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House of Commons Hansard
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Transport: North East Bedfordshire
08 October 2019
Volume 664

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Would those hon. Members who took part in the previous debate leave the Chamber swiftly and quietly, please? [Interruption.] Fewer conversations on the way out might be helpful. If Members who are leaving would please do so—[Interruption.] Order. Will Members please leave the Chamber quietly? You are delaying this debate. It is thoroughly bad manners.

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and, as always, it is a great pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Minister in his place, with his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield).

North East Bedfordshire is conveniently located north of London and squarely in the new Economic Heartland area, which has a population of 3.7 million and had a growth rate between 1997 and 2015 of 25%, which compares with a national average of 15%. Attention is focused on the broad Oxford-to-Cambridge corridor, with the new expressway, East West Rail and up to 1 million new houses expected by 2050. However, although addressing east-west connectivity has been a regular UK pastime for decades and people welcome what is proposed, the reality for many of my constituents is that north-south travel is still of more importance. The increased population in recent years has meant steadily increasing numbers on main road and rail routes in and out of London. Rail journeys in the east of England, for example, rose by some 139% between 1995 and 2018. We are struggling to ensure that passenger journeys remain bearable. I therefore want to focus on train services to and from London and on the A1.

My constituents use Thameslink services from Bedford, the Great Northern service from Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey into King’s Cross, and East Midlands Railway, which used to be run by Stagecoach but is newly franchised to Abellio. The trains there offer a faster service than Thameslink from the north, via Bedford, into St Pancras. I do not want to focus on those today, but I ask the Minister to note previous correspondence on the reduction in peak-time services, and many passengers’ desire for some reinstatement of lost services north and south.

My principal concerns today are focused on the two Govia services: Thameslink and Great Northern. Context is vital. First, let me acknowledge the efforts made to improve rolling stock and services over the years. The cross-London network bears little relation to what there was in the past. Passengers played their part by accepting significant alterations in services and closures of stations while works were being carried out over a lengthy period. Secondly, as I have noted, more passengers makes ensuring quality of service genuinely difficult at times. However, passengers are entitled in return to some stability, not least for the increasing fares, which are as expensive as anything in Europe, but that has not been the case.

Let me focus on the period since May 2018. In my experience, the timetable chaos of that and the following months was unique. In 32 years as an MP, I never had the reaction from constituents that I had then, to what must have been the outstanding example of transport incompetence of our times. Whatever was responsible initially, the length of the disruption made matters worse. That scale of misery is over, but the maladies linger on.

The first is the skipping of stations: Sandy, Biggleswade and particularly Arlesey. The system is so full that if a delay to a train occurs, further disruption must be prevented; and to correct late running, stations on subsequent services are skipped to make up time. The overriding theory is seemingly that for the good of the many, the few stations must take a hit again and again. On one route that serves my constituency, figures show that those three stations are the most skipped north of London. For the year from August 2018 to September 2019, Arlesey faced 187 skips, Sandy 174 and Biggleswade 169—and to that must be added cancellations.

Some protected-status trains run regardless of wider disruption, but the impact of failure to stop at Arlesey is high, because of the lack of other options. There have been promises of making alternative transport available at Hitchin when Arlesey is skip-stopped, but we have regular reports of constituents arriving at night, with nothing available, and having to make their own way home and then fight to reclaim taxi fares, or just not being given advice on what to do and not being told until they get to Hitchin that Arlesey will be skipped.

We asked GTR—Govia Thameslink Railway—to place some limit on the process. A formal review was set up to monitor the impact on the entire network, but following the review, GTR advised that it was not possible to put a limit on the number of times that a station was skip-stopped without creating more disruption for the wider network—so bad luck, Arlesey.

