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The problem is not simply one of overcrowding on a daily basis, but of some of the choices that the Southeastern Trains operating company has to make. For example, it has had to cancel the only services between Orpington, Petts Wood and New Cross-an important area of employment for my constituents with Goldsmiths college and so on-to put in a new service to Lewisham to serve Canary Wharf. Obviously, Canary Wharf is also a source of employment for my constituents, but Southeastern Trains has had to choose between the two because the capacity constraints on that line are such that there cannot be both. That is frankly ridiculous in the 21st century.
"The track and signalling around London Bridge is the most complicated and congested in Europe. By 'untangling' the rail infrastructure at London Bridge we can deliver the massive capacity increase that 100,000s of passengers need and a high frequency service through central London.".
That is what we are looking for. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)-who is also a member of the all-party group on the Thameslink route-about the serious conflict between Borough market and the needs of passenger services in that area. It is a great pity that the problem has had to be resolved with some disadvantage to Borough market. The market is a wonderful piece of London's heritage, and although the solution that has been reached means some truncation of Borough market, I hope that it will none the less mean that the service can provide for what is an important part of south-east London's history.
Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's sensitive reference to that issue. Only time will tell, although we will lose some listed buildings and the whole configuration will be different. I accept the case for having more lines to London Bridge, but the only issue that has not yet been resolved is that of ensuring that the South London line has enough platforms and can continue its loop round from Victoria. The Minister is aware of that point, as I have been to see him. That is the one remaining piece of engineering organisation that, if it could be resolved, would considerably help people in our part of the world.
Mr. Horam: I am sure that the Minister will hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. The final point made by the hon. Member for Bedford, quite rightly, is that this programme should not be cut. The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) strongly supported that, and it is certainly uppermost in our minds. This programme should not be cut and we should be committed to it.
Unfortunately, I must point out to the hon. Member for Bedford that his Government have presided over an economic crisis that has led to the spending of billions of pounds that could otherwise go towards this sort of infrastructure. Equally, they have squandered public funds on a heroic-perhaps I should say unheroic-scale, as a result of which, productivity in the public sector has gone down. There is a problem that we must face realistically.
The sort of solution we need was set out on 26 January in the Financial Times, which pointed out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced
cuts in capital expenditure of about one half over the next four or five years. Our worry is that the project under discussion could be included in that sort of cut. It was pointed out that we could match up the funds of the pensions industry, for example, which need long-term revenue to service, with the income flows from such transport infrastructure. That could provide an alternative source of financing for these big projects, apart from public sector funds. Unfortunately, we have a rather unhappy history with the private finance initiative, which, again, has not been handled well by the Government. If we are to save such projects, alternative ways of financing the transport infrastructure must be taken into account and used imaginatively. It is vital that such projects go ahead.
Recently, I was on a trip with the Foreign Affairs Committee to Madrid and Lisbon, and I saw for myself the effect on a capital city of modern transport services and roads-of course, in those cases there was access to large amounts of European Union funds. One can see the galvanising effect that that sort of infrastructure has on quality of life, as well as on the economic performance of those cities. London desperately needs that sort of spending on such schemes. That is why I am an enthusiastic member of the all-party group on the Thameslink route, and I hope that the scheme will go ahead in its entirety.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I shall try to be as brief as possible to enable other hon. Members to speak. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend-and my genuine friend-the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on securing the debate and on what he has said today. Like him, I am a massive enthusiast of railways in general, and the modernisation of Thameslink in particular. I have thousands of constituents who, like my hon. Friend, travel every day by Thameslink. I have been a commuter on that line for the past 41 years, and I still use it every day. Therefore, I know the problem. Some years ago, I think I had an influence in persuading Ministers to build the box station at St. Pancras International, pointing out that if we had not done that, Eurostar services would have been seriously damaged. The line is a serious provider of passengers straight on to Eurostar. Because of that box station, those of us who live on the Thameslink line can pop over to Paris at short notice-something I have done myself.
