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Rail Service Reductions

Volume 701: debated on Friday 22 October 2021

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

Order. The hon. Lady has to be heard, so please leave quietly. It is the first time I have had to say that in nearly two years. I think we have achieved that.

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting me the opportunity to have a debate on this issue and also for ensuring that I can be heard.

This is an issue of specific importance to my constituents, but it also has broader implications for our country’s approach to climate change, infrastructure and the recovery from the covid pandemic. I asked for this debate in response to South Western Railway’s recent consultation on the future of its services. Like all our rail operating companies, SWR has run a reduced service during the period of the pandemic, and has been supported by considerable public funding. That has been essential for keeping our public services going and to supporting the economy, both through the lockdown and as we move forward.

SWR is, understandably, looking ahead to its post-pandemic operation, and has put forward a revised timetable for consultation. The revised timetable proposes to cut services from many of the stations in my constituency. It will be cutting trains from North Sheen and Mortlake stations from once every fifteen minutes to once every half hour, and removing peak hour services from Kingston and Norbiton. The proposals have been strongly resisted by me and by my neighbouring MPs in Kingston and Twickenham, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Ed Davey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), and by many, many residents across my constituency and beyond.

SWR has justified the proposals by asserting that commuter travel is likely to recover to just 60% of pre-covid demand. That seems extremely unlikely. In April to June this year, passenger numbers on SWR, according to the Office of Rail and Road, were 45% of the level that they had been before lockdown restrictions began. This was a period where there were still many restrictions in place and workers were being asked to work from home if possible. It is ridiculous that SWR thinks that it can make long-term forecasts of commuter demand when it does not have any post-lockdown demand figures to look at.

Transport for London figures for Overground journeys on their network were already showing 55% of pre-lockdown demand by August, and anecdotal evidence—from me and from many other commuters who are using the train services more regularly now—shows continued growth in rail journeys both in the centre of London and on suburban services since that time. I suspect that somebody in SWR has just assumed that all commuters will make a choice to work in their offices on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in future and have extrapolated a post-covid demand of 60% from that assumption. However, it is ignoring the large numbers of schoolchildren, for example, who depend on suburban services to get to and from school, not to mention their teachers and other school staff, and the large number of workers across many industries and the public sector who will need to be in their workplace five days a week.

The Government have been most insistent in recent weeks that they expect to see civil servants back at their desks on a full-time permanent basis, for example, and we know that many younger workers prefer to be in the office than stuck in their bedrooms at home. It is much too soon to be making assumptions about how people will carry out their working lives once the fear of covid and contracting covid has disappeared. For example, in the past few weeks—as we know, covid numbers are on the rise—we have started to see a slight tailing off in the growth of rail users, perhaps in response to the understanding that we are not yet out of the woods in the pandemic, that people still need to take care and that we still need to be cautious. I do not think it is possible to make any forecasts of post-pandemic railway usage until such a time as we can be confident that we are completely out of the pandemic.

The assumption that demand for services will reduce highlights the great challenge facing commuter services. For many decades, rail operators have assumed that commuters are a captive customer and, because they are forced to make the same journey five days a week, that demand for rail services will continue and grow and be inelastic to price increases. They have assumed that ever-increasing fares will continue to be paid by commuters who have no alternative other than to use the rail services that they are offered by their local rail operator.

However, the pandemic has revealed to us that we can continue to work successfully from our homes and other locations, and that we therefore have a choice. We have a much greater range of commuting options to choose from. If we want, we can stay at home and work just as successfully, in many industries and sectors, as we could if we were in the office. We may need to go into the office only for a few hours. We may choose to travel later. We may choose to come home later. We may choose to adopt any kind of working pattern and to be based somewhere between home and the office. There is one assumption that we might be able to make with some confidence: it will no longer hold true, particularly for people living in the suburbs, such as in my constituency, that there is a huge number of people who will require train services to get them to their offices before 9 o’clock in the morning and who will therefore be captive to price rises on the trains.

I think that South Western Railway’s mistake is to assume that the increased range of options will necessarily mean that fewer people will choose to travel at peak time and to plan accordingly. It betrays an extraordinary lack of confidence in its service to assume that once people have more options, they will not willingly choose to use trains. Instead of seeking to persuade people to use trains, South Western Railway has decided to cut supply. That is not the entrepreneurial spirit that railway privatisation sought to inspire.

The challenge that the country faces now is not just from covid. We also face the far greater challenge of cutting our carbon emissions, and much of that reduction needs to come from changing the way we travel. Government have made a clear commitment to modal shift as part of their strategy to reduce transport-related emissions and that means encouraging travellers to use trains, buses and active travel instead of motor cars. There is no doubt that people have continued to use their motor cars. We see motor car journeys now at similar and even greater levels than before the pandemic. If we are to meet our carbon emission goals, we need to redouble our efforts to encourage people to travel by train.

