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When I undertook a survey of my constituents in Lewes, Seaford, Newhaven and Polegate before Christmas to ask their views on the railways, there was general acceptance that the quality of the carriages had increased, that the trains were more reliable and —to echo the words of the hon. Member for Wealden
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(Charles Hendry)—that Southeastern seemed to have done a reasonable job with the railway. One concern stood out among the plaudits, however: the cost of travelling by train. That was the issue of greatest concern to 68 per cent. of those who responded to my survey.

That is not entirely surprising. The formula referred to by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, which pushes the cost of travelling by train up above inflation every year, is simply not acceptable in terms of value for money or the consequences for the rail passenger, who is caned every year. It is certainly not sensible in regard to tackling the climate challenge that we all face. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) intervened earlier to point out that the formula used to be RPI minus 1, but that it is now RPI plus 1. It is the Government’s policy to push up rail fares above inflation every year, and that is neither sensible nor defensible. It is even worse than that, however, because the cost of travelling by train increases even more for those paying unregulated fares, which have gone up beyond RPI plus 1. Although it does not affect my constituency, I also sympathise with the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle with the consequences of the Javelin train in his part of the world.

We are facing economic hardship at the moment, as all Members know. People are being made redundant and losing their jobs day after day. When such pressures have existed before, the Government have reacted. For example, in three years out of the past 10, they have reacted by freezing fuel duty for motorists, following hard campaigning, yet they have never frozen rail fares for passengers. There is one rule for the motorist and another for the train passenger.

If we look at the figures for the past 30 years, we see that the cost of travelling by train has risen by roughly 70 per cent. above inflation in real terms in that period, and the cost of travelling by bus has risen by even more, but the cost of motoring has gone down in real terms. The rail passengers in my constituency ask why the Government occasionally freeze fuel duty when the cost of motoring is going down, when they never freeze the cost of travelling by train, even though it is going up beyond the level of inflation. The Government really need to get a handle on that. I suggested earlier this year that we should have a freeze on rail fares, which could have been paid for simply by cancelling 3 miles of motorway widening. That would have paid for a fares freeze this year, and if people were asked which they would prefer, I think I know what the answer would be.

The cost of rail travel in this country is also high compared to that in other countries. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle kindly referred to some Lib Dem research—without mentioning that it was Lib Dem research—in his opening remarks. The cost of a journey in Serbia that is the equivalent of travelling from John O’Groats to London would get someone from here to Basildon in this country. Would Members rather be in John O’Groats or Basildon, in terms of getting value for money when travelling from London? That money buys a journey of 512 miles in Serbia, compared with one of 26 miles here. I am afraid that the Government are pricing people off the railways, and that is a transport policy that does not make sense.

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We need to recognise that more people want to travel by train. Some have no alternative, including the commuters in my part of the world, but many people want to travel by train. Trains are attracting more and more passengers, yet the Government’s answer is either to force people off the railways by pushing the prices up or to allow the increase in cattle-truck conditions that we are now seeing on lines all around London and elsewhere in the country. More people are now standing for longer distances on trains and paying more for the privilege in the south-east and in my constituency. That cannot be right in any shape or form. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle rightly said, the Government are extracting more money from the rail companies and, through them, from passengers in order to reduce the call on the Treasury purse. It is a tax on the railway passenger and it is also a tax on good environmental practice.

My constituents in Lewes are very keen on protecting the environment—it is a major theme in my postbag—and they are saying that they want to travel by train and want to see the link increasingly made between carbon emissions and the price paid for a particular activity. How can it have become cheaper over the last 10 years to travel by air, with its carbon-busting implications, and far more expensive to travel by rail, when we surely want to see the opposite occurring if we are going to tackle climate change? How are the Government going to reach their target of 80 per cent. carbon reductions by 2050 when the transport sector contributes about a quarter of our emissions and the Government’s policy is to deter people from using lower-carbon means of transport? That simply does not make sense.

