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Kent Coast Railway Line

Volume 507: debated on Wednesday 10 March 2010

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

I am grateful for this opportunity to place on the official record something that has been the subject of a huge amount of correspondence and a lot of comment in other debates in the House. Before I start, it is also worth placing on the record that I intend to quote from correspondence from other Members’ constituencies because I have become the focus of attention for a lot of complaint, much of which has been sent to me by e-mail. I have notified, I hope, every Member whose constituents I shall quote from to enable them to be present and to comment if they so wish. Given that that is the case, I am more than willing—I know that it may take a little time—to give way to any hon. Member who wishes to intervene. I make that plain now, and I shall seek your indulgence, Mr. Benton, if that becomes necessary.

I have close to 1,500 reasons for raising the matter of the rail service—I use the word “service” loosely—between the towns of east Kent and central London via the Kent coast, or the north Kent line. The figure 1,500 represents the number of working men and women who pay very large sums of money to commute daily from Kent to central London to their places of employment. Those are people who have become so angered by the performance of Southeastern trains and by the failure of Ministers in the Department for Transport, including one Kent Member of Parliament, properly to understand and represent their interests that they found it necessary to send to the Prime Minister a petition calling for the restoration of a timetable that was in operation before December 2009 and the reappraisal of the vehicle that is less than appropriately named High Speed 1, the Javelin service.

As long ago as March 2001, coincidentally in the run-up to that year’s general election, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) was in the local press. The article stated:

“A £70 million rail link from Ramsgate to London was announced this week promising journey times of less than an hour. South Thanet MP Steve Ladyman said a new company, Netrail 2000, would operate the high-speed service, which would be running by May 2002. but the sub-hour journey might not be available until 2007.”

My description of this as a “pre-election smokescreen” was described as “utterly contemptible”. It was not long, though, before it became apparent that Netrail 2000 was of no substance and that the ghost trains “to be built by Adtranz” had not been ordered and did not exist. The sub-hour journey from a Thanet Parkway station to London has, however, been not only a dream but a potential reality for nearly 20 years and I have myself done the Victoria to Ramsgate trip, on an engineering train, in one hour flat.

When the domestic high-speed service using the channel tunnel high-speed link was mooted, I campaigned, with others, for that high-speed service to be integrated with the domestic franchise in the fond belief that those travelling from east Kent to London would at last get the 21st century railway that they needed and deserved.

Let me make it clear that I support the provision of a high-speed service from east Kent to London. Tomorrow, the Government will make a pre-election announcement about the proposed High Speed 2 service, but it would be good to think that before HS2 is commenced the Department will complete the half-finished High Speed 1 project, carry the upgraded line and service through to a Thanet Parkway station between Minster and Cliffsend and facilitate the development of Manston airport and a truly integrated rail, sea and air transport system. That really would be an achievement of some value to the economy of east Kent.

At present, however, instead of the fast train to central London that commuters should be able to enjoy, we have been asked to applaud a train that runs fast—sometimes—from Ashford to St. Pancras at considerably increased cost, of little benefit to travellers using the Kent coastal services and at very severe detriment to the conventional routes to Victoria, Cannon Street and London Bridge that most commuters wish to use. Just as a parentheses, I heard this morning from Passenger Focus, which knows what it is talking about, that the take-up of the high-speed link to Ebbsfleet from passengers on the Kent coastline and from east Kent is just 15 per cent. I would not wish the Minister present to fall into the trap of believing that concern over the arrangements introduced in December were not anticipated. Notwithstanding the failure of consultation to take proper account of the views of the real fare-paying and travelling public, I myself raised the concerns in an Adjournment debate on 20 January 2009. I agreed that the high-speed trains might reduce travelling times from parts of Kent to St. Pancras. However, I stated:

“My constituents are going to be made to pay higher prices to travel to a station that they do not want to go to and then pay a tube fare to get back to the place where they actually want to be”.

With cuts to domestic services to clear paths for high- speed trains, I predicted that

“my constituents are going to pay more for less.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 715.]

That has been the case.

Following that debate, the then Minister of State, now the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, protested that there would be an increase in the services available to my constituents and that Southeastern fares would be capped at “RPI plus 3 per cent”—try telling that to my commuting constituents. He said that passengers from east Kent would experience benefits in savings and in journey times. He added:

“I do not believe that any passenger will be obliged to switch to a high-speed service in order to reach their preferred destination.”

Following my letter of 25 February 2009, in which I challenged some of his more careless assertions, Lord Adonis replied on 12 March 2009 and acknowledged that his assessment of the number of trains from Margate to Victoria during the morning peak was erroneous. He also said:

“It is true that your constituents who currently use the direct services to London Charing Cross in the peaks will no longer be able to do so after December. However, the journey may still be made by taking a service to London Bridge and changing there.”

