Jessica recently joined STAG members at Severn Tunnel Junction to speak to commuters about their experiences. As a result she called for a debate in Parliament. This is the speech:
Debate about Cross-border Rail Services in Wales 02 July 2014
Wednesday 2 July 2014
[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]
Cross-border Rail Services in Wales
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(John Penrose.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I thank other hon. Members and hon. Friends from Wales for showing up, and I know that more hon. Members would be here if it were not for the fact that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is considering other business.
Transport debates, by their nature, can be extremely parochial, but I make no apology for introducing this debate on rail issues that affect my constituents, because those issues are a big concern for the commuters I represent. I will concentrate on overcrowding and problems with the franchise in my area, but other hon. Members might want to make more general remarks about the franchise, the electrification of the valleys lines and related funding issues.
Like many hon. Members, I receive a lot of complaints from constituents who are frustrated by the day-to-day problems they face when they commute or travel for leisure. My constituency is near the border, so many of my constituents travel to the south-west, Bristol and Bath and to London. The debate is born out of great frustration with train companies and train operators, which is felt by me, by the excellent Severn tunnel action group—I know I am biased, but I believe that it is the best rail users’ campaign group out there—and by their fellow rail campaigners in the next village, the Magor action group on rail. Our frustrations are overcrowding, lack of connecting services and lack of information on electrification. We need to ensure that those concerns are heard as we approach the renewal of the franchises. The debate is a chance to get some of that on record.
The Severn tunnel action group was set up after the last Greater Western franchise, because its members felt that cross-border services were poorly covered. They have campaigned tirelessly for the reinstatement and protection of services, and their aim is to develop Severn Tunnel Junction station, one of the stations in my constituency, to encourage more people on to rail from cars by providing better services. They are a constructive and positive lot who have a lot of rail expertise, but I sense real frustration with the lack of engagement by rail companies. I want to convey that to the Minister as we approach the new franchises.
The latest figures from the Office of Rail Regulation highlight the importance of cross-border journeys to all Welsh rail users, with around a third of the 27 million annual journeys crossing the Wales-England border. Many of those journeys are back and forth to and from the south-west and London. My constituents commute to cities such as Bristol, which offer big employment opportunities, so we need reliable and affordable public transport. However, all too often, people face an unenviable choice: pay the Severn bridge toll—which is too expensive and should be reduced, although that is a topic for another debate and I am sure we will return to it—or run the gauntlet of an often overcrowded and inconvenient train service. Unsurprisingly, given the cost of fuel and the fact that the Severn tolls are whacked up every year, people are increasingly opting for the train service.
Partly as a result of that, we have seen substantial growth in passenger numbers. The Welsh Affairs Committee report “Crossing the border: road and rail links between England and Wales”, which was completed a couple of years ago, picked up on that:
“Cross-border services have seen significant growth in passenger numbers in recent years, and it is expected that demand will further increase in the future. First Great Western said that its Cardiff to Bristol service had seen particularly high growth”.
According to the Office of Rail Regulation, the number of passengers going to and from Severn Tunnel Junction station has increased by 72% in the past seven years. That growth is partly caused by commuters, students and tourists connecting from places such as Chepstow and Lydney. Connections have increased by 192% over the same period. That is a huge growth in usage, and it increases every year.
At the Monmouthshire end of my constituency, there are several new housing developments and more are planned. The same is true of Chepstow and Gloucester. Many occupants of those new homes will commute to Bristol and other cities in England, and they will end up at Severn Tunnel Junction station to catch connecting trains, but the rail service has not kept up with demand. For many years, we have received complaints from commuters, but the service remains the same or even gets worse. The main reason I applied for the debate was frustration with the lack of response from First Great Western to the chronic overcrowding on our commuter routes to Bristol; demand for services to Bristol has greatly increased. In fairness to First Great Western, I should say that I have finally got a meeting with the company next Monday.
After having received many complaints, I recently went out with Severn tunnel action group members to survey users on those commuter trains, and I am in no doubt about how frustrated they are. One of my constituents calls the service “the sardine express”. Commuter trains are always overcrowded and, sadly, it is not uncommon for large numbers of passengers to be left on the station because there is no space in the carriages. The 07.55 First Great Western service has been recorded as leaving more than 30 passengers behind at Severn Tunnel Junction station. Some of those passengers have paid more than £1,500 for an annual season ticket, so it is easy to imagine their frustration and anger. I will share a few comments from commuters whom I surveyed:
“Members of my family catch the 07.55 train from this station as they commute to Bristol. For several months now, the train has been made up of only two coaches instead of what used to be five. We have experienced overcrowding, standing room only, people unable to board, etc, etc. I have written to First Great Western on more than one occasion to complain in the strongest terms, but no avail.”
“I sometimes catch a train on the opposite platform and have counted some 100 or so persons waiting on the 07.55 to Bristol! When there are only two carriages, the train is full before it arrives at Severn Tunnel. Completely unacceptable, particularly considering the exorbitant ticket costs in this country.”
Another person recently reported that a passenger had fainted:
“FGW must be in breach of health and safety standards at the very least. Something must be done about this.”