My constituents also tell me that if they have to pay above inflation for their train tickets, the deal must be that they get a better service in return—not a service somewhere else in the country, but a service for people in Lewes who have to pay for tickets on their particular line. The reality is that the service is getting worse, with overcrowding and with the new timetables having not been well received in my constituency either. Journey times are getting worse and the service is getting more unreliable. The Government’s interfering with the Gatwick Express timetable has also thrown the whole thing out of kilter, making it difficult for trains to run on time and meet their punctuality targets.

Neither has the situation been helped by the Government’s failure to invest in enhancements. It would be something if my constituents could see enhancements in return for the ticket prices that they have to pay, but we are not seeing that. We are not seeing the Lewes-Uckfield line reopen; although it has massive support from all three parties locally, all the local MPs and local councillors of all persuasions, it is not on the Government’s agenda. We are not seeing any efforts made either to tackle the dreadful overcrowding between Brighton and Ashford. Diesel trains—two-car diesel trains—go through my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, but regular announcements at Lewes station warn people not to get on the train because it is too crowded. They are told to wait for the next one, even though it is an hour away on that service. Unless the Government want to resort to having Japanese-style employees to push people on to trains, they should seriously address the issue and get some more carriages. Yet there is no indication of that. Southern wanted more carriages and the Government blocked them.
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That is this Government’s record on local services in my constituency. If we are to have rail fare increases above inflation, let us have some improvements to the service to justify them.

One thing that the Government could do with the Southern franchise is eliminate some of the padding in the timetable. My constituents tell me that they are fed up with waiting nine minutes at Haywards Heath for the trains to split or to join, when Network Rail requires only three minutes operationally to do it. My constituents are fed up with waiting three minutes at Clapham Junction because the trains arrive too early and do not want to go to Victoria when no platform is available. My constituents are fed up with going to Polegate, arriving at Lewes on the way back and waiting seven minutes there for the trains to depart. There is so much slack in the timetable in order to ensure that the train arrives on time that the punctuality figures have, of course, improved dramatically. The shortest journey time from Lewes to London in 1989 when I began commuting was 53 minutes on a slam-door train. The shortest journey time now is one hour and three minutes, and the average journey time is one hour and nine minutes. There is padding in the service. If fares are going above inflation, we need to improve the service as well.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for providing the opportunity to raise this matter tonight and I thank him for his contribution. I note the support from both Opposition parties for a more sensible strategy. I note the support from elected people and, indeed, from unelected people: I have never heard of this Amber Rudd; she sounds a bit like a rail signal of some sort, but I am sure she is campaigning very actively for improvements, just like the rest of us.

Let me end by making a political point. If the Government want to rescue some of the 13 seats in the south-east that they are in danger of losing at the next election—they are all quite marginal, including the Minister’s—they had better start delivering on some of the issues that are important to people in the south-east, such as train fares. They have not done that so far.

9.45 pm

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing the debate. Those of us who represent Croydon seats are well aware that Croydon’s economic success relies heavily on the railway. We know how much the history of the town’s expansion has depended on the main line, and how much its continuing success depends on that line and on the success of East Croydon station, a station blessed with hard-working and excellent platform staff.

I strongly endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I especially agreed with two of his comments. I believe that people’s experiences of commuting are important to their perceptions of the improvement or otherwise of public services, and I believe that there is an impact on the popularity of Government when commuters spend two hours a day, five days a week, experiencing what are at times extremely crowded rail services. People are very disappointed when they find themselves paying higher fares for rush-hour travel on trains which often operate—on purpose—at 120 or 130 per cent. of capacity.

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One of my local railway stations is South Croydon. The largest unregulated increase in fares at that station is 10 per cent. Other Members have spoken specifically about Southeastern provision, but my constituents and I are not paying for the introduction of the Javelin; what we are experiencing is just a plain increase in fares. It is the unexpected juxtaposition of the Government’s decision to introduce fare increases in addition to increases related to the retail prices index with a significant peak in inflation during the summer, followed by a further significant deflation, that has proved so punishing. The fare increases were not advertised by Southern by means of leaflets or notices at East Croydon station, although there were notices at South Croydon. I think it deplorable that they were not advertised—perhaps because the operator was so ashamed about them, and so aware of the detrimental effect that they would have on business.

