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West Anglia Rail Line

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

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

It was almost three years ago, on 19 January 2011, that I last had the opportunity to address the House on the subject of the West Anglia rail line. The line runs from Liverpool Street to Cambridge and beyond, serving many stations in my constituency and in other important towns and villages. In the speech that I made in 2011, I castigated every Government from 1985 onwards for first willing the expansion of Stansted airport—which is served by the line—and then branding the M11 corridor, as it is described, ripe for major development, while doing absolutely nothing about the capacity or quality of service on a line that served all those different needs. I regret to say that not much has changed in the intervening years, apart from the fares that long-suffering passengers have to pay.

I acknowledge that there was a timetable change in December 2011—in the teeth of opposition from Transport for London, I should add—which made possible the reinstatement of some peak services. That returned the journey time between Audley End and London to something like it was in 1977: although it was not quite as good, there was certainly a major improvement. I also acknowledge that, as the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), told me in her reply to my speech in January 2011, some of the new type 379 train units did come our way. I am not sure that that was entirely due to my persuasion; it was probably rather more to do with the fact that business at Stansted airport had slumped rather badly, and 10 of the 30 new train units were spared to supplement services for other passengers on the line.

Despite those two welcome steps, however, not much has changed. I am tempted to use the term, “Same old railway.” There is no new track and no sign of fleet replacement. It is true that there is a new train operator, Abellio, under the colours of Greater Anglia, and a new airport owner, with Manchester Airports Group having bought Stansted from BAA.

My right hon. Friend is an incredible champion for commuters in our area and I am very proud to have him as my neighbouring MP. I recently did a survey at my local railway station, Harlow Town. Some 73% of commuters said they had to stand too often, and 60% of them want longer trains. Does he agree that there needs to be investment in rolling stock and that the trains that go through Harlow need to be extended?

I certainly do not disagree with that in any way, and I would think that quite a number of other colleagues whose constituencies are served by this railway line would echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments. I acknowledge his support in the campaign to bring the Government’s focus more sharply on to this line.

I strongly endorse what has been said: my right hon. Friend is an informed and persistent challenger of what has been a poor service for all our constituents. Does he share my concern that, while we understand the problems created by the storm this autumn, we noticed that it was our line that was least able to cope? We had three days—not one—of disruption. Does he share my view that alongside the overcrowding, poor service and rising fares, we simply seem to be getting what I would describe as a Cinderella service?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been another staunch ally in the fight for a better deal for regular passengers on the line. I agree that that is another example of how our service has fallen below the standards, which have been raised in certain other parts of the country. In terms of statistics, it is possible to argue overall that a higher performance rating has been achieved, but when the lapses occur, they are very serious indeed.

I could add to what my hon. Friend has said by describing my experience this morning. At the Audley End ticket office there are two counters. Both were closed, with a notice up to say that the one person who was in on this particular morning would be back at 9.45, which was one minute after the departure of the train to London. The rumour was that the ticket agent was having a break, but that meant that there were no tickets available to purchase except from one of the machines on the platform, and those machines are not flexible in what they can offer—they can only provide fairly simple fares. It would certainly appear to be a shambles that we do not have a proper standard of service in that way.

As I have said, there is a new train operator and a new airport owner, and there is seemingly a new franchise policy because when my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet spoke in response to my Adjournment debate in 2011 she suggested that good times would come when we had new longer franchises, but I am not sure that that policy still holds; that may have now changed to having rather shorter franchises. I would be interested to know what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say on that subject.

Indeed, in addition to those other new circumstances, we have a new Minister. In fact he is the second since the previous debate. [Interruption.] Yes, I have no doubt at all that he is an excellent Minister, but he will be judged in part by the nature of his reply to me and my hon. Friends.

What is absolutely incontrovertible is that there has been no investment in the line. That is the problem.

