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12.1 am

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on securing this debate on an important issue that affects many of my constituents as well as his.

I want to put two issues to the Minister, and they both go to the heart of the services provided to my constituents. The first relates to the legacy of investment in the infrastructure at Sutton station and Cheam station by Connex, the current train operating company. The Minister will know that I have raised this issue on a number of occasions. Other Ministers have given welcome undertakings and the SRA has been monitoring that work.

The problem is that, at Sutton station, the work would have been finished last November if Connex had delivered on Ministers' undertakings. The work to upgrade Cheam station and to reopen the toilets and the waiting room should also have finished last year, but it has not even been started. I hope that the Minister will ask the SRA to chase Connex up on those matters, because we have not seen any improvements in the conditions at either station.

The work at Sutton station is now nearing completion, but it seems to be a matter of churlishness on the part of Connex--because it has lost the franchise--that it will not apply a lick of paint to the old fabric to bring it up to the standard of the new fabric that has been installed. I hope that that churlishness will be dealt with and that Sutton will have a decent station in the near future.

My second point deals with the experience that we have had from GoVia's running of the Thameslink franchise--the running times of Thameslink trains are truly appalling. GoVia is the worst provider of rail services in London. Out of the 10 train operating companies in London, it runs more trains late all day than any other company. More than half the trains do not arrive on time. Even at peak times, it is the ninth worst out of 10. That does not bode well if the company takes over the south central franchise and provides those services.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that Thameslink will soon be subject to the close attention of a refranchising process and that we will soon see the benefits of the trains running on time and that long-term investment will be made to improve the services. At present, services on the Wimbledon loop, which covers Sutton Common, Sutton West and Sutton stations, are not up to scratch. My constituents--including Sheila Bullock and Debbie Shepperd--write to me frequently about such matters and they make it clear to me that hundreds of my constituents suffer from an appalling service day in, day out. They do not want that when GoVia takes over the south central franchise nor do they want the current service on Thameslink to continue. I hope that the Minister will be able to give them some reassurance.

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12.4 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on securing this debate and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss GoVia's proposals for south London rail services. I was a little surprised that he has managed to obtain yet another Adjournment debate on fundamentally the same issue; he will have to tell me how he does it. If he tells other Back Benchers how he does it, he may find his style a little cramped.

The hon. Gentleman secured similar debates on 11 April and 15 November last year. Although there is little new to report since the announcements that were made when the south central franchise was awarded to GoVia, I welcome the opportunity to remind the House of what the deal represents in terms of investment and service improvements for passengers.

Before I speak about future proposals, I should like to mention current performance. The performance of Connex South Central services has improved over recent weeks. There was a serious decline in punctuality following the emergency speed restrictions that were imposed by Railtrack for safety reasons in the aftermath of the tragic accident at Hatfield. However, latest figures show that, in the four weeks to 6 January, there was a 9.3 per cent. improvement over the previous four-week period on the number of trains reaching their destination within five minutes of the timetable. I expect that upward trend to continue and very much hope that the industry continues to co-operate to improve services across the national rail network.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about how passenger views are gauged. The Strategic Rail Authority carries out a national passenger survey twice a year. It asks for comments on punctuality, reliability and frequency of trains, on the standards of rolling stock, including comfort and seating, and on information about train times. He asked whether people were consulted during the refranchisement process. Consultation does take place in those circumstances. Local authorities, passenger committees and other stakeholders are encouraged to get involved. However, some aspect of the process will always be commercially confidential. It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that in last autumn's national passenger survey, only 67 per cent. of Connex South Central passengers were satisfied with their journey and 17 per cent. were dissatisfied. Only 37 per cent. of Connex South Central passengers thought the company offered value for money, however.

It is evident from the previous debate on 15 November that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the chief executive's announcement on 24 October that the Strategic Rail Authority had signed heads of terms with GoVia and that the current operators of the Thameslink franchise were the preferred counterpart for the new replacement south central franchise. The aim of the franchise replacement is to secure a sustained improvement in performance and a step change in customer service through increased levels of investment. The proposals by GoVia and Connex Transport UK Ltd. offered substantial improvements over current standards of service. However, the chief executive decided that GoVia had demonstrated that it had the vision to bring about a step change in quality and the capacity to deliver, while offering better value for money.

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As the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), reported to the House in the debate on 15 November, GoVia plans to brand the services that run to south London, Gatwick airport, Brighton and the south coast as the new southern railway. GoVia is expected to run the business for 20 years and over that period is expected to implement an investment programme valued at up to £1.5 billion. Of that investment, £900 million is for rolling stock, £325 million is for infrastructure, £200 million is for stations and £50 million is for depots.

