HC Deb 22 June 2004 vol 422 cc1176-8
8. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford) (Lab)

What assessment he has made of the Strategic Rail Authority's proposed Integrated Kent Rail Franchise. [179616]

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

The Strategic Rail Authority's consultation on service patterns for the Integrated Kent Rail Franchise ended on 23 April. It is assessing responses before finalising the specification of services.

Jonathan Shaw

Is my hon. Friend aware that the last time that the Kent rail timetable was reviewed was in 1963? What concerns me is that that coincides with another event of 1963, namely the great train robbery. We in Medway are concerned that the SRA will propose a reduction in commuter services. While we welcome the channel tunnel rail link domestic services stopping in the Medway towns, we have always argued that this should involve additional rail services, particularly given the 5 per cent. growth in the Thames gateway area. Will the Minister confirm that we need additional rail services rather than a reduction in peak commuter services into London, given the predicted growth?

Dr. Howells

May I remind my hon. Friend that railways in this country are not a free good? They cost a lot of money. We have built the first new railway for a hundred years, through Kent, which will benefit enormously the people of Kent, as it will benefit the rest of the country. His question about those services being entirely additional to those already existing raises a number of issues. Some of the domestic services will have to have pathways cleared in the existing timetable if they are to run and if people are to get into the centre of London more quickly—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Is that a no?

Dr. Howells

I hear the call from the Tories that they do not want any of this. That is fine. If they are reflecting what their constituents feel, and they do not want channel tunnel rail link domestic services into the centre of London, they should be honest enough to come out and say so. We will try to make sure that there is the maximum capacity in terms of passengers being able to access central London, both on the existing network and on the new network.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

Under the Strategic Rail Authority's proposals, villages such as Hollingbourne, Harrietsham and Lenham in my constituency stand to lose all their rail services in the middle of the day and at weekends. Given that those are exactly the same villages that were decimated by the channel tunnel rail link workings in the mid-1990s, will the Minister undertake today to honour the commitments given at that time to ensure that rail services are improved?

Dr. Howells

I understand that the SRA has had 4,200 responses to its consultation. It is going through those responses, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman responded on behalf of his constituents. I assume that he would agree that the proper way forward is for the SRA to make the judgment as to how best to ensure that existing capacity is maintained and improved wherever possible, and that people can get from Kent into London more quickly. Those people's jobs depend on it, and many of the services provided in the economy of London depend on people from Kent being able to get easily into London.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the high-speed link is for the benefit of the whole country? In that case, should it not be top-sliced in respect of its cost, so that the SRA does not take that into account in determining what moneys are available to support the franchise?

Dr. Howells

I am not quite sure what system of payment my hon. Friend is proposing. All I know is that it must still be paid for, and that in the end, the Government pay for it.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con)

The Minister will be aware that the overwhelming majority of those 4,000 responses to the Strategic Rail Authority were hostile—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) seems to get in an awful state when he is not called. I must tell him that those on the Front Bench put in a request, and it is not my fault when that happens. When he does not get called, he should take it in good spirit. That is important.

Mr. Green

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I hope that I will also represent the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who, I understand, feels strongly about this issue. The Minister will know, as he has referred to the 4,000 responses, that the overwhelming hostility to the SRA's proposals for the Kent franchise, which he also hears from his Back Benchers, is precisely because the SRA proposes cutting services to many smaller stations around Kent. Can he assure the House that we will not see a perverse effect from the billions of pounds that he has said have been invested in the channel tunnel rail link? As things stand, overall rail services in Kent will get worse. It seems a colossal waste of taxpayers' money to invest money in a new railway, and to have, as a direct result, worse rail services.

Dr. Howells

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle because I am sure that he could have put that question a bit better, as we have had this question time and again. I say to the Front-Bench spokesman that the industry is privatised, and that his party privatised it. The days of the Government being able to intervene on the railways, in the way that he describes, are long gone, and he knows that full well. What he is doing is making a cheap political point, and his constituents will understand it.