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Ashford remains one of the few places in England from where Paris and Brussels can be reached via a high-speed rail link within just two hours. The new proposed timetable includes early morning and evening trains which will meet the demands of many existing and new business and leisure passengers.
Mr. Harris: I note that the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene. I suspect that we are about to replicate the exchange that we had in October. I do not want to suggest that Councillor Clokie supported the diminution in services from Ashford. I simply make the point that he can tell that the high-speed rail link will have a major economic benefit for Ashford, despite the reduction in services.
Damian Green: We will not replicate our exchange, because the Minister has chosen a longer quote from Councillor Clokie that is slightly more representative than the one that he cited before. However, as Councillor Clokie said, Ashford is the only place from which one can go to Paris and Brussels. The precise thrust of the argument is that people will not be able to travel to Brussels from Ashford under Eurostars proposals. That is unsatisfactory not just to people in Kent, but to those in Sussex and people in the rest of the south-eastthat is the nub of the argument.
Mr. Harris: I accept the hon. Gentlemans point, but of course, it will still be possible to travel by train from Ashford to Brussels, although a change of train will be necessary.
I do not want to dwell for too long on the borough councils views, but it is worth highlighting another point that it has made. It sees the provision of the new high-speed domestic service as being just as important to Ashfords economic growth as the international links. The council anticipates that the high-speed link will lead to additional demand for Eurostar services from Ashford in the future.
To move on to Eurostar and its operations, it is important to be clear that the Government have no formal powers over Eurostars operational decisions, and that Eurostar is at liberty to set its own timetables, although it has an obligation to operate on a sound commercial business. It cannot be accused of ignoring the views that have been put to it. Following the consultation with Kent county council, Eurostar agreed to introduce an additional stop at Lille on the daily service to Disneyland, to provide Ashford with a connection to Brussels. Following consultation with Ashford borough council, the company agreed to revise the timing of the first departure to Paris to suit local people better. Eurostar is continuing its dialogue with Kent county council, which is the statutory transport authority, and it has shared and explained the research and analysis undertaken on developing future stopping patterns.
My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ashford have made comments about the Governments lack of action and intervention. Following representations made last autumn by right hon. and hon. Members on both
sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Ashford and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I discussed with Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, what options existed for maintaining a direct, if reduced, service from Ashford to Brussels following the opening of Ebbsfleet. So far, that intervention has had no effect. I share the disappointment felt by my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members about the fact that all direct services from Ashford to Brussels will cease, and about the fact that the various stakeholders in the area have not come up with a reasonable package to support even a reduced service.
It is worth mentioning that Eurostar remains committed to Ashford in at least one respect: it will retain its contact centre in the town, which provides employment for some 300 people. From the date of the opening of Ebbsfleet station this autumn, Eurostar will have 16 or 17 trains a day from London to Paris, and 10 to Brussels. Seven of the Paris trains and five of the Brussels trains will stop at Ebbsfleet. The opening of Ebbsfleet has led Eurostar to review its overall stopping patterns to reflect the expected future demand at the two stations in Kent. As a consequence, Ashford will retain three of its six trains a day to Paris, as well as a weekly service which goes to Avignon in the summer and the French Alps in the winter. Those destinations mean that 83 per cent. of current demand for direct services at Ashford will continue to be met.
As I mentioned earlier, the daily Disney train will, in future, also stop at Lille to provide a TGV connection to Brussels. I accept that there may be some remaining demand for a direct service between Ashford and Brussels that will not be met by the alternative arrangements.
Michael Foster: My hon. Friend is using the figures that Eurostar gave him, but the truth is that they are challengeable. Does he accept that the empirical evidence is that the use of services at Ashford is substantially greater than the figures suggest? In my discussion with the chief executive, he suggested that the figures had been calculated, but no evidence has been produced to support that. The figures are simply the result of assumptions on Eurostars part, and are based on ticket sales.
Mr. Harris: I understand my hon. Friends argument, but does he believe that Eurostar is involved in a conspiracy to deprive itself of revenue? As a commercial organisation, it must surely put in place the best commercial plans possible. He seems to suggest that Eurostar is complicit in underestimating the patronage of Ashford customers, in order to prevent people from buying tickets, and to deprive itself of crucial revenue. I do not find that particularly plausible.
