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International rail services (Ashford)

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

I am grateful for the chance to air this important issue, which I suspect will lower the temperature of the Chamber slightly. The issue affects people not only in my constituency, but throughout Kent and beyond. I shall not take up my full allocation of time, because my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) also wishes to put his points to the Minister.

The background to this debate is Eurostar’s decision to cut services from Ashford International station when the new Ebbsfleet station opens in autumn 2007. Eurostar is proposing to reduce the services from Ashford to Paris to peak-hour services and, more importantly, to end all services to Brussels. I want to concentrate on the Brussels services. The new service proposals for Paris and other destinations in France will be adequate to maintain proper links. However, ending the Brussels services will be a blow to the development of Ashford, which is an important part of the Government’s sustainable communities programme, and to plans for development and regeneration throughout Kent and other parts of the wider south-east of England.

Before I put my substantive arguments to the Minister, I should like to emphasise the widespread damage that Eurostar’s decision would cause. Since the campaign to reverse the decision was started by hon. Members, Kent county council, Ashford borough council and others who want to preserve the services to Ashford, we have been particularly grateful for the support of the South East England Development Agency. SEEDA is clearly as anxious to see development and regeneration at Ebbsfleet, as part of the Thames gateway project, as it is at Ashford. The agency has made the point that we need a balance of services from the two Kent stations on the international link if we are to achieve properly balanced regeneration throughout Kent. Indeed, starting services at one Kent station but then stopping them a few years later—that is Eurostar’s current proposal for Ashford—casts doubt on the desirability of the entire area as a destination for new international companies to set up their businesses. That would be hugely damaging.

I am struck by the size of the area from which I have received complaints and support for my complaints on the issue, which have come not only from Ashford and the Folkestone area, as one would expect. Big howls of protest have come from Hastings, the regeneration of which is predicated partly on the improvement of rail links to and from Ashford. I have also received strong letters of support from as far afield as Eastbourne. That shows how wide the catchment area that will be affected is if the proposals go through.

Ministers might reasonably ask why they should care. Why should the issue be a matter for them? Is the proposal not a straightforward commercial decision by a private company? I urge the Minister to become involved in persuading Eurostar to reverse its decision, because the proposal will explicitly damage the implementation of a number of Government policies, covering regeneration, the environment and transport. I am, for once on these Benches, seeking to help the Government to ensure the success of some of their policies. That is the spirit in which I hope the Minister will take my remarks.

It is also important for Ministers and others to remember who provided the track on which Eurostar runs its trains. The total cost of the channel tunnel rail link was £5.2 billion, of which £1.8 billion was provided by the taxpayer through the Department for Transport. Eurostar’s business depends on that massive subsidy, so it does have wider responsibilities than simply its commercial responsibilities.

My first point is about regeneration. Eurostar’s decision to end services from Ashford to Brussels is damaging to Ashford’s ability to attract new jobs. Under the sustainable communities programme, the Government propose that 31,000 new houses be built in Ashford and, vitally, that 28,000 new houses should be provided there. Without those jobs Ashford is likely to become a dormitory town, which would fly in the face of the Government’s ambitions to create a sustainable community. Domestic high-speed services will ensure Ashford’s continuing attraction as a place to live and commute from, but the Government’s ambitions are higher. They want Ashford to be attractive to inward investors as well. Indeed, Ashford borough council and the Ashford futures board have been working hard at that. The direct link to Brussels is important for that and will become more so in the future.

There is also an important issue of propriety. I am sure that the Minister will be fully aware of the 38th report by the Select Committee on Public Accounts, which was published on 27 March and dealt with the channel tunnel rail link. One of the Committee’s conclusions was that the economic case for the link remained marginal:

“On passenger traffic alone the Link is not justified, so regeneration benefits are required to make the project value for money.”

That is an important consideration for Ministers to bear in mind.

Apart from the money that is spent directly on the link, tens of millions of pounds of national taxpayers’ money have been spent on the wider development of Ashford, including the road links and various infrastructure projects, such as the new leisure centre that is being built. There are also plans for a £46 million learning campus. The Minister might be aware that the entire town centre is being regenerated as a new shopping area, while other new shopping areas have been built just outside the town centre. Much of that regeneration has used public money, making it a matter of genuinely national interest and the responsibility of the Government, who can therefore legitimately ask Eurostar to think again.

Secondly, the decision is an attack on the Government’s environmental agenda, because it flies in the face of any policy of getting people off the road and into public transport. Ebbsfleet is Britain’s biggest park and ride project, with a 7,000-plus space car park. All the people from Kent and Sussex who use Ashford to go to Brussels will be asked to drive to Ebbsfleet to get there. That is environmental madness, as well as appearing mad to those coming from areas such as Folkestone and Dover, who will be required to drive much further away from the continent to catch a train back there.

