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Thameslink Upgrades

Volume 639: debated on Wednesday 18 April 2018

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

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this issue and for meeting me to discuss it previously. I also thank the Secretary of State for the numerous conversations about it that we have had in recent weeks. I have been forced to initiate this debate to ensure that Harpenden commuters get the good service that they deserve and pay good money for, rather than facing years of disruption and a worse service.

Lest I forget to mention the other half of my constituency, let me say at the outset that I am very aware of concern about the changes in the timetable for trains travelling from Hitchin station—in the north of my constituency—as well as those travelling from Harpenden. I will correspond with the Minister on that in due course and in further detail, but it will not constitute the main thrust of my remarks this evening.

I am sure that the desired outcome for Thameslink is, eventually, a greatly improved service throughout the network, but the immediate negative impact on commuters in Harpenden for the next two years is unacceptable to my constituents and to me. The key issue is a loss of services during peak morning and evening hours. Thameslink deems the peak morning period to be between 7 am and 9.59 am, which has led to much disagreement between Harpenden commuters—and myself—and the operator. Regardless of what Thameslink calls the “peak”, most commuters from Harpenden travel to work between the hours of 6.30 am and 8.30 am, and between these times Harpenden will see a net loss in service of two fast trains. These fast trains are only partly compensated for by lengthening some trains from eight to 12 carriages, and Thameslink putting on extra trains after 9 am to meet its peak-time requirements is not going to help anybody trying to get to work on time in London. In practical terms, the overall loss is eight carriages in that key two-hour slot, which represents a loss of capacity for over 1,100 people, who will mostly have to stand.

Not only is the current demand from Harpenden station to London extremely high, but in addition there will be an increased number of passengers on the train before it gets to Harpenden station, as East Midlands Trains is reducing the number of trains stopping at Bedford, so many thousands of effectively new commuters will also be using these services. To sum up, Harpenden is getting a reduction in service and an increase in passengers—and I am not even getting into the general growth of Harpenden as a town over the next couple of years—making the commute not merely inconvenient but, for many, unbearable.

Let us compare this situation with that for St Albans, a town not far from Harpenden. Commuters from St Albans will be gaining fast trains during peak hours, as well as slow trains, and a net increase of 44 carriages. To put that in context, that is six times the number that Harpenden is losing. I am fully aware that St Albans has approximately double the footfall of Harpenden, but it would be clear to any objective observer that a considered approach by Thameslink and Network Rail should not lead to such a discrepancy.

I am a realist—as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker; you know me—and I recognise that changes will always need to be made to train timetables, but consultation for changes is, and should always be, key, not just because people deserve the chance to have their say on changes that can significantly affect their working lives and their lives more generally, but because it gives a chance to inform local people how proposed changes can be improved for all concerned.

There was an embarrassing lack of consultation on these changes. The Minister has admitted that there was never going to be a consultation because it would be “disingenuous” to consult as there were no “genuine options”. That is not good enough for a timetable change of this scale. I have had several meetings over the past few weeks with experts on these matters, with expertise from the technical—it took me a while to understand what they were talking about, but I got there—to the bureaucratic and organisational. Some of those experts live in Harpenden but others live outside. They said to me that alternative choices could have been made that impact on Harpenden, and the entire line more broadly, much less and much more evenly.

In addition to hearing the Minister’s response on the lack of consultation, I would like to know what measures Thameslink intends to take to monitor the impact of the timetable changes that will be introduced in May over the coming months, to reassess them in the autumn and offer a clear timescale on when customers can finally expect to see improvements. What commitment is there to listen to and, more importantly, act on feedback from customers following the introduction of the proposed timetable changes?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He will understand that the changes for his commuters from Harpenden and mine from Luton are a direct result of East Midlands trains being taken out in the peak in the mornings and the running of fast services to replace that. He is right to say that speed is of the essence, and making sure this situation is not prolonged for three years or so is something on which the Minister should focus.

The hon. Gentleman is well informed on these issues and is generally well informed when he speaks in the House. The focus of my remarks is Harpenden, but I agree that this affects many colleagues on both sides of the House, and I urge the Minister to bear all these specific concerns in mind.

It is a term of the franchise agreement between Thameslink and the Department for Transport that if there is a “material adverse impact” on passengers because of changes, there must be a 12-week consultation period. Before the debate, I asked the Minister and the Secretary of State several times whether they agreed that these changes did in fact represent a material adverse impact. I also asked them how, if they disagreed, they would characterise the changes.

