps just one, to the very end of the line? Thus, on paper, there would be a minimum improvement, even if train operating companies failed to take advantage of all the flexibility that he has so kindly given them. That way, it is beyond debate—it would be clear that a sixth journey to Hereford is a raising of the standards and that, beyond that, everything else is a bonus. I think that that is what he is hinting at.

I want to answer my hon. Friend’s three key points before we finish. The invitation to tender has been issued; it was dealt with by the then Minister of State, who is now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In a sense, that moment has passed: the invitation to tender cannot sensibly be withdrawn and nor should it be. That would cause all sorts of problems for the Department and, indeed, for the bidders, so it is not an option.

I recommend that my hon. Friend does what many local Members do—I, too, have done it, in absenting myself from departmental decisions on my local franchise—which is to engage with bidders by talking to them and putting the case that he wants to see for his particular lines. I have certainly found being able to put the case for what I want in my patch to be a rewarding experience, and that bidders have been quite receptive. In this new world, in which we are giving franchise bidders more flexibility to develop services, I would not underestimate the opportunity for bidders, which they welcome, in talking to local Members, understanding what they want and building that into their plans. He and other local Members have that key point of influence where they can talk to franchise bidders and influence them accordingly.

On infrastructure improvements, my hon. Friend will be aware that, as I have mentioned, we are engaged in huge works across the country to improve the railway network. There is always enthusiasm about looking at any scheme that provides value for money. As I understand it, a 15-year period potentially allows a bidder to include in its bid that particular improvement—a passing place at Ledbury—as part of the offer that it makes to the Department. Bidders are putting forward such schemes in other bids, and he could encourage his bidders to do so. Alternatively, he could engage with Network Rail in relation to both what is left in control period 5, or indeed what is in control period 6, to make sure that such an improvement is properly programmed in for future work. We are now seeing significant improvements to track capacity across the country, including redoubling between Swindon and Kemble, so the concept of providing more capacity is certainly one that Network Rail is up for at the moment. There is more of an open door for such schemes than there has been for many years.

On direct services to Malvern, I cannot do anything about the invitation to tender that has been issued. However, I can say that, personally, I think there is a good case for more direct services, and I hope that the franchise bidders will reflect that in their bids. No doubt, they will listen to my hon. Friend’s comments and my response, and I hope that that will be reflected in the sort of bids that he wants, as and when they come into the Department.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.