He added that

“arrival at St. Pancras International would be more convenient for other passengers wishing to visit, for example, the British Museum, the British Library, London Zoo or Madam Tussauds.”

It may have escaped his Lordship’s notice, but season-ticket holders commuting to work do not spend a great deal of time visiting caged wild animals or looking at stuffed dummies. I shall deal with the detrimental leisure aspects of this issue later.

The immediate point that I wish to make to the Minister is that the problems that we are experiencing today were foreseen, forecast and ignored by both the train operating company, Govia, and the Secretary of State for Transport. In case we are in any doubt it is clearly with the Secretary of State for Transport that this buck must stop. On 16 February, in a response to a complaint from Mr. Daniel Sargent, Southeastern trains customer services officer, David Eustace, said:

“As far as the timetable is concerned, we realise that some people are disappointed with the changes that were made in December. Unfortunately, all timetables are a compromise between a service specification set by the Department for Transport (DfT) the infrastructure and rolling stock resources available”.

The high-speed train services have been amazing and transformative in my constituency, but, of course, the normal trains are slow, dirty and very often late. Would my hon. Friend agree that there is an urgent need for bi-directional signalling at the pinch point at Rochester bridge? In my own constituency the numbers of trains stopping at Sole Street station are being severely restricted.

My hon. Friend is leading me down a path that I was not going to go down, but he has given me the opportunity to comment on an issue that is not peripheral but separate. Five years ago, representatives of Network Rail came down to Margate and examined the potential for Margate station with me. We talked about signalling on the Kent coast line. I was assured that it would be in place by 2009. Modern signalling, which allows tricks that could not otherwise be played, would allow trains on the Kent coast line to overtake. Advanced signalling and crossover points—although this sounds hairy—allow trains to be run in both directions, overtaking each other, on the two tracks. One might think that that would mean that trains would meet head-on at some point, but I am assured that that is not the case.

New signalling would also allow trains to travel much closer together, with much more signalling and therefore many more safety points on the line. The problem with the Kent coast line, as my hon. Friend and I know, is that it was built on the cheap 100 years ago. It has gradients instead of cuttings and only two passing points between Ramsgate and London. He is absolutely right to make that point. Sadly, the date has slipped. It will now be 2012 or 2014 before improvements are—literally—on track.

David Eustace, Southeastern trains customer services officer, continued:

“On taking over the franchise in 2006 we inherited as a contractual commitment the Integrated Kent Franchise service specification, which detailed the level of service the DfT had stipulated for the Southeastern network”,

so it is the Department for Transport’s baby. He added:

“As it stands, there are unlikely to be any significant changes for when the summer timetable starts in May”.

That will bring joy to the hearts of my constituents.

Understanding that Govia’s Keith Ludeman and Southeastern’s Charles Horton were effectively pawns on the DFT chessboard, I wrote to the Secretary of State on 6 January, after a disastrous Christmas rail transport season in east Kent. In that letter, I said that I would be meeting Southeastern’s Charles Horton to discuss the flow of complaint e-mails that I was receiving from dissatisfied customers, and I invited the Secretary of State to attend the meeting.

Having met Mr. Horton, I wrote again to the Secretary of State on 18 January, saying:

“With regards to the bigger picture, Mr. Horton places the responsibility on the terms of the franchise agreement laid down by your Department.”

Southeastern is in no doubt either about where the buck stops. I continued:

“It is clear that now that the new timetable has been imposed it cannot be changed piecemeal and will require a thorough review. To establish how best the present unacceptable position may be rectified in the shortest possible time and in order that I may apprise you of the detail of the views of travellers, I am formally requesting a personal meeting with you”.

On 26 January, the Minister responded to my first letter of 6 January on behalf of the Secretary of State:

“Your constituents are well served by the December 2009 timetable”,

citing additional services to London Cannon Street, London Victoria and London Bridge stations, as well as the unloved St. Pancras service. We will hear the views of the travelling public in due course.

In a further and—forgive me—crass observation indicating his lamentable understanding of the geography of east Kent, the Minister then prayed in aid of his improvement claims services to Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks, Bexleyheath, Greenwich and Grove Park, none of which is of interest to those using the Kent coastal services. He was, however, gracious enough to acknowledge that

“The Department has received some negative feedback”.

