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Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): May I associate my constituents with those of my right hon. Friend, because they share the same issues? Our constituents will benefit not one jot from the channel tunnel rail link, but they will have to pay for it through the increase in fares.

Sir John Stanley: I am coming to that very point and agree with my hon. Friend.

The Minister will no doubt say that the increase in rail fares above the rate of inflation for five years is justified by rail investment. However, the overwhelming proportion of that rail investment will go into channel tunnel rail link domestic services, which will not benefit most of those who travel into London from mid-Kent and west Kent.
 
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The Minister knows that I foresaw that we could get into this position two years ago, and I have been campaigning for channel tunnel rail link domestic services to be ring-fenced financially, for channel tunnel rail link domestic services to be recognised as national infrastructure on which losses should be met by the general body of taxpayers—in other words, through the Department for Transport—and for a prohibition on cross-subsidy under the integrated Kent franchise from non-channel tunnel rail link services, which would result in a fair and equitable position.

In a written ministerial statement on 30 November, the Secretary of State for Transport said:

My constituents and many others all over the franchise area regard the balance as grossly unfair. My constituents are having their fares ratcheted up way above the rate of inflation to meet losses on rail services—the channel tunnel rail link—that are of no use to them.

Once again, I urge the Minister to ring fence channel tunnel rail link domestic services financially. Does he recognise that those services are national infrastructure and that losses should be financed by the general body of taxpayers? Will he introduce a prohibition on cross-subsidy from non-channel tunnel rail link services into the channel tunnel rail link, because unless such a prohibition is introduced, rail travellers in Kent and elsewhere will be treated grossly unfairly?

7.24 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Derek Twigg): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this important Adjournment debate. The document that he mentions will become public, and when that happens I will ensure that he gets a copy. Many improvements have been agreed, and I will dwell on some of them. It would be impossible to cover all the points in the time that I have left, but I will do my best to get through them as quickly as possible.

Let me summarise the situation before I get to the main point. I believe that the contract that my Department has secured is a tough one that will deliver good value for taxpayers and real improvements for passengers. In particular, it commits the company to introducing the high-speed commuter trains that will use the channel tunnel rail link from 2009. Journey times to London for passengers from stations such as Ramsgate and others in east Kent and the Thames Gateway will be reduced by as much as 35 minutes. It will be a commuter service unlike that seen anywhere else in the country. It will provide the flagship Olympic Javelin service that will link St. Pancras with the Olympic village in Stratford in under eight minutes. In addition, the company has committed to improving performance across the franchise. More than £70 million will be invested in passenger services. It will build on the investment that has already been made: £600 million on new trains and £93 million on infrastructure improvements to allow them to run. A further £250 million is still to be invested in the new high-speed trains.
 
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Let me come to some of the more specific points. From the franchise commencement date in spring 2006 until the introduction of CTRL domestic services, services will be broadly the same as now in order to avoid repeated service alterations. Once the CTRL domestic services are introduced in 2009, they will operate between London St. Pancras and Stratford International, Ebbsfleet through the Thames Gateway to the Medway towns, and to Ashford, Ramsgate and east Kent. There will be comprehensive changes to the service pattern on existing lines at the same time—December 2009—to reflect the anticipated changes in travelling patterns and to simplify and improve performance. The new service specification is intended to provide capacity where it is most needed while making the best use of existing resources within the bounds of affordability. The Government's responsibility is to make the best overall strategic decision on services on behalf of the majority of passengers and of the taxpayer. With service changes of this magnitude, it is difficult to balance the needs of all, but we believe that we have provided significant benefits for the majority of passengers.

The reorganisation will bring many benefits. For example, 10 per cent. more trains—an increase from 171 to 188—will come into London in the morning peak, and there will be a considerable improvement in off-peak services, with the number of trains increasing from 39 to 46 every hour during the daytime. The off-peak improvements are spread between inner and outer suburban services. Key improvements include two additional trains per hour on the following lines: Bexleyheath, Orpington-Sevenoaks via Grove Park, on the Herne Hill route west of Beckenham Junction, and on the Hastings line around the Tunbridge Wells area.

In any exercise of this kind, it is not practical to deliver every request for services, but where representations were made, and it was possible to accommodate them, changes were put in place to address the most difficult problems for local rail users. There have been several rounds of consultation, through which a number of stakeholder concerns were identified and addressed—for example, the retention of the hourly service at quieter stations on the Maidstone East route.

