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House of Commons Hansard
Rail Services (Chelmsford to London)
28 January 2015
Volume 591

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I rise to speak about an issue that is of considerable importance to many of my constituents who are reliant on the rail services from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street to get to work and to carry out their business. Chelmsford is a major commuting station. Figures show that it is the second busiest such station in the country, with some 8,500 people commuting to and from it each day, mostly to London, but also to the north of the county towards Colchester and Ipswich. They are in addition to all the other passengers who use it during the course of the day to travel to London and elsewhere for other reasons.

It is crucial that my constituents enjoy a reliable and fast service, but sadly, in recent months, that has not been the case. In the first two weeks of December, in particular, the rail network seemed to be beset with continual problems that brought much disruption to the service. A number of those problems were not actually the fault of the provider, Abellio Greater Anglia, but that of Network Rail, due to the overrunning of engineering works and the breaking down of trains, especially freight trains.

There were three main causes of that disruption. Some 22% of the delays were caused by technical fleet delays—broken-down trains, in plain English—and that accounted for 23% of the rail cancellations. Some 12% of the delays were due to possession overruns, which is an interesting phrase that hides the fact that it means that engineering work by Network Rail has overrun. That affects Monday mornings particularly, because it completely disrupts the Monday morning commuter runs down to London. That factor was responsible for 14% of cancellations. The third cause was track faults and broken tracks, which led to 11% of the delays and 9% of the total cancellations.

The crucial thing for my constituents is to have a reliable and punctual service. There was a wide fluctuation in reliability between April and November last year—from 92% reliability at the top end down to 87.5% at the bottom end. However, I am pleased that since the beginning of the new year, there has been a marked improvement in the reliability, punctuality and delivery of the service, which I hope will continue.

I was interested to see the latest Passenger Focus inquiry, especially the part that concentrated on the Chelmsford service. It shows that in spring 2010, when we were not in government, the overall satisfaction of passengers with their journeys was 66%, but by autumn 2014, that figure had risen to 76%. I also noticed that the satisfaction level for punctuality and reliability was 57% in spring 2010, but that that had risen to 65% by autumn 2014. Satisfaction with the upkeep and repair of trains has deteriorated from 64% to 53%, however, which I will address later in my comments.

The other main reason for the disruption to services, which is a tragedy, is the increased number of suicides. That is obviously devastating for the family and friends of those who commit suicide, but it also has an immeasurable impact on the rail network. I am pleased that the rail industry, Network Rail and the train operators are working closely together not only to identify why there has been a significant nationwide increase in suicides on the rail network, but to examine measures that can be taken to minimise them. Everyone is united in trying to do all that they can to reduce this tragic problem, which causes so much misery to so many people.

On a positive note, I am pleased that significant investment is going into the great eastern main line network. Over the past decade there has been an upgrade of track and the replacement of outdated overhead electric cables. That process has moved from Liverpool Street to Chelmsford, and it is now moving north of Chelmsford. That is to be warmly welcomed, because it is a process of investing in the future and putting in building blocks to minimise future problems.

I am also pleased that specific measures are being taken in the Chelmsford area to help to improve the service and the capacity of the line. By the end of this decade or the beginning of the next, there will be a new station at Beaulieu Park to the north-east of Chelmsford. That will help to reduce not only road traffic congestion in the heart of Chelmsford, but the congestion caused by the number of passengers using Chelmsford, because some who come into Chelmsford to get the train will be able to go to Beaulieu Park. Another important thing is the commitment by Network Rail to a loop line to the north of Witham. That will, in connection with the station at Beaulieu Park, help to enhance capacity by allowing faster trains from Colchester to Liverpool Street to overtake slower trains, which can use the loop. It will also give rail operators more flexibility to put on additional services, particularly during the rush hour.

It is crucial that rail operators ensure that every train has 12 carriages during the morning and afternoon rush hours, as one or two trains in those two crucial periods have only eight carriages. Given that the service is used by considerable numbers of people, and that it is estimated that passenger numbers will continue to grow year in, year out for the foreseeable future, every opportunity must be utilised to provide more carriages and seating for passengers travelling to London and then coming back in the late afternoon or early evening.

