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Rail Links (Dover And The Ctrl)

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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

6.13 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise Dover's concerns about its rail links and about the channel tunnel rail link.

Way back in 1987, during the passage of the Channel Tunnel Bill, I had the privilege of working as parliamentary agent on behalf of more than 10,000 people in east Kent who provided evidence or appeared before the Special Select Committee of both Houses to seek a fair deal for Dover and east Kent.

I represented seafarers, whose jobs were threatened; port workers, whose futures were put in doubt; and other employees and employers in east Kent who were concerned about the impact of the channel tunnel on the local economy. Most of our deliberations were concerned with the provision of a high-speed rail link through Kent, which was the subject of later legislation. Even in 1987, however, we recognised that the building of a new railway would impose additional disruption, and would have an impact on local communities and give rise to years of blight.

In the Select Committee, people from east Kent argued that the tunnel would destroy jobs on the ferries and that it would have other detrimental effects—and it did. However, we were assured that in the long run we would benefit from faster and better rail services, and that places such as Dover would enjoy vastly improved domestic services to the capital by virtue of the channel tunnel rail link.

Sixteen years on, we are still seeking assurances that the channel tunnel rail link will properly benefit east Kent and, in particular, we are still pressing for the new high-speed rail link to reach Dover.

During this once-in-a-lifetime chance to link one of the world's busiest capitals to the world's busiest ferry port, we are urging the Strategic Rail Authority and the Minister to ensure that Dover gets a fair deal.

The special needs of Dover, Thanet and east Kent are now well known to Ministers and the House. Gone are the days when every constituency in Kent was represented by a Conservative MP and the scandal of east Kent's large patches of poverty and social deprivation were all swept under the carpet. Great strides have been made in recent years to improve the local economy. In my constituency, unemployment has been halved since 1997, and youth unemployment has been slashed by 93 per cent., but my hon. Friend the Minister will know that my part of Kent still has some of the most deprived wards in the country.

The Government's regeneration funding, coupled with help for the former east Kent coalfields, has certainly made a positive difference and improved our prospects. Objective 2 and assisted area status have helped us to gain inward investment, but east Kent still looks forward to the time when it can rely on itself to pay its own way and to regenerate its own economy. It can do that only when its transport infrastructure is improved and when the present run-down, slow and inadequate rail services are radically improved.

Before being elected to the House, I chaired Dover district council's economic development committee, and whenever we managed to entice a would-be inward investor to reach out from London and visit our council, the word would go out to check how the visitor intended to travel and, if there were any risk of his coming by train, we would ensure that a car was provided. Those who did come by rail had to put up with slow, stop-and-start, slam-door trains, which were cold and dirty and took nearly two hours to rattle the 70 miles from London to Dover. Needless to say, those angry entrepreneurs had made their investment decisions long before they trundled into Priory station in Dover.

Dover suffers from being a peripheral area. We are at the very edge of the United Kingdom, but we are at the very heart of the north-west economic corridor. We have become the gateway to mainland Europe, not just for Britain, but for the wider world. We are only 20 miles from Calais and 70 miles from London, but people can still cross the channel by ferry faster than they can travel to London in a train.

The east Kent triangle strategic partnership, which is made up of local authorities and major employers in east Kent, such as the port of Dover and Pfizer, strongly supports the need to upgrade the transport links to east Kent and has responded positively to the SRA's consultation exercise. Those in the triangle strongly support the SRA's option 6, which would allow channel tunnel rail link trains to reach Canterbury, West on the north Kent line and Folkestone on the east Kent route. They also support the principle of extending those services to Ramsgate and Dover respectively.

I am also pleased to support option 6, with extension to Ramsgate, but my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman)—who cannot be with us now—has shown himself more than capable of pressing that case, so I want to concentrate my remarks on the need to provide links to Dover, which Dover district council and its hard-working leader, Pete Wells, have been promoting so effectively.

