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Shrewsbury Railway Station

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

We had the great honour and pleasure of hosting my hon. Friend the Minister in Shrewsbury not so long ago. As she knows, the beautiful, historic nature of our town has ensured that tourism is an extremely important contributor to our local economy. Shrewsbury has more listed buildings than any other town in England, so tourism is very important for us.

Many people come to our town by rail. Shrewsbury station was built in 1848 and was designated a grade II listed building in 1969. When I was elected to office in 2005, the station had slightly more than 1.3 million users a year. Last year, that figure had exceeded 1.8 million, which represents a 39% increase over the past nine years. Shrewsbury station is an important one. It caters to and accommodates ever larger numbers of users, which we should celebrate and be proud of.

Recently, we secured a direct train service from Shrewsbury to London, and I want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister and her Department. After a huge number of meetings with the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail, Virgin Trains and the Department for Transport, we finally secured that link connecting Shrewsbury to London. We have a service twice a day, and just one service on Sunday. I use it, and I am happy to report to the Minister that it is very popular and really taking off. If I am re-elected in May, however, I will be pressing her and Virgin Trains to try to increase the frequency of that important service, which links us up with our capital city. If we can attract more national and international tourists from our capital city to Shropshire, it can only be good for our local economy.

Last week, I accompanied a senior officer from Shropshire council—Tim Sneddon, who does an excellent job—around the station, so that I could become better acquainted with the exact demarcation of the responsibility for its maintenance. Some parts of the station are the responsibility of the unitary authority, others of Network Rail and others of Arriva Trains Wales. I also had the opportunity to meet the manager of the station from Arriva Trains Wales.

I want to highlight a couple of issues that I saw at first hand, because my constituents have repeatedly raised them with me. One of the most important things I saw was the Dana steps, about which I will write formally to Network Rail, because it is responsible for the area. Next to the station is a large expanse of land that is, essentially, scrubland, which is overgrown and contains many bushes, and there are some steps leading down to the River Severn. Constituents have repeatedly raised concerns about the fact that the Dana steps are not safe late at night, because the lighting is insufficient and there are no CCTV cameras. Constituents tell me that they feel vulnerable and unsafe walking in that part of the station towards the river using the Dana steps.

The land is festooned with rubbish, litter and broken glass, and it has all sorts of other problems. It needs to be properly maintained by Network Rail. It should be cleared out and perhaps put to good use. As things stand, I am not satisfied with Network Rail’s management of that plot of land. Interestingly, the Victorian Dana prison on that site has been sold to the Osborne group for redevelopment as office and residential accommodation, and I am sure that those investors will be very interested to know how Network Rail will manage that site next to the station. We want an ever safer and cleaner environment in this important site in Shrewsbury town centre.

I also want to raise with the Minister the Dana bridge, which is a large bridge that straddles Shrewsbury station. I highlighted it to the Secretary of State when he came to Shrewsbury station a few weeks ago for the launch of the train service from Shrewsbury to London. The bridge is an historic structure, primarily made of wood, but all the wood is crumbling and falling apart, and it gives a very bad impression. I have tweeted the Minister about it and sent her photographs of the bridge, which looks dirty and dilapidated. I hope her officials have managed to look at the state of it. We walked along the bridge, which was very dirty and not properly lit. I have been told that it is the responsibility of Network Rail to maintain the bridge and ensure that it is properly looked after and modernised.

In parts of the station—bear in mind that it is a grade II listed building—including the sidings, there are huge amounts of what I would term industrial waste. Redundant metal structures just sit there, rusting away, in addition to copious quantities of weeds and litter. I particularly object to the metal and the industrial waste, which just stands in the yards, clearly visible to members of the public who are visiting Shrewsbury for the first time.

Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales are meant to work collaboratively to ensure that the station is well looked after. The manager told me that the toilets are in need of major redevelopment, and he assured me that Arriva Trains Wales has a programme in place to modernise and update them. Another issue, which must affect railway stations all over the country, is the netting to stop birds getting into the eaves of the buildings. I do not know whether anyone has yet come up with a credible solution to the problem, but we need to do something. The nets always get broken, the birds get trapped and the result is a huge amount of dirt and waste. I hope Arriva and Network Rail will look at that.

Arriva Trains Wales has done some good work at the station. A new modern, clean and efficient ticket office has been built, and a new waiting room has been created. I have called for those things for many years, and I am pleased to announce to the Minister that those brand-new facilities have gone down extremely well with my constituents.

How are companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail incentivised to go the extra mile to maintain, upgrade and modernise train stations across the country? Are we incentivising them in innovative ways to go the extra mile, to compete and to learn from other European Union countries? How are they incentivised to go the extra mile to show the Minister that they are serious about upgrading and modernising our stations? What steps is she taking to bring together Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales, and their equivalents in other parts of the country? How is the Department bringing together different operators to ensure an ongoing collaborative approach to managing and looking after stations? I am sure the Minister will accept that, following the privatisation of the rail network, quite a few partners are now involved in maintaining a railway station. It is important that she and her Department do everything possible to incentivise them and ensure that they are doing everything possible to invest—that is the critical word—in those important buildings that, ultimately, should be paying for themselves.