On 12 February, the Minister wrote again on his Lordship’s behalf, this time in response to my letter requesting a meeting with the Secretary of State:

“I am unable to attend such a meeting due to diary commitments”,

his diary having presumably been rearranged for the general election. He asserted in a further letter on 22 February that

“Southeastern is now the best connected London-serving Train Operating Company, serving seven London terminal stations”

and told me and those whom I represent:

“forecast modelling tools used by the rail industry suggest that it will take up to three years for a new market to reach 100 per cent. of its potential. It is, therefore, too early to be seeking to reach a judgment on the recently introduced service to St. Pancras.”

My constituents are travelling now, not in three years’ time. Their working lives are being disrupted now. They are paying vastly inflated fares—way above the Department’s alleged increase of RPI plus 3 per cent.—now. They are travelling on dirty, overcrowded, unreliable trains, and arriving home late from work to cold dinners and children already in bed, now.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way while making a powerful speech, and I congratulate him on fighting a remarkable campaign. May I add one more item to that extremely unappealing list? Those who commute across Kent rather than into London face a pathetic collapse in the timetable arrangements for transitions. Some transitions have dropped from 10 minutes to one minute, so people keep missing connections.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the changes dramatically affect his constituents. If he can stay until later in my speech, he will hear me refer to one of them. If he cannot, I understand fully, as I know that he has other commitments in the House this afternoon.

I want the Minister—and the Secretary of State, who I trust will read this debate in the Official Report—to hear from the mouths of the travelling public precisely what they think of his Department, Southeastern trains and Govia. Michael Alderton, a gold card season ticket holder, says:

“The introduction of the High Speed (?) service to the timetable is a shambles and highlights the lack of consideration of SE Trains for commuters…I have had to start getting this earlier service because the later train (6.44) is regularly late and at work I do not have the luxury of being allowed a five-minute window”.

Five minutes, of course, is the amount by which trains are allowed to be late without being regarded as late.

Working up the line from Margate—a two-hour journey on a good day—Vivien Viggers says:

“The introduction of this service and the downgrading of the original service to Cannon Street and Victoria has been of little use to me. Because there are no trains at Westgate in the morning at 6 am, I now have to walk to Margate. Whereas I could walk to my workplace from Cannon Street, I now have to take a tube…the journey is no quicker and I have been forced to pay the inflated fares for no improvement in service.”

One stop further on, in Westbrook, Paul Dexter writes that

“a new trend that is becoming more frequent is that when a train is running late on the return journey…Southeastern are not stopping at a number of stations between Faversham and Ramsgate to enable them to make up time (presumably so they can meet their targets)…customers for smaller stations between Faversham and Ramsgate have to terminate their journey at Faversham and suffer a further delay…whilst we wait for the next train to come through.”

Mr. Dexter, who pays £3,780 a year out of taxed income for his season ticket, adds:

“It’s all the more difficult to take increases to the price for this year on the basis of the vastly deteriorating service we have received since the new timetable came into place…The delays may not sound significant…but…the impact it has on the time I have to spend with a young family in the evenings is.”

Dawn Dale, who travels from Birchington-on-Sea, asks:

“Why are they running a ‘high speed’ service on a line that…cannot reach any high speeds until it leaves the commuter line at Ebbsfleet and the trains only get into London 10 minutes earlier than they would on the main line—time that you then have to spend getting back to where you need to be?...When are Southeastern going to admit that they have made a mistake on this line”?

I would add: when will the Minister?

The next stop is Herne Bay. Sharon Reeve pays £4,150 out of a salary of £26,000 to get to work. Because of the changes to the timetable she has to

“rise at 04:30 to catch a 05:35 train which will deliver me to London for 07:07—where upon I will have nearly ONE WHOLE HOUR before I need to start work.”

She goes on:

“If I lose my job through being late for work I will be another ‘benefit’ statistic, and if I have to take a local job, I will join the low paid, be unable to pay tax.

Why is the government not stepping in, to ensure that those of us willing to work, are able to get to work”?

Moving up the line to Teynham, Duncan Law used to catch the 5.27 to London Bridge and get to his Greenwich office by 7 am. Now

“the train doesn’t stop at my Local Station, meaning I have to travel to Sittingbourne and pay £4.50 per day just to park”.

He goes on:

“The train from Sittingbourne is NOT direct to London Bridge or Cannon Street anymore, you have to change at Gillingham onto a local train to complete your journey.”

He concludes by saying that he is

“so angry and let down”

by Southeastern.

Antony Loveland from Faversham works in north-west London, an area that the Department says is favoured by the run-through to St. Pancras. He says that

“the St. Pancras terminal is of limited use to me. Furthermore, I would be required to find an extra £1400-£1500 for my annual season ticket if I were to use the ‘high speed’ service which only gains me 6 minutes each way. I find it difficult to see how Southeastern can deem this value for money.”

