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Ashford International

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

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

I am grateful to have this opportunity to comment on Eurostar’s ill-judged proposal to downgrade the Ashford International rail link to the continent by abandoning all services to Brussels and significantly reducing the service to Paris. It is clear that the curtailment of international services from Ashford is in direct conflict with the Government’s policy to alleviate road traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions and regenerate economically deprived areas in East Sussex and Kent such as my constituency of Hastings and Rye.

My hope is that the Government will intervene with Eurostar with a view to getting it to abandon its ill-considered proposals. At a time when we should be celebrating the opening of the high speed channel tunnel link from London to the continent, we are facing a reduction of the service in Ashford and the surrounding area—a diminution that is wholly unnecessarily.

On 14 November, the new St. Pancras International station will replace the Waterloo Eurostar terminal. At the same time, two new intermediate stations will be opened—at Stratford in east London, and at Ebbsfleet near the Dartford tunnel. That is all well and good, but the knock-on effect of those changes is Eurostar’s proposal to abandon all direct services from Ashford to Brussels, and to reduce the services to Paris to four a day. Those reductions could herald the end of that important terminus, although I acknowledge that the company says that that is not its intention.

My purpose today is to explain why Eurostar has got it so wrong, and why elected representatives are incensed that their concerns, and the public’s, have been ignored, despite the public support for the terminal. It is worth noting that this is by no means a party-political issue. Leading the campaign against the decision is Peter Skinner, the Labour MEP for the South-East region, and alongside him are his Conservative colleague Richard Ashworth MEP, the Liberal Democrat MEP Sharon Bowles, and the Green party MEP Caroline Lucas.

Similarly, there is support for the campaign to keep Ashford open from across the political spectrum, and that includes the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green).

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I hope that he gets a more positive response from the Minister than I did when I raised this matter a few weeks ago. As he said, there is an enormously wide coalition of people with an interest in the regeneration of Ashford and the whole south-east, and in the transport network, who are opposed to Eurostar’s policy. That coalition includes Kent county council, the Ashford and Shepway borough councils and MPs of all parties, with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) being one of them. Another interested party is the South East England Development Agency, and even the European Commission has become involved. The only relevant body that has done nothing to persuade Eurostar to change its decision is the Department for Transport—to the extent that the Secretary of State has refused even to meet me and my right hon. and learned Friend to discuss the matter. Is not that a shameful state of affairs?

The Government may not yet fully understand all the circumstances. I have to say, with the greatest respect, that they certainly appear almost to be apologists for Eurostar’s woeful decision about Ashford. As the debate proceeds, I hope that the Minister will realise that there are different arguments from those he may have been given by Eurostar.

I shall explain why Eurostar’s decision is such a bad idea. What are the facts? First and foremost are the effects on the environment. In this place, we are united in acknowledging the threat from global warming, but Eurostar seems to be moving in a completely different direction. We want to reduce air travel and pursue policies that favour sustainable transport such as rail, yet Eurostar seems intent on moving millions of existing and potential passengers away from rail services and making them transfer to road—to use other stations—or perhaps even to air.

At present, Ashford is connected to the trans-European network, as is the whole of the south coast, through the link from Ashford to Rye, Hastings and on to Brighton and beyond. Only last year, Southern introduced a fast rail service from Brighton to Ashford, creating an interchange to Europe that is much appreciated and increasingly used. Similarly, towns in Kent and on the south coast have direct rail services to Ashford, thus ensuring a convenient link to Brussels and beyond through the Ashford connection. Five Network Rail lines converge on Ashford—from Canterbury, Folkestone, Brighton, Tonbridge and Maidstone. It is the perfect centre for onward rail travel to the continent. Those lines serve a population of about 1 million, in addition to the 100,000 people living in the greater Ashford area. Ashford is the natural focus for collecting and distributing traffic from a large part of south-east England through a sustainable rail link.

People in my East Sussex constituency are also concerned about the loss of service, especially given the loss of Waterloo, because Kings Cross and Stratford are more inconvenient for Lewes and similar areas. The matter is serious. To pick up one of the hon. Gentleman’s points, does he realise that the alternative for business people in my constituency who use the improved rail line from Brighton to Ashford will be to travel by air from Gatwick? There is lack of continuity in Government policy in relation to the Eurostar cut, because there will be more emissions when people travel by air from Gatwick to Brussels and Paris than if they used Eurostar from Ashford, as they want to do.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and if the decision stands, he may be right. The alternative that Eurostar is offering is a nightmare journey from the south coast—from Lewes, Brighton or Hastings—and the Kentish towns. People will have to travel on the M25, crawling and polluting their way to Ebbsfleet station, which has no effective domestic rail connections. That is bizarre.

