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Hastings Rail Service

Volume 506: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2010

Following the huge disruption to local train services after Christmas, when snow and bad weather hit our rail system, the poor state of the railways and their failure to respond adequately to that bad weather event has been a hot topic in Kent and East Sussex. However, for my constituents in Bexhill and Battle, this winter has brought more concerns, not about the temporary cancellations caused by that weather event or by the delays, or by the chaotic information or the platforms that were not cleared of ice and snow, but because a huge axe is now hanging over an important part of the direct rail service to London as a result of the publication of the Kent rail utilisation strategy on 22 January, jointly developed by Network Rail and the Department for Transport.

The Kent and East Sussex RUS document focuses predominantly on the rail services in Kent, but the scope of the strategy also extends to the London to Hastings line. Effectively, Hastings and stations south of Tunbridge Wells to Hastings are the poor relations in a strategy that focuses overwhelmingly on the area over the county border in Kent. The track about which I am concerned heads south from London through Kent and crosses the East Sussex border south of Tunbridge Wells into my constituency and rural East Sussex, where it passes through stations in places that I represent—Stonegate, Etchingham, Robertsbridge, Battle and Crowhurst—before reaching St. Leonards and the terminus at Hastings.

The RUS document sets out proposals for changes to rail services over the coming decade, and at their heart lies the expansion and improvement of the fast inter-urban Thameslink service. Some £5.5 billion of investment is being pumped into the Thameslink project, with improved infrastructure, higher-speed lines, new trains and longer platforms. This is undoubtedly an exciting and hugely beneficial scheme—I do not want to knock it—but there is a big catch for my constituents and those who live south of Tunbridge Wells, because to make way for the new Thameslink trains travelling through central London, the RUS document proposes the removal of peak rail services between Hastings and London Cannon Street from 2015. That Thameslink service will only benefit passengers boarding at Tunbridge Wells and stations to its north who are going to London. It completely misses out my constituents.

The new Thameslink service would not be a problem if it simply replaced the current Cannon Street to Hastings service, but it will not do so. The lower power supply on the track south of Tunbridge Wells will not be enough to carry the 12-car Thameslink trains. Instead, the new service will terminate at Tunbridge Wells. In short, the RUS proposes to axe services to stations south of Tunbridge Wells all the way to Hastings. As a result, those stations will have their peak service to London cut by a third. Their only direct route to the City of London will be entirely removed. With no exciting Thameslink alternative to replace it, my constituents rightly feel that this represents a real downgrading of the existing rail service.

My constituents are being asked to sacrifice their vital link to London in return for the knowledge that others up the line will have a faster and more pleasant commute. To add injury to insult, the Hastings to Charing Cross service—the remaining two trains an hour during peak hours—will no longer have an extra four carriages added at Tunbridge Wells to accommodate the extra passengers who board further up the line. The existing system was designed to ease regular congestion. In other words, those services that are not being scrapped stand to become even more overcrowded. It is no surprise therefore that during the consultation on the RUS, Network Rail found that the London to Hastings line proposal was the single biggest issue that was raised.

What are the consequences? It should be borne in mind that East Sussex, contrary to popular opinion, is a poor county. Per capita income in East Sussex, just 50 miles from London, is equivalent to per capita income in Hull. The deprivation in Hastings is well documented. Time and again, this relatively rural and unindustrialised corner of the south-east is overlooked. The main road down from London to the coast through this area is still single carriageway for much of the journey, while to the east lies the much more prosperous country of Kent with its high-speed Javelin trains, and to the west lie Brighton and the Gatwick corridor, with fast trains down from London, easy access to Gatwick airport and the M23 and A23 enabling easy access to and from London.

For my constituency, the rail link to London has never been more important. Local economies and communities are disproportionately reliant on the resident commuters in comparison with other areas. The direct route to the City of London—the financial district where so many commuters work—is a crucial factor when people are deciding whether to move to the area and whether to stay. The removal of the direct rail link to London during peak hours may cause the commuters on the Hastings line to up sticks and move altogether, either up the track into the suburbs or towards Kent, into better-serviced areas, or west towards Brighton. That would be a disaster for my local towns and villages.