I am also pleased that work will be done at Bow junction, just outside Liverpool Street, which will have a significant impact on the management of trains entering and leaving that station to help to deal with capacity issues. I was heartened to hear from Network Rail that it is looking at—it is simply a question of “looking at” at the moment—putting in another platform at Liverpool Street station. That would enhance the number of trains that can enter the station through what is, in effect, a bottleneck. Those two things—enhancing and updating Bow junction; and, if it is possible and viable, putting in a new platform—will be of considerable benefit to those who use the station, whether they are my constituents or those of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The immediate golden opportunity to seek improvements to the line will come with the publication later this year of the new franchise document. There will be a tender process prior to the announcement of the next franchise, which will start when the existing one expires. It is crucial that that document includes a commitment for whoever is awarded the franchise to provide new rolling stock and trains for the whole line—not just the inter-city trains, but the commuter trains, which to my mind are more important. Through the work that my hon. Friends the Members for Witham (Priti Patel), for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) and for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) and I have done, the “Norwich in 90” taskforce set up by the Chancellor has made that proposal a crucial part of the recommendations for improvements to the rail network. I am pleased that he accepted in his statement last month the recommendation that would see £476 million invested in East Anglia’s rail network in the coming years.

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The points that my right hon. Friend is making are absolutely correct and I endorse them on behalf of my constituents who use Chelmsford station. Does he agree that, as we look ahead, one of the components of the new franchise should be the replacement of the 94 units of type 321 rolling stock, on which most of our constituents travel, but which are not fit for purpose in terms of their general reliability or capacity to accelerate? All the improvements in the network system for which we are looking, and for which we will be grateful, will be rather spoiled if the trains operating on it cannot perform to the maximum.

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I am extremely grateful for that intervention from my right hon. Friend, because he, too, has worked assiduously in recent years for improvements to the rail network. He, unlike me, has had to work on improving the rail network on two fronts: on the eastern side of the county on the Liverpool Street-Chelmsford-Colchester line; and, over many years, on the western side of the county on the line from Stansted and other areas down to Liverpool Street. I could not agree with him more about new rolling stock, which is at the nub of how to get improvements.

As the Minister knows, East Anglia has too often had to put up with other people’s leftovers, but that is no longer acceptable. We need a commitment in the franchise, as well as delivery after it has been awarded, on new rolling stock so that we have high-quality trains for all services, with air conditioning, automatic doors and wi-fi to improve the quality of our constituents’ journeys. We also want to ensure that all the trains during the crucial rush-hour periods in the mornings and late afternoon or evenings are 12-carriage ones—we want no eight-carriage trains—so that we can maximise capacity and meet the ever-increasing demand faced by our railways.

I am pleased that the investment recommended by the taskforce, when implemented, will have significant economic benefits for the rest of the three counties and their development. It is estimated that the investment of £476 million will generate about £4.1 billion in direct economic benefits, which will rise to £4.5 billion once wider productivity benefits are included. The investment will unlock an additional £1.3 billion of capital investment along the route from Liverpool Street to Norwich, through Chelmsford, Colchester and Ipswich. It will create 3,145 jobs in the construction industry and, once the work is completed, some 8,200 new jobs in Norwich, almost 10,000 in Ipswich, 16,000 in Chelmsford and 14,000 in Colchester. Those are significant figures, and such benefits will help the viability of the eastern region. Overall, it is estimated that for every £1 invested to upgrade the great eastern main line, the return will be £9.50. Such a return will be highly significant and economically beneficial to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst).

At the same time, however, there is concern about the prices that we have to pay on our railways. I welcome the Chancellor’s actions to alleviate the problems faced by hard-working families in recent years by getting rid of the retail prices index plus 3% formula for fare increases, meaning that for the past two years, we have had increases solely in line with the RPI. People have benefited from that, but we need to put the charges that they have to pay in context. A standard year-long season ticket from Chelmsford to Liverpool Street costs £3,728, while a daily return for trains leaving after 9.30 am is £27.20. Let us assume that most people have a five-week holiday period, meaning that they use their season ticket for 47 weeks a year, and that most will use their ticket for five days a week. On those assumptions, the daily cost of a season ticket is £15.85. That is often forgotten. People have to find a considerable sum of money once a year—£3,728 is a lot to find in one go, if one must do so—and that blurs the fact that travel is cheaper on a season ticket than at a normal daily rate.

