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Chase Railway Line

Volume 616: debated on Tuesday 1 November 2016

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

The clocks turned back last weekend and the upside was an extra hour in bed. However, not only does this mean the days are getting shorter and winter is on the horizon, but I am afraid, for passengers of the Chase line, it marks more misery. What is at the best of times a railway line where passengers have to endure cancelled and delayed trains is at this time of year a line where they also face severe overcrowding.

I should start by giving some background. The Chase line is the railway line that connects Cannock Chase with Walsall and Birmingham. It runs from Rugeley Trent Valley, a station which is actually in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), and stops in my constituency at Rugeley Town, Hednesford and Cannock.

The good news is that the misery for the passengers will be addressed by the electrification of the line. Indeed, the previous Secretary of State for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), was incredibly supportive of this electrification project, understanding the line well and the needs of residents as a former Cannock resident and councillor.

The electrification of the line will mean faster and more frequent trains, increasing the capacity on the line. But I am afraid there are several issues that I would like to outline in this debate relating to the service passengers will experience in the next couple of years. I want to cover the issues that passengers are currently facing, the issue of rolling stock when the line is electrified and the need to upgrade the facilities at the stations throughout my constituency, particularly Rugeley, Hednesford and Cannock.

Amazon has one of its fulfilment centres in Rugeley. Every autumn, it recruits seasonal staff to support demand and it recently announced 4,500 seasonal jobs. This is clearly excellent news for the creation of jobs. However, with a claimant rate of just over 750 across Cannock Chase, people will need to travel to fill those positions. Last autumn, Amazon recruited around half of its additional seasonal staff, and my inbox was full of complaints from passengers who were using the Chase line. Their complaints included overcrowded trains, passengers not buying tickets, and trains being delayed and cancelled. I am afraid that this autumn has been much the same for Chase line passengers, and the situation is likely to get worse.

The overcrowding of some services, particularly the commuter trains, is a constant and consistent complaint. All too often, it is reported to me that there are only two carriages on these services. Bearing in mind the level of use, that is simply unacceptable. Only this morning, I received a tweet from a passenger saying that the 7.04 service from Rugeley was made up of only two carriages. The passenger went on to say that they were standing in a packed carriage and asking London Midland to turn down the heating. On a different occasion, a passenger reported seeing a schoolboy faint, having had to stand. I have called for the level of service to be improved, and I have specifically asked the franchisee, London Midland, to review the number of carriages, particularly at peak hours. I am therefore particularly disappointed that the problem has recurred this autumn. Chase line passengers deserve better. I would therefore like to ask the Minister to put pressure on London Midland to provide the appropriate number of carriages on peak-time services on the Chase line.

The issue of overcrowding is exacerbated by the fact that not all passengers are paying for their tickets. As I understand it, the issue of Amazon staff not paying for their tickets is being addressed, and they are having their tickets paid for at source out of their salaries. However, there are still concerns about the lack of ticket inspectors resulting in passengers still not paying for their tickets. Some are able to dodge the inspectors at the various stations. Honest fee-paying passengers are hugely frustrated by this, and they want London Midland to ensure that tickets on these services are inspected, where possible as passengers board the trains.

The misery does not stop there. Another issue facing those long-suffering passengers is delayed and cancelled trains. It is not uncommon for passengers using the service to and from Rugeley to complain that the service has been stopped and re-directed from stations further up the line. This is an hourly service, so these problems result in people not being able to get to work on time and having to explain why they are late, day in and day out. They result in parents being unable to get back from work to pick up their children, and parents picking up children who are using the service not knowing when their train is going to arrive because it is stuck at Hednesford or Cannock station. London Midland’s explanation is that delayed trains are redirected part-way up the line to ensure that subsequent services are not also delayed, but that is little comfort for someone who is trying to use the service from the Rugeley stations. Frankly, residents in Rugeley are poorly served by this service, and that needs to be addressed.

As I have said, the electrification of the line will help to alleviate many of the issues I have outlined. For one thing, we will have a faster and more frequent service, with a train every half hour rather than every hour. That said, that will happen only when electric trains are running on the line.

I am glad to say that the electrification works are on track—sorry for the expression—for completion on time by the end of 2017. It was a real pleasure to meet the various stakeholders to look at the progress of the engineering works along the line, including meeting the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) to review the now-completed major engineering work to tunnel under the shops in Walsall town centre, which included managing to keep the shops open throughout. I believe that McDonald’s did a very good trade during that time.

