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Rail Services: Maidenhead, Twyford and Branch Lines

Volume 671: debated on Wednesday 5 February 2020

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services for Maidenhead, Twyford and linking branch lines.

I am pleased to have obtained this debate, because the train services in my constituency—for the mainline stations of Maidenhead and Twyford, and the branch line stations of Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham—are absolutely critical for my constituents and local businesses. Many of my constituents use the train services to access employment, particularly in London, which they also visit for leisure—visiting theatres and galleries and going shopping—and for other purposes. Local businesses also rely on the train services to bring potential customers, employees and other visitors. They all want fast train services on those lines.

I have campaigned on this issue throughout my time as a Member of Parliament. The good news is that, over that time, Thames Trains and its successor, Great Western Railway, under its various names, have generally been responsive to the concerns that have been raised about services in the constituency. When there have been problems with the timetable, they have done their best to respond.

The bad news, I am afraid, is that I cannot set out that rosy picture today, because the service has deteriorated. Nick Brace, a constituent of mine, said that the most frustrating thing is that

“for much of 2019 GWR had this all sorted—the right number of trains, in the right format mostly running to time. And it has all gone down the pan with the new timetable.”

The key issue is not the timetable, but the reason behind it: the introduction of Crossrail.

Before I address that, I will set out clearly for the Minister the nature of the problems that my constituents currently face: fewer fast trains, less reliability and significant overcrowding. Great Western fast trains have been cut from the timetable during the morning and evening peak hours to provide more long-distance services, which has had a significant impact on my constituents.

I will share some examples of the complaints I have received from constituents. One said:

“Morning and evening rush hour fast trains to/from Paddington have been massively reduced. For example we have gone from fast trains at 8.02, 8.06, 8.16 and 8.32 to only two—8.02 and 8.32. The intervening trains have now become 35 minute trains, which means London commuters don’t use them.”

Another said:

“Under the original timetable between the times of 07.40 and 08.30, there are three trains…that take 30 minutes or less to Paddington. From December 15th, there will be just one fast train within this time period—the 08.02. The fast train before that will be 27 minutes earlier, leading to a huge bottleneck of commuters.”

On the evening services, a constituent said:

“Most crucially is the cancellation of the two peak evening fast trains to London Paddington. These two peak trains—the first a 4.42pm and the second at 5.48pm—take approximately 21 minutes and represent a significant difference from the 39 to 47 minutes being introduced as part of the new timetable.”

Great Western Railway has looked at reinstating the two peak-hour morning services that were removed, but sadly it has told me that

“there is no readily available space for additional stops”

but that it has

“looked at a number of options including sourcing extra rolling stock and stopping high speed services that have originated in the west, such as from Bristol or Plymouth. Disappointingly, it has not been possible to find a timetable path that will work without causing congestion and significant performance delays in the key peak period.”

On the evening services, GWR told me on 30 January that it was

“in discussion with Network Rail about the possibility of introducing some additional evening services from Maidenhead to London Paddington, which we might be able to operate from May, or sooner if we can gain approval.”

At that stage, it continued:

“It is fair to say that NR are apprehensive about the performance ramifications of these trains”.

I can now tell the Minister that this week Network Rail refused the application for those additional services.

I have been here before. Network Rail has previously refused additional services and changes to the timetable but then relented. Great Western Railway will appeal against that rejection, and I will appeal, but I urge Network Rail to reconsider and to reinstate those two trains. That matters not just for my constituents, but for our local economy, the wider Thames valley economy and the economy of the nation as a whole.

The right hon. Lady is making some excellent points on behalf of her constituents. The railway links benefit not only Maidenhead but my Slough constituents. The western rail link to Heathrow, a four-mile link between Slough and Heathrow, would benefit our two sets of constituents and people in the south-west and west. The Welsh Government are also in favour of it, because of the huge boost to our economy and the decarbonising of our transport. Does she agree that it is about time that we delivered on this, given that the Government committed to it in 2012? We hope that the Minister will give us some good news about sufficient and solid performance progress on this matter.

The western rail link to Heathrow has been an issue throughout most of my time in Parliament. It has long been talked about, plans have been drawn up and people have looked at it. It has overwhelming support from business, different constituents and different political parties locally. It is something that global Britain would definitely benefit from having. I certainly support the hon. Gentleman’s proposal about the importance of that rail link.

