I am glad to have secured the debate on the integrated rail franchise for Kent and to be able to cover some of the surrounding counties as well. It will affect the lives, journeys to work and rail use of many hundreds of thousands of people in my constituency and surrounding constituencies. I am in some difficulty in having the debate at this moment, although I wanted it as quickly as possible, in that I have sought a copy of the franchise agreement between the Department for Transport and GoVia, which was announced as the successful franchisee by the Secretary of State on 30 November.
GoVia has told me that it cannot provide the documentit is debarred by the Department for Transport from providing itand that some details are still under negotiation. It is difficult, therefore, for me to know precisely what service details and service requirements have been imposed on GoVia. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure me that it is an extremely important document and that GoVia needs to be publicly held to account for its performance under the contract. I hope also that he will tell me that the document will in due course be made public, either in full or, if there are some necessary deletions of financial information on the grounds of their being commercial in confidence, with deletions. I trust that he will be able to assure me that the document will be made public and that a copy will be placed in the Library.
I shall start with the service level commitments on the four main railway lines that run through my constituency. The four lines are the Malling line to and from London, the Tonbridge-Hildenborough line to and from London, the Edenbridge line to and from London and the east-west line from Tonbridge through to Edenbridge, Redhill and Gatwick.
The all-important Malling line covers the stations of East and West Malling and Borough Green in my constituency. In all three areas there has been growth. The most dramatic growth has been in the Kings Hill area of my constituency, which is close to West Malling station. In effect, a mini-new town is under construction as a result of a development by what is now called Liberty Property Trust UK, in conjunction with Kent county council, on what was the extremely famous and historic RAF West Malling airfield, from which a major part was played in the second world war during the Battle of Britain.
The development of Kings Hill has led to a huge increase in demand for rail services from West Malling station. The managing director of Liberty Property
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Trust has told me that at Kings Hill there are now about 5,000 people working there and some 3,500 resident there, and that by the end of the franchise period, in some six to eight years, there will be about 5,000 to 7,000 more people working at Kings Hill, and another 3,500 residents there. At Kings Hill alone, by the end of the franchise period, there will be some 10,000 to 12,000 people working there and some 7,000 living there. That clearly necessitates significant improvement and growth in rail services. Sadly, we are starting from a base in which rail services are clearly inadequate to meet demand. The chairman of the Borough Green and Malling rail users group, Mr. Jeremy Westhead, wrote to me yesterday, saying:
"This morning, however, there were people standing all the way in from West Malling to Victoria on the 7.35. I am also aware of people who already drive from West Malling and Kings Hill to Chelsfield, Sevenoaks, Mottingham or Paddock Wood to avoid our line."
Rail services are already inadequate on the Malling line, even before further development takes place. GoVia advises me that the franchise contract that it is due to enter into does not include significant changes in service levels, which is of serious concern.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): As a former resident of West Malling, may I say that it was clear several years ago that there were enormous pressures on the railways and the local roads? Will my right hon. Friend urge the Minister to take a serious look at the franchise and the rail network in the area?
Sir John Stanley: My hon. Friend will have heard me describe the situation as wholly unsatisfactory. As he rightly pointed out, it will become even more unsatisfactory with the significant growth that is under way. I am delighted, however, to welcome my former constituent to the House.
The main line from London through Tonbridge and Hildenborough is the second important line. The area has not undergone as much growth as Kings Hill, but there is significant growth in Tonbridge, where there is serious congestion on rail services at peak times. Once again, GoVia advises me that there will be no significant improvements in capacity on that line to London, which is unsatisfactory.
As for the third line, from Edenbridge to London, there is some growth in Edenbridge. I can only describe the existing service to London as threadbare. It is so poor, in fact, that my constituents in Edenbridge and the surrounding villages get into their cars in the morning but, instead of going to Edenbridge, they drive across Kent and to Sussex or Surrey to find better railheads. GoVia says that it will not make a decision on improvements to Edenbridge to London services until a decision has been made on the Brighton rail utilisation study. I hope that, in his reply, the Minister can tell me when that decision will be made so that we can address the issue of rail services between Edenbridge and London.
