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2 Feb 2010 : Column 39WH—continued

11.56 am

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on securing this debate. I acknowledge-no, more than acknowledge-the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) about awarding the contract to Bombardier, which is a UK-based company.

It is clear from the debate that some hon. Members in the Chamber have far more knowledge about the ins and outs and the nuts and bolts of the Thameslink
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route than I do. My expertise, if I have any, comes from my home city of Derby. I want briefly to reinforce the points that I made in my intervention.

Although Bombardier in Derby has a reasonable amount of work, it will be disastrous if the company fails to win the Thameslink contract, because it would effectively run out of work over the next couple of years. As a result of what is happening in the world economy, the UK wants to rebuild its industry, to get people back into work and to sustain them in work.

Kelvin Hopkins: I absolutely support my hon. Friend's point that the contract should go to Bombardier. However, this is about not only Bombardier, but British manufacturing and the loss of skills. If we ever lost that manufacturing capacity, it would be almost impossible to recreate, and our balance of trade deficit, which is already massive, would become even larger. We would be on the way to ceasing to be a manufacturing nation, with seriously damaging consequences for the long term.

Mr. Laxton: I agree entirely. That is why it is vital that a UK-based company should win the work.

I am on record as being somewhat critical-that is perhaps an understatement-of some of the ordering processes at the Department for Transport. The most recent example involved the inter-city express contract being awarded to Agility Trains, a consortium that includes Hitachi of Japan. The contract was said to have the potential to create 12,500 jobs, but as we will find out in due course, there will be no manufacturing jobs or supply-chain jobs for UK plc. There might be a few hundred jobs maintaining the trains, although that would apply whoever won the contract, because maintenance depots would have to be established. I am particularly critical about that.

[Ann Winterton in the Chair]

I have a crucial question for the Minister: can he give us a clear indication of when the contract will be awarded? Derby is a centre of rail expertise. Perhaps it is also, to a degree, a centre of rail gossip; much of that is accurate, and the word out on the bush telegraph is that a decision to award the contract is likely to be made at the end of March. Can the Minister confirm that that is so, and, if not, will he make it clear when the decision will be taken-although, of course, a period of negotiation is likely beyond that time?

I am interested in hearing the other speeches in the debate, and particularly the Minister's answer to my question. I also look forward to hearing his answers to the pertinent questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford.

12 noon

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on his speech and on the work that he has done with the all-party Thameslink route group. I checked this morning, and I am a member of that group; I am happy to be so.

My remarks are predominantly about the long-term plans-not too long term, I hope-for the improvement of the railway line, but I want first to make one or two brief comments about First Capital Connect, because that is relevant to the Thameslink project.

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It is clear that First Capital Connect has let passengers down badly. There are serious issues about the rostering of train drivers and whether they will be expected to work overtime as a matter of course, which effectively creates vulnerability to working to rule. There is also the serious issue of whether more money should have been spent on training more train drivers. That is relevant to the parliamentary question, tabled by the hon. Member for Bedford, about the number of extra train drivers who would be required to operate the enhanced Thameslink service.

The Minister gave a figure of 80, but I should be interested to know whether that assumes the existing working pattern for drivers or, as I hope, a more sensible approach to working pattern and arrangements for drivers. In passing, I should say that the consequences for the south of London have not perhaps been as bad as those for the north of London, partly because Southern has coped well with the unexpected problems that it has had to deal with because of First Capital Connect's inadequacies. The Minister will be aware that there is a considerable movement under way in the House in favour of First Capital Connect's having its franchise removed. I refer to the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), which many hon. Members-of all parties, I think-have signed.

Because the debate relates to the timetable and the 2015 dates and stages set out by the hon. Member for Bedford, it would be useful if the Minister said something about his intentions for the First Capital Connect franchise. It can end naturally in 2012, or be extended to 2015. It is, I think, clear that the Minister and the Department wanted to extend it to 2015, because of the coterminosity with the end of the Southern franchise, which was clearly in their minds.

Many of my constituents, and those of other hon. Members present for the debate, might be unhappy to be told that there will be another five years with that company in charge, given how abysmally it has performed so far. A third option, of course, would be for the Minister to remove the franchise early, as happened with the Great North Eastern Railway and National Express. Some early clarification on that point would be helpful. If the Minister cannot give an answer today, can he say at what point the Government intend to make a statement of intention about the First Capital Connect franchise?

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman may have heard my question, following one from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), in Transport questions last week. The Minister was definitely open-minded about the future of the franchise. Indeed, the possibility of taking it back into public ownership was not ruled out.

Norman Baker: I heard that he was open-minded, but also that he was uncertain about the conclusion, which is why I thought it might be prudent to push the matter again today.

The Thameslink programme is clearly a major investment, with major public benefit not just for rail passengers but for the economy of the areas that the route serves. It has had a long gestation. Rail schemes that were formulated decades ago seem to have taken an enormous amount of time to proceed. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey
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(Simon Hughes) mentioned the fact that Thameslink used to be called Thameslink 2000, and that it is now 2010 but we still do not have it.

