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Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important one-and-a-half-hour debate. Is he
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disappointed that not a single Labour Back Bencher from England is present in the Chamber?

Gregory Barker: I am disappointed. I thought that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) might have been here, given his constituency’s significant interest in the debate. However, we know that Amber Rudd, who we hope will be his successor, is campaigning hard on these issues; I know that she will make the voice of Hastings heard on this issue.

Can the Minister at least give the House the assurance that his Department will, if nothing else, look again at the maps of Kent and East Sussex, take on board how unfair it is that my constituents are singled out to pay for the new Javelin train service—which lies way beyond a sensible drive time from Bexhill and Battle—and endeavour to come up with a more equitable and logical way to spread the load of payment for those trains?

9.14 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for creating this opportunity for those of us who represent seats in the south-east to refer to a source of burning anger for our constituents.

This is the third year in succession in which our constituents—my constituents travelling from Margate, and those travelling from Westgate-on-Sea, Birchington-on-Sea, Herne Bay and right across east Kent—have faced an above-average fare increase. We are told that that increase is necessary to pay for the bullet train to which my hon. Friend referred—the much-vaunted fast rail service that is going to speed the journey from Kent to St. Pancras. The advertising on Southeastern’s website says:

Oh no they will not. They might reduce the travelling time just a little from east Kent to St. Pancras, but my constituents do not want to go to St. Pancras—they want to go to Victoria, Cannon Street and Charing Cross. Coming in from the south of London, most of them, as the Minister knows only too well, do not work in north London; they work around Westminster or Victoria, or in the City around Cannon Street. They are used to catching a train to one of the riverbank termini and then walking, or even taking a fold-up bike and cycling, to work. My constituents are going to be made to pay higher prices to travel to a station they do not want to go to and then pay a tube fare to get back to the place where they actually want to be, thus adding time to their journey. The bottom line is that my constituents are going to pay more for less.

The trains from east Kent are now slower than they were in 1927. I have looked at the timetable. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes to get by train from Thanet to London—a journey of about 70 miles. I am not a genius with figures, but that suggests a speed of between 30 and 40 mph, which is not very fast in this day and age. The high-speed link, we are told, will knock a few minutes off the journey time from east Kent to St. Pancras—but not to where my constituents want to be. I have travelled on this line previously; I am probably the only living person who has. British Rail—that shows how long ago it was—made the mistake of running
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an engineering train from Victoria to Ramsgate. It did that on old track, with old rolling stock, in one hour flat—60 minutes. To be fair, to enable that to happen it had to clear a path by moving two trains in front, but the point is that it can be done. Under these proposals, it will not be done and we are facing an above-average fare increase designed to pay for a service that my constituents do not want to use.

In a letter to my commuting constituent, Sharon Reeve from Herne Bay, the customer relations team leader for Southeastern, Frances Maynard, wrote:

much higher than inflation now. She goes on:

Surprise, surprise—for the Kent coast line it is more, as it was last year and the year before. Why? Because, says Frances Maynard:

In the franchise briefing document issued by the Strategic Rail Authority before Southeastern took over the franchise, it was made plain that these increases and the Government’s decrease in subsidy could be phased over the lifetime of the franchise. What Southeastern is doing—it is blindingly obvious—is loading the costs up front as far and as hard as it possibly can in order to get as much money in as quickly as it possibly can.

Sadly, the Government have declined to make available the models for those fares and journey times, and for the number of trains running on those lines to individual stations—such as Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street and St. Pancras—on the grounds that it might be commercially sensitive with regard to Southeastern and Govia. Govia is a good name because if someone wants to get to Cannon Street, Victoria, Whitehall or the City, they will have to go via St. Pancras, and then do so again on the way back home, to get where they wanted to be. That does not sound like progress to me.

The Minister, who is a personal friend, has to come up with some answers. He knows the situation only too well because his constituents use the same line as mine —they just catch it a bit closer to London where the trains are a bit more crowded. They, too, will get less for more and will have to travel to a station they do not want to go to. I suggest that his majority is—if he will pardon the pun—on the line, literally. In this case, it is the Kent coast line. When he replies, I hope he will explain to me how he will explain to his constituents who travel from Kent why they are being burdened with the costs of journeys they do not want to make.

9.21 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing this important debate. Commuters in Tunbridge Wells suffered a double whammy
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at the beginning of the year because they faced fare increases of 10 per cent., while capacity on some of the peak services has been reduced by 20 per cent. It is as if they are subject to a bizarre game of musical chairs in which they pay more for a seat and it then gets taken away from them. I shall address both of those points in turn.

