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Railway Stations: Car Parking Charges

Volume 615: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2016

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the specific issue of the increase in parking charges at Rugby station that took place on 5 September and was imposed by the operator of the west coast main line, Virgin Trains. At the same time, I want to consider the broader consequences that the lack of restriction on rail operators’ ability to increase car parking charges may have on our transport network.

There are many reasons why this topic is of great importance to Rugby. The rail connection is important to our local economy. Businesses locate there for many reasons, one of which is good access to London—Rugby benefits from a 50-minute journey time on the west coast main line to Euston. The number of people who commute to London, Coventry and Birmingham and use the line on a daily basis is increasing. That increase can be seen in how much the station is used, which has pretty much doubled since 2007-08, when 1.16 million entries and exits were recorded, to 2.04 million in 2014-15.

The provision of parking at Rugby station has increased as passenger numbers have increased, but a significant milestone in the development of Rugby station was the west coast main line modernisation that took place in 2008. The vast improvement in reliability and journey times was welcomed by the many people in Rugby who use the line. Prior to the modernisation, the parking was originally on the south side of the station—the town side—in car parks one and two, but there has always been a tradition of private operators making use of vacant sites in the vicinity. In many cases, that competition kept prices down, and of course residents and commuters have also used on-street parking, which has led to the substantial use of resident parking permits around the station.

Significant additional and welcome capacity was provided on 1 September 2009, when a new multi-storey car park was delivered, providing 535 spaces, over five levels and with CCTV. The delivery of that car park coincided with an increase in the daily rate from £6 to £7, and in the cost of an annual season ticket from £655 to £858—a 31% increase. That was met with a lot of complaints, particularly from the Rugby Rail Users Group. I must pay tribute to the RRUG for its campaigning for services and facilities at Rugby station. In the face of that complaint, and of the competition from the locally run, independent vacant site opposite the multi-storey, the rise was reversed and the price went back to £6. It has been held at £6 for a number of years, as a consequence of the competition provided by the local, independent operator.

The hon. Gentleman will know that Rugby is not too far away from Coventry, so many people commute from Coventry to work in Rugby and vice versa. The cost of peak-time parking in Coventry has increased by about 33%, while weekday off-peak parking was recently axed at Coventry and some commuters can be paying about 140% more. That has been allied to the recent price increases in rail tickets, the abolition of student facilities and the abolition in respect of senior citizen railcard holders, so the cost is considerable. During the same period, wages over the past five years have probably increased by 10% whereas prices for rail tickets have increased by about 30%, including parking.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, because the increase that he refers to in Coventry took place at exactly the same time as the increase that took place in Rugby. I am sure he will share my concern that we received less than a month’s notice from Virgin about the new price increase that became effective on 5 September—I received a notification on 9 August. Not only was that inadequate notice, but it came at a time when many people were on holiday, which led to a great number of emails coming into my inbox from constituents who were bothered about not only the short notice, but the fact that the increase in Rugby was 50%, with the daily rate increasing from £6 to £9. More importantly, at Rugby the off-peak charge of £4 has been abolished, with the annual charge increasing at the same time from £735 to £950—a 30% increase.

One of the first things I did, as a diligent MP, was to write to Virgin, asking it for justification of the increase it had imposed, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), whom I am pleased to see in his place. In its replies, Virgin argued that the rate it had previously applied was a discounted one, which is certainly true, as the rate had decreased from £7 to £6 a day in the face of local competition. It also argued that the car park was usually full by 9 am and so there was no benefit from having an off-peak rate. Virgin also spoke about local comparisons, but the rates it quoted to me were mostly from car parks at other stations—Virgin referred to Coventry and tried to imply that its car park offered better value for money because it had better facilities.

The car park charges have increased from £5 to £12, which is a considerable increase, by any stretch of the imagination.

I am very much aware that the situation in Coventry is rather more serious in that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have to pay a greater increase on a higher price than my constituents do in Rugby.

