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Rail Services: Kettering

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services to and from Kettering.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. I welcome the rail Minister to his place. I want to place on record my thanks to the formidable Kettering rail users group and its two main advocates, Christopher Groome and Stuart Porter, who must be among the most able leading amateur rail enthusiasts and timetable experts in the country. Christopher is also chairman of the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire rail action committee. If an organisation could be more formidable than the Kettering rail users group, it would be that organisation. I also praise all the station staff at Kettering railway station. They must be among the nicest, most pleasant and hardest working railway staff anywhere on the system. They are forever courteous and helpful, and go out of their way to ensure the passenger experience is as smooth and trouble free as possible.

I want to make several points to the rail Minister on behalf of my constituents. Railway issues and timetables can get formidably complicated. I do not want to go down that route. I just want to highlight some key issues. The reason for this debate is that the rail franchise through Kettering—the east midlands franchise—is coming up for renewal, and it is important that we get the rail services to and from Kettering right in the next franchise. The first point the Minister needs to understand is that nowhere on the midlands main line is growing faster in housing development than Kettering, Wellingborough and Corby. They are among the fastest growing places in the whole country, and the railway line through those three constituencies is extremely important.

My second point is that about 10 years ago, when the branch line was reopened to Corby, the main line rail service to and from Kettering northwards was effectively downgraded from a half-hourly service to an hourly service. That was done by the last Labour Government and I am looking to this Conservative Government to right that wrong. They should be able to do that, if the Minister and his officials were to revisit the superb representation made in the franchise consultation by Christopher Groome and Stuart Porter. In their submission, they are not just arguing Kettering’s corner. They are standing back, putting themselves in the rail Minister’s shoes and asking, “How can we help the Minister to develop a new franchise arrangement that will facilitate a better service up and down the line?” The proposals that they advance would reintroduce that half-hourly service.

My third point is that rail fares to and from Kettering are relatively expensive, compared to other rail fares around the country. We effectively have inter-city rail fares, but an increasingly commuter-style service. I am frequently surprised, whenever I travel by rail to any other part of the country, by how cheap rail travel is compared to the expensive fares that passengers to and from Kettering have to pay.

Kettering is effectively at the apex of a Y-shape coming out of St Pancras station. The midland main line comes out of St Pancras in London and goes north. The first junction is at Kettering, with the Corby branch line. Because Kettering is that junction, it makes sense to reintroduce the half-hourly services, because effectively Kettering is the hub, and that will help all the commuters from Wellingborough, Corby and Kettering to go north. It is important that the rail Minister bears that Y-shape in mind.

The central demand of the Kettering rail users group is for trains to call at Kettering every half an hour, because that will provide platform connections to Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton and Corby. Ideally one service should be from Sheffield and Derby, and one from Nottingham, and then run non-stop to St Pancras. That might be too ambitious in terms of non-stop to St Pancras—but it is the frequency of the service. Once it is less than every half an hour, passenger numbers start to drop off.

Cross-platform connectivity between trains happened very well at Leicester, which is a far bigger station than Kettering, until 2009. That led to a substantial growth in ridership. Since 2009, passenger growth has been suppressed because of the changes made then, particularly for Kettering journeys to Leicester, Birmingham and beyond. Kettering is the optimum hub for the towns in north Northamptonshire and their connectivity to Leicester and beyond.

Fares have been set at inter-city levels for many years to reflect the level of service and comfort. The rolling stock specification, journey times, comfort and capacity need to be of a high-enough standard to justify those inter-city fares and the premium charge, compared with, for example, Northampton to Euston or Huntingdon to King’s Cross fares. Some passengers from Kettering will drive to Northampton or Huntingdon to take advantage of the cheaper fares.

I firmly believe, as does the Kettering rail users group, that we have an opportunity for strong rail growth by restoring Kettering’s half-hourly off-peak service to Leicester. Before we lost that frequency 10 years ago, travel to both Derby and Nottingham was possible via an easy cross-platform connection at Leicester—effectively a half-hourly link to both, with equivalent connections to Birmingham. But train journeys from Kettering to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds have become car journeys today, due to the reduced frequency to Leicester and beyond. Any delay to a connecting southbound service now leads to an hour’s wait. The risk of that is too high for too many passengers. Corby passengers also suffer an hour’s wait heading north, due to poor connections. When the Corby shuttle comes into Kettering, it is not timed to meet the hourly service going north from Kettering.