Notwithstanding that, I appreciate the problems that people face. Given the money that they have to spend, the least they can expect in return is a reliable, punctual and comfortable journey, which is why it is so important that the investment that the Government have promised continues to move ahead and that the investment promised in the taskforce recommendations is put in place. It is also important that the control period 5 commitments are honoured, as is the case at present, and that in control period 6 we have a commitment to the loop north of Witham. Crucially, the franchise document must include, among many other things, a commitment to new rolling stock, which will benefit my right hon. Friend’s constituents, my constituents and those all the way from Liverpool Street up to Norwich.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) on securing this debate. Hon. Members may be interested to learn that in my very first debate in Westminster Hall we were in opposite positions: he was responding from the Front Bench to my concerns about minor injuries units in my constituency. After he did that fine job as a Health Minister, he held the post I currently have as trains Minister—he probably knows more about trains than I ever will. That was reflected in the thoughtful tone of his comments and his analysis of what is happening on the route.

The overall concern that my right hon. Friend eloquently raised is about performance on the main line. He and I are both really aware of the problems and I deeply regret that performance is not at the level that passengers rightly expect and deserve. He has taken a welcome interest in the steps being taken to monitor and improve the performance of the great eastern main line for passengers travelling both from his constituency and from further afield.

Under the terms of the franchise agreement and the direct award, Abellio Greater Anglia has to provide regular performance updates to the Department and can be subject to punitive actions if performance standards fail to meet requirements. In addition, there has been a lot of ongoing work with Abellio Greater Anglia, including many performance meetings. Only last week, there was such a meeting between my officials, the Office of Rail Regulation and the management team from Abellio Greater Anglia, at which industry representatives were keen to demonstrate what they were doing, along with Network Rail, to improve matters.

As my right hon. Friend mentioned, some improvements have been made. Monitoring practices that are common in other countries are now in place, including remote monitoring of key components on the line, meaning that failing components can be dealt with much more quickly than before. But he identified the fundamental problem: that much of the infrastructure on the line is coming to the end of its working life. There is no quick fix for that, but the ongoing investment that he mentioned will address the problems over time.

As is the case with many other parts of the network, the line has been subject to a big increase in passenger numbers, which have gone up by about 2.5% a year since 2006. The whole railway system is struggling as a result of the increase in passenger numbers since privatisation—overall, passenger numbers have doubled—and, frankly, the decades of under-investment under successive Governments in both track and rolling stock. I am pleased that the Government are addressing the overall picture with an unprecedented £38 billion in investment in the railways during this control period, but the money clearly has to be targeted correctly.

Abellio Greater Anglia has instigated daily tracking of key performance indicators at its depot to maximise or improve fleet maintenance, which my right hon. Friend identified as a particular problem. He also raised four main issues: fatalities, fleet failings, infrastructure failings and operational performance, and I would like to address each in more detail.

As my right hon. Friend said, we have a tragic problem of people committing suicide on the railways. Suicides are a tragedy for the families involved, and they are an awful tragedy for the drivers and other staff who have to witness them and deal with their aftermath. With increased activity on the railways, these problems are having more and more of an effect. Indeed, in the last 12 months, the number of services on my right hon. Friend’s line impacted by a fatality has risen by more than 1,700 to in excess of 8,000.

The industry is taking steps to reduce these tragic incidents. The British Transport police, Land Sheriffs and Abellio Greater Anglia station staff have increased patrols at stations and increased the level of interventions, steering people away from this awful act. I would like to express my thanks to those staff who have saved lives as a result of that work. Preventive measures have also been employed, including the introduction of mid-platform fencing and the trialling of blue lighting—people do not like to cross blue lights, as we learned from a similar initiative on Japanese railways. Action is therefore being taken.

Secondly, I note my right hon. Friend’s concerns about fleet performance. As he said, that has improved slightly, and the figures on average delay minutes since early 2012 have improved by 23%, but I want to see greater improvement, not just stability. As he emphasised, reliability is so important for the people travelling from his constituency.

AGA is implementing more than 100 initiatives to improve the reliability of its rolling stock. That is a huge number, so I will highlight just a couple. There are new resources to undertake more extensive maintenance at night, as well as extensive initiatives to renew critical components. The company is also looking at more forward-looking maintenance planning regimes to maximise availability and reliability on the fleet.

My right hon. Friend made a compelling case for new rolling stock on his line and on other lines, including those serving the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). It remains the Government’s ambition to invest in new rolling stock in the franchise, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford will be aware that the Department is doing everything it can to make sure we deliver more reliable trains—and, indeed, refresh trains—for passengers using the network. I completely support AGA’s goal of reducing fleet delay minutes on the franchise by 20% by October 2016.

