Travelling back from Westminster on the ancient but very comfortable intercity train (standard class naturally), complete with can of Ghost Ship from the buffet counter, I am convinced that, for journeys to major towns, rail is the most sensible and most enjoyable form of transport. I still need to work, I want to relax, but I can do both on the train. If I was driving back from London (which I have done a couple of times, carrying bulky objects) I would not be able to relax or to do any work. When all the new trains have been introduced on our line – which the boss of Greater Anglia assured me will happen before Easter, when we met at the Labour Conference – we can expect the service to become more reliable, and above all we can be sure that there will be more seats so passengers won’t have to stand.
Not everything is ideal. There will be less space for cycles on the new trains to London, and so I pressed the Chief Executive to improve cycle parking at Ipswich station, so people can leave their bikes safely there. I am delighted to say that he promised they would have better, more extensive and more secure cycle parking in place in the New Year. Delays can be caused by freight trains on the same line. I attended a seminar with the rail freight industry to discuss the Felixstowe to Midlands line which is so vital to our trade and to getting lorries off the A14, and we also discussed freight trains on the London line. They had various ideas for avoiding clashes, especially on the section between Shenfield and Stratford – I will be pursuing those ideas with the relevant ministers.
But the biggest issue for our trains from Ipswich to London is the price. If you can order off-peak tickets well in advance they can be very cheap – my ticket to the Brighton Conference cost me £12.60! But if you have to travel at peak time, without notice, the journey from Ipswich to London is one of the most expensive per mile in the country. That cannot be right. I urged Greater Anglia management to do something about it, but they say they can’t. I organised a debate in Parliament and got some warm words from the minister, but again no action. That is why I have launched my petition to call for a fair standard peak ticket price for Ipswich. The Government says the extraordinary variation in ticket prices across the country is being looked into, but so far there is no sign of this happening. I want as many Ipswich residents as possible – all Ipswich station users in fact – to sign, so we can pressure the Government to put this injustice right – www.ipswich-labour.org.uk/Ipswich_rail_fares_petition
Most of us can avoid paying this maximum fare. I try to travel off-peak, which I can do because of the peculiar hours of Parliament, because I don’t want to cost the tax-payer any more than necessary. But when people do have to pay the full fare, it is extremely off-putting. This is particularly important when we have visiting businesspeople – any business that decides not to locate in Ipswich because of the perception of high rail fares is a serious blow to our growing economy. And every person who is put off from travelling by train and who takes the car instead is a serious blow to our environment.
The root cause of the problem is the franchising system. Luckily we do not have a seriously incapable company running our train services, such as Northern Rail. But in order to win the franchise, Abellio had to base its business case on the fares laid down by the government – if they had tried to reduce those fares they would have been unlikely to be able to afford the contract.
It’s time to move away from the franchising system. Many of the franchises have failed. A Labour Government will respect existing franchises for their duration – it would be expensive and counterproductive to do otherwise. But other lines, such as the mainline to Edinburgh, have demonstrated that good quality train services can be delivered in the public sector at a profit, using the same dedicated staff.
We need a properly integrated rail service, we need it to be affordable, and we need public investment to produce public benefit, not be syphoned off into foreign ownership. We cannot afford not to have a world-class railway – let’s make sure that it’s ours!