A mix of connections and through-services, as suggested by the Kettering rail users group in their submission to the Minister, from Leicester to Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough, Bedford and Luton, is needed to avoid future rail growth from Leicestershire, Nottingham and beyond being replaced by car journeys. It would be a tragedy if the new franchise on the midland main line ended up seeing an increase in car journeys in the east midlands, when we want to see the opposite.

I mentioned at the start that Kettering, Wellingborough and Corby are very fast-growing parts of the world, and that is exemplified by the crowding and overcrowding figures on East Midlands Trains. In May 2017, the East Midlands Trains website showed the following trains as forecast to have over 90% of seats taken when leaving St Pancras: the 3.29 to Nottingham, the 4.01 to Corby, the 4.26 to Sheffield, the 4.29 to Nottingham, the 4.57 to Sheffield, the 5.01 to Corby, the 5.30 to Nottingham, the 5.57 to Sheffield, the 6 o’clock to Melton Mowbray, the 6.30 to Lincoln, the 7.15 to Nottingham, the 7.28 to Derby, the 8 o’clock to Corby and the 8.30 to Nottingham. Those are all at 90% of passenger capacity when they leave London. On other trains, 75% to 90% of seats are taken: the 2.58 to Sheffield, the 3.26 to Sheffield, the 3.58 to Sheffield, the 7 o’clock to Corby, the 7.32 to Leeds and the 8.15 to Nottingham. The system is already groaning at the seams, and that is why we need more seats and more services.

The Kettering rail users group has complained often about overcrowding and poor connectivity since the changes that were made about 10 years ago. The franchise is the chance to correct that mistake, to improve journey opportunities from Kettering to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds and to provide a timetable that varies at peak times to avoid creating overcrowded services. The group’s aims for 2020 and 2023 are better connectivity north and, if possible, quarter-hourly commuting frequency and two fast services to London each hour throughout the day.

Chapter 4 of the Department’s consultation document on the new franchise claims that the line is full, but our experience is that many hourly freight paths are underused on the line. Freight paths should be allocated only at less of a speed differential to passenger paths. The Kettering rail users group believes that three minute or four minute scheduled headways should be more widely specified and that freight passing loops between Kettering and Wigston should be sought and funded to allow more, faster trains on that key section. An engineering solution could help to fit more passenger trains on the midland main line.

The Kettering rail users group has frequently pressed East Midlands Trains to restore the two trains an hour service between Leicester and Kettering, though with no success so far, and other stations have taken prior advantage of the line speed improvements that have been made. Recently the situation has got even worse than it was 10 years ago. The Sunday pattern was the old pattern until very recently, when East Midlands Trains switched Sunday afternoons over to the inconvenient weekday system in May last year. With growing demand, the hourly Nottingham service is now frequently full with passengers standing when it leaves Kettering going north, especially on Saturday mornings, in school holidays and at key times. Ironically, line speed improvements between Kettering and Corby mean that the hourly Corby southbound service arrives in Kettering just after the northbound hourly Nottingham service on the main line leaves, making a connection impossible if both trains are on time. The Corby passengers then have to wait an hour at Kettering before they go north. That situation cannot be right.

Kettering Borough Council, of which I am proud to be a member and therefore declare my interest, has a great opportunity to develop Kettering station. The redevelopment of Kettering’s station quarter has been in the pipeline for several years. Additional investment could lead to increased car parking, enhanced passenger facilities and an improved station gateway. Land west of the station could be developed as a business innovation centre. There would also be the opportunity to create access from the west, so that local passengers do not need to drive round the one-way system to the other side of the station before accessing trains. If the franchise is got right—if the train pattern in the new franchise encourages passenger growth—Kettering Borough Council is well placed to ensure that the infrastructure at Kettering station is upgraded to help.

