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Rail Services (Bedfordshire)

Volume 635: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services in Bedfordshire.

I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Rail services in Bedfordshire is a wide-ranging subject. Six Members of Parliament represent Bedfordshire, and I am pleased that two of them have been able to attend this short debate. With your permission, Mr Paisley, and that of the Minister, I hope to allow time for them to say a few words about services in their areas.

Rail services in Bedfordshire, and their context, have changed markedly in my time as a Member of Parliament. I grew up in Luton, and throughout that time there was the looming spectre—in a positive way—of Thameslink 2000, now the Thameslink programme. That major upgrade programme was given the go-ahead to totally transform the midland main line as it comes in and goes through the Snow Hill tunnel down to Brighton and the south. The programme has developed significantly since I have been an MP, and it will reach its culmination in the next couple of years when all services are switched on. That major investment programme was developed by the Labour and coalition Governments, and it is now under the Conservative Government. I fully welcome it because it provides much-needed capacity on that vital commuter route.

There have been recent developments in rail services in Bedfordshire in a number of different areas, but there are also long-standing issues that the Department must engage with to bring about service improvements for passengers, and those cannot be overlooked as we reach the end of the programme. In particular, we need vital ministerial action and instruction now as the franchise process on East Midlands Trains goes forward.

If I may, I will speak about two or three local issues that affect Luton residents, and then I will address the vital issue of stopping services on East Midlands Trains. In March 2016 I had the opportunity to raise in an Adjournment debate the long-standing issue of the rebuild of Luton railway station. At the time, I noted that it had been 2,179 days since the issue had last been raised in the House, and I regret to inform Members that in the past two years, the situation has not moved on much.

Luton railway station is in the top 10% of all stations in terms of passenger numbers, but it is old, tired, and inaccessible. In 2009, it was recognised as one of the 10 worst railway stations in the country. The response from the then Labour Government was to award it funding through the Better Stations programme, but that money was pulled after the May 2010 general election. That money was a crucial pot—alongside other pots—that leveraged in cash to get the rebuild. As a result, there is a total lack of disabled facilities to allow people to get to the platforms, and the geography of Luton means that, north and south, the primary access point into the town centre is through the train station, which effectively acts as a wall and barrier for many residents who wish to get to the centre of town with pushchairs or heavy baggage. The centre around the railway station has changed and redeveloped massively, but the same tired station still exists, and as we know, first appearances matter.

If the Minister had been unfortunate enough to start her journey at Luton railway station today, as I did, she would have seen boarded up windows, and the amusingly entitled “water feature” that means that water continues to pour on to platforms. If the single lift was out of action, she would probably have struggled to get access to the platform with her ministerial boxes. Those problems need tackling. A number of abortive schemes have been brought forward, but despite the £6 billion or £7 billion investment from the Thameslink programme, accessibility has diminished as a direct result of that programme. As we go to 12-car running, those with mobility issues must now take a taxi to Luton Airport Parkway, or go on a circuitous route that adds about 15 or 20 minutes to their journey.

The Minister is new to her position, and I hope she will bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm to this issue. Within control period 6, will she specify a rebuild of Luton railway station that befits a town that serves a quarter of a million residents and a wider conurbation? As she knows, the East Midlands franchise is coming up for renewal, and there have been significant moves by the owner of Luton airport, the shareholder, the residents of Luton, and the airport’s operator and board to get the Government to include four fast trains an hour to Luton airport within that franchise.

London Luton airport is a rapidly growing airport in the south-east and the fifth-largest airport by passenger numbers in the UK. It is growing by about 15% a year, and it has great ambitions to take up much of the slack in terms of much-needed airport capacity in the south-east. It is the only London airport without an express train service, and of all London airports it has the lowest percentage of passengers who access it by rail. Some 160 fast East Midlands trains—it will be more under the new franchise—pass daily through Luton Airport Parkway, yet only 10% of them stop. That is a major issue, not least because the new service that connects the terminal to the train station—a major £200 million investment by the people of Luton—will be connected in the next few years. Journey times from St Pancras to the airport gate to check in could be as short as 30 minutes, which is a game changer for connectivity, but that will work only if four fast trains an hour connect the service. London Luton airport is integral to the emerging east-west corridor between Oxford and Cambridge, and to connecting services to the east midlands and the north, and I would like to see progress on that.

Despite the culmination of the Thameslink upgrade programmes over the next year—including physical infrastructure—just before Christmas we learned that there will be a phased introduction of new services of up to 24 trains per hour. Although I understand the desire of the operators to phase in that process, we have had a long time to plan for this. The communication strategy for this has been deeply disappointing, and it is not sufficient just to dump that news on Members of Parliament and commuters shortly before the introduction of a new timetable. This change is so significant that it could have been viewed from space, yet for some reason we learn at the final, gasping moments of the programme, that the full implementation of the timetable will be delayed by two to three years.

