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Ipswich-London Rail Fares

Volume 647: debated on Monday 15 October 2018

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

Although I am here to talk about rail fares, I should start by making it clear that I believe Ipswich is conveniently connected to London and that rail is by far the most effective and sustainable way to travel between the two cities under all normal circumstances. Like some other Suffolk MPs, I almost always use the train to get here, and on the two occasions in the past 16 months when I have had to drive to Westminster, I have had ample reminder of what a bad idea it is to drive in central London if one can avoid it.

Travelling from Ipswich station is a joy. It is easy to get to by bus, taxi or bicycle or on foot, the staff are friendly and helpful, and the facilities are excellent. It is not just me saying that: Ipswich won the Network Rail award for the best large station for 2018. I am looking forward to having all new trains on the Great Eastern main line, starting from April next year, and I would be able to look forward to shorter journey times as well if only the Government were willing to put the money into the fairly modest track improvements that our region has been calling for.

Ipswich is a town undergoing a renaissance, and that renaissance is partly due to our proximity to London. When IT, software, media and arts-related companies are considering relocating to Ipswich—or, indeed, starting up in Ipswich, which is regarded in at least one business survey as the best start-up location for small businesses in the UK—I want them to know that they can easily visit their families or friends in London and can easily invite clients up from London. In short, they are not cutting themselves off from our capital city in any way.

The cost of fares is not going to be the No. 1 criterion for any business relocating, nor should it be. For those travelling daily between London and Ipswich, the annual season ticket, at £6,548, while eye-wateringly expensive by the standards of most European countries, is not completely out of step with other destinations in England. It is 1p per mile more expensive than Cambridge, but 1.3p per mile less expensive than Oxford. I apologise now for any inaccuracy in my figures, but it appears to be as difficult to pin down actual costs per mile as it is for passengers to find out how much their tickets would cost before they travel.

Although annual season tickets are regulated, anytime walk-on fares have been allowed to rise year after year, and in effect penalise passengers for travelling without advance planning. This really matters because, in the modern work pattern—we are talking about attracting modern, creative and information-based industries—most of the travelling will not be on a nine-to-five work day basis. When businesses invite clients to visit, they may well not know when they are likely to come until the day concerned. When staff are working on projects, they may decide at a moment’s notice that they need to visit a colleague. While the season ticket cost for travelling from Ipswich to London is 23.9p per mile, the walk-on peak time fare is 74.4p per mile. I have found a town in the UK where the anytime walk-on fare is even more expensive, and I will be passing my findings to the Members for Swindon. However, the main point I want to get across is, first, that the exorbitant cost of walk-on fares has the potential to hold back the growth of modern, flexible, creative businesses outside London

I congratulate my neighbour on securing the debate, which will be welcomed by my constituents who commute from Ipswich. When we talk about the cost of commuting, it is not just about the cost of the train fare. Most of my constituents drive to stations such as Ipswich, Manningtree and so on. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, on our line, the cost of parking has risen substantially above inflation? The cost is not regulated, and many of my constituents are as concerned about it as they are about the cost of the rail fare.

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have. I have to say that, if constituents can find a way of getting to the station that does not involve parking, that is clearly preferable. I would certainly not encourage people to drive to Ipswich station and park during the week, and there are bus services to Ipswich station. If his constituents wish to park at a station, Manningtree is probably a more sensible station to drive to than Ipswich.

The anomalies in fares between one town and another confuse travellers, including business travellers and people travelling to visit families in another town, and put many people off using the trains before they have even looked at the prices. It may take only one return trip costing over £100 to dissuade someone from using the trains ever again.  It is all very well for rail operators and the Government to point to advance tickets, which can give excellent value for money—I myself have made extensive use of advance tickets, travelling, for instance, to Edinburgh and back for less than it would cost me to travel to London on a peak-time ticket—but if the cost of rail travel bears no relation to the distance, or apparently anything else, the confusion experienced by first-time rail passengers who are stung with maximum fares will not encourage them to travel by train again.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case about the problems between Ipswich and London. Would he accept that that is part of a bigger problem? Traditionally the Stroud valleys line, which I represent part of, has always been more expensive than the Cotswold line. Does he think that this issue is worthy of a much bigger investigation, to look at the disparities between different parts of the country and at the way people have to pay bigger fares to travel on some lines?