It is important for all Members of Parliament to accept that we cannot stop-start rail projects of such magnitude. They need long-term planning and commitment, and stop-starting costs money in cancellation fees. It is also, frankly, an incoherent way to run public policy on railways. For those reasons, and because there has already been delay, and given the difficult financial situation to which the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) referred, which doubtless will continue under the next Government of whatever colour, it is important not to take short-term decisions that damage the country in the medium and long terms and are financially incompetent. It is clear to me that there should be no reduction in the Thameslink programme as planned. That is the position that my party formally adopts, and will adopt for the general election. It would be helpful today, for future planning, if the Conservative spokesman and the Minister were to give similar assurances.

There is no point in my repeating the specific questions put by the hon. Members for Bedford and for Luton, North, but they were germane to the nuts and bolts of the scheme and I hope that the Minister will respond in detail. If he cannot, I hope that perhaps, as a courtesy, he will write to all the Members who have attended the debate, with specific answers to those important questions.

The question of the sliding doors was raised, and I confirm that it is a serious issue. It is important at the present design stage that that matter should be properly addressed. Either the doors should be changed or a mechanism should be introduced to prevent the sort of problem that occurred with the sliding doors of the 319s-which, by the way, are regarded in the trade as dustbin trains. That is the current terminology. I see that we are to get some of them cascaded down to the Brighton-to-Eastbourne route by the Government. Perhaps the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper), who is no longer in the Chamber, may take an interest in that matter.

The hon. Member for Orpington spoke about the funding of future transport schemes. It is important to make it plain at this point that, notwithstanding the economic difficulties that the country faces, there is a sensible economic case-perhaps even more so because of the economic circumstances-for investing in jobs, and particularly those that bring an environmental benefit, in the light of the challenge of climate change. That is why my party will make the creation of green jobs a priority at the general election.

Railway investment fits firmly into that scenario. For that reason, I should be interested in the Minister's confirmation of plans for the introduction of new rolling stock. We have been promised 1,300 new carriages on many occasions. A bit like Billy Bunter's postal order, they never quite turn up; we are hoping that one day they will. Perhaps the Minister can give an answer about that and deal with the inconsistency in the timing, between 2012 and 2013, that has been mentioned in relation to Thameslink.

Chris Mole: I assure the hon. Gentleman that some of the high-level output specification additional rolling stock is already in service, and that I launched the Essex Commuter as a contribution to that only last month.

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Norman Baker: I have no doubt that some are in service, but that is not quite the point that I was making, which was about the delivery date and in-service delivery date for the 1,300 vehicles that were referred to. That matter is difficult to pin down-a bit like jelly.

An important point that arises from the debate so far relates to through-London services. A couple of hon. Members have touched on that important issue. If we are to have major capacity constraints, as we do on the network all round London-and it is not easy to see a solution in terms of creating extra capacity at the termini in London-it is important to have efficient, fully working through-London services. Such services, with termination points either side of London, allow far more trains to be used than services that terminate at a London terminus, whose turn-around times mean that a much more limited number of trains can be got in and out of the station. Through-London services are important for enhancement of capacity, which is why the points made by the hon. Member for Luton, North, in particular, are important.

Kelvin Hopkins: Two of my constituents work in south London, but only because they can travel through London on Thameslink. These services enhance job opportunities for millions of people.

Norman Baker: They do, and the opening of the Snow Hill tunnel has been a transformation. We ought to build on such changes.

The Thameslink programme is crucial to London, as is the Crossrail project. It is important to have consistency and predictability. It would be a service to our constituents if all parties were able to commit to the project and remove any uncertainty.

12.10 pm

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Lady Winterton, to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bedford (Patrick Hall) on securing this debate.

I shall not touch upon First Capital Connect rail services today, because we have an hour-and-a-half debate on the subject tomorrow. I shall target my remarks particularly on key output 2 of the Thameslink project, and later I shall ask some questions of the Minister.

The hon. Member for Bedford was right to state that it is a long-running saga. The project was formerly called Thameslink 2000-some thought that it should have been Thameslink never-and it is now the Thameslink programme. If it is to happen, it will be delivered by 2015.

A number of interesting and thoughtful contributions have been made to the debate, and I shall refer to them during my remarks. The Thameslink programme is split into two key delivery phases-key outputs 1 and 2-and as the hon. Member for Bedford so correctly said, the preparatory phase was delivered in 2009. Key output 1 includes the building of a new station at Blackfriars, the transformation of Farringdon and a number of platform-lengthening schemes.

One of the pleasures of contributing to such debates is that I speak not only for my party but for my constituents, who are affected by Thameslink. One matter that has been referred to a number of times is the ability to allow through traffic. On a parochial basis, speaking
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on behalf of my constituents, I have a question for the Minister. The Secretary of State kindly promised that when the draft timetable was published he would consider whether the Sutton loop could allow through trains to St. Pancras, rather than every train having to stop at Blackfriars. Will the Minister confirm that my constituents can still rely on that promise?

