A red rag to a bull

By John Cryer

John Cryer is Labour MP for Hornchurch, Essex. His late father Bob was also an MP and a key player in the fight to save the Settle and Carlisle line

A new rail users' group has been set up in Rainham, Essex, following a concerted campaign by passengers fed up with the services offered by the London, Tilbury and Southend company and angry at being fobbed off when they complain.

I very much welcome this development and spoke to over 70 people at the inaugural meeting of the group last month.

As a committed advocate of improved public transport, I have been an increasingly vocal critic of LTS.

The criticisms have been based on my own experiences and those of my constituents, who have been reporting a catalogue of peak hour cancellations, reduced carriage numbers and persistent overcrowding, much arising from timetable changes introduced in May.

It has been calculated that LTS has consequently reduced its peak hour services through Rainham by around 30%.

When I raised these issues with LTS managing director Ken Bird I was told that the company's customer research indicated that it was "doing the right things".

This apparently includes offering "a walk-on, walk-off non-reservable system" and operating a permitted level of cancellations and unpunctuality. Mr Bird went on to say he was pleased "to be able to manage a retail venture that recognises that profit comes from giving customers what they want at a price they are willing to pay - just like most retailers in the High Street."

He concluded: "We are not there yet; but give me another 18 months and judge us then."

To my constituents, that was like a red rag to a bull.

One said to me that if he wanted to buy a pair of trousers he could compare styles and prices at Marks & Spencer, Burtons or Top Man but when he travelled to work he had no choice.

"It is a monopoly and that is why it was criminal to privatise it. It is becoming a licence to print money," said my constituent. Another said: "People are having to review their lives because we do not have an adequate transport system."

Yet another pointed out that although the timetable prior to the latest changes was tolerable, it did not resemble something written by Hans Christian Anderson!

Following the inaugural meeting of the Rainham Rail Users' Group, an LTS spokesman told the local press that the company admitted "having difficulty" meeting the needs of 24,000 rush hour passengers travelling to London every day but he went on to accuse me of painting a very black picture "which is not borne out by independent studies. These show particularly high levels of customer satisfaction at Rainham."

Yet another own goal and one which will probably inspire the users' group to new heights of campaigning, which I believe may include a demonstration at LTS HQ.

LTS, like the other privatised railway companies, have rightly been put on notice by this government - improve or you could lose your contracts.

The combination of Ministerial plain-talking and passenger protest is to be encouraged - I have just heard that the 8.48am into Fenchurch Street through Rainham mysteriously acquired an extra four coaches the other day. I wonder if this was in response to customer satisfaction?

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