Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Rail Services (East Sussex)

12.30 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): If I seem distracted, it is because last night there was a major explosion at Newhaven in my constituency. I understand that many fire fighters are involved and the town is covered with billowing smoke, which reaches as far as Eastbourne. I want to put on record my gratitude to the fire services, to whom I spoke this morning, for their work in a dangerous situation where there are exploding acetylene cylinders and other hazards. We can all take comfort from the fire service's professionalism.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I hope that there has been no loss of life or serious injury, and that the hon. Gentleman will advise the House on the matter.

Norman Baker : I am advised that there has been no loss of life and no major injuries, but details so far are sketchy.

Let me turn to the subject of the debate, which is of interest to other hon. Members who represent constituencies in East Sussex. I am delighted that the hon. Members for Wealden (Mr. Hendry), for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) are present and I hope they will want to intervene.

There is much constituency correspondence on the subject in East Sussex. The debate is well timed, given the changes to the railway industry as a consequence of Railtrack being taken into administration. If the Minister has managed to recover from the previous debate, it would be useful if he could say something about how the post-Railtrack arrangements will affect the opportunity for investment in rail services in East Sussex, because hon. Members in all parties want better rail services.

The characteristics of rail travel locally are that it is reasonably reliable, notwithstanding the complaints that some of us receive. There is a quickish service to London from East Sussex. It is far better than travelling by car, as those of us who need to can work on the train—trying to work while driving is something that the Minister and others might regard as hazardous.

However, the rail services are expensive, the trains are dirty and the rolling stock is clapped out and dates from the time when the Beatles' "She Loves You" was number one. The peripheral arrangements for travelling by train, such as car parking at stations, are often far from perfect. Much needs to be done if there is to be a renaissance in rail travel, people are to be persuaded out of their cars and on to railways, and businesses are to be persuaded to use rail rather than road freight, which is the Government's policy. That aim is shared by all hon. Members. It has not happened because money spent on roads is called investment whereas money spent on railways is called subsidy. We need to change that mindset, which has plagued our railways for too long. It may well be, for environmental, social and economic reasons, that money put into railways provides a better return for the taxpayer than money spent on roads.

In the past 20 or 30 years, Governments have been good at picking up on road schemes throughout the country and building roads, although not always as

31 Oct 2001 : Column 296WH

many as some people want. They have not shown the same ability to create new railway lines or reopen existing ones, and to reopen stations. However, I am delighted that the Government's excellent initiative, the south-coast multi-modal study, is under way. It is the first time that a transport corridor—road, rail and short-sea shipping—has been considered, and it is the right way of doing things. I hope that the initiative will show that the best way to use the existing infrastructure is not to construct huge new roads costing £100 million-plus, which is what it would cost to have a dual carriageway from Lewes to Polegate; it would be far better to use the existing infrastructure.

We want a package of improvements in East Sussex, most notably the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. Its closure was absurd. It was ordered not by Beeching but by the county council in 1969 to facilitate the building of a bridge over the river in Lewes. A look at the railway map demonstrates how ludicrous the situation is, with trains from London going all the way to Uckfield in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wealden—and taking about 10 minutes longer to get there than when the railway line opened around 1840.

There is a seven-mile gap between Lewes and Uckfield where the track has been largely retained. A ridiculously short section of rail is missing and a reinstatement could easily take place. There would be several advantages in that, not least of which is that it would provide an alternative route to London. As the Minister knows, there are huge capacity problems on the Brighton line. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion agrees with that. It is inconceivable that we could have another Balcombe tunnel and Balcombe viaduct; that would be too expensive and environmentally damaging. The new train operator, GoVia, is considering an improvement to the line at Littlehampton. A third alternative, which Connex was considering before it lost the franchise, is to reopen the Lewes-Uckfield line. Whatever the faults of Connex—it was far from perfect—it was prepared to look seriously at reopening that line. I very much hope that that opportunity will not be lost now under GoVia.

It would be tragic if the Lewes-Uckfield line were not reopened. We must pull together and find a way of achieving that; 32 years after its closure, there is a huge campaign, which spans all councils and all parties, for the line to be reopened. Whenever I or the hon. Member for Wealden try to achieve that, we are told to go and see the Strategic Rail Authority; the SRA tells us to see GoVia; GoVia tells us to see Railtrack, as it was; Railtrack tells us to see the county council; the county council tells us to see the Government, and the Government tell us to see the SRA. The Government need to produce a route map showing how we can reopen lines that should never have been closed in the first place and where there are obvious economic, environmental and social reasons for doing so. Will the Minister tell us how we can achieve that objective?

