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I have referred previously to facilities for the disabled at Redhill, and I want to return to that topic tonight. On the Tonbridge-Redhill line, and at both the two
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Edenbridge stations, the facilities for the disabled are totally inadequate. Last year, a constituent of mine took part in paraplegic games on the continent in Europe. He came home to Edenbridge in his wheelchair, but the only way in which he was able to get out of Edenbridge station quickly was to be taken across the tracks in his wheelchair by his relatives. That is self-evidently pretty dangerous, and it is disgraceful that, in this day and age, disabled people should have to be carried across the tracks because of the inadequacy of facilities for the disabled.

I am in no doubt that, in the South Central franchise consultation document, the Government have made a very serious error of policy in emasculating the use of the Tonbridge-Redhill line as far as services into Gatwick airport are concerned. I can only urge the Minister in the strongest terms to scrap that policy and start again. As the stakeholders said in 2004—it holds good today, just as it did then—the point from which he should start is with a

9.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate, and on providing the House with this opportunity to discuss these important issues based on the new South Central rail franchise. I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to speak for more than the traditional amount of time. I should also like to thank him for his kind words about my appointment. I assure him that I am not thinking about days, weeks or months; rather, I am focusing on the task in hand, for however long that might take. I now want to concentrate on trying to answer some, if not all, of his questions, within the limits that constrain me in regard to the current franchise process.

Our railway service now has more people and more freight moving across the country than in the past 50 years. It is safer than before, and its reliability is much greater than before. In the command paper on a sustainable railway, which was launched in July, we committed further record levels of investment with the aim of doubling the numbers on the railways and the freight service and making them safer, as well as tackling the carbon footprint of the rail industry. That is the background, with record use of our railway system, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises as very important. In dealing with his comments, it may be helpful if I explain where we are with the franchise process and pick up on some of the issues that he raised.

The Department for Transport issued a general advertisement for the franchise in May this year and announced in August that four groups had pre-qualified to receive an invitation to tender later this year. Those groups were National Express, the operator of the East Coast, c2c and East Anglia franchises; Stagecoach, operator of South West Trains, East Midlands Trains and a significant shareholder in Virgin Trains; GoVia, the current operator, which is also the operator of Southeastern Trains and London Midland; and
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NedRailways, the Dutch railway operator, which also operates Northern and Merseyrail in the consortium with Serco.

It is our intention that the formal invitation to tender will be issued in early November, with bids received in February next year. A final decision on who will be awarded the franchise will be announced in the summer of 2009. The new franchise will come into operation, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, on 20 September 2009 and will run for five years and 10 months, with the final year dependent on the operator having achieved a number of performance targets. There will be an optional extension of an additional two years, which the Government will be able to introduce at their own discretion.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is equally aware that this franchise will probably be shorter than the average franchise of seven to 10 years, but he will recognise equally that that is because of the substantial investment going on, which will benefit his constituents as well as many others among the travelling public, with the implementation of the £5.5 billion Thameslink programme to which the Government gave the go-ahead in the summer last year. The completion of that Thameslink programme in 2015 may require significant changes to the franchise map in 2015; thus a period of five years and 10 months gives the Government maximum flexibility in that regard without the need to carry out costly and time-consuming franchise termination negotiations. That, in turn, will save the taxpayer money.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about stakeholder engagement and, particularly, about Passenger Focus. He will know that extensive discussions have taken place in the build-up to the franchise consultation. The Department carried out briefing events with local authorities in January this year with the aim of gaining a broad understanding of key local issues in advance of the outline work of the franchise specification.

In May, we launched the formal consultation document, setting out the objectives for the franchise and the key issues that we were seeking to address. Consultation events were also held with stakeholders in Croydon, Worthing and Eastbourne, and 60 organisations were represented at those events. Alongside that, we have received some 156 written consultation responses. We remain grateful, of course, for the time people have taken to address those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that Passenger Focus has been strengthened to ensure that there is a good voice for the travelling public, whether it be for rail or bus passengers, who are dealt with in the Local Transport Bill. This is the first time that Passenger Focus has provided detailed advice to the Secretary of State about the issues that the new franchisee should be required to address. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked for that document to be placed in the Library, and that will be done.

Sir John Stanley: If, as the Minister says, Passenger Focus is being strengthened, will he explain why the Passenger Focus response to the Secretary of State on the issue of the Tonbridge to Redhill line and services to Gatwick is so completely out of synchronisation and so completely out of touch with the unanimous criticisms of the Kent local authorities and the rail passengers’ organisations involved?