Finally, the important cross-country or east-west route linking Tonbridge, Edenbridge, Redhill and Gatwick has extremely significant but underutilised potential, particularly in the provision of an adequate rail service to Gatwick airport from Kent. Almost without exception, my constituents travel by car to
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Gatwick. They have to park at the airport and pay a heavy charge for doing so. They travel by car simply because there is not a frequent, reasonably rapid rail service to Gatwick from Kent.
As we are creating Ashford International, with channel tunnel rail link domestic services from there, surely it must make sense to establish a decent rail link from Ashfordstopping, I urge the Minister, at Tonbridge and Edenbridgeto Redhill and Gatwick. If that service were in place, I am in no doubt at all that it would take many cars off the road and many more people would access Gatwick by rail. I am disappointed that, again, the Government have not insisted on getting any undertakings from GoVia, as far as I can see, on establishing a good rail service from Ashford directly to Gatwick and stopping at Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Redhill.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Since my right hon. Friend has mentioned the growth in Ashford, may I, though him, urge the Minister to address not just the Ashford-Gatwick link, about which I entirely agree, but how the growth affects the smaller village stations around towns such as Ashford, particularly Charing, Pluckley, Chilham and Appledore, all of which are threatened with cuts in services at a time when they will face rising demand, which we should all surely encourage? I hope that the Minister can address that issue as well.
I make one last point to the Minister on service provision. I welcome one decision that the Government have made. They have rightly intervened on the drastic reductions in ticket office opening hours that South Eastern Trains, the outgoing franchisee, put out to consultation earlier this year. I was glad to see, buried in note 5 to editors at the end of the Department for Transport's stock market statement on 30 November, the following wording:
"It is appropriate for the new franchisee to have the opportunity to review proposals on changes to ticket office hours on the SET network. It is expected that discussions among interested parties will take place in due course."
I am grateful for that intervention by the Government, but when will the discussions take place and when will they be concluded? Can the Minister give me an assurance in reply to the debate that there will be no reductions in ticket office hours, as proposed by South Eastern Trains, until the new consultation and new review has been completed?
Finally, the biggest single issue for my constituents in relation to the announcement that the Government made on 30 November is the implications for rail fares. Across my constituency, my constituents have been appalled at the Government's decision to allow GoVia to increase its fares by 3 per cent. above the rate of inflation for each of the first five years of the franchise.
I refer to a small piece of history, which is relevant. There were three Conservative Members of Parliament who declined to support the last Conservative
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Government on the Second Reading of the rail privatisation Bill on 2 February 1993. One was the late Robert Adley, our colleague who knew more about railways, both in this country and overseas, than the rest of the House put together. Another was my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), and the third was myself.
I declined to support the then Government on that Bill, not because I was opposed to rail privatisation, which I supportindeed, I believe that in broad terms it has produced a more successful outcome for rail passengers than if we had gone on with nationalised British Railbut because I was not prepared to see my constituents, many of whom have to fork out a huge sum for their annual season ticket, put into the hands of an unregulated private sector monopoly, any more than I would want them in the hands of an unregulated public sector monopoly.
Happily, the last Conservative Government, when our former colleague Dr. Mawhinney was Secretary of State for Transport, announced on 15 May 1995 that for the three years from January 1996 to 1999 rail fares would be capped at the rate of inflation each year, and for the four years after that, from January 1999 to January 2003, rail fares would be capped at 1 per cent. below the rate of inflation in each year. That was an excellent deal from the last Conservative Government for rail travellers and for my constituents, but as that deal expired in January 2003, the present Government have provided them with a much worse dealindeed, it is a rotten deal.
That situation seems set to continue under the franchise from GoVia. A fare increase of 3 per cent. above the rate of inflation for each of the first five years of the franchise means a real-terms increase of 16 per cent. over that five-year period. Unsurprisingly, the arrangement has met strong resistance from my constituents. The secretary of Tonbridge line commuters, Mr. Lionel Shields, wrote:
"The increase in rail fares at up to 3 per cent. above the rate of inflation has to be deplored. How many rail travellers are going to get increases in salary, wages and pension of 3 per cent. above inflation. A single pensioner is to get an increase of £2.20that will be swallowed up by increased Electricity and Gas charges, let alone Council Tax."