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Banking Bill [Money]

Queen’s recommendation having been signified——

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.

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Banking Bill [ways and Means]

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.



european documents

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Committees),

Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Cars and Light Commercial Vehicles

Question agreed to.

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South Central Rail Franchise

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. May I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? We need to get on with the Adjournment debate.

9.15 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I note that in this era of collapses, even the debate on the Government’s Banking Bill has collapsed, but I am delighted to have additional time for the all-important subject of the South Central rail franchise.

I start by offering my warm congratulations to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), on his promotion to ministerial rank. He may be wondering whether his time as a Minister will be measured in weeks, months or years, but whatever it is, I wish him well during his period in office. I am sure that as a fellow Kent Member, he will have more than a passing interest in my remarks during the debate.

The Minister may have asked himself why I sought a debate on the South Central rail franchise. The principal reason is that I recognise that the Government are rightly preoccupied with improving rail services in a north-south direction, predominantly into London. What dismays me and my constituents is that the Government appear to have lost sight almost completely of the vital importance of east-west connections from Kent, particularly down the Tonbridge to Redhill line with services through to Gatwick. I shall address most of my remarks to that issue.

I shall start by setting out the facts of demand from air travellers using Gatwick airport. I hope the Minister will not be tempted by what may be in his brief to reply that there does not appear to be very much demand for rail services from Kent through to Gatwick. If he ventures such a comment, I shall reply that the very existence of through rail services from Tonbridge down the Tonbridge-Redhill line to Gatwick is one of the best kept secrets of services available in the entire rail network. There has been a blatant and almost total lack of adequate marketing of those services on the Tonbridge to Redhill line by both Southern and South Central—an abject marketing failure. I do not believe that the present utilisation of the line in any way reflects what it might be if the line were properly marketed.

The facts relating to demand were well set out in the 2004 Brighton main line route utilisation strategy. That shows, interestingly, after demand from Gatwick airport air travellers from the Greater London area, the next highest area of demand is the county of Kent. It is the second highest source of air passenger travellers to Gatwick airport. The 2004 study shows that at that point 1.8 million people a year were travelling from Kent to Gatwick airport.

The present position was set out in an important letter from Mr. Bernard Ashley, the manager responsible for the planning and transport strategy at BAA, to the Department for Transport, dated 23 January 2008. He said:

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May I just register that with the Minister? That is the position as accurately as we know it today—a huge potential demand for travel by rail of 1 million people from Tonbridge, Ashford and east Kent wanting to use Gatwick airport.

Then we come to the future, which was set out for me in a later letter of 25 June 2008 from the chief executive of BAA, Mr. Colin Matthews. On the future level of demand at Gatwick, he said:

Therefore, at Gatwick we have absolutely clear evidence of rising demand for the use of the airport coupled with a substantial demand from people whose journeys originate in Kent.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I hope that it does not take the right hon. Gentleman by surprise that someone else is present supporting his concerns. I am at the other end of the line in Croydon. The development of Gatwick is important to the development of the economy in south London. With a limited service to Tonbridge from East Croydon, many residents have to travel to London to get down to Kent. Does he agree that that must emphasise the importance of taking the best advantage of those rail facilities that exist between Redhill and Tonbridge?

Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He touches on an important point for a considerable number of my constituents. Large numbers travel to London, but they do not all go into central London. A number go to and from East Croydon as their point of work every day.

Against the background of that demand, not surprisingly, when those who these days are termed stakeholders—in other words those representing the rail passenger interests—came to respond to the Brighton main line utilisation survey, they made a clear recommendation, which was set out in appendix A of the survey, entitled “Stakeholder aspirations”, which I thought was somewhat condescending. The recommendation states:

an absolutely logical and correct recommendation in the light of the self-evident scale of the demand for east-west services into Gatwick from Kent.