I am very interested in this line because I have been to Cambridge four times in the last year, and on two occasions I had to take a very long journey on buses. My right hon. Friend says the line is poor, and that seems to be borne out by my own empirical experience as a Member of Parliament from south of the river.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend was inconvenienced on those occasions, but that illustrates a further problem that we experience on the line. I hope that the problem did not prevent him from collecting the honorary degrees that he was no doubt going to Cambridge for.

I might have suggested that not much has been happening, but in fact I suspect that things are now stirring, although not necessarily in a helpful way. The Mayor of London has shown great interest in acquiring control over part of this railway. More disturbingly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seems to have given assent in principle to that taking place. The Mayor would then have control over the services to Enfield Town, Chingford and so on, although not further up the main line between Tottenham Hale and Broxbourne. That is interesting, because one of the justifications for bringing together the services out of Liverpool Street in a single franchise was that it would make the operability of Liverpool Street more effective. If a second franchise holder were to be introduced, that could start to complicate matters in what is already a very constricted station.

My next point is that, to run those services, the Mayor will need some rolling stock, and I suspect that a portion of the rolling stock currently being operated flexibly by Greater Anglia would be painted a different colour and handed over to the Mayor. It is not clear, however, what would replace that rolling stock. I regard this as an aggressive, acquisitive policy on the part of the Mayor. I am not denying that it could be good for the people he serves, but it would have an adverse effect on the people served by me and by my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and others. Also, it cannot be right if there is to be no investment in the track. The situation would become altogether different if we had four-tracking. It might then be possible to accept that the two operators could work without the one interfering with the other.

A further disturbing matter, from the point of view of railway passengers, is that Stansted airport is starting to expand again in terms of passenger numbers, and I imagine that, under the dynamic new ownership of the Manchester Airports Group, those numbers will continue to rise over the next few years. That will build demand to a point at which we will look back on the history and say to Ministers, “Excuse us, but we would now like to have back those trains that you allowed to run on the Cambridge line to serve the commuters, so that the original intention of having 12-car trains going to the airport can be fulfilled.”

I have no particular complaint about there being a decent rail service to the airport; indeed, I am in favour of it. However, it could pose a second threat to the fleet that is available to Greater Anglia. The question would then arise: where are the substitute carriages to come from? I am advised by Abellio that there are no trains that can obviously be cascaded down to us. We would, I suppose, be grateful for second-hand trains, but we have been living with second-hand trains for far too long anyway and we deserve a full fleet of new trains.

A report has appeared recently from an organisation called London First. It puts forward what, on the face of it, seems a reasonable proposition. I replied initially to Baroness Valentine, the chairperson of the organisation, to say that I welcomed the contribution to the debate, and that anything that brought attention to the needs of the line was to be welcomed. But the more one examined the proposal, the more one became aware that the clue was in the title—London First; the approach was just that, and it would not be to the advantage of those of us who are further away from London and rely on services on that line. London First is proposing a third track over a short distance north of Tottenham Hale, as much as anything to facilitate services to Stratford. In principle, I see nothing wrong with that, but the proposal is not going to be to the benefit of the passengers we represent in ever-increasing numbers. It is a diversion from the real need of the line, which is to get four-tracking so that flexibility can be achieved.

My right hon. Friend mentions the London First report, and perhaps I might add my thoughts on that in a moment, if I can catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. The report is a distraction, but is he aware that, worse for my constituents, it includes ideas of looping around Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth, which would leave my commuters watching visitors from abroad getting a better service than those who actually pay for it?

I agree. I do not represent people in Sawbridgeworth and Bishop’s Stortford, but I am sufficiently familiar with the two places, and passing through on the train, to wonder exactly how these passing loops are going to be effected without the most appalling disruption. In any case, I do not believe they serve any real purpose. Four-tracking between Coppermill junction, south of Tottenham Hale, and Broxbourne is the way in which most people’s interests can be served. If we take our eye off that goal, we will end up with miserable scraps. I worry that, if London First gains favour for its proposal, which is not only inadequate but very damaging the further north one goes, it will be all too easy for Network Rail or the Department for Transport to say, “Job done, we have helped there, at last” and for that to be it. It would not do anything to transform the railway.