Like many others, I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport highlighting the great concern about these proposals. In a reply to me, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) wrote that he was

“surprised you should expect the removal of just six trains a day”

to be enough

“to register sufficient socio-economic dis-benefits to cause a change in policy”.

I am surprised that he should so underestimate the importance of a direct service for people working in the City when making decisions about the worth of a commute from outside London. I am also surprised that he underestimates the importance of these commuters and their families to the economies of these communities. That is why there has been so much correspondence from the parish councils, not only in my constituency, but in Wadhurst, over the border in Wealden. For that reason, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) is keen to associate himself with this campaign. The effect on those rural communities clustered along the line and on Hastings at the end of the line is not to be scoffed at.

The Minister’s rather high-handed response to the letters he has received on the matter shows little consideration for the efforts put in over the years to try to transform the economy in this area by improving connectivity to London and, in particular, for the work on regeneration that has been done by his Government to improve employment prospects, business conditions and economic opportunities in Hastings.

I would understand the hon. Gentleman’s point better had there been any suggestion that the all-day Hastings to Charing Cross service might be reduced or withdrawn. As it is, even if the RUS recommendation were implemented, the only dis-benefit is that the Cannon Street commuters would have to change trains at London Bridge.

It is clear that the Minister does not understand the point. What possible benefit is there of a midday, afternoon or mid-morning service up the line from Hastings to someone who works in London? What possible benefit is that to somebody who works in London and has to do a full working day? The Minister clearly does not understand the points that have been repeatedly made to him, not just by me, but by his many correspondents, including the leader of Hastings borough council, and East Sussex county council and many parish councils. The peak-hours service is crucial if we are to retain the business people and the commuters who work in the City or who need access to the City during the working day. It is not good enough either to ask them to then make an additional change at London Bridge on top of a 1 hour 20 minute commute or to expect them to face crowded trains because cars have not been added at Tunbridge Wells. I am afraid that the Minister’s response is typical of the way in which he has dealt with this matter in correspondence.

It is clear from the representations that the Minister has received that a strong rail link to London and the City is vital for successful regeneration of the area. That is why Amber Rudd, the prospective parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye, has campaigned so hard on the issue. She wrote to me saying:

“The loss of the Cannon St service from Hastings would be particularly damaging for a town that already suffers from high levels of unemployment and low wages. The Cannon St commuters are some of the best paid in the town and losing that service would be disastrous for a community that needs the wages of these people to support other businesses in the town.”

The community needs people who are economically active to live in it.

What are the solutions? We must retain the Hastings to London Cannon Street service, instead of diverting a service that might benefit from the Thameslink trains; we must procure eight-car Thameslink trains that can continue past Tunbridge Wells down the line to Hastings; procure 12-car Thameslink trains, which have a lower power draw, again allowing the trains to continue to Hastings down that part of the track with a lower power supply; and upgrade the power supply south of Tunbridge Wells to allow the proposed 12-car Thameslink trains to travel down to Hastings.

On the possibility of procuring eight-car Thameslink trains, the Minister has stated that he

“cannot contemplate the possibility of committing future operators to running 8-car peak trains into London Bridge in the peak hours—8 car trains simply do not carry enough people to be considered seriously as a long-term solution.”

Despite that, he seems content with the prospect of the existing Hastings to Charing Cross Southeastern service no longer having extra carriages added at Tunbridge Wells but having eight cars all the way through to London. Will the Minister clarify whether or not eight-car trains are acceptable?

I impress on the Minister the importance of the direct rail service to Cannon Street. The commute to East Sussex is a long one, and at the margin of acceptability for people considering doing it daily. It is a tenuous commute—it is not like commuting from Sevenoaks or Tunbridge, where there is a rapid, regular and easy service. People in Hastings and the villages clustered around it are at the margin, and any further disruption to that service will seriously compromise their ability to travel to work in a reasonable time, and to access their workplace without undue hassle or the uncertainty that comes from having to change trains. We all know that if a journey to London requires a change, one must allow not just the additional time for that journey, but build in a significant buffer element to allow for disruption or delay at the transfer station. Changing at London Bridge station is not an attractive option. It is viable to do so, but it would not be an attractive option for commuters, and would make all the difference between whether people chose to commute from Hastings and stations south of Tunbridge Wells.

I urge the Minister to take on board the representations that he has received. Crowhurst parish council has written to him saying that the

“route provides a direct link to the City from Crowhurst and its existence is an important factor for many residents when they decide to move to the area, or indeed stay here. Commuters are a very important part of the economy and social infrastructure in the area and any deterioration in the existing service will have a serious impact on the East Sussex economy generally, and Crowhurst in particular.

Highlighting this proposal in the Strategy is likely to have a damaging effect on the local economy in anticipation of the loss of the service.”

That came from Mrs. Pat Buckle, clerk of Crowhurst parish council.

There is a chink of hope, because the Minister has insisted that the RUS document is advisory at this stage, which is encouraging. He has also suggested that we should wait until 2012, when the specification for the next franchise will commence, but procurement of the Thameslink trains is already under way. Of course, we could wait until 2012, but the decision would, de facto, be made for us. The Thameslink trains will have been bought and they will all be 12 cars.

We need a wider, more forward-looking picture of the future of our railway system. If we always put off decisions until the deadline is upon us, if we only ever look with blinkers at one area and one network at a time, and if we never take wider account of the unintended consequences of policy, that will be at the expense of a sensible, efficient and fair rail service. Time and again, the Hastings to Cannon Street and Hastings to Charing Cross line is overlooked because the Department for Transport, under this Labour Government, deems it a poor relation of the more exciting, more attractive and larger Kent railway system. I do not begrudge the services from Ashford, and I am delighted that we now have access to the channel tunnel rail service. I am delighted that there is a faster service to London from Brighton, but I constantly question whether the Department understands the importance and significance of the rail service on the Hastings to Charing Cross and Cannon Street line.

It is understandable that track pathways in the London Bridge area are congested and that existing services must be displaced to make way for Thameslink trains, if Thameslink is required. I would be interested to know what demand there is to travel to Bedford from Tunbridge Wells. I have certainly not heard of anyone who is desperate to make that journey. Yes, it may be difficult to find a solution that will benefit suburban commuters without penalising the rural commuters of East Sussex, let alone improve their service, but surely that is all the more reason to tackle the problem now and not put it off until 2012 or later, by which time the Government’s hands will be tied. Will the Minister at least assure me that his Department will consider seriously and urgently the options now, while the RUS is fresh, while it at least has the appearance of a consultation document, while investment decisions have yet to be made, and while long-term action has yet to be determined?

It is a pleasure, Mr. Cummings, to serve under you as Chair, as we used to share a role on a former Select Committee. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing this debate and providing an opportunity for the House to discuss the route utilisation strategy for Kent that Network Rail published recently. I understand his concerns about the future of rail services on the Hastings line—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) has spoken to me about the matter. I intend to demonstrate in the next few minutes why those concerns are misplaced.

I begin by reminding the Chamber of the purpose of route utilisations strategies. They provide a strategic framework and recommendations which guide the rail industry’s development of plans for train service changes and investment, but they are not firm commitments to implement changes. Early RUSs were prepared by the former Strategic Rail Authority, but in 2004 in the White Paper, “The Future of Rail”, the Government explained the rationale for transferring responsibility for production of RUSs to Network Rail as part of its enhanced role in co-ordinating the industry’s planning and delivery. However, the same White Paper and the Railways Act 2005, which followed from it, made it clear that the specification of rail services would remain with the Government.

Production of a RUS takes around 18 months, and involves stakeholders from across the rail industry, including passenger and freight train operators, and passengers’ representative bodies, such as Passenger Focus. Although the Office of Rail Regulation and funding bodies, including the Department for Transport, have been represented on RUSs’ stakeholder management groups, we have sought not to restrain the industry players from developing their own ideas and drawing their own conclusions. That should not be portrayed as lack of interest on the part of the Government.