How would a free market in rail travel respond to the challenge presented by home working and car use? It would cut prices to stimulate demand, and yet, we can see that the cost of rail tickets has increased by 36% over the past 10 years compared with just a 9% increase in the costs of motoring. What would be the impact of cutting services on rail operator income? It would decrease demand for rail services and cut fare income. Rail operators would then be forced to increase fares on remaining services to cover their costs. With a greater choice of how and when to travel—indeed, of whether to travel at all—more and more commuters will choose not to use a train service that offers ever-increasing prices for fewer and fewer services. That will have a knock-on impact on our rail network as a whole. We will see underused stations gradually closed and fewer and fewer services. Rail operators will find it harder and harder to cover routine maintenance costs. Even if we do not think that we can yet forecast user numbers, I confidently forecast that reduced rail services and reduced income will result in a spiral of fewer and fewer services, eventually cutting off those services entirely. The Rail Minister and I are both united in very much wanting to avoid that.

It is clear that now is not the time to be thinking about cutting services. While commuters are thinking about how to structure their working lives, we need to incentivise rail travel and encourage commuters and other travellers to use it. The rail industry has already identified that there are great opportunities for growth in leisure travel. Let us improve the offering—more comfortable seats, better catering options, more space for luggage, and more reliable wifi—and offer competitive pricing to make it a more economical option than travelling by car.

I love trains. They are, by far, my preferred way to travel and, although there are many advantages to working from home, I was surprised to discover how much I missed my commute during lockdown. The growth of our suburban train network during the 20th century created new towns and neighbourhoods, and enabled many more people to enjoy life away from the cramped housing of the city, but our city centres depend on being accessible to a large number of people. We cannot maintain the unique economic, cultural and social life of central London if we discourage people from travelling into the city. We cannot tackle the challenge of climate change if we do not invest in affordable and accessible alternatives to the motor car. I call on the Minister to act to stop these proposed cuts in railway services and instead encourage people to use them.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), my constituency neighbour, on securing this important debate and thank her and the Minister for allowing me time to speak.

As my hon. Friend has already laid out so eloquently the economic and environmental case for incentivising and supporting rail travel, I want to focus specifically on the South Western Railway consultation—how it has been run, the rationale behind it, and the impact on my constituency.

Let me be clear, my constituents and I absolutely understand the dramatic impact that the pandemic has had on passenger numbers and the huge fluctuations that this has caused as a result of the lockdowns. We recognise the need for emergency and temporary—I repeat “temporary”—timetables, which have been in operation for the past 18 months. However, the proposals to permanently slash services by up to 50% for some stations are fundamentally flawed. They are flawed in terms of timing and they are flawed in terms of rationale and how the consultation was conducted. The impacts for busy suburban stations where there are no tube alternatives to reach central London—as in my constituency—are unacceptable.

On the timing, as my hon. Friend has said, we still have no idea what long-term travel patterns will look like—we are still in a pandemic. My constituents are bemused as to why decisions are being taken now on permanent service levels. It is my understanding from the emergency measures agreement between SWR and the Department for Transport that the DFT suspends the performance and financial arrangements from the original franchise agreement and that, during this period, it is up to the Secretary of State to set these targets. These extraordinary measures have been taken precisely because the impact on passenger numbers could not have been foreseen and continue to be volatile.

It is for that very reason that now is the wrong time to be using passenger numbers as the basis for long-term decisions about timetables. SWR has itself described the future passenger volume projections as “a guess” and conceded that more analysis is needed. Therefore, SWR needs to continue running its current temporary timetable, adjusting the number of services as demand increases, conduct more analysis on changing passenger numbers and undertake a consultation on any permanent changes once new travel patterns are better understood—probably in six to 12 months’ time.

On the rationale, it beggars belief that the central argument deployed by SWR is because punctuality and service levels have increased during the pandemic. I cannot use unparliamentary language here, but it seems as though SWR has only just discovered that bears do indeed relieve themselves in the woods. Of course, fewer services mean more punctual services. That is blindingly obvious. It should not be a case for slashing services. Importantly, at the time of the contract award, SWR promised improvements in punctuality without the need for service reductions, so it must fulfil these previous commitments and provide a punctual and reliable service without the proposed drastic cuts.

This consultation was run over the summer holiday period with only strategic stakeholders, not the people who use the services. The commuters themselves have not had a chance to have their say, and they will only be consulted once the timetable has been decided just before it is implemented. That is no consultation at all.