I want Network Rail to reconsider Great Western’s application for two additional evening services and to reinstate evening peak-hour services to London Paddington. I also want it to work with Great Western on the possibility of bringing back services in the morning peak hours.

Not only has the reduction in the number of fast services had an impact on my constituents, but the service has sadly deteriorated. Again, I quote a constituent:

“The services that have been impacted the most are the 7.02 and 7.07 direct services which are now the only direct fast trains to Paddington during the 6.40-7.30am ‘super-peak’”,

and the reliability of those services

“plummeted from 96% and 93% respectively in the month leading up to the timetable change to just 74% and 37% post the timetable change”.

That included a significant number of cancellations. This is simply not good enough.

Lack of services and cancellations have led to the other problem that my constituents suffer from: significant overcrowding on the trains, including safety issues on the platform. Constituents report that they often cannot get on the 8.02 train from Maidenhead because there is simply no room. That service used to start from Twyford and a good number of seats used to be available; it now comes from Didcot Parkway, and when it gets to Maidenhead it is just not possible to get on the train, even to stand. That causes significant problems on the platform, and Great Western has had to employ security guards on the platform because of problems with overcrowding. That is a further issue that my constituents suffer from.

Sadly, I understand from Great Western that some problems with cancellations and carriage reductions were caused by a number of fatalities on the line. Those fatalities are tragedies, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of all those concerned, but those cannot account for all the problems in the service that my constituents suffer.

I have talked about Maidenhead and Twyford in particular, but constituents from Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham on the branch lines also want to connect with the fast services into London. Indeed, I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) is present, and his constituency is at the end of one of those branch lines. They, too, are impacted by the problems on the mainline services. The service problems need to be fixed. Network Rail needs to allow the extra evening services. It needs to work with Great Western to see if the morning peak services can be reinstated.

Another possibility that would help my constituents is an expansion of the fleet, to increase capacity. I ask the Department for Transport to work with Great Western on the possibilities for increasing the rolling stock, such that extra carriages could be put on the services. That would allow greater space for my constituents to use. Other improvements to help my constituents would include better access to the platforms at Maidenhead, to help with the congestion in the subways and at the entrances and exits. That needs funding.

I noted in Prime Minister’s questions today that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, answering a question from another of our hon. Friends on railway infrastructure, indicated that there was a significant amount of money that the Government could spend on railway infrastructure. I am afraid that I commented to my neighbour on the Benches that that meant, I hope, that the Minister will be able to agree to the millions of pounds necessary for the infrastructure changes at Maidenhead, and indeed for more car parking, which is paramount at Twyford. On a Saturday in Twyford 10 days ago, when I was doing my street surgery, that was the single issue that came up time and again on the doorsteps. Again, it needs support from the Department. I will write to the Minister with details of those two issues, and I hope that he will be able to instruct officials to look at the proposals seriously and favourably.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the problem at Twyford. Part of that originates with people from Henley driving to Twyford to get the trains through. Will she accept my enthusiasm for joining her in getting the car parking?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is as important that we ensure services on the branch line, and that those of his constituents who wish to come to Twyford to use its services directly are able to park. That would also be in the interests of my constituents who live in the Twyford streets that those individuals would otherwise be parking in.

Those are issues with the current service, but I will now come on to the fundamental problem underlying the timetable change and the reduction in the number of fast services from Maidenhead and Twyford: the introduction of Crossrail. When it is fully running, it will benefit those of my constituents who want to get on a train at Twyford or Maidenhead and to sit on it as it carries on through London, perhaps even to Canary Wharf. That might be a benefit. However, for those who do not want that—for those who want a fast service to Paddington, for example—Crossrail is not the answer. My constituents are being asked to forgo a service that takes 20, 21 or 22 minutes to Paddington, on a train where they might get a seat, depending on the time of the train, and that has toilets. Instead they will get on a train that takes 45 minutes to get to Paddington, with fewer seats and no toilets.

Let me give a bit of context. Maidenhead and Twyford are two of the top 10 busiest stations in the Thames valley and Berkshire region—Maidenhead is the fourth busiest and Twyford is the 10th. Both are part of a dynamic economic area that hosts thriving businesses, including the headquarters of international businesses. They are not the backwater at the end of a metro service.