What does this mean in practice? One constituent wrote to me—I have heard from plenty of others—and said:

“I don’t think they really understand the impact of skip-stopping Arlesey. Passengers arrive at a station in good time to catch a specific train—particularly when there is only one train every 30 minutes. You get to the station and that train has been cancelled. Then you wait half an hour to find the next one has decided not to stop at Arlesey. So you wait for another 30 minutes to hope that that one will stop. If, best case scenario, they have protected that train and it is running, you have ‘only’ waited for one hour at the station. Who has an hour to waste sitting at a station? How many people are just on their way home from work with nothing else to do? We have appointments, delicate childcare arrangements etc. And it isn’t like this only happens once every now and then. It happens regularly.”

I cannot tell the House how heartbreaking some of the comments that we have received are. They are about mums not being able to pick up children and people missing hospital appointments. I met a London Transport worker whose professionalism has been questioned because she cannot guarantee arriving at work on time. I have seen constituents give up their jobs because they cannot be sure of getting a train on time. This simply is not good enough.

Then there is the issue of staffing levels. I am aware that the biggest expense of any business is human, and transport is no different, but I understand that staffing is so tight that there is nothing spare in the system. Train services have to rely on voluntary overtime, which is difficult during holidays or big events—the champions league final this summer was quite a big issue. Since the disaster of May 2018, staff training has been the regular reason given for shortages, but as that has now been completed, we should not be hearing it as an excuse again. Can the company manage its rosters sufficiently well that we do not hear “driver unavailability” as an excuse again? It is an excuse, with the innuendo not missed by staff that it is the drivers’ fault rather than the company’s.

Then there is the issue of train technical problems. On 9 August, a failure in the national grid caused a power outage, one consequence of which was major paralysis of the train system. A principal reason for that was that the new 700-series trains apparently cannot restart promptly if they have been stopped because of a reduction in voltage. The trains were at the time of the outage situated around the London area. That they could not restart meant that significant sections of the network were blocked, hence the paralysis.

I accept that that incident was very unusual and that cause of power failure may be a once-in-many-years event, but the vulnerability of the new trains to electrical failures is a matter of concern, because evacuations of passengers have had to take place, and some of them in the dark. I am grateful to Steve White, chief operating officer of GTR, for a letter that deals with those matters and I will make it available to constituents, but the reliability of the whole service surrounding those trains must be improved. Whatever the varied causes of delays and cancellations, they are not the passenger’s fault.

We have trouble getting information during disruption. We constantly raise this issue with the company, and it keeps saying that it is doing more, but more could always be done.

Then there is the core routes issue. Thameslink changes over the years have been designed to offer many more routes through a crowded London rail space. My constituents applaud the vision of those changes, but they are very concerned that the ambition outstrips the ability to run them. Problems elsewhere on the route—south of London—are affecting those in Bedfordshire. Although GTR believes that the benefits of the routes outweigh the problems, rail user groups are adamant that the through-routes are the cause of the issues, in that GTR cannot adequately staff the routes or maintain service during any sort of disruption. Plenty of them agree that GTR should accept route failure and amend the plans. The Minister may wish to raise the matter with the company, but I would prefer the answer to be ensuring adequate staffing and service rather than losing the advantages of the new routes.

Mentioning my rail user groups allows me to pay tribute to them, particularly Arlesey Commuters, which has kept me and the company informed and engaged over many months. I am grateful that several of its members have been completely unselfish with their time to work on behalf of many others; I am indebted to them. I also pay what some, although I hope not those who know me, might regard as an unusual tribute to my Labour opponent in the 2017 election, Julian Vaughan. Julian is a rail union official and has been of great and genuine help with user groups, particularly in assisting those of us who campaigned for better disability access at Biggleswade station—a campaign that reached a successful conclusion. I will not be seeing him on the campaign trail next time, but I thank him as a constituent and community activist and wish him well for the future.

