Bim Afolami: I thank the Minister for coming to the House to discuss this issue, and for meeting me to discuss it previously. I also thank the Secretary of State for the numerous conversations about it that we have had in recent weeks. I have been forced to initiate this debate to ensure that Harpenden commuters get the good service that they deserve and pay good money for, rather than facing years of disruption and a worse service.
Lest I forget to mention the other half of my constituency, let me say at the outset that I am very aware of concern about the changes in the timetable for trains travelling from Hitchin station—in the north of my constituency—as well as those travelling from Harpenden. I will correspond with the Minister on that in due course and in further detail, but it will not constitute the main thrust of my remarks this evening.
I am sure that the desired outcome for Thameslink is, eventually, a greatly improved service throughout the network, but the immediate negative impact on commuters in Harpenden for the next two years is unacceptable to my constituents and to me. The key issue is a loss of services during peak morning and evening hours. Thameslink deems the peak morning period to be between 7 am and 9.59 am, which has led to much disagreement between Harpenden commuters—and myself—and the operator. Regardless of what Thameslink calls the “peak”, most commuters from Harpenden travel to work between the hours of 6.30 am and 8.30 am, and between these times Harpenden will see a net loss in service of two fast trains. These fast trains are only partly compensated for by lengthening some trains from eight to 12 carriages, and Thameslink putting on extra trains after 9 am to meet its peak-time requirements is not going to help anybody trying to get to work on time in London. In practical terms, the overall loss is eight carriages in that key two-hour slot, which represents a loss of capacity for over 1,100 people, who will mostly have to stand.
Not only is the current demand from Harpenden station to London extremely high, but in addition there will be an increased number of passengers on the train before it gets to Harpenden station, as East Midlands Trains is reducing the number of trains stopping at Bedford, so many thousands of effectively new commuters will also be using these services. To sum up, Harpenden is getting a reduction in service and an increase in passengers—and I am not even getting into the general growth of Harpenden as a town over the next couple of years—making the commute not merely inconvenient but, for many, unbearable.
Let us compare this situation with that for St Albans, a town not far from Harpenden. Commuters from St Albans will be gaining fast trains during peak hours, as well as slow trains, and a net increase of 44 carriages. To put that in context, that is six times the number that Harpenden is losing. I am fully aware that St Albans has approximately double the footfall of Harpenden, but it would be clear to any objective observer that a considered approach by Thameslink and Network Rail should not lead to such a discrepancy.
I am a realist—as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker; you know me—and I recognise that changes will always need to be made to train timetables, but consultation for changes is, and should always be, key, not just because people deserve the chance to have their say on changes that can significantly affect their working lives and their lives more generally, but because it gives a chance to inform local people how proposed changes can be improved for all concerned.
There was an embarrassing lack of consultation on these changes. The Minister has admitted that there was never going to be a consultation because it would be “disingenuous” to consult as there were no “genuine options”. That is not good enough for a timetable change of this scale. I have had several meetings over the past few weeks with experts on these matters, with expertise from the technical—it took me a while to understand what they were talking about, but I got there—to the bureaucratic and organisational. Some of those experts live in Harpenden but others live outside. They said to me that alternative choices could have been made that impact on Harpenden, and the entire line more broadly, much less and much more evenly.
In addition to hearing the Minister’s response on the lack of consultation, I would like to know what measures Thameslink intends to take to monitor the impact of the timetable changes that will be introduced in May over the coming months, in order to reassess them in the autumn and offer a clear timescale on when customers can finally expect to see improvements. What commitment is there to listen to and, more importantly, act on, feedback from customers following the introduction of the proposed timetable changes?
It is a term of the franchise agreement between Thameslink and the Department for Transport that if there is a “material adverse impact” on passengers because of changes, there must be a 12-week consultation period. Before the debate, I asked the Minister and the Secretary of State several times whether they agreed that these changes did in fact represent a material adverse impact. I also asked them how, if they disagreed, they would characterise the changes.
I want to make this point clear to the House. The impact of these timetable changes goes beyond just changing what time people arrive at work or at home. A key issue that has been raised with me time and again is the impact on working parents, especially working mothers. Working parents have particularly tight windows for getting into work and getting home. I know, as the parent to two small boys, Zach and Sam, and as the husband of a working mother, that organising childcare around a commute is a hugely important factor in any working parent’s day. It is therefore unacceptable for Thameslink’s changes to cause so much disruption to so many people.
Let me describe the impact of these changes on my constituents. I shall use as examples two people who have emailed me about this matter. The first constituent states:
“I am a mother of three school age children and am recovering from breast cancer. In the recent months, I have chosen to catch a semi fast service, 0718, to be able to get a seat to minimise the stress and impact on my health. This service will no longer stop at Harpenden. I will have to catch an earlier train on which there is unlikely to be seats due both to the reduction in trains and the fact that Thameslink will have thousands of extra customers a day due to East Midland Trains reducing the services stopping at Bedford and Luton. I am concerned about the impact on my health, my ability to get to work on time and on the time I can spend with my children.”
The second constituent has said:
“I fear for my wife who has to drop our son at nursery at 0730 and therefore has no option but to travel at an already busy time. I can’t see anything other than a negative impact for her on what is already a far from ideal journey given the current numbers of people using those services, lack of space and seats. The return journey may be considerably worse than today and the reduction in services could potentially make it difficult to get back to the nursery on time, particularly when there are problems with track or trains.”
