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My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon was right to say that the Railways Act 2005 gives the Government the power to provide financial assistance to those who own or run rail services and assets. The Government would be in dereliction of their duty if they did not make available the money to allow the
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vacant platforms at Waterloo to be brought into use. Amendment No. 4 would oblige the Government to ensure that the vacant platforms at Waterloo were brought into use for domestic train services. I hope that, in the absence of an unequivocal assurance to that end from the Minister, the House will support it.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I support amendments Nos. 7 and 4. I heard the critical remarks that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) made about amendment No. 7, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), but it is wholly consistent with my hon. Friend’s known philosophy. He likes to enable, rather than force, people to do things, and the amendment is entirely consistent with that approach. Amendment No. 4 is more positive: it is designed to get the Government to do something—but then my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) is the shadow Minister, and that is his job. I am therefore delighted with how he has phrased his amendment.

Both amendments enable us to raise the problem of congestion on commuter railways south of the Thames—a matter of profound importance about which there has been a great deal of comment. The underground system south of the river is skeletal, and the commuter lines into the relevant stations south of the river—and occasionally just to the north—are suffering from huge and worsening congestion. Here is a golden opportunity to do something about that problem very quickly and simply.

The opportunity presents itself to the Minister to score a quick hit. When we raise the problem of congestion on commuter lines, he always tells us that Thameslink will come along in due course and other things will happen in 10 years’ time— [ Interruption. ] Thameslink may be being built now, but when will it be open? When will the famous Borough Market junction be free of congestion? Not for years to come. That is the truth of the matter.

Norman Baker: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that the project used to be called Thameslink 2000?

Mr. Horam: Yet in 2008 it is still not built—or, rather, it has been built but it will be years before it relieves congestion. That is precisely my point.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I do not want to prolong the debate, but to answer the comment made by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) about Thameslink 2000, may I remind the House that the first thing I did on becoming a Minister was to change the project’s name from Thameslink 2000 to Thameslink?

Mr. Horam: The Minister was wise to do that. However, the fact remains that it will be a long time before we will see serious relief for my constituents and those of many other hon. Members as a result of the scheme.

I understand that most of the pressure in this debate has come from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor),
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who represent commuters coming in from the south-west—from Portsmouth, Southampton and stations closer to London. That is a priority, and Waterloo is the station for those commuters, but the fact is that after crossing the channel, the Eurotrains passed through Ashford, Orpington and Petts Wood—stations in my constituency—and then diverted from the main line carrying commuters into Charing Cross and Waterloo East to go into Waterloo station. There is therefore a line available.

I do not expect to take all three or four lines—I am sure that South West Trains naturally expects to take the majority—but there must be some room for people from Orpington and Petts Wood to go into Waterloo, using those now disused lines. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire said, we should maximise the use of public assets, which are there to be used. If we did that, it would immediately ameliorate my constituents’ difficulties; otherwise, they will have to wait years for improvement.

I am glad to see the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) back in his place. He often intervenes to say that what we are asking for will take a long time, but in this instance it would not. Eurotrains passed through Orpington, Ashford and Petts Wood and then went straight to Waterloo. Why cannot commuter trains from those stations in my constituency go straight to Waterloo, thus relieving the lines into Charing Cross? Now, many of my constituents travel from Orpington and Petts Wood and get out at Waterloo East, which is not far from Waterloo. Why can they not travel on the alternative line, which is available for use? It would not require a great deal of track rearrangement or similar work.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I was not suggesting that that was undesirable or that it would take a long time. I merely intervened, as I am doing now, to say that this is not a straightforward matter of reusing platforms. Extensive work on the line would be needed.

Mr. Horam: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has elaborated and clarified his comment, but the fact is that this is not a big issue. The work could be done relatively quickly.

The Minister must know that what we want is some quick hits. I am trying to help him. He—a Minister in a Labour Government—would be able say to my constituents, “Here is something that will benefit you within a few months.” We have a wonderful opportunity, but apparently it is not to be taken. Perhaps we are seeing the dead hand of Network Rail. We have seen how bad Network Rail is and we hope that, eventually, the Minister will do something about it. We have plans, as he may know. Perhaps the dead hand belongs to some other group involved in the railways, to civil servants, or to the Minister himself. The Government have an opportunity to do something imaginative and quick-acting, which is almost never possible with railway investment. I hope that the Minister will comment on that possibility.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Horam: No, because I have finished my speech.

