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Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con):
The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the case for the benefits of extending Thameslink to each and every one of the 50 stations from the Sussex coast up to mid and, indeed, north Bedfordshire, but does he recognise
that ensuring that we have sufficient capacity in the centre of London-this obviously applies to the Crossrail debate as well as to the Thameslink debate-is of crucial importance if there is not to be the overcrowding to which he referred earlier?
The scope of the Thameslink network opened up by engineering improvements in the core, which have just been referred to, will greatly increase beyond the Bedford-Brighton corridor, extending to Peterborough, Cambridge and King's Lynn in the north and to a large number of destinations south of London. Work is well under way in delivering the Thameslink programme. The first phase was completed on time and on budget in March 2009, and essentially prepared for the main construction phase that we are now in, but we should not take that preparation for granted, as it was all about enabling services to run as smoothly as possible during the main construction phase.
We have already benefited from a superb new station at St. Pancras International, which replaced the appalling King's Cross Thameslink, and we will soon see delivery of a new station at Blackfriars, which will span the Thames. It will be ready in time for 2012. Farringdon station has been transformed, including preparation for an interchange with Crossrail, which will greatly increase connectivity for millions of people throughout the Thameslink network as well as east-west along Crossrail itself.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The hon. Gentleman knows that I have had disagreements with Thameslink over its choice of the route through London Bridge and the consequent potential effects on Borough market. The battle was fought and lost, so we will have to wait to see whether Borough market survives with the character that it has had. However, the extension from Blackfriars to the south bank is extremely welcome and will do what has been necessary for a long time to link that station to others, although it is a short walk to the Jubilee line, and to make all sorts of other connections possible. That is a very exciting opportunity, and those of us on the south bank look forward very much to the station's opening.
Patrick Hall: I am sure they do. As far as the Thameslink programme is concerned, some people think that Bermondsey is the centre of the universe. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) in the Chamber. I did not mention his name when I began my speech because I do not think that he was here then, but he is a welcome member of the all-party group that I mentioned.
Outside London, work is proceeding to extend station platforms to accommodate the new 12-car trains. Phase 3 is London Bridge, which is the most congested place on the whole network: the result of the unplanned approach to railway construction in the capital during the 19th century, creating a railway headache that no one has really sought to tackle until now. London Bridge is
crucial to the success of the programme and will unlock the railway and release capacity for 24 trains an hour through the core.
I recently submitted 10 written parliamentary questions to the Department for Transport to check on the progress of this vital scheme. I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on the fact that most were answered within 24 hours. I should have asked about passenger numbers-and I will. His Department told me that some 1,500 construction workers are currently employed full time on the Thameslink programme, with a further 500 to 700 working part time.
David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I suspect that my hon. Friend will give us some more information about the number of workers employed on the scheme. Does he share my concern that possible redundancies of some of Network Rail's engineering staff could compromise not only the Thameslink programme, but important maintenance work in the whole Southern region?
Patrick Hall: I understand that there are concerns about maintenance on the whole rail network. This is not the place to go into detail on that, although those concerns are certainly shared by many hon. Members. By having such a debate, we put these issues firmly on the agenda and help to get them addressed later, which I hope will happen.
Mentioning the people employed in the Thameslink project helps to reinforce the point that public transport infrastructure schemes can provide much-needed employment during a recession, when the construction sector is always the first to feel the pain. I have also been informed that an additional 80 train drivers will need to be recruited to operate the additional services from around 2013 onwards. I will say something about driver vacancies and recruitment before concluding.
Through written answers I have learned that the first of the new 12-car and eight-car trains is expected to be delivered by the end of 2013. There is some time to go before that happens and I hope that my long-suffering constituents will be able to stomach that wait, but at least it is coming.
The programme is costing between £5.5 billion and £6 billion, which is a little more than was originally estimated. This information apparently led to briefings or leaks to The Observer newspaper, which reported on 15 November 2008 that the Thameslink programme was facing
"£750 million of cutbacks in a Treasury crackdown on costly infrastructure projects"
"rail industry sources, the number of trains passing through central London at peak times could be cut from 24 services per hour...to 20",
There has also been speculation about the orders for the new trains and the 1,100 new carriages for the Thameslink network as a whole, which are due to be awarded either by the end of March or during the summer or autumn. I hope that we get some clarity on that situation.
Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): It is crucial for my constituents and for the rail industry in total that this order goes to the only UK-based train assembler or manufacturer that is left in the country. I find it ironic that after 150 years or more of the rail industry, if this order went to a company outside the UK, it could be the end of train manufacturing here in the UK and with it could go many jobs: 2,500 in Derby and 12,000 or thereabouts in the supply chain. It is crucial that this contract goes ahead and equally crucial that it is awarded to a UK-based company.
When Bombardier failed to deliver the 23 new train units last March I visited it and was impressed: it put its hands up, did not blame anyone else and said that it had made mistakes. In fact, some of Bombardier's suppliers had got into serious difficulties because of the recession and it took over some of the supply chain to ensure that the delivery was completed. Only two weeks ago the last of the 23 trains was delivered, which has caused all kinds of knock-on effects. I was impressed by Bombardier's positive attitude and the fact that it made no excuses whatsoever.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I agree with what the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said in the previous intervention. While the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) is considering related matters, may I say that I am grateful to him for his work on Thameslink? Thousands of my constituents use Thameslink every day and find that train fares are far too high-much higher than the average in Europe-and do not give value for money. Does he want the Minister to address that issue while he is captive in this Chamber?
Patrick Hall: The degree of state subsidy in railway systems around the world is an interesting question that I would happy to debate on another occasion. It is a matter of choice for Governments. Peak-time travel in this country is expensive, but off-peak travel is often much cheaper than in many other continental countries.
Kelvin Hopkins: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I will be brief. Does he accept that a major cause of the rise in the cost of fares in Britain is privatisation? The costs of laying track have increased by five times and maintenance costs have increased by four times. That is why fares have had to rise.
We all know that concern about public finances is high on the political agenda. The Government's deficit-reduction plan will include tough departmental cuts and the official Opposition have stated that the country has run out of money, that we face a decade of austerity and that an emergency Budget will follow within 50 days of a Conservative election victory. I state as firmly as I
can that the Thameslink programme must be delivered: no delays, no dilution. It is essential on social, economic and environmental grounds. The business case depends on completion of the major works at London Bridge, which must not be cut. Indeed, it turns out that the programme is integral to supporting the economy as we emerge from the recession. If anyone doubts this, they should ask the passengers along the route, including my constituents. Up to £6 billion is a lot of money, but this is an extremely cost-effective use of money. To cut back on the final phase-London Bridge-would put the brake on the part of the programme that will deliver the biggest benefit. It would be short-sighted, foolish and a tragedy to do so.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we cannot stop-start railway projects, which are long-term projects that, once committed to, should be followed through and, if curtailed, would be a cost to the public purse. Does he agree that it would help if, prior to the election, all three parties committed to proceeding with the Thameslink programme as planned? May I say, to start the ball rolling, that the Liberal Democrats do so?
Patrick Hall: I certainly endorse that example of parties working together in the country's interests, because that is what should happen sometimes. We will have an opportunity today to hear about that if someone picks up that helpful suggestion.
Before concluding with questions to the Minister, I shall speak about First Capital Connect. I appreciate that there will be an Adjournment debate on the subject tomorrow, so I need not go into great detail, as I could, but issues arise that are relevant to how trains will operate on completion of the Thameslink programme.
I acknowledge the disruption, inconvenience and additional cost borne by many of my constituents and thousands of others from mid-November to the end of January. That arose principally from the decision of drivers, mostly at the Bedford depot, to work only their contracted hours, and not to volunteer to work on their rest days. That was connected with FirstGroup's decision to offer a pay award that included a 0 per cent. increase for the first year. However, negotiations were still proceeding with ASLEF, and there was no need, in terms of collective bargaining procedures, for the unofficial action. It seems that the situation was bound up with frustration owing to disruption and delay of promised training, triggered by Bombardier's failure-it was not entirely its fault, as I acknowledged-to deliver 23 new class 377 trains between October 2008 and March 2009, and principally because of knock-on effects of First Capital's taking on the new Bedford-Sevenoaks service. That combination created difficulties in delivering the driver training that FCC had promised. Suffice it to say that FCC must now demonstrate to the public and the Government that it will get on top of its industrial relations and help to restore the good will that is essential to running the railway.
David Lepper: Does my hon. Friend agree that First Capital Connect should have been swifter in coming forward with a compensation package for regular travellers on the line, and does he share my hope that even now it will widen the scope of that package?
