HC Deb 12 March 2003 vol 401 cc398-404

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.3 pm

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of the problems on the railway service from London to Hassocks, the main commuter station in my constituency. Those problems also touch on all the stations and commuters served by the Brighton line south of Gatwick, in particular the station at Burgess Hill.

I raise the issue at the request and with the support of the Hassocks amenity association, which is backed by Hassocks parish council, a number of other parish councils, the Hassocks village action plan and all three political parties. We are all looking to improve the train service and to campaign to reverse the significant deterioration that has been experienced in recent years.

There are specific objectives as well as specific problems. The specific objectives are to reintroduce the off-peak services to London Victoria that are no longer available, to increase weekend services, to introduce a Sunday Thameslink service, to restore a late-night service from Brighton, to introduce a shuttle service to Gatwick and to introduce more direct services to Hove.

Major problems need to be addressed, however. Cancelled services and trains not stopping at Hassocks as a result of congestion affect, in particular, mid-morning Thameslink services north and south. The extent of the delays has resulted in a considerable increase in the use of cars, with people travelling to Gatwick to get a reliable train service. The number of carriages has been reduced from eight to four, which has caused considerable passenger congestion, resulting in people sometimes being unable to get on trains.

The recent decision by the Strategic Rail Authority to stop the through-service to Bournemouth at Southampton means that citizens of the area who travel south and west no longer have direct access to Bournemouth. There are occasional problems with power supplies and the station is a derelict 30-year-old prefab. The station premises, including the platform, are dangerous for disabled people and the platform itself is inadequate, which is one reason for the reduced number of carriages.

A year ago I was enormously heartened when I met the managing director of the new operator who was negotiating the franchise. One merged company, the Go-Ahead Group, now represents South Central, Thameslink and Thames Trains. The new operator wanted to address key fundamental, as well as operating, problems. The biggest single problem is congestion at Gatwick. The Gatwick special service to London gets priority because of its success, as a result of which trains to the commuter stations down the line are delayed or cancelled if there are pressures to do so. In addition, the number of trains that can use the line in both directions is increasingly limited by extra services to Gatwick.

I mentioned the infrastructure problems at Hassocks station. It is necessary to replace outdated and dangerous rolling stock. There were also problems with cancelled trains because drivers were sick or did not turn up. The operators have dealt with the number of drivers and are going ahead with investment in new rolling stock, with 700 new carriages due to be installed by the end of next year, but as a result of having been granted a seven-year franchise rather than a 20-year franchise, that is the extent of the capital investment that they are willing to make. The rest of the capital investment falls entirely at the door of the SRA. That is the fundamental problem.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

My hon. Friend and I share the same problem with the line, especially as far as Burgess Hill is concerned. Does he agree that there is confusion in people's minds because they think that the operator is responsible for the infrastructure and the stations? Those who are responsible for the work that needs to be conducted, to a much greater extent, at Hassocks and, to a lesser extent—although it is by no means unimportant—at Burgess Hill, are unsure and unclear when the money will be forthcoming. Does my hon. Friend know when the SRA will provide it?

Mr. Flight

There seems to be no idea whatsoever about when the money will be forthcoming. That issue arose at a major meeting at Hassocks with representatives of the SRA, the operators and various others. I feel slightly sorry for the operators. They get the blame for everything that people object to but, with only a seven-year franchise, they do not have the power to address some of the major issues.

As I was saying, all infrastructure investment seems to fall at the door of the SRA, and there seems no prospect of Network Rail taking on responsibility for the station. Indeed, the SRA said bluntly at the meeting in Hassocks that, given the additional cost of the west coast main line, there was no prospect of it affording in the foreseeable future the necessary capital investment to build a new station, make other infrastructure improvements, or address the major need for—to use rather simplistic language—a bypass in the train line around Gatwick in order to avoid the bottleneck.

