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I hope we will get a recognition from the Minister that the problem exists. I hope he will not tell me that it does not exist. If he does, I will send that comment to all the hundreds of people who have contacted me about the matter since the new timetable was introduced.
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I hope he will accept that there is an imbalance between the services to Brighton and those to Lewes. I hope he will also accept, as a matter of fact, that one of the problems with the Gatwick service, to which I have referred, is that the Government have now imposed a requirement on Southern to run trains through from Brighton to Gatwick, and then on to Victoria without stopping. The consequence is that many of the people from Brighton also feel aggrieved because they want to access East Croydon and Clapham Junction but now have fewer direct trains that will allow them to do that. That leads to more pressure being put on the Brighton trains—and trains from other destinations, including Littlehampton and Eastbourne—that do stop at East Croydon and Clapham Junction. People are encouraged to use those trains, which leads to overcrowding on those services.

Does the Minister have any figures, from Southern or elsewhere, relating to the overcrowding on particular services? Does he see it as his job to get those figures and then to decide that the timetable should be recast, or does he take the view that this is a matter for Southern to sort out with the rolling stock that it has? I hope that he does not take that latter view, although he could doubtless say that Members on both sides of the House accuse the Department for Transport of micro-management. On this occasion, however, I might welcome some micro-management from the Department.

There is also a problem with the rolling stock. I do not mean with the type of rolling stock, which is adequate. The problem is that there is not enough of it. A new timetable was brought in when there was insufficient rolling stock to operate it, because the rolling stock that had been promised simply had not materialised. Southern was also required to operate extra bits round the edges which had not been part of the original franchise, such as the line to Tonbridge and services previously run by South West Trains that had been abandoned and that Southern had picked up. No extra rolling stock was provided to form those services, yet Southern has been leant on by the Department for Transport to hand rolling stock over to Thameslink and First Capital Connect in order that they can run their services.

There is an absolute shortage of rolling stock in the south central area. Will the Minister tell me when that shortage will be corrected? I would also like an assurance that when the rolling stock imbalance is corrected, the reduction in the number of carriages running to Lewes, Eastbourne and Polegate in the evening peak will be corrected, and that he will at the very least restore the number of carriages running to Lewes in the evening peak, rather than leaving us four down, as is presently the case.

This all comes down to a wider problem, albeit one that the Government inherited. The timetable on which the south central franchise is presently operating is essentially the one that was run by British Rail many decades ago. It has been built on in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, with various changes, ever since. The timetable is, to use a well worn cliché, no longer fit for purpose.

There is a desperate need to rewrite the timetable entirely for the south central region, not simply to eliminate the problems that I have identified tonight, and not simply to get more efficiency in the timetable to prevent the delays that are now occurring. Incidentally, the punctuality targets have been woefully missed by
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Southern since the new timetable came in; they have been way below 75 per cent. on many occasions. If the Government envisage passenger numbers growing—I think that they do, and I support them in that objective—where will the capacity on the south central franchise come from, 10 years down the track? Under the present signalling arrangements, there are now trains at every train path in the rush hour, but there are no plans for extra tracks. There are also no plans to reconfigure East Croydon, which needs to be done if we are to get more capacity on the line. There are not even any plans to reopen the line between Lewes and Uckfield, which would provide an alternative northbound route from the south coast to Victoria, assuming that we could get the East Croydon bottleneck sorted out as part of the process.

I suggest to the Minister that one of the cheaper options—I do not pretend that it is without problems, or that it could be done overnight—would be to reconfigure the timetable entirely, starting with a blank piece of paper. We need to forget the house of cards that was built into the British Rail timetables of the 1960s and 1970s, and to draw up a timetable that meets people’s needs. The existing one has been designed to fit in with whatever space is available, with all the problems that that creates. A new timetable would also have the benefit of creating passenger incentives. A further benefit would be an end to timetable padding and the unnecessarily long journey times between Lewes, Polegate, Seaford and London.

When I was a researcher in the House in the late 1980s, the shortest train journey time from Lewes to Victoria was 49 minutes on a slam-door mark 1 stock train. That rolling stock has been replaced by much faster Electrostar trains, yet the shortest journey time between Lewes and Victoria today is 63 minutes— 14 minutes longer than it was 20 years ago. I emphasise that that is the shortest journey it is possible to make; many journeys are considerably longer within the allowed timetabling. For the reasons I have given, part of the problem is that the Government, Network Rail and the train operating companies have built a timetable on shifting sands—an unsafe and insecure base on which to build a timetable. It is also the case that this problem muddies the waters and lets train companies pad timetables and allow themselves extra time to reach destinations in order to meet their punctuality targets.

