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12 Mar 2003 : Column 396—continued




7 pm

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans): This petition—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I advise Members not to cross in front of an hon. Member when he is addressing the House.

Mr. Pollard: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. This petition from Janet Smith and other citizens of St. Albans declares:

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To lie upon the Table.

7.1 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I wish to present a petition from more than 1,000 residents in Chesham and Amersham who use the Collins and Jervie pharmacy at 52 Sycamore road, Amersham and members of Chesham and Amersham who use the Fox pharmacy in Holmer Green. The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

Rail Services (Wilmslow)

7.2 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): I am delighted to present a petition of the residents of Wilmslow, Alderley Edge and the surrounding area that was organised by Andrew Stephenson, Jim Crockatt, Joan Barnes, Rod Menlove and Keith Chapman. The petition declares:

To lie upon the Table.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 398

Rail Services (Hassocks)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.3 pm

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the problems on the railway service from London to Hassocks, the main commuter station in my constituency. Those problems also touch on all the stations and commuters served by the Brighton line south of Gatwick, in particular the station at Burgess Hill.

I raise the issue at the request and with the support of the Hassocks amenity association, which is backed by Hassocks parish council, a number of other parish councils, the Hassocks village action plan and all three political parties. We are all looking to improve the train service and to campaign to reverse the significant deterioration that has been experienced in recent years.

There are specific objectives as well as specific problems. The specific objectives are to reintroduce the off-peak services to London Victoria that are no longer available, to increase weekend services, to introduce a Sunday Thameslink service, to restore a late-night service from Brighton, to introduce a shuttle service to Gatwick and to introduce more direct services to Hove.

Major problems need to be addressed, however. Cancelled services and trains not stopping at Hassocks as a result of congestion affect, in particular, mid-morning Thameslink services north and south. The extent of the delays has resulted in a considerable increase in the use of cars, with people travelling to Gatwick to get a reliable train service. The number of carriages has been reduced from eight to four, which has caused considerable passenger congestion, resulting in people sometimes being unable to get on trains.

The recent decision by the Strategic Rail Authority to stop the through-service to Bournemouth at Southampton means that citizens of the area who travel south and west no longer have direct access to Bournemouth. There are occasional problems with power supplies and the station is a derelict 30-year-old prefab. The station premises, including the platform, are dangerous for disabled people and the platform itself is inadequate, which is one reason for the reduced number of carriages.

A year ago I was enormously heartened when I met the managing director of the new operator who was negotiating the franchise. One merged company, the Go-Ahead Group, now represents South Central, Thameslink and Thames Trains. The new operator wanted to address key fundamental, as well as operating, problems. The biggest single problem is congestion at Gatwick. The Gatwick special service to London gets priority because of its success, as a result of which trains to the commuter stations down the line are delayed or cancelled if there are pressures to do so. In addition, the number of trains that can use the line in both directions is increasingly limited by extra services to Gatwick.

I mentioned the infrastructure problems at Hassocks station. It is necessary to replace outdated and dangerous rolling stock. There were also problems with

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cancelled trains because drivers were sick or did not turn up. The operators have dealt with the number of drivers and are going ahead with investment in new rolling stock, with 700 new carriages due to be installed by the end of next year, but as a result of having been granted a seven-year franchise rather than a 20-year franchise, that is the extent of the capital investment that they are willing to make. The rest of the capital investment falls entirely at the door of the SRA. That is the fundamental problem.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): My hon. Friend and I share the same problem with the line, especially as far as Burgess Hill is concerned. Does he agree that there is confusion in people's minds because they think that the operator is responsible for the infrastructure and the stations? Those who are responsible for the work that needs to be conducted, to a much greater extent, at Hassocks and, to a lesser extent—although it is by no means unimportant—at Burgess Hill, are unsure and unclear when the money will be forthcoming. Does my hon. Friend know when the SRA will provide it?

Mr. Flight: There seems to be no idea whatsoever about when the money will be forthcoming. That issue arose at a major meeting at Hassocks with representatives of the SRA, the operators and various others. I feel slightly sorry for the operators. They get the blame for everything that people object to but, with only a seven-year franchise, they do not have the power to address some of the major issues.

As I was saying, all infrastructure investment seems to fall at the door of the SRA, and there seems no prospect of Network Rail taking on responsibility for the station. Indeed, the SRA said bluntly at the meeting in Hassocks that, given the additional cost of the west coast main line, there was no prospect of it affording in the foreseeable future the necessary capital investment to build a new station, make other infrastructure improvements, or address the major need for—to use rather simplistic language—a bypass in the train line around Gatwick in order to avoid the bottleneck.

The operators have made some improvements. There are now three trains an hour to London—two Thameslink services to London Bridge and one to Clapham Junction—but there is no prospect of a direct train to Victoria, which is one of the main central London destinations for commuters. Commuters still have to change trains in order to get to Victoria. The SRA and others made the point that, in addition to the Gatwick bottleneck, limited capacity at stations in London was a major problem.

It is fair to say that the reaction of a large number of citizens who gathered at the meeting with the parties that I have mentioned was one of acute depression. In effect, they were told that, other than marginal improvements that the operators can make, there was no prospect of relieving the rest of the problems.

West Sussex is to be obliged to cope with a substantial number of new houses, and some 3,000 of them are to be adjacent to Hassocks, west of Burgess Hill. Two new runways could be built at Gatwick, which would greatly increase the demand for trains to and from the airport. If Gatwick expands, there will be a big increase in the number of commuters on the line from Hassocks.

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Indeed, if the growth in use of the network continued at the rate of the past decade, there would be a 90 per cent. increase in traffic by 2016. There is absolutely no way that the infrastructure or the operators can address that growth without the required major investment. Indeed, the Government's objective of increasing traffic by 50 per cent. by 2010 cannot possibly be delivered on the present run-down infrastructure.

The key question is this: why on earth was a seven-year rather than a 20-year franchise granted? That has frustrated the delivery by the operators of quite a deal of capital investment. There is clearly insufficient funding for the SRA, or the SRA is giving priority to other needs at the expense of a congested area of the south-east, particularly the Brighton line. The prospect for rail transport serving my existing constituents and the new constituents who will come to the area as new housing is developed—indeed for the whole of the mid-Sussex area—is disastrous. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) would point to problems of equal magnitude that are encountered on the service to Burgess Hill and commuter stations close to it.

We have been told that there is no prospect of the SRA addressing the capital investment and infrastructure needs that will be required to cope with the increased population. What on earth is the Government's transport policy? Why are the basic rail needs of a part of the world that is required to cope with a great deal more housing and many more citizens to be completely ignored?

I am grateful for the opportunity to present the problems on behalf of my constituents. I hope that the Minister will take note in a constructive way and discuss with the SRA what might be considered, especially bearing in mind the rising need as a result of the likely expansion of Gatwick airport.

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