The operators have made some improvements. There are now three trains an hour to London—two Thameslink services to London Bridge and one to Clapham Junction—but there is no prospect of a direct train to Victoria, which is one of the main central London destinations for commuters. Commuters still have to change trains in order to get to Victoria. The SRA and others made the point that, in addition to the Gatwick bottleneck, limited capacity at stations in London was a major problem.

It is fair to say that the reaction of a large number of citizens who gathered at the meeting with the parties that I have mentioned was one of acute depression. In effect, they were told that, other than marginal improvements that the operators can make, there was no prospect of relieving the rest of the problems.

West Sussex is to be obliged to cope with a substantial number of new houses, and some 3,000 of them are to be adjacent to Hassocks, west of Burgess Hill. Two new runways could be built at Gatwick, which would greatly increase the demand for trains to and from the airport. If Gatwick expands, there will be a big increase in the number of commuters on the line from Hassocks. Indeed, if the growth in use of the network continued at the rate of the past decade, there would be a 90 per cent. increase in traffic by 2016. There is absolutely no way that the infrastructure or the operators can address that growth without the required major investment. Indeed, the Government's objective of increasing traffic by 50 per cent. by 2010 cannot possibly be delivered on the present run-down infrastructure.

The key question is this: why on earth was a seven-year rather than a 20-year franchise granted? That has frustrated the delivery by the operators of quite a deal of capital investment. There is clearly insufficient funding for the SRA, or the SRA is giving priority to other needs at the expense of a congested area of the south-east, particularly the Brighton line. The prospect for rail transport serving my existing constituents and the new constituents who will come to the area as new housing is developed-indeed for the whole of the mid—Sussex area—is disastrous. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) would point to problems of equal magnitude that are encountered on the service to Burgess Hill and commuter stations close to it.

We have been told that there is no prospect of the SRA addressing the capital investment and infrastructure needs that will be required to cope with the increased population. What on earth is the Government's transport policy? Why are the basic rail needs of a part of the world that is required to cope with a great deal more housing and many more citizens to be completely ignored?

I am grateful for the opportunity to present the problems on behalf' of my constituents. I hope that the Minister will take note in a constructive way and discuss with the SRA what might be considered, especially bearing in mind the rising need as a result of the likely expansion of Gatwick airport.

7.15 pm
The Parliamentary Unde-rSecretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on securing the debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss train services to Hassocks.

Hassocks is a station on the busy London to Brighton line between Burgess Hill and Preston Park, a suburb of Brighton. Train services to Hassocks are provided by Thameslink and South Central. Station facilities, such as staffing for the booking office, are provided by South Central. The passenger service requirements for the relevant franchises set out the minimum level of service that must be provided. In the case of Hassocks, there must be a half-hourly service to London Bridge on the Thameslink franchise, and an hourly service to Victoria on the South Central franchise. All these trains originate from or continue to Brighton.

During the morning and evening peaks, trains are more frequent and serve a wider range of destinations. In the morning— between 6.30 and 8.30 am, for example—12 trains call at Hassocks on their way to London, and in the evening 14 trains from London call in the down direction between 5.30 and 7.30 pm. I do not underestimate the frustration that can be caused when trains are late or do not run at all, but the current level of service being provided on the line does not seem unreasonable.

I mentioned the range of destinations served. Most southbound trains terminate at Brighton, with the exception of a few peak-hour services that run on to destinations such as Hove and Littlehampton. Northbound, there are regular through services to Luton, Luton airport and Bedford via Thameslink. That provides connections to the east midlands, Sheffield and Leeds. The regular South Central service runs to Watford junction, calling at Kensington Olympia. Connections can be made there for Virgin Cross Country and west coast main line services to the north-west, the north-east and Scotland. All those services can be accessed without the need to cross London or change stations. The Brighton to Watford Junction trains also provide the hourly service to Victoria by way of connections that can be made at Haywards Heath, Gatwick Airport, East Croydon or Clapham Junction.