The policy is also particularly damaging, given the exact time at which Eurostar is planning to encourage thousands of new cars to clog up the roads around Ebbsfleet. We all know that cars are particularly polluting when they are stationary or driving slowly. Let me share with the Minister the road works schedule around Ebbsfleet for autumn 2007, just when all those new passengers are meant to arrive to start using the new station. Construction on the A2 and A282 Dartford improvement started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008, covering the period. Construction of phase two of the A2 Bean to Cobham project also started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008. The biggest project of all is between junctions 1B and 3 of the M25, which is scheduled to start in spring 2007 and be completed in autumn 2008.

So at the exact time when Eurostar plans to switch all that traffic to the roads around Ebbsfleet, those roads will be full of roadworks. Clearly, that is madness. Eurostar has based its decision purely on a survey that it carried out, which said that two thirds of passengers would prefer to use Ebbsfleet. That ignores the real world, in which people will be stuck in traffic jams. That in itself is reason to ask the company to think again.

The third way in which the decision is damaging to the Government’s plans relates directly to transport policy. Ashford is much better served by domestic rail links than Ebbsfleet and has clearer roads. If the Minister wants—I am sure that he does—a properly integrated domestic and international rail network and to encourage the use of trains, he will not want services to be withdrawn from Ashford. Complaints from Hastings have been strong. It is a town that has desperately needed regeneration and desperately needs better transport links. People there have seen transport links through Ashford—a hub not only for east Kent, but for further around—as essential for regeneration. I hope that the Minister listens to the representations that I am sure he gets from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), a member of his own party.

My final point on transport is that if the services are withdrawn, they are much less likely to be reinstated and people will question the long-term future of international services from Ashford. Again, that will cast doubt over the use of rail services as a proper driver for regeneration throughout east Kent. The decision will have serious transport implications.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give a positive message to people all over the south-east and say that he will join the coalition of those urging Eurostar to reconsider its short-sighted decision—short-sighted because Ashford’s population is projected to grow to 141,000 by 2021. In commercial terms, it seems absurd for Eurostar to turn its back on that growing market.

Eurostar benefits from the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into the channel tunnel rail link, and it should act as an enlightened partner with the bodies that are trying to develop Ashford in a sustainable way. The closure of services from Ashford to Brussels will damage the environment in Kent and hit Government plans to develop Ashford. Eurostar has a licensed monopoly of international services and should play a proper role in helping sustainable regeneration throughout east Kent. I hope that the Minister will join me and others in urging it to reconsider its decision.

I am most grateful to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), for allowing me to add a few words from the perspective of my constituency of Folkestone and Hythe to the excellent case that he has made. My hon. Friend spoke of regeneration plans for Ashford; regeneration plans for Folkestone are more ambitious now than at any time in the 23 years during which I have had the privilege of representing my constituency.

That is primarily due to the immensely public-spirited efforts of a local entrepreneur, Mr. Roger de Haan, who is masterminding the most inspiring schemes for the development of Folkestone. We want the Government to play their part. We see a tremendous future for the area, but the subject of our debate—the existence of good transport links to the continent—is very important for Folkestone, as for Ashford.

Indeed, my constituents would have to travel significantly further to get to Ebbsfleet than would the constituents of my hon. Friend. On the face of it, it looks as if Eurostar’s decision is a big problem for Ashford because the international railway station is there. In fact, the decision would affect my constituents to an even greater extent, so the points that my hon. Friend made from his perspective apply to at least as great an extent to those, such as my constituents, who live even further away from Ebbsfleet.

I shall make just one more point before I sit down, to allow the Minister his full time to answer this short debate. Eurostar seeks to base its case for its proposed changes on a survey that it has carried out. My hon. Friend, the local authorities for the area and I have consistently asked for the relevant information so that Kent county council can conduct its own analysis to test whether the premise on which Eurostar based its proposals is sound. My most recent understanding is that we have had some, but not all of the information that we need. I hope that in replying to the debate, the Minister will deal with that point. He should use his good offices to persuade Eurostar to let us have as soon as possible the information that we need to test and assess its case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on securing this debate and welcome the contribution made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). This opportunity for the House to discuss international rail services to Ashford is important, given that the second section of the channel tunnel rail link opens next autumn.

I knew before this debate how much importance Ashford attaches to its international links, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain the development of the channel tunnel rail link, the operation of Eurostar International services and how the Department for Transport is working to ensure that the transport infrastructure is in place for Ashford to fulfil its potential as a growth area.

