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Rail Services (North Kent)

12.29 pm

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the serious matter of channel tunnel rail link domestic services. I have advised you, Mr. Chidgey, and my right hon. Friend the Minister that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) are also hoping to catch your eye and make a brief contribution.

Services are intended to run on the new £5.2 billion channel tunnel rail link when the Ebbsfleet terminal becomes operational in 2007. The reason for securing the debate is that we in Medway believe that the Strategic Rail Authority has failed to understand how fundamental that service is to the Thames gateway strategy. Without improved rail networks between Medway and the capital, the regeneration of north Kent will fall well short of all our expectations.

It is not my intention to present a picture of doom and gloom in respect of north Kent. It has had record levels of new investment, including new hospitals, schools and roads. Most recently, there was an announcement of the expansion of the universities on the Medway campus. There are to be some 6,000 additional students. The Government's commitment to Medway and the rest of north Kent is not in question. Their record to date is one of action. I have listed a few examples, but there are many more. We should not forget that the Government, under the Deputy Prime Minister, rescued the channel tunnel rail link from the financial regime implemented by the Tories. History tells us much about the Tories' record and their economic competence when it comes to running railways.

Medway and north Kent have been transformed since the 1980s, when unemployment rose to nearly 20 per cent. and depression hit hard. They are now areas of growth and low unemployment. However, this debate is about the future of not just my constituents and those of my hon. Friends or the region, but of London and the UK economy as a whole. In the next 20 years, 50,000 new homes will be built throughout north Kent, accommodating 100,000 more people. Some 84,000 new jobs will be created and 22 million sq ft of additional floor space for businesses will be provided.

The scale of change is considerable, so the challenge for all involved is to get it right. The responsibility of those delivering public services is to maximise co-operation and partnerships so that the necessary infrastructure is put in place. That will engender confidence in the private sector so that we can all realise the full potential that north Kent has to offer. One of the key players is and has to be the Strategic Rail Authority, because it will determine whether Medway and other parts of north Kent have a link to the terminal at Ebbsfleet, and so to London. We have serious concerns that that is not the SRA's intention.

I ask the Government and my right hon. Friend the Minister whether we are five years away from the transformation of rail infrastructure for north Kent, and from being able to realise the potential of the gateway, or whether we will fail when the first opportunity arises to lay a foundation stone for new rail

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infrastructure. Will the Government agree to the SRA allowing channel tunnel domestic trains to thunder through Kent and not stop at the largest conurbation in the county—Medway? Let us imagine train after train going through Kent every day and not stopping at Medway, even though all the peak trains on the existing services from Medway are packed to the gunnels. Some 12,500 people board trains in the Medway towns every day. That has gone up in the past year by 4.8 per cent. That trend and growth will continue.

It is necessary to carry out signalling and other infrastructure work to allow new trains to run along the north Kent line and on to Ebbsfleet and London, yet the SRA has only now begun to examine the cost of the work. I say only now because it will begin the tendering process in the autumn. Whoever wins the franchise will be expected to procure the rolling stock, undertake the infrastructure works and run the service. Given the potential for delay, serious anxiety has been expressed that the trains will not be ready on time. The calamity of having brand new track and links but no trains to service can be imagined.

This is not a little, local issue. Only last year, the Government confirmed that the regeneration of north Kent is a regional and national priority. The SRA has yet to advise key partners, including the Government and the Thames gateway Kent partnership, of its thinking about the franchise specification. We do not know where trains for the domestic service will stop or how frequently they will run.

Most alarmingly—this is the key motivator for the debate—all we know is that the franchise concentrates solely on channel tunnel domestic services from St. Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford, with running-off services to Medway and elsewhere, such as Sittingbourne, as optional extras, or add-ons that are nice to have. That is a disastrous prospect. If the only terminal for people in Medway to access is at Ebbsfleet, one can imagine the additional traffic on the M2. The additional infrastructure will not be cheap. The proposals of the SRA in its present guise will dissuade interested commercial operators.

The first stage of the channel tunnel rail link is nearing completion. Throughout the passage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, we in Kent lobbied hard to ensure that there would be domestic services on the link. From our perspective in Kent, it is entirely reasonable that, if we are to bear the brunt—especially through the Medway towns—of a project that will benefit the entire country, there must be some net gain for the largest conurbation. That gain comes from the domestic services.