My hon. Friend has absolutely encapsulated the point of my argument, which is that the way fares are allocated to different stations and towns across the country is entirely illogical. There should be some logic behind the fares that are charged; otherwise, passengers become confused and, in many cases, stop travelling by rail.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. To get from Ipswich to London, passengers of course have to pass through Chelmsford, which is the busiest two-platform train station anywhere on the network. By the time the train from Ipswich gets to Chelmsford, it is often very crowded, especially at peak times, so while he may be arguing for lower walk-on fares at peak times, I would actually discourage lower walk-on fares at peak times, and encourage people to pay more in advance.

However, what I really want to raise with the hon. Gentleman is the fact that the Government have introduced Delay Repay, and some of my constituents have had up to £400 back under the 30-minute Delay Repay, which is clearly great. Does he welcome the Secretary of State’s comments last week that he expects the 15-minute Delay Repay to be introduced on our shared line next year, which would be great for customers?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I do share her joy at additional funding for Delay Repay. While I love Chelmsford, I am very happy not to stop there, whenever possible. If there were an additional two lines between Colchester and London, we could sail through Chelmsford without stopping. She would not then have to put up with passengers from Ipswich on the trains she wants to get on, but that is probably something for a fairly dim and distant future.

Indeed they do. However, if they are travelling to Chelmsford and getting off at Chelmsford, clearly they are not in the way of Chelmsford passengers who want to travel to London.

The confusion in the fares charged is particularly stark in Ipswich. The next station on the line to London has fares that are so much lower than ours it is usually cheaper to buy a ticket from Ipswich to Manningtree, followed by another ticket from Manningtree to London, than it is to simply buy a ticket to London. This situation has persisted for well over 20 years. Some canny passengers deliberately buy tickets from Ipswich to Manningtree and from Manningtree to London to save significant sums on their fares. It feels wrong. Many passengers will not do it. Many do not realise that they could save money by doing it. It makes the entire fares structure look ridiculous, which it is.

On the news this morning, it was stated that the number of those travelling by bus had fallen dramatically. There are a lot of reasons for that, relating to investment, costs and incentives. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that, if the Government were to consider reinvestment and making tickets more cost-effective, in addition to incentives, which some parts of the United Kingdom are introducing, that would be the way forward to secure this line?

I agree. The fact is that, if Governments invest in public transport as a public good, the number of people using that public transport tends to increase. This country has taken the view that passengers should be charged as close to the actual cost as possible. I am not sure that that is necessarily sensible.

I understand that the reasons for the anomaly between Ipswich and Manningtree, and for many other anomalous differences in fares between towns at a similar distance to London, is partly due to the Network Railcard area. The Network Railcard area is a complete mystery to me. Ipswich is outside the area. Peterborough is outside the area.  Swindon, the most expensive place in the country to travel from by train, is outside the area. But Kings Lynn is in the area. And so is Weymouth. And so is Worcester. And so is Exeter. I realise that if there is going to be a Network Railcard there needs to be a Network Railcard area, and that the line has to be drawn somewhere. I just wish it were not drawn in a way that so gratuitously disadvantages Ipswich. Ipswich is the final stop for stopping trains on the Great Eastern main line commuter service. If a line has to be drawn, it is nonsensical to draw it just before the destination of the commuter trains it has been created to facilitate.

On 11 October, the Secretary of State launched a root and branch review of the rail industry. In September, 20,000 people responded to a consultation on fares. Many of the improvements passengers want, such as making tickets jargon-free and improving the availability of smart ticketing, are already priorities for the Government and for the train operators. But I want to take this opportunity to make a plea to the Government to adhere to one or two basic principles in the improvements that they make to the fares structure. First, no single journey should ever be more expensive than the sum of its parts. Secondly, for any journey where the anytime walk-on fare is clearly above the national average cost per mile, those fares should be frozen until they are in line with the national average. Thirdly, the Network Railcard area should be reviewed, with some objectivity involved in deciding where the boundary should be and with a fares structure that does not suddenly penalise those stations that are just outside the area.