Chris Mole: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the development of the detailed timetable is a task for the future, and we will consider the matter carefully.

Stephen Hammond: I shall keep that promise tucked away.

Key output 2 is crucial. A number of Members have referred to it, and questions have touched on the subject. This debate gives the Minister the chance to confirm or deny many things. The main part of key output 2, as we heard, is the rebuilding of track, the rebuilding of London Bridge station and the letting of the rolling-stock contracts. In total, the latter would facilitate the running of 24 12-car trains an hour through the core section. The programme will include signal alterations, new platforms and the complete reorganisation of the underground station. It is all very exciting.

Today's debate is welcome because, as the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) said, the railway industry is one of rumour and bush telegraph; it has also given rise to a huge number of railway magazines and learned journals. I have a number of questions for the Minister; he might wish to answer them or at least clarify the Government's position.

The works on the track and at London Bridge station are key parts of the Mayor of London's strategy, and they support the entire economic and transport capacity of London and the south-east. However, it is widely rumoured, not only in the article referred to earlier, that the rebuild and the track works are considerably over the budget set by Network Rail and the Government. The cost evaluation has been undertaken through Network Rail's guide to railway investment projects-GRIP-process.

Will the Minister tell us whether GRIP stage 3 is now complete? Will he say what is the scale of the overruns against the original allocated budget for key output 2-is it £500 million, £600 million, £700 million or £800 million? Will he confirm that Network Rail's proposed solution is not to bring the costs back into line but to de-scope the project? Will he confirm that the Mayor of London has written to the Secretary of State, pointing out what many Members have said-that only if full output is achieved for the allocated budget will we get the real benefits of the project, otherwise the viability of the scheme will be undermined?

It is widely anticipated-I am sure that the Minister will be aware of this-that Network Rail will seek to change the plans for London Bridge construction. In the original output 6A, the specification proposal was for nine through platforms rather than six. I understand that the sponsor team has iterated that specification and reiterated it to Network Rail. Network Rail has not come up with a plan to deliver nine through platforms within the allocated budget and with acceptable passenger congestion. Will the Minister confirm that Network Rail does not propose building nine through platforms? Will he give an estimation of the impact on through trains, with trains not being able to stop at London Bridge, if we do not get the full scaling of the project?

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There is a major design issue here. If those through platforms are not delivered, I understand that a redesign of the entry and exit points to the underground station will be necessary, which will involve a renewed planning application. Will the Minister confirm that that is so, and if so what will be the overall delay to the scheme? Will he confirm that it is the Government's intention to ask Network Rail to respond to option 6A for London Bridge with a realistic operational and cost proposition? If the Government do not intend to do so now, exactly when will it happen? We heard earlier about the Bedford depot, but will the Minister deal with the rumour that the Hornsey depot, which is crucial to the stabling of trains, is also under threat from local planning requirements, and that the local council is likely to refuse that application?

Thameslink, through its procurement process, is supposed to deliver 24 12-car trains an hour. Rumours are circulating on the bush telegraph that the number is to be reduced from 24 to 20. Will the Minister tell us that that will not happen? Will he confirm that preferred bidders have been asked to retender on the basis of 20 trains, or have the Government given no advice on that? Will he say whether he has taken consequential legal advice on the Thameslink procurement contract? If there is to be a de-scoping of the contract for the Thameslink programme, will the whole contract have to be retendered? Many of us have asked when the Minister will be making the Thameslink procurement announcement. Can we expect it at the end of March? If so, can we take it that 24 trains an hour will be delivered?

While on the subject of procurement, the Minister did not answer the question about the 1,300 vehicles-nor did I expect him to. However, I wish to test him on a couple of other procurement matters. Will he confirm that the financial bidder for Agility Trains has withdrawn, and that the Government are retendering that contract to rolling-stock leasing companies? Will he also confirm that the Government do not intend to buy the extra 42 Pendolinos to allow the west coast main line to run 11-car trains rather than nine-car trains?

Finally, on the subject of signalling, will the Minister confirm whether Network Rail proposes abandoning automatic train operation and giving no consideration to ERTMS, the European rail traffic management system, but have decided instead to revert entirely to manual signalling? What implications will that have for the effectiveness of the delivery of the Thameslink programme?

Norman Baker: As the hon. Gentleman has asked the Minister many questions, may I ask him one? If there is a Conservative Government after the next election, will he ring-fence the project so that it will proceed, or will the shadow Chancellor consider it for a potential cut?

Stephen Hammond: I need the answers to all my questions before I can make a reasonable judgment on that question.

I have asked the Minister a number of detailed and specific questions that are germane to this project and to people being able to decide how the project will proceed. If the Minister cannot answer all those questions now, will he agree to provide written answers to them?

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