He concludes:

“Whilst I’m sure it had its drawbacks I would welcome a return of the old timetable”.

We now move towards the constituency represented by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), who presumably speaks occasionally to the Secretary of State. Dennis Hamer from Newington tells me that he faces

“a reduced number of trains in peak hours”

and 50 per cent. fewer trains during off-peak hours. He adds:

“Needless to say these journeys take considerably longer than under the old timetable”.

Neil West, who lives on Sheppey and works in Fulham, says that

“the new timetable has increased my journey to work from 2 hrs to 2 hrs 20 minutes and the journey home from 2 hrs to 2 hrs 30 minutes on a normal day. I have lost almost an hour of my own free time each day.”

And so to Gillingham and Rainham, home of the Under-Secretary, who wrote on 1 March to his constituent, Jennifer Coles, saying that he had met with Southeastern’s Charles Horton, who was

“very quick to acknowledge Southeastern’s disappointment with regard to the general performance of the service.”

Mr. Horton had stressed that

“Southeastern’s entire focus is currently being directed at driving up performance levels”.

Faced across the table by a Transport Minister defending a marginal seat and beset by angry commuters, he would say that. The Minister went on to sing from the Department song sheet:

“I do believe that the high-speed rail service is a great asset for the residents of Medway and that it will provide increased opportunity for the area. I hope that in time, and with the return to high performance levels of your standard commuting services, you will begin to think so too.”

It is debatable whether Amy Overy from Rainham, another constituent of the Under-Secretary, will be impressed by his observations. She said that

“the Medway Towns are worse off from the new HS1 service!”

She went on:

“I do not want to hear that commuters are better off elsewhere in Kent, because I don’t live elsewhere and I don’t want to move either. I want a reliable service to and from London Victoria, in less than an hour, which is what I could expect before the timetable changes in December 2009.”

Interestingly, the Minister got the Department’s franchise manager, John MacQuarrie, to reply to that comment. Mr. MacQuarrie said that

“the Department will review jointly with Southeastern how successful the implementation of December 2009 timetable has been.”

“Successful” is perhaps not the word I would have chosen.

I appreciate that this debate is a lengthy journey. If the Minister is beginning to lose the will to live, perhaps he understands how Kent’s travelling public feel on a daily basis. In case he is tempted to think that this problem affects just a few people on the line that is the subject of the debate, Daniel Sargent states:

“I commute to London Cannon Street everyday from Dover and my journey has been increased by 20 minutes in the evening, it now takes 2 hours in total.”

I have listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman’s speech and to the complaints from many of his constituents and the constituents of other hon. Members. If I manage to catch your eye, Mr. Benton, I will give my view on the difficulties in Dover. However, I put it on the record that the volume of complaints in Dover about the impact of High Speed 1 on domestic services does not reflect the jaundiced and grim story we are hearing.

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt make his view known and I am sure that his constituents, such as Mr. Sargent, will pay attention.

I am representing the daily experiences of real people who pay real money, after tax, to travel from homes along the Kent coast, through the Medway towns, and into London. Whether the hon. Gentleman likes it or not, the introduction of high-speed trains has had a dramatic effect on the performance of the standard service. Passengers are demonstrating with their feet that they do not want to go to St. Pancras. I have done that journey, as I am sure has he. After travelling to St. Pancras, it takes 25 minutes and costs £2.50 to get back to Westminster. The same is true for Aldgate and other places, as I will show. That is not an improvement.

Mr. Sargent goes on to make that very point:

“I cannot afford to use the High Speed trains and even if I could they do not take me to where I work. My office is a 10 minute walk from Cannon Street, so why would I want to get a train to St. Pancras and then have to pay for another season ticket to use London underground?”

It does not make any sense. No sane person would regard that as an improvement. No time is saved and money is wasted. By my miserable maths, people without season tickets have to pay an additional £13.50 a day for a standard return fare to London to use the high-speed service—and that is before paying to park. That is a lot of money for a mediocre service. I will be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman justify it. Trevor Allison from Preston, near Canterbury, states:

“The introduction of the high speed service has resulted in an inferior service for passengers who travel to London from Kearsney, Shepherdswell, Aylesham, Adisham, Canterbury East and Selling.”

Even for people coming from Ashford—the raison d’être of the high-speed link—all is not perfect. Julia Blackwell, a gold card, first-class traveller, reports that

“until the introduction of the revised timetable in December I was travelling to and from Cannon Street by semi-fast service. What SouthEastern fail to understand is that High Speed to the wrong destination is no gain at all for many people.”