While the engineering works will be completed on time by the end of next year, which is fantastic news, I have uncovered an issue that I never really thought was possible. Despite plenty of warning—this project has been under way for some time—it appears that London Midland does not have access to rolling stock to run on the line, saying that it may be December 2018 before it has the electric trains. I started to get a sense that there was an issue with rolling stock when I wrote to London Midland asking when we would get electric trains on the line and have a faster, more frequent service. The initial reason I was given for a potential delay to the new service was timetabling, which made me somewhat suspicious.

The Hendy review stated that electric services would start by May 2018. However, it has now become apparent that London Midland will not be able to run electric trains until much later in 2018—nearly a year after the completion of the engineering works. Quite rightly, the passengers who use the service will see the project being completed at the end of 2017 and expect the new service to be running soon after. While we accept the need to test the line and train the drivers, which might delay things a little, the lack of rolling stock is unbelievable and unacceptable. There is a danger that Chase line passengers will have to suffer yet another autumn of pain.

I have several points to raise with the Minister. What are the Government doing to take a strategic view of the status of electrification projects and the availability of electric trains to ensure that rolling stock is being utilised in the most effective way? What measures are the Government taking to make sure that those bidding for new franchises are ensuring that the rolling stock requirements are being met?

One of the challenges in my part of the country is that the rapid housing growth that is coming on stream will put only more pressure on our existing rail services. Is that a problem in my hon. Friend’s area? Residents in Corby want more trains both northbound and southbound.

My hon. Friend must have been reading what is coming up later in my speech. His point also affects my constituency. Following the closure of Rugeley B power station, which I have discussed in this place several times, there will be new development, including new homes and businesses, meaning more passengers on the line and the need for more capacity. The problem is only going to increase and we need to solve it as quickly as possible.

The franchise for the Chase line is currently under review and, with the appointment due next year, I want to make a few points. What measures will the bidders take to ensure that the short-term issues of overcrowding, delays and cancellations are built into their plans for 2017? When will electric trains be running on the line? The contract says that that should be by the end of 2018, which is movement from what was stated in the Hendy review and some 12 months after the electrification work will be completed. I would like to know from the bidders what they are going to do to get trains on these lines as quickly as possible, at least by May 2018, as outlined in the Hendy review earlier this year. I know from some of the points made by passengers that there is a desire for later trains to and from Birmingham, so I am pleased that part of the specification will include those. I call on the bidders to do everything they can to make sure we get those later trains, because people are having to leave concerts and events in Birmingham early because otherwise they are not able to get home.

Finally, let me deal with the facilities available at each of these stations which serve Cannock Chase residents. In 2010, the national stations improvement programme led to welcome upgrades, including CCTV at platform level, new shelters and customer information systems. However, the facilities are still incredibly basic in terms of offering a welcoming environment—a welcome to Cannock Chase. There will soon be a designer outlet village in Cannock, similar to that in Bicester, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who is in her place, and Cheshire Oaks. It is expected to attract about 4 million visitors a year and will be situated close to Cannock train station. The developer anticipates that about 2% of visitors will be coming in by rail, although it is felt there is scope for that number to be much greater. As such, Cannock station will be the gateway to Cannock Chase and the Mill Green designer outlet village. The station currently does not have the facilities suited to that level of traffic and hardly provides a warm welcome to Cannock. The section 106 agreement provides £90,000 for station improvements, but it is accepted that much wider external funding will be required to make the necessary upgrades to the station’s facilities. I therefore ask the Minister to look at what Government investment could be provided to improve the facilities at Cannock station. The next station up the line is Hednesford, where I commend the work being undertaken by the Heart of Hednesford Group to adopt the station as a community platform to ensure the station provides a warm welcome to Hednesford. This is an excellent example of how a community group can work to improve the facilities at a station.

The station upgrades were not included as part of the electrification project. I have mentioned two stations that need improvement, but in all honesty I can say that they all do. Just some of the improvements required include having public toilets, parking and improved disabled access—that is a short list, drawn from the very long list I have in this folder. I therefore ask the Minister to consider what additional support can be provided by the Government to upgrade the facilities. I also call on the bidders, Network Rail and the two local enterprise partnerships to look at ways in which they can provide the investment to make these necessary improvements.