The improvement of the through-London service is excellent and vital, and I am happy about the concept. However, I must raise some concerns about the engineering and the technology. Friends of mine in the industry-engineers in particular-have said that there are serious problems. From time to time I read magazines such as Modern Railways, which give me a bit of insight into how things work. Trying to get 24 trains through that middle section is a major problem. That is a large number of trains, and it is not a simple through-route. There are two routes feeding in from GNER and from the midlands to King's Cross and St. Pancras. Sequencing all those trains and ensuring that they get through on time and can stop, offload, onload and move on will be a serious problem.
To an extent, that has been partly recognised, but there are other problems. That section of the line has some of the steepest gradients in the country. Will we
have sufficient power to allow trains to get through those gradients sufficiently quickly? I understand that most trains have eight driven axles for a four-car unit, but we may need to increase the number of driven axles-which increases costs-to ensure that trains can cope with those gradients at sufficient speed to get through the system.
The switchover from overhead AC power lines to third-rail DC drive also takes time. I see that every day at Farringdon. That is another potential problem that can slow trains down. As I have said, that has been recognised to an extent. There is some suggestion of having automatic train operation between Kentish Town and Blackfriars. Automatic train operation has not been tried in Britain on a mainline service. It is used on the Victoria line, but not elsewhere. It has not been tried, and certainly not on a complex system such as Thameslink, where there are two railway lines coming into one at St. Pancras. Automatic operation in a dry, straight tunnel with no complications is one thing, but where there are problems with weather such as wet track, leaf fall or frost if some of the track is exposed, something called defensive braking will be required in the automatic operation to ensure that the trains do not slip and that they get through. Again, that could cause delay and would certainly add enormous costs.
I therefore suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that what we need at this stage, before things go wrong and we say, "Oh dear, we can't deal with this; there's a problem", is a thorough review of all the engineering problems in the system by BR-trained engineers in all the specialisms required, not by project managers and people who have little experience in railways, and without pressure from Network Rail or contractors to gloss over details. We must get this right, and I ask the Minister to secure a thorough engineering review by an independent group of engineers with all the necessary skills to ensure that we do not make mistakes and that we get it right.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I hope to be able to advise my hon. Friend. This might not negate the need for the engineering review that he is calling for, but I understand that the intention is to have a section of track available to test the automatic train operation technologies well in advance of any intention to implement them.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is welcome. One other point is that there are signalling and electrical power problems. Already there have been line-side fires in the tunnel between Farringdon and City Thameslink. That, I understand, is caused by arcing from the third rails, because the delivery for electricity to those tracks is at one end of that section of track rather than, typically, in the centre, which means that the voltages must be higher to drive the current longer distances. Those points have been made to me by engineers who understand these things-I have some technical knowledge myself-and they are serious matters. If one line-side fire stops 24 trains an hour, a two-hour blockage stops 48 trains, and if 48 12-car trains are suddenly stopped, we have a real crisis. We cannot afford to have things going wrong on a line of this importance any more than we could afford serious problems on some of the major underground routes. At
least sometimes there are alternatives to underground routes. There may not be alternatives for Thameslink. I have raised those matters with the Minister to ensure that he is aware that there are potential engineering problems and to ask him to investigate the possibility of having a thorough review.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) for the opportunity provided by the debate. I shall make just a short contribution, but I am one of those colleagues who have been involved in all the discussions about Thameslink for many years. I just gently say that of course the project used to be called Thameslink 2000; we have slipped a little in relation to its delivery.
I want to make several points. One is that at the fantastic new St. Pancras station-I agree about how wonderful it is-there is still, for both British and international travellers, some confusion about which lines run from where. Obviously, the Eurostar is clearly signed, but it is not entirely clear, from all entrances, where people should catch other services from, and that information can be crucial to people's timetabling and their ability to get from ticket office to train and from one line to another. Although that is not directly a Thameslink responsibility, it is relevant to users of Thameslink and interconnecting passengers, so I make a plea that Thameslink use its good influence, and that Network Rail and those who manage St. Pancras also act, to ensure that there is a clear set of signs so that people can be clear about which trains leave from the upper level, about which trains leave from the lower level at the back and about Eurostar.