During the preparation of a RUS, details of current train services, levels of demand, infrastructure constraints and performance records are collated, and future demand forecasts are prepared for the stakeholder group members. Any gaps between demand and physical capacity are identified, and options are developed to address them. A key requirement is that the options are subject to economic appraisal, and consideration of affordability and strategic fit with other schemes. Any scheme that fails to achieve a satisfactory benefit-cost ratio is discarded. That allows a draft strategy to be produced and, following formal consultation and further refinement, the final RUS is published.

The final Kent RUS was published in January this year. It covers the heavily-used commuter routes between Kent and London, together with more lightly-used routes in Kent. It also considers the potential role of the High Speed 1 line in providing additional capacity to relieve the classic network. Unsurprisingly, the most difficult issue in the Kent RUS area is providing sufficient train capacity to meet the forecast level of commuting into London. The Kent RUS forecasts that peak demand will continue to outstrip capacity on the main routes into London during the next 10 years. There is limited scope for running extra trains on the classic network, and many trains are already at the maximum practical length of 12 cars. However, the RUS has identified some scope for train lengthening to provide additional capacity, particularly in the two hours either side of the peak rush hour.

One of the common findings of the route utilisation strategies that Network Rail has completed so far is that, in many cases, the ultimate constraint on the capacity of a route is the physical capacity of its London terminus. The obvious alternative to expanding those stations at ground level is to go underground and continue the railway under London. That expedient led to the inception of both London’s major rail infrastructure initiatives—Crossrail and Thameslink—which have been taken forward by this Government. Thameslink is relevant to today’s debate, and the Kent RUS assumes implementation of the Thameslink programme, which will enable new 12-car trains to run between various locations in Kent and routes north of London. The Thameslink programme will provide the next significant upgrade in the capacity of the railway, from not only south London, Kent and Sussex, but the northern home counties. I note that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that a Thameslink train is a satisfactory alternative. If he accepts that for passengers for Cannon Street, they will have to change at London Bridge.

For all their virtues and benefits, Thameslink and Crossrail force some compromises on today’s accepted standards of rail travel. One is the design of the trains, which will have to be suitable not only for the requirements of medium-distance commuters and leisure passengers, but for the demands of high-frequency metro services. That means that the trains have to be capable of carrying very high volumes of passengers in tolerably decent conditions for short distances, as well as smaller numbers of people seated for longer distances. The result will be fewer seats per carriage than we would normally expect for national rail trains, but more than we would normally expect for an underground train, so most people can be satisfied most of the time.

Does the Minister honestly believe that it is acceptable that people who are travelling for between an hour and 20 minutes and an hour and 30 minutes should not be guaranteed a seat?

It is accepted that in metro services, people joining from further afield will generally have access to a seat, although those who join later on the journey are unlikely to get a seat for a short distance and will have to stand. That is an understood aspect of metro rail services the world over.

As I said, that is an accepted feature of the operation of metro services in the UK and worldwide. I must return to the point. As I made clear to the hon. Gentleman, the procurement of these trains is at an advanced stage, and I expect that one of the Government’s first tasks after the next general election will be to announce the preferred bidder for those trains. To alter any aspect of the specification of the new trains at this late stage would entail cancellation of the procurement, and delay the arrival of new trains on the network by two years or more. That would create complete disruption for those who anticipate relief from overcrowding.

What does that mean for passengers on the Hastings line? Just as with the sizes of the London stations, many of the difficulties on that line have been bequeathed to us by the early generations of railway pioneers. The extension of the railway from Tunbridge Wells to Hastings in the 1850s was completed in a hurry by the South Eastern Railway company to compete with the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, which had established a presence in Hastings through a line along the coast from Eastbourne. It is said that when extending the line south from Tonbridge towards the coast, South Eastern Railway’s contractors cheated the company by building the seven tunnels through the sandstone hills of the Weald with four layers of bricks instead of the customary six layers. That was not discovered until the Wadhurst tunnel collapsed in 1862—I do not know who were Government at the time, but it was certainly not this Government. It was too expensive to re-bore the tunnels, so the South Eastern Railway company simply added the two missing layers of bricks. That, of course, reduced the width of the tunnels, and for over 100 years meant that the line had to be operated with specially-commissioned, narrow-bodied rolling stock. It also meant that electrification of the route came later than it did to neighbouring routes, partly because there was insufficient space in the most restricted tunnels to install electrified rails, and partly because there was no narrow-bodied electric rolling stock.