I was deeply concerned when I read the letter from Great Western, which stated that it had always been the intention of the industry that the “main” provider of services from Maidenhead and Twyford—well, for all the stations between Reading and London—would be Crossrail. That was never made clear, but it absolutely confirms the fears that I always had when the Crossrail project first started, which was that at some stage the Government might turn around to my constituents and say, “We want to remove the mainline services. You can just be part of a London metro service.” My concern was exacerbated when my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), when Mayor of London, suggested that the stations in my constituency should come under the complete remit of Transport for London, as part of the London metro services. I rejected the idea then, and I reject it now.

The industry should not be planning for Crossrail to be the main service provider for my constituents. The demand of my constituents—their choice of service—should determine the service providers for their stations. The attitude that the industry will decide what sort of trains people can get just confirms the view that I have had for too long—I had it when British Rail was in place and, sadly, I think there are those in the railway industry today who think like it—which is that some people in the rail industry enjoy playing trains and do not want to think about passengers. But passengers are the key. Yes, in future some of my constituents may choose to use Crossrail, but that must be a choice. Those who choose to use fast services must have those fast services available.

I urge the Minister to ensure that the Great Western franchise continues to provide fast services for Maidenhead and Twyford on the main line, and not just the principle of fast services; there has to be a sufficient number of services at the right times, with enough seats so that people can actually get on the train. We want services to be restored at least, and enhanced at best. Some might say that it is natural for me, as a local Member of Parliament, to stand up and say that for my constituents, but it matters beyond my constituency. Actually, some people using the services in Twyford and Maidenhead are not from my constituency, as we just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell); there will also be some from the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), and others who come to those stations to use those fast services.

Some of my constituents have already started to drive to London instead of using the trains, because of the reduced service. How does that help our 2050 climate change target? We want more people to use the trains, but we will not achieve that if we reduce the services. We want the country’s economy to thrive. It is right to level up across the UK—that is what the modern industrial strategy, which was introduced when I was Prime Minister, is about. But levelling up does not mean reducing the vibrancy of a key part of our current economic powerhouse. Train services to Maidenhead and Twyford and the linking branch lines matter to my constituents, our environment and our economy.

I urge everybody involved—Great Western, Network Rail and the Department for Transport—to do everything to ensure that my constituents continue to have the train services that they need. We must continue to see people using those trains, to bring people from Maidenhead and Twyford to businesses in London, and from London to work in businesses in Maidenhead and Twyford, to continue to maintain our thriving economy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir David. I promise to be very, very good and stick to time. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for securing this debate on rail services for Maidenhead and Twyford and linking branch lines. It has been an informative debate, and I will address as many of the issues that she raised as I can, as well as those raised by other hon. Members.

Forgive me for being slightly nervous answering my former Prime Minister in a debate in this fashion. A lot of the things I will talk about—the positive nature of our investment plans for our railways; the focus on passengers that we are demanding from our railways—stem from initiatives brought forward from a former regime. I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me if I tell her things she already knows, but they are useful for the public record. She is right to mention her constituents’ issues with fast trains since the timetable change. I was not aware of the process that she outlined behind the scenes directly with Network Rail and the refused application—I will come back to that.

To give an overall picture, let me reassure my right hon. Friend that the Government are investing in record levels of rail funding to deliver the biggest rail modernisation programme for over a century—something that she set off. She mentioned that we are spending £48 billion between 2019 and 2024 to improve rail services for passengers and freight customers, while maintaining very high levels of safety and improving reliability. We are investing over £5 billion in the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion on electrification to deliver better services, new trains and thousands more seats. That programme has provided 4,900 extra seats into London in the peak, and a 40% increase into Paddington in the morning peak. The modernisation of the Great Western main line is improving over 100 million rail journeys each year, stimulating economic activity and growth, as she rightly outlined, from London through her constituency and further on into the Thames valley, the Cotswolds, the west country and south Wales. I am aware of the importance of her words.

A few words on Great Western Railway’s general performance and improvements are probably needed here. We are seeing the benefits of investment. GWR’s punctuality over the last year has been much better than in previous years. Since it had the recent issues, it has put a comprehensive performance improvement plan in place, and performance has improved substantially over recent months. The measure of punctuality as a moving annual average was 89.4% in period 10, which ended on 4 January 2020, compared with 83.1% in the previous year’s period. Most four-weekly periods since December 2018 have improved. That performance has been achieved with a timetable change on the Great Western route in December 2019, which was the biggest since the 1970s. The enhanced timetable introduced in December last year reduced most journey times on intercity routes and added additional local services in the south-west. We have improved passenger compensation; GWR introduced delay repay arrangements on 1 April last year.