It is also particularly galling for those of us who hold longer-term tickets such as seven-day travel cards to note that we still have a tradition in this country of paying for a service on Christmas day or Boxing day, but either are not receiving any service or receiving an inadequate service. I do not see why it should not be possible to buy a seven-day travel card covering Christmas day or Boxing day but making them exempt, and allowing the extra days’ travel to be added at the end of the seven-day period. I do not believe that the current lack of provision is due to some kind of religious observance; I think that it has more to do with the tradition that has accepted that there should be a Christmas present for the train operators. I calculate that given the number of people who hold travel cards, at least £4 million is probably paid each Christmas for services that are not provided.

As well as paying a great deal for their commute to London, commuters from Croydon face the prospect of any Thameslink trains from London Bridge after 7 pm being hugely overcrowded, and of other mainline services being gradually withdrawn. Those who travel from Victoria to many of the destinations mentioned by Members this evening, particularly East Croydon, will find that platforms 15 to 19 are still being used as sidings, and they must walk virtually halfway to Croydon to board a train in the first place.

The hon. Member for Lewes spoke of the distorting effect that the altered Gatwick Express service is having on services to Croydon and to many stations south of it. It is especially galling that the Government thought it appropriate to support the judgments of others that further extension of the Gatwick Express should take place, and that strong emphasis should be put on it. I sometimes count—perhaps it is rather anorak-like of me—the number of passengers using the Gatwick Express, and I frequently find that fewer than 40 are doing so. Priority is given to that service on the tracks from Victoria to Croydon and beyond to an extent that compromises the capacity, which means that passengers who are paying high fares have to stand on inadequate services.

The reduction in quality of service is partly linked to the Gatwick Express and partly to other changes made to the Coulsdon South service. For example, the direct service from East Croydon to Crystal Palace has been withdrawn. That is inappropriate when we are trying to encourage the use of public transport and at the same time as it has been announced that the proposed tram
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link extension to Crystal Palace will not happen. However, Mayor Boris Johnson has subsequently announced that he is at least willing to campaign for additional moneys from the Government to provide that extension after all.

We need improvements to the Crystal Palace service, and many Labour Members with constituencies to the north of mine have been campaigning strongly on the need to maintain the best quality of metro services in the area, and in some cases they have gathered large online petitions. One cheap solution might be to allow reverse running on the railway lines that run northwards from Crystal Palace and to re-open platform 7 on Norwood Junction station. There is a strong argument too for additional platforms at East Croydon. Among the greatest constraints on the rail services to stations such as Lewes are the lack of capacity at London Bridge, the slowness of the introduction of the Thameslink 2000 project, the constraints at Windmill Bridge junction and the lack of two additional platforms at East Croydon station. I would much rather see additional platforms at East Croydon station than the preposterous 52-storey residential property development that is proposed for the area next to the station. It is redolent of the 1960s, and that land should be used for additional platforms to improve public transport. That would improve the capacity for trains from London to all the areas served by all those hon. Members who have spoken tonight.

Of course, we should not be entirely critical because some improvements have been made. For example, the removal of the slam-door trains has improved the ride and the quality of the environment on the trains so we no longer suffer so much in hot summers. However, it is not appropriate for passengers to have to clamber over each other to reach seats that are too small.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) mentioned the impact of short-term franchises. Improvements have resulted from those franchises—one of my local stations has been painted—but they are not enough. We need real investment in stations such as South Croydon and Waddon, so that—for example—people with buggies do not have to jump down to low platforms.

Much investment is needed before our constituents can enjoy a commute that is reasonably comfortable, so that someone who is not entirely well can face it in the morning. It is therefore important for the Minister to explain why increases of up to 10 per cent. have been introduced when the services have seen no real improvement.

9.54 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends’ excellent contributions to the debate. Although my constituency is just in the south-west, the incremental basis for fares means that ours are determined by those that South West Trains sets in the south-eastern part of its line, up as far as New Milton. Much as people might like to start their journey to London in Hinton Admiral, and pay less than the cost of the journey from New Milton to London, they have to pay more. I therefore believe that I have a legitimate interest in participating in the debate.