I need to move on to road issues, so time prevents me from saying much more about trains. Suffice it to mention that station improvements are needed at my constituency stations, which now qualify for grants from GTR because they were so disrupted by past events—a dubious honour, but perhaps the Minister can ensure that the company follows through on it. I should say that I have found the company always willing to engage with me and constituents; I do not fault it on that, but I have to say in some frustration that good contact is no substitute for remedying the problems, which seem as far away from being solved as ever. I know that they do not all lie at GTR’s door, but frankly my constituents do not care and nor do I.

Is it the breakdown of function? Is it the franchise? Are the components of privatisation working? The Minister will know that I have little interest in ideology. If the trains would be better off under another system, I am all for it. I am not convinced by unicorns, so I do not immediately fall for renationalisation, but if the Government cannot fix my constituents’ rail problems when their patience and good nature has been stretched beyond breaking point, they may well find someone who can. And do not put up the fares—they have had enough.

Let me turn to the A1. I hazard a guess that it is the best-known road in the UK. It is our longest numbered road—a road that I first represented 37 years ago as local councillor for Archway ward on Haringey Council—but its romanticism masks its current serious problems. While upgrades to motorway status have occurred throughout its length, the neglect in Bedfordshire is now impossible to justify. For example, there are few roundabouts anywhere on the A1—roundabouts slow traffic, add to pollution, and are increasingly inappropriate on major routes—but we have four out of the five on its total length from London to Edinburgh: Biggleswade South, Biggleswade North, Sandy and of course the famous Black Cat, which has its own website.

The Black Cat is shortly to be the focus of a £1.4 billion scheme, but that typifies our problem. The scheme will form part of work to improve east-west connectivity, with a new stretch of road through Cambridgeshire to link with the A14 to Harwich and Felixstowe; the Black Cat will be the key link between north and south and between east and west in southern England, which is great. However, there is motorway to our immediate north, there is motorway to the south, and there will be a major upgrade east-west, yet through Bedfordshire there is a dual carriageway, which is increasingly used and congested at peak times. Some communities live very close to it, and some are actually on it.

The town of Sandy is particularly affected. I am grateful to the town council and to local residents’ groups such as the SG19 Road Safety Group for their persistence in making a case to the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency—now Highways England—for changes that would make a difference. Over the years, I have written many letters and held meetings in London and the constituency with Ministers and officials, seeking some of the changes and investment that would make a difference, but effectively nothing has happened. It is time to change that.

I will come onto the larger strategic issue in a moment, but for the record and for the Minister’s attention, let me set out some of the improvements that are sought locally at a smaller scale.

First, the implementation of an average speed camera scheme throughout the Sandy to Biggleswade stretch was agreed by the Department and the Highways Agency back in 2016, but three years later it has still not happened. Most recently, it was turned down on grounds of cost—the costs seem to have accelerated significantly since the scheme was first suggested and agreed. Why is it not happening? Will the Minister tackle it, as an immediate priority, to demonstrate some concern for those who live close by and for all who use the road?

Secondly, there should be improved signage along the A1. Thirdly, there needs to be renewed consideration of the New Road junction and the Beeston crossover. The crossover’s design—or lack of it—poses a serious hazard, and sooner or later there will be a terrible accident. Personally, I would close it; the knock-on effect on traffic in the town makes it very hard for the town council and Central Bedfordshire Council to contemplate that, but there must be a better answer than what is there at present.

Fourthly, and above all, the road should be re-lined and rerouted to take it away from Sandy. In 2018, a study by the World Health Organisation showed that fine particle air pollution in Sandy is at 12 micrograms per cubic metre, making it one of 31 sites in the UK with levels above the recommended 10 micrograms per cubic metre. The sites in Sandy were those close to the kerbside of the A1, where people are living. As a petition from Sandy that I recently presented to the Secretary of State makes clear, a possible re-lining of the A1 was considered carefully back in 1994. It was turned down then, but in 2014 a new strategic study looked at the A1 in the east of England. In 2016, when of course all decisions were on hold, the study reported that options for a new line or local improvement were further to be considered, but hopes for that have now also been dashed.