Again, that is the point I have been making. She states:

“St Pancras is useless for the City…as it takes at least 20 to 25 minutes journey by tube back to Aldgate…thereby negating the benefits of a fast arrival at St Pancras.”

To add insult to injury, people who have to travel on the high-speed link, but do not pay the high-speed premium due to the failure of the train operator to provide adequate ticket purchase and upgrade facilities, such as Peter Jaquiss from Cliftonville and Sharon Gregory from Westgate, are faced with penalty fares on arrival at St. Pancras. Remember, this is progress.

Even the local Kent services have not escaped the impact of this ill-conceived plan. Julie Gurr from Herne says:

“I travel from Sturry to Chartham, a journey of 11 minutes each way on the old timetable but…it now takes over 35 minutes each way!!”

She continues:

“It has been a complete nightmare because if the train from Chartham is delayed or cancelled I can’t get the connection at Canterbury. I thought the idea of public transport was to take cars off the road but with this new timetable I think that the opposite is going to happen.”

I think so too.

I will bring this litany to a conclusion shortly, but I said that I would refer to the impact that this matter has had on leisure traffic. Terry Davidson from Folkestone tells me that

“we have lost the fast trains to Charing Cross twice an hour on Saturday…and one is forced to use the high speed line to have a sensible journey time.

The old Saturday service…was 1 hr 20 mins to London and to save just 20 mins it is nearly double the cost”.

Almost finally, there is Paul Twyman, who is a former under-secretary at the Department for Transport—I do not know whether he is known to the Minister—and a member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport. He reminded me that journey times are now

“longer than in the age of steam”—

the trains in 1927 were faster than they are today. He asks:

“How can Thanet attract tourists if journeys can take up to 3 hours (my last journey at the weekend…was spent either waiting for a ‘replacement bus’ or journeying on it all round the highways and byways of East Kent; we nearly froze to death on Faversham Station).”

He adds that high-speed trains

“are no good for me. I do not want to pay more to go to a place that I do not want to go to.”

A letter from another Southeastern customer relations officer, Dan Westlake, to Mr. Les Turner—this is brilliant—helpfully indicates:

“I should first of all explain that, when selling you a ticket, a railway company does not guarantee to carry you on any particular train (unless seat reservations apply) or that you will arrive at a particular time. The timetable is a guide to services that a train company intends to operate but it does not guarantee that trains will run in accordance with it”.

So now the cat is out of the bag.

I am deeply indebted to Roy Coppins and John Nicholson of Herne Bay and to Bob Parsons, Terry Morland, Alastair Coles, John Cherry and many others for the painstakingly gathered information that they have provided me with. I am also grateful to Tunde Olatunji of Passenger Focus in the south-east for his staunch support and to the many hundreds of members of the travelling public who have signed John Nicholson’s Downing street petition because they are, quite simply, at the end of their tether and their tolerance.

In a recent Kent Messenger newspaper article, Lord Adonis, having taken a brief train journey with his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham, said:

“The message I’m getting is that trains are working successfully, they are very reliable and they have slashed journey times, so they are proving increasingly popular with commuters”—

17 per cent. of them.

He continued:

“The trains were introduced at the same time as the severe weather when all trains were subject to delay and disruption, but since that weather ended, the high-speed service has been running extremely well.”

I do not know what planet the Secretary of State inhabits, but I do understand that the upper House is not yet elected, so he might pause to consider that a number of his parliamentary colleagues in the Commons currently occupy Labour marginal seats in the Medway towns, South Thanet and Dover. Their constituents and mine would like— not in three years, not in months, but immediately—to see a cut in fares to reflect the poor standard of service; a return to the sensible timetabling of trains to destinations that travellers actually wish to reach in central London; an end to short-form trains and the provision of adequate seating in clean units; an end to the practice of skipping stations between Faversham and east Kent; and, in response to John Nicholson’s Downing street petition, an apology for the manner in which the Department for Transport and Southeastern trains have to date failed the high-fare-paying travelling public of east Kent.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who might be surprised to hear that I agree with some, but not all, of the points that he raised. I am not here to speak for other MPs’ constituents, but I certainly want to speak up for my constituents in Dover.

I have been using east Kent trains occasionally for 30 years since I first went down to Dover in 1979, although I have used them more frequently since I became the town’s MP 13 years ago. No matter what the deficiencies and weaknesses of the current service and timetables, let us not forget that they do not compare at all with the experiences that we all suffered during those early years. Right up until the late ’90s, we were travelling on the old slam-door trains, which really rattled and were dirty, insecure and unreliable. We have certainly come a long way since then.