I want to make this point clear to the House. The impact of these timetable changes goes beyond just changing what time people arrive at work or at home. A key issue that has been raised with me time and again is the impact on working parents, especially working mothers. Working parents have particularly tight windows for getting into work and getting home. I know, as the parent to two small boys, Zach and Sam, and as the husband of a working mother, that organising childcare around a commute is a hugely important factor in any working parent’s day. It is therefore unacceptable for Thameslink’s changes to cause so much disruption to so many people.

Let me describe the impact of these changes on my constituents. I shall use as examples two people who have emailed me about this matter. The first constituent states:

“I am a mother of three school age children and am recovering from breast cancer. In the recent months, I have chosen to catch a semi fast service, 0718, to be able to get a seat to minimise the stress and impact on my health. This service will no longer stop at Harpenden. I will have to catch an earlier train on which there is unlikely to be seats due both to the reduction in trains and the fact that Thameslink will have thousands of extra customers a day due to East Midland Trains reducing the services stopping at Bedford and Luton. I am concerned about the impact on my health, my ability to get to work on time and on the time I can spend with my children.”

The second constituent has said:

“I fear for my wife who has to drop our son at nursery at 0730 and therefore has no option but to travel at an already busy time. I can’t see anything other than a negative impact for her on what is already a far from ideal journey given the current numbers of people using those services, lack of space and seats. The return journey may be considerably worse than today and the reduction in services could potentially make it difficult to get back to the nursery on time, particularly when there are problems with track or trains.”

Those are just two examples, but similar concerns have been repeated again and again by worried parents and by people across Harpenden of all ages and circumstances who commute to London for work.

I accept—and I am sure the Minister will agree—that dealing with Britain’s train network is a real challenge for the Department, for Network Rail and for the Ministers and senior civil servants involved. Overcrowding on the network is nothing new, with rail passenger journeys more than doubling in the past 20 years. St Pancras is a key destination for Harpenden commuters, and at that station alone, more than 36,000 passengers arrive during the morning peak, with another 30,000 going to Blackfriars station, which has the worst overcrowding in London. Passenger numbers on the trains from Harpenden have grown year on year, with the service now bursting at the seams, as any Harpenden commuter who gets on the train at peak time will tell us.

The use of Thameslink has grown faster than was expected when the programme began. The predicted yearly increase in passenger numbers was between 0.5% and 1% over the lifetime of the Thameslink programme. However, Thameslink now carries 40% more passengers than it did seven years ago. The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a proud member, has reported on Thameslink’s problems and recently found that the knock-on effect of issues along the entire Thameslink network means that the number of trains reaching their destination within five minutes of their scheduled time has fallen from 91.4% to 83%.

It is important to make the point that the growth in passenger numbers is an indication of the success of the service. Harpenden would not be such a desirable place to live if the service was not, broadly speaking, a good one. However, with that passenger growth comes the immense challenge of managing it appropriately and keeping costs down for passengers, and I am afraid that Thameslink appears to be failing on both counts.

Bearing in mind the extent of overcrowding and the increasingly stretched service that I have described, Harpenden commuters into London currently pay just over £3,800 a year for an annual ticket, and well over £4,000 if a tube travelcard is included, which most commuters need. By comparison, a season ticket from Woking—I have nothing against Woking; they are very nice people—which is a similar distance from London, is £400 cheaper. Basildon—again, a wonderful place with nice people—to London is £1,000 cheaper for a similar distance. My point is that Harpenden commuters are paying their fair share. They are travelling the same distance for more money and face a real disruption to services without any compensation.

All the issues—the timetable changes, delayed services and overcrowding—have caused huge concern for my constituents and have resulted in me raising questions repeatedly with both the Secretary of State and the Minister. In respect of the upcoming changes, due to come into force on 21 May after at least two years, there are some key questions that need to be addressed that have so far gone unanswered.

First, when was the decision made to make changes to East Midlands trains that would impact Harpenden? At what stage were changes to Harpenden’s services considered and decided upon? Secondly, will the Minister explain why Harpenden is experiencing a loss in services during peak morning and evening times, while St Albans, as I have described, is experiencing a big increase, especially considering the increased footfall from Bedford through Harpenden?