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Paul Clark: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish me, or come to that the Secretary of State, to dictate to Passenger Focus what report it should present. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Passenger Focus conducted surveys of some 6,500 South Central passengers seeking their views on areas of deficiency and the improvements that they wanted to see. It is on that basis that I would assume that it has compiled a report, and the process has been invaluable in securing information from precisely the people whom I know the right hon. Gentleman represents: the potential users of the services concerned. That is what we believe Passenger Focus, among others, has done, and because the operation has been so valuable, we intend to continue the process in similar vein when it comes to future franchises.

Passenger Focus has provided Ministers with some 70 recommendations. We continue to consider them, and to consider which of the issues that it has raised can be accommodated within the specification. Our consultation document already addresses a number of the issues that Passenger Focus raises, such as later services at weekends and better access to stations. Let me say something about better access with particular reference to people with disabilities. We have committed funds via Access for All. More than 2,500 stations nationwide have been identified, but it is not possible to improve all of them at once. Of course we will keep the requirements of individual stations under review, and will take all the necessary steps through funding organisations such as Access for All.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has received a number of submissions from his constituents about the specification for the franchise, and has raised them with my former ministerial colleagues. As I suspect he will appreciate, I cannot at this stage give the House more details of our response to the specific concerns expressed about all aspects of the issue, but I am sure he will understand that we are considering all the issues in full before making the formal announcements in November.

It should be borne in mind that the franchise specification aims to set out the minimum level of service provision that we expect bidders to offer, while the bidders decide where, for example, additional car parking spaces or ticket machines might be allocated. That is a matter to be dealt with by the operator, in conjunction with the consultation processes that are available.

Let me turn specifically to the Tonbridge and Redhill services. The right hon. Gentleman has made very clear the concerns that exist. The changes on this corridor are being made in December, before the start of the new franchise. As he will know, they are part of the implementation of the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy. The strategy is intended to improve capacity on the Brighton main line, especially in peak periods, but provides for additional services from the Redhill corridor to London, and off-peak services from Reigate, for the first time in many years. However, the implementation of the route utilisation strategy will result in the withdrawal of the hourly Tunbridge Wells to Horsham service, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, with its direct link to Gatwick airport, and a reduction in frequency on the Tonbridge to Redhill corridor to hourly, although some peak period through-services to Victoria will again operate for the first time
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in many years. I understand that the current operator, Southern, consulted on these plans earlier this year as part of the development of its December 2008 timetable proposition.

Sir John Stanley: At a time when, on BAA plc figures, 1 million people from Kent per year use Gatwick airport, how can it possibly be sensible for the Government to make certain that virtually every single one of those 1 million people do not use the rail service, but use the roads instead? How can that conceivably be a sensible transport policy?

Paul Clark: I was just coming on to precisely the point about the potential customers for rail services. The Gatwick services have been in existence for more than 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman said in his opening comments that the Minister would probably respond by saying services were not being used and were under-utilised. That is exactly what the position has been—the demand has been very low. Initially, those services were operating from as far afield as the Medway towns, but the retention of two trains per hour on the corridor cannot be justified on the levels of usage of the services during that period, when there are other competing pressures for an increase in operational requirements.

Mr. Pelling: Will the Minister give a little more background as to why it is that the welcome improved north-south provision on that route compromises the ability of trains to come in from the east in Kent? Is there a possibility that one of the reasons why this compromise has had to be made is the Government’s previous decision to support too much capacity for the
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Gatwick Express, bearing in mind that that service also seems often to run far below capacity, while at the same time it compromises other services that might well draw in passengers from elsewhere to the important Gatwick stop?

Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that where we have an infrastructure and we are trying to achieve the best possible utilisation, there may well be consequences as a result of required changes. In such cases, one looks at the services that are being best utilised and where there is a possibility of increasing capacity. For example, increased capacity is available for the travelling public at Redhill station.

However, let me make it clear that if bidders for the franchise decide that a commercial case exists for operating the service and sufficient network capacity is available, they can implement the service and take any associated profits from it, because the Government would not stand in their way. From this December, the London services will be operated by newer class 377 Electrostar rolling stock, which we believe will enhance the attractiveness of the service, but our current intention is to require the operator to continue to monitor the use of the service—as we will, with other elements of the franchise—to ensure that off-peak services provide value for money and carry sufficient demand to justify their continuation.

Our overriding wish is to improve train services. The franchise process enables all the comments received to be considered seriously. We will take on board those that have been raised with us, including those on Uckfield, and we are asking Network Rail to look at the possibility of increasing services on that line. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and I look forward to further developments when we invite tenders.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Ten o’clock.

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