The franchisee intends to provide some services before 2009, when the timetable will change, that are additional to the basic specification required by the Department. They include a strengthened half-hourly service to Beckenham Junction from Victoria, an additional peak service between Faversham and Cannon Street, two additional peak trains between Ashford and Charing Cross, and a few additional mid-evening and late evening trains to various suburban and Kent destinations from London.

With regard to train services in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, there will be no immediate changes on the Borough Green and Wrotham-Maidstone East line. When the CTRL domestic services begin, more frequently used stations on this route, such as Borough Green and West Malling, will benefit from additional services in the peak. However, less busy stations such as East Malling will experience some reductions. Peak services between Tonbridge and the Kent coast will experience improvements on today's service at Paddock Wood, Marden and Pluckley. Services to Staplehurst and Headcorn remain unchanged. Off-peak, Paddock Wood and Staplehurst
 
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will lose one train an hour, mainly because the two stopping services, and one fast train to London will be replaced by two semi-fast services.

Given that the new high speed service is expected to result in a significant transfer of demand from classic services east of Ashford, the volume of residual service required to operate via Tonbridge will be reduced. The resources released will be used to enhance some services in west Kent, particularly in the Tunbridge Wells area.

Two trains an hour to Dover all day will link that corridor to east Kent, with alternate trains continuing to Ramsgate via Deal. The journey from London to Ramsgate and Margate via Canterbury West will no longer be direct, but passengers will be able to change at Ashford to pick up connecting services either using CTRL to Margate or the Victoria to Canterbury West via Maidstone service. We expect the operator to develop a timetable providing convenient connecting timings for that. Services from Tonbridge via Redhill to Gatwick airport fall under the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy. That is currently under consideration by the Department and an announcement will be made in due course.

Subject to rolling stock availability and operational and financial practicalities, it is open to the franchisee before 2009 to run additional services or make additional calls at stations, provided that he can demonstrate that that is worth while and that any changes can be achieved without increasing the subsidy. I urge the hon. Gentleman and local groups to work with the operator to consider the scope for such changes.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to fare changes. Passengers on the new high speed trains will pay around 20 per cent. to 35 per cent. more than passengers on the classic services, depending on the journey. In general, the premium will be approximately £1 or £2 on a single fare. Passengers will be able to choose routes via CTRL on high speed services or the classic routes to south London terminals. Passengers who use CTRL domestic services will pay premium fares to reflect the enhanced service that it will provide.It is not unusual for faster rail services to be more expensive than alternative slower services. Even with the premium fare, we anticipate a high demand for the high speed services.
 
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The retail prices index + 3 per cent. fare increases have been made to recognise the investment that has already gone into the railway in the region, and will help keep a balance between the taxpayer and the fare-paying passenger.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned South East trains and the press release that was issued. We believe that the new franchisee should consider the matter and we wait to hear its views. I do not want to pre-empt those discussions. Clearly, once they have taken place an announcement will be made.

As I stated earlier, more than £600 million has been invested in new rolling stock in Kent in the past three years. In addition, there has been £93 million of investment in power supply, stations, depots and related infrastructure in Kent. All the slam-door trains have been removed and many trains' interiors have been upgraded. That does not come without a cost. We have to ask whether it is fair for the taxpayer to foot most of the bill. We have to try to strike a balance between how much the taxpayer pays and how much of the cost passengers should bear.

In summary, it is probably worth putting on the record that this has been a good time for the railway. Significant improvements have taken place, with more than 1 billion passengers a year using it. Every week, £87 million is being invested and we have the fastest growing railway in Europe. In addition, the public performance measure of 85 per cent. that was set for next March has been passed on three occasions in the past three periods. We are not complacent—there is more work to be done. We must ensure that we reach and exceed our target, but we have experienced an increase in the reliability of trains and the biggest single replacement of rolling stock and refurbishment in our time.

I do not suggest that we should be complacent or that there is no room for improvement. However, important improvements and strides forward have been made. Performance is improving and passengers are receiving a better service. The current South East franchise has had its share of the benefits and the new integrated Kent franchise will experience more of them in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Eight o'clock.


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