Finally, the change from May 2018 to the East Midlands franchise will mean that,

“from 20 May 2018 until the completion of the midland main line upgrade in 2020, East Midlands Trains peak-time services will no longer call at Bedford or Luton. As a result, no EMT services arriving into St Pancras between 07:00 and 10.00, or leaving St Pancras between 16.00 and 19.00, will stop at Luton or Bedford.”

That is a major change and major disruption for many of my constituents who rely on taking a direct train to London, and even more so for those north of Bedford, coming, from example, from Corby or Kettering to work further down the line in Bedford or Luton—and the disruption is happening over a long time. I think that I speak on behalf of all six Bedfordshire Members of Parliament—a group including Conservative, Labour and independent Members—when I say we are deeply disappointed by the way in which things have been communicated, and the shortness of the time window off the back of what even the Rail Minister has acknowledged was a less than perfect consultation exercise on the introduction of the new franchise from 2020. To be told that we shall lose services on East Midlands Trains at exactly the moment when we require them was deeply disappointing.

In the hastily organised meeting chaired by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), where we talked to the operators GTR and East Midlands Trains, and officials from the Department, I asked one simple question: who made the decision? It may not come as a surprise to the Minister, even at this stage of her time in the Department, that a long conversation ensued, with not much clarity at the end of it.

Accountability is vital with such major timetable changes. We all acknowledge, pragmatically, that timetable changes cannot now be reversed for May this year, but my simple ask is that the period of disruption be kept to a minimum. I understand that there are mitigation measures in place, under which GTR will operate additional services that stop at Bedford, Luton and then St Albans—which gets the lion’s share of everything—before going on to St Pancras, but we are used to, and many people’s working patterns are built around, long-distance services and slower commuting services. That is a mix that has served those towns well, and I should like a commitment that East Midlands Trains will again stop during peak hours at Luton and Bedford in the new franchise, and that all efforts will be made to move the changeover date so that it is much earlier. I understand that as the sixth path on East Midlands Trains is introduced, that should not be too difficult. I understand that there may be an issue as to rolling stock, but it is not beyond the wit of the Department to ensure that we do not wait three years.

It would be deeply disappointing, and would undermine the trust of all parties that have supported the £7 billion Thameslink upgrade programme, if the net result were to be more services and seats but a worse user experience for a number of commuters coming from different parts of the network, including Luton, Bedford and Bedfordshire. I make a plea to the Minister to engage fully in the issues affecting rail services in Bedfordshire, to make sure that we deliver for passengers.

I shall call the other Members who want to speak, but I ask them to take literally one minute, as I want the Minister to have as much time as possible to respond, and we must conclude at 11.30.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker), for letting me speak and I look forward to hearing what the Minister—whom I warmly congratulate on her new post—has to say.

I have three quick points to make—mindful of your admonition about time, Mr Paisley. West Midlands Trains serves Leighton Buzzard in my constituency. I learned recently that it is about to invest another £70 million in train maintenance and will provide an extra 10,000 seats to London each day, which will be available during the daily peak times. That will happen over the next few years but, more importantly, there will be two extra class 319 carriages to help commuters from Leighton Buzzard in the next few weeks. That is vital, with the extra housing growth that we have in Bedfordshire.

Secondly, I completely back the points that the hon. Member for Luton South made about the withdrawal of commuter services on East Midlands Trains from Bedford and Luton. That will cause major disruption to my constituents and there are worries that it is a bit of a stitch-up by some long-distance commuters who have been plotting it for a while; there are even worries about the locations of the consultants’ offices. I note that they are in Nottingham, Derby and London; perhaps they would be advantaged by the changes. I call on the Minister to ensure fair play.

Last, I also completely back the point about the need for four fast direct trains an hour from London St Pancras to Luton Airport Parkway. Luton is the country’s fifth-biggest airport and if we get things right it will be the one that is quickest to get to from central London. Let us get the cars off the roads and give people a good experience.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on securing this important debate. I shall not be as brief as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), but I will try my best.

Rail users who use train services from Bedford have been betrayed. We were promised that electrification of the midland main line would mean faster, greener, more reliable train journeys, and associated economic benefits. Instead, electrification has been cancelled and we are now losing our fast peak-time East Midlands Trains service. The announcement just before Christmas was a big shock. In October, the previous Rail Minister wrote to me that London to Corby passengers would have 50% more seats in the peak than they do now. The letter, which I have with me, also said:

“Passengers will also continue to be served by around the same number of East Midlands Fast trains during peak hours as they are now”.