A recent letter from my noble Friend Baroness Vere of Norbiton rather sums it up:

“The study focused on the non-motorway section between junctions 10-14”—

my constituency—

“where issues on the route are most acute. This work found there is a value for money challenge for improvements on this stretch.”

That is the first time that I have come across the phrase “value for money challenge”—it is a cracker. What I think it means is that the Government are not spending any money on the route where the problems are most acute. I am puzzled about why they are getting away with that.

The major strategic problem, however, appears to be that several major projects have been considered almost simultaneously, but there has been no transparency about the sequencing, despite many requests from me and local authorities to agree that to enable effective local planning. Progress on the A1 has been the most expendable casualty of the lack of strategic decision making. The route of a new section of the A428 from Caxton Gibbet to the Black Cat occupied the Government for some years. That has now been fixed and decided, as I mentioned, but decisions are still outstanding on the line of route of east-west rail from Bedford to Cambridge, which will cross the A1 near Sandy. Exactly where it will cross has an impact on local decisions about the housing expansion needed for central Beds to fulfil its housing targets. The decision is anticipated next year, but it has been in the pipeline since early 2016.

Decisions on housing are also pertinent to where a new line of the Al might be. As far as I can tell, everyone in government seems to be waiting for everyone else: Transport is waiting for housing decisions, Housing is waiting for transport decisions, and the urgent need to face up to change on the A1 is just getting lost. No more!

First, Minister, do something immediate to show good will about the average speed cameras. Then attend to the smaller improvements sought by residents and the town council, reinstate the need for the A1 re-lining proposals to come before Government again as a matter of urgency, and demand that some of the money that the Chancellor recently found for investment heads to the A1 in Bedfordshire.

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) on securing the debate. May I say how nice it is to have the chance to respond to him, knowing that he is one of the most assiduous representatives of his constituency and is highly respected across the parties? It is a shame that no Opposition Members are present.

I am pleased to respond to the debate as the new Minister for the future of transport, with a new mission from the Prime Minister to focus on the challenges of disconnection, decarbonisation and digitalisation, and bring a new urgency to the Department’s focus on place-based solutions that put the people and places we serve before the convenience of infrastructure providers. As my right hon. Friend said, we need to ensure that services are working for the people who rely on them and are ultimately paying the bills.

As we all know, well-planned transport infrastructure is critical to the health, wealth and wellbeing of our communities. Bedfordshire is an historic county and an important one in strategic transport terms, with key roads such as the A1, the A5 and the M1 running through it, along with a number of key rail routes; it is also home to Luton’s international airport. Across the transport modes, the Government are making several key investments to help to drive sustainable economic growth. Before I come to them, however, let me deal with my right hon. Friend’s specific points.

On rail, I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised. I would like to offer some explanation for the performance issues that are affecting my right hon. Friend’s constituents. I know that the railway stations in the towns of Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey are vital pieces of public infrastructure. Whether people use rail services to commute to work, to visit family or for any other reason, it is crucial that they can rely on receiving a service that is reliable and frequent. That is why, since joining the Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my other ministerial colleagues and I have made the bread-and-butter issue of the reliability of rail services our No.1 priority.

Let me be very blunt: recent performance on the Great Northern line has not been good enough. Over the past year, we have seen 8% of services on average being cancelled or delayed by 30 minutes or more. That figure is a lot worse than that for the vast majority of other train-operating companies, and the situation has been exacerbated in recent weeks by a series of significant infrastructure issues, including issues with overhead wires, track failures, falling trees and a broken-down train on the key Thameslink route near Blackfriars last week.

I absolutely understand the frustration that passengers must feel when these issues arise; as a rail user, I share it, as does the Secretary of State. That is why he recently met the chief executives of GTR and Network Rail to make it clear to them that improving the reliability of services in this area is vital. Although this does not excuse poor performance, I am pleased to note that GTR held an event at St Pancras last night, allowing passengers to speak directly with the company management, and I will put on the record here that I look forward to hearing the outcome of that meeting.