As my hon. Friend eloquently said, we face fare increases well above inflation. The increase is 10 per cent. in Tunbridge Wells this year, following one of 7.9 per cent. the previous year. We can look forward to increases for a further two years, all because the Government, in the tendering document, required Southeastern customers to pay for the costs of the channel tunnel rail link. On the Hastings line, from Sevenoaks right down to Hastings, none of our constituents would benefit from the high-speed line. It is fantastic that it is going ahead, and those who can benefit from it clearly have cause for celebration, but no one in Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge or any of the stations used by my constituents will benefit. Indeed, we actively disbenefit in the following way.

Journey times from Ashford, which now last 83 minutes on average, will fall to 36 minutes. In so far as there is competition between our towns, Ashford will be more attractive in commuting terms than Tunbridge Wells. We think we have manifest charms that might make up for that, and we are confident that we can hold our own, but nevertheless it is galling for my constituents that they will have no reduction in journey time, while paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, in Hastings the situation is even worse. MPs representing constituents along the A21 and the line from Sevenoaks to Hastings have come together with the district and county councils in the area to create a reference group to promote the importance of improving transport links in the region. One of the consequences of the fare increases and the new high-speed rail line is that Hastings will be more isolated in transport terms than it has been to date. Ramsgate will have a high-speed rail link, and people will be able to get to London much faster; train services from Brighton to London are much better than they are from Hastings; and the relative position of a town such as Hastings, which needs all the help it can get to regenerate itself and is making great efforts in that regard, will be relatively disadvantaged. We can add to that continuing problems with congestion on the A21, which desperately needs an upgrade in the form of a dual carriageway between Tonbridge and Pembury, and between Kippings Cross and Lamberhurst. Until we get that improvement, and as a result of the fare increases, Hastings will be further disadvantaged by the changes.

I shall deal with overcrowding, although I am disappointed to have to raise the issue. It is important that we get value for money. My constituents feel that the service provided by Southeastern over the past few years was much better than that provided under the Connex South Eastern franchise; there was an improvement. There have been improvements to stations, too—they have been painted and brought up to date. The service has deteriorated recently, but up until then, the service was more reliable than in the past. Given that background, it disappoints me that without any fanfare—without
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any publicity at all, as far as I can see—the decision was taken to reduce capacity from 10 carriages to eight on five peak-time trains servicing Tunbridge Wells. The reason that Southeastern gives for that is that it needed to react to deteriorating economic conditions.

Southeastern is implying a radical cut of 20 per cent. in the number of commuters—a cut that I am certain has not taken place, because the consequence of the move made in recent weeks is that peak-time trains have become even more crowded. Of the five trains between 6.56 and 7.56 in the morning that link Tunbridge Wells and Charing Cross, three have had their carriage numbers reduced from 10 to eight. Let me share some of the consequences with the House.

My constituent Philip Ashworth wrote to me on the issue. Again, he was not informed of the policy decision. He says:

And so it continues on Friday 9 January and beyond. We have a deteriorating service, but the price has rocketed.

My constituent Chris Comorford has done calculations that show that however one looks at it—whether we base the calculation on distance travelled or the speed of the service—Tunbridge Wells is becoming one of the most expensive places in the south-east to commute from, mile for mile or minute for minute. For example, commuters travel an additional 4 miles to get to Reading, but they do so at more than twice the average speed. The journey from Tunbridge Wells to London is twice as expensive. We are paying more money and getting a poorer service. We need to address that before measures to ensure sustainable transport are affected in the wrong way. We want people on the rails, not the roads. The Tunbridge Wells and District Railway Travellers Association, led by Martin Lewis, shares my concerns and those of my constituents on the issue.

I close by putting to the Minister a suggestion made by my constituent, Mr. Ashworth:

I hope it will not come to that. I hope the Minister will be able to exert his influence on Southeastern. I hope that Charles Horton and his staff at that company hear my constituents’ stories and learn of the situation that they face, and so review the decision to cut peak-time capacity. The company has promised us extra trains by December 2009—two extra trains from Tunbridge Wells to London—so it seems perverse to squeeze capacity now only to increase it later. I hope the Minister can use his good offices to influence the company, and I hope the company listens to constituents and returns to the high levels of service that, until recent months, we had come to expect from it.