My right hon. Friend is right to outline a number of issues. Some of the delays that she highlighted were caused by fatalities on the railway. When I inherited this job I did not quite comprehend that across the network, one person dies every 31 hours. We are working ever so hard across Government and the industry itself: we have trained more than 20,000 people, with the help of Samaritans, to try to intervene at an earlier stage. Hundreds of lives have been saved by people who have had that training at stations. It is a shocking statistic, and it causes unbelievable problems for grieving families, drivers who have been affected and the whole system. We are truly working on that. She is right to say that nowhere near all the delays are caused by that, but it is a significant issue.

Passenger satisfaction with GWR in the spring 2019 rail passenger survey was 87%—the highest ever for the franchise. The national score was 83%. There are a few improvements going on at Maidenhead station, as my right hon. Friend knows, most of which are due to be completed by the middle of 2021. They are being carried out by Network Rail and are due to be completed by the time the Elizabeth line opens. They include improvements to the ticket hall, a new lift to platform one, extended platforms for longer trains, new platform canopies to accommodate overhead line equipment, new signs, help points and customer information screens and CCTV. There is a comprehensive improvement plan for the station. Her constituents may well have items on their shopping list of station improvements that I have not mentioned. In the Department’s rail network enhancement pipeline we are only at the beginning of control period 6, as it is called in the industry, so further enhancements can come from that.

We are making improvements to the Maidenhead to Marlow branch line. GWR is undertaking a study, with local enterprise partnership support, of options for rail infrastructure at Bourne End. A key aim is to enable a half-hourly through service between Marlow and Maidenhead, in line with the frequency of other Thames valley branches. If initial studies show that scheme to be potentially successful, it will need to be progressed through our pipeline process. That is the usual process for enhancements that will end up with Government investment.

My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted concerns about the balance between Great Western Railway and TfL Rail services at Maidenhead and Twyford. The current balance was developed with Crossrail in mind. With the delay to the tunnel, it has been necessary to accommodate the services in an increasingly busy Paddington station, which has caused some issues. In managing the overall timetable, compromises have been necessary to achieve a balance between acceptable performance and what passengers at each station would like to see.

In December 2019, TfL Rail took over the running of stopping services between Paddington and Reading. That is another crucial step forward in the delivery of the Elizabeth line, which will transform rail transport across and into central London. When the Elizabeth line fully opens in 2022, it will increase rail capacity in London by a massive 10% and carry up to 200 million passengers a year, with passengers at Maidenhead—I know my right hon. Friend was not sure how keen her constituents would be about this—able to get a train directly to Canary Wharf in 55 minutes and to Tottenham Court Road in 40 minutes.

I am grateful to the Minister for recognising the point I made about the balance between Crossrail and Great Western, but the point is that there needs to be a choice for constituents at Maidenhead so those who want a fast service can still get a decent fast service—and a good number of them. The danger is that it sounds as if the industry—I hope the Department is not thinking this—is pushing my constituents towards Crossrail services, and Crossrail services alone. I want to ensure that they have a choice and that there are still fast services. I also want semi-fast services on Crossrail.

I completely hear what my right hon. Friend says, and I hope that I will get to address that point properly in a moment.

On increasing choice, and further to my earlier intervention, I hope the Minister will give us some good news about the western rail link to Heathrow.

Time is quite tight. I would like to address in more detail what my right hon. Friend has said, but may I just say that if I do not cover all the issues she raised, I will write to her with a much fuller answer?

In answer to the hon. Gentleman, I am told—he kindly told me beforehand that he would raise that issue, so I was able to check with my officials—that Network Rail’s application for a development consent order is expected in summer 2020. That will be the next major milestone for that project, which we are keen to progress.

I have just a minute left, so let me conclude by saying that I will write to my right hon. Friend with more detail about some of the issues she raised. The Government are investing billions of pounds in the rail industry. As I mentioned, when the Elizabeth line fully opens in 2022, it will significantly increase rail capacity in London and probably increase demand from Maidenhead too, with the changes in service it brings. However, I will happily go back to my Department and contact Network Rail about GWR’s application for the reinstatement of fast trains, which I did not know about. As always, my right hon. Friend represents her constituents with passion and vigour, and I promise not to drop this ball on her behalf.

Question put and agreed to.