Notwithstanding those incidents and the urgent need for them to be tackled, I do think that we are seeing some positive signs more generally on the franchise. I know that many of my right hon. Friend’s constituents use the Thameslink service from Bedford, where we have seen significant improvements generally to performance over recent years. Over the past 12 months, about 85% of Thameslink services arrived within five minutes of the schedule. The year before, the percentage was 83% and the year before that it was 79%, so the service is getting better. However, I acknowledge that incidents such as the impact of the May 2018 fiasco and the August power cuts have impacted passenger trust, and we have to sort out this situation to restore that trust.

My right hon. Friend mentioned stop-skipping, and it is without a doubt hugely frustrating for passengers to see the train that they were supposed to board go past without stopping, or for the train that they are on to go past the station at which they had planned to get off. For this reason, the decision to miss out a call is not one that operators should take lightly; it should not be routine.

Skipping stations is one method that operators can use to allow the rail network to recover from disruption. Operational staff take the decision to miss out a stop by balancing the impact on those passengers who are directly affected against the wider impact of allowing the service to continue. Skipping stops helps operators to avoid the knock-on impact that delayed services can have on other services, but if it is not managed proactively, delays can spread quickly across the network and affect hundreds more passengers. There is sometimes a misconception that operators take the decision to miss out stops to manipulate their performance scores. That is not, and absolutely should not be, the case. Any service that misses out a stop is counted as a part-cancellation for the purposes of the performance benchmark that the Department uses to hold operators to account. If train companies exceed that benchmark, they will be subject to financial penalties. Personally, I would like to see more of that money going to the passengers who are affected, but that debate is for another day.

What is absolutely crucial in these situations is the attention that is paid to the poor passengers whose journeys have been disrupted, and communication is vital. We should not have situations where, as my right hon. Friend highlighted, passengers are stuck for long periods with no information about the options to complete their journey. Part of my portfolio is dealing with disconnection, and that is an example of disconnection between the train-operating company and its passengers, who have paid for a service, and one that is completely unacceptable, particularly in a digital age, when communication should be so much easier. I completely understand the frustration of passengers about such situations and I continue to press the rail industry to improve their processes, to make sure that we get this right, and I will pick it up following this debate.

Going forward, and notwithstanding those concerns, we should also speak about some of the positive things that we are seeing on the railways in my right hon. Friend’s area. The Thameslink service from Sandy, Arlesey and Biggleswade, which was introduced last year, now provides weekday passengers with two direct trains per hour to the heart of London. I am pleased that, from December onwards, the current Saturday service to King’s Cross will transfer to this route, providing passengers with a much wider range of direct destinations.

Those constituents of my right hon. Friend who use Bedford station will obviously see service improvements. From December 2020, two East Midlands Railway services per hour will call at all stations between Corby and London St Pancras, providing a big capacity uplift. This, combined with the increased capacity of trains serving the London commuter route, will result in a significant increase in the number of seats, particularly during peak periods, and should release capacity on inter-city services, which will also improve access to and from Luton airport.

Furthermore, I know that my right hon. Friend campaigned passionately for Biggleswade station to receive Access for All funding. Earlier this year, Biggleswade was confirmed as a successful applicant and I congratulate him personally on his leadership in that campaign. Improving accessibility to our railway network is something that both he and I care passionately about. I understand that the plans for Biggleswade are at an early stage, but when the scheme is delivered it will provide an accessible route into the station and between the platforms.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend warmly welcomed the recent housing infrastructure fund award of nearly £70 million for the transformational growth in Biggleswade project, something that he has championed. The funding will provide a new transport interchange at the train station and a replacement bridge over the east coast main line. This is an excellent example—dare I say it, decades late but none the less excellent—of Government funding for transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire, which has the potential to help to deliver up to 3,000 new homes. In addition, GTR is also delivering a £15 million passenger benefit fund, which will deliver £80,000 of improvements at Arlesey, Sandy and Biggleswade stations respectively, as well as at Bedford station.