The root and branch review will take time. Many of its recommendations may be unpalatable to the Government. Some of them may be unpalatable to me. I, like the rest of my party, would like to see train operator franchises taken back into public ownership as and when the franchises expire or are surrendered. I would like to see rail travel being treated as an investment in our country’s productive capacity and a Government priority to meet our climate change commitments. I would prefer not to have certain regions, such as East Anglia, paying what is in effect a tax on train travel to the Government, although I am not necessarily expecting those recommendations to be in the panel’s report. I would prefer that Ipswich’s rail passengers should not have to wait for that report before they see any change in their fares.

In addition to the principles that I believe the Government should seek to enshrine in any sensible fares structure, and pending any root and branch reform of fares, I call on the Minister—with the co-operation of any agency that he believes needs to be seen to be making this decision—to include Ipswich, possibly the closest point to London that is not in the Network Railcard area, forthwith, so that this historical anomaly can be ended immediately.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) on securing this debate. I am delighted that he is a fan of the railways and that he takes such pride in his local station in Ipswich.

I recognise the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised in relation to, in particular, the fares between Ipswich and London. As he recognised, these are, to some extent, the result of historical anomalies. As someone who follows the railways closely, he will know that following privatisation in the early ’90s, the operation of the Great Eastern main line was shared between two operating companies until 2004. First Great Eastern operated stopping services from Liverpool Street to Ipswich and Anglia Railways operated the intercity services from Liverpool Street to Norwich. This led to a divergence of fares, increasing the pence-per-mile cost of Ipswich to London relative to, as he pointed out, Manningtree to London.

Manningtree was the furthest extent of the Network Railcard area, and Ipswich was the first station where fares were set by the intercity operator. They were set to reflect the different standard of services and offering on the intercity services, including for example, faster, air-conditioned trains. I appreciate that the differences in the fares today can seem unfair to passengers, but it is always possible for advance fares to be bought for travel between Ipswich and London for as little as £10.

As a Government, we have committed to reviewing rail ticketing to remove pricing complexity and perversity, and we are also awaiting the findings of the Rail Delivery Group’s “Easier Fares” consultation. That consultation concluded in September after running for three months. It aimed to look at fare structures and ticketing to ease passenger confusion, with a broad scope. The Rail Delivery Group received approximately 20,000 responses, which it is in the process of analysing, and I look forward to seeing its findings. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the recently announced rail review will also consider how to support a railway that is able to offer good value fares for passengers. In his thoughtful speech, he made a number of proposals for fares reform, which I will ensure reach the team that is undertaking the rail review, so that they can consider that as a submission to their work on that part of the review.

On the point about reforming how fares are charged, I held an Adjournment debate on part-time season tickets, because there is a concern about that for many of us. We have many constituents who travel perhaps three or four days a week but have to pay a full season-ticket price. People constantly email me about the unfairness of that, and I wonder whether it will feature in the consultation that the Minister referred to.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Introducing more flexible ticketing is a priority. We want to see franchises—not just in East Anglia and on the Greater Anglia part of the network, but across the country—looking at how creative they can be to ensure that people who work part-time have a means of securing tickets that are good value for money.

Will the Minister include ticket machines in his review? One of the biggest rip-offs is when people cannot get the cheapest tickets. I am not talking about pre-buying; I am talking about how the machines always offer the most expensive fare.

Absolutely. Ticket machines should be programmed to offer the best-value fare, and to the extent that they are not, it is worth further consideration by the team undertaking the rail review.

Turning to the cost of fares, the Government and the train operators have made long-term and far-reaching investments in the railways to cope with the considerable increase in use in the years since privatisation. Fares revenue is crucial to funding day-to-day railway operations, and the massive upgrade programme we are delivering now will benefit passengers. We know that a rise in rail fares can affect the family budgets of hard-working people, including commuters in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ipswich and in London, which is why, for the sixth year running, we will be capping regulated fares in line with inflation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome news on capping rail fares, but does he not also agree that it is difficult for customers to disaggregate the cost of the fare—those in Ipswich are very high per mile by national standards—from reliability and speed of service? Despite the cost of tickets from Ipswich, reliability and speed of service have not improved over the years. Reliability, speed of service and track capacity desperately need to improve and be better linked to fare prices.

