Charles Walker calls for improved rail services

Charles Walker joins a debate on First Capital Connect and the Hertford Loop line and calls for the company to improve services and, in particular, communication when things go wrong.

Mr Walker: My hon. Friend will be aware of the brief put out by First Capital Connect, which is almost beyond parody. It includes 10 tweets from customers congratulating the rail service on its wonderful performance. I know that FCC has many fabulous staff members—Sue and Jim in the ticket office in Cuffley are two of the most fabulous public servants I know of—but frankly, my inbox for the past six months has been full of complaint after complaint about service that has been substandard too often, for too long.

Nick de Bois: My hon. Friend’s point would be well backed up if we added up the number of tweets that are, shall we say, less generous. In fairness—I will come to this later—FCC does at least try to confront some of the issues raised on Twitter during some peak times.

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Mr Charles Walker: One of the great frustrations at Cuffley is that the train timetable board will say that the train is delayed by two minutes, four minutes, six minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, back to 10 minutes, and then up to 14 minutes, and finally it will say that it is cancelled. It is absolute nonsense if the company cannot even indicate to passengers when their train will arrive, and how late it will be.

Nick de Bois: My hon. Friend strikes the right tone and makes a good point. Even in dire circumstances, passengers accept that things go wrong, but not knowing what is happening and what can be expected drives the frustration that they feel. Is it any wonder that the Passenger Focus survey reports said that only 43% were happy with how the company dealt with delays? That, incidentally, was an increase from a new low the previous year of 33%. It is not acceptable. Tragically—that is overstating it; poignantly, perhaps—the gentleman who wrote that e-mail of complaint is still waiting for a reply.

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Mr Walker: My hon. Friend has been very generous. When a train is delayed at Cuffley, customers can fill out forms and get their money back. I think that is nonsense, because people are busy. What should happen is that if people have a season ticket or a monthly travelcard, when they renew it at the end of the month or the end of the year, they should receive a discount for the following month or the following year—perhaps a 5% or 10% discount. That is true accountability and recognition that the rail company is a service provider to our constituents.

Nick de Bois: My hon. Friend again makes a point brilliantly and superbly. Let us face it: technology should not bar that. I have often seen, much to my surprise, a refund on my Oyster card. I am often not sure why the Mayor of London is being so generous in giving me that money back, but I have seen it. It is a technology transfer; it works. With thousands of commuters travelling every day, the introduction of a system like that would, for the first time, truly represent the value of the considerable buying power that these passengers should have. It is interesting to note that on every pound spent by the fare-paying passenger, FCC sees a net return of 3%—a 3% net profit. That would not be unreasonable if service standards were maintained at the highest level. Fares have increased substantially, but customers are not benefiting from real choice. Let us at least give them real influence.

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Mr Charles Walker: The situation can often be terribly unfair on staff. For example, on the third day of delays to services, station staff still have to face angry commuters and bear the full brunt of their anger and frustration in as good a humour as possible. The high-ups—the suits—remain squirreled away in the train company’s headquarters, rather than coming out to meet their disappointed customers. We need to see greater leadership from the directors of the company; they must not leave it to the poor staff to bear the brunt of commuters’ frustrations.

Stephen McPartland: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and my hon. Friends and I made the same point in the meeting that I have just mentioned. I was pleased that both companies apologised for the service that our constituents received and tried to explain some of the reasons for it. In fairness to FCC staff, many of them do a very good job. I understand that during the recent delays, some of the higher-ups went out to stations—they could not get to work either—and tried to placate customers. We need to see more of that. I often tweet about how good some of the FCC staff are on my journey to work.

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Mr Walker: I do not want to be left out of this. I, too, travel in from Cuffley, which is down the line from Stevenage, and I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. Before we are too mean to our rail provider, however, let us remember that Network Rail is responsible for many of the delays. I do not think that Network Rail has been entirely up front in its communications with my constituents. I endorse the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) that Network Rail should pay some compensation to our rail companies, so that they in turn can compensate our constituents.

Stephen McPartland: I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne and for Enfield North. I believe that Network Rail is responsible for about 67% of the delays on the line, while other train operating companies are responsible for some 9%, and FCC about 24%. That is right—they add up to 100%. It is important that Network Rail takes a huge amount of the responsibility.

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Mr Charles Walker: I promise that this will be my final intervention. As my hon. Friend knows, First Capital Connect is full of civilised, approachable people. That is why I am so disappointed that it has tolerated a failing train service for too long. Its people are better than that. I hope that this debate is a call to arms to our rail company to up its game and deliver to its potential.

Stephen McPartland: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Since just before Christmas, the service has become intolerable. Although it improves on some days, on others it does not. I would like First Capital Connect to see the meetings that we have had and this debate as a means of moving forward, getting to grips with Network Rail and delivering on some of the improvements that it has told Members it will deliver. The way to move the issue forward is to insert into the franchise a passenger satisfaction obligation. That would allow us all to hold train operating companies and Network Rail to account.

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