The Minister was very kind in his reply. He expressed some sympathy with my case and referred to his own experience on the west coast main line, using Preston station. He pointed out that, regrettably, car park charges are not covered by the franchise agreement, and that the franchise operator is able to choose to increase charges as it sees fit. He also told me that his team had been made aware by Virgin that one of its objectives was to discourage non-rail users. That certainly may be the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency where the station is much closer to the town centre, but I am not sure whether the same case can be applied to Rugby where the station is much more distant from the centre.

Let me deal with points that were made by the operator. Many of the comparisons that it gave me were for car parks that it operated itself. For example, it cited that of Coventry, which is closer to the city centre. There are many locally operated car parks where the prices are considerably cheaper. For example, Warwick Parkway on the Chiltern line charges £5 a day. In looking around, I found one or two other areas where commuter stations have significantly cheaper prices. For example, commuters in Hungerford, Berkshire, are charged just £2.40 to park their car. I wonder whether the more relevant comparison for Virgin might be other car parks in and around Rugby. In the John Barford multi-storey car park in the town centre, there is a daily rate of £5. Virgin says that the removal of off-peak rates demonstrates that there is a need for further provision. I wonder whether it is taking advantage of the fact that the car park is pretty full by hiking up rates quite substantially.

I do not accept the premise that the places in Rugby are taken up by non-rail users. The station is too far from the town centre. In any event, it is not difficult for the operator to link the car park ticket to the purchase of a rail ticket, thereby making certain that non-rail users are excluded.

The point about Coventry station being nearer the town centre is a bit of a misnomer. Most people who use that station come from the outskirts of Coventry—a mile and a half or two miles from some of the more distant parts of Coventry—and, to some extent, from some of the surrounding areas. That is a bit of a red herring.

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s views, but it should not be difficult to link the price of the parking to the purchase of a rail ticket. That would ensure that the provision that has been made for rail users is actually taken up by rail users.

One thing that is certainly happening as the price has gone up in Rugby is that people are going on a wider search for free parking. In my constituency, we had a real problem with people parking on a newly developed road, on Technology Drive, which led to all sorts of road safety problems. We have now managed to introduce double yellow lines there. I did ask one driver why they parked there. They said that they were doing so to save £6. Now that saving is £9, and there is an even bigger incentive to look around further for places to park.

The rate of increase imposed by Virgin is unreasonable. I accept that there might have been a need for an increase, but 50% is very substantial. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, commuters’ salaries have not increased at that rate. Many constituents have told me that the cost of parking often exceeds the price of rail travel. The shorter the journey, the greater the proportion of their journey cost is taken up in parking. That applies to people going to Coventry and Rugby. If I park my car on Sunday evening to travel to work and return to Rugby on Thursday, I pay five times £9, which is £45, to park, but a super off peak ticket including zone 1, which has some restrictions on use, costs £38. It is crazy that the cost of parking should exceed the cost of rail travel.

I do recognise the need for the operator to recover its investment cost The car park was clearly expensive to develop, but the increase is disproportionate. It involved no consultation and inadequate notice. I wonder whether the operator takes seriously its role of providing parking as part of an integrated transport network. At Rugby station there is lots of travel advice and there are lots of leaflets, but I could find no information about parking charges. To a non-regular user, £9 will come as a shock.

I fear that high parking charges will lead to greater congestion on our already busy road network. I was interested to read the article in The Sunday Times at the weekend drawing attention to congestion having increased by 40% in four years. High parking charges are an incentive for people to use their cars, especially for shorter journeys. For a Rugby resident who travels five days a week, it would cost £45 per week to park their car, whereas the use of the M6 or the A45 is free. We are forcing people off the rail network, into their cars and on to the motorways. In addition, high charges for car parks encourage people to be dropped off and collected at the station, which adds to congestion around stations. At Rugby station, access is already a challenge, and high parking charges are only making the problem worse.

In his reply, the Minister told me that the Government have control over fares, but not over parking. The Government regulate roughly half of all rail fares and do so to make sure that rail fares are reasonable, to protect passengers from market abuse and to ensure that passengers are treated fairly. Is it not reasonable to apply that principle to car parking charges as well? In the light of the recent changes at Rugby station, is it fair and reasonable for the charge to be increased by 50%?

