East Anglia: Rail crushes set to continue - MPs

COMMUTERS heading to London face years of overcrowding on trains despite a government target to ease pressure by 2014.

That’s the verdict of an influential group of MPs who have studied proposals to ease the pressure on rail services over the next few years.

And there were claims last night that despite an imminent increase in capacity on the main line into the capital from Suffolk and Essex, it will only provide a temporary respite from commuter train congestion.

The House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee found that rail companies running services to the capital are likely to miss their target to increase space by 15% – meaning that overcrowding will not get any better and could get worse.

This is despite a �9 billion 18-month investment programme that was negotiated by the previous government.

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Their report says: “Despite the impact of the present economic downturn on journey numbers, we are concerned that the failure to meet the targets set will lead to substantial increases in already unacceptable overcrowding levels by 2014 and beyond.

“Rising demand for rail travel combined with serious cuts in public expenditure make it imperative that the rail industry becomes more efficient, otherwise the passenger will suffer.”

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Witham MP Priti Patel secured a parliamentary debate on the performance of National Express East Anglia last week and was concerned to see the findings of the report.

She said: “The report highlights serious concerns about how services may operate over the next few years – and will cause great concern for many travellers.

“What is not acceptable is that if fares go up steadily but services do not improve or even get worse. It is not acceptable for rail companies to charge more for less.”

She agreed with the report that when franchises are let, companies should be required to increase capacity from their own finances and not rely on government subsidies.

The report points out that only one of the current passenger franchises has a requirement for the operator to increase capacity – meaning that any increase in capacity until now has had to be negotiated with the government and involving an extra subsidy.

Ms Patel said: “With the franchise for the East Anglian services due to be awarded next year, I would expect to see a requirement for the operator to increase capacity.”

And West Suffolk MP Matthew Hancock, a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said he would like to see the new franchise having more time, but more challenging targets to meet.

He said: “The Chiltern franchise has been awarded for much longer but there are requirements for the operator to increase capacity and improve services – that has to be the way forward.”

A spokesman for National Express East Anglia said there should be major improvements for East Anglian commuters from next month.

Extra space was being created on commuter trains using the Great Eastern main line thanks to the introduction of new trains.

This will create about 4,000 extra seats a day on services. Combined with more new trains being introduced on the Stansted Express at the end of next year, Liverpool Street will see the number of passengers it handles increase by 18% by the end of 2011.

He said: “The report looks at the national picture. So far as this area is concerned things should improve significantly for commuters in December.”

However Neil Skinner of the Manningtree Rail Users’ Association warned that any improvement to services may only be comparatively short-lived.

He said: “Putting on more carriages and increasing capacity like this might ease overcrowding for a few months or even a year or two.

“But in the long term there needs to be a great deal more investment in the line.

“Basically you have to increase the number of tracks north of Shenfield – have four tracks running as far as Colchester.

“You cannot build new homes all the way along the A12 and not expect people to use them to commute into London.”

A spokesperson for the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) said: “Sustained and targeted investment to reduce overcrowding is vital if we are to deal with the growing number of people that want to travel by train.

“Demand for rail travel has bounced back strongly since the recession and is expected to double over the next few decades.

“The delay in tackling capacity has coincided with the growing involvement of civil servants in buying new trains. The best way to get value for money and ensure extra capacity is delivered when and where it is needed would be to return to a situation where train operators take a greater role in ordering new rolling stock.

“In the early days of privatisation, train operators successfully ordered nearly �5 billion of new trains.”

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