My first question to my hon. Friend the Minister is why do not we ask Eurostar for an environmental impact statement before the company is permitted to proceed with its foolhardy decision? Eurostar must know that the M25-M2 interchange is already one of the most congested parts of the British road system. To place more traffic on that connection will not only cause endless delays and perhaps missed trains, it will also significantly contribute to pollution in the area. Indeed, it will be easier for many Eurostar users in the south-east to travel into London and across the city to St. Pancras, which will further inconvenience passengers and heighten congestion in the city.

The economic effects of the decision are important, too. The loss of the Ashford service will have a hugely detrimental effect on the economic prosperity of south-east England in general. Ashford is one of the country’s fastest growing towns, which is no doubt due in part to its easy links to the continent. Further afield, Hastings and Thanet are of special economic interest, and have been so designated by the European Commission. Investors from mainland Europe need simple and easy links to their bases on the continent and the move away from Ashford will make things more difficult for them.

The economic interest is even wider. Towns such as Rye, Eastbourne and Lewes—even Brighton and beyond—have through rail links to Ashford, so people can travel with ease to the continent by train. As the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) suggested, the chances of them jumping into their cars and negotiating the M25 are remote when they have the option of catching a plane from nearby Gatwick. It beggars belief that a rail company should be so short-sighted.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to educate the Government on points that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and I have already made to them. Perhaps he would agree that we would have been able to expand on those points had the Minister been prepared to meet us. Does he also agree that, given the extent to which the track that Eurostar trains run on was publicly funded, the Government have a clear responsibility to intervene in this matter, and for them to continue to refuse to do so is a complete abdication of that responsibility?

I cannot agree that it is an abdication because I suspect that the Government will be prepared to look again at this issue. However, to date, it is certainly difficult to distinguish what has happened. After this evening, I hope that that situation will change.

Why is the Eurostar argument so acceptable to the Government? Nobody else would seem to have bought it. I suspect that it is because Eurostar has produced a number of facts that are simply wrong. If one starts from the wrong premise, one gets the wrong answer. The first argument that Eurostar makes is that the Brussels to Ashford route is little used. In the last few weeks, I have travelled back from both Brussels and Paris. I know that it is only empirical evidence, but there appear to be scores, if not hundreds, of happy passengers leaving the train at Ashford. Their existence seems to be denied by Eurostar. Why should that be so? I give two reasons. The first is that people simply buy their tickets from London. Why not? It is the same price. As a consequence, those joining at Ashford are perhaps ignored and not counted. Eurostar says that that is not quite right, because it checks things out with customer surveys. I was on the train last Friday and by the time I got on at Ashford, the customer surveys had already been sent round and were being collected back. No-one from Ashford was even in the count.

I must also comment on what I believe to be the disingenuous dissemination of information. The “Count down has begun” booklet is apparently a set of facts that supports Eurostar’s case. However, in reality it is nothing of the kind. What it says is often factually incorrect. For example, the publication suggests that the average travel time by car from Hastings to the new Ebbsfleet station—a distance of some 57 miles—is 1 hour 16 minutes. Dream on. Negotiating the A21 is a nightmare and then as a reward one joins the M25, finally negotiating the M25/M2 junction. Doing that journey in 1 hour 16 minutes would mean seeing a blue light following shortly behind. It may just be possible in the dead of night, but then there would be no trains to catch. It is that sort of disingenuous proposition that has made people so angry. The same goes for the information given by Eurostar for the rail connections. It says that Brighton is within 1 hour 13 minutes of King’s Cross Thameslink. In fact, the average timetable shows a journey of between 1 hour 18 minutes and 1 hour 46 minutes. That is a considerable difference. The facts are simply wrong.

Why is Ashford so important? Its location 45 miles out of London draws interconnecting road and rail traffic away from areas of chronic congestion around the capital. Ebbsfleet will do the reverse, increasing peak tidal flows. Ebbsfleet has a purpose, but not in attracting the current Ashford traffic. So, what do I want from this evening’s debate? I want my hon. Friend the Minister to understand that this is not a cry from the wilderness on behalf of my constituents in Hastings and Rye alone. Although many of my constituents, such as Councillor Godfrey Daniel, Councillor Dominic Sabetian, Neil Perry, Rhoderick Powrie, Trevor Sheldrake, Terry Dorrity, Ann Hamilton, Simon Foster and Mike Turner of Friends of the Earth, are exceedingly exercised, this is a much wider cry than that. It is a cry that has cross-party support, with virtually no dissenting voice. I challenge my hon. Friend to find anyone who supports the Eurostar case. The campaign is currently supported by South East Partners’ Brussels office, which represents local authorities across the south-east, by passenger groups on both sides of the tunnel, such as Railfuture and the Marsh Link action group, and by, so far as I am aware, not only the hon. Members who are present this evening, but the vast majority, if not all, of the region’s MPs and MEPs.

My hon. Friend should not underestimate the strength of feeling about the preservation of this vital service, with the prosperity, convenience and environment of the south-east at stake. He must not be taken in by the superficial figures that Eurostar offers him to support this dastardly deed.

When I initially secured the debate, I thought that all that I would be able to do would be to ask for the Minister’s support in my entreaty to Eurostar. However, according to an article in The Guardian on 21 February, it appears that the Office for National Statistics believes that the British end of Eurostar is effectively under Government control because of the Government’s stake in supporting the enterprise. If that is the case, I ask that my hon. Friend not only requests Eurostar to think again, but demands that it does so. In the other place, on 8 February, my noble Friend Lord Bassam confessed to a liking for Ashford, but suggested that the Government could not intervene because the previous Conservative Government had committed the enterprise to the private sector. That might have been the case, but if things have changed and the ONS is right, my hon. Friend has a further opportunity to act.

In the short time available for the debate, it has not been possible to explore in detail all the economic and environmental arguments that are available to those who want Ashford International to prosper, and nor has there been time to dissect the paucity of the Eurostar case on which my hon. Friend might have previously relied. I thus ask my hon. Friend to meet me and a delegation of south-east MPs and MEPs, together with interest groups, so that we can persuade him, if he is not yet already persuaded, that Ashford International must be saved for the south-east of England.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) on securing the debate. I also welcome to the Chamber the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). Last October, I replied to a debate that the hon. Member for Ashford secured on exactly the same subject, so he might find some of my comments vaguely familiar.

I know 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 the way in which 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 will try to address the main points raised by my hon. Friend.

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 over the timetable changes. In that respect, we have noted with interest the statement from the leader of the 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”;

but 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 note that the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene. I suspect that we are about to replicate the exchange that we had in October. I do not want to suggest that Councillor Clokie supported the diminution in services from Ashford. I simply make the point that he can tell that the high-speed rail link will have a major economic benefit for Ashford, despite the reduction in services.

We will not replicate our exchange, because the Minister has chosen a longer quote from Councillor Clokie that is slightly more representative than the one that he cited before. However, as Councillor Clokie said, Ashford is the only place from which one can go to Paris and Brussels. The precise thrust of the argument is that people will not be able to travel to Brussels from Ashford under Eurostar’s proposals. That is unsatisfactory not just to people in Kent, but to those in Sussex and people in the rest of the south-east—that is the nub of the argument.

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but of course, it will still be possible to travel by train from Ashford to Brussels, although a change of train will be necessary.

I do not want to dwell for too long on the borough council’s views, but it is worth highlighting another point that it has made. It sees the provision of the new high-speed domestic service as being just as important to Ashford’s economic growth as the international links. The council anticipates that the high-speed link will lead to additional demand for Eurostar services from Ashford in the future.

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 Eurostar is at liberty to set its own timetables, although it has an obligation to operate on a sound commercial business. It cannot be accused of ignoring the views that have been put to it. Following the consultation with Kent county council, Eurostar agreed to introduce an additional stop at Lille on the daily service to Disneyland, to provide Ashford with a connection to Brussels. Following consultation with Ashford borough council, the company 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 it has shared and explained the research and analysis undertaken on developing future stopping patterns.

My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Ashford have made comments about the Government’s lack of action and intervention. Following representations made last autumn by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, including the hon. Member for Ashford and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, I discussed with Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, what options existed for maintaining a direct, if reduced, service from Ashford to Brussels following the opening of Ebbsfleet. So far, that intervention has had no effect. I share the disappointment felt by my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members about the fact that all direct services from Ashford to Brussels will cease, and about the fact that the various stakeholders in the area have not come up with a reasonable package to support even a reduced service.

It is worth mentioning that Eurostar remains committed to Ashford in at least one respect: it will retain its contact centre in the town, which provides employment for some 300 people. From the date of the opening of Ebbsfleet station this autumn, Eurostar will have 16 or 17 trains a 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 review its overall stopping patterns to reflect the expected future demand at the two stations in Kent. As a consequence, Ashford will retain three of its six trains a day to Paris, as well as a weekly service which goes to Avignon in the summer and the French Alps in the winter. Those destinations mean that 83 per cent. of current demand for direct services at Ashford will continue to be met.

As I mentioned earlier, the daily Disney train will, in future, also stop at Lille to provide a TGV connection to Brussels. I accept that there may be some remaining demand for a direct service between Ashford and Brussels that will not be met by the alternative arrangements.