Of course, this complex web of services brings its own problems, some of which were highlighted by the hon. Gentleman. One is that Thameslink trains, in particular, have to thread their way through a complicated series of stations and junctions in the London area and on to routes carrying the trains of a number of other operators. The inevitable result is that they are sometimes delayed, often because of the late running of other operators' services. Decisions then have to be made about how that lost time can be made up. One way of doing that is to run trains fast between Brighton and Haywards Heath or vice versa. Unfortunately, the result is that passengers wishing to use Hassocks are occasionally inconvenienced.

The Strategic Rail Authority stresses to all train operating companies the need to run their trains as advertised. It also emphasises the need to keep passengers informed of disruptions, cancellations and any late running that may occur. There will inevitably be cases when it is preferable either to cancel a service that is running late or to run it fast through some stations. It can then start its next journey on time and not add to delays elsewhere on the network by being late. There is a delicate balance to be struck between inconveniencing a small number of passengers so that a larger number elsewhere on the network are not delayed by knock-on effects.

Thameslink recognises the importance of striking the correct balance, and with that in mind, has out-stationed a team of managers at Brighton to advise on late running and make decisions on the ground. The hon. Gentleman might well respond that it is always his constituents who lose out. I am afraid that such decisions will always involve hard choices, but the fact is that Hassocks is comfortably smaller than most of the other stops that could be missed out in that way, and Thameslink ensures that it resorts to station-skipping only when an alternative train is available within a short time. My information is that the number of occasions when trains do not stop at Hassocks is fairly low. If the hon. Gentleman knows otherwise or has other information, I am sure that he will bring it to my Department's attention.

I appreciate that schoolchildren rely on the stopping services to go to schools in and around Hassocks. I also know that with new house building the population is rising, and that existing roads are already close to capacity. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that Hassocks, like Burgess Hill, was developed as a railway commuter town. Its station continues to serve a substantial rural area, including many other areas as well as Hassocks itself. I am sure that Thameslink will keep arrangements under review, so that if relative passenger numbers at the stations concerned change significantly, operational practice can be modified to match those changes. Of course, it is our ambition throughout the country to keep services under review so that they match any changes and are appropriate to any population shifts.

On track capacity, the Strategic Rail Authority has undertaken extensive consultation about capacity utilisation. That is relevant to a number of suggestions that have been made about increased services from Hassocks. The time to consider those suggestions will be when the Strategic Rail Authority is conducting its review of track capacity on the London to Brighton line. At present, the line is being used to its maximum track capacity and opportunities to introduce new services or add extra station calls to existing services are very limited indeed.

The hon. Gentleman may think that that sounds less than encouraging, but we are clear that the priority for Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority and the train operating companies should be to ensure that existing rail services operate consistently, reliably and punctually. We need services that passengers can rely on. In fact, one of passengers' main criticisms about our train services is lack of predictability. Of course, that is very important.

The rolling stock used on the great majority of trains that call at Hassocks is accessible to those with disabilities, including wheelchair users—an issue that I think the hon. Gentleman has raised with my Department in the past. However, some services—mostly the peak period ones—are still provided with slam-door stock that is not accessible in that way. The good news is that those trains will progressively be replaced with Electrostar trains, which are fully accessible and have wheelchair-accessible toilets.

Hassocks station is not fully accessible to all those with disabilities, but the necessary work will take place to make it so. The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that priority for such work is given to the busiest stations that are not easily accessible—Clapham Junction is a good example—but the focus is now shifting to the smaller and less busy stations such as Hassocks.

