|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about rail services in Bromley and to have the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who is in the Chamber because she is as concerned about those rail services as I am. I tell the Minister, who is listening with his usual assiduity, that many thousands of people commute daily from stations such as Orpington, Petts Wood, Chelsfield and St. Mary Cray, in my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend. Those people make a massive contribution to London's economy, which now represents one fifth of the United Kingdom's entire economy.
Some 21 per cent. of our national income comes from London, and my constituents make a huge contribution to that. Indeed, the public revenues, which the Minister is here to represent on this occasion, receive a net contribution of £13 billion to £23 billion, depending on how it is calculated, from London, to which my commuting constituents make a solid contribution. I could say of them what John Milton, one of our great English poets, said in addressing Parliament:
I have raised this issue continually, as the Minister is well aware because he has replied to at least two of those debates. In this Session, I have raised it time and again. I referred to the commuting problems of my constituents on 26 June in the debate on the Loyal Address. I raised the issue in Westminster Hall in the debate on transport in the south-east, which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I did so again in the debate on Railtrack initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) on 13 November, and in the Christmas Adjournment debate on 19 December, and I also asked a question when the Transport Secretary introduced his strategic rail plan on 14 January. The Select Committee on Environmental Audit, of which I have the privilege to be the Chairman, also had the interesting experience of cross-questioning the Secretary of State.
I have raised the issue on several occasions in the House because it is a daily problem for my constituents, and I am very concerned about their daily problems. In addition, in December, with the help of my friends in the Orpington Conservative association, I stood outside the four stationsnot all at once, obviouslyin my constituency and handed out questionnaires, which my constituents were happy enough to fill in. I have here the responses, or at least a proportion of them, and I should be happy to pass them to the Minister if he would like to look at them.
I am a one-man focus group so far as the Minister is concerned. I can tell him that a great deal of pain is expressed in those pages; they contain my constituents' honest comments on the rail service that they receive. Their main complaint is overcrowding, closely followed by punctualityperhaps I should rephrase that as delays or non-punctualityfurther followed by the fact that there are few late-night trains and by the lack of disabled access. However, there was very little criticism of the staff. Both the station staff and the train staff were universally praised for the concerns that they have shown. The staff should be praised, because it is not their fault that the train services are bad.
I took all the information to Mr. Olivier Brousse, the managing director of Connex South Eastern. We had a useful conversation and I formed a favourable impression of his managerial capacities. I also gained the impression that he was doing his best to provide a good rail service to commuters in my constituency but that he needed the proper support. Subsequent to that meeting, Mr. Brousse's chief of staff wrote to me to say:
The Government reckoned without the assiduity of the shadow Minister for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). He invoked the passengers charter, which says that train companies must publish monthly their figures for punctuality, and he has put together the figures. They show that, since Railtrack was put into administration in September, delays on the south-east Kent link line have increased by 47 per cent. and that delays on the south-east Kent coast line have increased by 58 per cent. That represents a huge collapse in punctuality since Railtrack was taken into administration. Mr. Brousse also told me that the number of seats lost per day has risen from 24,000 to 100,000, and that fact further explains the overcrowding on the service.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I am listening to my hon. Friend carefully, because his experience mirrors mine. However, there are only four railway stations in his constituency whereas there are 13 in mine.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the simplest solutions to overcrowding would be to lengthen the trains? To lengthen the trains, it is necessary to lengthen the platforms, but the Government's takeover and renationalisation of Railtrack means that there is little
Apart from the ongoing problem of overcrowding that my hon. Friend and I have mentioned, there has been a disastrous collapse in punctuality following the events of September. The managing director of Connex South Eastern was quite plain about the causes of that. He said that it resulted from the collapse of morale of Railtrack staff that had followed the Government's decisions. The staff simply do not know what sort of company they are working for. Decisions are being delayed, so they do not know what sort of company they will work for. They do not know whether it will be a German company, a private company or a Government-sponsored company. They are in a state of confusion and that obviously affects their morale.
Although things have been better since Christmas, the improvement is fragile. I share the opinion of the managing director of Connex South Eastern that if the Railtrack problem is not resolved inside six months there is a danger of losing key staff and the situation will spiral further downwards. When will Railtrack come out of administration? When will we have some certainty about its future? The Minister will recall that the Secretary of State said on "Breakfast with Frost" that that will take just over six months, but it has already been nearly six months. Are the Government talking about another six months? Will it happen this autumn?
The Minister may also be aware of the power supply problem. We have had the wrong leaves and the wrong snow; we now have the wrong power. The new 375 trains are too powerful for the electric current that is used on the south-eastern track. They are coming into service in the next few months and cannot be used except in "a degraded form", to quote the managing director. They will have to go much more slowly so that they do not overload the power system, which means that punctuality will again be unsatisfactory. When will that problem be resolved?
Overcrowding, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham referred, is also a problem. The phrase "cattle-truck commuting" has been used to describe how people are so squashed into carriages that they have less room than many animals do when we transport them around the country. As a consequence, we have the phenomenon of rail rage. The House may not be familiar with that term, although we have all heard of road rage. I have witnessed rail rage at Charing Cross station in the evening when too many people are trying to get on to a train. Inevitably, the unsatisfactory rail service puts pressure on people, forces them into disputes and causes friction and anger. The Government must pay attention to that.
As my hon. Friend said, the solution in the medium term is to lengthen platforms and re-site signal boxes so that instead of the usual four-car or six-car trains, 12-car trains can be used to carry more people, especially during peak travelling times. I have a copy of the shortened version of the strategic plan, which is beautifully presented. It contains the commitment that by 2005 most of the 11,000 platforms throughout the country will be