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House of Commons Hansard
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Rail Passenger Comfort
12 July 2018
Volume 644

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

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As ever, it is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful for this opportunity to speak about what I fully accept is not the most pressing issue on the railways today, and I make it clear at the outset that I know that many passengers on lines affected by the chaos from the new timetables on Northern and Govia Thameslink Railway would welcome any train, not just one that is comfortable.

The Transport Committee, on which I serve, is currently examining those matters, so in no way do I wish to diminish the importance and urgency of those issues, which I hope will be short term and resolved relatively soon. However, I wish to speak on a more longer-term, strategic issue for the railways: ensuring that passengers have a decent level of comfort while travelling by train. The problem is not a lack of investment in our railways—quite the reverse. Most franchises in the country have either had or are in line to have wonderful new trains that are technologically superior and will offer faster journey times, lower emissions and generally much better performance.

Train company order books are healthy, which is much to be welcomed, but there has been considerable criticism from passengers on the most recently introduced trains that the seats are—not to put too fine a point on it—extremely uncomfortable. The passengers have often paid large sums to travel on those trains. There has been particular criticism of the new Thameslink trains, the class 700s. They have what are described as “ironing board” seats, which are as comfortable as that name suggests; they also have minimal leg room and no tables on which to put a laptop or a cup of coffee.

Another line that has attracted considerable criticism is the Great Western. The intercity express programme trains—the flagship new rolling stock—are wonderfully technically superior, but the seats are not comfortable, and journeys can last for up to five hours for people who are travelling all the way down to Devon or Cornwall. Similarly, Eurostar has refurbished, or bought new trains, which are also wonderful—I travel on them regularly—but the seats are greatly inferior to those on the trains that they replaced.

My personal gripe is this. Is it really beyond our ability to align seats and windows? On too many trains, one ends up sitting next to a window pillar throughout the journey and can therefore see very little out of the window. The rot set in during the late 1970s, when the original generation of rolling stock—particularly the electric trains—was replaced by what are known as the mark 2 electric multiple units. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I grew up in the greater Glasgow area. We had a wonderful fleet of trains known as the Glasgow Blue Trains, which had wonderfully springy seats and very large windows. One could sit at the front of the train, look forward towards the driver’s cab and see what was coming. Then the trains were refurbished and made dreadfully uncomfortable. All the seats ended up being next to window pillars, and one could see very little. Technology and safety requirements have evolved, and today seats must conform to fire and crash safety regulations. In no way do I wish to diminish the importance of that.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am massively impressed by his technical knowledge of rolling stock and comfortable seats. Passenger comfort and safety are obviously important, but so are the comfort and safety of the people who operate and work on trains. On the Severn Beach line, a local service in my constituency, it is virtually impossible for conductors and other staff to move along the trains at peak times. Not only does that have significant implications for their own comfort and health and safety, but they cannot always collect tickets and then report accurately on how many people are using the service, which could affect its long-term viability.

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I should declare that I am a railway buff and therefore have an unhealthy level of detailed knowledge about these matters. My hon. Friend has made a good point. There is a trade-off to be made between having comfortable seats and having enough seats. I shall return to that in a moment, but he is right to say that the comfort and safety of those who work on our railways are as important as the comfort and safety of passengers, and if he will bear with me, I shall touch on that as well in a little while.

As I have said, I do not want to see any diminution of the existing safety requirements. It has been suggested that that is the reason for the uncomfortable seats, but I think that that is incorrect, because there are plenty of seat designs that would comply with the safety requirements. I have to conclude that, owing to specifications from the Department for Transport and cost issues for the train operating companies, they have gone for the cheaper alternatives. The TOCs have a financial incentive in terms of their balance sheets to have the cheapest fitted-out carriage, but I will come on to argue that that is a false economy if they wish to sustain their business into the long term.

The Department specifies that new trains must have a certain passenger capacity, which is why seats are increasingly jammed together with minimal legroom, and there is always going to be that trade-off between having enough seats on a train and making them comfortable, but my contention is that that balance has been skewed too much in favour of cramming everyone on.

It is also wrong to claim that passengers are just as happy with the new seats on trains as they were with those on the trains they have replaced. That is a false comparison again. On the Great Western, the IEP trains that have been introduced replace the old InterCity 125s but not in their original configuration, which were very comfortable. First Great Western, as it was then, went through a so-called refurbishment programme a number of years ago and made the trains very uncomfortable indeed, with garish lighting and high seats that passengers could see very little around. To compare the new seats with those horrible ones is therefore not much of a comparison.

I accept that there are different requirements for different types of line. Clearly, I am not asking for a luxurious Pullman coach or a restaurant car to be added to a high-density metro service, such as the central line up to Epping—although that would be a wonderful innovation and fitting for Madam Deputy Speaker—but it is not practical: high-density metro services have large numbers of people coming on and off at frequent stops. But on intercity services, on regional services and on longer distance commuter ones, perhaps of more than 30 minutes in duration, higher priority should be given to passenger comfort, and it is possible to do so. I recently visited Sweden and travelled on its intercity line between Gothenburg and Stockholm. In its standard class, the seat pitch and comfort was comparable to many of the first-class coaches on British lines, so this is perfectly possible.

