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Wapping Station

3.30 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to draw to the Government's attention the future of Wapping station. It is incredibly important for my constituents and for me, and I am particularly grateful that several of my constituents have made the journey to Westminster today. Obviously, that journey would be much more difficult for many of them if they did not have a station in Wapping. We are desperately hoping to avoid any threat to it.

I should like to mention a tiny bit of history. Anyone who has any association with Wapping is proud of its history. I do not know whether people are aware that Wapping has a long history associated with forward-thinking transport endeavours. What do I mean by that? Sir Walter Raleigh's ship was equipped in Wapping before he sailed from Limehouse to Guyana in the 16th century. Young James Cook lived in Wapping and Captain Bligh of the Bounty lived there for many years. I say that merely to point out that Wapping's residents have long travelled far and wide from its shores, in many directions. We should not wish, at this point in our history, to see any difficulties arise in access to transport. I shall return to the problem of access to transport in a moment, because we must consider issues relating to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

I should like to thank the many constituents who have contacted me and, in particular, the Wapping pensioners group, led by the highly esteemed Sybil Yates. I am slightly worried to see that she has come here notwithstanding a rather nasty altercation with a lorry. We wish her well, but that is all the more reason—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Order. I appreciate what the hon. Lady is doing, but strangers do not exist here. This is part of the Chamber, so they should not be mentioned.

Ms King : I did not realise that strangers do not exist, but my point relates very directly to the future of Wapping station. We are concerned that more and more constituents could have rather unpleasant altercations with cars and other vehicles if they do not have access to their station in Wapping. I hope that you will forgive me if I make that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Lady misunderstood me. It is perfectly in order for her to make that point, and she was in order making her point earlier, but mentioning people who might be in the environs, but who are strangers, is out of order.

Ms King : Right. Thank you for your direction on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should mention that many so-called strangers are with me all the time in my mind because they just do not stop contacting me on this issue. That is why I am so grateful for the opportunity to raise the future of Wapping station.

I shall outline some of the more near-term history that has led us to the situation that we are in at the moment. In November 2002, I started to receive letters from constituents expressing concern about rumours that

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Wapping station might be closing. They were angry and frustrated at the lack of information. I then contacted the Strategic Rail Authority and London Underground. The SRA said:

There seemed to be a reluctance to talk more specifically about the case, perhaps due to jeopardising the valid and important business case for the East London line extension. I shall return to that.

I then wrote to the Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and received a similar response. On 14 December, more than 300 local residents turned up at a public meeting accompanied by local councillors Denise Jones, Richard Brooks, Shafiqul Haque and Michael Keith. Also present was the other Member of Parliament for Tower Hamlets, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and the GLA Member, John Biggs, who deserves credit for presenting a petition to the Mayor signed by 880 people. In January, I tabled a parliamentary question asking about the station's future and at the beginning of this month I had a constructive meeting with Ian Brown, on behalf of Transport for London, who is the managing director of London Rail.

Before turning to the technicalities we discussed, I want to put the situation in human terms. Wapping tube is a vital lifeline for residents who are hemmed in by the river on one side and an extremely busy road—the Highway—on the other. If the tube station closes, Wapping will be isolated, as it was during the 1990s when the tube was closed for repairs. The situation is not acceptable because there is no reliable alternative public transport. The 100 and D3 buses are, sadly, unreliable. The wall of traffic that can build up on the Highway often blocks them and it is a further 20-minute walk to Tower Hill or Shadwell.

I received many letters previously—before the current issue arose—from constituents who were concerned about the service provided by the 100 bus route. London Transport acknowledged the less-than-adequate service and cited problems with driver recruitment. I am concerned about that, but I am more concerned about my constituents having access to the station they need. I must also draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister to the fact that there are two primary schools in the area and that recreational facilities in Shadwell basin attract children. We need a safe, clean way to get in and out of Wapping.