I could talk about many issues on the Chase line, after 18 months of social media contact, emails and letters on the subject. I hope that I have covered at least some of the issues raised by passengers. I wish to take the opportunity to thank the passengers and residents who have contacted me over the past few days, in the run-up to this debate, with specific examples, pulling together the key themes. In summary, Chase line passengers are getting a poor deal and deserve a better service, this autumn, next autumn and beyond. I hope the electrification project will address many of the issues outlined, but it will do so only if there are electric trains running on the line. With the Mill Green development and significant redevelopment in Rugeley, following the closure of Rugeley B power station and the subsequent addition of new homes and new businesses, the need for the railway line and the station facilities to be suitable for increased passenger use is as important as ever. I am incredibly grateful to the Minister for his time this evening, and I look forward to his response and to his support for the various issues I have outlined.

It is a pleasure to be here today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) on securing this debate and on demonstrating once again why she is a doughty champion for her constituency and for the needs of the Chase line. This is not the first time that she has raised these issues with me. We have met in the past as well, and I know that she has also met officials from London Midland to discuss her concerns. I wholly understand her frustrations and the frustrations of her constituents.

Overcrowding is not unique to the Chase line. It is an issue across the network that we are continuing to address through continual investment in new rolling stock. We have more and more passengers using our railways, with a 115% increase in the number of people using the railways since privatisation. The Chase line is no different. Our own rail investment strategy recognises that there has been significant passenger growth in this corridor between Birmingham and other towns along the line. Growing at approximately 14% per annum, the Chase line is in fact the west midlands franchise’s fastest growing route. It has seen significant investment in rail electrification to improve capacity and journey times.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the already crowded line has seen the addition of some 4,000 seasonal workers whom Amazon employs at its Rugeley fulfilment centre. We welcome the boost that that will have for the local economy, but it does place short-term additional pressures on local rail services.

At present, London Midland does not have any additional trains to bring into service to alleviate the problems that my hon. Friend highlighted. Nor are there any suitable diesel trains nationally that it could lease, which would match the needs of the Chase line. Therefore, in the short term, London Midland is limited to its current fleet of diesel trains.

Performance on the Chase line is regularly over 90% in terms of punctuality performance measurements. Over recent weeks, cancellations have been slightly higher than normal, partly due, I gather, to the volume of train crews who are in training and also to the fact that the class 170s, which form the majority of services on the Chase line, are not necessarily behaving as they should, because of their defective door control units. I understand that London Midland has commissioned an investigation into how to improve the reliability of those door control units, which I hope will start to address some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises, particularly the existence of two-carriage trains on some of the Rugeley services that are being diverted or that are non-stopping. I look forward to hearing what London Midland has to say when it has conducted its review.

The Chase line is an important rail connection between Birmingham New Street and Rugeley Trent Valley via Walsall and Cannock. It currently has one train per hour in each direction with some additional services in the peak. The electric services only operate between Birmingham and Walsall, where the overhead line equipment ends, and that is what we are seeking to change. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the electrification of the Chase line will give the new rail franchise holder considerably more capacity to carry additional passengers.

Work has already started on this project and is due to be completed in December 2017. The project will bridge the gap in the electrification between Walsall and Rugeley Trent Valley. It will also create a diversionary route for west coast main line traffic if other lines are closed for engineering works. It will be gauge cleared for larger freight train traffic.

A parallel project will deliver enhancements to line speed alongside electrification through track remodelling and the closure of a level crossing in Bloxwich. Switching services to run with electric rolling stock with enhanced performance characteristics will reduce journey times to such an extent that a regular, all-day, two-trains-per-hour service can be operated with no additional rolling stock. Furthermore, the electrification will release diesels for use across the west midlands.

Doubling the off-peak frequency of services will enhance connectivity for all towns along the Chase line. In particular, it will improve connectivity to the west coast main line services. As I have said, work has already started. The entry-into-service date is due to be December 2017, and, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, the full timetable is likely to be delivered by December 2018. However, during that period, as she also rightly pointed out, time will need to be taken to train up drivers in the new route and ensure that the trains are serviceable for the route, are reliable and can operate fully, although the timetable will be introduced gradually from May 2018, ramping up as the service reliability improves also.

We anticipate that those services will start in May 2018, with a full service by December 2018, but bidders have the opportunity to propose alternative procurement strategies for rolling stock that may allow that to be brought forward if the rolling stock is there. As a Department, we specify the output that we want on behalf of passengers, but it is primarily for train operating companies to work with rolling stock companies to find the rolling stock that best suits the needs to fit the output that we have specified and ensure that they can deliver on commitments that they make in their bids and in the eventual successful franchise.

