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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing this debate, thus providing an opportunity for us to discuss rail services to Bexhill. I thank him, too, for his kind remarks about the approval of the link road a few days ago.

Bexhill is currently served by the Brighton to Hastings stopping service, which runs at a frequency of two trains an hour for most of the day on Mondays to Saturdays. An hourly direct service to and from London Victoria runs seven days a week. It is also possible to travel to Ashford, destinations along the south coast and other London termini such as Charing Cross, Waterloo East and London Bridge by changing at Hastings, St. Leonards, Warrior Square and Brighton. At present, those services use a mixture of mark 1 slam-door rolling stock and modern air-conditioned rolling stock. Most of the older rolling stock will be replaced by the end of 2004, and all of it will be replaced by mid-2005. The performance of the services that serve Bexhill is measured by the public performance measure published by the Strategic Rail Authority in "National Rail Trends". In the past year, 81.8 per cent. of trains arrived at their destination at the time shown in the timetable or within five minutes of that time. By comparison, the figure was 84.6 per cent. in the previous year, and 84.5 per cent. for all London and south-east commuter service operators. The slightly lower level of performance this year, especially when compared with that of similar operators, can be attributed to the teething problems of the new rolling stock and the growing unreliability of the mark 1 slam-door trains, which are being replaced. Most of those teething problems have now been overcome, certainly in the operation of trains, although further work on heating and air conditioning systems is still needed. Clearly, that does not affect train performance, although it does affect quality and thus passenger satisfaction with train journeys. When all the new rolling stock is in service it is expected that train performance will improve.

The SRA's Brighton main line route utilisation strategy clearly aims to improve the performance of train services and ensure that optimum use is made of available train and network capacity. We have set the SRA tight affordability constraints and it must demonstrate that any changes are financially robust. It proposes that one stopping train an hour between Brighton and Ore will call at Bexhill, and one fast train
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an hour from Brighton to Ashford will also call there. Two trains an hour will operate between London Victoria and Eastbourne. They will run up to ten minutes faster, but they will not serve Bexhill directly. Passengers from Bexhill who wished to travel to Gatwick airport, East Croydon and London Victoria would have to change at either Eastbourne or Polegate.

The level of service from Hastings and St. Leonards to London Bridge, London Waterloo East and London Charing Cross via Tonbridge is not affected by the Brighton main line rail utilisation strategy proposals. The SRA accepts that changing trains will inconvenience through passengers and risks discouraging people from making their journeys by rail. It is, however, working on making the connections between the Ashford to Brighton and the Eastbourne to London train as seamless as possible. By changing at Polegate, passengers would not have to cross the footbridge. They would alight from the train, wait on the platform and board the following train. The direct train service from Bexhill to Lewes would be reduced to two trains an hour, rather than three, but the direct link to the county town would be retained.

One of the SRA's reasons for reducing the train service east of Eastbourne is the low level of patronage. The figures for travel between Bexhill and London—both Charing Cross and Victoria—suggest that there are, on average, approximately eight people per train travelling in each direction from Bexhill to London. Some of those passengers are presumably going via St. Leonards, so the number using the Brighton line service to Victoria is fewer than eight per train. In total, about 12 people per train travel from stations between Eastbourne and Hastings to stations on the Brighton main line, so in practice those are the only people who will be inconvenienced by the SRA's proposals for changes to the service.

Gregory Barker: Does the Minister accept that average figures can often be misleading as to the pattern of travel? If she goes to Bexhill early in the morning and takes the 6.34 train, for example, she will find it packed with commuters, many of whom do not buy tickets, but buy season tickets in London and therefore do not show up in the figures that she quoted. I accept that on a wet Friday afternoon, very few people will be travelling on that link, but at peak times those trains are absolutely full.

Charlotte Atkins: I appreciate the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I thought that he said that 12 people were travelling on that early train from Bexhill.

Gregory Barker: That is from Cooden Beach—one station. There are five stations along the coastal strip in my constituency, the principal one being Bexhill. The gentleman who wrote in travelled from Cooden Beach station, which is one of the minor stations that are threatened.

Charlotte Atkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for clarifying that. If he wants to bring the point about season tickets into the equation, it may well help to boost the low usage figures. I appreciate his point that average figures obscure the reality of the journeys
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that individuals make, which may change from time to time, from season to season and from train to train, but the figures that I gave suggest that the SRA is right to consider the impact that the suggested change to the service will have on a relatively small number of people. If he has additional information or evidence, he should allow the SRA to see it.

We understand that any direct service that is replaced by a connecting service might suffer a passenger reduction, but I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that resources must be focused in the most effective way to improve the overall financial position of the railway. The proposals will also relieve congestion at Hastings station.

One of the main recurring points relates to the effects of the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy proposals on the demography, economy and regeneration of Bexhill and Hastings. We are aware that significant regeneration efforts are being made—the hon. Gentleman mentioned the link road, where the issue of regeneration was clearly crucial and that the De La Warr pavilion is being reconstructed—to encourage significant numbers of visitors to travel to the area by train.

It has also been mentioned that it is desirable that links to educational and arts establishments are provided and it has been suggested that there is the need for direct access to the transport and business hubs of Gatwick airport, Clapham Junction and East Croydon. Any route utilisation strategy is focused on improving performance and better use of track and train capacity, within the constraints of affordability. The SRA—this is reflected in its appraisal guidelines—examines only measures which might be taken to improve the efficiency and viability of the railway.

Gregory Barker: The argument about regeneration—the Minister knows well what Bexhill and Hastings face in terms of regeneration—can be deployed where roads are concerned, but rail is a much more environmentally sensitive form of transport and the regeneration argument, or wider arguments, cannot be deployed. A narrow, stand-alone, financial case must be made. Surely the same wider arguments that can be deployed in favour of building a road ought to be deployed in favour of rail.

Charlotte Atkins: Obviously, the regeneration effects of rail are significant, but there is a direct route from Hastings which, as I know from our discussions, is not too far from Bexhill. Such routes are available and many people will choose to use them. I do not underestimate
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the effect of the inconvenience for those passengers who use that route, but given that there are direct services from Hastings, it is not an impossible journey.

The SRA met several local stakeholders affected by the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy proposals before the consultation document was launched. Those meetings were generally at the county council or regional assembly level. The SRA noted the apparent lack of information dissemination by some of those stakeholders, which it recognises as a problem, and that will be addressed directly with stakeholders in all future SRA work.

We have given directions and guidance to the SRA to develop the capacity of the railway, both of the trains and the network, so that they are both utilised to the maximum. In doing so, it must have very strong regard to the cost-effectiveness and affordability of services. We are not seeking to close any stations or lines, but we are aiming to rationalise services, which may mean that some previously through services will now involve a change of trains. The SRA is working to ensure that those changes are as smooth and trouble-free for passengers as possible, as it and we are aware that some passengers are actively discouraged from using trains if they have to change. We hope that the increased punctuality and reliability of services and the reduction in journey times, even including the time taken to change trains, together with the new modern rolling stock fleet, will encourage existing passengers to continue to use trains and encourage others to do so.

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