I have fond memories of turning up at Dover Priory station in 2001 to officially name the first of the class 375 services. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that it was named “White Cliffs Country” and not, I am afraid, “Gwyn Prosser”. However, those services really marked a turning point in investment in trains down to east Kent. The trains were brought in by Connex South Eastern, which was later to lose its franchise owing to poor performance—perhaps poor performance has something to do with geographical matters, rather than the train operator.

The trains were subsequently renationalised for two and a half years—I would call them two and a half glorious years—and they ran under the name of South Eastern Trains. It is on the record that South Eastern’s trains were more punctual and provided a better, more reliable service and that industrial relations were better than ever before. Along with my colleagues in the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, I campaigned hard, although unsuccessfully, to get Ministers to keep at least this rail operator in the public sector to provide a benchmark with which to compare private operators. We have seen some really dismal, sad stories from a lot of those private operators, large and small, over the years. As I said, it was well documented that the service improved under South Eastern, that punctuality got much better and that industrial relations were much better in that window of nationalisation. RMT and ASLEF fought hard to keep things that way, but it just was not to be.

This afternoon, we are debating the timetables and the standard of service under the current operator, Southeastern trains. From a constituency point of view, I am pleased to put on record how delighted Dover is to be connected to the high-speed train service to London. That did not happen by accident, and it could easily not have happened at all. Some Members will remember the fight and the campaign that we undertook to ensure that the train came all the way down to Dover. The experts told us that there were safety issues at Shakespeare cliff and that there were technical matters and obstacles.

For a long time, it looked as if the trains would terminate in Folkestone. I have nothing against Folkestone, and I should just mention that it is another east Kent constituency represented by a Welsh MP. However, one deficiency with the high-speed service is that the train stops twice in the little town of Folkestone, which has two stations less than a minute apart. If we took away one of those superfluous stops, we could easily cut the travel time from Dover to London to the magic one hour, rather than the present one hour and seven minutes; I just say that as an aside. Of course, if the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) were here, I would see him outside afterwards. As I said, however, I have nothing at all against Folkestone.

The campaign that we fought to get the trains into Dover has already had good results. Business people in the town say that even within weeks of the trains coming in, estate agents were reporting rising markets and more interest in commercial properties and general accommodation. We are therefore happy with the high-speed train as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough at present. That is why I have been pressing since the middle of last year for some high-speed trains to stop at Deal, which is an important part of my constituency. Its population is slightly bigger than Dover’s, and there is huge potential for growth in the number of travellers from the town, so it deserves to have some of the high-speed trains stop at Deal station.

The hon. Member for North Thanet made a number of complaints about the impact of High Speed 1 on domestic services. We have the high-speed train, but it impacts negatively on domestic services, and that is true at all our stations—I echo those complaints. It has a particularly bad impact on the town of Deal, where passengers have longer journey times and poor connections to Dover. Deal people, like quite a lot of others on that line, have none of the advantages of High Speed 1 and probably all or most of the disadvantages. However, I believe that that can be overcome.

Last year, I started to talk to Southeastern, Network Rail and Ministers, to press the case for Deal. I met Charles Horton; we have all met him, and he is an amiable fellow. The chief executive of Southeastern acknowledged, I suppose, that there were some deficiencies, and promised a review, but wanted the present timetables and systems to settle down and wanted to get some service experience from them. However, I particularly pressed Deal’s case. Since then I have discussed Deal with Lord Adonis.

We are going to be told later, I suspect, that there will be a review and that things might get better at some time. The point is that we raised the issues a year ago and no one listened, so I wonder why the hon. Gentleman thinks they will listen now.

I have some sympathy with that remark. My experience of the Department for Transport is that it takes an awful lot of shouting, booing and pushing to make anything happen. It is the Department’s inertia that may need to be addressed; I do not think that it is down to individuals.

I raised the issue of Deal and the high-speed rail deficiency, as I called it at the time, with Lord Adonis, who came to Dover with two colleagues to celebrate the high-speed train. He got off at Dover Priory a month or so ago. He wanted to ram home the advantages of regeneration—the boost that high-speed trains give to regenerating places such as Dover. We have very ambitious regeneration plans on the table.

I pay tribute to our local rail campaigning group, which is called Trains4Deal, and to the East Kent Mercury, for the work that they have done together to promote Deal’s interests. Trains4Deal has produced a detailed document, which made a well-argued business case for including Deal on the high-speed network and improving connection times. I shall not burden the House by going through all those issues, except to say that on Monday, further to our discussions and meetings, I met the Minister, along with a member of Trains4Deal, and we discussed the paper in detail.