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate. Does he agree that the route to Brighton via Littlehampton is much longer than a reopened Wealden line would be? Before that line is reopened, it is essential

31 Oct 2001 : Column 297WH

that the existing line to Uckfield have dual tracking and be electrified. The current service to Uckfield is deeply inadequate.

Norman Baker : I entirely agree. Littlehampton is not a satisfactory diversion route, as I imagine the constituents of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion would agree—and as those who get shunted there when there are rail works know. The Lewes-Uckfield line would be a reasonable diversion if there were problems on the Brighton line.

Another necessary improvement in infrastructure is the electrification of the Hastings-Ashford line. If one goes from Lewes to Brussels, as I have, it takes longer to go from Lewes to Ashford than from Ashford to Brussels. That is ludicrous. Getting off the super brand-new train that glides through the French countryside at about 100 mph at Ashford, believing that one is in the 21st century, one then has the surreal experience of transferring to a 1954 diesel train, which shunts along like Thomas the Tank Engine at about 10 mph from Ashford to Hastings. Business men and women in my constituency want to go to Ashford by train so that they can get to Brussels and back quickly. They tell me that it is simply impossible to do that because the Hastings-Ashford line is, at best, a Sunday outing; it is not a sensible rail line.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this important debate. Does he accept that my constituents are appalled not only by the transit time to Ashford but by the service to London? They would recognise the picture that he has painted of the quality of the rolling stock, but not the journey time. In fact, it takes one hour and 45 minutes to travel from Bexhill to London, which puts Bexhill further away from London than York. The journey takes longer now than it did in 1922. That state of affairs is simply unacceptable.

My constituents are also concerned about the impact of Railtrack's collapse on repairs in Bexhill, Cooden Beach and Etchingham. I should be grateful if the Minister would deal with that.

Norman Baker : I agree with the point about journey time. I saw a map with circles that showed how long it took to get from a particular area to London: half an hour, an hour or an hour and a half. The circles were not concentric. The map showed a big blip in the Wealden area and the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Journey times from those areas were excessively long compared with those from, say, Brighton.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he, like me, welcome the fact that electrification of the Hastings-Ashford line is part of the commitment made by GoVia and South Central, now that they have taken over responsibility for that line? Does he agree that all those of us who are concerned with the economic vitality of the south coast need to put pressure on the Strategic Rail Authority to ensure the doubling of track on that line too? Electrification is only one part of what is required.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 298WH

We in the south-east think of ourselves as living in a European region, particularly with the port at Newhaven—and the west pier, which leaves the English mainland and makes its way towards the continent. There is inconsistency.

Norman Baker : I am happy to agree. The hon. Gentleman has long been a strong advocate of improved rail services in those areas. I hope that the Minister will note the cross-party unity on the need to secure improved services in East Sussex and on the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield line.

I want to see other infrastructure improvements. Reinstating the loop between Polegate and Pevensey would enable Eastbourne to be bypassed, not by passenger traffic—the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) might object to that—but by freight traffic. That would facilitate the transfer of freight from road to rail.

We also need improvements at Keymer junction, where the Lewes line joins the Brighton line. As anyone who travels from Lewes, Bexhill or wherever knows, the trains inevitably wait there for three or four minutes, which causes a major problem.

We need a new station at Newhaven, because the current three stations are disgraceful and a terrible advert to people who arrive there from Dieppe. Dieppe has received a lot of investment whereas Newhaven stations do not even have a car park—they are that bad. A lot of money is going into Newhaven, where there is an opportunity for a big rail renaissance, with increased freight and passenger movements. The Government are keen on the public-private partnership in Newhaven, which is investing huge amounts of money in the area. Everyone agrees on the need for a single station. All parts of the railway industry say that that makes sense, but none is prepared to lead on the matter. Will the Minister knock some heads together to get things going?

We shall not see a renaissance of rail travel along the south coast—the situation in London is different—unless rail fares are cut. A peak-time return journey between Polegate and Lewes costs £6.50; a return journey from Seaford to Lewes—a distance of nine miles—costs £5. No one in their right mind will pay those fares.

Instead, we have a ludicrous situation in which the A26 and A27 are congested with traffic that does not move in the rush hour, while trains on the parallel railway lines sail gaily by, almost empty. I hope that the south coast multi-modal study will consider that. People in my constituency say that they do not use the trains because of the cost, not because they are dirty. Lower fares on those lines would therefore facilitate the transfer of passenger traffic from road to rail. That would obviate the need for the expensive road improvements being advocated by some. All those stations are in the middle of towns: Eastbourne, Polegate, Seaford, Newhaven and Lewes. There is a huge number of white collar workers in Lewes at the police headquarters, the county council, the district council, the health authority and the ambulance service.