Another commuter directly linked the situation to the effect of the Severn bridges:
“It’s all inefficient. I can’t jump into my car because of the Bridge Tax of £120 per month on the most expensive toll in the country. If I could drive instead I would in an instant. I’ve suffered the pain of these trains for only 12 months. There is no innovation, no new trains, no new operators and prices are set high.”
I have many more examples, but will end on this e-mail from a constituent:
“They just need an extra coach on each train—it’s not rocket science!”
Why is that so hard to deliver?
There is an obvious lack of rolling stock, which has led to a lack of carriages on peak services. There should be five carriages, as constituents have said, on the 07.55 train, but frequently there are three or sometimes even two. I understand that the train company has looked into hiring additional rolling stock to address the shortfall while some of its stock could be away for months on heavy overhaul, but that has not happened. We can only surmise that, as a private business, its financial model means that to do so would not be financially viable, so it has decided not to go ahead. Will the Minister take the matter up with First Great Western following the debate? Does he agree that it is not acceptable for the company to ignore the problem and to ignore complaints from commuters who have legitimate concerns about services they have paid for?
My second complaint is the perennial problem of poor connections, which was covered in the Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border transport a couple of years ago, but which has still not improved. Poor connections are not only a problem for those of us who live on the border; they have knock-on implications for those further into Wales. Commuters from Caldicot, Chepstow or Lydney may face a lengthy wait for a connecting service, and poor connections at peak commuting times are common. For instance, there are no trains from Caldicot between 7.40 am and 9.40 am, which is bad for people who are trying to get to work. Stations such as Caldicot have huge potential, particularly among people who want to use them for work, but we need a service that is fit for purpose. Lots of people want to use that service. What can the Minister and his Welsh counterparts do to ensure that the First Great Western service connects better with the Wales and borders franchise, which is up for renewal in 2018? Better connections is a constant grumble, and the matter has been raised by the Welsh Affairs Committee. We need action on better connecting services.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on the work on connectivity that she does on behalf of her constituents.
In the north, we now have better services; there has been huge investment on the west coast over many years, which has provided extra trains. Does my hon. Friend agree that the connectivity between the franchises must be looked at? In north Wales, both are coming up for renewal at a similar time. I am sure that the Minister is aware of that, and that forward planning is being done. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for a direct link from Liverpool to Holyhead, which would bring Dublin and Liverpool closer together? We need to look at the big picture, and we have time to plan to do so before the franchises are renewed.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is exactly right: with the franchises coming up for renewal, we must think strategically. The Government and the Welsh Government must work together for the good of the transport system. They must be constructive so that we can iron out some of the problems. I also agree with his point about the link between Liverpool and Holyhead.
We all support electrification and hope that we will benefit from it soon. As the Welsh Affairs Committee pointed out, it has been an example of good collaborative working and has demonstrated what can be achieved when the two Governments work together on transport—apart from the row over funding the valleys lines. For constituencies such as mine, which will suffer much, it would helpful if the Minister let us know early on what the disruption will be, when the work is to be carried out and what form it will take. We hear talk of the closure of some stations so that work can be carried out on the bridges, but the lack of concrete information is causing confusion. When can we let communities know what will be going on as a consequence of electrification? Staff in my office have asked for information and timetables, but so far we have heard nothing. If would be helpful to know when local commuters will be informed fully.
An example of the uncertainty caused is that commuters at Severn Tunnel Junction raised the issue of the safety of the passenger footbridge, which many rail users feel is unsafe. In fact, an Arriva fire inspector expressed concerns a few weeks ago and Network Rail was forced to do remedial work. If it is unsafe, it must be sorted out, but the latest letter we received from Network Rail—it has been a lengthy correspondence—said that the delay in sorting it out was due to the electrification plans. We have been chasing information about the bridge for some time, but the situation is now critical. The new bridge is funded under the Department for Transport’s Access for All scheme, but is clearly unsuitable as it is now. Will the Minister please intervene with Network Rail, because his Department is funding the improvements? We need action quickly.
I want to discuss the renewal of the Great Western franchise. We have all recently been asked to respond to the consultation on the franchise, which I have done. Rail groups in my constituency want to reiterate to the Minister that whoever is awarded the contract needs to meet commuter demands. In my area that would include a half-hourly or better train service from south Wales to Bristol Temple Meads and Bath; an additional hourly service from Ebbw Vale via Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol Parkway, which would provide new journey-to-work opportunities to take advantage of the development and employment sites planned for the area around Bristol Parkway; a minimum of five coaches on the peak services from south Wales to Bristol; a commitment to ensure that train capacity is sufficient for future demand; and greater emphasis in the franchise on working in partnership on interchanges, and on rail companies working together on timetables.
Getting rail services right in my constituency is an important part of the effort to increase economic and employment opportunities, but we should also give commuters the service they deserve, given how much they pay for it. The debate is focused on getting the cross-border services right, but I should also mention the great work that the Welsh Government are doing on the metro system, which could be of great benefit to communities in my area, such as the people of Magor who are campaigning for a new station through the Magor action group on rail.
It is so important for constituencies such as mine that the two Governments work together on rail as we depend on a properly co-ordinated approach and properly thought out train services. I know that other Members will make more general points about other cross-border rail issues, but I am grateful to the Minister for listening to my speech and hope that he will address some of my specific concerns about the franchise.
You can also see the Wales Online article about this debate here: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/welsh-mps-vent-frustration-cross-border-7358920