My hon. Friend mentioned the early benefits that are expected from the new franchise, which I shall not repeat. However, GoVia has undertaken to support all forthcoming industry safety initiatives and comply with all relevant recommendations of current inquiries.

The company has undertaken to ensure that all new trains in service after December 2003 will be fitted with the train protection warning system and provision will be made for European rail traffic management systems. It plans to invest £1.2 million per year in training and development for staff, including, for train drivers, the use of simulators and other forms of improved training procedures.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about future service levels, especially for services to and from London that serve stations in his constituency. At this stage GoVia can only work on the indicative timetable. The south London metro concept, which I will discuss in more detail later, will also have an affect on the current service pattern. However, GoVia is obligated to engage in formal consultation with consultees as the timetable develops.

The hon. Gentleman raised the concerns of many of his constituents about the fact that the desire to increase the frequency of trains into London appears to affect the company's ability to be flexible about which station those trains arrive at. I know that he has raised that matter at a public meeting. Consultation continues and no decision has yet been taken. I am told that there are operational problems in increasing the frequency and achieving the right mix of stations. The hon. Gentleman probably understands that better than I do, because of his meetings with the train company. No decision has been taken as to whether the trains would run into Victoria or London Bridge if their frequency were increased. Problems occur if they try to go to both, as the hon. Gentleman understands. I hope that he will continue to discuss that matter with the train company and consider carefully what is in his constituents' interests. I understand that change to their travel arrangements can be upsetting, but increased frequency might bring benefits that they do not fully appreciate at the moment.

Mr. Brake: It is important that I reflect my constituents' views, as well as talking to the train company. It is clear that the constituents who have contacted me are unhappy with the current proposals.

Mr. Ainsworth: That debate will obviously continue. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that service provision will be based on existing passenger service requirements, which provide a specified minimum service level. In some cases where new services on new routes have been introduced and become a valued part of the network, passenger service requirements will be extended to cover them.

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Where the passenger service requirement is currently augmented by higher levels of service, the Strategic Rail Authority requires the aggregate additional train mileage to be incorporated in the replacement franchise agreement as a separate contractual obligation. The Strategic Rail Authority will consult the relevant rail passengers committees and local authorities on any proposed changes to passenger service requirements.

I mentioned the south London metro, which is a concept jointly developed by the Strategic Rail Authority, train operating companies, Transport for London, Railtrack, the London Users Transport Committee, and the London borough-led partnerships, Seltrans and Sweltrac. Rail passengers can look forward to a "turn up and go" metro service similar to the London underground. Key features will be consistently high standards of station environment, information provision, passenger facilities, security and accessibility, with frequent, regular train services, including improvements to the level of service provision at weekends and in the evenings. The network will be branded and marketed as a single entity, even though services will be provided by a number of franchisees. A simplified fares and ticketing system, integrated with the tube and buses, is also an aspiration towards which progress is being made.

The emphasis on improving interchange with other modes of transport and the development of orbital routes will bring much needed relief to the London terminals. The south London metro concept will use sections of the existing Connex, South West Trains and Thameslink networks. Many of the features of the metro can be established within a three-year horizon, although achieving all the desired service improvements may take as long as 10 years where major infrastructure projects are required to relieve pressure on the network. Much of

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the financing will be provided through the Strategic Rail Authority's programme of franchise replacement, but significant contributions are also expected to come from the London boroughs, Railtrack and Transport for London.

The current Connex South Central franchise agreement is not due to expire until May 2003. However, it is expected that a date for formal change of control will be agreed shortly, to come into effect within the next few months. That will allow GoVia to assume control of and responsibility for south central services under the same terms as those presently provided by Connex. Final negotiation and signature of the new agreement with GoVia will then follow as soon as possible. Until the early transfer can be agreed, Connex is required to meet the terms of its existing franchise agreement, including service provision, performance regimes, station standards and customer satisfaction requirements. Failure to comply will result in a breach of its contract.

The Government are committed to delivering a better, bigger, safer railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer services. Our 10-year transport plan provides £180 billion, which includes £60 billion for railways. The Strategic Rail Authority has recently published its strategic agenda, which will be followed by its more detailed strategic plan in the autumn. The agenda is essentially a situation report, describing the main issues that the industry faces and the actions that the Strategic Rail Authority has taken, to date, to tackle them.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that passengers in and around his constituency, as well as in the rest of the country, will benefit from the improved rail services that these initiatives will generate.

Question put and agreed to.

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