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6.12 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): As a frequent user of St. Pancras, I have watched with some frustration the work that has been going on there in recent years. Along with countless thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of others, I have picked my way through the building work on a daily basis. Indeed, visitors to St. Pancras have at times been on something of a voyage of exploration, with the pedestrian routes changing almost daily and presenting a challenge to users. Looking at it now, though, I can say that all the inconvenience has been worth it many times over. The transformation of a rather run-down station and the somewhat derelict area around it has been quite stunning. I pay tribute not only to this Government and the previous Government for having the vision to see that it was possible, but to all those involved in the
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design of the project and the very high-quality work done on the site. It is a source of great pride, I hope to them, but certainly to us as a nation, to see that transformation and what is now undoubtedly a magnificent gateway to the UK—one that we can all share in being very satisfied to see and to use.

I speak about the transformation with mixed feelings because my flat here in London overlooks Waterloo station, and I, like many others, will miss watching the Eurostar trains snake their way slowly out of it. However, that underlines the significant improvement that has been made, because that slowness is such a sharp contrast with the speed with which they are able to accelerate out of St. Pancras. It is a revelation to those of us who watched them every day at Waterloo to see just how fast they can accelerate and how they are now able to run at something approaching their full potential.

I want to make three brief points and in doing so to emphasise some that have already been made. First, the platforms that will be released at Waterloo as a result of Eurostar’s transfer have enormous potential to relieve the congestion at Waterloo. I encourage the Government to bring forward the use of those platforms to relieve that congestion, and particularly to consider the comparatively minor investment required to bring about the crossover that is needed at Clapham Junction to enable that potential to be used to the full.

Secondly, I want to reinforce a point that I made earlier about the potential for freight transport. Sometimes only one train a day passes through the channel tunnel carrying freight. That represents a small fraction of its overall potential not only to take existing trucks off the roads but to obviate the need in future for mega-trucks to use our roads, which are inadequately equipped for them. That potential needs to be developed, and I hope that the Government will continue to press that on the tunnel operators and the railway freight operators. In the past, the situation has been related to tariffs and influenced by the problems experienced through the use of freight trains to gain illegal entry into the UK. However, I hope that both those problems can be overcome and that the full potential of using the tunnel for freight can be encouraged.

Kelvin Hopkins: My hon. Friend may be interested to know that it is now possible to run at least 150 trains a day through the tunnel in each direction, and with signalling modifications many more than that. That equates to thousands of freight trains per year. There is no possibility of passenger traffic, but that level of freight traffic could transform the economics of the channel tunnel and, indeed, of Britain’s freight transport system.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I thank my hon. Friend for his well-informed intervention. I know that he takes a particular interest in matters of rail freight, and he emphasises my point about the fraction of the potential that is used at the moment and the enormous potential that is there for the future.

Finally, the completion of High Speed 1 and the excitement around it emphasises the potential associated with high-speed train travel in general. I impress on the Minister that this is the perfect time to dust off plans for other high-speed links. I recognise that, as he said
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earlier, they are not in themselves a panacea—all sorts of issues are associated with their construction, as the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) reminded us. None the less, they could increase rail capacity in the UK dramatically. Having spent a considerable amount of time on Sunday standing in standard class while coming down the east coast main line, I would say that any increase in capacity would be very welcome.

High-speed links can increase capacity far beyond the improvements that are possible on the existing network. Beyond that, there would be a step change in terms of opening up new possibilities, particularly in attracting people away from domestic air travel. The long distance rail potential of Scotland and the north-west can be realised only on new high-speed lines. If those services are to offer a realistic option to people who use airlines, they must be fast, modern, attractive and reliable. I hope that the excitement that has been generated by High Speed 1 will prompt the Minister to dust off and revisit these plans, sooner than 2012, in recognition of the fact that this is the ideal time to excite investors about high-speed rail lines. This is an opportunity too good to be missed.

6.19 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): First, I would like to say how delighted I and many of my constituents are about the high-speed domestic service. I suppose for that I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott).

I would like to speak primarily about constituency matters. Although the project’s financing has been thoroughly discussed, local passenger numbers are vital within this complex financial package. I would like to make some comments on that, and about the commuters who use the service and who will be affected. I would also like to touch on the integration of the rail link to the ongoing construction work. The infrastructure and regeneration efforts in general have been used as an argument for continued public funding and the backing of the link.

I recently travelled by Eurostar on the amazing, brilliant, new, fast service. International train services began running from Ebbsfleet railway station yesterday, on time, and I and my friend, the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), were delighted about that. Moreover, we no longer have to listen to a French conductor, triumphant to the point of smugness, announcing that at last the train is able to achieve maximum speed every time we emerge from the tunnel on the French side. That is a relief in itself.

