Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)
I asked for this Adjournment debate because my constituents are increasingly angry about the poor quality of service that they receive on the Abellio Greater Anglia-run line from Southend Victoria into Liverpool Street station. As the Minster is about to discover, after several years of dealing with this issue, I, too, am now angry on their behalf. I hope to demonstrate why Abellio provides such an unsatisfactory service to my constituents and suggest some ways forward.
Abellio Greater Anglia, which is part-Dutch and part-Japanese owned, has been providing the rail service on the Liverpool Street line for a number of years, and last year it won the competition to continue to run the franchise for another seven years. Unfortunately, it does not provide an efficient service. The latest data shows that more than one in every 10 Abellio trains arrives at its destination late, and the rolling stock is old, lacks air conditioning and suffers from a whole range of maintenance problems, meaning that trains are often cancelled or, at the very least, have carriages missing. Trains with carriages missing are often referred to in the industry as short trains. In simple terms, they normally have 12 carriages, but often, even in peak periods when capacity is most important, they are down to eight carriages, or even worse. That leads to overcrowding on the remaining carriages.
It is particularly galling for my constituents that for the past two years or so they have suffered regular disruption to their services on many weekends, and while travelling home late on certain weekday evenings, because of engineering works being carried out to renew overhead wires on the Liverpool Street to Southend line. On many weekends, bus replacement services have been required to help to transport commuters into London and back again, and the pattern has been repeated on weekday evenings. In addition, there is an unfortunate pattern of late trains being cancelled on weekday evenings. One evening a few weeks ago, when I was coming home late, I challenged one of the Abellio Greater Anglia customer service staff to explain why, yet again, a train had been cancelled. He said to me, “Sir, it’s because the company doesn’t want to pay the fines if the trains are late, so they prefer to cancel.” The company’s management has contested this point with me, but if even the company’s own frontline staff believe that that is what is going on, what kind of message does that send to frustrated customers?
Despite the frequent disruption to the service, Abellio has consistently refused to give any discount to commuters to acknowledge the inconvenience that they have suffered when travelling on the line. As a result, a number of commuters have established a Facebook group called “I travel with Greater Anglia…”. For the Minister’s edification, here is just a sample of a few comments that have appeared on the group in recent weeks. First, the
“07.23 Southend to LST turned up at Wickford with only 8 coaches. Did it lose some on the way given it wasn’t listed in the app or the board?!”
“Surely this group should be called ‘I *TRY TO* travel with “Greater” Anglia’?”
“Thinking of changing the group’s name to ‘I travel with Greater Anglia rail replacement bus’ after today’s shower of a service”.
“After announcing a 12 coach service only 8 turn up. These muppets can’t even get the announcements right!”
Customer satisfaction surveys carried out by the consumer organisation Which? show that in 2017 Abellio Greater Anglia ranked 20th out of 28 for commuter service, with a score of 45%, compared with a top score of 64%, and for off-peak leisure services it ranked 18th out of 28, with a customer score of 55%, compared with a top score of 70%. These dismal scores clearly show that Abellio customers, particularly its commuters, are very unhappy with the service that they receive from Abellio Greater Anglia.
I had some experience of this service myself recently while travelling home in the evening peak. I had taken the tube from Westminster to Stratford station and when I got to Stratford, passengers were already six deep on the platform because the previous train had been cancelled. The next train that pulled in heading towards Southend was half empty and stopped at the platform because there was a red signal. When passengers attempted to board the train, they were stopped by Abellio platform staff who insisted that this was not a scheduled stop and therefore people should not be allowed to board. This led to a great deal of frustration on the platform—that is putting it politely—which I witnessed myself. Despite this, the train doors remained closed while the train sat on the platform for several minutes and then eventually pulled away still half empty and still with passengers six deep on the platform. There was a degree of Anglo Saxon language on the platform at this point, though I hasten to say not from me.
The next train to come in, which was some 20 minutes delayed, was already nearly full and therefore when passengers were allowed to get on this train—because this was a scheduled stop—they were packed like sardines for most of the way home. This one anecdote shows the lack of common sense that is applied by Abellio’s management to the running of their railway.
In fairness, new modern rolling stock is to be introduced on the line from summer 2019. However, brand new trains are useful to the customer only if they are able to leave the depot to run on the line. They are no good to anybody, despite air conditioning, wi-fi and all the bells and whistles, if they are still stuck in the depot, because, yet again, the line is closed off, because, yet again, there are engineering works and customers have to take buses instead.