Secondly, in relation to London Bridge, which is the biggest issue affecting my constituency and has been referred to already by the hon. Members for Bedford and for Orpington (Mr. Horam), I shall not refight the battle that we fought. We argued that there was an alternative route that might have been a good one-either the Herne Hill route or a new route by a new bridge over the Thames. That could have avoided the problem of having to demolish many listed buildings at London Bridge. However, it is important that as part of the new project London Bridge station is reconstructed. I think that it is still the station in London that has most passengers through it every day. It is phenomenally busy and congested, and many of the trains into and out of it are, as the hon. Member for Orpington rightly pointed out, phenomenally busy and congested. That can be very unpleasant and, indeed, dangerous.
The local community that lives around the station will have to pay the price of all the works, which have started on the site next door. The tallest building in London is being built there at the moment. I am referring to the Shard of Glass at London Bridge. The community is signed up to that project, on the understanding that phase 1 will be completed before 2012. There will be a pause during the Olympic period and there will be a second phase after that. I absolutely endorse the plea from the hon. Member for Bedford and others that we do not see the project grind to a halt after phase 1. I am very grateful for the commitment by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that makes clear the importance that we attach to the completion after 2012 of the rest of the project.
Thirdly, there is a bit-I say "a bit"; it is not insignificant. A further part of the work is on the line out of London Bridge station, as part of the works in Bermondsey. Again, that is entirely supported by me and the community. We just want to signal and register our support for that.
Fourthly, I have indicated the real excitement that there is about the opportunity of Blackfriars station extending across the river. That is being sold and presented very well by Thameslink, which has put posters across Blackfriars bridge making it clear that it will be the first cross-river railway station either ever or for a very long time-I cannot remember, although I ought to. That in itself is exciting. It is frustrating that we did not win the battle all those years ago when the Jubilee line alignment was determined, meaning that there could have been an interconnection at the station, on the south side, so people would not have had to come out of the station but could have linked to another. The local community is paying a small price at the moment in terms of pedestrian disruption, but the community negotiated with Thameslink and Network Rail; it is understanding of that. As long as the timetable is kept to, it is entirely understood and appreciated.
Simon Hughes: I am pleased to hear that. The Minister is very welcome to visit my constituency socially, as well as for political reasons, at any time. As someone who, wearing another hat, chairs the Mayor of London's Thames festival, which now has just short of 1 million visitors in September every year, I know that ensuring that the pedestrian flows along the riverbank work well through all the building work is important to ensure that there is no inconvenience. Again, we shall need to ensure, as Blackfriars station comes on stream on the south side, that we have the most effective signs and intercommunication, so that people understand the great benefit of getting off at Southwark underground station on the Jubilee line and making that connection. We need to ensure that that works well, even though it is a few hundred yards out in the open.
Fifthly, I turn to signalling, a point that was made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins). I was keen, when the opportunity arose again in the time of the Conservative Government, to ensure that we had an extension to the London underground. In the end, it was not the initially preferred solution, but the Jubilee line extension was certainly welcome. We had to fight to ensure that it was not just a fast line that went from London Bridge and Waterloo straight to Canary Wharf, and we managed to win the battle to get stations in Southwark and Bermondsey, which are also welcome. Ten years on, we are celebrating 10 years of the extension, but there are many closures for re-signalling work. That will obviously produce a good outcome but, although I am no engineer, I want to flag up the importance of ensuring that we get the signalling work in place such that there will be a longer period through which it will be expected to work without disruption, because little is worse than having a fantastic new line that then needs upgrades and on which there are weekend closures and other disruption fairly shortly after it has been put in place.