The issue cannot be seen simply in terms of rail infrastructure. It must be seen in the context of the entire Thames gateway programme. Medway must be connected to the channel tunnel rail link. It cannot be an optional extra in the SRA's franchise; it cannot be a nice-to-have or an add-on. I hope that in responding to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway, my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that the SRA's franchise will run channel tunnel rail link domestic services through Kent and that there will be an explicit requirement to include the Medway towns and other parts of north Kent.

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12.38 pm

Paul Clark (Gillingham): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) on having secured this important debate. I thank him, you, Mr. Chidgey, and the Minister for allowing me to contribute.

I bring great news from the heart of Kent. The channel tunnel rail link is on time, on schedule and on budget. Phase 1 is a sight to behold, with the North Downs tunnel, a splendid piece of engineering. The new CTRL Medway bridge has risen from the mists of the river Medway, and the overhead gantries are now shimmering in the sun along the route—at least for this week, while we have the sun. The entire route will be complete by 2007. High-speed trains to and from Paris, Brussels and the mainland continent will never have to trundle through the Kent countryside again. All that will have taken us only 20 years since the passing of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford said, the largest conurbation in Kent—the Medway towns, of which Gillingham and Rainham are part—could miss out. My constituents could be left on windswept platforms coping with leaves on the line and, of course, the wrong type of snow. That certainly was not the intention of the rail barons of the mid-1990s.

Looking back at Hansard, one sees that in January 1995 the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir Brian Mawhinney), said on Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill:

A year later, the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), said:

I assure you, Mr. Chidgey, that there will be no fast-running services into St. Pancras from Medway, they will not start as soon as CTRL is open, and congestion will not ease for my commuters or for many thousands more in Medway towns and the surrounding area unless there is a reaffirmation of the commitment to the original intention of CTRL domestic services.

We are well aware of the processes that the Strategic Rail Authority must follow. We recognise that there are technical hurdles to overcome in order to supply the services. However, it must be recognised that some of the improvements are already required, such as a power upgrade and improved signalling, to name but two. It would be wrong if those costs were borne in entirety by the successful bidder for the CTRL domestic services franchise.

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As my hon. Friend said, noises emanating from the SRA give the impression that CTRL domestic services to Medway will not be at the forefront of the tendering process in the autumn. Such a decision would on its own be a betrayal of the commuters of Medway and Gravesend—but the issue does not stop there.

Medway is at the heart of the Government's national regeneration area—the Thames gateway. The Government have supported the area investment framework from the Thames gateway Kent partnership, which is a public-private sector organisation that has a vision of transforming north Kent, creating 100,000 new jobs and 50,000 new homes, and building on new inward investment. CTRL domestic services are not only another route into London, but a major catalyst to realising the Government's regeneration dream in north Kent.

Will the Minister reaffirm the Government's commitment to proper CTRL domestic services in north Kent? Will he recognise the importance of the Thames gateway in delivering the Government's regeneration policies? Will he take the opportunity to remind the SRA of the importance of Medway to the whole regeneration project?

12.42 pm

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) on securing this extremely important debate. I can be brief because my task is simply to support both his detailed and careful submissions and the poetic observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark).

I start by addressing the same theme of achievement in the Medway towns. During the past 10 years, the economic aspirations and well-being of the Medway towns have been transformed. Three of the four main priorities that my hon. Friends and I had when we all started our stewardship in 1997 have been all but secured. We have achieved in securing a university base; we used to be the largest conurbation in Europe that did not have a university. We have achieved in securing all the land that is necessary for the regeneration of the post-industrial riverside site, which has disfigured the centre and heart of the Medway towns. We have received multi-million pound investment to improve infrastructure and to release resources from the wealth of Thamesport and the Island of Grain.

Those achievements have occurred for several reasons. The first is that there was an enlightened council during the 1990s. The second, I hope, is some small contribution from the Members of Parliament who represent the Medway towns. The third is multi-million pound investment by the Government in the fortunes of the Medway towns. I say with great respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister that he, as much as anyone in the Government, has been a friend of the Medway towns, at both his present and previous Departments.

After that uncharacteristic eulogy, I shall come to the essential problem. I know that my right hon. Friend understands that I am not overstating matters when I say that if we do not get the CTRL infrastructure through to the Medway towns to provide the service into London, all the fruits of that investment will be

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placed in jeopardy. We simply cannot be expected to attract the extra investment in money and skills necessary to take advantage of the steps that we have already made if a third world rail service continues to run into the heart of London from the biggest conurbation in the south-east.

