HC Deb 10 June 2004 vol 422 cc489-98

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

6 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise yet again in the House the issue of the missing rail link between Lewes and Uckfield. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and I am sorry that the Minister of State, Department for Transport is not here, but I know that he wanted to get back to his constituency to vote in the European elections. I wish that all members of the public took as much interest in the voting as he clearly does.

This debate has run for some considerable time. The Minister will know that, ironically, the Lewes-Uckfield line survived the Beeching cuts and was closed only to facilitate a road scheme in 1969. It was closed, I want to put on record, against the wishes of British Rail, which had been busy shutting railway lines up and down the country throughout that decade. Almost immediately after it closed, there was a vociferous campaign to reopen it, which has been going ever since. That is witnessed by the fact that the track bed between Lewes and Uckfield has significantly been protected in the structure plan and the local plans of the Lewes and Wealden district councils, and it is evinced by the fact that the campaign to re-open the line is not solely the responsibility of a small number of train enthusiasts, but is supported widely throughout the community.

The campaign is, for example, supported by Liberal Democrat-controlled Lewes district council and Conservative-controlled Wealden district council and East Sussex county council. Members of this House of all three parties support it—for example, myself as a Lib Dem, the Conservative hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), whom I see in his place tonight, and the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper), among others. Indeed, it is difficult to find anyone at an elected level anywhere in East Sussex who opposes the re-opening of the line. Town councils, district councils and the county council, which has made it a priority in its transport works, support it. I know that the Government want to give due weight to local communities, so I ask the Minister to reflect on the strong feeling expressed in all quarters in favour of re-opening the line.

The line has come close to being re-opened on a couple of occasions since its demise There was a time in the 1980s when Chris Green, then working for the nationalised British Rail, pledged money to re-opening. Sadly, on that occasion, the county council was not interested, so the proposal fell. Even the much maligned Connex company, coming towards the end of its franchise, recognised the value of the line as a diversionary route to London and indicated as part of its proposals for franchise renewal that it would endorse its re-opening. For reasons that we all understand, Connex then lost its franchise.

It is deeply frustrating for Members who consistently supported the re-opening to encounter a situation that is like one of those Christmas cracker games in which a plastic container has four or five aluminium balls that have to be lined up and placed into all the holes at the same time. As soon as we get all the balls in bar one, one pops out—a different one every time. All the balls are now in place at local level, with everyone supporting the proposal locally, but we now face something that the Minister will understand because of what he has inherited with Railtrack—a rail industry that is incapable of delivering such schemes. That is the problem that I want the Minister to try to help to overcome, or at least to move along in that direction.

There is no doubt that the campaign to re-open is strong, because it makes so much sense. I stress to the Minister that it is not based on sentimentality or some vision of steam trains winding their way between Lewes and Uckfield. It is based on solid, common-sense arguments that the Government support as part of their policy.

There is a very good environmental case for reopening the line. The A26 between Lewes and Uckfield is becoming more and more heavily trafficked. More people want to travel from Uckfield and Crowborough, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Wealden, to work in Lewes and on the south coast, where there is a high level of employment for white-collar workers. Also, people want to go to Brighton and Hove. The Minister's colleagues in that area are keen to stress the importance of regeneration, and reinstating the link between Lewes and Uckfield would contribute to that.

The link is also important in terms of social inclusion, which is another matter that is high on the Government's agenda. Many people in the so-called rich south-east lack access to private transport, and the bus and rail networks are lifelines for them. The short gap—of only seven miles—between Lewes and Uckfield is like a key tooth missing from a mouth. Its absence stands out. It makes no sense, economically or otherwise, for the line from London Victoria to wind all the way down through Oxted to Uckfield, and stop just seven miles short of the Lewes junction. At Lewes, there are a great many more interchanges, and extending the line that far would make a great deal of sense in rail terms.

The proposal makes sense in other ways, too. The Minister will know from his Labour colleagues in Brighton and Hove that there is a severe problem with the train path capacity between Brighton and London. No more train paths are available because of the bottleneck at Haywards Heath and Balcombe. There is no way to get around the problem. It is inconceivable that a new viaduct and tunnel could be built at Balcombe, because of the cost involved. The alternative would be to improve the Arundel line, but that is a long diversion—the distance between Brighton and London is 80 miles.

From the strategic point of view, the simplest and cheapest way to provide extra capacity between the south coast and London would be to reopen the Lewes-Uckfield line and use that link as an alternative route. For my constituents, that would provide a daily, direct service from the major port of Newhaven and the major town of Seaford to London, without the need to change at Lewes. There are therefore a great many reasons why this proposal makes sense.

The Minister will understand my concern that the Government office for the south-east has suggested that the proposal should not be brought forward as a priority, nor implemented as soon as possible. I think that both things should happen. In addition, GOSE has suggested that it should be deleted, on affordability grounds, from the draft regional transport strategy. No doubt GOSE officials will have told the Minister that they have been bombarded with objections to an idea that is ill-timed and ludicrous. I hope that further thought will be given to the matter.

I wrote to GOSE, and I am sure that other hon. Members have done the same. Unusually, the letter was passed by an official for reply by a Minister. Things are usually done the other way around. The Minister for Housing and Planning wrote to me on 13 May, and his comments concerned me. I was grateful that he should have written to me, and a ministerial reply to a letter to an official is always helpful, but he said that the benefits accruing from re-opening the Lewes-Uckfield line would be largely confined to the improvement of travel opportunities between the specific urban centres involved. That is not true, for the reasons that I have given. Everyone who has looked at the matter in depth—including consultants used by the county council, and others—recognise the strategic value of the route.

The Minister added that the link would not achieve the objective of providing and alternative and competitive main railway corridor to London because of the topography of the route. It is unclear why the Minister made that statement, which is not true either. The proposal involves the most easily adaptable alternative route. If, by the use of the word "topography", the Minister means that part of the line adjacent to Lewes had been built on, everyone knows that that is the case. It has been factored in for decades, ever since the line closed. There is an alternative: the existing Hamsey loop could be linked up very quickly, by means of a short stretch of new rail, to the existing Lewes-London line. It is not true, therefore, that the alteration could not be made, which is what I think the Minister intended that sentence to mean. I think that he has been badly briefed.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and congratulate him on securing this debate. Will he join me in congratulating the people involved in the Wealden line campaign for their work in keeping this matter under consideration? Does he understand why so many of my constituents are frustrated? They have to travel from Uckfield and Crowborough to Haywards Heath or Tonbridge Wells to use a train service, and are not able to use a line that runs through their home towns. Does he agree that the Strategic Rail Authority's priorities are misguided? It wants to build high-speed links between London and Edinburgh, when the real crisis in our rail system is in the overcrowded south-east? It takes an hour and a half to get from Uckfield to London by train—longer than it takes to go from London to Doncaster.

Norman Baker

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He has campaigned strongly for the reopening of the line, and he, I and others all say the same thing about that in the same terms. I agree about the SRA's priorities: it has inherited a bad situation from Railtrack, but if I were the Government, I should be looking for 100 or so quick, cheap schemes that would bring real improvements to the railways. They have been diverted on to the west coast main line, and I can understand why, but they are putting all their eggs in one basket. A lot of improvements could come very quickly to the railways.

The hon. Gentleman leads me on to a press release from the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, published on 8 June. It said: Kim Howells applauded ACoRP's success in supporting small-scale projects which can bring real benefits to local communities". The Minister of State was absolutely right there. That is where we can get good, quick hits, and I encourage the Government to do that. Indeed, I think they want to: their instincts on rail are right, but they have trouble with a rail system that will not lend itself to delivering objectives that they want to achieve. The press release added that the Minister of State hinted that supporters of community railways 'will be pleasantly surprised' by the outcome of the current Government Rail Review. I hope that that is true. If so, it will give good heart to those who want schemes such as the Lewes-Uckfield reopening.

We have heard about costs, but the costs given by the SRA are outrageous and way out of line with estimates produced by consultants for the county council and others for a diesel connection—the line from Uckfield north is diesel—betweenUckfield and Lewes. The county's estimate is between £25 million and £40 million, not the £100 million plus that the SRA has offered. By the way, the SRA has never justified that figure. We have asked it time and again for evidence for it, but it has not been able to do so. It is a figure plucked out of the air. Yet the Minister for Housing and Planning is apparently relying on that figure and says that the scheme cannot be ruled in on grounds of affordability. We really must have some reason why £100 million has been suggested because I think that the figure is substantially less, and the county council is rightly working on lower figures.

The hon. Member for Wealden and I have discussed with the county council its innovative identification of how the extra housing that the Government require for the south-east, in so far as it relates to East Sussex, can be placed adjacent to the rail line between Uckfield and Oxted and Crowborough. I pay tribute to the former lead member, Tony Reid, for his work on that. By doing that, the Government could generate planning gain that would lead to a significant funding stream that would help reopen the line. The county council is doing its best to secure external funding, and that funding is needed only for the reopening. All the evidence shows that the line would be operationally profitable; there is no question about that. The question is simply whether the capital costs can be achieved.

I suggest that the Government's own policy should be to want the line reopened. That is consistent with their objectives. I understand why it is difficult because of the mess the railway system is in, but I ask the Minister to help me find a way through that and to recognise the work that the county council is doing in finding private sector funding to help in an innovative way forward. The county council's brief to me says that in-depth studies carried out by Mott MacDonald, the consultants it employed, concluded that while the basic regional train service on the route would make a small annual operating profit, it would not cover the capital cost of reinstatement. The key area of work, therefore, is to investigate how the significant funding gap in the project can be bridged. It may be possible to use enhanced land values as a result of reinstatement of the railway to pay, in part, for the capital costs of construction.

That is an innovative way forward that the Minister ought to support. It is bang in line with the Government's philosophy. The rail industry itself is also supportive, and the SRA, which I have been castigating, has in fact offered staff resources to the county council to review the work carried out by an outside body. I have met SRA representatives, and the SRA is not antipathetic to the scheme. SouthCentral Trains—Southern, as we now must call it—has also indicated that it is in favour in principle and would operate the route gladly if it were reinstated. Most of the balls in my Christmas cracker game are in place, but what we do not have is co-ordination of the rail industry, which I hope the Minister can help to deliver.

The reinstatement of the Lewes-Uckfield line would be good for the environment, good for social mobility and social inclusion and good for the economy. It makes absolute sense. It is overwhelmingly supported by the communities in my patch and that of the hon. Member for Wealden, and elsewhere. It is supported by all the local councils and all the local Members. It is something that the Government, in their wish to get real services back on track, should support.

It is my ambition to be at the reopening of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line. It was the ambition of the hon. Gentleman's predecessor and I hope that he will still make it. I intend to continue to raise the matter until such time as I am there, hopefully to cut the ribbon, but at least to be there when the ribbon is cut. It would give me no greater pleasure than to be there when the Minister is there to cut the ribbon. I will be the first to congratulate him.

6.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for further discussion on the Lewes to Uckfield rail link. I must disappoint him instantly by saying that whether there is good news or otherwise for those interested in community rail partnerships in the rail review, we must wait and see. I do not anticipate commenting further on the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister of State at an Association of Community Rail Partnerships function the other day.

The hon. Gentleman and others have been pressing for the reinstatement of the link over a long period. He secured an Adjournment debate as long ago as 29 July 1998 and it was discussed further as part of another Adjournment debate on 31 October 2001. Indeed, as I think he said, he and colleagues from Tonbridge and Malling, Wealden and Brighton, Kemptown along with representatives of East Sussex county council met Richard Bowker, the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, on 5 June. So the Government and the SRA are well aware of the aspirations of hon. Members, local authorities and others.

Before responding to the points made by the hon. Gentleman, I wish to touch on recent changes in the area and on performance. As he said, on 30 May the South Central train operator rebranded to the name Southern. That is a return to a respected and valued name—nothing new there necessarily—and underscores its commitment to improving services to East Sussex as a key element of its work. Southern is introducing modern and more reliable trains, improved station environments and better service. Over 700 new carriages will enter passenger service in the coming months up to 2005.

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the other improvements as a consequence of the introduction of Electrostars, Turbostars and other similar developments. On the Uckfield to London service, new Turbostars are entering service. They have air suspension, air conditioning, a state-of-the-art public information system and are fully accessible for disabled passengers. They have low emissions, are quiet and have fast acceleration. They are unrecognisable from the old "Thumper" trains that they are replacing. Other improvements include the upgrading of the power supply, which is long overdue, and the train protection and warning system.

Southern has shown an increase in performance in the last year with 80 per cent. of trains arriving within five minutes, compared with 77 per cent. for the previous year.

The Lewes to Uckfield proposals cannot be considered in isolation, but must be viewed in the wider context of the transport network in the region. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the SRA's current focus is to make the most efficient use of the existing network, making sure that capacity is used as effectively as possible. The route utilisation strategies being developed aim to improve capacity and performance, and reduce overcrowding by improvements to operating practices, better deployment of rolling stock and alterations to timetables.

The Brighton main line route utilisation strategy will go out to consultation in the summer and it will include proposals for improved services for Uckfield: a fast, all-day service between Uckfield and London Bridge. It will also consider improvements in services from Lewes to London using the Brighton main line.

The South East England regional assembly's draft regional transport strategy of January 2003 originally included the Lewes to Uckfield scheme as "proposed for investigation." Following an examination in public into the assembly's draft strategy, an independent panel recommended that the proposal be deleted on affordability grounds. However, the panel considered the scheme to be a longer-term possibility that could be revisited in preparing the regional spatial strategy, also referred to as the south-east plan.

The Secretary of State's first draft regional transport strategy deleted the scheme, as recommended by the panel. The consultation on the draft regional transport strategy ended on 21 May 2004 and I understand that many representations have been received for the reinstatement of the scheme. The final regional transport strategy will be published in the next few months.

In the longer term, the SRA will produce a series of regional planning assessments—RPAs—to identify possible network enhancements for detailed analysis and appraisal. Work on the southern RPA will begin this winter and the SRA will ensure that the emerging south-east plan is captured in this work. It is within that wider planning framework that proposals for a rail link between Lewes and Uckfield would be reviewed.

I would do nothing other than exhort the county council to carry on doing what it is doing. The current structures of the rail network and the rail system are cumbersome, hence the rail review. There are other substantial and appropriate dimensions to the spatial strategy, the transport strategy and other examinations of such issues on a regional basis, but it would be a sorry state of affairs if what we did after the rail review precluded some attempt at innovation at local level to fill the gaps in the network, above and beyond the regional, national and other strategies.

Any consideration would also need to address a number of complex operational issues, including the impact that services over the line would have on other parts of the network. For example, if trains between Uckfield and Brighton were introduced, there would be implications for capacity at Brighton, a station where competing demands on capacity are already heavy, as the hon. Gentleman reminded us.

Supporters of the Lewes to Uckfield link argue that it could be used as an alternative, diversionary route to London when there are engineering works or disruption on the Brighton main line. Laudable as that objective might be, it would be relevant only if the whole of the route from Hurst Green via Uckfield to Lewes were to be electrified, which would further increase the costs.

Norman Baker

I disagree with the Minister's last point. We now have new services direct from Uckfield to London that run with diesel engines. Southern has made a virtue of the fact that it can now run more services into Victoria from Uckfield, so there is nothing to stop such services continuing to Lewes.

Mr. McNulty

I do not dispute that, but electrification would be necessary to optimise the use of the route as a diversionary line if there were problems on the Brighton main line. I know that the SRA tends to opt for the all-singing, all-dancing, bells and whistles version and that is why the county council should continue to consider the proposal, but a diesel-only service would weaken the case for the route to play a diversionary role. The strategic benefits advanced by the line's proponents seem to ignore the single-track nature of large sections of the line and the need for that to be addressed if the line were to play a full diversionary role in all circumstances.

I am also aware of the historic issues of flooding along the River Ouse and the impact that that had on the line prior to its closure in the 1970s. The costs and potential environmental impacts of satisfying track doubling, electrification and drainage should not be underestimated. I remind the House of the duty to avoid unnecessary blight and concern about how those potential issues would be delivered. I do not preclude examining the proposal further, but I offer those issues for consideration. Even if all those problems were solved, the line would be limited by the proposal by the Wealden line group that trains should run into Lewes via the Hamsey loop—that is, heading east at Lewes. The station layout there would constrain through running to Brighton and involve a shunt move to gain the Brighton line.

Another argument, which was put forward eloquently by the hon. Gentleman, is the potential to develop the port of Newhaven, so that the Lewes to Uckfield line would be part of a route to and from the port. That proposal can be considered as part of the SRA's regional study, which will look at all ports along the south coast.

The SRA's view is that the new rolling stock and other improvements that it will propose in the route utilisation strategy will provide a much enhanced service from both Lewes and Uckfield without the significant costs of providing infrastructure. For that reason, the SRA has not included the Lewes to Uckfield line in its strategic plan nor has it been part of the SRA's current thinking.

The SRA has said that it needs to be convinced of the operational viability, and the overall justification for the scheme and would expect the scheme's proponents to engage with the key rail industry players—the SRA, the train operating companies and Network Rail—to make the case for further work to develop a feasibility study. A lot of work needs to be done to establish the costs, potential usage and value for money of reinstating the link.

As the hon. Gentleman said, such studies, or tentative studies, have been done in the past and there has been a body of support for restoring the line since 1969. As ever—I am sure that if he intervened he would make the same point—if nothing has been done, studies need to be looked at again in the context of the circumstances that prevail five or 10 years after the last study. The matter perhaps needs to be looked at in more detail.

Given the issues relating to the likely capital costs of the scheme and the likely ongoing subsidy requirement—although I take the point about what the county council is trying to do—the SRA has concluded that further investigation of the reopening of this route is not a priority for it at the present time. However, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about finding other innovative ways to fill some of the smaller gaps.

Another scheme that has had its backers over the years is the restoration of the Bridge (Birchden Junction) to Tunbridge Wells (Grove Junction) link. It would provide another link in the network, but the SRA and others suggest that it would be of limited value on its own. I shall not rehearse the limited local value that the SRA currently puts on the scheme in terms of its being local rather than strategic. That is its view.

To sum up, the SRA is continuing to develop its plan to improve the existing network and services through its route development strategies and the consultation on the Brighton main line RUS will begin soon. In the longer term, there will be an opportunity for input into the SRA's regional planning assessment, which will begin this winter, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes and perhaps the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) will make a full contribution to that process and the various transport strategies and other documents that are being published.

I recognise that I have not offered the hon. Gentleman much succour, but I exhort him, the hon. Member for Wealden and others to keep working with the county council—certainly on the ongoing subsidy and revenue cost side and perhaps also on the capital side. I am keenly aware that over the past 30 or 40 years our mindset and vision on rail has been on the multi-billion all-singing, all-dancing high-speed links that are going to change the world rather than more local innovative ways in which gaps in our network can be filled. Such schemes, whether for reasons of social exclusion, economic reasons or simply reasons of accessibility or interconnectivity, can solve problems far more readily than some of the big schemes.

While I exhort all south coast colleagues to keep on the case, I can offer no substantive sunny uplands in the next weeks and months, but I will watch the "Fill the gap" or "Close the link" campaign or whatever else it is called with real interest. I exhort the hon. Gentleman to carry on with colleagues, the SRA, the TOCs and the county council. I congratulate him again on the way in which he presented the case for what is clearly a significant local issue.

I congratulate the Lewes to Uckfield link on surviving Beeching, but clearly, given the substantial support for it now, perhaps this is one thing from the 1960s that will return. There is not much that I would say should return from the 1960s, having lived through it as a child rather than a teenager, but perhaps the Lewes to Uckfield link will. If it does, I will happily be there to help cut the ribbon, as the hon. Gentleman offered, but until then he should keep up the pressure to secure the link.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Six o'clock.