How can it be, for example, that the normal time allowed to get from Clapham Junction to London Victoria on my service is nine minutes, yet the journey time back from London Victoria to Clapham Junction is six minutes? I am not aware of any particularly severe gradient on that journey; it is simply the rail company building in three minutes of spare capacity to give itself time to get there and meet its punctuality targets. While punctuality was a problem, as it certainly was four or five years ago, perhaps that made some sense, but we should now concentrate on journey times, particularly in commuter land.

Outside commuter areas—this applies to the west coast main line, for example—there is competition from air travel and, in a sense, that incentivises a train company to get journey times down, but there is no such incentive on commuter lines, so the Government and the Office
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of Rail Regulation should intervene to ensure that journey times are not absurdly long simply to enable train companies to meet their punctuality targets. As I say, the poor timetable itself is what allows that particular problem to be masked in a way that it should not be.

There are other changes that a new timetable should bring along with it—including, for example, an hourly service to Plumpton. Over the years, I have managed, working with others, incrementally to increase the number of trains to Plumpton station. They used to be for rush hours only, but now they run by and large throughout the day, but still with a three-hour gap in the middle. Why is that gap not filled? Why cannot we simply have one train an hour; even the faulty timetable we have at the moment would allow that, yet we have seen no progress from Southern on that matter.

Worryingly, the new franchise arrangements specify the old timetable rather than the improved one to Plumpton, so that raises the possibility of further cuts to, rather than an improvement in, services to that station. Will the Minister specifically look at the situation in Plumpton and see what he can do to ensure an hourly service for my constituents? I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to answer this particular point and one or two others I have raised tonight, but if so, I hope that either he or his noble Friend Lord Adonis will drop me a line with answers to any specific questions not addressed tonight.

Lastly, let me say that I am a supporter of the railways. I believe in getting people on the trains for environmental and social reasons. I also by and large welcome the direction of travel in which the Government are engaged; it is something that I mostly support. I believe that the Rail Minister, Lord Adonis, is doing a particularly good job, and I am happy to say so in public, on the record and in the House. Over the years I have been MP for Lewes, I have seen a steady improvement in the quality of rail services to my constituency, but that improvement came to an end in December in a sort of own goal by the rail industry and the Government, so I am now asking the Government to recognise the problem and to try to correct it.

As a minimum, we need an increased number of carriages to Lewes in the rush hour—at the very least, back to the number there were before the timetable changed in December. We need more rolling stock on the 18.47 in particular, as it is standing room only all the way to Lewes on some occasions. We need to redress the balance of carriages between Lewes and Brighton, and we need a commitment, either from the Government or from Network Rail or the ORR—I do not mind who it comes from—that when the timetable is rewritten for December, these matters will be taken on board. There should also be an overall commitment to a complete rewrite of the timetable for the south central region; the Sussex route utilisation strategy now under way provides the opportunity to do that. I say to the Government that they have made some real improvements to rail transport, so it is such a shame to have gone backwards now, as we have as a result of the December timetable. I look to the Minister for his help and support in correcting that.

10.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): At the outset, I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this
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debate about rail services on the Brighton main line and the effect of the timetable changes on his Lewes constituents.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged the substantial investment that has benefited many towns in Sussex, where, 10 years ago, there was a shabby service provided by the 40-year-old, slam-door rolling stock to which he referred. How they rattled and bumped around the county, providing a poor service. Over these past 10 years, however, we have seen improved services and better rolling stock, as he recognised.

Many of the services operating in Sussex use some of the 744 new vehicles that have been on the Southern network since 2003. They are modern, air conditioned and fit for purpose for 21st-century travelling. However, I equally recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to as timetable padding. I acknowledge that issue as one he has followed up on a number of occasions—indeed recently, in a letter to my noble Friend the Minister of State.

The hon. Gentleman referred in his letter, as he did in the debate, to the time taken to complete journeys, saying that

But of course, all other things are not equal, because there are more trains, more passengers, greater demand and additional services for his constituents. Indeed, between 1998 and 2007, patronage in the Sussex route utilisation strategy area increased by some 45 per cent. That is a great success story for the Government policy of investing in what is fundamental in our national rail system, as well as the provision to make it safer, more effective and more efficient—additional resources and seats on those trains to meet the requirements of the travelling public. However, work has to be undertaken to manage that demand, which brings with it certain issues.