The most recent solution to all those problems came in 1986—I know who were in Government then—when the narrow-bodied Hastings diesels reached the end of their days and electrification became inevitable. The solution was to make the track single through the tunnels so that the electrification rails could be installed and conventional electric trains could be run. However, as I said, that was in the 1980s, with a Government who famously did not believe in the future of railways, and who ensured that every line of every investment proposal by the British Railways Board was challenged for every last pound. The result was that the railway that had been built in a hurry in the 1850s was electrified on the cheap in the 1980s. Only two trains an hour ran in each direction, and they did not need to be more than eight coaches long. The electrification scheme was designed down accordingly.

In 2009, when developing the Kent RUS, Network Rail came to consider the conundrum that on the one hand the Thameslink rolling-stock procurement programme depends on 12-car trains to satisfy its capacity objectives, while on the other hand there is an important stretch of railway on which Network Rail believes that the power supply is capable of supplying only enough power for traditional eight-car trains. Furthermore, in order for the Thameslink programme to deliver its maximum number of 24 trains per hour through London Bridge at the height of the rush hour, the number of trains into Cannon Street has had to be reduced from 25 to 22. Faced with a combination of circumstances that required all Thameslink trains to have 12 cars, Hastings trains to have only eight cars, and three trains to be withdrawn from Cannon Street, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Kent RUS recommended that the Hastings to Cannon Street trains be withdrawn.

My postbag in recent weeks has contained a large number of letters from organisations and individuals—such as those referred to by the hon. Gentleman—who believe that the threat of such changes will be enough to provoke some City commuters to seek to live elsewhere. It is unfortunate that some of those letters have found their way into the local press, which is the surest way of ensuring that the prophecy will be self-fulfilling. Even so, I find it surprising that people would forgo the opportunity to live in the towns and villages of east Sussex simply because they had to change trains at London Bridge.

However, the fact that the RUS has made a recommendation on the Hastings to Cannon Street service is far from the end of the story. It is clear that my correspondents do not understand the underlying principles behind the Railways Act 2005, so I am glad to have this chance to remind people that the railway is now publicly specified, albeit privately delivered. That means that when the time comes, the Government will make the final decision on whether to require the relevant train operator to run direct trains between Hastings and one or more of the City stations. The time for that decision does not come until the existing integrated Kent franchise—which requires the operation of those services at least until March 2014—is due for replacement. The Kent franchise is due to run until 2014. The Thameslink franchise runs until 2015, and the Thameslink programme will not require any revisions to train services before the end of 2015. Decisions about what services those franchises will be required to run will not be taken until 2012, or even 2013. Our practice has been to expose decisions about the content of franchises to full public consultation.

What alternatives will face the Ministers on whom those decisions will fall, probably late in 2012? First, they could adopt Network Rail’s proposal to withdraw the three trains in the morning and four trains in the evening that run direct between Hastings and Cannon Street. Scrutiny of the loading records of those trains suggests that although there is plenty of demand for most—if not all—of them, withdrawal or redirection of one or two might make sense. Those loading records also make it quite clear that running eight-car trains into London Bridge is unsustainable as a long-term option.

Secondly, Ministers could decide to divert the trains to Charing Cross, changing trains at London Bridge. If Cannon Street is the final destination, that is not a huge problem. Thirdly, despite today’s power-supply problems with 12-car trains south of Tunbridge Wells, it remains likely that the new Thameslink rolling stock will be able to run through to Hastings. Not only will the new Thameslink stock be lighter than its present day counterparts, it will have the capability to regenerate the energy used in braking, thus reducing its net power draw by at least 15 per cent. Those issues need to be worked through in detail with Network Rail over the coming years. As the first input for the decisions to be made in 2012 or 2013, we have a recommendation from the RUS. Over the next two or three years, there will be many more inputs from several sources, leading to a final train service specification for the next generation of Southeastern and Thameslink franchises.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to engage with those processes in order to secure the best possible services for the people in the areas of Hastings, Bexhill and Battle.