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17 Jan 2008 : Column 1135
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As I and my constituents experience, those trains are all too often overcrowded, and passengers are carried in conditions that may be described as subhuman. Interestingly, every time I look at the daily scrum on platforms 1, 2, 3 and 4—as people try to get the train from or back to my constituency—I sense the empty platforms at the other end of the station that ought to be used for my constituents and for those of so many other Members.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes the use of those platforms—which is, indeed, very desirable—sound very simple. Does he not accept that it is a complicated issue that would involve alterations not only to the station, but down the track, and particularly at Clapham Junction, as has been suggested?

Stephen Hammond: Alterations to the station do not present a difficult problem. I accept that there are some track problems, but the overall cost of putting those five domestic platforms into operation, including the track works, has been estimated at under £10 million—I will listen to the Minister’s response carefully. The cost of mothballing the platforms is reckoned to be about £500,000 a year, so there is a huge cost to mothballing, as well as to doing something. I also ask the hon. Gentleman to bear it in mind that this problem did not arise yesterday. As I made clear in my opening remarks, we knew from November 2004 that Eurostar operations were to move to St. Pancras, so there has been a long time to work out what might happen in the post-relocation period. That is a fact.

It is also a fact that South West Trains operates some of the most overcrowded services in the United Kingdom. It wants to use the platforms at Waterloo for its longest trains—those that serve Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton and Portsmouth. Those vacant platforms are already long enough to host those trains. The ownership of Waterloo international will pass to the Department in March this year, and work could then begin, with an eye to having all the vacant platforms open. As I understand it, work will begin on platform 20, and the platforms will be available for use from December 2008.

A number of issues arise from the lack of forethought. Let us be clear that the Government have had three years to get to this point; they cannot shirk responsibility. Eurostar is pulling out of Waterloo. It has no incentive to safeguard the platforms for domestic services post-withdrawal. The Government are taking over the platforms in question, and therefore it is their job to see that they are put to good use. I credit the Minister for clearly recognising that fact. He has given written answers to questions on Waterloo in the past two months on 12, 21, 26 and 27 November and on 6 and 18 December; he is a very busy man. Let me remind the Minister of what he said on 6 December:

On December 18, the Minister said:

None of that is in dispute, but the Minister’s Department has known about the availability of the platforms since November 2004, so what excuse will he give us for the fact that it did not have a comprehensive plan for the redeployment of the platforms ready as soon as they were available after the decommissioning of Eurostar?

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I have listened to this debate for longer than it would appear by the length of my presence in the Chamber. Since 2004, my colleagues and I have constantly prompted the Government to address this issue. The key to it is Clapham Junction, because of the size of the viaduct going in. Thus, it is not just about the circulation at Waterloo; it is also about investing at Clapham Junction in order properly to give commuter access to the five now-vacated lines.

Stephen Hammond: My hon. Friend again makes the excellent point about the need for works at places other than Waterloo. As I explained in answer to an earlier intervention, a decent estimate has been made about the cost of those works, which, in toto, would not last longer—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but may I urge him to address either the Chair or the microphone at all times? If he turns round completely, in a courteous effort to address his hon. Friend, the record can sometimes be impaired.

Stephen Hammond: I am grateful for your instruction, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Some of my colleagues might think that the record would be better if I were turned round more often.

I want to ask some further questions, and I hope that the Minister will address them. Why is it only now that the options for the medium to long-term use of all five international platforms are being considered? Why is only one platform being prepared for domestic services? Will he confirm that it will meet the December 2008 target? In the written answer of 18 December that I quoted, he said that the work planned at Waterloo is designed to allow longer trains to use the
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platforms. South West Trains runs 10 and 12-car trains on the main line and hopes to extend the number of cars used to at least 14. The reality is that the Eurostar platforms are the longest in Britain and can accommodate 18 carriages, so surely they are long enough to support the long trains.

If the reason for the delay is an ambitious plan for Waterloo, when will it be revealed? What is it? What will it cost? Is the ambitious plan that the Minister mentions merely a fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of the Government and Network Rail for not having a plan to use all the five platforms immediately on decommissioning? We seek answers to those questions from the Minister.