The 12-car trains that GoVia runs from Eastbourne and Polegate to Lewes are substantially empty, but they then pick up huge numbers of people at Lewes and Haywards Heath. Why does not GoVia fill those trains

31 Oct 2001 : Column 299WH

with people who will get off at Lewes? It would not have to run any extra trains or carriages. There is spare capacity. All it has to do is cut fares. I have written to GoVia, the Minister and the Strategic Rail Authority about this. GoVia's response was very encouraging. It said:

GoVia is prepared to cut fares to see whether that gets more people on to the trains, but it will need help. I want the Government to say that they are prepared to invest money to cut fares. Although that may be classed as a subsidy, it would be the best way to deal with the transport problem. I should like an assurance from the Minister that the SRA and the multimodal study will look at cutting fares as part of the solution to the transport problem. I spoke this morning to the district and county councils. They are prepared in principle to help advertise that experimental fare cut. If the train operating company and the county and district councils are prepared to help, will the Government ensure that the SRA also helps?

I am sorry that I have rattled through my speech quickly. I could go on for hours about railways in East Sussex, as I am sure hon. Members will appreciate. It is an important issue for our constituents and it deserves a full and helpful reply from the Minister, which I am sure will be forthcoming.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that he has been very generous to allow so many interventions to guarantee that there was an all-party approach?

12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : I, too, was sorry to hear of the explosion in Lewes today. I hope that there has been no loss of life or serious injury. May I add my thoughts to yours, Mr. Winterton?

There is certainly cross-party interest in these matters. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) has been a doughty fighter for railway and other transport matters. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing the debate and the clear way that he has presented his case.

At the risk of causing a rift in party unity on these matters, I refer the hon. Gentleman to an interesting debate that took place here yesterday—I seem to spend most of my time here these days. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who speaks on transport for the Liberal Democrats, was asked how much of the tax increase that the Liberal Democrats proposed at the last election would have been spent on improving public transport. He replied:

31 Oct 2001 : Column 300WH

I make that point because the hon. Gentleman has given us the usual Liberal shopping list. Perhaps he will go back to his constituency and tell the people of Lewes that they will benefit from new Labour Government policies rather than from Liberal Democrat policies.

Norman Baker : I am sorry that the Minister has started in that way. We have had cross-party consensus and that was an unnecessarily political point to make. As the Minister knows well, the tax plans were about the 1p on income tax for education. That is not to say that we would not put more into public transport. We would do so by redirecting money that is already in the relevant budget.

Mr. Jamieson : I am grateful for that clarification that the Liberal Democrats would find more funding. When the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was given the opportunity yesterday to say how much more funding the Liberal Democrats would put into transport he did not come up with any figure. These things are important. We often stand in this Chamber and hear demands for spending in individual constituencies. It is important that we do not just have demands, but we say how we will deliver them. That is probably the difference between us: we have to deliver.

Before I respond to the main points that the hon. Gentleman, quite properly, raised, I wish to address briefly some of the performance problems on the railways in the south-east. Several operators run services in and out of Brighton; however, I shall concentrate on South Central, as East Sussex is served predominantly by it.

The latest statistics published by the Strategic Rail Authority in July do not, alas, make good reading. It is clear that much must be done to improve performance and customer satisfaction. The figures show that between 27 May and 23 June, 82.6 per cent. of Connex South Central's trains arrived on time, with 81.6 per cent. arriving on time during peak periods. Services are deemed punctual if they arrive at their destination within five minutes of the time stated on the timetable. The spring 2001 national passenger survey indicated that only 65 per cent. of Connex South Central passengers were satisfied with the service that they received and only 37 per cent. thought that they were getting value for money.

The performance statistics and national survey results were undertaken before the franchise was transferred from Connex to GoVia on 26 August. The new arrangement is still in its early stages, so it is too early to make judgments about GoVia's performance. However, the incoming franchisee is taking service improvement seriously, and South Central Ltd is investing £5 million in measures to improve the quality and perception of customer services. It is intended that the first of the new vehicles to replace mark 1 slam-door rolling stock will be introduced from next year.

The hon. Member for Lewes referred to the approach to franchising. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asked the SRA to concentrate on negotiating improvements for passengers within existing franchises or, by negotiating short two-year extensions, to make early replacement of franchises the exception rather than the rule.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 301WH

I know that the new South Central franchise is of interest to the hon. Member for Lewes. The SRA signed heads of terms with GoVia as the preferred counter-party for the replacement South Central franchise in October last year. On 26 August, a commercial agreement was reached between Connex Transport (UK) Ltd. and GoVia for the transfer of the remaining period of the current franchise. Negotiations will continue between the SRA and GoVia towards a new 20-year franchise agreement. A series of major enhancements are planned over the period of the franchise to boost capacity and improve service frequency and comfort. Total investment of £1.5 billion is planned to introduce new trains and upgrade track and stations in order to raise standards, improve train service performance and provide additional capacity.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes will welcome such improvements, as will the many passengers who experience overcrowding and the problems of old rolling stock on this intensively used and capacity-constrained commuter network. As I said, new vehicles will start coming on stream next year to replace the slam-door trains that are currently in service.

