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South West Trains recently said:

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However, conversations with the chairman and chief executive officer make it clear that the new South West Trains franchise does not allow for that additional capacity. A few additional services are being added to the lines and will come on stream in the early-morning hours over the next year. The existing programme of increasing the number of carriages from eight to 10 on a number of trains will be completed, but that seems to be the absolute limit of any capacity growth in the franchise arrangements.

The main wheeze for dealing with the additional number of passengers seems to be to remove seats from trains. The Minister will be aware that the plan for Desiro 450 trains is to remove five or six seats per carriage. However, I am glad that following local protests the plan to create further space by removing toilets seems to have been reversed. The toilets will remain, but five or six seats will be lost in each carriage. That seems to be the main mechanism for dealing with the growth in demand.

To understand whether more is required under the franchise, we have tried to obtain a copy of the invitation to tender from March 2006, which should no longer be a commercially sensitive document because the franchise has been tendered. We want to see the invitation, not the final negotiations, and we hope that the Minister will tell us today that we can have a copy of that document, because it will give us a sense of the framework in which South West Trains is supposed to operate and deliver.

I remind the Minister that when I last had a debate on this subject in October 2005, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), said:

that is, spring 2006.

We anticipated that new growth would be built into the franchise and our concern is that that does not seem to have happened.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, Eurostar’s move to St. Pancras and its vacation of the Waterloo International platforms provides one of the few quick hits for some relief for South West Trains’ hard-pressed commuters and passengers. Given how unpleasant life is on the service, my constituents would be furious if those Waterloo International platforms were standing idle after October 2007 and not being redeveloped or used for domestic train services. As you will be aware, Mr. Benton, it is not uncommon for trains to sit outside Waterloo station because no platform is available. That damages reliability of service and adds to overcrowding. I understand from previous conversations that the cost of adapting the Eurostar platforms is about £10 million, which is peanuts in rail terms.

I spoke earlier about getting back our track, which was sacrificed to the Eurostar service. To get it back, the Nine Elms viaduct would have to be removed, and
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that would cost around £30 million to £80 million, which is rather more, but not a supreme amount of money in rail terms. However, South West Trains has said in conversations that there are no plans whatever in place to use the platforms or to do anything about the Nine Elms viaduct. My local newspaper, the Surrey Comet, telephoned Network Rail and was told in no uncertain terms that no decisions had been made about the future of Waterloo International and that as the delays were so long and as decision making moves at a snail’s pace, even if there were a decision the earliest those platforms could be made available for domestic services would be 2010. That snail’s pace of decision making makes us want to tear our hair out.

In the longer term, we need greater solutions than simply getting hold of the Waterloo International platforms. We need longer trains. The Minister will be aware that because of the tight physical envelope that Waterloo represents, the flexibility that those international platforms could offer would allow other platforms to be lengthened. The picture begins to build up. We are anxious that there is a scheme and a timetable so that we know that every train will eventually have 12 cars. We realise that that means upgrading other platforms along the line and tackling the nightmare that is Clapham Junction, but we want some sort of commitment to such a programme and some sort of timetable.

I support the London orbital scheme because if every train stopped at Clapham Junction station as part of a London orbital arrangement, that would relieve the heavy traffic that comes to Waterloo and then disperses around London because Waterloo is not the ideal destination. The London orbital scheme is by far the cheapest way of taking pressure off rail, bus and Tube services in central London. I received a note from the City of London corporation, which is very supportive of the orbital project, saying that overcrowding on the platforms at Waterloo is now so bad that in the three-hour peak period, 85,000 passengers use them. The note continued:

I shall move on quickly to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to add some comments, because his constituents, like those of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham, are equally affected.

Other parts of London are receiving new rail capacity. The second section of the channel tunnel rail link is near completion, Crossrail is moving ahead—so we understand—and the East London line and the Thameslink 2000 project are progressing, so it is not surprising that commuters in south-west London feel forgotten.

Over the past two years, I have frequently pressed the Government for assurances that Eurostar’s soon-to-be vacated platforms at Waterloo will be used to ease congestion for long-suffering commuters on South West Trains. Network Rail suggests that the earliest point at which we can envisage the platforms being in use for local people is 2010, simply because the necessary decisions have not been made. That is unacceptable, and the timetable is unacceptable. While
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the Government move at a snail’s pace, commuters are crushed into crowded carriages every day, and they are utterly frustrated when trains stand outside Waterloo for lack of platform space. Those passengers pay inflation-busting fare increases year on year, only to be told that seats will be removed from their trains to squeeze on more people.