The mess in the lack of preparedness for the decommissioning and the vacation is symptomatic of the failure to give the people of this country an accountable, efficient railway system that is focused on the needs of the passenger. The long-suffering commuters into Waterloo are amazed that this national asset, which is part of the answer to their problems, sits there lying empty. They will be unforgiving if four platforms continue to lie empty until 2012 to 2014, as the Minister suggested in one of his written answers.

There is a way through this situation. Under section 6(1) of the Railways Act 2005, the Secretary of State has the power to

Before anyone starts asking whether we are about to hear a spending commitment, I should remind hon. Members that financial assistance as defined by that Act is

So that does not necessarily imply that spending would be necessary, but it does imply that the Government may be required to give guarantees.

I am sure that the Minister will tell us that part of the rationale for this short Bill is to ensure that the financial assistance, as defined by the 2005 Act, already given to London and Continental Railways by the Government remains in place as the construction phase ends and the operational phase begins. The Government currently provide financial assistance for capital funding in several ways. The whole financial assistance is utilised, including loans, Government-guaranteed bonds, securitised bonds and other debt facilities. The Government also have the power to provide some revenue funding for domestic services operating on the channel tunnel rail link. Therefore, it is clear that as part of the overall CTRL project, an asset—albeit an asset that is now post-construction and operationally redundant to CTRL—could receive a Government guarantee of financial assistance of some form to maximise its usage or disposal value. The disposal value of the Eurostar platforms, if disposed for railway purposes, would undoubtedly be maximised by ensuring that they were operational.

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We are told that the Bill is necessary because, among other reasons, the maximisation of the disposal value of other railway assets must be ensured. If the Government are to continue to provide revenue funding for the rest of CTRL, and capital funding guarantees, why not make Waterloo part of the scheme? It is undoubtedly critical that the platforms at Waterloo left vacant by Eurostar’s relocation are put to use. We are all aware of the capacity shortages on our railways and they are particularly acute at Waterloo. The liberation of the five platforms represents a golden opportunity to address some of those capacity needs.

The Government have, by the virtue of the Railways Act 2005, the power to provide financial assistance to those who own or run railway services or assets. The amendment in my name will put an obligation on the Government to exercise that power in such a way as to ensure that the platforms at Waterloo, which they will own from March, are put to domestic train use. The Government will fail in their obligation to passengers at Waterloo if they fail to do that. Amendment No. 4 would ensure that that obligation is fulfilled.

I am known as a big fan of high-speed rail. Now that the dust has settled after the spectacular opening of St. Pancras international, it has become painfully obvious that not all of the obligations of the move from Waterloo have been honoured. The last cross-channel train has pulled out of Waterloo international and there is an eerie void where it once hummed with activity. That void must be filled. The Government must meet their obligations and, unless we receive more reassurance from the Minister this afternoon, I will seek to divide the House on the amendment.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I welcome amendment No. 4. It is a very timely amendment that raises a serious issue. Indeed, it is difficult to disagree with the case that has been made. As soon as it became clear that Waterloo international was no longer to be used for Eurostar services, it should have been obvious that there was a wonderful opportunity for an improvement to domestic rail services into Waterloo. That is certainly obvious to the commuters who use trains into Waterloo every morning. The public would have expected the Government to have a plan to ensure that as soon as Eurostar services ceased, new domestic services began seamlessly. I accept that three years is not a long time, but the Government tell us that in 2012 they will come forward with plans for the period beginning 2014. So they seem to think that two years is sufficient for investment in long-term rail projects.

It is clear that with rising congestion, overcrowded trains and a significant increase in the number of train passengers, for which the Government are happy to take some credit, we will need extra capacity on the rail network above and beyond that suggested by the Government’s White Paper on railways. All the evidence suggests that railway passenger numbers are increasing faster than the Government anticipated. The pressures on the network will therefore be greater at an earlier stage than the Government admit. That is the same at Waterloo as everywhere else. It seems to me to be a no-brainer that we should bring the platforms into use for domestic services. The fact that the Government are talking only about platform 20, not the other platforms in Waterloo international, is a failure.