Another factor is the investment in Coventry and Warwickshire. I know that the hon. Gentleman has done as much work on the issue as the Coventry MPs. Any leader of a local authority will be asked about parking because that adds to costs, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. It is an important factor in the development of the local economy of Coventry and Warwickshire.

Absolutely. We want to see more effective use of our public transport network. What is wrong with including car parking and the ability to control car parking charges in the franchise? There is a strong case for a joined-up approach to protect passengers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) on securing this debate, on a subject close to his heart. As he pointed out, he wrote to me only last month to set out his concerns and those of the Rugby Rail Users Group. As he rightly points out, I park at Virgin Preston on the west coast, where price rises—admittedly, of only 20%—came in last July, so I am not personally insensitive to the points that he makes.

I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware that station car parking is not a simple matter, particularly in view of the fact that we have more than 2,500 stations of all sizes across the country that link the railway with the communities and people they serve. Clearly, they provide the first and last impression of the railway and often of the communities themselves, so every station needs to provide passengers with a safe, accessible and comfortable experience. A good station should also serve the wider community with social, retail and leisure facilities. Stations can and should go beyond their traditional role as portals to the rail network, and should be fully integrated, as my hon. Friend mentioned, into local transport networks to make multimodal travel far simpler. They should be catalysts for local development and play an important role in supporting local economic growth.

I urge all local enterprise partnerships and councils to think about how they, too, can support the provision of better car parking across the rail network. In that context, we can all recognise just how crucial car parks are, not least in enabling passengers to access the rail network, by parking their cars close to the station in a safe, convenient car park. That is why it is important that train operators have the flexibility to set commercially viable car park fees.

If fees are too low, the operator will provide lower returns to the Government, thereby increasing the taxpayer contribution to the railways. If fees are too high, however, the car park will be underused, and that, too, will lead to lower premium payments to the Government. A commercially flexible rate allows maximum revenue to be derived from car parking income, which reduces the requirement for taxpayer support for the franchise. It is important to stress that car park charges are not just a tool for revenue generation, but provide an important foundation for investment in not just trains but stations.

Let me try to specifically address the issues in Rugby. As my hon. Friend recollects from our reply to him, the Government do not own the car parks; train companies and others—local councils, for example—do, and that varies across the country. I am sure Virgin will have noted his criticisms of the communication strategy it adopted and of whether it has adequate capacity at Rugby and, indeed, at Coventry and other stations across its network.

Virgin West Coast has received a number of complaints from passengers that the station car park was always full. On investigation, it became apparent that the charges were much lower than in the surrounding areas and that the station car park was being used by non-rail users. I should just stress that my comments in my reply were specifically about Rugby, not about Preston, and that is what we were told by Virgin.

In a bid to be more helpful than that reply might have indicated, let me say that my hon. Friend might be interested to know that the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operating companies, is looking at how to better measure the passenger experience, because the group, along with the Government, recognises that it does not just start when a passenger boards a train. The group is looking at the entire range of ways that the passenger interacts with the railway network. That will include not just buying a ticket before they get to the station, but such things as car parking, ease of access, the likelihood of finding a space and ease of payment.

All that work will inform Transport Focus as it looks into how to better design the national rail passenger survey. That survey, in turn, has a specific impact on franchise design and the way in which we hold train operating companies to account. If a franchise fails to meet satisfaction levels in the national rail passenger survey and underperforms, it will suffer financial penalties. As we constantly refine the survey, issues such as car parking will form part of that and may well become something on which we choose to judge train operating companies.

As more spaces become available for those who wish to catch a train, I hope we can start to bring fees into line with those in other car parks in all local economic areas. We want to encourage investment in car parking and, moreover, to drive better value for money across all station facilities. That can partly be done through franchise competitions, and that will include the forthcoming west coast franchise competition, where we will challenge bidders to innovate in how they seek to provide car parking. We will look at how they want to improve facilities at stations for all users.