I hope that Members recognise that Wapping tube is a vital link to south London and that, without it, it takes more than an hour to get there. We must also consider the congestion charge. Wapping is on the edge of the zone and the tube is a vital link to east London, the City and the west end, without resorting to a car or a taxi. Has the SRA carried out surveys to discover how many people use the station? I know the answer to that question, but I would like the SRA to bear it in mind when doing such surveys that there have been problems with the reliability of the service provided at Wapping

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station, which have led to some people not using it when they might otherwise have done so if they thought that they could rely on it. Local people need to know the evidence and the results of the feasibility studies carried out by the SRA and how decisions are made on the future of Wapping tube. They need to know that those decisions are transparent.

Turning to the technicalities, there are three main problems at Wapping: gradients, curvature and station platform width. TFL estimates that bringing Wapping up to the required safety standard could cost £100 million. Everyone who lives in Wapping, as well as myself, is astonished by that figure. Having had a detailed meeting with TFL, I realise why it has arrived at that figure, and I shall briefly go into the matter.

I will quote from the Wapping station engineering summary. It states that Wapping underground station is sited at the northern end of the Thames tunnel designed by Sir Marc Brunel. Upon completion, the Thames tunnel became the first underwater tunnel in the world. The tunnel is now scheduled as a grade 2 listed structure. The station is substantially as it was when originally constructed in 1869, so it includes very narrow steps, narrow stairs down to platform level and a narrow and curved platform with no secondary means of escape during evacuation of the station.

Obviously, I recognise that we have to be concerned about safety. The station is adjacent to the River Thames and consequently has a very high water table. It operates with a significant volume of water ingress and continual pumping. What has the SRA done? It has come up with an engineering and safety feasibility study. The options include relocating the station or reconstructing it on the existing site. The most advantageous option is to redevelop the existing site with a new ticketing hall and station entrance. The proposed new station development will not be a fully compliant facility in terms of the network rail standard or mobility-impaired passenger access. However, it would—this is significant—be a great improvement on the existing station.

On the technical complexities to which I referred and the high water table, the SRA has a computer model of the soil structure and engineering design of Wapping station, which it has developed to analyse the impact of works on adjacent buildings and the operation of the underground railway. The results show that the ground would lift upwards by as much as 220 mm. I know that that is rather technical, but the point is that we must understand the technicalities if we are going to come up with a solution. The construction risks include flooding, movement, cracking and movement in adjacent buildings, the possible collapse of the existing railway tunnel because of ground movement or arch collapse and a prolonged construction duration, which would close the site for one year.

The estimated cost, which I mentioned, relates to an initial adjusted budget estimate of £54 million. Possible measures needed to prevent the lifting of the ground would cost £13 million. The risk, which the Treasury insists, probably rightly, is built into any project in accordance with the Green Book, is £33 million, which brings us to the £100 million total. What are the possible ways of avoiding that spend? The most obvious, although not the most satisfactory, is derogation from the Disability Discrimination Act and in respect of the

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Health and Safety Executive. In some respects, that has already happened. Wapping station has a Health and Safety Executive derogation and its history is relevant, which is why I have mentioned it.

After all, something built in the 1860s will never comply with our 21st-century standards. We recognise that, but we are concerned that we might move backwards. There could be regression rather than progress, because people who had access to transport would no longer have access to it.

One of my constituents, Mike Smith, has battled with access problems at the station because he is a wheelchair user. I know that Mike would never argue that if he cannot have access to Wapping station then neither should any of his neighbours. I would argue that provision must be made to keep Wapping station open and to ensure that Mike and other wheelchair users have access, even if it is not the full and unfettered access that they should be given under the law.

Will the Minister let me know whether derogation can be looked at as a possible solution? Will he also write to me outlining how we might improve the current access for wheelchair users?

Now I will move on to the general issues relating to the East London line extensions. I appreciate that the SRA and TfL have been working extremely hard on options to keep Wapping station open, and no final decisions have yet been taken. They are considering a range of options, but it is crucial that Wapping station has a secure future.

It is also crucial that the consideration of options for Wapping is seen as a separate exercise from the planning for the East London line extension. Nothing should detract from that extension because it will bring major transport and regeneration benefits to some of the most deprived areas of London. In Tower Hamlets, for example, it is estimated that the scheme would boost approximately £1 billion of regeneration initiatives. For London as a whole, the figure is £10 billion. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he can also tell us when we might expect a decision on the business case, which would allow construction for that vital scheme to proceed.

Finally, can the Minister confirm that TfL intends to keep Wapping station open, if it can? Will it actively work to deliver that outcome? No other outcome is acceptable to me, or my constituents in Wapping. We know that there are problems, and we know that it is difficult, but we also know that an answer must be found.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) on securing the debate and on presenting her case so forcefully, as usual, on behalf of her constituents. She has had much correspondence with the Department, and has taken a great interest in this subject. I congratulate her on taking this issue up so assiduously. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) has also taken a great interest in this matter.

I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow for her short but interesting history lesson about Wapping. I thought that the great

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voyages of the world only started in Plymouth, but I can assure her that it is difficult for people in my constituency to come here for a day out. I will be seeing some of them in a few minutes, after the debate.

I recognise that there has been some speculation about closure, and I would like to make it clear from the outset that no final view has been taken by anyone regarding the closure of Wapping station. Should there be such a proposal, there would be a statutory process to follow, and we cannot anticipate what might happen in that process. Having said that—and I have to be candid—the business case for the East London line extension project currently before Ministers is predicated on the closure of the station, partly for the reasons that my hon. Friend explained. That assumption is based on safety considerations and engineering feasibility. I should emphasise that the business case for the project is based on a prudent assumption. It is not a determinant of future decisions, nor is it cast in stone.

As I have intimated, the closure of a railway station is not done lightly, or without good reason. A thorough statutory closure process must be undertaken, which gives all the interested parties, especially those most affected—such as my hon. Friend's constituents—the chance to voice their opinions. Given the importance of the project, the No. 1 priority has to be to ensure that it can be delivered. The project would underpin regeneration of some of the most deprived parts of the capital by improving links between north and south-east London, and between the national rail network and the London underground network.

The extended line would pass through 25 per cent. of the most deprived areas of London. It would provide improved travel choice for around 330,000 people. The project would provide a range of benefits for Londoners, including additional network capacity to accommodate increasing demand, and the improvement of public transport accessibility to areas such as Hackney, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and the docklands, which are currently poorly served. It would facilitate a future orbital rail service between north and south London, providing congestion relief to central London rail terminals and on major roads into central London, particularly the A10, the A23 and the A205. There would also be better integration with other modes of transport, including buses and light rail.

Critically, the project would bring frequent metro-style rail services to parts of east London that have been without any rail links, which would act as a driving force for regeneration in some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom. I am sure that my hon. Friend wants to see such regeneration—as do we all. Future travel on an extended East London line is forecast to increase by more than 200 per cent. in passenger journeys and by an even greater level in passenger kilometres. It is also estimated that some 2 million car trips per annum would be taken off the road, with people switching to rail.

Ms King : We are talking about an increase in passenger numbers. Currently, Wapping has 10 trains per hour. If it stays open and the East London line extension goes ahead, that will increase to 16 trains per hour. I would welcome that, but does the Minister

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accept that we cannot ask people to divert their transport patterns if there is nothing for them to divert to?

Mr. Jamieson : Yes. I hope to come on to that point.

In order for the extension to take place, the stations along the line will, of course, have to meet safety standards, and that is the problem with Wapping. The safety requirements are likely to be significant. They will include the provision of greater space for passengers on platforms and at entrances and exits, the upgrading of the secondary access and the creation of proper access for visually impaired and disabled passengers, older people and those with small children.

My hon. Friend asked about a derogation with regard to people with disabilities. That is always done with reluctance, and it would be up to the Health and Safety Executive to make a recommendation on that point. It is possible, but there are other difficulties beyond that. Wapping station may have to be proposed for closure because of the challenges it presents in complying with safety and accessibility standards, given its age and present configuration, and the major impact that those challenges would have on the viability of the whole project. For example, if the necessary modifications extended beyond the current footprint of the station, a new transport and works order would be required, which would take several years to conclude, and that in turn would make the project extremely high risk.