Our other problem is that because of the Thameslink timetable changes, passengers from Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough who would take a peak service to Bedford or Luton will now have to do so by bus. That will lead to a dramatic decline in the number of passengers using this rail/bus service, and I urge the Minister to think of a physical rail infrastructure solution. Network Rail could extend the platform or platforms at Bedford to take a shuttle service from Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough while the Thameslink timetable settles down.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that passengers from Kettering, Wellingborough, Luton and Bedford will be badly affected by those journeys and that the franchise should compensate them for their losses, because thousands of people moved to those areas so that they could easily commute to work?

In effect, Thameslink is a very narrow tunnel that goes underneath London, and therefore all the trains that go in and out of it have to be timed exactly to fit on to the other train routes, including the midland main line. That is clearly leading to a bottleneck in our part of the world. I understand that problem, but I believe that there is an engineering solution. There is no doubt that East Midlands Trains will take a huge revenue hit with the loss of passengers using its service. I think East Midlands Trains is doing its best given the constraints placed on it, but the Minister needs to work with Network Rail to see if an engineering solution is possible at Bedford: the extension of a platform and the purchase of a shuttle train that can run backwards and forwards, so that passengers have at least a train service to Bedford instead of having to go on the bus.

It is welcome that electrification is coming to Kettering and Corby. I urge the Minister to consider extending electrification to Braybrooke, and then to Harborough or Wigston, because of the feeds from the national grid. An engineering solution would mean that that could be done at very low cost. Early procurement of bi-modes for the new franchise is needed, because part of the line will be electrified and part will be diesel. There are also easy stretches for upgrading and electrification further north. It would be a shame to break up the engineering teams installing electrification up to Kettering and Corby when, with a little bit of forward planning, they could be sensibly deployed to deal with stretches of the line that can be electrified fairly simply and at low cost. That would not be 100% electrification of the whole line, but other bits north of Kettering could be done at very low cost.

It has been a pleasure to have this debate under your benign guidance and chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for securing this debate. I congratulate him on that, and thank the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) for contributing. It has been a helpful, if somewhat short, debate. I am keen to respond to the questions that my hon. Friend has put to me, which cover much of the ground that we covered in our very useful meeting with members of the Kettering rail users group and those from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in Bedford just a few days ago, on 7 February.

I am grateful for the considerable work undertaken by the Kettering rail users group on the complex areas that my hon. Friend mentioned. I hope he will be reassured by the fact that the Department has shared the group’s proposals with Network Rail. Department for Transport officials are in discussions with Network Rail and the train operating companies that were present at the meeting that he and the hon. Gentleman attended—East Midlands Trains and Govia Thameslink Railway—to see whether it is possible to bring life to the proposed engineering solutions: the introduction of a shuttle service involving the extension of a platform at Bedford. A shuttle service between Kettering and Bedford would enable us to remove the bus service mentioned by the hon. Member for Bedford.

I also acknowledge the wider aspirations for rail services in Kettering, as mentioned by my hon. Friend. On the specific aspiration to reintroduce the half-hourly northbound service and occasional faster peak services, Department for Transport officials are giving careful consideration to what will be specified in the next franchise. However, ultimately, it will be a matter for consideration by the bidders for the new franchise. I encourage the Kettering rail users group to engage directly with the bidders to see whether its aspirations can be secured through those bids.

That said, I have listened carefully to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and the hon. Member for Bedford about their constituents’ recent experiences and their concerns about the immediate plans for rail services through Kettering and affecting Bedford. It is clear that, to a great extent, their constituents have lost patience and confidence in the process, partly due to the lack of consultation—that theme came up in the meeting a couple of weeks ago—on the plans to introduce service changes. I will say more about that.

I apologise to hon. Members, their constituents, passengers and local businesses inconvenienced by the planned service alterations in May. The Department recognises the short-term pain that the changes will cause, and we regret it. I assure them that the Government, Network Rail and the train companies are doing everything possible to mitigate the impact of the changes, particularly on rush hour passengers. The hon. Member for Bedford asked about compensation. I bring to his attention an announcement by the Department offering a dedicated fare for season ticket holders who have to use the coach service; it will be 50% lower than the equivalent rail fare. In addition, there will be a 25% reduction on anytime fares affected by the change.