I should begin by making it clear that despite our arm’s length relationship with Eurostar—which is, after all, a private company—the Government have kept a watching brief on consultations during the timetable changes. We have noted with interest the statement from the leader of Ashford borough council and chair of Ashford’s future delivery board, Councillor Paul Clokie. He said:

“We are of course disappointed at the decision to reduce the number of international train services from Ashford by Eurostar.”

However, he went on to add:

“Ashford remains one of the few places in England from where Paris and Brussels can be reached via a high-speed rail link within just two hours. The new proposed timetable includes early morning and evening trains which will meet the demands of many existing and new business and leisure passengers.”

I do not want to dwell for too long on the borough council’s views, but—

In the rest of that quote, Councillor Clokie said that the Paris services, as I have just said, were disappointing but satisfactory. He then explicitly went on to say that it was not acceptable for the Brussels services to be removed. If the Minister is trying to pray what Councillor Clokie said in aid and say that it is reasonable for the Brussels services to be removed, he will be misrepresenting Councillor Clokie.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because I do not want to imply that Councillor Clokie supports the timetable changes. I simply want to make the point that there is a view in Ashford—and Kent as a wider area—that the timetable changes will not deal the fatal blow to the local economy that campaigners probably suggest.

It is worth highlighting another point made by the council. It sees the provision of the new high-speed domestic service as just as important to Ashford’s economic growth as the international links; that is an incredibly important point. The council anticipates that the high-speed link will provide additional demand for Eurostar services from Ashford in the future.

I absolutely accept that neither the hon. Member for Ashford nor the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe would ever try to talk down their own constituencies. I preface my comments with that, because I know that they do not want to do that. However, there is always a danger that, when Members talk in the House about the economic damage that could be done by one policy or another, they might be seen to be talking down the potential for economic growth in their areas.

The hon. Member for Ashford said—I am not quoting him directly, but paraphrasing—that the reduction in services from Ashford would cast doubt on the whole area as a location for inward investment. However, the future for Ashford as a developing community and a town whose centre has, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, a lot of regeneration potential will be undiminished. It would be risky for us to suggest that Ashford’s economic prospects were anything other than rosy, even with the change in the Eurostar timetable.

I want to move on to Eurostar and its operations. It is important to be clear that the Government have no formal powers over Eurostar’s operational decisions and that the company is at liberty to set its own timetables. It does not operate in the same way as a conventional UK train operating company running on the national rail network. However, it does have an obligation to operate a sound commercial business.

I would like to go through the process that Eurostar has undertaken in deciding to reduce the number of international trains stopping at Ashford. I will cover it in three parts: the consultations that the company has undertaken, the proposed service changes for Ashford and Ebbsfleet, and my understanding of the business rationale for reducing Ashford services. I hope that that will address the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about the passenger survey.

Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, told my Department that he has personally met with representatives from local authorities including Ashford borough council and Kent county council, and local MPs including the hon. Member for Ashford, to explain the business rationale behind the changes at Ashford. Eurostar also advised London TravelWatch and Passenger Focus of the proposed changes. It spoke to the Government office for the south-east, which is part of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and Locate in Kent, the inward investment agency. I do not think it can be said that Eurostar failed to consult.

Nor can Eurostar be accused of ignoring the views that were put to it. Following consultation with Kent county council, it agreed to introduce an additional stop at Lille on the daily service to Disneyland to provide Ashford with a connection to Brussels, and following consultation with Ashford borough council, it also agreed to revise the timing of the first departure to Paris, to suit local people better.

Eurostar is continuing its dialogue with Kent county council, which is the statutory transport authority, and sharing and explaining the research and analysis undertaken to develop future stopping patterns. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Eurostar remains committed to Ashford in another respect: it will retain its contact centre in the town, which provides employment for some 300 people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

From the date of the opening of Ebbsfleet station next autumn, Eurostar will have 16 or 17 trains each day from London to Paris, and 10 to Brussels. Seven of the Paris trains and five of the Brussels trains will stop at Ebbsfleet. The opening of Ebbsfleet has led Eurostar to revise its overall stopping pattern to reflect the expected future demand at the two stations in Kent. As a consequence, Ashford will retain three of the current six trains a day to Paris, as well as a weekly service to Avignon in the summer and to the French Alps in the winter. With those destinations, 83 per cent. of the current demand at Ashford will continue to be served by direct services.

As I mentioned earlier, the daily Disney train—I do not know whether that is its formal title—will in future also stop at Lille to provide a TGV connection to Brussels. I accept that there may be a residual demand for a direct service between Ashford and Brussels that will not be met by those alternative arrangements. However, the truth is that Eurostar has assessed the demand as being too small to be commercially viable. It has said that trains to Paris will be timed to suit both business and leisure travellers, and it has adjusted the departure times following consultation with Ashford borough council.