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Mr. Tom Harris: I rise to speak more in the hope than in the expectation that I can persuade Opposition Members that the two amendments are not necessary. However, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) has told the House that he intends to press them to a Division regardless of what arguments I make, I shall try to be brief.

Bob Spink: Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Mr. Harris: That is a very early intervention, but of course I will allow it.

3.30 pm

Bob Spink: I am grateful. I have listened to the debate, having sat in on most of it, and I am surprised that no one has mentioned the wider societal and regeneration benefits that would come from supporting amendment No. 4, in particular. The part of the south bank in question, and Waterloo, need regeneration. The amendment would benefit not only commuters but that whole area of London.

Mr. Harris: I was about to point out that no one has yet mentioned the relevance of the amendments to the Bill, which deals with the channel tunnel rail link and not with Waterloo or any other Network Rail mainline station.

Clause 1 confirms that the power under section 6 of the Railways Act 2005 permitting the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance for railway purposes applies to the rail link and the train services running on it. Clause 1 does not give a new power; it simply clarifies, for the avoidance of doubt, that the power will apply to High Speed 1, as it applies to the rest of the rail network. The rail link that the clause refers to is HS1, the railway between St. Pancras and the mouth of the channel tunnel. Waterloo station is not part of the rail link and is not subject to the provisions of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which gave rise to the uncertainty.

It is also worth noting that ownership of Waterloo international terminal is to be transferred to the Department for Transport in March this year, as the hon. Member for Wimbledon said, and it will not be among the assets sold as part of the HS1 business. There is not considered to be any ambiguity about the application of section 6 funding powers to Waterloo. The transfer of Waterloo does not form part of the restructuring with which the Bill is concerned. As a result, amendment No. 7 is unnecessary and irrelevant.

Turning to amendment No. 4, I congratulate the hon. Member for Wimbledon on his intellectual acrobatics in attempting to justify its logic and crowbar it into a short Bill concerned primarily—I would say exclusively—with the channel tunnel rail link. He started by describing his amendment as more subtle than that of his hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). If subtle is the definition of a brick, I suppose I agree.

Amendment No. 4 would ensure that domestic services could use the platforms at Waterloo international. Assurances that that will be possible have already been given on numerous occasions. As far back as October 2005, my right hon. Friend the
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Member for Edinburgh, South-West (Mr. Darling)—now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but then the Secretary of State for Transport—announced that the platforms at Waterloo international would be retained for domestic passenger use. We debated the issue again in March 2007, when I described our plans for Waterloo in some detail. In case hon. Members wish to consult the record, I should tell them that the debate was on 14 March in Westminster Hall.

My officials have been assessing the scope and benefits of altering the platforms at Waterloo station for domestic services for some time; the process did not begin recently. A feasibility study completed in 2006 concluded that running South West Trains services to those platforms would deliver short-term performance benefits, and that long-term development options required further consideration. After the transfer of ownership of Waterloo, work to convert platform 20 for domestic services will start, and that capacity should be available from December 2008. That is our short-term plan.

Mr. Chope What action did the Government take immediately after the publication of the Strategic Rail Authority report from Ove Arup in July 2005, which concluded by recommending extra work in various directions to narrow the options for the future?

Mr. Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman be entirely surprised if I tell him that I do not have those details to hand? However, I shall be more than happy to write to him. Our proposal for the medium term is linked to the high level output specification objective of providing longer trains across the network to meet the expected growth rates forecast over the coming years. The scheme being considered by the Department and Network Rail could see longer commuter trains operating not only on the lines to Windsor and Reading, but on mainline suburban routes to Surbiton, Chessington and Hampton Court. Currently, services on these routes operate into the shortest platforms—platforms 1 to 4—of Waterloo.

The Department’s proposal would see services being shuffled across the existing station, with the Windsor services operating into and out of Waterloo international. That would allow the other lengthened commuter services to access longer platforms within the main Waterloo train shed. Clearly, work is already in hand to implement the Government’s plans for Waterloo international to be redeployed for domestic services.