Thirdly, given the increase in passenger numbers combined with a reduction in frequency and capacity of service, what will be the impact on Harpenden commuters of Bedford passengers travelling on Thameslink services during peak times? How many more passengers will be on the London trains arriving in Harpenden in the morning as a result of the timetable changes?

Fourthly, by Govia Thameslink Railway’s own admittance, some of the proposed improvements that will come into effect at the end of 2018 are at the mercy of engineering works further down the line in Kent. What is the risk realistically that those works will not be completed in time, therefore extending even further the problems that Harpenden commuters are facing? Fifthly, there is huge concern about the lack of consultation with local people, despite the material adverse impact to services of timetable changes. To add insult to injury, Thameslink still claims that the service will not be significantly impacted. Does the Minister agree that there will be a material adverse change and that there should have been a consultation? If he does not, how does he view the changes? Finally, and most importantly, when will Harpenden commuters get the service they deserve and have been promised for so long?

I have not come to the Chamber just to complain. There are proposed solutions available that could be implemented as soon as May, despite the insistence from senior officials at GTR that they are not workable. I put several suggestions to GTR officials when we met a few weeks ago, yet there has been no consultation to discuss the alternatives. One suggestion is that five trains from Bedford to London should stop at Harpenden in addition to stopping at St Albans, which would add between three and four minutes to the journey. I understand that there are complexities in getting all the trains to London at a reasonable time, bearing in mind the extra three or four minutes, but the experts to whom I have spoken do not believe that they are insurmountable. Another simpler solution that would increase capacity, although it would not solve the issue of train frequency, would be for the Minister to declassify all first-class carriages during peak times. That would give some much-needed relief to passengers on what will be an increasingly overcrowded service.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group, notably Emily Ketchin, for its tireless campaigning and lobbying. Harpenden councillors have not been far behind, particularly Mary Maynard and Teresa Heritage, and I thank them for helping me to understand how much the changes have affected Harpenden residents.

There will be those, not in this Chamber now but outside, who do not think timetable changes or impacts on commuters are really that important, but I believe that that is of critical importance, and not just to the individual passengers, as I have set out. If we want to keep London and the south-east as the most dynamic regional economy in Europe, people need to be able to get to work on time, not packed like cattle, at a reasonable price. Importantly, when major changes are made to their service—such changes must happen from time to time—passengers should be consulted and treated like adults and paying customers.

I know that the Minister wants to do his best for Harpenden commuters. I also know that he is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, as the whole House will appreciate. I ask him to consider carefully the concerns of Harpenden commuters that I have expressed in this debate, to give them hope that the future will be better with an improved, not reduced, service, and to strengthen their damaged faith in our rail transport network.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) on securing this debate, which follows on from our conversations in meetings we held on 22 March.

I begin with the specific issue of the changes to the timetable. Harpenden is on the midland main line, which runs from London to Nottingham and Sheffield and, as Members know, is undergoing its largest upgrade since it was built in the 19th century. The upgrade is necessary and urgent, as the number of passenger journeys taken on Britain’s rail network has doubled in the past 20 years. As part of the upgrade, a fourth track is being built north of Bedford to Kettering and will provide space for an additional train path from December 2020. Unfortunately, to allow the works to take place, some difficult decisions have had to be taken.

East Midlands Trains fast peak-time services will not call at Bedford or Luton from May 2018 to December 2020. Instead, displaced East Midlands Trains passengers from Bedford and Luton will be able to travel on fast Thameslink services, which will not stop at Harpenden. In answer to my hon. Friend’s first question, the decision was made in November 2017, once the industry had exhausted all alternative options.

Obviously, I completely understand the concerns of commuters from my hon. Friend’s constituency. However, steps have been taken so that, despite the unavoidable loss of two fast peak services, overall the capacity from Harpenden in the morning will be roughly the same as today, with only four fewer carriages across the entire three-hour morning peak. There will be an increase in capacity during the evening peak, with an additional 20 carriages bringing an additional 1,242 seats. In addition, it is expected that most Bedford commuters will opt to take the fast Thameslink services, rather than those that stop at Harpenden. It is possible that that will reduce, rather than increase, crowding on Harpenden services.

My hon. Friend raises the issue of St Albans City station, which requires a capacity increase because, as he acknowledges, it carries twice as many passengers as Harpenden and already has issues of its own with crowding on platforms. On the potential for engineering works in Kent to delay the improvements to Harpenden, these are minor works and are currently on schedule to be completed on time. There is minimal risk to passengers from Harpenden.