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Sir Peter Soulsby: I want to make the same point as I did when I intervened on the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) makes the use of those platforms sound very easy. In fact, he spoke just a moment ago about reusing the platforms. Does he, too, not accept that it is not simply a question of reusing the platforms but a complex business, involving realigning the track further back at Clapham Junction? That cannot be done the following morning or week, but needs a considerable amount of planning and investment.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman did raise that point a moment ago, and I am tempted to give the same answer as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). First, the planning should have started some time ago. Secondly, of course there are constraints further back at Clapham Junction and elsewhere—I accept that. However, this is a feature of the Government’s rail policy. They are attempting to get as much as possible out of the network through signal improvements and so on, which is fine, but they have not yet grasped the nettle and recognised that we must invest significantly in the rail network to deal with the modal shift from road and air to rail travel, which is needed for climate change reasons, and to deal with the increase in passenger numbers.

We will have to spend money on places such as Clapham Junction. There is no getting away from that. If we do not spend it now, we will spend it in 10 years’ time. Such forward projections ought to be made by the Department for Transport, but it has not made them. It has failed to make projections far enough ahead about what will need to be done, including about such changes as those at Clapham Junction. The Department is still working on the presumption that oil will be $50 a barrel in 2025; that is the official DFT position. It was hardly surprising, with such inputs, that its answers were wrong.

Yes, there are problems at Clapham Junction. They need to be dealt with. They should have been thought about before, but they were not. It is a complicated matter, but it all needs to be dealt with. It is insufficient merely to leave the platforms empty—or worse. One written answer that was referred to a moment ago, which I saw in Hansard the other day, talked about “passenger circulation space”. To me, that is rather a worrying phrase. It conjures up ideas of Birmingham New Street, where a lot of money is spent to provide not very much space for trains and quite a lot of space for people to sit and wait for trains. I wonder whether passenger circulation space actually refers to the idea of building a shopping mall and a couple more McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets where passengers can wait in comfort for trains running from platforms one to 20, rather than using the platforms from 20 onwards for more trains. I hope that the Minister will confirm that there is no intention permanently to remove the platforms above platform 20 from Waterloo international and that that will not happen.

I need not detain the House much longer. The hon. Member for Wimbledon made a good case, and if the House divides, my colleagues and I will support him.

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Mr. Greg Knight: We have just heard three excellent speeches, all of which have made a compelling case for action. I hope that the Minister will satisfy us that he will take such action.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), as a lawyer, always makes a good case. However, I feel that today his drafting skills have deserted him. Amendment No. 7 is extremely wishy-washy, and if the Minister does not satisfy the House I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), will be minded to support amendment No. 4.

I congratulate the Government on eventually overseeing the successful opening of the UK’s first high-speed rail line, which enables passengers to get from London to Paris in two hours and 15 minutes. I also welcome Eurostar’s move to St. Pancras, which is far easier for my constituents, and for residents of Yorkshire and other parts of the north in general, to get to than Waterloo—although why any resident of Yorkshire would wish to cross the channel, when in my constituency of East Yorkshire we have the delightful seaside town of Bridlington, I do not know.

However, improving services from London to the continent was only part of what we were told would happen, as we were promised that vacant platforms at Waterloo would be used for domestic services. I do not blame the present Minister for the problems that we now face; they arose before his watch, but he must explain to the House why his predecessors did not undertake the necessary planning to bring the vacant platforms into use.

The hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) made a fair point, but there has been a gap of three years in which action could have been taken to resolve the problems at Clapham Junction. As far as I am aware, no such action has been taken.

Mr. Ian Taylor: I think that I was the first to raise this matter: I did so in 2004, and have done so regularly since then. The issue is complex, and investment at Clapham Junction is required if we are to get the crossover facilities that we need. My right hon. Friend’s constituents may well be happy that St. Pancras is now the terminal for Eurostar, but in my constituency there are nine railway stations that feed into Waterloo. I am unhappy that the vacated platforms are not fully in use for commuters.

Mr. Knight: I can well understand my hon. Friend’s concern but, although my constituents do not face the disastrous travel problems that his face, the point is that the Government have a duty to maximise the use of public assets. They are spending some £6.5 billion on our rail network, and we were told that platform 20 and all the other vacant platforms at Waterloo would be brought into use. I hope that, unless it transpires that some platforms have to be demolished to allow the track to be realigned, the Minister will be able to reassure commuters that that is what will happen.

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