We must also consider the interest in Crossrail 2 and suggestions that perhaps it would serve to bring people back and forth from Stansted airport. I am in favour of the regional version of Crossrail 2, because it makes sense to link at Cheshunt, bringing in to the west end people who do not necessarily want to go to the City, where Liverpool Street station is situated. But it is not helpful to have eyes diverted from the West Anglia line and suddenly say that we might start spending money on Crossrail 2. I found it extraordinary that that possibility was apparently being touted by another representative of London First in a different forum, with the suggestion to get Crossrail 2 and then four-track between Cheshunt and Broxbourne. That seemed entirely at odds with what is in the main London First report. Therefore, I am not too happy about being diverted in that direction; we need to concentrate on the main line and seek investment there.

I have been saying that the Mayor, London First and the airport activity are stirring, but, sadly, not a great deal appears to be stirring in the Department for Transport. I wish to say straight away that I am absolutely behind what is being invested in our railway network throughout the country, and I am also a strong supporter of HS2 and a great believer in the railway. As such, it is understandable, surely, that I am a great believer in the railway that serves my constituents, and that is the one that is constantly forgotten. It has been forgotten since 1985 and something has to be done to reverse that position. Our line has simply not been favoured. I accepted that it was reasonable to wait for the report by Sir Roy McNulty, but surely the lessons to be learnt from his report have been digested by now. Unfortunately, what has happened is that we have seen an extension to a franchise. There will not be a new franchise—we are not sure of what length—until 2016. The scope for continued indecision is considerable and deeply worrying, because fares will no doubt continue to rise in that time.

I say to the Minister, who I am delighted has this portfolio—he might feel slightly less delighted after my remarks—that we need more than warm words. We are looking for cast-iron assurances that the problem of the West Anglia line is understood and that something meaningful will be promised within a reasonable time. We are looking for investment in track and trains, as that is, after all, investment in people.

I repeat my view that the good people of Saffron Walden are very fortunate to have, in my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), an informed and persistent champion. It has been a pleasure working with him on these issues. He has taught me more about the railways than I thought that I would ever know. Indeed, there is possibly more to learn.

We are talking about a railway line that is, sadly, the Cinderella of railway services. Those of us in the northern and eastern home counties have watched other investments being made and listened to the way in which priorities have been set elsewhere. Our commuters, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) rightly points out, feel that what they have seen are rising fares, falling standards, overcrowding getting worse and a sense that they are being left behind. Indeed this autumn the overcrowding has got worse. When we saw the storm, we understood the need to close the railway lines on the day. On the second and third days, our constituents found themselves not only inconvenienced but without the information they needed to make alternative arrangements. They rightly complained to us, which is why we want to challenge and speak with the Minister.

Very often, when commuters get information, it is the wrong information. The options available to those who work hard and want to get to work are immensely limited.

I am hugely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is also a neighbour, and I am delighted to serve alongside him. Does he not agree that it is important to invest not just in the rolling stock but in some of the smaller stations? He will know that Harlow Mill station is in bad need of refurbishment. We need to consider that, because commuters have a right to a proper station when they need to go to work.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The quality of the rolling stock, which my right hon. Friend has mentioned, is important, as are refurbishment and expansion of the railway stations and investment in track. It is that final point on which I want to focus in my brief remarks.

I strongly endorse the analysis and the solution that we have just heard from my right hon. Friend. Having looked carefully at the proposal from London First—I am the last person to want to decry positive suggestions for investment—I must warn the Minister to be careful, as it makes no sense. The good folk of Bishop’s Stortford and Sawbridgeworth ask me why they should pay good money to watch folk being whisked in to this country—they are very welcome—on a better service than that which they receive, which they actually pay for. That causes them natural concern.