On the impact for my constituents, I have made it clear both to the Minister and to SWR management that the proposed cuts are wholly unacceptable. Not to reinstate the Hounslow loop service off-peak will slash direct services to London by half for residents of St Margarets and Whitton, resulting in only a half-hourly service to and from Waterloo for much of the day in comparison with every 15 minutes or so prior to the pandemic. That is certainly so for St Margarets; there is a spacing issue at Whitton that I think can be tackled in a different way. A reduction of services by 50% at these zones 4 and 5 London train stations is inconceivable, particularly as leisure travel is due to return, or projected to return, to 105% of pre-pandemic levels.

Peak-time service reductions through Hampton Wick and Teddington will result in 15% capacity reductions. Those stations are already back to being very busy in the morning, and there is great concern about overcrowding if these cuts are implemented.

On the impacts, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Shepperton line, which affects Hampton and Fulwell in my constituency. There are no proposed cuts, but, frankly, if it is cut any more, there would not be a service left. I would ask the Minister to comment on whether he thinks, in 2021, it is acceptable to have one train service an hour from Hampton, which is a busy residential area. It also has a growing life sciences business, which is doubling its workforce on an annual basis at the moment. We should be boosting those services.

I will finish by saying that here we are, on the eve of COP26, and we cannot have a car-led recovery. We need to be incentivising rail travel—these cuts will simply push people into their cars—and we need a clear plan to boost rail travel post pandemic. It is clear that these cuts are financially driven, but they are financially illiterate, because we will have all the fixed costs of the network remaining in place while passenger numbers are depressed and revenue is therefore reduced.

I would be grateful to the Minister if he confirmed what level of savings the Department for Transport and the Treasury hope to gain from these cuts. The local and London-wide economy cannot afford these cuts, our planet cannot afford these cuts and residents in Whitton, St Margarets and Teddington cannot afford these cuts. I ask the Minister to intervene and stop these plans, or at the very least delay them.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing this important Adjournment debate, and I thank her hon. Friend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for contributing. Lots of hon. and right hon. Members have made me aware of their interest in this subject, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I would not say he is constantly talking to me about it, but every time I see him he does mention this particular subject. I do know how important it is to Members affected by the consultation.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for keeping us to time today, which is an excellent reminder that Parliament, much like the railway, functions at its best only when things run smoothly and efficiently. That is really the crux of the matter today—the need to make sure that our railways do actually run smoothly and efficiently, and put passengers first.

Let me put try to put this debate into some sort of context. In February 2020, before the pandemic, our railways had one of their busiest months on record, and the commuter services in the morning from the constituency of the hon. Member for Richmond Park were busier than ever, too. It was standing room only on nearly all—or, in fact, on all—early commuter, morning peak services into London, and indeed on the vast majority of morning peak services around the country.

However, there were issues, too. The lines into Waterloo, for example, were at capacity, and any delay in the morning would cascade through the services for the rest of the day, often creating delays on other services, as well as having staff and trains in the wrong place at the wrong time, or where they crossed lines and all things got excited. Huge amounts of delay minutes, which is how the industry measures these things, were created by those issues.

Indeed, in May 2018, the whole system nearly keeled over. Unachievable timetables bid for in very complicated franchise competitions combined with infrastructure not being delivered on time and industrial action created a toxic mix and delays up and down the country, where millions of journeys were disrupted. Action was called for in this Chamber very loudly, and indeed by consumers, punters, passengers up and down the land, and a comprehensive review was started, led by a gentleman called Keith Williams.

Going back to my story, the pandemic followed that very busy February on our railways. In April 2020 passenger numbers were down to 4% or 5% of what they had been a year earlier—almost Victorian levels of carriage. When Keith Williams’s work came to fruition in the “Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail” White Paper this May, we not only had to take account of the issues that were there pre-pandemic but obviously had to have an eye on what had happened over the previous 15 months. I am very pleased to say that the White Paper received cross-party support, and I thank the hon. Lady and her party for being so positive about the need for reform.

Everyone in politics and across the rail industry realises that, with passenger numbers still stuttering, these reforms were required more than ever, and we needed to ensure that our national timetable is reliable and fit for the future. It had to be an integral part of those reforms to ensure that passengers get the reliable, clean trains they deserve—that is a key reform.

Ensuring we have a timetable that allows freight operators to take lorries off our roads, helping to decarbonise journeys and get goods to places in a much more environmentally friendly way, is also part of those reforms. That is why this debate is so timely and so important.