I recently held a meeting at the Conservative party conference with the senior management of Abellio to discuss these issues—I have been discussing those issues with them for three years. At that meeting, they explained to me that the engineering works that have caused so much disruption and frustration were now due to be extended from the current end date of late 2019-early 2020 to May 2021. That is another three years on top of the two years that we have already had. I pleaded with the management at least to offer my commuters, who pay £5,000 for a standard class season ticket from Rayleigh to Liverpool Street and back, some discount when they renew their tickets in January to acknowledge all the inconvenience that they have had to endure. As I put it to them, “Give them at least something back to show that you share their pain.” However, the company flatly refused to countenance that, partly, I believe, because it is highly geared and has extremely ambitious financial targets to meet.
I have, therefore, become completely exasperated by the company. It is now running a glorified bus service loosely disguised as a railway and my constituents have absolutely had enough of it. I have to tell the Minister that I have now completely lost confidence in the management of Abellio Greater Anglia, which seems to regard my constituents as an entirely captive market who can be provided with a shoddy service while continuing to increase their fares year on year. I have, therefore, come to the reluctant conclusion that the management are incapable of running the company properly and I am calling on Mr Jamie Burles, the managing director of Abellio Greater Anglia, to resign. In fairness to myself, I did tell him at the Conservative party conference last week that I would do that, and it is probably fair to say that he was not best pleased. I believe that only with new and reinvigorated management will the company improve its performance and begin to respect its customers as it should have been doing in the first place.
I also—and I told him this too—intend to send a copy of the Hansard of this debate to each one of Abellio’s corporate managers on its corporate board in the Netherlands, so that they are aware of what English Members of Parliament think of their railway company.
This brings me to Network Rail, which runs the track and infrastructure on the Liverpool Street line. As a constituency MP, I have had many years’ experience of dealing with Network Rail and, indeed, Railtrack previously. I have often found Network Rail to be bureaucratic, very slow moving and unresponsive. Never is this more so than with the re-wiring project, which it now wants to extend to May 2021, thus taking nearly five years to replace the overhead wires for some 30 miles of track. This is an utterly pathetic performance and is simply unacceptable. We are not trying to build a railway through the Himalayas and we managed to put a man on the moon in 1969, so why does it take five years to run a new wire between a series of gantries above a railway line? I believe that Network Rail has simply not put anything like enough resource into this project. It has had no sense of urgency whatever, and has done it in a piecemeal and underinvested fashion. That is why it has taken so very, very long.
One of the great problems with Network Rail is that it is not customer facing. It is the train operating companies that levy the ticket prices. Network Rail thus has no need whatever to be responsive to the travelling public. The organisation is large, bloated, bureaucratic and inefficient, and is providing an extremely poor service to my constituents. Moreover, the new chief executive of Network Rail, Mr Andrew Haines, is now being paid film star wages—many multiples of that which the Prime Minister receives—in order to run a massive, incompetent, failing bureaucracy.
Network Rail is in many ways reminiscent of a nationalised industry in the 1970s, when it used to take six months to get a new telephone installed by the old General Post Office. I was assured at a briefing dinner in the House of Commons several years ago that there would not need to be track closures and rail replacement buses when all this engineering work was undertaken on the line because Network Rail would use what is known as single track operation so that they could continue to run trains even at the weekends. This has proved to be completely untrue. I no longer have any faith whatever in the senior management of Network Rail, and as a result of my experience of dealing with them as a constituency MP over many years, I would not trust them with a Meccano set.
This brings me on to the disaster that was the introduction of the new timetable on much of our railway network several months ago, although—mercifully for my constituents—not on our line. I must say that I have some sympathy for the Secretary of State for Transport, who, prior to the introduction of the new timetable, did exactly what I would have done as a Minister. He called a meeting of senior executives of the railway industry, including Network Rail. Having gathered them together, he asked them if everything was in good order for the launch of the new timetable in a few weeks’ time. Unfortunately, as I understand it, not one of those highly paid executives had the moral courage to put their hand up at that meeting and admit that there were going to be serious problems. They sat there and did not tell anyone. This complete lack of professionalism meant that the Department was led to believe that the new timetable would be introduced successfully. After all, it had brought the heads of the industry—or their senior executives—in and asked them, and no one had said anything to the contrary. How can anyone run an industry if it is controlled by people like that?
Partly as a result of that fiasco, the Government introduced the rail review, on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement earlier this afternoon. So in what I hope is a timely intervention, I would like the Rail Minister to regard my speech tonight as a submission to that review. I hope that I have been quick off the blocks.
For the avoidance of doubt, I do not believe that renationalising the railways is the answer. In the 1980s and 1990s, before I was a Member of Parliament, I often commuted on the Southend to London Fenchurch Street line, which runs parallel to the Liverpool street line. It was run by the old British Rail and was widely known as the misery line. The clue is in the name. It had appalling punctuality, extremely old slam-door trains and frequent cancellations of services. I remember one winter going down to Laindon station from which I used to commute at about 8 am to catch the 8.05. It was a dreary, wet, dripping British winter Monday morning and the passengers were about six deep on the platform, which told me straight away that something was up.
