Westminster Hall Debate - Transport Infrastructure in NE Beds

WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATE

TRANSPORT INFRASTRUCTURE IN NE BEDS

Debate video: https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/13fdc619-e373-42b6-9a26-4cfc34299e68?in=11:00:47&out=11:32:02 

NE Beds is conveniently located north of London, squarely in the new Economic Heartlands, which has a population of 3.7m, and a growth rate of 25% between 1997-2015 compared with a national average of 15%. Attention is focused on the broad Oxford to Cambridge corridor, with the new Expressway, E-W Rail, and upto a million new houses expected by 2050.

Whilst addressing EW connectivity has been a regular UK pastime for decades, and welcoming what is being proposed, the reality for many of my constituents is that N/S travel is still of more importance. The increased population in recent years has meant steadily increasing numbers on main road and rail routes in and out of London, (rail journeys in the East of England rising by some 139% between 1995-2018) We are struggling to ensure that passenger journeys remain bearable.

I want to focus on train services to and from London, and the A1.

My constituents use Thameslink services from Bedford, the Great Northern service from Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey into Kings Cross, and East Midland Railway, which used to be run by Stagecoach but are now newly franchised to Abellio, the trains offering a faster service than Thameslink from the north via Bedford into St Pancras. I do not want to focus on these today, but ask the Minister to note previous correspondence on the reduction of peak time services, and many passengers desire for some reinstatement of lost services north and south.

My principal concerns are focused on the two Govia services, Thameslink and Great Northern. Context is vital. Firstly let me acknowledge the efforts made to improve rolling stock and services over the years. The cross London network bears little relation to the past. Passengers played their part, by accepting significant alterations to services, and closures of stations, while works were carried out over lengthy periods. And secondly as noted earlier, more passengers makes ensuring quality of service genuinely difficult at times.

However, passengers are entitled to some stability in return, not least for the increasing fares as expensive as anything in Europe. And this has not been the case.

Let us focus on the period since May 2018. In my experience the timetable chaos of that and following months was unique. In 32 years as an MP I never had the reaction from constituents which I had then from what must have been the outstanding example of transport incompetence of our times. Whatever was responsible initially, the length of the disruption made matters worse.

Whilst the scale of that misery is over, the maladies linger on.

First, the skipping of stations Sandy, Biggleswade and particularly Arlesey.

The system is so full, that if a delay to a train occurs, further disruption must be prevented, and to correct late running, stations on subsequent services are skipped to make up time. But the overriding theory is seemingly that for the good of the many, the few must take a hit again and again.

On one route which serves my constituency, figures show that those three stations are the most skipped north of London, for a period of a year from August 18 to September 19, Arlesey faced 187 skips, Sandy 174 and Biggleswade 169– and to this must be added cancellations.

There are some ‘protected status trains’ which run operate regardless of wider disruption, but the impact of ‘failure to stop’ at Arlesey is high because of lack of other options.

There have been promises of making alternative transport available at Hitchin where Arlesey is skip-stopped, but we have regular reports of constituents arriving at night, with nothing available, and having to make their own way home (and then fighting to reclaim taxi fares). Or just not being given advice about what to do and not told that Arlesey would be skipped until they get to Hitchin.

We asked GTR to place some limit on this process. A formal review was set up to monitor the impact on the entire network. Following the review, GTR advised it was not possible to put a limit on the number of times a station is ‘skip stopped’ without creating more disruption for the wider network. Bad luck Arlesey.

So what does this mean in practice?

(From an Arlesey rail user…) “I don’t think they really understand the impact of skip-stopping Arlesey. Passengers arrive at a station in good time to catch a specific train – particularly when there is only one train every 30 minutes. You get to the station and that train has been cancelled. Then you wait half an hour to find the next one has decided not to stop at Arlesey. So you wait for another 30 minutes to hope that that one will stop. If, best case scenario, they have protected that train and it is running, you have ‘only’ waited for one hour at the station. Who has an hour to waste sitting at a station? How many people are just on their way home from work with nothing else to do? We have appointments, delicate childcare arrangements etc. And it isn’t like this only happens once every now and then. It happens regularly.”