What penalties is the Minister putting in place where companies such as Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail do not invest sufficiently in train stations and do not meet the expectations of constituents and Members of Parliament? I have been assured that a modernisation plan for the station has been put in place, and some people say to me, “Why are you raising this issue now when they are telling you that they have plans?” I am raising the issue because I have been told that the station is about to be upgraded and modernised for the past six or seven years. It has got to the point where I am no longer prepared to accept that there will be jam tomorrow or that improvements will start at the end of the year. Will the Minister assure me on the record that her Department and her officials are in discussions with both companies and have had concrete assurances about this important station? I am meeting Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail at the station in February, and I will spend a morning showing them around every aspect of the station, from the toilets to the side yard where all the rubbish is currently held. I will write to the Minister and keep her informed of how those discussions go.

Lastly—this is a small issue, but it is an issue of pride —we are all proud of our national flag. Some years ago I had to write to Arriva Trains Wales to complain about the size of the Union Jack above the station. The flag was very small, tatty and ripped. It was falling apart. Arriva Trains Wales replaced the flag, but it is happening again. The flag is once again ripped, tatty and dirty. What sort of impression does it give to visitors to our railway station if we cannot even get the simple things right? Some people may accuse me of being a bit petty in mentioning the appearance of the national flag above the railway station, but it should not have to be for the Member of Parliament to keep chivvying the companies about such things; the companies should take pride in their stations, and they should be doing everything possible to ensure that their customers—that is what it ultimately boils down to—are happy, feel safe and have a good experience of using Shrewsbury railway station.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this important debate on the maintenance and upgrading of Shrewsbury railway station. He has been an assiduous campaigner for better services from the station. We are delighted to have finally been able to provide a vital direct link to Shrewsbury station via Virgin train services after many years of lobbying from him and his colleagues. The link is far more convenient than changing trains halfway down to London, and I hope his constituents will recognise the vital role he played in bringing those services to his local station. I am delighted to hear that he is using the services and that they are well used. If it is not tempting fate, I hope he will be able to lobby me on further improvements to the service post-May.

Everyone is aware of the huge benefits that good railway services and, importantly, stations bring to the passengers, businesses and communities that we represent. Stations can and should be the heart of local communities, and my hon. Friend made a valid case, focusing on all the small details that are perhaps overlooked when one is designing an engineering plan for the network, but that are so vital to people who use the station. He is right about the importance of maintaining and upgrading Shrewsbury railway station in his constituency.

I will step through some of my hon. Friend’s concerns and try to address them directly. First, he asked who has responsibility for and takes pride in the station. I assure him that Network Rail and Arriva Trains Wales have joint responsibility, and they both feel a responsibility to passengers. I clarify that Arriva Trains Wales is the leaseholder for the station and, under the terms of the lease arrangement, is responsible for all works that do not require an operational shutdown at the station to be delivered. Arriva Trains Wales is responsible for cleanliness, decorating and the improvements to which he referred, whereas Network Rail is responsible for things such as changes to the canopies and broader upgrades. It is important that both companies are held to account for delivering those improvements and upgrades. I will go on to outline the planned improvements and who is taking responsibility for them.

My hon. Friend asked about cleanliness and organisation. Arriva Trains Wales has confirmed that a cleaning team is based at the station and operates every day. Station duty managers encourage their staff to report anything that is broken or faulty. I do not know whether this is in order, but I commend the team within the Department for Transport that has responsibility for this. One of my team, Mr Ochei, took it upon himself to go up to the station to investigate clearly and carefully some of the concerns. He illustrated the situation to me with clear photographs of the problems that my hon. Friend raises, such as the semi-industrial units, litter and vegetation. Following this debate, I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail, citing the photographic evidence, to say, “Between you, you are responsible. I hope this can be raised at my hon. Friend’s meeting in February, but who is going to do this and by when?”

I thank the Minister for the sterling work of her officials. It is testimony to the way she runs the Department and to the enthusiasm of her officials that they have taken the time and effort to go to Shrewsbury station. That is a great credit to her officials, whom I would like to thank.

I thank my hon. Friend for thanking me and my officials. He will agree that a photograph tells a thousand words. The photographs were extremely helpful.

It is clear from my team’s visit that the station officials take pride in their station and are aware of the concerns. We were told again, and it has been reaffirmed, that Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail have a positive and proactive working relationship in improving, identifying and fixing repairs, and they are delighted to have secured a meeting with my hon. Friend. I hope the meeting will cover the concerns and issues such as the Dana steps and the Dana passage.