The SRA has been remitted by the Government
"to achieve train services that will create a strong intercontinental link to increase trade and tourism in Britain."
The Government's primary objectives for transport are stated as
"contributing to the efficient economy and to support sustainable economic growth in appropriate locations".
Among the so-called over-arching objectives is the phrase:
"to promote the integration of all forms of transport and land-use planning leading to a better, more efficient transport system."
With those clear parameters agreed and put in place by Her Majesty's Government, how can the SRA or Ministers contemplate terminating the high-speed train link at Folkestone—six miles short of Dover, six miles short of the busiest ferry port in the world and six miles short of east Kent's two expanding cruise liner terminals? I have nothing against Folkestone, but it is well known as the last rail stop before Dover, it no longer has a working port, and only last week the owners put the whole harbour complex on the market.

Our poor rail links are matched in part by our inadequate road connections. For more than 25 years, we have suffered the infamous truncated A2 dual carriageway, one of the main routes to the port, which still stops nine miles short of Dover and narrows to a single track before reaching Dover's eastern docks. Will the Government really contemplate commissioning a high-speed rail service that also stops miles short of Dover? The question therefore is: why does the SRA not see the sense of running the CTRL to its natural terminus at Dover? In fairness, I think that it does: in my talks with it, it has been very helpful; it has made me aware of the cost constraints, of its wider responsibilities and of the huge expense of building the new high-speed trains. I believe, however, that it is close to accepting the economic and social case for running those trains to Dover, and close to being persuaded that there is a business case.

We have made the SRA aware of the potential for passenger growth that would be provided by a direct high-speed rail service between London and Dover. For instance, Dover harbour board estimates that the 250,000 passengers per annum who currently use the train to connect to the ferries will nearly double by 2007, and that a further 160,000 cruise liner passengers a year would be expected to switch to rail were the service up to par. At present, the cruise liner companies bring their passengers to Dover from London using luxury coaches or fleets of executive cars—anything to avoid subjecting their customers to the negative experience of travelling with Connex South East in Kent.

What therefore stands in the way of linking the CTRL to Dover? The main barrier to tapping into all these economic opportunities—I accept that it is a problem—is the space constraint at Shakespeare tunnel between Folkestone and Dover. It has long been known that that single-bore tunnel is not wide enough to allow safe evacuation of passengers through the normal side doors. The conventional trains now in service meet the safety requirements by having front and rear doors but, as yet, we have not persuaded the SRA to fit emergency front and rear doors to the new fleet of high-speed tunnel trains. I welcome its confirmation that it is actively investigating the feasibility of fitting front and rear doors, and that it is looking at other remedies such as partially widening the tunnel or providing an emergency shunting vehicle to aid evacuation in cases of emergency.

The remit of extending the new high-speed rail units to domestic destinations in Kent includes the provisos that the system should be flexible, adaptable and future-proof, and that it should be sustainable for at least 40 years. Clearly, a high-speed train unit that cannot safely go through the Shakespeare tunnel, and a high-speed rail service that stops six miles short of Dover, is neither flexible, adaptable nor future-proof, and would seem to fall short of all the Government's aspirations for providing a fast, efficient, integrated transport system.

To conclude, my plea to the Minister tonight is that he demonstrate to the SRA that the political will exists to find a remedy to the restrictions of Shakespeare tunnel and that he will not allow a relatively small engineering problem to stand in the way of large strategic gains for Dover, all of east Kent, and, indeed, all of the United Kingdom.

6.24 pm

I am grateful that, owing to the Adjournment debate's early start and the agreement of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), I have the opportunity to say a few words.

I want to support my hon. Friend in his efforts and his quest to achieve better rail links with Dover. I do so because this is not just a problem for Dover: the rail links to east and south-east Kent, and all along the coast, are simply abysmal. The links to London, as he said, take far too long. Indeed, I understand that it takes longer for the ordinary train to travel from London to Dover or from London to Hastings, in which I am more interested, than it does to travel to Bristol—a journey that is twice as long. Clearly, the links are inadequate.

I want to add to my hon. Friend's argument the fact that it is not just the links from Dover and east Kent to London that are deficient. The important links along the south coast are also inadequate. There is no adequate provision from Dover and east Kent to any other part of the south of England. In particular, the line from Hastings to Ashford is single track that is operated by 40-year-old diesel trains. That journey takes far too long. That disadvantages the economy of my hon. Friend's constituency and the south coast in two ways: journeys take too long and people find the services inadequate. Although the diesels are soon to be renewed, the lines also need to be improved.