My last point is one that I have made to Network Rail and to Thameslink. At the moment, there cannot be a seamless connection, because of the works done, from the south to the north, particularly at weekends or at night, when people might be able to get to London Bridge but then find that there is no service that goes all the way through, and they have to reconnect at St. Pancras. It is therefore very important to ensure, again, that the information is clear in advance. Having once gone with others to catch a plane, I know that if a service is not there when people think that it will be, they will miss not just their train, but their flight from Luton, Gatwick or elsewhere. Can we therefore make sure that there is really good advance information all the year round at all stations along the line about what happens at weekends and at nights when there is no connection? People will then know exactly what to do and what the quickest connecting route is. Can we also ensure that all the other transport operators work together with Thameslink and Network Rail?
Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on raising this important issue. As a member of the all-party group, I have learned exactly what the Thameslink programme will mean for our constituents, which is why we have put in extra work looking at improvements, watching out for the things that will affect our constituents and trying to intervene through debates such as this. It is a pleasure to be here, although I shall take only a couple of minutes to speak, so that all hon. Members get an opportunity to contribute to this important debate.
We are here because of our constituents. The lives of some have been disrupted by what, in many ways, is the First Capital Connect debacle, and people have had a difficult time. It is hard for us as Members of Parliament fighting for improvements to Thameslink to see our constituents experience that totally avoidable disruption to their lives; all those of us who travel into London every day understand exactly what they are going through. Having their rail journeys disrupted is truly upsetting and can make the rest of their day a miserable experience. That is the last thing that we want.
We understand what the £5.5 billion of improvements will mean. Those of us who were lucky enough to take a cab to look at the magnificent improvements around King's Cross and at the amazing work that is going on there were immensely proud to see that we can have first-class rail travel services. As I said, we are all here for our constituents, and although we have a firm eye on the Olympics and on the important improvements that can be put in place for people travelling into London-certainly from Gatwick airport-that is a bit of a side issue; we are talking about our constituents and ensuring that their journey times are good.
Of course, we also want to ensure that our constituents' journeys are safe. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), I have been concerned about the loss of engineering jobs at Network Rail. That is because we have been listening to people who know and love the railways and who understand what that loss might mean. I am delighted that the Office of the Rail Regulator is now keeping a close eye on what Network Rail is up to, to ensure that my constituents are safe.
We need to know that the Thameslink upgrade programme will be completed in its entirety; if it were not, that would be a travesty of justice. We have sold the whole programme to our constituents on the basis that their lives as members of the travelling public will be massively improved soon, in five years. That is what people deserve. We know the prosperity that the changes will bring. When we were at school, we understood how important the Stockton-to-Darlington railway was and what improvements and prosperity it brought to communities. In the same way, we know that the current programme will improve the way in which people live and work in the south-east. That is why we are so desperate to see the programme finished in its entirety.
I completely understand that those who have to make a decision about the two remaining competitors for the Thameslink rolling stock project must be extremely careful, but I do not have to be. I should say that I am convinced that the Bombardier project needs to be selected. I went on an Industry and Parliamentary Trust transport group visit to look at the trains being constructed in Derby, and I was utterly blown away by the professionalism that I saw. As we know, there have been difficulties, but those involved have held their hands up, and we can move on. I am firmly putting my flag up for the Bombardier team and I hope that it gets the project.
The Thameslink programme is enormous. If we go to the Network Rail and Thameslink programme website, it is hard even to conceive of the number of projects that are running at one time-it is tremendous. People should look at the magnificent depot proposed for Three Bridges, which is the central station in my constituency. The project will provide 300 new jobs, but I need the Minister to reassure me that it will go ahead so that we can look forward to restoring Three Bridges and making it the major hub that it was many years ago. When I was a small baby, my parents moved to Crawley New Town, and Three Bridges was at the heart of the train service. We look forward to those days returning. The Minister has been fantastic on train issues, and I ask him to reassure us that the Thameslink programme is safe in the Government's hands.
As the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked, can we ensure that information is there for passengers and gives them the opportunity to know when there will be disruptions? Major improvements mean disruption for our constituents, so we need to let them know what is going on. I have been impressed by the information that has been put in place so far, but that needs to continue. Let us see the Thameslink programme benefit all our constituencies, so that we can be proud of it for many years to come.
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