I want the Minister to acknowledge the overcrowding that my constituents and other commuters experience on South West Trains, and I want him to assure us that the Government’s answer will be longer—eventually 12-car—trains, and not the further removal of seats, which is turning our rail network into a “standing mode”, a technical term that is much in currency. I should like him to confirm that we can see a copy of the South West Trains franchise invitation to tender, so that we at least know what to expect from the current arrangements. I want him to provide both an absolute assurance that the work to adapt Waterloo’s Eurostar platforms will begin as soon as they are vacated, and a timetable for the work’s completion.

Will the Minister provide an assurance about funding and a timetable for implementing the long-term solution of 12-car trains, which includes timings for the removal of the Nine Elms viaduct, the lengthening of platforms along the line and the necessary investment in Clapham Junction? It would also be good to receive an update about the progress towards a London orbital line.

One of my constituents, having suffered an impossible journey, wrote to me and said that if we could get him a reliable service into Waterloo on South West Trains, he would

and we would tell him to add the Department for Transport to that list.

My constituents are asking not for the impossible, but for a civilised rail service. They pay high fares, they do what they are supposed to do, leaving their cars behind to use rail services to commute into London, and they want a timely response from the Government.

11.14 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) on securing the debate, and I endorse everything that she has said. I should declare an interest as someone who uses the train every day to travel from Surbiton to Waterloo in order to reach Westminster. From that daily experience, which I and my constituents endure, I know that there is a great deal of anger about the Government’s failure quickly to provide a clear lead on the issue. My colleagues and I have been bringing it to the Department’s attention for two years.

A peak return ticket from Surbiton to London went up by 36 per cent. this year, thanks to the Mayor of London’s rezoning policy, which the Department did not challenge. My constituents face a 36 per cent. rise in fares, overcrowded trains and no sign of any relief, so the Minister will understand why they are so cross. The lack of capacity that produces such overcrowding has been brought to the Minister’s attention for some considerable time, and given the pressing macro need—
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climate change—for more public transport, it seems absurd that the Government have not grasped that major opportunity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, it will provide the taxpayer and the Department with value for money, and the Government should grab it with both hands.

Following the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked, I have two specific queries. First, why has there been a delay in decision making? The decision ought to be a no-brainer. Secondly, why has there not been any planning for an interim solution, such as the small amount of investment that would be needed to enable at least some trains to access the Eurostar platforms and relieve congestion elsewhere on the station? We want answers to those questions and to the questions that my hon. Friend asked, so I hope that the Minister will answer them today or in writing, because we are beginning to lose patience.

11.16 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) on securing the debate. Before I turn to my general comments, I shall respond to a few of her questions, many of which are answered in my prepared notes.

The debate is important to the hon. Lady and her constituents, so I make an appeal to her, because sometimes I am discouraged as these debates tend to be pejorative and partisan. First, she said that she and her constituents were disappointed at Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St. Pancras, but later she said that her constituents were going to get their track back—track that had been sacrificed to Eurostar. She might want to consider whether Eurostar’s move from Waterloo to St. Pancras is good or bad, because she seems to be saying that it is both.

The hon. Lady wants me to acknowledge the overcrowding on the South West Trains franchise, which of course I do. I am well aware of the difficulties for many commuters using many commuter services into major conurbations in Britain. However, her comments implied that she wants the Government to intervene in South West Trains’ decision in the past year to remove seats. I have said on several occasions that it is not the Government’s role to intervene in the operational decisions of any train operating company. Perhaps it is Liberal Democrat policy to take control of such measures, but it is certainly not that of the Government.

Susan Kramer: I should like some clarification, because from conversations with South West Trains, I understand that in its response to the invitation to tender for the franchise, the plan to remove the seats was embedded as the cheapest mechanism for dealing with increased passenger demand. When the Government say that it is nothing to do with them, it is a rather disingenuous way of disclaiming their responsibility for setting the framework of the franchise so that it can cope with passenger numbers.

Mr. Harris: On this occasion, the hon. Lady is entirely wrong. The South West Trains franchise includes commitments to increase capacity on peak-time services, and I shall come on to that, but it does not specify the way in which the capacity should be achieved.

