Govt must address the way train operators consider the needs of passengers
Conservative MP Bim Afolami writes about his House of Commons Adjournment debate on the topic of Transport in Hertfordshire.
Hertfordshire is a wonderful county. Many residents are attracted here because of the rural landscape, good schools and, crucially, the commuting distance to London.
Unfortunately, while more people than ever are moving here, the Government has not kept pace with its responsibility to improve the infrastructure and the lived experience of residents at the same time.
The first example of this is Hertfordshire’s rail services. Almost daily, a constituent gets in touch with me about the deterioration of the service since May last year. Put simply, there are fewer peak time trains and they stop more often on the way into London, which means that peak time overcrowding is the new normal. This isn’t just about the matter of commuter services, but rail travel is critical for both the economic and social well-being of Hertfordshire. Reliable, frequent and comfortable journeys to, from and within the county are essential for the area to prosper.
The Department for Transport does not of course run the train services. The Department’s role is to sit at the top of the system, as owners of Network Rail who maintain the track and station infrastructure whilst private train companies operate the different franchises on different lines. Govia Thameslink Railway operate the rail services through Hitchin and Harpenden, but over the past 18 months, they have behaved as though they are accountable only to themselves, and have manifestly failed to take responsibility of the problems created by the May 2018 timetable changes and adjust services to meet demand at peak times. The Department for Transport must tighten the contractual rules under which private train companies operate. The upcoming Williams Rail Review will investigate this, but the Department needs to exercise more pressure on GTR now.
Secondly, the proposed expansion of Luton Airport will have a great impact on the lives of Hertfordshire residents with none of the benefits. Topographically, Luton is the wrong place for an airport of this size. The dense polycentric pattern of the surrounding settlements, such as Hemel Hempstead, Harpenden and others, means that towns and villages are affected by noise, pollution and congestion through the narrow country lanes. At a time when we need to be acting to reduce carbon emissions and preserve our rural environments, airport expansion in this circumstance would be a mistake.
Hertfordshire is growing rapidly, and this Government needs to get a grip of it. With this growth comes a responsibility to improve the infrastructure and the lived experience of residents. What we see on the railways in particular, is a flagrant disregard for the needs of commuters – frankly most of the railway industry seem to regard paying passengers as a nuisance interfering in their engineering plans for the railway system which end up pleasing very few people and irritating millions more.
In this debate I want to know how the Government plans to work with me and other MPs to improve the railway network, but more importantly address the way in which GTR and other train operators consider the needs of commuters and passengers, so that the May timetabling debacle is never repeated.
On Luton Airport expansion, my constituents overwhelmingly oppose it. They know that Luton and Bedfordshire gets the gain, whilst Hertfordshire takes the pain. Why isn’t the voice of Hertfordshire residents ever heard and acted upon by Luton Airport or Luton Borough Council? The Government needs to give Hertfordshire residents, and MPs, real teeth when dealing with the constant drumbeat of expansion of Luton Airport that will do so much to harm the lives of Hertfordshire residents.
Bim Afolami is the Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden