HC Deb 20 April 2004 vol 420 cc145-7
7. Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)

What plans he has to increase investment in railway stations. [166175]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells)

Considerable investment has already been allocated to station improvement by the Strategic Rail Authority, Network Rail and, indeed, the train operating companies, but any proposal to increase investment in railway stations over the coming years will be subject to the availability of future funding, following the Government's spending review later this year.

Mr. Norman

Does the Minister recall that in successive answers to parliamentary questions, Ministers have reassured Members that resources would be made available and steps taken to ensure that stations meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995? Yet throughout the country, stations such as mine in Tunbridge Wells remain completely non-compliant, no resources have been forthcoming and neither Network Rail nor the train operating companies will take responsibility. In this day and age, does the Minister think it acceptable that disabled people have to make an appointment to be carried down stairs or through tunnels so that they can catch a train and, if not, what does he plan to do about it?

Dr. Howells

The hon. Gentleman is right: there should not be a system whereby people have to book help to get down stairs. I understand from South Eastern Trains that all stations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have access problems; that the company has conducted an audit to identify what is required to ensure compliance with the DDA; and that the information has been passed to the SRA. I can also tell him that the SRA is considering how best to prioritise the programme of works to ensure that all stations and train services meet the accessibility requirements of the Act; the implementation works will be subject to the availability of funding.

However, I understand from South Eastern Trains that stations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are due for the general tidy-up—repainting, cleaning of graffiti and so on—that they certainly require. Furthermore, on taking over responsibility for the franchise, SET found that there was 20 per cent. shortage of staff, so the company has undertaken a recruitment exercise and expects to be fully staffed by August. I shall certainly follow up the specific cases that the hon. Gentlemen raised about access to and from platforms, but I hope that he will welcome the fact that we have an indication that there could be a general improvement in the state of those stations.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

Through my hon. Friend the Minister, may I thank the Secretary of State for his staunch support for the regeneration of Gourock station in my constituency? Is it not the case that when a station is redeveloped, it can have a very beneficial knock-on effect on the regeneration of the surrounding area? That would certainly be the case in Gourock, where major benefits would flow. To that end, can my hon. Friend ensure that his Department continues to support the regeneration of the station and encourages Network Rail Scotland to spend the money that has already been allocated in its budget wisely, as part of a partnership to ensure the broadest possible regeneration for Gourock when the station is developed?

Dr. Howells

I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is in discussions about that issue at the moment.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con)

What are the Government's intentions towards investment in London Bridge station? As the Minister and his colleagues will be aware, that station is a huge bottleneck for trains coming in from south-east London and Kent, a fact which has led, among other things, to the Strategic Rail Authority's absolutely disastrous proposals in the integrated Kent franchise to cut peak-hour trains from south-east London. For example, Petts Wood trains are being cut by about a half at peak times and trains from Chelsfield to London termini by about two thirds. Does he not think that it is much better to invest relatively small amounts in increasing capacity at such stations, rather than cutting services, which inevitably leads to even more overcrowding?

Dr. Howells

I understand that London Bridge is Britain's busiest railway station, and if we could sort out the problems there, it would increase capacity of services in the south-east a great deal, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, that is not an inexpensive project—it could be very expensive—and it has been bedevilled by planning problems, such as the future of Borough Road market. The pinch point that the hon. Gentleman mentions runs directly over the roof of the market. Those engineering problems are not easy to sort out, but I have visited the area twice recently and I understand that there are now some feasible engineering solutions to those problems that could well allow us to build at least another track there, which would do a great deal to increase the capacity of the lines in and out of London Bridge station. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that that is one of the key projects on the British rail network, and it will probably offer very good value for money if we can find a way to solve the list of complex issues that bedevil the regeneration of that station.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best investment that we could possibly make in stations is to stop them being unmanned or unpersoned? I have seen newly painted stations where the graffiti has been wiped out and the stations have been cleaned up, but the graffiti starts to appear again the next day because the stations are unpersoned or unmanned. We will not get accessibility—[Interruption.] I am making a very serious point; I do not know why the Minister finds it amusing. The fact is that people have access to railway lines. Given what they put on railway lines, if they have free access 24 hours a day, with little surveillance, it will lead to another serious accident on the railways. I believe that unmanned stations will lead to accidents, and my hon. Friend should take that seriously.

Dr. Howells

I assure my hon. Friend that I take it very seriously. I was smiling in sympathy at his struggling with a number of phrases, such as "unmanned" and "unstaffed" and so on.

We are very concerned about the fact that people should feel safe and secure at stations, and the best way to do that is to ensure that staff are present to meet the train when it arrives and to make sure that everyone is on the train safely when it leaves. Unfortunately, of course, there are a great many stations where the number of people passing through is very small—a tiny number—and it is not economically possible to ensure that there are staff at such places 24 hours a day.

We have safe station schemes—I visited one in Hereford recently—whereby, without much money being spent, a guarantee is given that staff will be present to meet trains and to see people off on them, and the performance and the state of the station are improved very dramatically. My hon. Friend makes a very important point, but we must be careful to hedge it by pointing out that such things cannot happen at every station and halt in this country.