I believe that the travelling public would prefer a timetable that tells them a reliable time for their arrival at the destination they want, rather than shaving two or three minutes off their journey. They want reliability and affordability. For evidence of that, I look to the major overhaul undertaken by South West Trains in December 2004, which introduced extended, not shortened, journey times, as well as features such as regular repeating service patterns. That timetable change achieved a significant improvement in punctuality, accompanied by a sharp rise in passenger satisfaction ratings.

A consultation exercise was undertaken to establish what stakeholders wished to see in the new south central franchise, which is due to commence in September. Few respondents placed importance on journey time reductions. The majority commented on the things that matter to them—capacity, service reliability and passenger information—as the most important issues. They want to know that trains will arrive on time, as laid out in the timetable.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman said about the timetable. There are many competing demands. The good residents of Eastbourne demand faster trains to London with fewer stops, and, as he said, there is a demand for better services for a number of stations in his constituency. There must be a balance that can meet those requirements.

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Many of the characteristics of today’s railway timetables are a feature of railway history. Large towns such as Bexhill are an example. Bexhill is located on a line that was originally built as a local route to connect the coastal towns of Kent and East Sussex, rather than as a fast route to London. As a result, it takes some 110 minutes to travel from Bexhill to Victoria. Battle, which is a much smaller town in relative terms and is barely five miles away, is located on a direct line to London Bridge, and the journey time is just 70 minutes.

One of the main problems associated with the specification of faster journey times is the negative impact that they have on the network capacity. Capacity is most effectively used when all trains on the route have identical performance characteristics. Unfortunately, that does not happen, because, as I have said, there are many competing demands. The Brighton main line is a perfect example, because it is used to satisfy many requirements. There is a strong demand for express trains to such places as Gatwick airport and Brighton, but there is also a requirement to serve quieter stations such as Balcombe and Wivelsfield and the various divergent routes: East Grinstead, Redhill, Arun Valley, and the east and west coastways. All those use different rolling stock with their own particular characteristics. The combination means that no trains, even Gatwick Express trains, can be timetabled in a way that will exploit the full potential of modern high-performance rolling stock.

Looking at the timetable that exists today, I think it remarkable that such great achievements have been made. I recognise that problems have been caused by the introduction of the 14 December timetable, about which I shall say more later. However, let me list some of the problems with which the train planners must grapple. There is the dedicated use of the Gatwick Express trains on platforms 13 and 14 at Victoria. There is the restrictive layout of approaches to London Bridge. There are the conflicting moves at the various flat junctions such as Battersea Park, Streatham Common and Gloucester Road, and the convergence of multiple suburban routes in the Croydon area. There is also the two-track railway between Three Bridges and Brighton.

The new timetable is fragile and vulnerable. While I recognise that its introduction on 14 December led to a further deterioration in the performance measurement that we normally use, that was partly due to failures in infrastructure. Rolling stock was also a problem, as was severe weather in one of the periods, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember. But the public performance measure for March was 91 per cent., and the April figure was 94 per cent. I do not think that that indicates a failing timetable.

The timetable that has been introduced was consulted on for three years. It was not imposed. Overall, there has been a 10 per cent. increase in the number of seats available during the peak period between Victoria and Brighton. As I think the hon. Gentleman recognised, a compromise had to be reached in terms of the non-stop Gatwick Express to the capital, but also in the introduction of more seats for commuters on the Brighton main line. As for the number of complaints received by Southern trains, according to figures from the company, the number of complaints about timetable issues has been only about 5 per cent. of the total number.

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I recognise that there are rolling-stock issues, but I am pleased to be able to inform the House that 15 of the 17 units of the class 442s are now in service and are being utilised on the routes. There have also been staff training issues, which have now been addressed, and that, too, will help in the provision of the service. In the last three weeks, in recognition of issues raised by Members and others, some adjustment has been made to create an additional Brighton to London Bridge
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service and to amend the timings of nine services to improve the resilience of the timetable.

I will investigate the issue of the cutback from eight-carriage to four-carriage cars and write to the hon. Gentleman, because that should not be the case. I have said that the timetable was not imposed.

10.41 pm

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).

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