From December 2018, an additional service will be scheduled in both the morning and evening peaks, and two trains will be lengthened from eight to 12 carriages. That will provide a capacity increase in both peaks. From December 2020, when the upgrade to the midland main line is complete, Thameslink will reinstate the fast services that have been withdrawn and will add four more 12-car peak services at Harpenden, resulting in an additional two fast 12-car trains per hour compared with the May timetable. That will provide a substantially improved service for Harpenden commuters.

I apologise again to my hon. Friend as the full benefits of the Thameslink programme will be delayed for commuters from his constituency. In the context of the major engineering works necessary to bring the midland main line into the 21st century, this was the best available solution. We should also not lose sight of the many benefits the Thameslink programme will bring to passengers from Harpenden and the wider Thameslink network: new trains; more reliable journeys; and a substantial increase in capacity from 2020.

My hon. Friend mentioned the problems with consultation, which, again, we have discussed extensively in our previous meetings. I would like to emphasise that ahead of this timetable change Thameslink has carried out one of the largest and, in some ways, most effective consultations we have ever seen on the railways. In fact, as a result of these consultations, Thameslink has made hundreds of changes to its plans.

May I endorse what the Minister has just said, in that we see a net benefit in my constituency from the changes to the timetable and I have encountered constituents who are very impressed with changes that have been made as a result of the consultation? However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), one station, in particular, in my constituency is losing services during that critical peak time, when people need to get into London to work. In addition to dealing with the questions he has been asked, will the Minister assure the House that this issue will continue to be kept under review and we will be able to look at it again when we see the full import of the timetable and its impact on our commuters?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to our attention the issues faced by his constituents, particularly at Balcombe station. There will be further opportunities to lobby for changes to the timetable at the next iteration; May’s is obviously set in stone, but there will always be a December timetable and subsequent timetables, so these things are not set in stone. This has been one of the biggest timetabling changes the network has ever seen and, understandably, not everything is going to satisfy everybody at every moment in time.

I am extremely grateful to hear that from the Minister. Of course, it is a rolling series of timetable changes over the next three years, at six-monthly intervals. Members in this House will be extremely grateful to hear the Minister’s willingness to keep a close eye on things at each of those timetable changes, rather than necessarily relying on the plan as it currently stands to go for two and a half years.

This has been one of the biggest timetabling changes the system has ever undertaken, and as I have said, it will not have satisfied everybody in its first iteration. However, December is coming along in not too lengthy a period of time, and hon. Members are always welcome to put suggestions to the Department and to their operators for consideration.

[Official Report, 24 April 2018, Vol. 639, c. 5MC.]The impact of the midland main line works only became apparent to us in November 2017, as I mentioned. This short timeline meant that a specific consultation for Harpenden passengers was simply not a viable option. To give my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden some background, the detailed work to implement the May timetable on the Thameslink routes began more than a year ago. This timetable rewrite is unprecedented in its scale. Every service on this part of the network is being altered to bring about the full benefits of the Thameslink programme. As work progressed, the Department was advised that there were likely to be some temporary negative impacts on some services as a result of the complexity of this undertaking. By the time this became clear, it would have been disingenuous to consult, as he acknowledged, as there was by that stage only one viable option before us. Since that point, industry professionals have been working to address as many of these negative effects as physically possible. Although it has not been possible to eliminate them all, the industry will continue to work to improve the timetable at every subsequent opportunity.

As an MP whose constituency sits on the Thameslink network, I share many of the concerns that have been raised in this debate. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the Thameslink programme is an incredibly ambitious investment, which will transform travel across the south-east for the coming decades. We have already seen new trains rolled out across the Thameslink network, replacing trains that were first introduced in the 1980s. The new trains carry far more people and will allow Thameslink to meet the demand of a 21st-century city. These trains have live information screens so that passengers know if their tube line is delayed. These trains have wide entrances and gangways, making it easier for passengers to move around and get on and off the train. We have also already seen substantial investment in stations. The £1 billion redevelopment of London Bridge is perhaps the best known, but investments have been made across the network so that the benefits of the Thameslink programme can be felt across the whole south-east. We have also seen substantial investment in infrastructure upgrades, including the replacement of tracks and signals and the repair of tunnels and bridges. This means that passengers will get the resilient and reliable service that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.