Future of Rail Debate

Today, Martin took part in a Westminster Hall debate on a Transport Committee’s inquiry: the future of rail: Improving the rail passenger experience.

 

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Sir Edward. I thank the Chairman of the Transport Committee, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for comprehensively summarising our inquiry. I would like to focus on two or three things and give one or two local examples from my constituency of the failure of both the services and the ticketing arrangements.

The hon. Lady spoke of the dispute on Southern. The only comment I want to add to that and to what is in the report is how amazing I find it that we were told by the two company representatives that there were not enough drivers to operate the services from day one, due to an unexpected fall in the number during the change-over of the franchises. They said that they did not know on day one, but surely they could not have been so incompetent not to have known on day one minus 10 or 20.

It is amazing that, on day one, the company should not have enough staff to operate the services they had committed to. I do not think we managed to tease this out of the Minister at the meeting—perhaps we did and my memory is failing me—but did the Department know that on day one the company could not provide the services it had contracted for?

The hon. Lady gave many examples relating to ticketing. We were told how complex it is because there are so many different routes and tickets, but that applies to many industries. Why are the ticketing arrangements on the railways so far behind the airlines, for example? They have speeded up their process, and it is now pretty easy to check in and get a ticket. I find it amazing that, after all this time and so many promises and reports, we are not able to ensure ease of operation.

The report is about the rail passenger experience, the first part of which is getting a ticket and getting information about train times. The hon. Lady gave an example of different websites giving a ticket price difference of £80. I did a bit of research this morning on how to get from my Cleethorpes constituency to Haverfordwest. Perhaps not a great many people do that journey, but I happen to have family in Haverfordwest and I have done it on a number of occasions. Amazingly enough, it can be done with only one change in Stockport.​

I went on the National Rail website. National Rail sounds important, doesn’t it? People look at it and think, “This is the Rolls-Royce of websites.” Okay, it has got the information, but it is, shall we say, variable. When I tap in, “Cleethorpes to Haverfordwest”, the website says at the top, “Buy the cheapest for £157”. That is for a single adult standard class ticket.

Buying a ticket from Cleethorpes to Stockport costs £21. There are numerous fares at different times of the day to then go from Stockport to Haverfordwest, but I chose to leave Cleethorpes at 9.26. I was told that it would be £157, and that if I went 2 hours later it would be £163.80. If I go on the 9.26, I pay £21 to get to Stockport and £44.50 to get from Stockport to Haverfordwest. That is almost a £100 difference. If a family of three or four do that, let us be honest, they are being robbed—there is no getting away from it.

Having gone to south Wales, I thought, “I wonder whether it is cheaper to get to north Wales,” and I did a similar exercise going from Cleethorpes to Bangor; I accept that perhaps not many people do that on a daily basis. Again, I found that if the journey is done in three stages, it can be done for £56.20, whereas the headline says, “Cheapest fare £81.40.”

My final example is to get from Cleethorpes to Felixstowe, which again I found can be done £15 cheaper than what is stated at the top of the webpage—mind you, four tickets are necessary to do that, so perhaps the convenience makes it worth it. In this day and age, this is not rocket science. If the railway companies cannot do it themselves, somebody else should be made to do it on their behalf, and they should have to pay to have it done.

Obviously, I travel down here from Cleethorpes every week and back again, and I am always amazed at how many times my tickets are not checked. There are no ticket barriers at Cleethorpes or where I change at Doncaster, and at least 50% of the time the barriers at King’s Cross are not operational. I have done that journey time and again—I could have saved the taxpayers no end of money if I had just taken a chance on it, but we are all honest, aren’t we?

 

Kate Green

I totally support the hon. Gentleman’s comments about tickets not being checked. The situation is exacerbated when there is no machine on the station platform and no staff from whom one can buy a ticket. On my local line, passengers regularly travel between Urmston and Trafford Park, for example, without paying—not because they are not willing to pay, but because there is absolutely no way they can do so.

 

Martin Vickers

The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Seeing you in the Chair, Sir Edward, reminds me of the journeys that can be made from Cleethorpes to Lincoln via Market Rasen. There is often an announcement on the 9.20 train from Grimsby to Lincoln saying, “This train will be overcrowded when we get to Market Rasen. Can we get the tickets sorted out quickly?”

That brings me to overcrowding. You have probably used that 9.20 train yourself, Sir Edward. It leaves Market Rasen at about 10 o’clock in the morning and delivers you to Lincoln or Newark, where you can get down to King’s Cross. The reality is that it is a single unit, and has been one for years and years, despite the fact that it is regularly overcrowded when it leaves Market Rasen.

 

Robert Flello

Absolutely, and the same is true on the train that runs through Stoke-on-Trent on the Crewe-Derby line. It is a single unit and overcrowded, but nothing has been done for years. Nobody seems to care.

 

Martin Vickers

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside said, there is even a top 10 of overcrowding. I do not know whether the Market Rasen service is on it, but it certainly ought to be. The reality is that it is a single unit. East Midlands Trains will say, as it has said to me, “There isn’t enough rolling stock available, even when it cascades down after new stock has come on,” but that has been the case for 10 years. How long does it take to produce a new diesel unit to run that service?

If trains are regularly overcrowded, notwithstanding the fact that the rail experience is not particularly desirable from the passenger’s point of view, surely the companies are falling down on the commitments they made in their franchises. If they are not falling down on their commitments, the franchise agreements need tightening up.

Finally—the Minister would not expect me not to mention this issue; we have spoken about it on many occasions—the rail experience is much better if people do not have to change trains and there are through services. British Rail ended through services from Cleethorpes to King’s Cross in 1992, and it is about time they were restored.

I know the Minister is sympathetic and that you, Sir Edward, are sympathetic, because you would like through services to go through Market Rasen and Lincoln as they used to. It is about time that the Minister made some more sympathetic noises and guided me through the system, so that in the not-too-distant future—preferably before the next general election—we have an absolute commitment to provide such a service.

 

You can read the full debate here.