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10.12 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): The Minister is probably almost as much of an expert on the services our constituents receive as we are. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) rightly observed that on this occasion there might not be anyone in the Box to assist the Minister, the Minister has participated in a number of debates on Connex South Central, and has been helpful in responding to concerns that my hon. Friend and I have raised. I think that, as a result, the Minister has become familiar with those concerns. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter again this evening, given the way in which the franchise process has proceeded. It is quite appropriate at this point, with the award of the contract to GoVia, for us to raise the concerns outlined by my hon. Friend, as well as one or two points that I want to raise. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate; I also thank the Minister for the opportunity to speak.

Many of my constituents are pleased that Connex South Central has lost the franchise and that GoVia will take it on. They see it as a new beginning, and hope that that

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new beginning will bear fruit--that they will receive a better service than they have experienced over the past few years. I fully support the 10-point plan outlined by my hon. Friend, on which he and I worked together, and I think that many of the hard-pressed commuters with whom I have shared train journeys to this place from Cheam will support it too.

The franchise system that Members inherited after the general election seemed to many to be about rewarding poor service. It was all about saying that if a train was run on time, it was all right to run it overcrowded and short. It is that sort of service that has made travelling a misery in London. That is why all the indicators suggest that Londoners feel let down by Connex and others, and it is why my hon. Friend and I have raised these issues on a number of occasions in Adjournment debates over the past year or so. We feel very strongly about them.

My hon. Friend and I have taken a close interest in rail services and have followed the franchise and refranchising process step by step. I want to place on record my gratitude and that of my hon. Friend to both companies for their participation in the process, especially the way in which, in June, they took up our invitation to attend a public meeting--a public rail question time--and directly engage with their commuters about their plans. My hon. Friend and I and the 100 or so commuters who attended that meeting found it very useful in informing our views. It has certainly shaped the development of the 10 points that my hon. Friend outlined this evening.

I touched on this issue in a previous Adjournment debate, but especially now that the award has gone to GoVia, it is absolutely crucial to ensure a smooth transition from Connex South Central to GoVia--the new train operating company. As my hon. Friend has rightly said, Connex has a commitment to delivering planned investment. It must be delivered across the network for which Connex is currently responsible, especially for the services and infrastructure in our constituencies about which we have campaigned for some time.

From travelling on the trains and talking to constituents, I know that the fear is that the standards are already slipping and that they will slip further during this interregnum. Therefore, information about the timetable and how long commuters must wait until GoVia takes over needs to be clearly put on record as soon as possible. As my hon. Friend has said, there has been a deafening silence about the timetable.

It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what the safeguards are and how the transition period will be monitored to ensure that Connex continues to deliver at least the current standard of service and, better still, starts to make improvements. Connex has been running on a pretty ropy timetable for months on end, and it is about time our constituents and other rail users who rely on Connex South Central started to see some improvements.

Planned investment brings me to my final point: investment in the stations in the area. The Minister will know that I have campaigned for some time for improvements to Sutton and Cheam stations. I am grateful to the Minister for his interventions, which have helped to get Connex off its backside and investing in Cheam station. That has borne fruit; we have a canopy on the London-bound platform, so we no longer get wet when waiting for trains in the morning.

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I hope that the rest of the programme will be delivered and that the Minister will ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority will continue to keep Connex to its promises. Sutton station still appears to be in flux. Hoardings are still up, and it is not clear whether the company will honour the timetable that it said it would. I hope that the Minister can deal with that--if not tonight, perhaps he could write to my hon. Friend and me.

The 20-year franchise must transform the services that my constituents receive. Rail users have had a lousy service for the past few years, and they expect better. I hope that the Government can assure us that the service will be better in future.

10.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on securing this debate and providing a further opportunity for the House to discuss the Connex South Central rail franchise. He secured an Adjournment debate on this very subject on 11 April. I welcome this opportunity to update him on the progress made with the replacement of the south central franchise and to assure him that the issues that he and his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) have raised are, or will be, considered as part of the replacement franchise process.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington commented on my knowledge of the issue. My knowledge has been developed by the educational experience of debating Connex South Central with him and his hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, but I also have a keen interest in the matter, both as the Minister for Transport in London and as the Member of Parliament for Streatham, two of whose stations--Streatham Hill and Streatham Common--are currently served by Connex South Central rail services.

The House will be aware of the rail network's continuing problems, which have been caused by adverse weather conditions and temporary speed restrictions imposed by Railtrack in the aftermath of the tragic accident at Hatfield. Connex South Central services to and from London are suffering severe delays and cancellations resulting from 20 mph emergency speed restrictions. The company is not operating an emergency timetable, but has planned a series of cancellations about which passengers have been informed. Flooding and embankment damage was the greatest concern on the Brighton main line, which was blocked between Haywards Heath and Brighton. However, I am delighted that the line reopened on Monday afternoon.

It is clear that both the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam welcome the franchising director's announcement on 24 October that the shadow Strategic Rail Authority had signed heads of terms with GoVia, the current operators of the Thameslink franchise, as the preferred counterparty for the new replacement south central franchise.

GoVia plans to brand the services, which run to south London, Gatwick airport, Brighton and the south coast, the New Southern Railway. It is expected to run the business for 20 years and, over that period, to implement

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an investment programme valued at up to £1.5 billion. That will include the introduction of new rolling stock, upgrading key routes and all stations to raise standards, improving train service performance, and providing additional capacity.

A new franchise agreement will be signed with GoVia once detailed negotiations and funding plans have been developed. GoVia may take over the franchise earlier under the terms of the existing franchise agreement with Connex, subject to agreement of terms for the early transfer of the franchise, which is due to expire in May 2003. It is for the parties to agree the date on which the change will come into effect, in consultation with the franchising director. I have no powers in that regard.

GoVia will continue to work up the investments, which will be delivered as soon as possible after the new franchise agreement comes into force, taking account of Railtrack planned works and Thameslink 2000 works. In the meantime, Connex is required to continue to meet the requirements of its franchise agreement, including service provision, performance regimes, station standards and customer satisfaction requirements, until the transfer has been made. Failure to comply may put it in breach of its current contract. That may be taken into account by the franchising director when evaluating proposals for future franchises in the replacement process.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked how the newly announced franchise fitted in with the Government's strategy for franchising. The objective of franchise replacement is to secure the earliest possible delivery of better railway services for passengers, including many of the aspirations raised by the hon. Gentleman, while providing demonstrable value for money for the taxpayer.

It is envisaged that that objective will be achieved on the basis of long-term replacement franchises that will seek to commit to a continuous improvement in safety; to deliver improvements in the quality of service to passengers; to ensure expansion of network capacity and high investment; to treat franchisees and train operators as partners, sharing the risks and rewards that the industry offers; and to encourage operators to build brands, develop markets and provide innovative customer service initiatives

This is intended to achieve demonstrable benefits to passengers, covering the whole door-to-door journey experience. To focus attention on that, interested parties have been asked to take account at an early stage of service quality and customer care issues.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to his 10-point action plan. I confess that my briefing indicates that it is merely his action plan. I am delighted to hear that it is a joint effort and that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam has also evolved that plan.

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