There is a real danger of our being diverted, as my right hon. Friend rightly said, from the real opportunity. The core of the issue is the funnel—the last five or six miles into Liverpool Street—running back towards Tottenham Hale. If we solve that capacity issue, people in London—whom I am sure the Mayor is concerned about—Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire will see a service that is punctual and has the capacity to deal with many of the changes in our area—an increasingly important issue, because alongside that investment is the debate about the number of additional homes that need to be built in our areas.

Sadly, we have a railway line that is recognised as having had over recent years the worst record for overcrowding of almost any railway line coming into London. With the prospect of thousands more homes, which we understand and recognise are needed where there are difficult and long council waiting lists, our constituents will rightly ask how on earth the railway line will cope and what that will mean for their ability to get to work.

The West Anglia line is a line for people in London but it is also a line for Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire. Investment is undoubtedly overdue, but the additional housing means that it is urgent that we have some signal that we will get the investment required. Four-tracking into Liverpool Street is the key and the Minister should not be diverted or distracted by the suggestions that we might loop one town or another. That will not solve the central problem and that is the key message that I and my constituents want to send to the Department for Transport and our excellent Minister today.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this evening’s debate on investment in the West Anglia line. I was, of course, slightly perturbed when he opened his speech with remarks about castigating every Government since, I think, 1970—I cannot quite remember the year.

This is an important matter to my right hon. Friend and his constituents, to other Members of Parliament and their constituents and, of course, to all passengers using the line. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and for Harlow (Robert Halfon) have all made the point that the two-track commuter line between London and Stansted and Cambridge is very busy. The commuter flows it carries are some of the busiest around. It covers not only the areas they have talked about but carries commuter flows from Essex and north-east London and provides the link with Stansted airport.

I recognise that demand has been growing quickly and significantly. To explain to my right hon. and hon. Friends some of the investment that has been made, it might be helpful to consider the line in separate parts. Demand has been growing quickly, particularly in the lower Lea valley, and the Government’s rail investment strategy has provided approximately £80 million to deliver three and four-tracking at the south end of the route. That will allow the introduction of some new services, will increase operational reliability, and should support regeneration in the lower Lea valley. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will recognise that that shows that the Government are aware of the need for four-tracking.

The Department also rightly recognises that there is some suppressed demand as regards the need to connect the West Anglia line with Stratford in east London. My right hon. Friend made that point. We are taking steps to address it and Stratford is increasingly becoming a destination for leisure, retail and entertainment in its own right. It is therefore becoming a significant transport interchange. It is important that we ensure that the connections into that significant place in east London are operationally the best they can be.

From 2019, Stratford will become part of the Crossrail network through Crossrail 1, providing direct connections to a large number of destinations. I accept that that will have a knock-on effect through London and the West Anglia line. The important point is that as soon as the Crossrail operation starts in 2017 there will be the chance to introduce new connections to the West Anglia line. I recognise that this is not in my right hon. and hon. Friends’ constituencies, but to suggest that the Government have done nothing about the line is not exactly true as there has been investment in new stations at the southern end of the line and the new stations fund is also starting to work through, as can be seen with the new station at Lea Bridge and the new services between Angel Road and Stratford.

As I mentioned to my right hon. Friend, I have done a survey with commuters. We know about Harlow Town station, but one of the big concerns was the lack of facilities at Harlow Mill station. The ticket office is open only during weekday mornings, closing at 11.15 am. There are no toilets and very little shelter from bad weather, despite trains to London leaving once every hour. Will my hon. Friend look at this and see whether there are any plans for the Government to invest in this station?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the concerns of his constituents. As Ministers, we try not to get into the micro-management of the toilets of various stations, as he will understand. None the less, I will look at the matter.