The truth is that Eurostars assessment is that the demand for a direct Ashford to Brussels service is too small for such a service to be commercially viable. Eurostar has said that the trains to Paris will be timed to suit both business and leisure travellers, and has adjusted the departure times following consultation with Ashford borough council. Timetables are valid for a year, so there is an annual opportunity to review stopping patterns and to alter them in light of changing demand. Eurostar is committed to working
with the local authorities, with the objective of helping to increase demand and, in turn, the number of services at Ashford in the longer term; that is a point worth emphasising. Plans for Ashford reflect the current position, but Eurostar has the flexibility to revise its timetable to suit future changes in demand. It is not in Eurostars commercial interests to ignore genuine demand where it exists, and it is clear that additional stops at Ashford could be reintroduced in the future if passenger demand warranted them. It would be in Eurostars commercial interests, if it felt that it would increase its annual profit, to reintroduce direct services to Brussels from Ashford. It is not plausible to suggest that Eurostar is in any way conspiring to deprive itself of that revenue stream.
Since its opening in 1996, Ashford international station has provided a valuable alternative to passengers who want to use Eurostar but want to avoid having to travel into central London to join their train. The reason for reducing the number of trains stopping at Ashford is, I am told, the opening of a second station in Kent at Ebbsfleet, near Dartford. Ebbsfleet is strategically located close to the A2/M2 and M25. Eurostar has carried out very detailed research over 18 months which shows that Ebbsfleet serves a much larger catchment area than Ashford. Indeed, Ebbsfleets catchment area is enormous, with 10 million potential travellers. The catchment area extends around the M25 and will open up new markets for Eurostar. The catchment area for Ashford, by contrast, though geographically quite large, represents a level of patronage that is substantially lower.
Norman Baker: No one is suggesting that Ebbsfleet should not open and be a successful station. What we are arguing is that it is possible to have both Ebbsfleet and Ashford. Given that the new high speed line into St. Pancras will cut journey times significantly between London and Paris and London and Brussels, there will still be a significant gain in time even if the trains stopped at both stations.
Mr. Harris: I emphasise that I am not a spokesman for Eurostar, but it seems eminently sensible that when Eurostar is calculating journey times and using them as a way of attracting a particular market, it must ensure that those journey times are as low as possible. If Eurostar has made a commercial calculation that stopping every train from Ebbsfleet at Ashford will result in lost revenue because passengers will choose to travel by air rather than by train, that is a valid commercial judgment which we should expect it to make.
Eurostars research has shown that up to two thirds of the passengers who currently travel to Ashford will find Ebbsfleet equally or more convenient. Ebbsfleet will be served by international trains to Paris, Brussels and Lille. Eurostar believes that, following the opening of Ebbsfleet, the residual number of passengers wishing to travel from Ashford to Brussels will be less than 20 per train, too few commercially to justify a direct service. There is a serious threat that stopping Eurostar services at Ashford as well as Ebbsfleet will extend journey times, to the extent that more passengers would be lost than would be gaineda point that I have just made, thanks to the intervention from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The majority of Eurostar
customers will travel from St. Pancras, so it is important that journey times are not adversely affected by additional stops for a small number of passengers.
It has been argued by my hon. Friend that one result of the changes will be to encourage passengers who would normally join trains at Ashford to divert to Ebbsfleet, increasing car use and causing congestion on major roads in north-west Kent. It is worth noting that some 90 per cent. of Ashford Eurostar customers travel to the station by car, and that more than half of those drive from outside the county. Ebbsfleet will be more convenient and nearer to most of those customers, and so will reduce total car use.
It is also worth noting that more than 500,000 people per week currently visit Bluewater shopping centre, very close to Ebbsfleet. Ebbsfleet itself, by contrast, will be used by fewer than 25,000 per week. Locally, major improvements to the strategic road network have been carried out to reduce the impact of new traffic flows, and congestion will be minimal.
I emphasise that I understand my hon. Friends concerns and the concerns expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and the
hon. Member for Ashford, as well as the hon. Member for Lewes. I know that there is genuine concern in these constituencies that Eurostars proposals mean that the area is being left with a substandard service. I hope that I have, although I suspect that I have not, been able to reassure hon. Members that most of the demand from Ashford will continue to be met, that there is scope to review services to Ashford in the future in the light of future changes in demand, and that concentrating services at Ebbsfleet, but not to the exclusion of Ashford, makes sense commercially, in environmental terms, and from the point of view of providing the best possible international rail service to the greatest number of passengers.
Let me conclude by informing my hon. Friend that I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation of parliamentary colleagues and other interested parties if he believes that that would be useful. I have already stated that I have made at least one intervention with Eurostar on this subject; whether I will be in a position to be able to do so in future to any positive benefit remains a question as yet unanswered.
Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eight oclock.