Thirdly, on infrastructure, we are all aware that track faults have increased significantly, particularly on the crucial Liverpool Street to Shenfield corridor. Network Rail replaced its renewals contractor in 2014 due to poor performance. We continue to invest to upgrade the route, but that will take time. Resources have been focused in three areas: Liverpool Street station and its approaches; rail defect removal; and the quality of track. I am pleased to say that, at Liverpool Street, Network Rail is nearing the end of its programme of replacing all problematic junctions, refurbishing point ends and carrying out rail replacements at the tight curves on the station approach. All that will improve reliability and sustainability. I am pleased to say that, to date, all the work has been completed on time.

Additionally, the company and Network Rail have worked well together to target further resources. For example, there is a new emergency incident unit based at Liverpool Street station, rather than remotely. The number of infrastructure faults was therefore reduced significantly between November and December 2014, to the lowest number for several years.

Finally, let me turn to my right hon. Friend’s operational concerns. As he and I know, the route has had some serious engineering overruns in the last year. Some have been on a Monday morning, and I can think of nothing more frustrating for a hard-pressed commuter trying to get to work and paying almost £4,000 for a season ticket than to hear these overruns being announced. It is completely unacceptable. My Department has been challenging Network Rail on its performance on the issue, as has Abellio Greater Anglia. Network Rail is constantly being made aware of its responsibility to passengers using the network to complete engineering work at the allowed time. As a result, all possession plans on this part of the network are subject to much greater scrutiny.

The programme to renew point work has been completed thus far with minimal passenger train impact. That is perhaps evidence that Network Rail is taking measures to reduce engineering overruns. I know that my right hon. Friend shares that ambition. The railway is not running steel boxes with wheels; it is moving people. If the Government can do one thing, it is to make sure that the unprecedented investment we are making is delivered for the benefit of passengers.

Everyone, from my Department to Network Rail and the operating companies, needs to sign up to that agenda. Some do it better than others, but there is no excuse for an engineering overrun that affects millions of people, and for not taking it seriously. I am pleased to say that effort is being put into recovering from incidents when they happen. The six-month average delay per incident has dropped by 20% in the past six months, which means that faults are being fixed more quickly.

As my right hon. Friend knows, it was not possible to specify in the short direct award an increase in rolling stock. He will know from his time in the Department that the direct award was introduced to smooth the process of franchise letting. He has made a powerful case for wanting new rolling stock. I am pleased to say that on his route, at least, he will see work going on to refresh the mark 3 coaches. That has been secured within the current franchise.

I visited the place where the new seats and other improvements were being put together and have sat in one of the new seats. The first vehicle is set to be unveiled on Friday, and there is an obligation on Abellio Greater Anglia to complete work on the entire fleet by the end of October 2016. Finally, there will be toilets that do not void on to the tracks, power sockets, new carpets and seat covers, new lighting and repainted interiors. That will make a real difference to the experience of passengers.

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The Minister will have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns)mention the construction of a new station to the north of Chelmsford, which will be beneficial for train loading. It is intended primarily to serve the people who will be living in the Beaulieu Park development, but there is strong local feeling that the station would be more appropriately named “New Hall Chelmsford”, or “Chelmsford New Hall”; I hope that she will bear that in mind.

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I will certainly take those comments into consideration. I was coming on to mention something directly relevant to my right hon. Friend’s concerns. The “Norwich in 90” group is a group of MPs working to pin down the economic benefits of further investment in infrastructure, including new stations—regardless of name. There is a desire really to improve journey times and connectivity on such vital routes in a high-growth region.

The consultation for the new franchise in which many of the improvements can be brought about began in December 2014. The new franchise is to commence in October 2016 and the invitation to tender is expected in August, with the successful bidder to be announced in the summer of 2016. Bidders will of course be invited to provide their plans for improving rolling stock operating on the route and for achieving the aims of the “Norwich in 90” taskforce.

Much more clearly needs to be done, but there are some firm foundations on which to improve the performance of the great eastern main line, as the passengers deserve. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford alluded to the interesting and exciting change that will happen when Crossrail finally comes on stream in 2018. It will free up passengers at Liverpool Street, enabling platform capacity at that vital station to be improved, and reducing overcrowding on those vital routes. Infrastructure improvements such as the remodelling at Bow junction, turnbacks in the Chelmsford area and at Wickford, and associated signalling works, should all help to improve performance and durability by 2019.

As for CP6, my right hon. Friend made a powerful case, and investment is planned in the Witham loop, with potential associated new stations. Work is being done and being planned for the future. We know that we can do more, but I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend to bring in the improvements I have outlined for the benefit of his constituents and all passengers using what is a vital route.

Sitting suspended.