The challenge for the railways is not an easy one. The industry must rethink its offer to passengers and to freight while carefully balancing the need to preserve the excellent performance that the hon. Member for Twickenham talked about. It must deliver reliable passenger services and provide good value for money for the hard-working taxpayers who use it, and for those who do not. The industry needs to ensure that timetables are attractive, efficient, reliable and fit for purpose.

South Western Railway routes have historically seen very high patronage. I used to commute on those lines, and this House will be aware that SWR and Network Rail have historically responded to ever-growing customer demand by increasing the number of trains on the network, often at the expense of the performance and reliability of the services and the infrastructure on which they run. I am sure the hon. Member for Richmond Park would agree that it is no use having frequent services if they do not run reliably because the network is too busy, and it is no use advertising trains if they have to be cancelled to recover time in the timetable. It is infuriating when something is promised to passengers that cannot be delivered. I am keen to ensure that any future timetables do what they say they will do and can be completely relied upon.

As we all know, passengers are slowly returning to the railways, but behaviours have changed. The morning peak hours are back to being the busier trains of the day. I was shown data earlier this week demonstrating that only one train coming into Waterloo on a new normal midweek day was at or over capacity.

Will the Minister reflect on what I said about how we are not yet over the pandemic and how we cannot start measuring what post-pandemic behaviour will be like? As I said, we are starting to see another quite large increase in cases, which will have made people nervous about coming back to work and coming back into their offices. It is therefore too soon to start measuring how many people are on the trains and whether we can expect the number to be constant in the future.

I agree with the hon. Lady, but we need to have timetables on which to base things. We also need the flexibility to respond to demand.

As the hon. Lady describes, the pandemic has changed how people use our railways, and the railways need to respond. As I have said to industry audiences many times, the rail industry has never had to compete for its market, which has always come to it. Lots of commuters in her constituency and mine will have stories about having to stand for long distances on journeys because there was no alternative. Now, however, trains are having to compete to win their market back for the first time ever. We need to get it right, but it is a time of flex. We need the certainty of timetables so that people come back to rail as and when they feel comfortable, which I hope and expect they will in big numbers.

SWR and Network Rail have started to plan for a baseline timetable that can balance three important considerations: the performance of service, the attractiveness of offer, and the efficiency of cost. It is right and proper that they should have consulted stakeholders when embarking on such an ambitious endeavour.

On the question I asked in my speech, what cost savings are the proposed cuts expected to deliver?

I am not sure that I have the exact figure in pennies. If I have not, as I flick through my notes at the same time as reading my speech, I shall respond to the hon. Lady in writing.

Working in partnership with Network Rail, SWR is proposing changes that will deliver 89% of pre-covid levels of service and 93% of capacity. That is an uplift from today’s 85% of pre-covid service levels and 85% of capacity, against a backdrop of a forecast 76% of pre-covid passenger footfall returning by December 2022. To put that in a different context and perhaps give it some colour, there are currently 1,164 trains departing Waterloo on a normal weekday, but if the plans in the timetable consultations go through, that will rise to 1,338.

I am sympathetic to the concerns of both hon. Ladies about the level of service on public transport, especially from an environmental perspective. We had a conversation earlier about air pollution and the consequences of more car journeys. That is why having a high-performing railway is important, because only by ensuring that the rail offer is a quality one that is as reliable and attractive as possible will we get passengers back on to the railway, which we all know is one of the greenest ways to travel.

SWR tells me that the service levels set out in the consultation leave enough flexibility for it and Network Rail to introduce additional services in future as and when demand returns. I cannot stress enough that I am keen to see that that level of flexibility based on demand is ensured and can be articulated and demonstrated in some way to hon. Members so they can see what is going on with services.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Richmond Park will agree that reliability is the most important aspect of a good timetable, which is why I am keen for SWR to introduce the new class 701 Arterio train at the earliest opportunity. That new fleet of trains will offer even greater capacity than we have now and a promise of even better reliability, which will mean an even more robust train service.

Consultations are an exercise in gathering thoughts from stakeholders. They are only the beginning, not the end of the process. SWR and Network Rail will continue to work with stakeholders to make sure that their passenger offer is fit for purpose. If it is not, I will ask them to adjust it.

On the point about being flexible in response to demand, will the Minister commit to publishing passenger figures as the new timetable is implemented?

That is a sensible idea. It is not something we do regularly, so I will endeavour to make sure that we publish passenger figures as quickly as possible so that people can see the level of demand as it, hopefully, increases massively and services can therefore be brought back.

I will ensure that SWR and Network Rail continue to work with customers, communities and stakeholders. Where the business cases stacks up and there is a need for additional capacity, I will ensure not only that those arguments are carefully assessed but that the railway is flexible and responds to demand.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.