That turned out not to be true. Throughout the time that we were focusing on the East Midlands rail franchise consultation, the timetable changes were being pulled together. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us today when the Department first became aware of the timetable changes and why the changes to Bedford rail services were communicated so late in the day. Why will there be no consultation? People are really shocked that there is no consultation.

These changes are huge. Passengers have only a matter of months to rearrange their lives around the loss of these well-used services. Many people moved to the area specifically because they thought it would be easy to commute to work in London or to the north. However, that will no longer be so; it has really upset their timetables and their lives.

Members of the local commuters association stood at Bedford station last week and counted passengers alighting from and joining peak evening trains at Bedford between 4.30 pm and 7.30 pm: 1,711 passengers left the train at Bedford and 130 joined it to travel north. No doubt a count in the morning would offer very similar figures. That means that about 4,000 people travel during peak hours from Bedford station. People are anxious about how they will balance work and family commitments. They tell me they will not be able to get back from London on time to relieve babysitters. Those travelling in from the north tell me they will drive from now on.

Dr Sheena Whyte wrote to me:

“My husband and I chose to live in Bedford because this enables us to work in Leicester and London respectively. Without a direct commuter service between Bedford and Leicester at peak times, the ability of my husband to attend his lecturing role at De Montfort University becomes almost impossible”.

That is typical of many of the letters I receive. People have chosen Bedford because of rail connectivity. We keep hearing about all the extra capacity, but rail use in Bedford is up 20% since 2010, so extra seats were needed anyway. It is said that under the proposals 1,200 seats will be gained, but we are losing 2,000 seats from East Midlands Trains. It is unbelievable: Bedford rail users’ fares rose again in January, and I hope the Minister will urge the train companies to offer some form of compensation to them.

The Thameslink trains that people will be forced to use are not fit for a long commute. Many people use the journey to do work, and they cannot do that on the current Thameslink trains. I hope that the Minister will tell us when all Thameslink services will be retrofitted to include tables, power points and wi-fi.

I intend to host an event in Parliament for rail users as soon as possible, and my office has been in touch with the Rail Minister’s team to try to arrange a date. I hope that the new Minister will confirm today that she is willing to attend that meeting and speak to my constituents.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, in my first ever Westminster Hall debate. To prevent any confusion, I must say that I am not the Rail Minister. The Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), is in the Space Industry Bill Committee, so I will do my best to respond to all the hon. Members here today.

I will start by thanking all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton South (Mr Shuker) on securing the debate and thank him for allowing other hon. Members to voice their concerns. As a proud Lutonian, I have many family members in Luton who have given me an update on their travel journeys since I have been in the Department for Transport.

I have listened carefully to all the representations about the immediate plans for rail services through Bedfordshire and it is clear that hon. Members and their constituents have lost patience. It is also clear that public trust, or at least confidence, has suffered. That is in part because of the lack of consultation about plans to introduce new but important changes to services across Bedfordshire. I will say more about that shortly.

I apologise to passengers and to local businesses who will be inconvenienced by the planned service alterations in May. I recognise the short-term pain that those changes will cause to commuters and businesses. I can assure hon. Members that the Government, Network Rail and the train companies are doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of these changes on rush hour passengers. For example, we are currently exploring the potential for running an additional “peak-busting” East Midlands Trains service direct between Bedford and St Pancras.

I want to be clear about two things. The enhancements that we are delivering on Thameslink and the midland main line are essential to sustaining the long-term prosperity of Bedfordshire and the east midlands. I know that the hon. Member for Luton South is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Thameslink, so he knows much more than I do about that, but I gathered from his speech that he is convinced that the investments are being made for the right reason. The passengers, businesses and communities who will have to cope with some service reductions are the very people who will benefit in the future from newer, faster trains, more services, more seats and more destinations.

I also highlight that we are dealing with challenges associated with success and not failure. More people are travelling on trains than by any other form of transport.

May I correct the Minister? It will not be extra seats but fewer seats for commuters travelling from Bedford. We are losing 2,000 seats when we lose the EMT train service and gaining 1,200. There will be fewer seats available, not more.

The paper I have in front of me tells me that there will be 2,000 seats available. I am aware of the note that the hon. Gentleman sent through to the Department; unfortunately, there was a change of Minister, so that note has been passed on to the new Rail Minister. I know the hon. Gentleman has requested a meeting with his passengers and constituents, and I believe the new Rail Minister will honour that and have the meeting to explain further the impact of the changes on the hon. Gentleman’s constituents in the short term and the benefits for them in the long term. That note has been passed on, and no doubt the Minister will be present at the meeting that the hon. Gentleman wishes to convene.

