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12 Mar 2003 : Column 400—continued

7.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss train services to Hassocks.

Hassocks is a station on the busy London to Brighton line between Burgess Hill and Preston Park, a suburb of Brighton. Train services to Hassocks are provided by Thameslink and South Central. Station facilities, such as staffing for the booking office, are provided by South Central. The passenger service requirements for the relevant franchises set out the minimum level of service that must be provided. In the case of Hassocks, there must be a half-hourly service to London Bridge on the Thameslink franchise, and an hourly service to Victoria on the South Central franchise. All these trains originate from or continue to Brighton.

During the morning and evening peaks, trains are more frequent and serve a wider range of destinations. In the morning—between 6.30 and 8.30 am, for example—12 trains call at Hassocks on their way to London, and in the evening 14 trains from London call in the down direction between 5.30 and 7.30 pm. I do not underestimate the frustration that can be caused when trains are late or do not run at all, but the current level of service being provided on the line does not seem unreasonable.

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I mentioned the range of destinations served. Most southbound trains terminate at Brighton, with the exception of a few peak-hour services that run on to destinations such as Hove and Littlehampton. Northbound, there are regular through services to Luton, Luton airport and Bedford via Thameslink. That provides connections to the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. The regular South Central service runs to Watford junction, calling at Kensington Olympia. Connections can be made there for Virgin Cross Country and west coast main line services to the north-west, the north-east and Scotland. All those services can be accessed without the need to cross London or change stations. The Brighton to Watford Junction trains also provide the hourly service to Victoria by way of connections that can be made at Haywards Heath, Gatwick Airport, East Croydon or Clapham Junction.

Of course, this complex web of services brings its own problems, some of which were highlighted by the hon. Gentleman. One is that Thameslink trains, in particular, have to thread their way through a complicated series of stations and junctions in the London area and on to routes carrying the trains of a number of other operators. The inevitable result is that they are sometimes delayed, often because of the late running of other operators' services. Decisions then have to be made about how that lost time can be made up. One way of doing that is to run trains fast between Brighton and Haywards Heath or vice versa. Unfortunately, the result is that passengers wishing to use Hassocks are occasionally inconvenienced.

The Strategic Rail Authority stresses to all train operating companies the need to run their trains as advertised. It also emphasises the need to keep passengers informed of disruptions, cancellations and any late running that may occur. There will inevitably be cases when it is preferable either to cancel a service that is running late or to run it fast through some stations. It can then start its next journey on time and not add to delays elsewhere on the network by being late. There is a delicate balance to be struck between inconveniencing a small number of passengers so that a larger number elsewhere on the network are not delayed by knock-on effects.

Thameslink recognises the importance of striking the correct balance, and with that in mind, has out-stationed a team of managers at Brighton to advise on late running and make decisions on the ground. The hon. Gentleman might well respond that it is always his constituents who lose out. I am afraid that such decisions will always involve hard choices, but the fact is that Hassocks is comfortably smaller than most of the other stops that could be missed out in that way, and Thameslink ensures that it resorts to station-skipping only when an alternative train is available within a short time. My information is that the number of occasions when trains do not stop at Hassocks is fairly low. If the hon. Gentleman knows otherwise or has other information, I am sure that he will bring it to my Department's attention.

I appreciate that schoolchildren rely on the stopping services to go to schools in and around Hassocks. I also know that with new house building the population is

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rising, and that existing roads are already close to capacity. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that Hassocks, like Burgess Hill, was developed as a railway commuter town. Its station continues to serve a substantial rural area, including many other areas as well as Hassocks itself. I am sure that Thameslink will keep arrangements under review, so that if relative passenger numbers at the stations concerned change significantly, operational practice can be modified to match those changes. Of course, it is our ambition throughout the country to keep services under review so that they match any changes and are appropriate to any population shifts.

On track capacity, the Strategic Rail Authority has undertaken extensive consultation about capacity utilisation. That is relevant to a number of suggestions that have been made about increased services from Hassocks. The time to consider those suggestions will be when the Strategic Rail Authority is conducting its review of track capacity on the London to Brighton line. At present, the line is being used to its maximum track capacity and opportunities to introduce new services or add extra station calls to existing services are very limited indeed.

The hon. Gentleman may think that that sounds less than encouraging, but we are clear that the priority for Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies should be to ensure that existing rail services operate consistently, reliably and punctually. We need services that passengers can rely on. In fact, one of passengers' main criticisms about our train services is lack of predictability. Of course, that is very important.

The rolling stock used on the great majority of trains that call at Hassocks is accessible to those with disabilities, including wheelchair users—an issue that I think the hon. Gentleman has raised with my Department in the past. However, some services—mostly the peak period ones—are still provided with slam-door stock that is not accessible in that way. The good news is that those trains will progressively be replaced with Electrostar trains, which are fully accessible and have wheelchair-accessible toilets.

Hassocks station is not fully accessible to all those with disabilities, but the necessary work will take place to make it so. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that priority for such work is given to the busiest stations that are not easily accessible—Clapham Junction is a good example—but the focus is now shifting to the smaller and less busy stations such as Hassocks.

When the Strategic Rail Authority was negotiating the new South Central franchise agreement, it arranged for GoVia to take over the franchise from Connex in August 2001. It then began work with GoVia to specify a range of infrastructure enhancements. Later, when a decision was made to reduce the length of the franchise, there were knock-on effects for that infrastructure programme. That does not mean that the work will not take place, because the Strategic Rail Authority is taking over sponsorship of some of it. A proposal for capacity enhancement at Gatwick, including what has come to be known as the Gatwick bypass, is among the schemes that have been put forward, but it is too soon to say whether it will go ahead. Notwithstanding the

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outcome of the current consultation on air services, that scheme will be another consideration in future years should a decision be made arising from the consultation.

It is clear that the Brighton line needs improvement to achieve greater capacity, better signalling and higher speeds. It is a busy stretch of railway that runs through growing centres of population, so anything that can be done to increase capacity and improve reliability will bring major benefits. Some signalling enhancement has already been completed, and more is in progress. There is also a continuing track maintenance and replacement programme. The vast majority of the track slowings caused by gauge corner cracking have now been removed, but old track and sleepers still need to be replaced in certain areas. Coupled with the major track upgrades on both the Brighton line and the Arun valley line, that will allow improved frequency and journey times to the Sussex coast. Enhancements are also taking place at Gatwick Airport station to provide further performance and capacity gains.

The power supply arrangements for the introduction of new rolling stock are not satisfactory. Upgrading the supply to cater for the higher-performance trains ordered for the south-east was not factored into the investment programme by the industry parties involved as quickly or as clearly as it ought to have been. The Strategic Rail Authority has now taken the lead—as it has with the west coast route modernisation project—and, in partnership with the industry, has produced a plan to co-ordinate the work. This is a multi-million pound project that will be authorised and funded in stages. It involves upgrading and replacing substations, replacing cables and conductor rails, and upgrading electrical control centres. All that work is necessary because the new trains need more power. They are heavier and have extra features such as air conditioning—bringing better conditions for travellers—and modern traction systems. The work is already under way. High-voltage cables have already been laid in the inner-London area and the main power supply contracts are now being awarded by Network Rail.

We want to deliver a bigger, better and safer railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer services. That applies to the services we have been discussing today as much as to the network in general.

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