The amendment seeks to go further and commits the Government to spending on the station for that purpose. That is not only unnecessary but inappropriate. Is the hon. Member for Wimbledon suggesting that a future Conservative Government, instead of putting commitments on major infrastructure changes into the high level output specification, which I assume his party will ultimately accept, would impose on the Secretary of State a statutory commitment that, not only in respect of Waterloo, but presumably in respect of every mainline station and all 23 main lines throughout the country, all those changes, improvements and spending commitments would be mandated in primary legislation? If he does not intend to do that, he is creating an unfortunate and illogical precedent today.

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There are many factors to consider when designing major changes to a busy station. There was a wide range of interested parties to consult. Adding the amendments to the Bill would not be the most effective way of securing the best outcome for passengers at Waterloo. Domestic services are scheduled to begin operation from the international terminal in December 2008. Under the support arrangements in place, we will continue to work on the long-term options.

I conclude by referring to a comment from the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). In his world the conversion of the platforms to domestic use could be done tomorrow—or perhaps, if he were being more realistic, Monday. I have to tell him that I agree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) that the engineering works, not only in the station but on the tracks outside Waterloo, are substantial.

Does the hon. Gentleman honestly believe that I, my colleagues or the Department for Transport had the option of making the platforms immediately available to domestic services, but that instead of pursuing what he called that quick and easy option, we deliberately decided not to do so? That makes no sense. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that I, as the Minister with a vested political interest in making our rail network more effective, would not deliberately turn my back on a cheap and quick option.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Harris: As I am addressing my remarks to the hon. Member for Orpington, it would be better if he intervened now, rather than others.

Mr. Horam: The Minister is an affable man and one of the more able Government Ministers. It is hard to explain to commuters why, although until recently Eurostar trains were going through Orpington and ending up in Waterloo 15 or 20 minutes later, ordinary trains cannot now do the same journey on the same tracks and arrive at Waterloo, relieving congestion on other routes. It seems simple to commuters. I am sure that there are engineering complexities that the Minister will cite, but surely they cannot be that bad.

Mr. Harris: We are in danger of indulging in tabloid politics. With due respect, although the hon. Gentleman may be right to say that it seems patently obvious to the outside observer that when platforms are vacated by Eurostar, all we have to do is say to South West Trains, “You can use those platforms,” of course it is not really that simple.

Stephen Hammond rose—

Mr. Harris: Let me make a relevant point that has not yet been made. I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Wimbledon. He is about to reply on behalf of his party, and in a few minutes he can say what he likes.

There seems to be a view, unfortunately prevalent on the Opposition Benches, that the creation of extra platforms will mean extra capacity on the rail network. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) seems to be of the view that reopening a new railway line
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automatically creates extra capacity. However, such initiatives would be worthless unless we could buy new trains to run services on that new infrastructure.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Orpington that South West Trains does not have the spare capacity to run extra services to Waterloo international. The idea that South West Trains could conjure up x number of new carriages to run new services through platforms that were previously used but are now vacant is frankly unbelievable. The Conservative party should put its money where its mouth is and welcome the high level output specification, which we announced in July, and which commits the Government to purchasing, through the franchising process, 1,300 new trains—some of which will go to South West Trains for exactly the purpose mentioned. I have to conclude that opening up vacant platforms is utterly useless unless there are new trains to provide services for customers.

Stephen Hammond rose—

Norman Baker rose—

Mr. Harris: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Wimbledon.

Stephen Hammond: A moment ago, the Minister accused me of intellectual acrobatics; actually, he is engaging in them himself. We all accept that platforms cannot just be turned on and off and that there are engineering works in Clapham. However, in making his defence, he has failed to explain in any way what has happened between November 2004 and now. When the decommissioning and vacation happened, the Government could have put the plans into operation immediately. His defence would have been stronger if he had mentioned those.

Mr. Harris: I was trying to make the point that whatever work has been done in considering options for the domestic use of such platforms—and a great deal has—our major funding commitment for new carriages takes place between 2009 and 2014. Incidentally, the hon. Gentleman’s party has not welcomed that spending commitment.

Norman Baker: The Minister has set out the complexities fairly. However, will he tell us the last possible date, in the worst-case scenario, by which those platforms will come into use for domestic services?

Mr. Harris: I expect the platforms to be in service by 2014. With that reassurance, I urge the hon. Member for Christchurch to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Chope: The Minister’s response to the debate has been disappointing. We have not raised the matter as a party political issue, but he seems to want to turn it into one. People who commute into Waterloo, or have constituents who do so, will wonder why someone who represents Glasgow, South is commenting on what it is like to go into Waterloo station.

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