The train services may now be operating, but the construction of the associated infrastructure is still ongoing. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996 incorporated the widening and realignment of the A2 trunk road dual carriageway, which runs past Ebbsfleet International, and through my constituency on the old Watling street from London to the coast. The integration of the rail and road infrastructure was good news, but the actual construction has not been as well integrated as it might have been. People in Gravesham have endured traffic gridlock from the widening of the A2, and residents of local villages have at times been literally unable to
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leave their driveways because of gridlock on the rat runs used to avoid delays. The realignment of the A2 continues, with regular traffic jams stretching into Gravesend and just as far to the south on the other side of the A2. I hope continued construction of local infrastructure and future maintenance will continue; it will no doubt be required because the process will have a great impact on local people.

I have probably dwelt a bit too much on construction, and I would like to focus on the regeneration of the local area, which was one of the arguments initially used for continuing to finance the tunnel rail link. Since then, of course, the Olympics have been sited in east London, where the other new international railway station is. I am concerned that financial commitments to support local regeneration may be channelled towards the Olympic site and away from Gravesham and north Kent. Although Ebbsfleet is situated in the Dartford constituency, it is right on the edge of the two main towns in my constituency, Gravesend and Northfleet. Most of the car parks are in my constituency, I am happy to say. The people of Gravesham have faced disruption caused by the construction, owing to the increased traffic flows needed to ensure high passenger numbers, and it is vital that they get some of the benefit from the regeneration. I hope that we can reaffirm the importance of regeneration in the area, particularly in north Kent, and that we do not simply see the process as another way of funding the Olympics.

A new development of residential and commercial properties is planned surrounding the station, which in itself does not count towards the regeneration of the existing parts of Gravesham. In order to encourage inward investment for cultural outlets, about £2 million has been raised for a landmark sculpture—an “Angel of the South”, if you like—that will be visible to passing motorists on the A2, but also to people on the trains. As residents in my constituency and that of my neighbours will have to look at such an iconic sculpture every day, it is most important that anything commissioned should get final approval by local people and elected officials on Gravesham borough council.

The Office of Rail Regulation is currently able to provide very useful information about the use of Gravesend railway station. To the nearest thousand, it is calculated that just over 1 million people entered the station in 2004-05, about 1.3 million left it, and 9,000 people changed trains there. Last year those figures increased. Although those numbers may be interesting to trainspotters, they also show the increased use of Gravesend station, which should increase considerably when commuter services start using the link. They also show an average of about 10,000 more people coming to Gravesham than leaving it by train, and that migration can increase only when the morning commuting time from London Charing Cross to Gravesend falls to about 20 minutes.

There appear to be plans for two trains an hour to call at Gravesend on their way to St. Pancras. However, those will start in Medway and other services will originate in other parts of Kent. It is not clear how many seats—or, more likely, standing places—will be available for people from Gravesend. There is also the issue of the affordability of services from Gravesend to St. Pancras for local people. I hope that it will be made clear how many commuting places will be made available
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to passengers travelling from Gravesend and Higham to St. Pancras in order to offer protection for existing commuters so that they do not face an even longer commute from Gravesend.

Finally, the Border and Immigration Agency has informed me that there are no plans to have a permanently manned immigration control at Ebbsfleet International railway station. I am concerned, therefore, that immigration officers will not be monitoring departures from Ebbsfleet International. I am also concerned that no one will be on hand to check arrivals should immigration checks not be satisfactorily completed on board the train or on the continent.

6.26 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak about the Bill, and particularly to support the furthering of the Secretary of State’s powers to fund the channel tunnel rail link and the trains that will run on it, post-construction.

I must apologise, however, for not being able to be here at the beginning of the debate and for not having heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister, or that of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). I was, however, pleased to be here when the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) made her speech. I found it very interesting and I agreed with much of it. As I said in an intervention, if there is to be heavy subsidy, direct or indirect, for CTRL and the whole system, including the channel tunnel itself, there must be more Government involvement. It cannot simply be left in private hands, and in the longer run we might see the whole system integrated into a publicly owned railway system, but that is an argument for another day.

I have taken a long-term interest in railways, and I am particularly pleased about the St. Pancras development for personal reasons because I have travelled on Thameslink from my Luton constituency for 37 years—not to this House for the whole time, of course—and it has been quite wonderful to see the regeneration of St. Pancras station. The hon. Member for Richmond Park said that she thought the case for the St. Pancras development had not been made. If the debate had taken place 15 years ago, there might have been an argument for developing a high-speed line from Waterloo rather than St. Pancras, but it has happened this way and my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), the Chair of the Transport Committee, has pointed out that many more people live on the north side than on the south side. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do everything he can to bring forward the development of Thameslink so that all those in the south of London can travel to the magnificent new station about to be opened at St. Pancras International. I travel through that station every day and it is really exciting to see it developing. It will open within days, and the process has been very encouraging.