Against that background of rail travellers’ wishes and the clear evidence of demand, one then comes to the Government’s response. That response, from a Government supposedly committed to enhancing travel by public transport and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from car use, is to smash—that is not an exaggerated word—east-west rail travel between Tonbridge and other parts of Kent along the Tonbridge to Redhill line into Gatwick. I shall explain why I have used that word, advisedly, and why I believe it to be absolutely accurate.

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The Government propose to take three steps, each of which, and taken together, will result in virtually nil use of the Tonbridge to Redhill rail service to Gatwick. First, the Government are ending the existing and very important through services to Gatwick from west Kent along the Tonbridge to Redhill line. Perhaps the Minister has been briefed to reply that although the through services are ending, indirect services can still be used via a change at Redhill. I do not know whether he has ever done the change at Redhill, but it is not particularly easy for passengers.

Each and every passenger makes the straight decision on every trip to or from Gatwick airport about whether to go by car or train; every impediment makes it more likely that they will go by car. As the Minister may or may not know, if a person goes from Tonbridge to Gatwick, making the change at Redhill, they have to go down the steps, along the subway and up the steps on the other side. If they are taking the family and are heavily laden, with a pushchair and everything else, that is quite an operation. Furthermore, for the disabled it is a non-starter.

Ending the through services to Gatwick is a serious move. It is being coupled with an equally disastrous decision: to replace the current half-hourly service during off-peak periods with one that takes place only once every hour. That is a fundamentally important difference in time scale. Presumably the Government are familiar with them, but extraordinarily there is no matching of Gatwick aircraft arrival and departure times with the timing of the morning and evening peaks for rail travellers. The flights come in and out all through the day. With only an hourly service, someone going to or coming from Gatwick will be certain to take a car rather than the train. I am sure that the Minister uses Gatwick regularly; I certainly do. Someone there with a maximum of 29 minutes to wait for a train might be prepared to wait. However, I am certain that virtually every passenger faced with the prospect of waiting 59 minutes would say, “No—blow the train! I’ll go by car instead.”

The final nail in the coffin of the through services to Gatwick is the proposed change in the franchise arrangements. That crucial change is to remove Southeastern in toto from providing services along the Tonbridge-Redhill line and to give those services exclusively to South Central Trains. That is disastrous because Southeastern provides virtually all the rail services in Kent; the Minister knows that well from his own constituency background. Southeastern can market the services and generate the demand along the Tonbridge-Redhill line. As far as South Central—Southern—is concerned, it is only a small part of its total operation. The Tonbridge-Redhill line is just a bit player as far as Southern is concerned, and it cannot access the rest of the market through to Kent. The transfer of the franchise from South-eastern to South Central is a final reason why the combination of those three factors will mean for air travellers virtually the extinction of the use of the Tonbridge-Redhill line for services to Gatwick.

As the Minister will not be surprised to know, that situation and that forecast is not just being made by me, but by every group representing rail travellers all over Kent—the local authorities and the relevant rail traveller groups. In the representations that his Department has received, the criticisms of the extinction of the use of
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the Tonbridge-Redhill line by those travelling by rail to Gatwick have been a universal chorus. His Department has heard it from Kent county council, Tonbridge and Malling borough council, Sevenoaks district council, Edenbridge town council, the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers Association and from Tonbridge Line Commuters. I can tell the Minister that those last two representative organisations of rail travellers have as their honorary secretaries two extremely independent and most expert individuals, Mr. John Bigney and Mr. Lionel Shields, who provide an outstanding, expert and independent service to those organisations.

The only body that has been barely critical of the Government’s proposal is, extraordinarily, the very body that is meant to speak up for rail travellers: the Government-appointed quango Passenger Focus. If there ever was an issue on which one would have expected them to make a good lion’s roar for rail travellers, it would be the threatened extinction of the Tonbridge-Redhill line to Gatwick for many of passengers. In its response to the Department, what did Passenger Focus say? All it offered was this:

That is all they could say—frankly, an absolutely pathetic whimper.