I am conscious of the time, so I will turn now to the strategic road network. We absolutely recognise the importance of the A1 and its impact on my right hon. Friend’s constituents. That is why, as part of the first road investment strategy, we committed to examining the case for improvements to the A1 between the M25 and Peterborough. Anyone who has driven on that road, as I have, knows the problems on it. Following an initial study, our focus has been on the sections between junctions 10 and 14, where we recognise that the challenges on the route are most acute. Initial work has shown that improvements—including some new alignment, or bypassing—would offer poor value for money on current metrics.

Substantial future local growth, which is coming, could and should change that assessment. Therefore, we expect there will be opportunities to re-examine the case for potential improvements to this section, particularly as proposals for the Oxford-to-Cambridge arc, which I am responsible for, are developed. In the meantime, however, we understand that local partners are taking forward some study work to look at the feasibility of improvements to the A1 in the short term. In addition, in February we also announced a preferred route for the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme. As my right hon. Friend knows, this is a new dual carriageway link between the junction of the A1 and A421, and between the junction of the A428 and A1198.

My right hon. Friend raised the important issue of speed cameras on the A1, and I can reassure him that both the Department and Highways England take the issue of speeding very seriously. I share his disappointment that it was not possible to deliver the previous scheme. I have checked with and am chasing Highways England to ensure that it investigates the possibility of a camera system on this section of the A1, explains to me why the costs have spiralled as they have, and makes sure that it looks seriously to see whether such a camera system is possible. I think that it must be possible to find a way to do it and I will raise this issue with Highways England again following this debate.

I will also raise the issue of congestion on the local road network. My right hon. Friend and I both take congestion very seriously. We do not want to see strategic road work driving up congestion in neighbouring towns and villages, which is why we have made a number of investments for local transport infrastructure projects within wider Bedfordshire. These include providing £2.5 million towards a new Bedford western bypass and £11 million towards the regeneration of Bedford town centre. We are also providing funding towards the A421 dualling scheme that is being led by Central Bedfordshire Council. That is a £22 million investment, which will ease congestion from Fen Farm up to junction 13 of the M1. I understand that Central Bedfordshire Council is also taking forward proposals for a link between the M1 and the A6, with funding from the local growth fund.

Future funding for major transport infrastructure is absolutely key to the Government’s new emphasis on integrating housing and transport, as recent statements by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government have made clear. Crucial to that in the south of England is the east-west corridor, which, as I have said, I am now responsible for. It will provide better east-west connectivity across the arc, including in North East Bedfordshire. I will shortly be signing off on the rail routing decision, and I will also push to make sure that, as we build that line, we also consider strategic ways to capture land value and ensure that we are putting money into transport infrastructure, including the strategic roads, so that we have a genuinely integrated approach to road, rail and housing.

I hope that I can reassure my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire that considerable investment is being made in transport infrastructure in his area as part of this Government’s major infrastructure programme. I absolutely hear him on the issues with the railway line, which we are actively pursuing. He made a very good point about rail staffing, which I will pick up on following this debate, and he also made good points on stop-skipping and on speed cameras on the A1.

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I think we have just 30 seconds left, so I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. I thank him very much for his responses. However, because we have heard many of these responses before, particularly from Highways England—responses about things that will happen, only for everything to get held up because of decisions made elsewhere—can he make sure this time that some of these improvements are made? If they are not made and we have to keep waiting for others’ decisions, once again nothing will happen.

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I am delighted to give my right hon. Friend that reassurance. This is my first appearance in Westminster Hall in this capacity and I look forward to picking up on the issues that he has raised. If we cannot show our constituents that we are putting people and place before the convenience of providers, we will not carry their trust with us. This strategic junction in the UK network—A1, east-west, rail and road—is vital and I will happily give him that undertaking.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered transport infrastructure in North East Bedfordshire.

Sitting adjourned.