I cannot tell the House how heart-breaking some of the comments we have received have been; mums not being able to pick up children, people missing hospital appointments, and I met a London Transport worker whose professionalism has been questioned because she cannot guarantee arriving to work on time. I have had constituents give up their jobs because they cannot guarantee to get a train on time. This simply is not good enough. 

Staffing Levels

I am aware that the biggest expense of any business is human, and transport is no different. But I understand that staffing is so tight, that there is nothing spare in the system. Train services must rely on voluntary overtime – difficult during holidays/big events (Champions League final was a big issue) Since the disaster of May 18, staff training has been the regular reason given for shortages, but as this has now been completed we should not be having this as an excuse again. So, can the company manage its rosters sufficiently well so we do not hear ‘driver unavailability’ as an excuse again, an excuse with the innuendo not missed by staff that it is the drivers fault, not the company’s.

Train technical problems

Restarting when electrical failure. On August 9th, a failure in the National Grid caused a power outage, one consequence of which was a major paralysis of the train system, a principal reason for which was that the new 700 series trains cannot apparently restart promptly if they have been stopped due to a reduction in voltage. These trains were at the time of the outage situated around the London area. That they could not restart meant that significant sections of the network were blocked hence the paralysis.

I accept that the incident was very unusual, so that cause of power failure may well be a one in many years event. But the vulnerability of these new trains to electrical failures is a matter of concern, as evacuations of passengers have had to take place, some in the dark. I’m grateful to Steve White, COO GTR, for a letter which deals with these, and I am making this available to constituents. But the reliability of the whole service surrounding these trains must be improved. Whatever the varied causes of delays and cancellations, they are not the passenger’s fault.

Information during disruption

This is regularly a problem which we have asked to be improved. Despite promises, there are always issues.

Core routes

Thameslink changes over the years have been designed to offer many more routes through a crowded London rail space. My constituents applaud the vision of these changes but are very concerned that the ambition outstrips the ability to run them. Problems elsewhere on the route (south of London) are affecting those in Bedfordshire.

While GTR believe that the benefits of the routes outweigh problems, RUGs are adamant that the through-routes are the cause of the issues in that GTR cannot adequately staff these routes or maintain service during any sort of disruption. Plenty agree that GTR should accept route failure and amend the plans. The Minister may wish to raise this with the company. I would prefer the answer to be ensuring the service is adequately staffed and serviced, rather than lose the advantages of the new routes.

Mentioning my rail user groups allows me to pay tribute to them, particularly Arlesey Commuters, who have kept me and GTR informed and engaged over many months, and I am grateful to them that a number have been completely unselfish with their time to work on behalf of many others- I’m indebted to them.

May I also pay what some would regard, but I hope not those who know me, an unusual tribute to my Labour opponent in the 2017 election, Julian Vaughan. Julian is a rail union official, and he has been of great and genuine help with user groups, and particularly in assisting those of us campaigning for better disability access at Biggleswade Station, a campaign which reached a successful conclusion. I won’t be seeing him on the campaign trail next time, but I thank him, as a constituent and community activist well for the future.

I need to move on to road issues, so time prevents me from saying more on the trains. Suffice it to mention that station improvements are needed at my constituency stations, which qualified for grants from GTR recently, due to their being so disrupted by events in the recent past, a dubious honour. RUGs are engaged in these issues now, perhaps the minister can ensure that GTR follow through.

Finally in this section I should say that throughout this period I have found the company always willing to engage, both with me and constituents. I do not fault them on this, but have to say in some frustration that good contact is no substitute for remedying the problems, which seem as far away as ever. I know they do not all lie at GTR door, but I say to the Minister, frankly my constituents do not care, and nor do I. Is it the breakdown of function? Is it the franchise? Are the components of privatisation working? He will know that I have little interest in ideology. If the trains would be better off in another system, I’m all for it. I’m not convinced by unicorns, and don’t immediately fall for re-nationalisation, but if the Government cannot fix my constituents rail problems, when I think their patience and good nature has been stretched beyond breaking point, they may well find someone who can.

And don’t put up the fares- they’ve had enough!

 

I hazard a guess that the A1 is the best-known road in the UK. It is the longest numbered one, and a road I first represented 37 years ago, when the local councillor for Archway Ward on Haringey Council. But its romanticism masks serious current problems. Whilst upgrades to MWay status have occurred throughout its length, the neglect in Bedfordshire is now impossible to justify.