When the Strategic Rail Authority was negotiating the new South Central franchise agreement, it arranged for Go Via to take over the franchise from Connex in August 2001. It then began work with Go Via to specify a range of infrastructure enhancements. Later, when a decision was made to reduce the length of the franchise, there were knock-on effects for that infrastructure programme. That does not mean that the work will not take place, because the Strategic Rail Authority is taking over sponsorship of some of it. A proposal for capacity enhancement at Gatwick, including what has come to be known as the Gatwick bypass, is among the schemes that have been put forward, but it is too soon to say whether it will go ahead. Notwithstanding the outcome of the current consultation on air services, that scheme will be another consideration in future years should a decision be made arising from the consultation.

It is clear that the Brighton line needs improvement to achieve greater capacity, better signalling and higher speeds. It is a busy stretch of railway that runs through growing centres of population, so anything that can be done to increase capacity and improve reliability will bring major benefits. Some signaling enhancement has already been completed, and more is in progress. There is also a continuing track maintenance and replacement programme. The vast majority of the track slowings caused by gauge corner cracking have now been removed, but old track and sleepers still need to be replaced in certain areas. Coupled with the major track upgrades on both the Brighton line and the Arun valley line, that will allow improved frequency and journey times to the Sussex coast. Enhancements are also taking place at Gatwick Airport station to provide further performance and capacity gains.

The power supply arrangements for the introduction of new rolling stock are not satisfactory. Upgrading the supply to cater for the higher-performance trains ordered for the south-east was not factored into the investment programme by the industry parties involved as quickly or as clearly as it ought to have been. The Strategic Rail Authority has now taken the lead—as it has with the west coast route modernisation project—and, in partnership with the industry, has produced a plan to co-ordinate the work. This is a multi-million pound project that will be authorised and funded in stages. It involves upgrading and replacing substations, replacing cables and conductor rails, and upgrading electrical control centres. All that work is necessary because the new trains need more power. They are heavier and have extra features such as air conditioning—bringing—better conditions for travellers—and modern traction systems. The work is already under way. High-voltage cables have already been laid in the inner-London area and the main power supply contracts are now being awarded by Network Rail.

We want to deliver a bigger, better and safer railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer services. That applies to the services we have been discussing today as much as to the network in general.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) mentioned the physical infrastructure of Hassocks station. Although the news about the upgrading of the lines is welcome, is the Minister aware that it is not only Hassocks that faces a major problem? To a lesser extent, Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath have requirements for the most basic improvements to station facilities, which, to the travelling public, are every bit as important as improvements of the kind that he is talking about.

Mr. Jamieson

Yes, I am aware of that. That is why I said that improvements were being made progressively. The Government have made very substantial investment, but it is progressive. The problem to which the hon. Gentleman alludes is not new. It goes back many years, and certainly predates this Government.

The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs queried the seven-year franchise. As he knows, it was to have been a 20-year franchise, but the Strategic ail Authority decided that the 20-year deal was poor value for money, so it was renegotiated at seven years. He asked about the Government's policy on railways and said that there was clearly insufficient funding for the Strategic Rail Authority. That may or may not be the case, but I can tell him that the funding that has been made available to the Strategic Rail Authority is at record levels. Never, throughout many years of neglect, was so much money invested in our rail service. Just after Christmas, the hon. Gentleman was quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying: I am digging through current spending, finding opportunities for cuts. It's too early to say how much but it could be up to 20 per cent. I assume that when he does his digging, cuts will not be identified in the services that would affect his constituents.

Mr. Flight

If the Minister had continued to read the article he would have noticed that I said that it was in order to have the funds for necessary areas of additional investment.

Mr. Jamieson

At another time, I would be interested in arguing with the hon. Gentleman about how we can make 20 per cent. cuts while continuing the level of investment that the Government are making in the rail system. I must politely point out that the two aims are inconsistent, but I am sure that he will argue his case convincingly in some other place at some other time.

The Brighton line is an important link in the southeast rail network. Although the hon. Gentleman may not have been entirely encouraged by everything that I have said, I hope that he will at least feel that our plans will deliver the service that his constituents have every right to expect. The debate has provided a useful opportunity to air some important issues, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for initiating it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Seven o'clock.