Don Foster MP*

Railway Services in the South-West Not Fit For Purpose

Speaking during an adjournment debate about First Great Western, Don said that the Government must accept some of the blame for the current rail problems in the South-West.

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Don's speech in the debate was as follows:

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) on securing the debate, and I thank him for his honesty in his reference to the botched privatisation, which drew attention to failures of the previous Government that added, in part, to some of the current problems.

In July 2000, when the Deputy Prime Minister was in charge of the railways, he said that

"we shall deliver a railway system that is better for the passengers, better for freight, better for the economy and better for the environment".—[Official Report, 20 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 550.]

Sadly, he and the Government have failed to deliver on that pledge. Railway services in the south-west are simply not fit for purpose. So great is the anger of people in the Bath and Bristol area, to which the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) referred, that thousands of rail commuters, including many of my constituents, took part in a fare strike. Although I cannot condone the breaking of the law, I fully sympathise with the anger that my constituents and many in the area have about the appalling services being delivered by the Government and First Great Western.

Roger Berry (Kingswood) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, according to First Great Western, rail passenger numbers have increased by 41 per cent. in the Bristol area, but it cut the service in December. Does he accept that those of us in the Bristol area appreciate the difficulties that that poses for our constituents, as well as his constituents in Bath?

Mr. Foster: I do indeed, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

It may interest hon. Members to know what was written on the ticket handed out at the protest on Monday. The rail company was described as "First Late Western". The class was described as "cattle truck", the ticket type, "standing only", the route, "hell and back", and the price, "up 12 per cent." In a sense, that sums up the issues of real concern to my constituents and others in the wider area. That protest, organised excellently by More Train, Less Strain, brought real concerns to the fore.

People's concerns fall into four categories. They are concerned by the inadequacies of the timetable, which no longer meets the working patterns of many who wish to commute by rail. They are also concerned about the inadequacy of the number of carriages. We are told by First Great Western that it needs 94 carriages per day to operate the commuter services—what we used to know as the Wessex trains—and, indeed, until Monday, it did not have that full number running on any one day. We have been assured that we will get that full number, but as has already been pointed out, even if a full complement is run, fewer carriages are operating than used to. There is also the question of where those carriages come from—it is quite amazing simply to look at the signage on them.

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There are deep concerns about excessive delays and cancellations and at the height of all those concerns, ludicrous fare increases were imposed. The fare from Bath to London on the high-speed train is one of the highest priced train journeys per mile in the entire world. Many of my constituents have suffered in massively overcrowded carriages and many have not even been able to get on to the trains.

We have heard about passengers, but in fairness, I should point out that many of the staff working for First Great Western are equally concerned about what has happened. A letter sent to my local paper by a ticket officer who, unsurprisingly, wanted to remain anonymous, read:

"The person selling you your ticket is appalled at the price and embarrassed about the service.

We've voiced our opinions repeatedly, to no avail. We're on your side, so please, please, don't take it out on us."

He went on to point out that no one gets admonished for arriving late at work at First Great Western because very few of those who now work there travel to work by train. Another anonymous letter was sent by a train driver, who wrote:

"Like all the others at the moment, I am appalled at what is happening with the 'service' we are supposed to be providing for our customers... reduced services, lack of units, late running or just plain cancellations of services".

The staff are appalled about the level of service as well.

The Government must take some of the blame. Over a year ago, I wrote to them detailing my concerns about the planned new timetable, and I received a letter on 9 August from the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), about Keynsham and Oldfield Park, and another letter on 13 September relating to Freshford. I had written to him expressing concern about a reduction in the frequency of trains to those stations. I got a letter referring me to table 6.112 of the franchise stakeholder consultation. My attention was drawn to the fact that the table clearly states the intention to retain an hourly frequency at both stations, and that there would also be additional hourly calls, giving two trains an hour at the stations concerned during peak periods. Those promises from the Government were not delivered. Those trains do not exist and there are greater gaps at those stations than were promised.

As I said earlier, rail services in the south-west are simply not fit for purpose, and the Government must take some of the blame for that. The hon. Member for Wantage is right to say that the buck passing has to stop. I join him and all hon. Members who have spoken in urging the Minister to agree to a meeting that will bring First Great Western, the Government and concerned Members of Parliament into one room, in which we will stay until we have sorted the matter out.

A transcript of the full debate is available at:

This article published: 25/01/2024

Published by Bath Liberal Democrats, 31 James St West, Bath, BA1 2BT. Printed and hosted by JPC Infonet, 2 St Georges Works, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, BA14 8AA. Your Privacy._blank

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