There are two reasons why the CTRL is important. First, there is the economic and commercial importance that we have emphasised. Secondly and almost as importantly, the link is essential to the identity and psychology of the Medway towns. The CTRL, so graphically described in its present state by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham, represents an unhappy metaphor for everything that has happened to the Medway towns since the closure of the dockyard—in that it goes straight past and does not stop. At the moment, so far as we can understand from the Strategic Rail Authority, there are no definitive plans for that area to create real benefit from CTRL domestic services.

I know that my right hon. Friend understands our strength of feeling and the importance that we put on the development. He will do the best that he can to ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority is precisely that—an authority for the proper strategy of public service, not for the interests of rail operators.

12.47 pm

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for hon. Members to discuss the channel tunnel rail link and domestic services for north Kent. I also welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews). I am only grateful that there was no Government Whip present to witness my hon. and learned Friend's favourable comments.

Before I respond on the main issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, it may be helpful if I provide a background to the CTRL project and the benefits that we can expect. The CTRL is a completely new high-speed rail line running for 68 miles between the channel tunnel and London St. Pancras. It will be Britain's first major new railway for more than a century, providing 140 mph running for Eurostar services and fast new domestic services linking Kent with St. Pancras. It will also contribute to regeneration in the Thames gateway, which was rightly identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham as an important regional and national priority for growth, and has the potential to make a major contribution to the economy in the south-east around St. Pancras and Stratford, as well as in several areas in Kent.

The CTRL is being built by Union Railways on behalf of London and Continental Railways Ltd. The project was authorised by Parliament with the passage of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, although I appreciate the much longer lineage ably described by my colleagues.

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The new high-speed line is being built in two sections. Section 1 runs between the channel tunnel and Fawkham Junction, near Swanley in north-west Kent, where it connects to the existing Railtrack network, to allow Eurostar trains to serve Waterloo. It also includes connections into Ashford International station. Work on section 1 began in October 1998 and it is more than 83 per cent. complete. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham described its physical impressiveness. It is one of the major civil engineering projects in Europe, and is not only on schedule for completion next year but, as he rightly said, a public-private partnership delivering on time and on budget, with enormous technical expertise. It is worth mentioning that, as the media so often focus on public sector projects that fail.

Work began in July 2001 on section 2, which completes the line by extending it from the new rail link in north-west Kent, under the Thames, to London St. Pancras. Section 2 also includes new international stations at Stratford in east London, linking into docklands and Canary wharf, and at Ebbsfleet, providing fast links to Paris and Brussels from docklands and north Kent. Work on that section is due to be completed by the end of 2006. I particularly mentioned the connection of Stratford to Canary wharf because of the huge increase in employment there—some 4,000 extra jobs a month are added.

The Strategic Rail Authority may take over sponsorship of the project in due course. For the moment, that role remains with the Department for Transport. Significant sums of public sector support—totalling approximately £3 billion—are due to be paid to help construct the CTRL. That will help to provide capacity for fast domestic services, which will revolutionise rail services from Ashford, cutting journey times by 30 minutes. I will speak more about the benefits of the CTRL and domestic services in a minute, but first it might be helpful if I speak about the Thames gateway initiative.

The Thames gateway initiative is the largest regeneration initiative in north-west Europe. It has the potential to accommodate 100,000 new homes and 300,000 new jobs over the next 20 years, largely on previously used sites. Fourteen zones of change have been identified in the gateway, in which the new development will be concentrated. The new international passenger stations at Ebbsfleet and Stratford are key economic drivers in two zones—the Kent/Thameside and Stratford /Royals zones—which are together expected to accommodate up to 46,000 new homes and 100,000 jobs. Medway is another key zone in the gateway, as rightly identified by my hon. Friends. It is a free-standing urban area of around 250,000 population, with huge potential for the renaissance of its considerable brownfield land and as a city of culture, tourism, learning and hi-tech industry.

The Government have established a strategic partnership, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Rooker, the Minister for Housing and Planning. It comprises six Ministers and representatives of the three regional development agencies, regional assemblies and sub-regional partnerships, to drive forward regeneration of the Thames gateway. The partnership is providing the framework within which the area's potential as the major focus for growth and development in the south-east can be achieved. The provision of the new

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international and domestic services that will be provided on the CTRL from 2007 is critical to the sustainable development of the Thames gateway.