The point which I hope my hon. Friend will consider is that, yes, there are some concerns about ticket offices and this is a feature across the whole network, but many people are choosing to buy their tickets in different ways. Although important, ticket offices are not central to many people’s buying habits. He is right that there should be facilities, and there has been a new stations fund and a station improvement fund.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden spoke about the new franchises and what might happen. I hope he might have had a chance to look at the east coast prospectus. Although we are not saying that every new franchise will be of a particular length, we are encouraging longer franchises, particularly in that franchise and the prospectus that we have released. I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends will acknowledge that we have given the operators the chance to recognise some of the things they could do to the benefit of customers outside the standard package. There is a real determination from the Department in the new round of franchising to understand that the consumer must be at the heart of the franchise bids. I hope the prospectus that we have released for the east coast main line will show that.

There is demand not only at the southern end of the line. Cambridge is a fast- growing economy, making a significant contribution to the local and the national economy. That is why we continue to make significant investments in that part of the route as well. The station at Cambridge will undergo significant redevelopment, provided the planning authority comes through. In addition, we are working with Network Rail and Cambridgeshire county council to develop plans for a new station at Chesterton, approximately 2 miles north of the city centre, as well as providing direct access to the rapidly expanding science park, for which rail connections are key.

Throughout the line brand-new 379 class trains are already operating the service between London Liverpool Street and Cambridge, which is benefiting customers along the whole West Anglia main line, including, as my right hon. Friend rightly acknowledged, his constituency, particularly at Audley End. These trains are modern, spacious, high performing, high capacity and highly reliable, and they are widely recognised by passengers as a benefit and an increase in the service.

I shall make a few specific remarks about my right hon. Friend’s constituency, or I would be castigated for failing to do so. I have just mentioned the 379 class trains and I know he recognised that his constituents were benefiting from them. I hope the introduction of those trains will see continually improving reliability on the route. My right hon. Friend, as well as my hon. Friends the Members for Harlow and for Hertford and Stortford, commented on the concern about overcrowding. This is undoubtedly the challenge for the next decade. It is the challenge of the success of the railways. Twenty years ago I used to travel from Hertford North and Hertford East. Services may or may not have got worse in the past 10 years, but they are a significant improvement on 20 years ago when the line was known for its unreliability. This is the challenge of success. Privatisation has brought a doubling of the number of passengers on broadly the same network as we had 40 years ago. That success means that we now have to meet the challenge of overcrowding.

With the introduction of the new Thameslink trains, which will come into service post 2016, and some of the financing of that rolling stock cascade, there will be an opportunity for the trains currently being used on Thameslink to be cascaded to other locations. There is no reason why they could not be used on the West Anglia rail line in future.

My hon. Friend moved rather swiftly from lauding the type 379 as a high-performance train to identifying some Thameslink trains that might be passed down to us. There is quite a distinction there. I had rather hoped that he might indicate that we would not lose the 379s in the way I suggested, or indeed that he might try to give some encouragement to the idea that whoever gets the franchise after 2016 will be committed to having more of the 379s or their equivalent.

I can give my right hon. Friend some Christmas cheer by confirming that the 379s will be staying on the West Anglia rail line and will not be moved in the way he suggested. When we consider the new franchise for post October 2016, I am sure that the need for rolling stock enhancement will be part of the tendering process.

As I highlighted at the beginning, I recognise that there is a key limitation on the West Anglia rail line: it is a very busy two-track railway. The plans to three-track and four-track some of its southern sections will undoubtedly be welcomed right along the line. However, my right hon. and hon. Friends are right to recognise, and to pursue, the aspiration for faster and more frequent services. That could be met only by infrastructure interventions.

Four-tracking of the route could undoubtedly be part of that intervention. Unfortunately, if we look at it in the short term, that is unbelievably expensive. The plans developed by BAA in 2007, when it ran Stansted airport and there was higher demand, merely to three-track a section of the route were estimated to cost between £800 million and £1 billion. At the moment, such investment would represent a significant portion of the Government’s rail investment budget. It would therefore require a robust business case. In the medium term, that business case might be made, but my right hon. Friend was right to acknowledge that the Government are spending more on railway infrastructure—£19 billion between 2014 and 2019. None the less, my right hon. and hon. Friends are right to make that case, and I hear them making it.