Over the tannoy came an announcement that I have always remembered. The announcer said, “British Rail wish to apologise to customers on platform 1 who are waiting for the 8.05 service to London Fenchurch Street. This has been cancelled due to a points failure in the Shoeburyness depot area.” A great sigh went up along the platform. Then the announcer said, “Once again British Rail wish to apologise.” Then he paused and said, “Look, it is a Monday morning and we’ve cocked it up as usual. For what it’s worth, I’m really sorry.” There was a stunned silence on the platform, which was then followed by a large round of applause, because people could not think what else to do. That is my memory of the old British Rail , and I certainly do not want to go back to that.
To illustrate my point further, today the Fenchurch Street line, which is run by C2C, is one of the most successful and punctual lines in the country, with modern, comfortable, air-conditioned, wi-fi enabled trains. Renationalising the railways would put the network at the mercy of the Treasury every year, and I believe would lead to a lack of investment and inefficiency over time. Network Rail today shows us what a nationalised railway industry would be like, and as I think it is already a failure, I do not believe that nationalisation is the answer.
I think the better way would be to reunify train and track and recreate the old regional railway companies such as Great Eastern and Great Western, but crucially with both the trains and the rail infrastructure under one combined management as one company, so that the whole could be run as a properly integrated business. I believe that that would be far superior to the current unsatisfactory arrangements, in which lines of responsibility are unclear, everyone blames everyone else when something goes wrong, and there is obviously a clear lack of what the military would call command and control.
In summary, I am utterly exasperated about the lack of customer care from Abellio Greater Anglia, and I believe that the company needs new management and a fresh start. It must learn to respect its customers rather than treating them as cattle. I also remain highly critical of Network Rail, which I believe is highly bureaucratic and inefficient and is failing the travelling public. As a result, I believe Network Rail should be broken up and that train and track should be reunified in a series of regional railway companies as an outcome of the rail review. Other than that, I think everything is going swimmingly and I look forward with genuine interest on behalf of my constituents to the Minister’s reply.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) on securing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss train services into Liverpool Street. He has made a powerful and hard-hitting case on behalf of his constituents. It is a shame that there were not more people in the Chamber to hear it, but I know that he has a big social media following, not least from those of his constituents who are on the “I travel with Greater Anglia” Facebook page and its offshoots.
I would like to provide some information about the engineering works that have been taking place on the line to Southend, which, as we have heard, have clearly had a very negative impact on passengers in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. I will also touch on the important issues of fares and compensation, which he mentioned, and provide an update on the new trains that Greater Anglia has ordered and that are currently being built.
I recognise how important it is for my right hon. Friend’s constituents to have high-quality and reliable train services, so that they can get to work and go about their lives in a way that allows them to depend on the critical part of our national infrastructure that the railways represent. We are working closely as a Department with Network Rail and the train companies to drive down delays and cancellations, and we will support Network Rail and the wider industry in delivering significant improvements to the experience that passengers have of our railways.
The Department is following closely the significant upgrade project that Network Rail is currently delivering to replace the overhead line wire and equipment between Liverpool Street, Chelmsford and Southend Victoria. That, as my right hon. Friend knows, is a £46 million investment in our rail network. It started in 2014 and is due to be completed in 2020. It involves more than 500 structures being replaced and the installation of 128 km of overhead wire, and it is much needed. As he will know, the wiring system on his stretch of track was installed in the 1950s, nearly 70 years ago, and is in dire need of replacement. The current equipment is old, unreliable and prone to failure, and it is subject to sagging in hot temperatures. In recent years, there have been a number of highly disruptive de-wirements, as they are known, and more recently Network Rail has understandably had to impose speed restrictions in hot conditions as a result. Disruption caused by the failure of equipment leads to cancellations and delays, which impact the quality of service that passengers experience.
To minimise the overall time taken to complete that much-needed upgrade scheme, which would be a number of years longer if Network Rail only used weekends for the work, there have been some extensive periods of mid-week late evening blockades, with bus replacement services after 8.30 pm. Passenger numbers are generally lower during that period, as it is outside the conventional evening peak, so closing the line at that time helps to minimise overall passenger disruption.
I am aware that Greater Anglia has asked Network Rail to formally review its programme, to try to reduce the impact of that evening mid-week possession programme. It may be possible to focus the works more on weekends, but the decision on how best to manage that needs to be thought through carefully by both Network Rail and Greater Anglia. I understand that Network Rail and Greater Anglia are working together to get these works completed as soon as possible, with a view to having the works completed by early 2020 at the latest. In response to my right hon. Friend’s points, we expect Network Rail to commit enough resources to complete these works as soon as reasonably practicable. It has informed the Department that it now has a stretch target to complete the works by the end of 2019.