It is right to complain when there are complaints to be made, and it is right to raise the question of the deficiencies of the service, but my group is more concerned with suggesting practical solutions that will give us the advantage of the high-speed trains without the present disadvantages for the domestic services. I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to our detailed document, when he has had time to look at it, and perhaps to another meeting and finding some practical solutions to the situation in Dover and Deal. It would be tragic if the tenor of this debate gave the impression that High Speed 1 is a waste of time, that High Speed 1 has brought no advantages to Dover or other parts of east Kent, and that High Speed 1 is not recoverable and cannot be made into a first-class service without affecting our domestic lines.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on securing the debate. In our part of the world he is regarded with great affection and respect, and on the evidence of this afternoon’s debate it is easy to see why.

My constituency is in effect two smaller constituencies—the Faversham end and the mid-Kent end—and is bisected by three railway lines. In the south there is the Headcorn line, which has recently had a considerable increase in the number of complaints. I went to see the Minister about the Maidstone to Ashford line, with my right hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). The issue in that case is the impact that the high-speed line has had on services. I have many constituents who live in Bearsted whose lives have been completely altered, to their detriment, as a result of losing services that got them home in time to pick up children from school, and the rest of it. In the north of the constituency is the north Kent line, which is the subject of this afternoon’s debate.

I should say at the outset that I am not one of those people who take a remorselessly negative view of rail services, and I always thought that it would take some time for the high-speed train line to settle down, when it arrived, and that we would need time to see the benefits or otherwise of the new service. However, just like my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, I have been staggered by the number of complaints that I have received, relating to all three lines but most noticeably the north Kent one. In nearly a decade as a Member of Parliament I have never received as many complaints about the railways as I have in the past six months. Those complaints are not only in the letters that I have received, which I have passed on to Southeastern; also, everywhere I go, I get buttonholed by constituents who want to complain about what is happening. For example, last Friday night I was at a goodbye party for a local solicitor who was retiring after 30 years, and in that half hour I was buttonholed by two people. One of them said he had taken the train from St. Pancras back at rush hour the previous week, and had been the only person in his carriage. Then, lo and behold, across the room 10 minutes later I received exactly the same complaint. This is serious. It is not just a disruption caused by a new service.

In essence there are three issues affecting the north Kent line, and they mirror many of those already raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet and the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser). The first and most important is the disruption that the new high-speed train has meant for what people in Faversham call the classic service—the existing service. The people concerned are those who moved to Faversham and bought houses, taking the decision to raise their family there, generally on the basis of the rail service. The lives of many of them have been completely disrupted by the arrival of the new services. They cannot get connections, they cannot get home in time, and there are not sufficient numbers of trains going to Victoria and Cannon Street now. For those people there has been an immediate impact.

A second, associated issue affects that category of people, concerning a little station called Selling, which is on a line between Faversham and Canterbury. Because of the knock-on effect of incorporating the new service, a considerable number of services have been lost to the station of Selling, and that has completely disrupted people’s lives there. Selling is the point to which people would come from many of the surrounding rural villages. Those people now drive to Faversham, clogging up the roads and causing extra congestion, and of course having to pay car parking fees. Selling, without doubt, is the place that has suffered most from the introduction of the new service.

The second main batch of complaints is about a bit of a Faversham-specific issue—the parking and berthing of the high-speed trains overnight. They are berthed in the sidings at Faversham, which are right next to a new-build housing complex. Because the fans turn on and off in the early hours of the morning, people report regularly having a disrupted night’s sleep. It was suggested over Christmas, when Swale borough council did some investigation, that the sort of noise disruption that people were suffering was considerably above the World Health Organisation recommended limit. I shall not take the Minister through the technicalities of that this afternoon, but it is apparent to me that it gives rise to a considerable issue. When the matter was first raised it was suggested that people who bought a house next to a railway line should expect a train to be parked on it overnight. There is an element of truth in that, unsympathetic though it is, but that should not be the expectation if the noise being generated is unreasonable. I am sure that everyone would agree on that.

The third point, which echoes one that my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet made earlier, is about the fare structure of High Speed 1. I had not heard the Passenger Focus figure about the 15 per cent. take-up, but apocryphally I had heard a number of constituents complaining about it. The problem with High Speed 1, which is already well documented, is that it takes existing residents into what they see as the wrong part of London—St. Pancras—when archetypally they want to get to the west end or the City. To make use of the service they must pay a much higher fare and an underground fare to get back to where they wanted to go in the first place. The justification, clearly, was that the service would open up connections going north to people who lived in east Kent, but having looked at the issue for a few months I suspect that the number of people who are benefiting is relatively small and the number who are suffering disruption to their existing trip is pretty extraordinary.