The benefits of the CTRL are enormous. The new railway will bring major transport and economic benefits, including up to eight Eurostars per hour each way from St. Pancras and, owing to the new railway's greater capacity, the possibility of running twice the number of Eurostars to Paris and Brussels at peak times from St. Pancras. Paris will be two hours 15 minutes from St. Pancras by non-stop Eurostar, compared with the current journey time of two hours 55 minutes from Waterloo. Forty minutes will be cut from the journey time to Brussels, reducing it to two hours.

We estimate that growth in the Thames gateway area will be boosted by the CTRL by fostering additional development estimated to be worth about £500 million. Connections to both the west coast main line and the east coast main line will be built near St. Pancras, thus retaining options for service provision in the long term.

My hon. Friends rightly dwelt on the implications for domestic services and future specifications. The development agreement relating to the channel tunnel rail link provides that the following shall be reserved for domestic services. In peak time, there will be four trains per hour between east Kent and London, two trains per hour between north Kent and London, and two trains per hour between Ebbsfleet and London. Off peak, there will be two trains per hour between east Kent and London and two trains per hour between north Kent and London. Travelling from St. Pancras via the channel tunnel rail link, the physical links with the Railtrack network will be at Ebbsfleet, on to the north Kent line, and at Ashford.

I take on board the remarks made by my hon. Friends on the need for access, especially if the ambitions for the Thames gateway and the surrounding area are to be achieved. We need a balanced development to take advantage of the considerable areas of previously used land—brownfield sites—available for development in the north Kent area.

The plan is to start domestic services in 2007. Domestic passengers will travel on high speed, high-quality Kent express trains that will provide a reduction in journey times and a more reliable service. The channel tunnel rail link stations at St. Pancras, Stratford, Ebbsfleet and Ashford will provide a focus for social and economic regeneration. The quality and speed of international and domestic travel for business and leisure will be transformed, offering a stimulus to many sectors of the local and regional economy.

I turn to the matter of estimated journey times. Trains from Ashford to Ebbsfleet will take 19 minutes. Trains from Ebbsfleet to London non-stop will take 15 minutes

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and, with a stop at Stratford, 18 minutes. Trains from Ashford to London, with stops at Ebbsfleet and Stratford, will take 38 minutes.

The Strategic Rail Authority is working with Railtrack to establish the feasibility of operating the new high-speed trains off the new channel tunnel rail link on the existing Railtrack south-east network, with a view to developing a train service specification and identifying appropriate depot and maintenance facilities for the new rolling stock fleet. This is a complex area, and will involve examination of the power-supply requirements of the new trains. Hon. Members will know that those requirements are already being dealt with through necessary remedial measures. Structural clearances and platform lengths will also be examined. All those areas may involve considerable investment to allow new trains to run on the existing network.

The Strategic Rail Authority is in the planning stage for selecting a domestic operator to run services on the route. The bidding process for the channel tunnel rail link domestic services franchise is planned to start later this year. Through the process, which should be completed by the end of next year, the SRA will seek to select an operator competent to procure the unique high-speed rolling stock that will be required for domestic services on the channel tunnel rail link. That will require synchronising with Eurostar trains, and should follow completion of the route in 2007. The trains will need to be capable of operating at 125 mph, to have fast acceleration, braking characteristics and pressure-sealed doors, and to conform to modern safety standards.

Before I conclude, it might be helpful to give an update on the Connex South Eastern franchise, which runs until 2011. Under the agreement, the company is required to replace all its mark I rolling stock. From the introduction of the new timetables at the beginning of this month, the new class 375s replaced older trains on many of the services on the Ramsgate via Chatham and Hastings lines. There are also plans to introduce metro-style trains on parts of the network. Connex South Eastern has also secured £40 million for expenditure on reliability modifications to its fleet of class 465, 466 and 508 trains. The SRA is in discussion with Connex regarding proposals for an enhanced franchise.

Work is being done, but I fully understand that more needs to be done to get the channel tunnel rail link up and running. Real progress is being made, and I fully accept my hon. Friends' comments that this is a "once in a generation" opportunity for Kent's railways. It is important to get things right before committing substantial sums of public and private money, and that will be the task of the Strategic Rail Authority. I shall keep a close watch on matters.

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