Before I go any further, let me say for the record that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise these matters on behalf of his constituents. He is doing exactly what a good constituency MP should do, and I hope that in the rest of my contribution I will be able to offer him some reassurance that the Government take the matter seriously.

Timetables are valid for one-year periods, so there is an annual opportunity to review stopping patterns and to alter them in the light of changing demand. Eurostar is committed to working with the local authorities, with the objective of helping to grow demand and, in turn, the number of services at Ashford in the longer term.

This point is worth emphasising. Current plans for Ashford reflect the current position, but Eurostar has the flexibility to revise the timetable to suit future changes in demand. Therefore, the comments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about timetables being set in stone and the difficulty in changing a service pattern once it is established are not valid. There will be an opportunity to review passenger numbers and the success of the new service over the next few years. It is not in Eurostar’s commercial interests to ignore genuine demand where it exists, and it is clear that additional stops at Ashford could be reintroduced in the future if passenger demand warranted them.

I offer some further advice to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Because of the apparent reluctance of Eurostar to provide the methodology and the full details of its customer service survey, there is a suggestion that perhaps it is hiding something, but I emphasise that Eurostar has no vested interest in reducing passenger numbers. It is a commercial company, as I said, and it is important for it to maximise its market. If it genuinely believed that maintaining the current service pattern would increase its profits and passenger numbers, it would do so. It is not credible to suggest that the company is moving to Ebbsfleet in order to reduce passenger numbers.

Of course no one is suggesting that Eurostar is malevolent in any way in what it proposes, but it may be mistaken. It may have made a mistake, or it may be making assumptions in good faith but on the basis of inadequate or inaccurate analysis of the evidence. We have sought an opportunity to test the analysis and evidence, and it is important that we and Kent county council have made available to us the information that we need to carry out that assessment.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point, and I am glad that he clarified the position. However, as I said, there will be an opportunity to review timetables and service patterns after the new service begins next year.

Since its opening in 1996, Ashford International station has provided a valuable alternative to passengers who want to use Eurostar but want to avoid travelling into central London to join the train. The reason for reducing the number of trains stopping at Ashford is, of course, the opening of a second station in Kent at Ebbsfleet, which is strategically located close to the A2 and M25—perhaps too close, as the hon. Member for Ashford would claim.

Eurostar carried out detailed research over 18 months which shows that Ebbsfleet serves a much larger catchment area than Ashford. Indeed, Ebbsfleet’s catchment area is enormous, with 10 million potential travellers. It extends around the M25 and will open up new markets for Eurostar. By contrast, the catchment area for Ashford is geographically large, but the level of patronage on Eurostar is quite low. Eurostar’s research has shown that up to two thirds of the passengers who currently travel to Ashford will find Ebbsfleet equally or more convenient, and Ebbsfleet will be served by international trains to Paris, Brussels and Lille.

Eurostar believes that, following the opening of Ebbsfleet, the residual number of passengers wishing to travel from Ashford to Brussels will be fewer than 20 per train, which is too few commercially to justify a direct service. Indeed, there is a serious threat that stopping Eurostar services at Ashford as well as Ebbsfleet would extend journey times to the extent that more passengers would be lost than gained. The current journey time between London and Paris will be cut by 20 minutes when the new channel tunnel rail link opens. To have two stops, one at Ebbsfleet and one at Ashford, would almost take away that advantage.

The Minister has been very generous in giving way. I heard what he is saying almost word for word from the mouth of Eurostar’s chief executive at the meeting that we had with the company. The point that was made then is that trains do not need to stop at both places. They can alternate, with some stopping at Ashford and some at Ebbsfleet. That would address the time issue.

That is a valid point, and, as I said before, there will be an opportunity to address such issues once the timetable is up and running. However, based on passenger numbers and the information that is available to the Department and to the hon. Gentleman, it is difficult to justify the existing timetable if Eurostar’s commercial obligations are taken into account.

It is also worth noting that more than 500,000 people a week visit Bluewater shopping centre, which is close to Ebbsfleet. By contrast, Ebbsfleet itself will be used by fewer than 25,000 passengers per week. Locally, major improvements to the strategic road network have been and, as the hon. Gentleman said, are being carried out to reduce the impact of new traffic flows, and we hope that congestion will be minimal.

Let me conclude by emphasising that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I know that there is genuine concern in his and other constituencies in east Kent that Eurostar’s proposals may mean that the area will be left with substandard services. I hope that I have been able to reassure him that most of the demand from Ashford will continue to be met, and that there is scope to review services to Ashford in the light of future changes in demand.

Sitting suspended until half past Two o’clock.