In the medium term, the Government are supporting the development of the Crossrail 2 proposals, which would link the West Anglia rail line with the South West main line via a tunnel under central London and free up capacity for increased services. Plans are still in the early stages, but the Government are supportive.

In the shorter term, there are still some opportunities for us to improve capacity, reliability and journey times along the route. With the active participation and support of local stakeholders, I am keen to look at some of the short-term operational restrictions linked to level crossings and user-worked crossings. Where trains currently need to reduce speed on the approach to such crossings, I would like to see them able to maintain running speeds and therefore reduce journey times and improve operational reliability.

The Government are looking to develop the rail investment strategy beyond 2019. That work will be influenced significantly by an Anglia route study that Network Rail is shortly to begin. The study, which is due to report in 2015, is aimed at identifying the priorities for investment in the Anglia network. Right hon. and hon. Members will also be aware that the Chancellor announced in his autumn statement that the study will place special attention on the services between London and Stansted, and that extra focus should deliver benefits to passengers right along the West Anglia rail line.

I heard the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford about the London First proposals, which are currently just that. In addition, the interim findings of the independent Airports Commission are due shortly. Clearly, Ministers are not aware of what its recommendations might include, but they will provide some greater clarity on the long-term future of Stansted airport and the future capacity that it might need regarding the rail network, and that will inform decisions regarding my hon. Friend’s constituents.

On the Network Rail study, I encourage my right hon. and hon. Friends and, indeed, all Members representing constituencies along the route to make clear and reasoned submissions to Network Rail. It is important that those representations come from local authorities, local enterprise partnerships, businesses, passenger groups, and of course Members of Parliament. That will help to make a compelling case for future investment. I have no doubt that if that case is made, the Government’s rail investment strategy post-2019 will feature the West Anglia rail line very heavily.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden asked about devolution to the Mayor and TfL. The devolution proposal applies to only three routes, it will happen post-2015, although no formal dates have been agreed as yet, and it will result in a transfer of staff and trains to the Mayor’s jurisdiction. I understand that that will probably not make my right hon. Friend as happy as my earlier announcement.

While I completely agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), will my hon. Friend consider extending Oysterisation to Harlow, as has been considered in the past, or at least examine the possibilities of smartcard technology so that the many Harlow residents who commute to London can get the benefits that people commuting from other stations, including Ware, now have?

My hon. Friend will know that we are undertaking a smart ticketing trial in various other parts of the south-east network. I am happy to consider his proposal. If he were to write to me and seek a meeting, I would be delighted to discuss it with him in greater depth, and with any other Members who wish for the further extension of smartcards to their area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford mentioned several times the problems we had with the storm a few weeks back. I particularly remember travelling on that line all those years ago when it was one of the worst-hit lines. I think he will recognise that in certain places a large number of trees overhang the line, more so than on many other commuter routes, simply because of its structure. I am afraid that there was also a certain amount of overhead line damage that significantly delayed the reintroduction of services. None the less, he can be assured that the Secretary of State and I, and other Ministers in the Department, took a great interest in the situation and were in discussions with Network Rail about trying to ensure that lines were brought back into service as quickly as possible.

As I said, it is important that passengers and other interested parties influence the West Anglia route study. That is a chance to make an important contribution to the case for significant investment in the line post-2019.

I am delighted to have been able to respond to this important debate. My right hon. and hon. Friends have rightly made the case that we should not take our eyes away from the problems of overcrowding that their constituents suffer. I have been able to talk a little about some of the investment that is going in and is planned. I hope that that will have given my right hon. and hon. Friends at least some reassurance that the Government take the West Anglia main line very seriously.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.