Patrick Hall: Because things were happening so fast daily, and with the exceptional weather, it was probably difficult to please everyone instantly. People always want more compensation, and the latest offer, which I believe is about to go online, is much more generous than was mooted earlier. Some of my constituents may not be happy with it, but on balance I have concluded that the compensation package is now reasonable and fair. FCC has taken on additional staff to cope with the demands and claims, and I believe that it is determined to learn lessons for industrial relations and compensation from its dreadful experience.
The period during which drivers started to work to contract, leading to the emergency timetable and the 50 per cent. reduction in the service from Bedford, led to all sorts of claims about driver numbers and vacancies. I have heard all sorts of suggestions about the number of unfilled vacancies, which I have not yet got to the bottom of, but I am determined to do so, and it is in the public interest that the House does so. Whatever Department for Transport officials say is commercially confidential, I ask the industry to be clear and open with the public, because that will help to restore confidence.
When FCC took over the franchise in 2006, it proceeded to recruit 30 extra drivers-13 were recruited after April 2009, and 16 more were recruited after November-beyond the normal recruitment level needed to cope with retirement and so on. The extra trains integral to the Thameslink service will generate further recruitment needs. I have been assured that FCC has in place mechanisms to review the establishment regularly to ensure that the enhanced service made possible by the Thameslink programme is delivered.
FCC must acknowledge that the difficulties created for passengers by the drivers' work-to-contract episode, and later the snow and ice, were greatly exacerbated by an incompetent communications system. Again, I am confident that lessons have been learned, and that improvements will be made over the next several months. FCC is spending money on that. I have referred to the point about compensation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North.
I shall conclude with some questions to the Minister. Will he confirm the Government's unwavering commitment to completion of the whole of the Thameslink project as already programmed? Will he tell me, now or later, what proportion of the overall benefit will be delivered by completion of phase 3, which is officially, if clumsily, known as key output 2-that is, London Bridge? Will he tell me why delivery of the 1,100 new carriages in the form of 12-car and 8-car units does not coincide with the planned completion of the Thameslink programme? The latter is 2012, but the new trains are apparently due at the end of 2013. Will the Minister confirm when the preferred bidder to supply the new trains will be announced, and when the contract will be placed?
The Minister will know that First Capital Connect encountered further problems during the cold weather because the sliding doors on the class 319 units froze tight due to snow penetration. That did not happen throughout the network on trains fitted with plug doors. As the 1,100 new carriages will have sliding and not plug doors, will he reconsider that specification?
FCC is addressing the need for improvements that it can deliver on passenger and station staff information, but industry-wide issues are being examined by the
Minister's Department, with Network Rail and train operators as a whole. Is he in a position to apprise me and the House of progress and a programme of action?
Will my hon. Friend tell me what might happen to the Bedford depot and sidings when the 12-car trains are introduced? I understand that there is insufficient space to accommodate trains of that length, which are of the fixed formation type, so they cannot be broken up.
There is always more to add, but despite the problems of the past two and a half months, we are approaching a time when the congestion and overcrowding of the past 20 years will be overcome. That is good and positive news, and an outcome to which I hope everyone is committed.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on securing this debate. He is an energetic chairman of the all-party group on the Thameslink route, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of that group. As he said, the core part of that important project is the bit between St. Pancras and Blackfriars, but the third stage, to which he referred, is the improvements that we will get up to 2015-unfortunately rather a long way away-to the Borough market junction and London Bridge station, which are equally important to the project. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the project because I represent people in south London and Orpington who use that service. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been huge problems with congestion of services through London Bridge station over many years because of the historical bottleneck resulting from unplanned development of railways during the 19th century. The problem was not tackled during the 20th century, and it is amazing that we have had to wait until the 21st century.
Perhaps I can read out a short section of a letter that amply exemplifies the problems faced by my constituents. On 8 January, a lady wrote to Southeastern Trains about a train journey that took place between London Bridge and Orpington on 7 January:
"I wish to make a strong complaint about the overcrowding on the above train...I was unable to move or breathe easily. It was not possible to remove my hat, gloves or answer my mobile phone. With lots of layers of clothing on and my coat"-
"I was unable to stop myself from overheating. I can honestly say you were lucky no one was injured in my carriage...There was no security or help from the platform before leaving London Bridge...Thoughts were going through my mind of the Heysel stadium".
It does get that bad on some of these overcrowded commuter trains at certain times of day or night. That letter, written this year, indicates the daily problems that my constituents are facing, which, hopefully, will be alleviated in years to come by the Thameslink programme.
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