Of course I agree that performance, whether measured by reliability or punctuality, is exceptionally important to passengers and their perception of value for money. Performance on Greater Anglia has been reasonably good over recent weeks. From memory—I am seeking a prompt—I think its public performance measure is around 89%, so just a couple of percentage points off its target for the relevant period, but there is always room for improvement and we carefully monitor how it is doing against its targets.

I take an interest in this because Cheltenham, perhaps like Ipswich, is affected by pricing perversity, meaning it is much more expensive per mile to travel from Cheltenham—[Interruption.]—and indeed from Stroud, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) represents, than from other equivalent parts of the country. I am delighted about the review, therefore, but will it address this geographical perversity, which disadvantages my constituents?

No one could defend the current fares system, and I will certainly not attempt to do so; it needs thorough reform, and the rail review’s work will be an important contribution to that process.

May I encourage the Minister to look again at the punctuality figures, because it does not feel to my constituents that the trains are arriving on time nine days out of 10?

I cannot speak to the experience of my hon. Friend’s constituents in particular, but I can confirm that Greater Anglia’s overall performance is currently around 89.1%, on the public performance measure, which assesses whether a train arrives within five minutes of its scheduled arrival time. That is against its target, under the franchise for this period, of 91.3%, so it is only marginally off what we have specified for that period of the year.

For the sixth year running, we are capping fees in line with inflation. It is important that we continue to receive this fare income, albeit capped, because it makes such a vital contribution to the investment that we are piling back into the rail system: 98p in every pound goes straight back in as investment. The most significant of those costs are the investments in the network itself and in staff costs, which is why it is so important that we get fares linked ultimately to the more commonly used CPI measure of inflation. For that to be sustainable, we need income and costs in the industry to change in parallel. Linking fares to the CPI without linking other costs in the industry to it would cause higher and higher costs to be borne by the taxpayer rather than by rail users. The Secretary of State wants to work with the rail industry, the Office of Rail and Road and the unions to ensure that wage costs for all employees are based on the CPI and not the RPI in future pay deals.

As the hon. Member for Ipswich noted, we are ensuring that when things do go wrong, passengers are compensated fairly. As was noted a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), we are in the process of moving Greater Anglia from Delay Repay 30 to Delay Repay 15, and we hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to welcome that on behalf of his constituents. In his statement to the House on Thursday, the Secretary of State said that he wanted Delay Repay 15 to be introduced next year.

Stations are also receiving significant investment. Services on the Great Eastern main line between Norwich and London will be improved considerably. As I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises, access for disabled people at Ipswich station has been improved and smart ticketing has been introduced, all within the period of capping fare rises at inflation only. As a result—as the hon. Gentleman said—Ipswich station recently won the “large station of the year” award at the 2018 national rail awards event. That is all part of a £60 million programme of investment by Greater Anglia in stations on its network until 2025.

A number of members mentioned the new trains that will be introduced during the franchise period. That is an exciting and promising development for passengers in East Anglia. There will be 169 new trains—most of them electric, but some bimodal—to replace old British Rail-era rolling stock: much cleaner-running, faster, more spacious and more efficient modern trains for Members’ constituents.

My constituents, who also travel on the Great Eastern main line, have waited for, in some cases, 40 years for the brand-new fleet of trains that will be introduced next year. The Minister mentioned changes in fares and infrastructure changes. Can he confirm that none of those changes would threaten the introduction of the new trains?

Indeed they will not. Our priority is to ensure that the new trains are in service by the end of 2020. Once they have been introduced, passengers in Colchester will experience improved journey times, much greater reliability, and much more comfortable journeys.

I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich, and all colleagues in the Chamber who represent East Anglia—and parts of Gloucestershire, and areas further afield—for their contributions. We will continue to look at ways of being able both to improve services and to keep the cost to the passenger to a minimum. Greater Anglia is a train operator that will be in place at least until 2025, and it has shown a willingness to work with the Government and invest in the railways. I hope that, when we reach the end of the term of the East Anglia franchise, we will all be proud of the successes that the Government’s partnership with Greater Anglia has achieved.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.