We pay some of the highest fares in Europe for unreliable and increasingly overcrowded services. As a frequent rail passenger, I share the frustration of Ipswich rail passengers and indeed across the country. I know the consumer group Which? is calling for more powers for the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), and for a new Transport Ombudsman.
The Government recently issued new statutory guidance to ORR which sets out its priorities for rail regulation, namely improving the experience of railway users. The Government is also in discussions about introducing a Rail Ombudsman to improve the passenger voice and provide independent resolution of complaints. I will follow developments on this closely.
The independent watchdog Transport Focus recently published its 2017 National Rail Passenger Survey. With promised upgrades delayed and fares rising way ahead of wages, it is disappointing but not surprising that this survey found that passenger satisfaction remains low. I was particularly concerned by the decline in passengers’ sense of personal security, which I believe is directly linked to the Government’s policy of de-staffing and de-skilling the railways, and which ought to sound a clear warning against continuing with this policy.
The survey also showed that less than half of passengers believe their ticket is value for money. Rail fares in the UK are higher than in most other European countries, largely because of the lack of government support, but also because private and foreign state-owned companies take money out of the system to pay themselves dividends, money that should be used to improve services and keep fares down.
I believe our railways ought to be run under public ownership with affordable fares for all and long-term investment in the railway network. Indeed, at the recent General Election I stood on the Labour Party manifesto that committed us to transform our transport network, bringing our railways back into public ownership and putting public service before private profit, ensuring safe staffing levels and ending the expansion of driver only operations. It also made a commitment to introduce legal duties to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. However, with a Conservative government in power, we need to focus on the present situation and avoid continuing threats to the service.
As you are aware, the RMT is concerned about the introduction of Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains and, in particular, about the safety and security of trains with only one guaranteed member of staff. I share these concerns. I am especially concerned about any failure to guarantee passenger safety or accessibility for disabled passengers who would face a loss of independence on DOO services. There are services on some of our railways which already operate as DOO services. I believe the Government and the train operating companies urgently need to enter into proper negotiations with the RMT and other parties, without preconditions, in order to develop a national framework which is acceptable to all sides, which will provide the safety the passengers need, clarity and certainty for the workforce, and continuity of rail services.
Ipswich needs good rail services, to enable people to get to work, to encourage visitors to our town, and to carry more of our freight so that employers in and around Ipswich – especially the Port of Felixstowe – can thrive. We will not achieve the 21st Century rail services we should be able to expect, unless all the parties involved can work together towards a better railway. That won’t happen if the Government continues to demonise the rail unions and fails to discuss their legitimate concerns.
I have signed the Early day motion 210 ( Greater Anglia Ticket Offices) which states “That this House is concerned at warnings from the rail unions that Greater Anglia trains wishes to close all but seven of its 64 ticket offices by the end of its franchise; is further concerned that ticket office closures will result in a worse, less accessible service, higher ticket prices, more dangerous stations and non-availability of tickets when ticket machines break down; is dismayed cuts are being considered when fares are going up and the profits from these cuts will go to Dutch State Railway who owns the franchise; and calls for assurances from Greater Anglia that it will not close ticket offices for the duration of its franchise.”
I can assure you I will continue to press for improved services across the railway network, and will do whatever I can to foster agreement between the Government, operators and workforce.