On a more positive note, I would like to be clear about two things. The enhancements that we will ultimately deliver to Thameslink and the midland main line are essential to sustaining the long-term prosperity of Kettering and the east midlands in general. The passengers, businesses and communities that will have to cope with some service reductions in the shorter term are the very people who will benefit in the medium and long term from newer, faster trains, more services, more seats and more destinations.

[Mr Albert Owen in the Chair]

We are also dealing with challenges associated with success, not failure. I recognise that such statements will be of little comfort to hard-pressed commuters in Bedford and Kettering facing the short-term prospect of fewer trains, even if they will be more certain of a seat on those trains for their journey. However, that is the reality. Demand for rail travel quite simply exceeds 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 that 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. However, the clear and unavoidable cost to passengers of delivering all those improvements is often, unfortunately, a short-term impact on current services.

I appreciate that the Minister has a complicated job; he is playing with a huge train set across the country. The key thing for the midland main line and Kettering services in the long term is to have an eighth train pathway. The present ambition is to have six trains an hour from London; can he confirm that the long-term ambition is to have an eighth train pathway? It would make a lot of the problems go away.

I understand that that is the aspiration. It is right that my hon. Friend is a powerful champion for rail users in his constituency. We are giving careful consideration to all the trade-offs involved in the development of the franchise, and we will be setting out specifications in due course.

I said that I would return to the question of consultation. May 2018 represents one of the largest timetable changes in recent rail history, affecting services across the south-east of England and beyond. The scale, complexity and late emergence of the impact of the planned changes were such that it was not possible for train operators to consult on the changes as they would have done in normal circumstances. I acknowledge that lack of consultation.

Surely the changes must have been planned months or years before coming into effect, but why was there no consultation? I am sure that the franchises and the Government knew months and years before.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: there was a regrettable lack of consultation, which the Government acknowledge and apologise for. It runs counter to the open and transparent approach to service planning and franchise design generally adopted in recent years, and the Government have no hesitation in offering their apologies to my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman for the inconvenience suffered by their constituents as a result and the frustration that they must feel at the lack of consultation on the development of the timetable changes.

In the case of Kettering, once the electrification of the midland main line is complete in 2020, passengers at Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough, Bedford, Luton and Luton Airport Parkway will benefit from a new, dedicated fast commuter service into London St Pancras. The electric trains will be longer, with more seats. In total, a 50% increase is planned in the number of seats into St Pancras during the peak by 2020, with further increases as new rolling stock is introduced on the inter-city services. With the introduction of the new timetable in December 2020, Kettering will become a key interchange between the inter-city services and the dedicated fast commuter service from Corby into London.

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 my hon. Friend’s constituents, as is the planned upgrade of the midland main line. From May 2018 to 2020, while the upgrade is being delivered, Bedford and Luton will, as discussed, lose the direct connection from Kettering during the peak. However, the Department has agreed to fund East Midlands Trains to lease three additional high-speed trains to mitigate other adverse impacts.

In addition, as part of the timetable 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. When completed, the Thameslink programme, along with the timetable enhancement in 2020, will also open up new connections for passengers with other GTR services from Bedford to Farringdon, as well as to London Bridge and further south. It is not all bad news. We will continue to work closely with my hon. Friend, the hon. Gentleman and their user groups to ensure that their views are taken carefully into account as we specify the work for the new franchise.

I appreciate what the Minister is saying about the new franchise from 2020, but between May 2018 and 2020, the changes will affect many people who moved to Bedford because they could easily commute from there to work in London and the north. Now, during those two years, they might lose their jobs or be unable to commute to work, so they might already be moving out of Bedford. The damage will be done by 2020. What does the Minister say about that?

I would say that we are working hard to ensure that they get the train services that they need for the future, which will sustain the local economy and give them a viable basis for getting to work and going about their business.

Question put and agreed to.