My hon. Friend raised an important question about investment and the incentives for train operating companies to improve stations. Under the terms of their franchise, train operating companies have specific obligations against their leasehold requirements to maintain, upgrade and incentivise their stations. It is important always to be prepared to revisit such arrangements. If improvements are required, or if specific changes are needed, we are very happy to deal with them. Some £2 million of investment has been spent on the station over the past nine years, but I am sure that, like me, he is delighted that as much again is being spent over the current five-year capital period, including on the refurbishment of the existing toilets and the introduction of a disability toilet—I am told that work is ongoing and should be finished soon. Money is also being spent on refurbishing the station canopies, which he said are in rather poor order, decorating the external platform areas and resurfacing the station car park. Outside the terms of the lease, although it is appropriate that we discuss it, the Dana footbridge refurbishment has been costed at £800,000, and it should be delivered in 2015-16. I hope that between the two of us, we can secure delivery dates for those improvements so my hon. Friend can reassure his constituents about when they will happen.

It is important to acknowledge that money has been spent on a brand spanking new waiting room, as my hon. Friend said—I have pictures of it—and a new ticket hall. Those are important improvements. The Access for All programme is delivering a lift on platform 3, which is important for passengers who suffer from disabilities. We are delighted that Shrewsbury is now a step-free station. It also has additional help points and CCTV cameras to assist with safety issues.

A lot of improvement is going on, and there is more to come. There is clear accountability, but we are always willing to do more and listen to hon. Members who have concerns about their stations. I hate to use this phrase, but we are getting there with some parts of the railways. We are benefiting from an unprecedented level of investment in the trains, the stations and the track.

We are prepared to continue to look at the contractual relationship between Network Rail, the regulator and the operators, and will continue to improve it. We will also look at the penalties, which my hon. Friend mentioned. The ultimate penalty is to be penalised under the franchise. I am not aware that a situation has ever been so serious that that has happened, but we will look at the penalties to ensure we have the right regime. In my experience, if there is an assiduous MP, a committed Network Rail local management team and a strong station team, improvements can be ironed out and delivered, but it is important that we continue to focus on those issues.

My hon. Friend asked whether the work is being delivered on time. I can confirm that two areas have been delayed: the toilets and the canopy works. All other works have gone as planned and have been completed on time. There is, unfortunately, a large hole on platform 3, which is not a danger to passengers, although it is unsightly. It is a Network Rail responsibility. It is due to larger engineering issues coming to light once the initial works were started. It would be helpful to focus on getting it fixed as soon as possible. Scaffolding is still in place on the river bridge due to engineering issues that Network Rail uncovered.

Part of the problem, as I have discovered in my few months in the job, is that many parts of the network have not been touched in decades—sometimes in hundreds of years. Although an unprecedented amount of money is being spent, problems are sometimes uncovered in the process. It is absolutely right that those symptoms of decades of underinvestment are now being addressed, but we must ensure that they are dealt with quickly and appropriately for passengers. I will write to Arriva Trains Wales and Network Rail after the debate to ask for clarity about the completion dates for those works, and I will mention the Dana steps and the Dana bridge.

My hon. Friend made an important point about safety and antisocial behaviour, about which I am particularly concerned. I am disappointed to hear that that tract of land is proving a draw for antisocial elements in the community. I have visited the town, and it is the most wonderful place. It should be visited by tourists, not people determined to commit crime. Neither Network Rail nor Arriva Trains Wales has received complaints about antisocial behaviour, although that is not to say that it is not happening. We have been alerted to the problem, and Network Rail will continue to engage with the local council and, crucially, the British Transport police, who have a long history of working with local police forces, to deal with antisocial behaviour in and around stations. Network Rail also informed me that it is investigating improvements to toilets on the platforms and to the passenger subway.

An additional £2 million is being spent on improvements at Shrewsbury station. Issues such as the canopy and the netting will be addressed, and the Dana footbridge will certainly be dealt with. Passengers will perhaps most notice that Arriva Trains Wales has redecorated all the platforms in 2015-16.

I second my hon. Friend’s point about flying the Union flag. I am proud to be introducing Union flags on our driving licences, and it is right that all parts of our great country share pride in the flag. I urge him to raise that issue at his meeting and suggest that a brand spanking new flag be flown at the station in time for the tourist season this summer.

In conclusion, this is an exciting time for the railways. The Government’s ambition to invest in the railway network is unprecedented. Improvements are being delivered, and there are more to come. If anyone has a sense that there is any complacency about the disruption that passengers are suffering across all parts of the network as a result of the upgrade works, they should be in no doubt that the Department takes it incredibly seriously. Unless passengers see the benefits and feel that the investment is being made for them, the money is frankly not being well spent. We are moving not boxes, but people.

I hope my hon. Friend has a productive meeting in February. I look forward to receiving his feedback, and I hope he manages to persuade Arriva Trains Wales to fly the Union flag with pride.

Sitting suspended.