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The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) also talked about inflation-busting fares. First, in response to the hon. Gentleman, ticket rezoning was not the Mayor of London’s initiative, but that of the Department for Transport. It was an excellent initiative, which was widely welcomed, and it will pave the way for the use of Oyster card pay-as-you-go fares throughout Greater London. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is clearly unhappy about that.

Although some passengers, including some of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, will have to pay extra fares, overall the decision to rezone is revenue-neutral. There are winners and losers, but as a result of rezoning, overall the train operating companies will not take any more money than they did before. That probably will not be included in the hon. Gentleman’s press release about today’s debate. Since the Liberal Democrats make great play of the need for smart-card ticketing and other innovations that encourage people on to the rail network, I am surprised that he takes such a parochial view about something with major, positive implications for the rail network.

Mr. Davey: Will the Minister return to the Department and ask his officials to examine whether the rezoning was required for the smart card technology? I have been told by a specialist that it was not.

Mr. Harris: I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that it was necessary. On the invitation to tender, my understanding is that it will be published. I am happy to write to the hon. Members for Richmond Park and for Kingston and Surbiton to confirm when that will happen.

I know that the hon. Member for Richmond Park asked a number of parliamentary questions on the future use of Waterloo International in February, and I hope that the debate will add to the information that I gave in my answers and provide a useful update to the House following the previous debate on the subject in October 2005.

Waterloo is a vital part of the national rail network and is especially important to the users of South West Trains services. About 150,000 passengers use the station during peak periods each day and up to 750 services a day are operated by South West Trains, making Waterloo one of the busiest stations in the country. I am pleased to report that operational performance is much improved since the introduction of the revised South West Trains timetable in December 2005. The industry standard public performance measure of trains arriving on time now stands at 89.7 per cent.

Passenger growth on the relevant part of the rail network is expected to continue in the coming years, as the hon. Lady said, although I doubt whether anybody in the industry could be found who would bet a large amount of money on whether that growth will be 20, 25, 30, 35 or 60 per cent.

Susan Kramer: I simply refer the Minister to today’s report from ATOC, which uses the numbers that I gave as a direct quote.

Mr. Harris: I did pick up that reference, and I am sure that ATOC itself will not guarantee a particular rate of long-term patronage growth—nobody does. The predictions are useful, but they are all indicative.

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Passenger growth is expected to continue and the franchisee has planned a number of initiatives to address it, including extra rolling stock and the reconfiguration of the interiors of some trains to increase their capacity, as the hon. Lady mentioned. I shall have more to say on both points.

The hon. Lady said that she has been pressing the case for the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo to be put to domestic use following Eurostar’s departure for St. Pancras. I am sure that she noticed that in October 2005 my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling), then the Secretary of State for Transport, announced that the platforms at Waterloo International would be retained for domestic passenger use. I am delighted to welcome the hon. Lady on board that campaign. I can confirm that the move to St. Pancras will take place on 14 November this year.

My right hon. Friend’s announcement was widely welcomed for removing the uncertainty that had inevitably grown up about the future of the international platforms at Waterloo. In the period since the announcement was made, my officials have been working with others in the rail industry to determine how the platforms should best be used to maximise the benefits while ensuring value for money. A number of studies have been undertaken since 2005 to assess the scope and benefits of converting the international platforms for domestic use. A feasibility study was completed in March 2006 by Halcrow and concluded that, in the short term, running some existing South West Trains services into the international platforms could deliver worthwhile performance benefits. It also reported that the longer term prospects for making full use of the international platforms needed further development.

Meanwhile, in early 2006 the Department undertook a competition to find a new operator for the south-western franchise, and in September the franchise was awarded to Stagecoach. The new contract included a number of service improvements that Stagecoach is now required to deliver. Several are especially relevant to today’s debate, including an increase in capacity, with 21 per cent. more mainline peak seats and a 20 per cent. increase in peak suburban capacity; the deployment of 17 additional class 450 units, and a rolling stock refurbishment programme to deliver extra capacity. Trains must be lengthened on almost all peak services to the maximum length that can be accommodated at station platforms; there will be an additional morning peak service from Basingstoke to Waterloo, and 10-car trains will be introduced on Windsor to Waterloo services in 2010, which I hope the hon. Member for Richmond Park will particularly welcome.

Also included in the specification for the franchise was a “priced option” requiring bidders to identify the costs and benefits of using the Waterloo International terminal for domestic train services, assuming that the physical work to convert the station had been completed. The priced option from Stagecoach for the south-western franchise provided more evidence that further development was needed to secure the longer term benefits of making full use of the international platforms.

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