9.28 pm

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) in this debate. You will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on my Bench the epicentre of sensible transport policy for the Tunbridge Wells, Bexhill and Battle, and Wealden triangle; we are the people
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driving forward change and making sure that the interests of our constituents are well-represented. I agree with every word my hon. Friend said. What he said applied to many of my constituents. Many of them use the Hastings line. They get on at Frant or Wadhurst, but the train is often full by that time. They have to park a significant distance from the stations because of inadequate parking facilities in the area, and they are paying more for the privilege all the time.

My constituency is served by three lines. The line to Hastings is one, the Uckfield line is another—one would be forgiven for thinking it a tourist route it is so slow; it takes about an hour and an quarter to do the 40 miles from Uckfield to London—and the third is the line down to Lewes and Eastbourne. Those lines present different problems, but the challenge for my constituents is that, as others have said of their constituents, they are paying more and getting less for it.

We have to be fair to Southern. On the Uckfield line in particular we have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of the service in the seven years in which I have been the MP. Since Southern took over the franchise, we have had trains that largely run on time, which are clean and which have friendly staff. The travelling experience on that line has been significantly enhanced, although that does not apply to the other lines in quite the same way. The consequence of that improved service is that the popularity of those lines has grown, and there is now significant overcrowding. People travelling from London down to Uckfield find that they may stand as far as Eridge or Crowborough. People getting on in the morning often have to stand for as much as an hour of the journey up to London. That is not an acceptable level of service for people to expect.

If people were getting more in return for the money that they are paying, they would not mind so much, but we are not seeing the longer trains. We ought to have longer trains to accommodate the passengers who are using the services. We ought to be seeing more trains later in the evening, too, to ensure that people can come up to London and get back, having gone to the theatre or been for an evening out. We ought also to be seeing more regular trains. However, we are not seeing those improvements in the service; we are seeing a reduction in the service. On the line that serves the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which runs down to Polegate, where people in Hailsham would catch the train, people are seeing a reduction in the number of trains offered. The service continues to be chipped away at, when it should be being improved.

One fundamental problem is that although people are paying a lot of money for their train tickets and a significant amount to park, they simply cannot park, because of the inadequate number of parking spaces available. On the Uckfield line, that problem starts at Uckfield, where we have 14 parking spaces. That means that people cannot park there, so they go up the line to Buxted, parking all around the village, causing huge amounts of disruption and damaging the interests of local businesses, because shoppers cannot park outside. The car parks will be largely full as far up the line as Eridge, where there will typically be 100 cars parked on the verges round the station, blocking people’s driveways and causing huge inconvenience. If people are paying premium prices for the service, they should be able to expect the right investment to go into improving the overall travelling experience.

20 Jan 2009 : Column 720

Indeed, people in Uckfield do not even have a station at the moment. The previous station had to be removed because it had rats. The station mistress was attacked by a rat and the station was closed as an unfit place to work, but we do not have anything else. In spite of the huge amount of money that people are paying, they do not even have a station that they can use. We are told that if a new station were put on the site, we would have to find a significant amount towards its cost from local council tax payers, who are already hard-pressed; but they should expect a station as of right.

We are not getting the service that we expect, but there is another thing that I hope the Minister will address: this evening we are highlighting a problem that has got worse, but we are profoundly concerned that it will get worse still. We know that the Government plan to impose thousands of new houses on our constituencies over the coming years. They are not wanted. We recognise that there needs to be some additional new house building, but building on the scale proposed is absolutely without justification and will do massive damage to the beauty of our constituencies.

What we are not getting, however, is the investment in the infrastructure to support those houses. The people in my constituency, in Bexhill and Battle, in Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere would be much more willing to accept the imposition of new housing on our constituencies if we felt that the investment in the rail infrastructure was going to be made to enable people to travel to where they need to go. What we have seen, however, in the discussions that we have had about reopening the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, is that the Government’s formula for the proposals means that we cannot secure funding to open just a 7-mile stretch of line that would significantly enhance the train service in the whole south-east.

I ask the Minister not only to look at the problems that people are facing today, but to look forward and to try to reassure us that the Government are thinking about a sustainable transport policy. At the moment, we feel that we are constantly being charged more for the travelling experience, but that the experience itself is not getting better.

9.35 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I must stress that I am speaking in my capacity as a local Member for East Sussex, rather than in any Front-Bench role for the Liberal Democrats.

I welcome the opening comments made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). I agreed with virtually every word that he said. This is an important issue, and it should affect all local MPs in East Sussex, Kent and elsewhere. I therefore share the disappointment that there are no Back-Bench Labour MPs here from any of the constituencies that are affected, such as those in Brighton and Hastings. However, 100 per cent. of the Liberal Democrat MPs from Kent and Sussex are here in the Chamber tonight.

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