We are already doing a lot to improve car parking as part of the wider passenger experience. Train operating companies will need to take a much longer-term view of managing station assets than they do at the moment—over 40 years, rather than just the existing franchise length. That will include car parks, and it will mean incremental improvements continually to the quality and standard of the facilities on offer. Investment patterns will now start to mirror not just a train operator’s franchise term, but the lifespan of the bit of infrastructure that the train operating company will be investing in. That will not mean just a lack of potholes; it might mean more innovative ways to deliver car parking that meet the passengers’ needs.

We are also conducting a review of security and safety in our car parks and stations, because a well-lit, well-maintained car park, covered by CCTV, provides passengers with reassurance not only that they are safe at a station but that the price of their parking fee and travel ticket has been reinvested back into the railway.

Innovation is also crucial. That is why I am looking to train operating companies to make it easier for the passenger to pre-book a parking space, so that they have certainty when they arrive at the station that they will be able to park without difficulty; nor will they need to delay their journey or risk missing their train by having to use complicated coin-operated payment machines that may or may not be out of order. We will also seek to make far better use of station travel plans, which my hon. Friend mentioned, so that passengers understand the options that are available to them in how they reach the station that best meets their needs and is the most sustainable method of transport.

I welcome the Minister’s remarks, but will he address the broader integrated view? There is a grave danger that if car parking charges are disproportionate, that will encourage more car use and encourage people to seek to park for free around the station, causing problems for residents.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The impact will differ from station to station across the network. The stations that I am familiar with all have their own quirks and differences in terms of how local people utilise them, approach them, park, drop passengers off, and so on. This can have a substantial impact on the local road network. It is very important that train operators work together with local highway authorities to plan the local road network immediately around the station to make sure that no passenger is inconvenienced. I can think of many cases at peak hours where, all too often, we have traffic jams. I hope that train operating companies will hear my plea for them to work far more closely with the local highway authority to plan traffic flow and ensure that, wherever problems can be minimised, we seek to do so.

As I keep saying, we need to continue to invest in our station facilities.

The Minister said that he hoped that the train operators would take note of what he says. May I suggest, in the nicest possible way, that it would not be a bad idea to take our concerns to a meeting with the train operators’ representatives?

I should praise the hon. Gentleman for almost being psychic in predicting what I was about to say. I am more than happy to have that conversation next time I meet Virgin West Coast, which I try to do as frequently as I can. Only today, I heard about some of the interesting plans in Coventry for a new boulevard into the town centre and potential new car parking facilities that, by expanding capacity, might allow costs to come down. Coventry is having an interesting time. I gather that in Rugby there is also substantial investment in cycle-rail facilities, which help to ensure that people have more options in how they get to the station, including bicycle hire. That is a good step forward.

The Minister will know that in Coventry we have the NUCKLE project, which we are hoping to get started very soon. That has taken about 10 years to get off the ground.

I am always happy to hear news of Coventry’s progress. My visits to Coventry are probably in my diary as we speak, without my even knowing about it. I look forward to going there.

I recognise that capacity, as much as anything else, is often key in car parks around stations. It is important to design them to allow extra decks to be placed on top with greater flexibility, because demand is going to keep on growing as more and more people use our railways. We also need to redesign stations themselves better to reflect passenger flows through them. Many of these stations are Victorian and often have not been updated since that time. We will always need to invest in our railways and to change and adapt to face that increasing demand.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby recognises that such extensive change cannot happen overnight, but I hope that he and his constituents will see the change in the station environment at Rugby—as at Coventry and elsewhere—that long-term investment can bring. I hope that I have laid out some aspects of how we are seeking to re-evaluate the entire spectrum of the passenger experience, so that we capture every interaction between passenger and rail network to make sure that, where there is dissatisfaction, we as a Government not only become aware of it but start to use it as a tool to drive up improvements on behalf of the passenger through the franchising mechanism. I will be more than happy to report back to him once I have spoken again to Virgin West Coast.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.