Those are just two examples, but similar concerns have been repeated again and again by worried parents, and by people across Harpenden of all ages and circumstances who commute to London for work.
I accept—and I am sure the Minister will agree—that dealing with Britain’s train network is a real challenge for the Department, for Network Rail and for the Ministers and senior civil servants involved. Overcrowding on the network is nothing new, with rail passenger journeys more than doubling in the past 20 years. St Pancras is a key destination for Harpenden commuters, and at that station alone, more than 36,000 passengers arrive during the morning peak, with another 30,000 going to Blackfriars station, which has the worst overcrowding in London. Passenger numbers on the trains from Harpenden have grown year on year, with the service now bursting at the seams, as any Harpenden commuter who gets on the train at peak time will tell us.
The use of Thameslink has grown faster than was expected when the programme began. The predicted yearly increase in passenger numbers was between 0.5% and 1% over the lifetime of the Thameslink programme. However, Thameslink now carries 40% more passengers than it did seven years ago. The Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a proud member, has reported on Thameslink’s problems and recently found that the knock-on effect of issues along the entire Thameslink network means that the number of trains reaching their destination within five minutes of their scheduled time has fallen from 91.4% to 83%.
It is important to make the point that the growth in passenger numbers is an indication of the success of the service. Harpenden would not be such a desirable place to live if the service was not, broadly speaking, a good one. However, with that passenger growth comes the immense challenge of managing it appropriately and keeping costs down for passengers, and I am afraid that Thameslink appears to be failing on both counts.
Bearing in mind the extent of overcrowding and the increasingly stretched service that I have described, Harpenden commuters into London currently pay just over £3,800 a year for an annual ticket, and well over £4,000 if a tube travelcard is included, which most commuters need. In comparison, a season ticket from Woking, which is a similar distance from London, is £400 cheaper. Basildon to London is £1,000 cheaper for a similar distance. My point is that Harpenden commuters are paying their fair share. They are travelling the same distance for more money and face a real disruption to services without any compensation.
All the issues—the timetable changes, delayed services and overcrowding—have caused huge concern for my constituents and have resulted in me raising questions repeatedly with both the Secretary of State and the Minister. In respect of the upcoming changes, due to come into force on 21 May after at least two years, there are some key questions that need to be addressed that have so far gone unanswered.
First, when was the decision made to make changes to East Midlands trains that would impact Harpenden? At what stage were changes to Harpenden’s services considered and decided upon?
Secondly, will the Minister explain why Harpenden is experiencing a loss in services during peak morning and evening times, while St Albans, as I have described, is experiencing a big increase, especially considering the increased footfall from Bedford through Harpenden?
Thirdly, given the increase in passenger numbers combined with a reduction in frequency and capacity of service, what will be the impact on Harpenden commuters of Bedford passengers travelling on Thameslink services during peak times? How many more passengers will be on the London trains arriving in Harpenden in the morning as a result of the timetable changes?
Fourthly, by GTR’s own admittance, some of the proposed improvements that will come into effect at the end of 2018 are at the mercy of engineering works further down the line in Kent. What is the risk realistically that those works will not be completed in time, therefore extending even further the problems that Harpenden commuters are facing?
Fifthly, there is huge concern about the lack of consultation with local people, despite the material adverse impact to services of timetable changes. To add insult to injury, Thameslink still claims that the service will not be significantly impacted. Does the Minister agree that there will be a material adverse change and that there should have been a consultation? If he does not, how does he view the changes?
Finally, and most importantly, when will Harpenden commuters get the service they deserve and have been promised for so long?
I have not come to the Chamber just to complain. There are proposed solutions available that could be implemented as soon as May, despite the insistence from senior officials at GTR that they are not workable. I put several suggestions to GTR officials when we met a few weeks ago, yet there has been no consultation to discuss the alternatives. One suggestion is that five trains from Bedford to London should stop at Harpenden in addition to stopping at St Albans, which would add between three and four minutes to the journey. I understand that there are complexities in getting all the trains to London at a reasonable time, bearing in mind the extra three or four minutes, but the experts to whom I have spoken do not believe that they are insurmountable. Another simpler solution that would increase capacity, although it would not solve the issue of train frequency, would be for the Minister to declassify all first-class carriages during peak times. That would give some much-needed relief to passengers on what will be an increasingly overcrowded service.
I want to take this opportunity to thank the Harpenden Thameslink Commuters Group, notably Emily Ketchin, for its tireless campaigning and lobbying. Harpenden councillors have not been far behind, particularly Mary Maynard and Teresa Heritage, and I thank them for helping me to understand how much the changes have affected Harpenden residents.
There will be those, not in this Chamber now but outside, who do not think timetable changes or impacts on commuters are really that important, but I believe that that is of critical importance, and not just to the individual passengers, as I have set out. If we want to keep London and the south-east as the most dynamic regional economy in Europe, people need to be able to get to work on time, not packed like cattle, at a reasonable price. Importantly, when major changes are made to their service—such changes must happen from time to time—passengers should be consulted and treated like adults and paying customers.
I know that the Minister wants to do his best for Harpenden commuters. I also know that he is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man, as the whole House will appreciate. I ask him to consider carefully the concerns of Harpenden commuters that I have expressed in this debate, to give them hope that the future will be better with an improved, not reduced, service, and to strengthen their damaged faith in our rail transport network.