I am sure that constituents reading the report of this debate will not fully appreciate the fact that most junior Members of Parliament have only half an hour in which to debate issues of constituency interest. It is a great testament to my parliamentary neighbour that he has secured a three-and-a-half-hour debate, not just once, but twice.
It is also good to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) is present. I recall that when I was a Whip, one of the most frustrating things was not being able to ask questions or make speeches. I know that my hon. Friend will be making a beeline for the Minister afterwards and delivering her speech to him in person, bending his ear on all things Thurrock in respect of the c2c service. If I were to give the House a foretaste of that speech in three words, they would be “more rolling stock”—so I think the Minister is forewarned.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for allowing me to join in the debate. Both c2c and Abellio lines pass through his constituency, but both of them terminate in mine. We certainly do not want to see a return to the misery line. I am slightly more “glass half full” than my hon. Friend, but as he has made clear, our constituency experiences are different.
During the initial timetable consultation I met Julian Drury, and raised concerns from the outset. Once things began to go wrong, I looked back at the letter that I had sent him following our conversation, and was quite shocked by the clarity and strength of my language and how assertive I had been in saying that they would go wrong. I would have wished to be proved wrong myself, but, alas, I was not.
I wanted a reversion to the faster trains that had taken my constituents to London, and I adopted terminology similar to that which had been used by the campaigners for faster trains on the line between Norwich and London. I was asking for all trains from Shoeburyness to London to travel that distance in less than 60 minutes, which I think is a critical point. Train journeys from Shoeburyness can take about an hour and 10 minutes. The company has listened, and some trains manage 59 minutes, but it would be very useful if, over the years, we could reach a point at which they all took less than 59 minutes.
The Department could be helpful in this regard. c2c has some of the highest punctuality rates, but—it may seem rather odd for me to say this—I think that we should give it permission to be less punctual. If on four days out of five we arrived two minutes later than advertised, it would be good if on the other days, we arrived five minutes earlier than we currently do. That would particularly benefit constituents in Shoeburyness, at the extremity of the line. A friend of mine used to run the line at night from Shoeburyness all the way to Fenchurch Street in only 32 minutes. Admittedly there were no other trains on the line, and admittedly they did not stop at any of the stations, let alone all of them, but his point was that it was possible to pick up time along the line so that the journey would always take less than 59 minutes.
The new timetable precipitated other problems. Everyone was coming back from the Christmas holiday, and the changes in London had clearly not been thought through. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock will point out to the Minister later that Transport for London made a number of representations, with quite a narrow focus, for people travelling between Barking and West Ham, to the disadvantage of our constituents in Southend, Thurrock and Rochford.
Following the problems, a meeting was held in my constituency offices by c2c and Shana Doherty, who had organised a petition, to discuss what could be done to rectify some of the problems. There has been incremental change. I think a full reversion to the old timetable would be wrong; as I have said, I want to speed up some trains, rather than simply revert to the old timetable. Some of the rolling stock will help, although I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West that the design is not perfect. I travelled on one of those trains, not since they have been used during rush hour, but on a special trip with local people to see what they were like, just before they were introduced, and some things were obviously wrong. There were big sections for luggage, as if we were travelling to Heathrow or Gatwick, for instance, whereas it is quite rare to see someone coming down the line with large items of luggage. I made that point and was told that those areas could have been got rid of and an extra two seats put in, but that would have required quite a big change, whereas there were these standard trains that could be bought, which were new, but had that format. It was easier to get them in quickly. It seems somewhat incongruous to have that sort of luggage space, however.
Some people further down the line have been critical of the removal of the three-seat rows. They see that as a kind of metro-isation of the service, which I oppose. I must admit that as a slightly larger person, I am rather sympathetic to the case for two-seat rows. Some 10 years ago, my doctor said I was borderline obese, which, although actually true, I thought was a little unfair, but I have noticed that even much smaller people prefer to stand than sit three abreast, which is socially uncomfortable. The rules on seat-sizing could be changed further by the Department. However, for my constituents, the configuration of the new rolling stock certainly is a benefit.
I fully appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West has had many problems with c2c and in his dialogue with it, and finds the correspondence with the chairman slightly troubling and wrong-footed. From my point of view, Julian Drury has actually been quite good, and is one of the better representatives of big business working with the community. I cannot explain the difference in experience; perhaps it is in part due to the fact that my constituents get on the services earlier and do not have quite the same problems. Indeed, I have not had the experience that my hon. Friend has had of the problems in Basildon and the misery line and so on.
The Abellio service was shocking, and on the face of it, it was an incredible surprise that someone running such a shocking service got reappointed. In reality, Abellio’s hands were very much tied by the investment it could put in under the old contract, and it was quite clever in making sure that the tendering document required everyone to step up; as a result, we could not get anyone coming in to run the rubbish stock. To be frank, I felt that my suit needed to be dry-cleaned if I sat on the seats, yet the service is more expensive than c2c. That is because, again, there is a legislative problem in the way Departments have handled these things over the past two decades; the misery line, as it was, was cheaper to take into account the fact that it was pretty crap. Now it is the happy line, but fare increases have been proportionate across all tracks. Fares have all gone up at the same rate, and the differential from when it was not the happy line has been coded in.
We can make changes. The announcements in the urgent question earlier today on rail and track reunification will greatly help the rail services in Southend, particularly the c2c line, as 80% of it is used only by c2c. There are other parts of the country where that would be less useful, however.
I want to mention a third train line in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West looks confused, but he forgets that there is a train on the pier. The pier train line is subject to exactly the same rules and regulations as the other train lines, and it is difficult for the local council to get in the right expertise to run that line. I gently probed Julian Drury and Rob Tinlin, the chief executive of Southend Borough Council, who has done an excellent job over the past 10 years in Southend and, sadly, is due to leave. I asked them whether c2c could take over that 1.3-mile train service, because it has the expertise to do so. Furthermore, I suggested that we introduce through-ticketing, so that people could come from London to Southend Central, and then, after a short walk, get to the end of the pier. That would encourage them to spend more money there, it would be a nice publicity stunt, and it would bring in the expertise of a professional railway firm—particularly if there was rail and track reunification—and its greater understanding of track issues. It would then be running more pleasure down to the end of Southend pier.
Julian Drury is, in my view, rather better than my hon. Friend thinks he is, and we both agree that Rob Tinlin is fantastic. Having raised this issue with them a few years ago, I rather hoped that it would come back as a council or c2c idea. Sadly, that has not happened, and in this debate I would like to nudge them a little bit further in that direction.