In the south-east, train fares between New Milton and Waterloo have increased significantly above the rate of inflation because of the Government’s policy of
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using a stealth tax against a captive commuter population. Although there are nothing like as many commuters to London from my constituency as from some of my hon. Friends’ constituencies, the position of those commuters in the current economic climate is dire. They cannot afford to pay such increases out of their taxed income.

I can imagine the Under-Secretary asking why those commuters do not move closer to London. That would involve selling their houses in a difficult market, and having to buy another house, thus incurring the steep penalties that the Government have imposed on house buyers through increases in stamp duty. Those people are squeezed all round. One might ask why they do not try to get a job more locally, but in the current climate, anyone who has a job wants to hang on to it, and not risk losing it in the hope of getting another somewhere else.

The position of my constituents, like so many others, is that they are captive customers of the railway system. The Government are behaving uncharitably in the current climate in imposing above-inflation fare increases on those people. I have talked about regulated fares, but the increases in unregulated fares are even greater.

I would like the Under-Secretary to deal with access to unregulated fares. Some of the best bargains on the railways can be obtained by going to the ticket office and saying, “I want to travel next week;”—or next month—“what’s the best deal?” However, that depends on the ticket office’s being open during advertised hours. I went to the ticket office at Hinton Admiral to try to get a ticket to go to Scotland. Although the ticket office should have been open—it is not open that often—it was shut. I then went to Christchurch, and I was lucky because there was only a small window of opportunity due to that ticket office’s being manned for six hours a day. That is completely contrary to the Government’s agreement with the franchisees—South West Trains being the franchisee in this case.

Something bizarre is happening. A consultation about ticket offices’ opening hours took place. In advance of the results, South West Trains withdrew staff from the ticket offices and reduced the opening hours so that they were even shorter than those for which it had sought permission. That makes a mockery of the Government’s consultation. I hope that the Under-Secretary recognises that ticket offices that are open regularly are fundamental for people who want to take advantage of the best deals on the railways. Commuters who use unregulated fares and travel off peak are penalised if they buy their ticket on the day. People in my constituency therefore understandably prefer to book in advance if they can. To do so, they must have a system that allows that to happen. That means having a ticket office that is open regularly.

I make a plea to the Under-Secretary to tackle the problem, and to consider the longer-term consequences of imposing stealth taxes on a captive commuter population. I hope that, even if he has no Back-Bench support this evening, he will show some sympathy for our hard-pressed constituents.

10 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Mr. Watts.)

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Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): This is a timely debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for initiating it.

Rail privatisation in the 1990s fundamentally changed the requirements for the regulation of rail fares. As long as the rail system was in public ownership, it was, effectively, possible for the Treasury to determine the rate at which fares increased, but once the railways were transferred to the private sector, a commercial monopoly was, in effect, created. For those of us who represent south-east commuting constituencies, our constituents are basically captives of monopolies: people who live in Tonbridge have to commute from Tonbridge, and people who live in Borough Green or West Malling have to commute from those villages unless they want to drive all around Kent.

When the railways were privatised, it was clear to me that privatisation would be acceptable to my constituents only if it was accompanied by a proper system of regulation of rail fares. I very much supported privatisation as a policy, but I was one of three Conservative Members who declined to support the privatisation Bill on Third Reading: I was not willing to do so until I was satisfied that a proper system of fare regulation was in place. I might add that the other two Conservative Members were my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the late Robert Adley, who knew more about trains than anybody else in this House and pretty well everyone in the country. I am very glad to be able to say that following the passage of the legislation, the then Government did introduce a rigorous system of regulation of rail fares to protect the commuting public. As has been mentioned, for three years from 1 January 1996 rail fares were regulated in line with inflation—the retail prices index—and for the following four years the regulation was 1 per cent. below RPI. Therefore, for the first seven years after privatisation a full and effective system of fare regulation was in place. That, I believe, was the right and proper way of balancing privatisation with protection of the travelling public against exploitation by, in effect, a private sector commercial monopoly.

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