My hon. Friend the Minister will have on his desk or on the desk of the Secretary of State a report from the south coast multi-modal study that shows how important it is to upgrade the lines in this area, particularly the south coast link, so as to provide a more adequate service. The dualling of the line is important to the well-being of south coast towns, including Dover and Hastings.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider carefully the report of the south coast multi-modal study. It will not only assist my hon. Friend the Member for Dover to find better links along the south coast for his constituency, but will help my constituency and others so that we can have a true south coast express line that will have the important added benefit of taking the clutter out of London. If people from Dover want to travel to any part of the south coast, they must go into London and back out. That is nonsense, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to reassure not only me and my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, but others who want improvements to the rail service in this part of the world.

6.27 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) on securing the debate and on providing an opportunity for the House to discuss rail links to Dover and the channel tunnel rail link. I also congratulate him on the way in which he has presented his case in the usual considered and powerful manner that he uses to speak on behalf of his constituents. I certainly recognise some of the difficulties of peripherality that he has mentioned. Some not too far from my constituency would reflect similar views to his.

Before I respond to the main issues raised by my hon. Friend, it might be helpful if I provide the House with background to the CTRL and where we are with the project. The CTRL is the first major new railway to be built in the UK in more than a century. As one of the most important infrastructure projects currently being taken forward as part of the Government's public-private partnership programme, with a projected cost of £5.2 billion, the line will provide 109 km, or 68 miles, of high-speed link between the channel tunnel at Cheriton in Kent and London St. Pancras. It will contribute towards meeting the growing demand for railway capacity in the south-east, reduce international and some domestic journey times to and from London, and contribute to the important economic regeneration in the Thames gateway to which my hon. Friend referred.

Section one of the CTRL, stretching from the channel tunnel to Fawkham junction in north Kent, is now 94 per cent. complete, on budget and set to open as planned in September this year. The major civil engineering works for section two, extending from Southfleet in north Kent to St. Pancras in London began in July 2001 and are now 42 per cent. complete. The entire CTRL will be completed in 2007.

Many destinations have been considered in the course of developing train service options. The aim in doing so has been to identify those destinations that can be served without major expenditure on infrastructure and where the improvements in journey time combine with optimum revenue gains. In that way, the rail network will benefit as a whole.

As my hon. Friend will know, the Strategic Rail Authority published a consultation document in February 2003. The document set out six generic service options: the core route that has the principal destinations of St. Pancras, Gravesend, Ashford, Canterbury West and Folkestone Central; and five other service options that build incrementally on that. The authority is currently working with Network Rail and Medway council on the implications of providing additional CTRL domestic services to the Medway towns and beyond, which will be presented as further potential service options.

The formal consultation period concluded on 15 April. As part of the consultation process, the Strategic Rail Authority held meetings in Ashford and London, met Members of Parliament individually and in groups, and received numerous written representations. It is deliberating on all the representations received before it presents its proposition to the Secretary of State in early June so that he may make a decision. The proposition will be based on an operationally feasible service solution and considerations of value for money and affordability, while recognising the contribution that the services will make to wider regeneration objectives.

The Strategic Rail Authority announced on 11 December 2002 that agreement had been reached on terminating Connex's south-eastern franchise in 2006, which was five years early. The agreement facilitates the continuation of Connex's efforts to improve punctuality, ensures delivery of the programme to replace slam-door trains, and opens the door for the introduction of an integrated Kent franchise from 2007. The new franchise will operate both high-speed domestic services on the CTRL and services on the south-eastern network based on Connex's existing portfolio of services. The competitive process to let the new franchise is expected to commence early next year. The franchise will be let following open competition in which companies, including Connex, will be able to bid.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover, as always, made an eloquent case for CTRL services to be extended to Dover. He is pragmatic, sensible and realistic and his speech recognised some of the considerable problems that must be overcome. We cannot underestimate those difficulties in any way.

Two routes have been considered: via Canterbury and via Folkestone West. Provision of an additional platform at Dover for trains of 240 m in length would be required for either route. Dover station's location between two tunnels also imposes severe constraints. The appraisal shows that operating services to Dover using either route will offer less value for money and be less affordable than the core service option. The route via Canterbury would require the route mileage to be extended by approximately 53 miles beyond Gravesend, which would thus increase overall journey times. Operational costs would also increase, such as track access charges and costs for train crew and rolling stock maintenance. Signalling and traction power enhancements to the route would be necessary between Faversham and Dover, although some of that work might be done as part of the mark 1 traction power upgrade and Kent re-signalling projects.

