Mr Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op)
23 Jan 2018, 11:10 a.m.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered rail services in Bedfordshire.
I am grateful to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Rail services in Bedfordshire is a wide-ranging subject. Six Members of Parliament represent Bedfordshire, and I am pleased that two of them have been able to attend this short debate. With your permission, Mr Paisley, and that of the Minister, I hope to allow time for them to say a few words about services in their areas.
Rail services in Bedfordshire, and their context, have changed markedly in my time as a Member of Parliament. I grew up in Luton, and throughout that time there was the looming spectre—in a positive way—of Thameslink 2000, now the Thameslink programme. That major upgrade programme was given the go-ahead to totally transform the midland main line as it comes in and goes through the Snow Hill tunnel down to Brighton and the south. The programme has developed significantly since I have been an MP, and it will reach its culmination in the next couple of years when all services are switched on. That major investment programme was developed by the Labour and coalition Governments, and it is now under the Conservative Government. I fully welcome it because it provides much-needed capacity on that vital commuter route.
There have been recent developments in rail services in Bedfordshire in a number of different areas, but there are also long-standing issues that the Department must engage with to bring about service improvements for passengers, and those cannot be overlooked as we reach the end of the programme. In particular, we need vital ministerial action and instruction now as the franchise process on East Midlands Trains goes forward.
If I may, I will speak about two or three local issues that affect Luton residents, and then I will address the vital issue of stopping services on East Midlands Trains. In March 2016 I had the opportunity to raise in an Adjournment debate the long-standing issue of the rebuild of Luton railway station. At the time, I noted that it had been 2,179 days since the issue had last been raised in the House, and I regret to inform Members that in the past two years, the situation has not moved on much.
Luton railway station is in the top 10% of all stations in terms of passenger numbers, but it is old, tired, and inaccessible. In 2009, it was recognised as one of the 10 worst railway stations in the country. The response from the then Labour Government was to award it funding through the Better Stations programme, but that money was pulled after the May 2010 general election. That money was a crucial pot—alongside other pots—that leveraged in cash to get the rebuild. As a result, there is a total lack of disabled facilities to allow people to get to the platforms, and the geography of Luton means that, north and south, the primary access point into the town centre is through the train station, which effectively acts as a wall and barrier for many residents who wish to get to the centre of town with pushchairs or heavy baggage. The centre around the railway station has changed and redeveloped massively, but the same tired station still exists, and as we know, first appearances matter.
If the Minister had been unfortunate enough to start her journey at Luton railway station today, as I did, she would have seen boarded up windows, and the amusingly entitled “water feature” that means that water continues to pour on to platforms. If the single lift was out of action, she would probably have struggled to get access to the platform with her ministerial boxes. Those problems need tackling. A number of abortive schemes have been brought forward, but despite the £6 billion or £7 billion investment from the Thameslink programme, accessibility has diminished as a direct result of that programme. As we go to 12-car running, those with mobility issues must now take a taxi to Luton Airport Parkway, or go on a circuitous route that adds about 15 or 20 minutes to their journey.
The Minister is new to her position, and I hope she will bring a fresh wave of enthusiasm to this issue. Within control period 6, will she specify a rebuild of Luton railway station that befits a town that serves a quarter of a million residents and a wider conurbation? As she knows, the East Midlands franchise is coming up for renewal, and there have been significant moves by the owner of Luton airport, the shareholder, the residents of Luton, and the airport’s operator and board to get the Government to include four fast trains an hour to Luton airport within that franchise.
London Luton airport is a rapidly growing airport in the south-east and the fifth-largest airport by passenger numbers in the UK. It is growing by about 15% a year, and it has great ambitions to take up much of the slack in terms of much-needed airport capacity in the south-east. It is the only London airport without an express train service, and of all London airports it has the lowest percentage of passengers who access it by rail. Some 160 fast East Midlands trains—it will be more under the new franchise—pass daily through Luton Airport Parkway, yet only 10% of them stop. That is a major issue, not least because the new service that connects the terminal to the train station—a major £200 million investment by the people of Luton—will be connected in the next few years. Journey times from St Pancras to the airport gate to check in could be as short as 30 minutes, which is a game changer for connectivity, but that will work only if four fast trains an hour connect the service. London Luton airport is integral to the emerging east-west corridor between Oxford and Cambridge, and to connecting services to the east midlands and the north, and I would like to see progress on that.
Despite the culmination of the Thameslink upgrade programmes over the next year—including physical infrastructure—just before Christmas we learned that there will be a phased introduction of new services of up to 24 trains per hour. Although I understand the desire of the operators to phase in that process, we have had a long time to plan for this. The communication strategy for this has been deeply disappointing, and it is not sufficient just to dump that news on Members of Parliament and commuters shortly before the introduction of a new timetable. This change is so significant that it could have been viewed from space, yet for some reason we learn at the final, gasping moments of the programme, that the full implementation of the timetable will be delayed by two to three years.
Finally, the change from May 2018 to the East Midlands franchise will mean that,
“from 20 May 2018 until the completion of the midland main line upgrade in 2020, East Midlands Trains peak-time services will no longer call at Bedford or Luton. As a result, no EMT services arriving into St Pancras between 07:00 and 10.00, or leaving St Pancras between 16.00 and 19.00, will stop at Luton or Bedford.”
That is a major change and major disruption for many of my constituents who rely on taking a direct train to London, and even more so for those north of Bedford, coming, from example, from Corby or Kettering to work further down the line in Bedford or Luton—and the disruption is happening over a long time. I think that I speak on behalf of all six Bedfordshire Members of Parliament—a group including Conservative, Labour and independent Members—when I say we are deeply disappointed by the way in which things have been communicated, and the shortness of the time window off the back of what even the Rail Minister has acknowledged was a less than perfect consultation exercise on the introduction of the new franchise from 2020. To be told that we shall lose services on East Midlands Trains at exactly the moment when we require them was deeply disappointing.
In the hastily organised meeting chaired by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), where we talked to the operators GTR and East Midlands Trains, and officials from the Department, I asked one simple question: who made the decision? It may not come as a surprise to the Minister, even at this stage of her time in the Department, that a long conversation ensued, with not much clarity at the end of it.
Accountability is vital with such major timetable changes. We all acknowledge, pragmatically, that timetable changes cannot now be reversed for May this year, but my simple ask is that the period of disruption be kept to a minimum. I understand that there are mitigation measures in place, under which GTR will operate additional services that stop at Bedford, Luton and then St Albans—which gets the lion’s share of everything—before going on to St Pancras, but we are used to, and many people’s working patterns are built around, long-distance services and slower commuting services. That is a mix that has served those towns well, and I should like a commitment that East Midlands Trains will again stop during peak hours at Luton and Bedford in the new franchise, and that all efforts will be made to move the changeover date so that it is much earlier. I understand that as the sixth path on East Midlands Trains is introduced, that should not be too difficult. I understand that there may be an issue as to rolling stock, but it is not beyond the wit of the Department to ensure that we do not wait three years.
It would be deeply disappointing, and would undermine the trust of all parties that have supported the £7 billion Thameslink upgrade programme, if the net result were to be more services and seats but a worse user experience for a number of commuters coming from different parts of the network, including Luton, Bedford and Bedfordshire. I make a plea to the Minister to engage fully in the issues affecting rail services in Bedfordshire, to make sure that we deliver for passengers.