That is an important part of the franchise process, because the more that bidders can impress the Department that they are exceeding the specification in the invitation to tender, the more chance they have to obtain quality points in terms of the bid and the way the Department will judge it. It is in the interest of bidders always to seek to exceed the minimum identified in our specification.

Even with our invitation-to-tender specification, there will be numerous passenger improvements by December 2018. The number of trains per hour between Birmingham and Rugeley during the morning off-peak will be doubled. There will be increased evening frequency, Monday to Friday between Birmingham and Walsall, at three trains per hour, and new direct services between Walsall and London at peak times.

As part of the competition for the new franchise, bidders are required to present solutions that meet forecast passenger demand in affordable stages through to 2026. A base minimum requirement is set to enable bidders to present competitive, innovative, value-for-money solutions that best meet that demand and overall passenger needs. That solution could be presented in a number of different ways, dependent on fare income, infrastructure constraints and availability of rolling stock. It is therefore the Department’s policy to set that as an output-based specification to give bidders the maximum flexibility to deliver the best solution as they find it on the ground.

On the Chase line, the demand requirements have been derived from a number of measures, including a recent independent ticketless travel survey, conducted as a precursor to the issuing of the invitation to tender. In addition, bidders will have to take into account local views from the public consultation in which there are representations from the Cannock area by Cannock Chase District Council, Brereton and Ravenhill Parish Council and the active Cannock Chase Rail Promotion Group.

I also note the concern my hon. Friend expressed regarding the Rugeley trains that are being diverted. I am sure she will want to take note of the fact that financial penalties accrue to train operating companies should they miss stations out or cancel services, even if the end goal is to restore services for the rest of the day in a logical format.

My hon. Friend may also wish to reaffirm to her constituents that the new franchise will include delay repay 15, which will see passengers eligible for at least 25% compensation if a train is more than 15 minutes late, and more if it is cancelled.

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the many community groups that make Hednesford, Cannock and Rugeley stations the very best that they can be to support their local communities. She referred to the new station improvement scheme. There is also a minor works scheme that each train operating company has access to. She also mentioned section 106 investment. If any commercial development—she referred to one that is forecast in the area, Mill Green—drives extra demand to the extent that the existing infrastructure cannot cope, it has the option of choosing to invest, as Bicester Village did, in the local station for its own commercial benefit. I urge her to have that particular discussion.

Let me address the issue of antisocial behaviour that my hon. Friend raised. As she knows, this has been attributed mainly to the 4,000 seasonal workers at Amazon. My Department has spoken to London Midland, whose view is that the antisocial behaviour is predominantly due to fare evasion. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that to address the problem, London Midland has taken on five new revenue protection and security managers. Among their other duties, they will carry out increased patrols and ticket checks on the Chase line between Rugeley and Birmingham New Street, providing an increased presence during the morning peak to coincide with Amazon’s shift change-over.

London Midland met Amazon in mid-September to discuss further solutions. As my hon. Friend mentioned, they have come to an agreement whereby Amazon will soon start selling passes directly to staff in the form of scratch-off tickets. It is hoped that this will eliminate much of the antisocial behaviour, but London Midland will continue to work closely with the British Transport police to address all antisocial behaviour throughout the network.

As I mentioned, we recently issued the invitation to tender for the west midlands franchise to the shortlisted bidders. We are asking them to deliver ambitious improvements for passengers across the west midlands network as a whole, not least some 20,000 additional passenger places on trains between London and Birmingham in the morning peak. Bidders will be asked to provide new ticket options that provide better value for customers who may travel fewer than five days a week, as well as new peak time services between Walsall and London.

As I said earlier, these are minimum requirements. We expect bidders to go above and beyond what we are asking for. I urge my hon. Friend to contact the bidders directly and let them know the benefits that she wants to see on behalf of her constituents. I am sure the bidders are paying close attention to her words today and are listening carefully to them, but nothing beats meeting those companies to tell them face to face.

I recognise and pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s dedicated pursuit of an improved service on the Chase line. We are committed to tackling overcrowding wherever it occurs to provide better, more comfortable journeys for passengers. We are in the midst of the largest rail investment programme since the Victorian era, which will increase capacity and improve the rail network. It does not happen overnight. It takes time for new rolling stock to come on stream and for passengers to see the benefits, but with continued pressure from the Department and from local MPs, I am sure that in the west midlands the bidders will be taking close note of who is shouting, what they want to see and what they want on behalf of their constituents. I welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution today.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.