Extending services to Dover from Folkestone would result in an additional route mileage of approximately 7 miles and marginally increased operational costs. However, as my hon. Friend said, the primary issue is evacuation from the new rolling stock required for CTRL domestic services in the event of an emergency in the Shakespeare tunnels. Either the rolling stock or the tunnels will require modification to allow safe operation.

My hon. Friend will know that the Shakespeare tunnels are single bore and, although only 1 mile in length, they are extremely narrow and prevent people getting out of the side doors in the event of an emergency. Existing rolling stock that uses the tunnels allows passengers to pass through the length of the trains and exit from either end. That will not be possible with the new rolling stock because it requires aerodynamic nose cones to operate at high speed, which will prevent the inclusion of interconnecting gangways between units. Even if escape hatches could be designed in the ends of the new trains, they would not allow people to move from one unit to another as quickly or easily as they can on existing rolling stock. Her Majesty's rail inspectorate said that that situation would be unacceptable, but it may accept side access in an emergency provided that a safe method of working can be identified.

The Strategic Rail Authority's project team continues to explore ways of resolving that problem. If a satisfactory solution can be identified, direct services to Dover could be considered. Many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend depend on the appraisal of that matter. If it is not feasible to serve Dover directly by the channel tunnel rail link domestic services, the provision of an effective interchange at Folkestone Central will be examined as part of the timetable development process. The objective of that would be to operate services from Dover that interchange with the high-speed line at Folkestone Central.

All south-eastern services in Kent and East Sussex are to be reviewed as part of the timetable development process for the new integrated Kent franchise. That will ensure that the optimal service pattern is achieved for the region as a whole and that opportunities for connections from the existing network to the channel tunnel rail link domestic services are maximised. The process will also ensure that any capacity released on the classic rail network is fully exploited. Optimisation of the timetable in Kent in that way will result in some significant journey time improvements elsewhere on the network.

Existing trains will be unable to work on the channel tunnel rail link because of the different power supply, speed requirements and signalling systems. So the train fleet needs to be specially designed and built. Service extensions would further add to the cost without producing a corresponding increase in benefit. The trains will need to be much more powerful than current Kent commuter trains, which travel at speeds of 100 mph or less. They will need to accelerate rapidly and maintain a top speed of at least 125 mph. The rolling stock procurement process started in January and is necessary if we are to ensure that sufficient units are available to commence services from 2007.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) mentioned the links to his constituency. He, too, has been an assiduous voice on behalf of his constituency and has raised many matters with us, including electrification to Hastings. The costs of that are extremely high and probably prohibitively expensive. However, GoVia, which runs the Hastings-Ashford franchise, is considering how to provide better services, such as improving connections and services to Ashford so that they join the channel tunnel rail link. I shall be happy for my hon. Friend to drop me a line if he wants to discuss that further. I appreciate that it is important for his constituency and I know that inward investment and modernisation are on his agenda and on the agenda locally.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friends' representations. The consultation process, which generated a constructive and positive response, has finished and the responses are being evaluated. We must wait and see what the Strategic Rail Authority proposes in order for the Secretary of State to make his direction. We must remember that the priorities for the south-east are to provide a safe, reliable railway and to meet the growing demand for rail transport while reducing the levels of London overcrowding. Safety and regulatory requirements take precedence. These issues are being tackled immediately, while the channel tunnel rail link domestic services are developed, and they include completion of the installation programme for the train protection warning system, the replacement of the large fleet of Mark 1 slam-door trains that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover described so graphically, and the power supply upgrade.

Whatever the outcome of the consultation process, the intention is to include mechanisms within the contractual arrangements for the integrated Kent franchise that will allow possible future development of the channel tunnel rail link domestic services in Kent, as demand and opportunities develop.

This has been a useful debate, particularly for my hon. Friend the Member for Dover, who I know speaks powerfully for his constituents not just on transport, as he did this evening, but on many other issues. If there are matters that have not been covered in the debate and which he wants to pursue with me, I shall be pleased to do so through correspondence.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Seven o'clock.