Another early benefit is the upgrading of infrastructure to provide greater capacity on the Brighton main line and the Arun valley line. Electrification of the lines between Hastings and Ashford will provide through services between Ashford International and the south coast, and electrification between Uckfield and Hurst Green will provide electric trains between London and Uckfield.

The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned the south coast multi-modal study. I believe that he recently secured an early-day motion on rail fares to Lewes and congestion on parallel roads—I took careful note of it—and that he has written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State asking for his proposals to be considered as part of the south coast multi-modal study.

The study commenced in March 2001, and a report is expected in spring or summer next year. The overall aim of the study is to investigate congestion, safety and environmental problems on the south coast between Southampton and Ramsgate, and to propose measures aimed at improving access to and between regeneration areas and other areas of economic activity along the south coast. While the south coast study will need to consider the outcomes and recommendations of the Hastings study, it is not intended to review them as part of its work. The Hastings study is concerned with access and regeneration issues, while the south coast study is more strategic. The hon. Member for Lewes will shortly receive a written response from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It may be helpful, however, if I deal with two of the issues that he raised in his early-day motion and today.

One issue is the proposed reduced peak fares, particularly on the Eastbourne-Polegate-Lewes and Seaford-Newhaven-Lewes lines. The Strategic Rail Authority is reviewing its national fares policy, under which almost 40 per cent. of fare revenue available to train operators comes from regulated fares. The review, which is not expected to be completed until summer 2002, will be wide-ranging and nationwide. The SRA

31 Oct 2001 : Column 302WH

has stated that, before any fare increase can be justified, tangible improvements in performance and service should have come on stream. The hon. Gentleman's comments about the willingness of others to participate in the fare structure in his area will have been listened to carefully. I shall ensure that those points are passed on.

On the second issue, I am aware that several Members of Parliament and local authorities are campaigning for the reinstatement of the Uckfield-Lewes and the Eridge-Tunbridge Wells lines, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that others are opposed to those proposals. As part of its heads of terms, GoVia is procuring a feasibility study to test the reliability, affordability and value for money of reinstating the Uckfield-Lewes line. GoVia will support reinstatement, provided that its viability is demonstrated.

In consultations with the relevant local authorities, GoVia made it clear that it is willing to be convinced that reopening the Uckfield-Lewes line is good value for money. It suggested to local authority officers that developing residential property in the catchment area would strengthen the case for reinstatement. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman and other Members of Parliament in the area support increased residential development there, but that would create an extra market and a critical mass of customers prepared to use the rail services.

The Strategic Rail Authority has a duty to spend taxpayers' money appropriately and, before deciding whether to progress with reinstatement, it needs to be satisfied that the proposals are robust, affordable and represent good value for money. A feasibility study will be undertaken once the new franchise agreement has been concluded and it will be used to inform the SRA's decision.

The hon. Gentleman also proposes electrification of the Ashford-Hastings line and new modern rolling stock, which I have already dealt with. He would also like a new station at Newhaven to allow the development of a strategy for moving freight by rail from the port, and the reinstatement of a direct link between Polegate and Pevensey to facilitate freight movements. Neither of those proposals is in the SRA's strategic plans for freight. It is for operators to come forward with ideas for consideration, but improving performance on the existing network is the first priority.

Several hon. Members mentioned Railtrack administration. If we are to achieve a better quality rail network, we need a successful network operator. Much has been said about the Government's handling of Railtrack. In his statement of 15 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State went to some lengths to explain the Government's decision not to provide Railtrack with a blank cheque. Our priority now is to ensure that the company that takes over Railtrack plc's network responsibilities can help deliver the improvements that we all want.

I can reassure the House that Railtrack's being placed in administration will not impact on rail travel: passengers and freight trains will continue to run as normal. The administrators are working closely with the Health and Safety Executive to ensure that, while in administration, Railtrack continues to meet the railway inspectorate's safety requirements.

31 Oct 2001 : Column 303WH

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewes for raising important matters today. I hope that he is not too worried by my introduction. He will appreciate that I often hear demands for extra services from hon. Members, but those who deliver the services—often those from their own parties—may not have the funding to provide them.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I thank the Minister for that quick gallop round some of our rail networks.

Next Section

IndexHome Page