For example, there are few roundabouts anywhere on the A1. Roundabouts slow traffic, add to pollution, and are increasingly inappropriate on major routes.  We have four out of the five on its entire route! Biggleswade Sth and Nth, Sandy and of course the famous Black Cat, which is shortly to be the focus of a £1.4bn scheme. This exemplifies our problems. That scheme will form part of the work being done to improve the EW connectivity with a new stretch of road through Cambridgeshire to link with the A14 to Harwich and Felixstowe, Black Cat being the key link between N/S and E/W in southern England.

So to the immediate north there is MWay, and to the south of Bedfordshire, there is MWay, and there will be a major upgrade E/\W, but through Bedfordshire it is a dual carriageway, increasingly used and congested at peak times. Some communities live very close, some actually on it. The town of Sandy in particular is impacted, and I am grateful to the Town Council, and to groups involving local residents – such as SG19-for their persistence in making a case to DoT and Highways authorities, now Highways England, for changes which would make a difference.

Over the years I have written many times, held meetings both in London and the constituency, with Ministers and officials, seeking some of the changes and investment which would make a difference. Effectively, nothing has happened, and its time to change that.

I will come onto the larger strategic issue in a moment, but for the record and the Ministers attention, smaller scale improvements being sought locally include the following:-

  • Implementation of an average speed camera scheme throughout the Sandy-Biggleswade stretch. This was agreed by the Dept and Highways Agency back in 2016- three years later it still has not happened and was most recently turned down on grounds of cost which seem to have accelerated significantly since first suggested and agreed. Why is this not happening, and could the Minister tackle this as an immediate ask and priority to demonstrate some concern for those who live close by and all who use the road?

 

  • There should be improved signage along the A1

 

  • Renewed consideration of the New Road junction, and the Beeston cross over, where the design of the crossover-or lack of it- poses a serious hazard and sooner or later there will be a terrible accident there. I personally would close it, but the knock-on effect of traffic in the town makes this very hard for the Town Council/CBC to contemplate, but there must be a better answer than what is there at present.

 

-And, above all, a re-lining/re-routing of the road to take it away from Sandy. In 2018 a WHO study showed Sandy to be one of 31 sites in the UK with with fine particle air pollution levels above the recommended 10 micrograms per cubic metre – with a level of 12.The sites were those close to the kerb side of the A1, where people live.

As the petition from Sandy which has been presented to Sec of State makes clear, a possible relining of the A1 was considered carefully back in 1994. It was turned down then, but in 2014 a new strategic study looked at the A1 in the East of England. In 2016 – all decisions being on hold of course during this time-this study reported that options for a new line, or local improvement were further to be considered, but hopes for this have now also been dashed.

Recent letter from Dept rather summed it up; -

“The study focused on the non-motorway section between junctions 10-14, where issues on the route are most acute. This work found there is a value for money challenge for improvements on this stretch.”

So the problems are the ‘most acute’, but there’s no money to fix them?

The major strategic problem appears to be that several major projects have been considered almost simultaneously, but there has been no transparency about the sequence of these, despite many requests from me and local authorities to agree this, to enable effective local planning. Progress on the A1 has been most expendable casualty of the lack of strategic decision making. 

The route of a new section of the A428, from Caxton Gibbet to the Black Cat occupied the Government for some years, until now fixed and decided as I mentioned earlier. Still outstanding are decisions on the line of route of the E/W rail section from Bedford to Cambridge, which will cross the A1 itself near Sandy. Exactly where impacts on local decisions on housing expansion, needed for Central Beds to fulfil its housing targets. This decision is anticipated next year, but has been in the pipeline for decision making since early 2016 .

But decisions on housing are also pertinent to where a new line of the A1 might be. As far as I can tell, everyone in Government seems to be waiting for each other - transport for Housing decisions, Housing for Transport decisions, and the urgent need to face up to change on the A1 just gets lost-

So minister, on this, firstly do something immediate to show goodwill about the average speed cameras; attend to the smaller improvements sought by residents, and reinstate the need for the A1 relining proposals to come before Government again as a matter of urgency, and demand that an element of the money recently found for investment by the Chancellor heads to the A1 in Bedfordshire.