My hon. Friend is using the figures that Eurostar gave him, but the truth is that they are challengeable. Does he accept that the empirical evidence is that the use of services at Ashford is substantially greater than the figures suggest? In my discussion with the chief executive, he suggested that the figures had been calculated, but no evidence has been produced to support that. The figures are simply the result of assumptions on Eurostar’s part, and are based on ticket sales.

I understand my hon. Friend’s argument, but does he believe that Eurostar is involved in a conspiracy to deprive itself of revenue? As a commercial organisation, it must surely put in place the best commercial plans possible. He seems to suggest that Eurostar is complicit in underestimating the patronage of Ashford customers, in order to prevent people from buying tickets, and to deprive itself of crucial revenue. I do not find that particularly plausible.

The truth is that Eurostar’s assessment is that the demand for a direct Ashford to Brussels service is too small for such a service to be commercially viable. Eurostar has said that the trains to Paris will be timed to suit both business and leisure travellers, and has adjusted the departure times following consultation with Ashford borough council. Timetables are valid for a year, so there is an annual opportunity to review stopping patterns and to alter them in light of changing demand. Eurostar is committed to working with the local authorities, with the objective of helping to increase demand and, in turn, the number of services at Ashford in the longer term; that is a point worth emphasising. Plans for Ashford reflect the current position, but Eurostar has the flexibility to revise its timetable to suit future changes in demand. 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. It would be in Eurostar’s commercial interests, if it felt that it would increase its annual profit, to reintroduce direct services to Brussels from Ashford. It is not plausible to suggest that Eurostar is in any way conspiring to deprive itself of that revenue stream.

Since its opening in 1996, Ashford international station has provided a valuable alternative to passengers who want to use Eurostar but want to avoid having to travel into central London to join their train. The reason for reducing the number of trains stopping at Ashford is, I am told, the opening of a second station in Kent at Ebbsfleet, near Dartford. Ebbsfleet is strategically located close to the A2/M2 and M25. Eurostar has carried out very 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. The catchment area extends around the M25 and will open up new markets for Eurostar. The catchment area for Ashford, by contrast, though geographically quite large, represents a level of patronage that is substantially lower.

No one is suggesting that Ebbsfleet should not open and be a successful station. What we are arguing is that it is possible to have both Ebbsfleet and Ashford. Given that the new high speed line into St. Pancras will cut journey times significantly between London and Paris and London and Brussels, there will still be a significant gain in time even if the trains stopped at both stations.

I emphasise that I am not a spokesman for Eurostar, but it seems eminently sensible that when Eurostar is calculating journey times and using them as a way of attracting a particular market, it must ensure that those journey times are as low as possible. If Eurostar has made a commercial calculation that stopping every train from Ebbsfleet at Ashford will result in lost revenue because passengers will choose to travel by air rather than by train, that is a valid commercial judgment which we should expect it to make.

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. 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 less than 20 per train, too few commercially to justify a direct service. There is a serious threat that stopping Eurostar services at Ashford as well as Ebbsfleet will extend journey times, to the extent that more passengers would be lost than would be gained—a point that I have just made, thanks to the intervention from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). The majority of Eurostar customers will travel from St. Pancras, so it is important that journey times are not adversely affected by additional stops for a small number of passengers.

It has been argued by my hon. Friend that one result of the changes will be to encourage passengers who would normally join trains at Ashford to divert to Ebbsfleet, increasing car use and causing congestion on major roads in north-west Kent. It is worth noting that some 90 per cent. of Ashford Eurostar customers travel to the station by car, and that more than half of those drive from outside the county. Ebbsfleet will be more convenient and nearer to most of those customers, and so will reduce total car use.

It is also worth noting that more than 500,000 people per week currently visit Bluewater shopping centre, very close to Ebbsfleet. Ebbsfleet itself, by contrast, will be used by fewer than 25,000 per week. Locally, major improvements to the strategic road network have been carried out to reduce the impact of new traffic flows, and congestion will be minimal.

I emphasise that I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and the concerns expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe and the hon. Member for Ashford, as well as the hon. Member for Lewes. I know that there is genuine concern in these constituencies that Eurostar’s proposals mean that the area is being left with a substandard service. I hope that I have, although I suspect that I have not, been able to reassure hon. Members that most of the demand from Ashford will continue to be met, that there is scope to review services to Ashford in the future in the light of future changes in demand, and that concentrating services at Ebbsfleet, but not to the exclusion of Ashford, makes sense commercially, in environmental terms, and from the point of view of providing the best possible international rail service to the greatest number of passengers.

Let me conclude by informing my hon. Friend that I would be more than happy to meet him and a delegation of parliamentary colleagues and other interested parties if he believes that that would be useful. I have already stated that I have made at least one intervention with Eurostar on this subject; whether I will be in a position to be able to do so in future to any positive benefit remains a question as yet unanswered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eight o’clock.