While negotiations for track access are ongoing, it is important to note that, whatever the outcome, the railway will only ever be closed for a set amount of time in total, and the question under discussion is largely one of how that time is spread out—the trade-off being greater passenger disruption if it is compressed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his clear exposition. My constituents are not unreasonable people—they live in the real world. They know that the overhead work has to be done and that the infrastructure has to be upgraded. They accept that, but it is taking far too long. The evening possessions give Network Rail very little time on the track, so why not put far more resources in and put more men and women on the job during the weekend possessions and get it done quicker? That is what my constituents and I want.
That is an entirely reasonable point of view. Network Rail has assured the Department that it is putting in the resources to get the job done as soon as is reasonably practicable, but on the back of the powerful points and the strong case my right hon. Friend has made on behalf of his constituents, I will write to Network Rail again to ensure that it is resourcing the project as it deserves.
I am aware that, as my right hon. Friend said, he has met Jamie Burles, the managing director of Greater Anglia, and asked that customers be given compensation in acknowledgement of the disruption that passengers have faced. I understand that Greater Anglia is now looking at whether there is a good-will gesture that might be practical, focusing in particular on those who have been affected by the adverse impact of the engineering works. Where customers are delayed outside the engineering works, Delay Repay compensation will of course apply as usual.
Officials from the Department are working with the operator, Greater Anglia, to see whether there is an affordable way to extend the compensation scheme so that it applies for a 15-minute delay rather than from the current 30-minute delay threshold. My right hon. Friend mentioned the Secretary of State’s statement earlier today, to which I am sure he listened carefully, in which the Secretary of State said that he wants Delay Repay 15 to be introduced in 2019—next year—on Greater Anglia. My right hon. Friend can take considerable credit for that development, and I hope that he will welcome it on behalf of his constituents.
The Government set the maximum amount by which regulated fares can rise. Train operators can choose to raise their fares by a lower amount, and there is no requirement for them always to use the maximum amount. We recognise the need to move away from RPI towards CPI, and the Secretary of State has written to the rail trade unions asking for their understanding and co-operation with this.
What my hon. Friend says about the rate of fare increases is important. When I put precisely that point to Abellio, stating my understanding that, according to the RPI formula, the company can raise fares up to that limit but does not have to raise them to the limit if it does not want to, Abellio told me that, basically because of its contract and franchise agreement, it had no choice. I am not sure that is correct. Can my hon. Friend confirm that Abellio could levy a lower increase if it wanted?
Yes, absolutely. I can confirm that the Government cap regulated fares, which account for about two thirds of fares on our railways, and it is up to the operator where to set fares below that cap.
The benefits of the franchise changes coming into place are part of a broad programme of benefits to franchises across the country. On the Greater Anglia network, the entire fleet of trains will be replaced by 2020, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, and an extensive programme of fleet refurbishment is under way. Greater Anglia has on order over 1,000 new carriages, and manufacturing and construction of the new carriages by Stadler and Bombardier in Derby is now well under way. The new trains will start to be rolled out across the network from the middle of next year and the full roll-out should be completed by the end of 2020. The new state-of-the-art trains will provide many more seats that are much needed on those busy services, and the modern trains will also provide an improved travelling environment with wi-fi, air conditioning and power sockets. The new trains will be more efficient, have faster acceleration and provide better customer information.
Although those trains are coming down the line in the future, I am clear that the current performance of Network Rail and Greater Anglia needs to improve. I recognise the strong points made by my right hon. Friend about the instances of poor performance he has experienced and those that his constituents have relayed to him through casework and in conversations. There have been a number of regrettable infrastructure and train failures over the summer, but it is fair to say that performance has been better more recently. The public performance measure for Greater Anglia stands at 89.3% for the four-week period to 18 September, which is only fractionally below its franchise target of about 91.3% for that period. Clearly, there is room for improvement, and the Department will monitor its progress in meeting public performance targets over the coming weeks.
In conclusion, I again thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to discuss services to Liverpool Street, and I appreciate the frustration that he and his constituents have been experiencing. Once the works are complete, we expect performance to improve on that part of the network, resulting in fewer cancellations and delays.
May I intervene one last time to thank the Minister for what I regard as a considered and thoughtful reply? He has clearly listened to what I was saying, and I am delighted that he will write to Network Rail about providing more resources. I would, of course, be fascinated to see a copy of the reply, which I hope can be managed. The Minister gets it. I am really pleased that he gets it, and I look forward to working with him to try to make this difficult situation better. I am grateful.
I have little more to add other than that we will be following up this issue closely with Network Rail and the train operators to ensure that my right hon. Friend gets the experience that he wants for his constituents on this important stretch of our network.
Question put and agreed to.