As far as I am concerned, that is all of a piece. As the Minister will recall, we used to have the highly effective community health councils, which the Government wrapped up and replaced with Patient Focus, which has been conspicuous in its ineffectual nature. The highly effective regional rail user consultative committees have been wrapped up and replaced by the ineffectual Passenger Focus, and now I am dismayed to see that the Government are wrapping up the consumer bodies that deal with energy and replacing them with a body called Energy Focus. If the past track record is anything to go by, that will be equally ineffectual.

Returning to the South Central franchise, there are other points that I want to put to the Minister. It is not just rail travellers to Gatwick who will lose out under the Government’s proposals on the Tonbridge-Redhill line. It is a significant issue for many schoolchildren. As the Minister, with his Kent background, will know, there is no secondary school west from Tonbridge to the Surrey border. Large numbers of schoolchildren travel along that line from Kent and the Edenbridge area—indeed, some come from Surrey and even from Sussex—to the schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. The implications of reducing off-peak services to only one hour on the Tonbridge-to-Redhill line are liable to include a significant increase in the school day for considerable numbers of schoolchildren. That is another factor that the Minister should weigh in his mind.

There is another factor that arises from the transfer of the franchise along the Tonbridge-Redhill line from South Eastern Trains to South Central. As the Minister may be aware, the Sevenoaks tunnel is one of the longest in the country. It is a Victorian tunnel and from time to time it needs to be shut for maintenance and repair. It is inconvenient when that happens, but it has happened periodically. The diversion line from the main London-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge line goes down the Redhill-Tonbridge line. Once the transfer of the franchise takes place, however, train drivers on South Eastern Trains
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will no longer have any familiarity with their main diversion route, the Redhill-to-Tonbridge route. I do not believe that the issue has been properly considered by the Department, but it is a serious one and, potentially, a safety issue.

I also want to make a couple of points about the other major line going through Edenbridge in my constituency, which is the Uckfield line to London. There is no doubt at all that some of the villages in my constituency that are served by stations on that line currently have an unjustifiably poor service. That is brought out well in the submission that the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers association made in response to the Department.

For example, for those who want to commute to and from Cowden and Hever stations in my constituency, there are no trains from London in the evening rush hour between 4.33 pm and 7.08 pm. That is a gap in the evening peak of two hours and 35 minutes between those two trains. Just as bad, the last train down the Uckfield line from London, which leaves at 10.05 pm, does not stop at Cowden or Hever either. They are villages, not towns, but I assure the Minister that they are villages from which a considerable number of people commute to London each day. Most of them have to drive round the country quite unnecessarily because there is an inadequate service for those two villages.

Mr. Pelling: Can the issue also be seen from the point of view of additional traffic, which will come to Croydon? Many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who do not have a reliable rail service will inevitably have to travel to Coulsdon or Croydon, and will therefore end up congesting the roads between his constituency and south London.

Sir John Stanley: I am coming to that very point, which is the issue of capacity on the Uckfield line. The Uckfield line suffers because insufficient stops are made by particular trains, and because it is currently experiencing serious overcrowding due to an insufficiency of trains, the reason for which I shall explain in a moment. Some people who commute every day now have to stand all the way from Edenbridge into London. That is simply not acceptable, given the distance that they are travelling and the money that they are paying for their season tickets.

The reason for such overcrowding is a serious insufficiency of diesel units. As I hope the Minister knows, the Uckfield line is one of the relatively few left in the southern region for which the previously privatised rail companies—before they were nationalised after the war—must have run out of money and were unable to electrify various bits. One of those bits is along the Uckfield line. It is therefore necessary to use diesel engines on it. I put it to the Minister that it is particularly disappointing that, despite a demonstrable shortage of diesel engines, there is no requirement in the Government’s franchise document for the winner of the South Central franchise to introduce or procure more diesel units or to deal with the capacity problems. That is a serious omission.

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