I recognise that these statements will be of little comfort to hard-pressed commuters who face the prospect of travelling on fewer trains, even if they will be more certain of a seat for their journey during that time. However, the reality is that demand for rail travel is exceeding supply. The Thameslink programme and the upgrade of the midland main line represent only two examples of the major investments that this Government are making across the country to give passengers the rail services they demand.

Last year we announced our intention to commit some £48 billion to improving the reliability of the rail network between 2019 and 2024—all this in addition to the £55 billion already planned for HS2. However, the clear and unavoidable cost to passengers of delivering all those improvements is that there is often an impact on current services in the interim.

I will go back to the question of consultation, which was raised by the hon. Member for Luton South. May 2018 represents one of the largest timetable changes in recent rail history, affecting services across the south-east of England and beyond. The hon. Gentleman also quoted the Rail Minister’s comment that solutions are not always perfect, but that we need to make the changes to increase capacity and reliability on the line. I am rushing through, because we have a short time, but I hope to get to everyone’s points.

In the meantime, let us not forget that the £7 billion Thameslink programme was designed to transform the rail services that are so important to constituents and to the long-term prosperity of Bedfordshire. The upgrade of the midland main line is planned from May 2018 to 2020, and unfortunately Bedford and Luton town will lose East Midlands services in the peak while the upgrade is delivered. However, the Department has agreed to fund East Midlands Trains to lease three additional high-speed trains. In addition, as part of the timetabled development work, East Midlands Trains has found a way to maintain its existing calls at Luton Airport Parkway in the peak, enabling airport passengers from north of Bedford to continue to enjoy a direct service.

However, during that time they will benefit from more frequent Thameslink services. Those services will provide over 2,000 extra peak-time seats from Bedford and over 3,000 from Luton each morning. At Luton, that is far in excess of the number of seats on EMT trains that will no longer be able to call there—most, if not all of which are already occupied. That will be welcome news to some passengers, I am sure. Thameslink will also provide an alternative fast service with fewer stops, delivering journeys of around 45 minutes between Bedford and London, and of around 30 minutes between Luton and London. For some passengers, the convenience of a regular direct Thameslink service to the heart of London will make for an easier commute.

The hon. Member for Luton South mentioned accessibility to platforms and trains. That is within my portfolio, and having done some research I have been assured that Thameslink has better facilities on its trains, better access to toilets, better wi-fi and wider doors, and step-free access to platforms at Bedford but not at Luton. I am more than happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman to work out what more we can do to apply pressure to ensure accessibility is available to all.

As I said, I recognise that that will be of little comfort to some passengers during the midland main line upgrade. The situation for them will be resolved from 2020, which coincides with our exciting plans for the new East Midlands franchise, on which, I am delighted to say, we conducted a full and thorough public consultation. That consultation is now closed; I thank all those who contributed to the discussion on our proposals. The contributions are being evaluated and we will release our response soon, alongside the invitation to tender for bidders.

Our plans for the East Midlands franchise invite proposals for a brand-new fleet of longer, quieter, more comfortable and more efficient trains, which will provide additional seating with improved on-board facilities on long-distance services. Together with the investment in the midland main line upgrade, a fleet of high-quality electric trains will provide up to 50% more seats in the peak on the fast, direct service between Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton and Luton Airport Parkway, and London St Pancras by December 2020. The next operator of the franchise will also have to bring forward exciting and innovative plans to improve customer service and the provision of information to passengers, and offer tickets that serve flexible travel patterns and improve value for money.

As part of a strategic vision for the railways that puts passengers first, we will also require new ways of working under the next franchise. Therefore, in keeping with our strategy for the railways published last November, the new East Midlands franchise will bring to an end the historic separation of track and train. That separation is no longer suitable for meeting the challenges of today’s intensively used rail network. In its place we will introduce a “one team” approach that will embed shared incentives between Network Rail and the new operator to ensure that passenger interests come first in all decision making. I hope all hon. Members will agree that that vision for the new franchise will ensure that East Midlands services play a full role in securing the long-term economic prosperity of the region.

I thank all hon. Members for contributing to the debate, which has been stimulating. I hope I have answered most questions; if there are any that I have not answered, I am sure that the Rail Minister will most certainly follow up in writing, if not in the meeting that the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) wishes to convene. I also hope that I have left hon. Members in no doubt that we recognise the importance of Bedfordshire’s prosperity to our national success. For that reason, we have invested and continue to invest at historic levels in enhancements to rail network, trains and services. A railway fit for the 21st century is our vision, and we are rolling out the plans to get us there. Unfortunately, sometimes that comes with unavoidable short-term consequences, for which I have apologised. I assure hon. Members that the Department will continue to work hard with Network Rail and the train operators to mitigate those as far as possible.

I will close with one of the lines used by the hon. Member for Luton South: the £75 billion that we want to deliver must deliver improved quality of service for our passengers and value for money.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.