Why is this important? It comes down to the railways keeping their share of the market on lines that will have a large discretionary element. Some commuter lines are the only viable way to get into, or out of, a major city, but many railways are competing: each TOC is competing with other train operators and with other non-rail modes of transport. It is instructive to look at the example of Virgin Trains East Coast and ask why it got into trouble. It did so not because it was losing money or running a bad service; its problem was that it did not grow its passenger numbers and consequently revenue as much as it planned when it won the franchise. That gap proved too big to be sustainable, and we all know what happened.

Part of the reason why those numbers did not grow as much as possible was that passengers were choosing to drive or take long-distance coaches or fly between many of the long-distance destinations. That is a warning sign for the railways. Passenger numbers are beginning to plateau as work and retail habits change. Increasingly, there is new technology, too: cars are getting better, petrol is comparatively cheaper, and if technology evolves and we get more semi or fully autonomous cars, that will be a major source of competition for the railways.

The railways counter that by giving a good customer environment in which to travel, and I think there is a huge untapped market. Travelling by rail is one of life’s great joys if we have a good journey—if we have a comfortable seat with legroom and space to relax, to work, to gaze out of the window, chat with friends and enjoy a refreshment. There are many ways of having a pleasurable experience. We have only to look at the popularity of Michael Portillo’s “Great British Railway Journeys” to see the appetite of the country for enjoying these experiences.

We also need 21st century facilities on trains. Wi-fi is increasingly a key requirement for travellers, as is a space for them to use their laptop or tablet and the ability to charge them up. We also have to look at the converse cost involved when passengers have a hellish journey and arrive grumpy, sore and stressed. How productive are they at work, compared with when they have had a good journey?

This leads me to the slightly wider consideration of how we calculate the cost-benefit analysis of investment. Yes, it might be cheaper at the moment for train companies to install the cheapest and most basic type of seating configuration, but if that drives passengers away, is it really in the companies’ financial interests? There is also a wider economic point for the country. We want to increase our productivity, and one way to do that is to ensure that passengers arrive at their destination in a good frame of mind and willing to do some work. This was touched on when we were debating High Speed 2. The calculation of the economic benefit was done solely on how quickly people could get from one point to another, rather than looking at the quality of the time they spent on board and how productively they could use it while travelling to their destination. I urge the Government to draw their boundaries more widely in this regard.

I welcome the fact that the Rail Safety and Standards Board has started a consultation into the minimum specifications for seats to ensure that they are safe. Once we have established that baseline, we can look at what the upward options might be. When does the Minister expect the RSSB to report, and will he tell us how he and his colleagues plan to implement its findings? Will he also look again at how the Department for Transport can specify the specifications for rolling stock? There have been instances of the Department specifying the types of seats required and the cost envelopes for them, and this has resulted in very good seats being installed on trains. If he wants the details, I can tell him that it involved the class 175 and the class 180 specifications a few years ago. Will he also consider imposing minimum standards in future franchise consultations?

Travelling is one of life’s great joys, and it dismays me that on many modes of transport passenger comfort is being diminished in the calculations. The airlines have been at it for years, with seat pitches getting smaller and smaller, making air travel a real displeasure in many cases. I really hope that the railways can change the recent trend of squeezing more and more people on, with scant regard for their comfort. I want the railways’ renaissance to continue in this country, and I believe that changing the specifications for seating arrangements in the carriages would represent a major step towards achieving that.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) on securing this timely debate, which covers an important topic. It has already been noted that he is a great expert in this area, and I pay due deference to him not only as a member of the Transport Committee but as a railway nerd of some considerable standing and expertise. We saw his expertise in the debate today in the casual way in which he dropped in the different classes of locomotive and referred to the historical experience and the methods of cost benefit analysis involved in calculating the benefits associated with the journeys that he described.

My hon. Friend will be aware that I am not the Rail Minister, so I should enter a caveat about my own extreme lack of experience and understanding of the issue, but I hope that I will be able to say some things that will give him some comfort and show that the Government are keenly aware of the issue and are addressing it. As he says, this is a long-term issue, and he rightly paints a beguiling picture of the quality of travel in an enhanced Stewart-world, if one may describe it as such. Nothing is more beguiling than the image of you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in a Pullman car—I hope of your own design and specification—being taken to destinations unknown.

To address the questions that have been raised, I will talk a little about the franchising programme and the investments in rolling stock. As the House well knows, passenger numbers have more than doubled since privatisation of the railways 20-odd years ago, and the country’s railways need to adapt to cope with that and with future demands, which means investing in upgrades and new services across the country. That investment is never more important or evident than when it goes towards modern, comfortable and reliable trains, which are the key to a better railway for passengers.

