Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown speaks in a debate on the Great Western Main Line and outlines the frustrations experienced by his constituents such as more cancellations than ever before, delayed trains, closed waiting rooms, and long journey times. He calls for improvements, particularly ‘easy fixes’ such as opening the closed waiting room at Kemble.
“I was delighted to participate in the GWR debate in Westminster Hall. Rail travel is important to my constituents because the north is serviced by the north Cotswolds line from Oxford to Hereford and the south of the constituency can reach Swindon and Paddington from Kemble station.
“The good points coming out of the debate are that rail passenger numbers have recovered quite strongly since COVID-19 and the government has invested £5 billion into the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion to continue improvements on routes. I made the point that many young people cannot afford to drive a car and therefore punctual rail travel is essential.
“Rail is a more carbon-friendly way of travelling and the Government must invest to encourage more people to use trains rather than driving. However, for people to use trains regularly they need to have reliable and punctual services, I asked the Minister to work with Network Rail and GWR to ensure that improving the service for my constituents would be a priority. Finally, services at train stations must be improved, on a recent visit to Kemble station in the middle of the day, the waiting room and toilet facilities were closed. An easy improvement to make would be ensuring these facilities are open.”
Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Ms Vaz. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), a constituency neighbour, for securing this debate. I am glad to see that Gloucestershire is extremely well represented in this debate—the premier county well represented.
The Great Western main line serves two directions in my constituency: it serves the north Cotswold line from Oxford to Hereford via Moreton-in-Marsh, and it also serves the south Cotswold line from Kemble, through my constituency and through my neighbour’s constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), eventually to Swindon with some direct trains to Paddington. Rail travel did drop over covid, but it is coming back quite nicely now. I therefore welcome the Government’s investment of £5 billion into the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion to continue improvements on routes, as passengers return to travelling by train in their millions.
The service provided by train lines and train stations is important. I welcomed the news that the Government have scrapped their proposals to close all ticket offices; I received a considerable number of objections from constituents to this proposal. More and more people these days do use websites and apps to plan and book their journeys, but having someone who is able to help on the platforms and at ticket office can often make a huge difference to a journey, especially for elderly constituents and those with additional needs.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester alluded to, we are trying to encourage more people to use trains where they can. Many have no choice: only one in four of our under-21s and fewer than two thirds of our under-30s have a driving licence. For those reliant on the Great Western line for work, school, hospital and appointments, the reliability of the service is essential. Since the end of the pandemic, regrettably, train cancellations have been at the highest level since records began 12 years ago. More than 30% of trains were cancelled late last year.
The performance and reliability data from National Rail, the independent website that automatically processes data from the rail network and the Association of Train Operating Companies, shows the following: 90% of trains were on time in 2017, compared with 78.8% last month; 8% were late in 2017, compared with 11.3% last month; and—the worst statistic—just 2% were very late or cancelled in 2017, compared with 9.9% last month. That shows a significant deterioration.
I have to tell the Rail Minister that up until recently I always regarded GWR’s service as being among the best, but in the last month or so it seems to have deteriorated significantly. If one relies on the railway to get to an appointment, it is really quite a difficult thing for it to be late or cancelled. Problems on the Great Western line have included extremely delayed or cancelled trains due to flooding, signalling issues, trains waiting at Reading station, which have caused issues further up the line, and a broken rail crossing. We have heard all that in the debate. That should have been avoided by a proper preventive maintenance programme. They surely ought to be fairly easy issues to fix. A particularly easy issue to fix is that Kemble station has a Rolls-Royce of a waiting room and Rolls-Royce facilities, but they are permanently closed. That causes annoyance to my constituents.
The rail line dualling that I initiated some years ago on both Kemble to Swindon and at Moreton-in-Marsh cut journey times significantly. If we could resurrect proposals to dual more of the railway from Oxford to Hereford, we could cut the journey time considerably.
Finally, I praise the staff, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did. In particular, the staff at Kemble are delightful. One of Kemble’s delightful services is the wonderful coffee and buns that can be purchased there. I congratulate the lady there, who is incredibly nice, always reliable and always there. That makes rail travel a great deal more pleasant.
Thank you, Ms Vaz, for allowing me to participate in the debate. I hope that the Rail Minister will be able to give GWR a bit of a poke, so that we can get the poor service of the last month greatly improved.