I like to think that I played some role in that process myself, because of the concrete box built underneath St. Pancras. It was always going to be there; it had to be built in order that the station could be developed at some future date. However, many of us—I was one of those who lobbied most hard on this point—thought
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that it had to be developed and built at the same time as the opening of Eurostar services from St. Pancras. Otherwise, people would have had to walk from the appalling King’s Cross Thameslink station, which was always temporary, at night, across one of the most depressing parts of London. I worked in the area for a long time, and we know that there is a degree of drug addiction and prostitution in that area that is very depressing.

It was too much to expect travellers to go from King’s Cross Thameslink to the Eurostar trains without new provision. The station had to be built to ensure that passengers had proper, decent access to St. Pancras station. I argued, as did others, that passenger traffic on Eurostar from St. Pancras could have been seriously damaged if the new station had not been built underneath St. Pancras with access via travelators, escalators and so on. I am therefore pleased that the station was built.

The hon. Member for Richmond Park mentioned freight. Hon. Members may recall that I proposed in an Adjournment debate in January the development of the EuroRail Freight Route, which would put an enormous amount of freight that now goes by road on to the railways, and use the channel tunnel. We have made a submission, which is currently under investigation, to the Select Committee. I shall not go into more detail, but I believe that pushing vast amounts of freight through the channel tunnel would transform its economics, which would improve those of CTRL and of Eurostar services.

There will never be enough passengers to justify the channel tunnel or the CTRL, so better use must be made of the tunnel for freight. All the forecasts at the beginning of the channel tunnel project were overblown: people argued that everyone would travel by train rather than plane in future. That was unrealistic. Many will travel by train—I shall use Eurostar as often as I can—but others will use aircraft and possibly still go by sea. However, there were never going to be enough passengers to justify building either the tunnel or CTRL. Freight had to be considered as a longer-term possibility. To realise the transportation of the sort of volume of freight that we are discussing, we must develop a delivery system on this side that is capable of taking full-sized containers and trailers on trains, and match the freight services and lines that have been developed on the continent. That is the future. I shall continue to pursue that and to support railroad developments in general.

I greatly look forward to travelling from my constituency in Luton to St. Pancras and then to Paris, Brussels and elsewhere. We are discussing a wonderful development, which has given a genuine boost to the idea of modern railway development. Not so long ago, the Department for Transport seriously talked about railways as the mode of transport of the past. I exempt my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary from that charge. However, many civil servants were cited as saying that they were managing the decline of the railway system. That is not happening now. We know that rail is the transport mode of the future, not the past. Instead of the Department alone being enthusiastic, passengers have decided to use railways, and the demand is so great that the Government and the rail industry have to consider extra capacity. That is a wonderful development, which is good not only environmentally
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but socially and in every possible way. I look forward to further railway developments along those lines, especially that of a dedicated rail freight network linked to the channel tunnel and the continent of Europe.

6.33 pm

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, but I was serving on a Statutory Instrument Committee. I am especially pleased to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because, as many hon. Members know, HS1 runs through the middle of my constituency, and Ebbsfleet International station is situated there. I therefore have several observations to make about a once-in-a-lifetime project, which can transform the lives of people not only in Kent but throughout the UK, provided that it is successful.

The debate is about a Bill that will pave the way for the sale of the project. Its saleability will depend on its success, which is what I want to consider this evening. There are three key components to the project’s success. The first is the extent to which it can bring new jobs, skills and regeneration, especially to Kent, which desperately needs regeneration and has a significant skills shortage. To what extent can the high-speed rail line achieve that? I believe that, if we get it right, we can create a blueprint for many projects that will benefit the country.

The second major component is modal shift. It is a jargon term, which effectively means the extent of the project’s success in changing people’s travelling habits, away from aeroplanes or private cars to public transport, and high-speed rail links in particular. That is crucial and much more work needs to be done to ensure that modal shift occurs. Another project in my constituency is the fast-track bus route—a rapid, dedicated bus service between the constituency of the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) and mine. It has been fantastically successful—passenger numbers are 50 per cent. above those predicted. However, it is more interesting to note that there has been at least a 10 per cent. modal shift. In other words, 10 per cent. of current journeys on the fast-track bus system are made by people who would previously have used their car. A significant shift in travelling patterns away from private car usage to rapid, clean, efficient public transport is already occurring. I believe that HS1 can also offer such an opportunity. In two years, when the 17-minute commuter service from Ebbsfleet to St. Pancras operates, it will offer a further opportunity to get away from the overcrowded, rather dingy trains on the North Kent line and reach the centre of London much more quickly, in more comfort and in a way that is a model for others.

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