Since 1996—my hon. Friend is the only Member who would know this by heart already—train operators have placed orders for more than 13,000 new carriages across the country. Those carriages have delivered significant benefits to passengers. The old slam-door trains across the south are being retired and replaced. We have high-speed trains on the west coast main line and the imminent replacement of the Pacers in the north with brand-new air-conditioned carriages with what we expect to be state-of-the-art passenger facilities, such as wi-fi, real-time passenger information and USB charging sockets.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, passengers are now being carried on the brand-new intercity express trains on the great western route. As my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) touched on, although some concerns have been uttered about some of the seating, the overwhelming impression, teething problems aside, has been positive. There are also important orders for new trains for passengers in East Anglia and the west midlands. We expect the new trains to help transform the railways, and faster, greener, more pleasant vehicles will not only improve the experiences of those who use them, but set up the traditional cascade of newly refurbished stock to other parts of the network.

It is important that operators continue to invest in the benefits of a good passenger experience. The reliable provision of wi-fi on trains is a key priority for passengers, and that has become a requirement on all trains through the franchising process to ensure that customers can get connected. Passengers are also now seeing advanced information systems being rolled out on both new and refurbished trains. Those systems deliver real-time information that helps passengers make informed decisions about their journey.

It is also important to recognise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South would, that it is essential for a rail service that is doing its job properly to be accessible to all passengers. Some of the new trains being built have been designed with integrated devices that fill the gap between the train and the platform, and refurbished trains are being modified to ensure that they will meet modern accessibility requirements. Accessibility is also being baked into new franchise competitions to drive such improvements.

If run properly, a franchising programme should be one of the key drivers of delivering benefits to passengers, and the Department will continue to consult stakeholders before letting each franchise. Once the franchising process is ongoing, we then look for franchise bidders to propose initiatives to improve the quality of rolling stock. The Department for Transport sets out its aspirations in the “Rolling Stock Perspective” document, which provides a high-level overview of the kinds of benefits that passengers should expect and that train operators should work towards. Such aspirations are intentionally set up as outputs or results, because we want to leave it to train operators to decide what innovative approaches they may take and what experience they can draw on to help them to meet those goals.

My hon. Friend rightly focused on passenger experience. It is absolutely right that passengers should have high expectations and that the industry should focus on that passenger experience—of getting on the train, moving through it, using it, whether sitting down or standing, and getting off. The Department has worked hard to understand the expectations of not just passengers but all the parties to the different aspects of train usage— focus groups, representatives of passenger groups and manufacturers—in order to meet expectations.

From my own experience, and having met train chief executives, I think it is fair to say that there is a great deal more to be done. My hon. Friend is right to focus on a relative lack of innovation in this area. It will be interesting to see whether more innovation might be possible in future franchising arrangements. We look to train operators to address the challenge he set for the kind of innovation he wishes to see to improve the customer experience. Seat comfort is clearly part of that experience, and he was right to focus on concerns expressed about Thameslink and intercity express trains. He will be interested to understand that a considerable process was undertaken to assess seat comfort on those trains. The Thameslink trains were developed from a specification produced by expert advisers, with significant input from the then operator, and designed by Siemens. That included significant consultation with national and regional passenger groups, which had the opportunity to review the seats and found the comfort levels to be generally satisfactory.

On the intercity express trains currently being introduced on Great Western and shortly on the London and North Eastern Railway, the Department set out in the specification that the seats should be comfortable for two-hour-plus inter-city journeys. Those trains were procured from Hitachi by Agility Trains, which undertook visits with stakeholders to gather feedback on the design and seating comfort. That demonstrates that, as my hon. Friend mentioned, consultation can take place and still not please everyone. That is built into the picture we are describing.

There is no question but that train seating should be comfortable for passengers. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the design and specification of seats needs to balance the conflicting need for more seats in order to manage escalating passenger demand with the desire to provide sufficient space for each passenger and an ergonomically tested design. He can imagine that, given my height, this is a topic extremely close to my heart, and indeed my lumbar region. Seats must also conform to the relevant European design standards on fire safety and crash-worthiness.

There are no objective standards for seat comfort. As my hon. Friend correctly said, the Rail Safety and Standards Board is now managing a research project that will provide a more informed approach to making seats more comfortable and safe. I will be happy to write to him separately to give him guidance if we get any insight into the timing of the process and when it is expected to be completed. That research is aimed at developing a more sophisticated approach to understanding comfort, taking into account the shape of seats, cushioning, material choice, lumbar spine support—I am pleased to say—vibration, legroom, journey length and many other aspects. The goal is to put together a seat comfort specification with a set of minimum requirements that guards against bad outcomes, as it were, but gives plenty of scope for innovation and improvement.

I am grateful for this debate. Despite its recent travails, the rail industry does take its obligations to passengers in its rolling stock very seriously. I welcome the emphasis that my hon. Friend has placed on discretionary journeys and the importance of innovation and customer service in ensuring that those journeys are given the maximum usage possible. Increasing passenger numbers, coupled with increasing pressures on funds, is creating both challenges and opportunities for innovation and new ideas, but at no time are they more needed than when necessity is the mother of invention. The Department is committed to ensuring that rolling stock meets the needs of passengers now and in the future. As the rail industry evolves, it needs to ensure that passengers and passenger safety and comfort are kept at the heart of everything it does.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.