There are technical constraints, too. My hon. Friend has a detailed knowledge of the station. As she said, it is right by the riverside to the south and hemmed in by converted warehouses on the other quarters. The station's close proximity to the adjacent buildings and the listed Thames tunnel limit the scope for extensive modifications. Similarly, the proximity to the Thames and the consequent high water table in the area present extremely complex engineering difficulties that, I am afraid, may not be resolvable. Certainly, I am advised that no viable engineering solution has yet been identified. Currently, the station operates with a significant volume of water ingress and requires continual pumping. Any major engineering work undertaken could introduce the risk of flooding not only to the East London line but to other nearby parts of the underground system.

I should remind the House that, as my hon. Friend said, Wapping station is situated on the oldest tunnel under the Thames, which was started by Marc Brunel in the first half of the 19th century, with the station itself opening in 1869. The tunnel was originally constructed for horse-drawn vehicles. Of course, various alterations have been made to the station since that time, but even today it is substantially as it was when it was originally constructed.

The platforms are narrow and can be accessed only by negotiating a narrow flight of stairs after leaving the lifts, and there is no secondary means of escape during an evacuation of the station. The station operates under a derogation from the Heath and Safety Executive, and were it to be built now, it would not meet current standards. The station was never intended to cope with the number of passengers who are expected to pass through it when the extension project is completed, and upgrading the line raises serious safety issues.

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My hon. Friend will agree that safety must be paramount in all our considerations. London Underground counts some 2,660 journeys a day starting or ending at Wapping, with trains every 10 minutes or so.

Ms King : I hope that the Minister will forgive me for returning to this point. My constituents find it difficult to understand why a service that they are able to use now should be closed in the future. Why cannot the standard of service remain the same as it is, even though it is not up to 21st century standards, rather than become worse?

Mr. Jamieson : The simple answer is that the Health and Safety Executive will want the whole of the new service to meet new standards of safety. One must also consider the length of the trains. At present, the length of the trains that can pull in at the station is limited. Some of the trains that are expected to run on the line may be considerably longer than can be accommodated at the station. Therefore, following the planned upgrades, stations on the former East London line, which will be served by dual voltage overground trains at a much higher density, will be designed to accommodate eight-car trains. Although some stations can be altered, the engineering difficulties are very great at Wapping station, as I indicated to my hon. Friend. Quite simply, passengers on a full high-density train would not be able safely to get in and out of Wapping station as it is configured at present. That is the difficulty that we are facing.

There may be a way forward for my hon. Friend and her constituents. The Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London are discussing the problems with engineering specialists and health and safety authorities to ascertain whether a solution can be proposed that takes full account of the risk to passengers, surrounding property owners and users of the national rail network. It is important to note that any decision must fully address the impact on the current station structure and take into consideration its heritage, adjacent structures and physical obstacles and risks, such as the Thames, the community that it serves directly and indirectly through the railway, the project itself, and linked infrastructure and services, such as the Jubilee line. I assure my hon. Friend and her constituents that discussions and deliberations are ongoing and that no conclusions have been reached.

Ms King : On the Minister's point about train length, I understand that the service will operate with a four-car service at first. Therefore, Wapping station would not present a problem. Will he write to me on that point?

Mr. Jamieson : I shall deal with the matter in correspondence with my hon. Friend, because we will not be able to cover all the points in the debate.

If no satisfactory solution can be found, the operators will have to consider closing the station. However, that will be the very last resort, after all other options have been carefully considered. I believe that my hon. Friend's powerful points in the debate today will also be taken into account. A station closure is subject to a lengthy, detailed and public statutory process. I assure her that, if initiated, the closure process will be public and transparent, and her constituents will have a full role in the discussions.

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Before any closure can take place, the station operator—in this case, London Underground Limited—must submit an application for closure to the London Transport Users Committee, which is a statutory body made up of independent representatives of the travelling public. The station operator must advertise by means of notices displayed in the relevant station and in the local press that an application to close the station has been submitted. The application must include a statement of reasonable closure, which must show exactly why the closure has been proposed.

I understand why my hon. Friend and her constituents are worried. I am grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to discuss the matter further. If I can pick up other points in correspondence, I shall be happy to do so.

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