What do I want to be done about all of this? What do I want the Minister to say he will do? First, Southeastern has pointed out time and again—it is becoming a mantra—that the timetable is set by the Department. I ask the Minister if, indeed, he promises us a review this afternoon, to make sure that the timetable is rebalanced, so that it better reflects the demand of existing users.

Secondly, on the Faversham-specific issue, I would like some reassurance that the overnight parking problem will be looked at seriously. It is simply not acceptable in this day and age for someone who buys a new-build house next to a railway line to have their night’s sleep disrupted night after night, as two of the constituents who have written to me have claimed. They are nurses who work in the health service and have to go to work at the Kent and Canterbury hospital the next day, having had two or three hours’ sleep. I would like some reassurance from the Minister either that properly sound-proofed sheds will be introduced or that the trains will be parked further away.

In addition, for the good of the high-speed train service, I hope that the Minister will be able to promise us some sort of review of the fare structure. Clearly, the concept of pricing the high-speed service higher than the ordinary fare does not appear, on the evidence presented thus far, to be working.

In conclusion, I would like once again to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet on initiating the debate. Above all, I do not want the Minister to think that this is some sort of pre-election heist on him or that the issue is being driven by press releases. There is a very real problem here. I promise him that, in my nine years as a local MP, I have never come across such consistent anger over the rail services. I hope he will take the matter seriously and that he can promise us this afternoon that he will look into it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on securing this important debate. I shall start by giving a few more facts—we have heard lots of facts today—and picking up the subject of fares, which was where the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) finished. Fares are clearly very pertinent to the debate. We have heard what the additional cost of the fares on the high-speed line allegedly is—I heard the figure of £13 mentioned, although my information suggests it is £8 more.

Just to set the record straight, the figure is £13.50: about £4.50 each way plus £2.50 return on the tube. The fare is not just for the high-speed train.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I think he just confirmed that the fare increase is very substantial—we are talking £9 for the train alone.

Hon. Members might be interested to know that someone can travel 391 miles for £10 in Bulgaria. Indeed, I have—admittedly not recently—travelled on Bulgarian trains, and I can confirm that they do run and are spacious. For £10, someone can travel 200 miles in Poland, 131 miles in the Czech Republic and 61 miles in France. We then get to the UK, where someone can travel 23.8 miles at that price. I suspect that for someone travelling on a high-speed train, it is significantly less than 23.8 miles.

I once travelled some hundreds of miles on a Polish train during a Select Committee visit, when an aeroplane failed to take off. If someone wants the experience of a 1950s British Rail reconstruction, they might enjoy a journey at such a price, but if they want a modern high-speed train, surely the hon. Gentleman would concede that they will pay a little more.

I thank the Minister for his intervention, and I am happy to concede that. He has probably also travelled on trains in France, which are of a high standard. Yet someone can travel roughly three times the distance on French trains for the price we pay here for 23 miles. Let us not go to Poland; we simply need to look across the water and make some comparisons with the train services in France.

Before the hon. Gentleman rushes into making European comparisons, he should know that one of the features of British train services is their frequency, which one does not necessarily get on the same basis between similarly distanced stations in France.

We could probably trade statistics for the remainder of the time allotted today. However, I think that most people who have travelled on trains in France and in the UK would find that French trains compared favourably with those in the UK, whether UK trains are more frequent or not. The substantive issue, which, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) sought to raise with the Prime Minister today, is that we have built a guaranteed fare increase year after year into the system through the retail prices index plus 1 per cent. arrangement. Since 1997, the cost of travelling by train has risen by 13 per cent. and the cost of travelling by car has fallen by roughly a similar amount. So, there has been a 13 per cent. increase in the cost of travelling by train and a 14 per cent. decrease in the cost of travelling by car.

I am happy to continue to exchange statistics with the hon. Gentleman. For the same period, disposable incomes have increased by 25 per cent., so the real cost of rail travel has fallen.

I hope that the Minister agrees—I believe that this was certainly a priority at some point for the then Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott)—that we should encourage more people to use public transport. In fact, on a camping trip to Italy, I recall coming back from a day out to find that a fax had been slipped under the tent door asking me to comment on the fact that it was five years since the Deputy Prime Minister had pledged that, if more people were not travelling by public transport in five years’ time, he should be called to account. I had been tracked down to that campsite in Italy to comment on the fact that the target had clearly not been achieved. Yes, it is true that people’s incomes have increased, but it is also true that the price differential between trains and cars has grown significantly, which has put people off travelling by train.

A final statistic I shall mention relates to overcrowding. The industry standard for PIXCs—passengers in excess of capacity—is currently set at 3 per cent. or an acceptable level. That is now being exceeded, which leads to substantial overcrowding on some of the train services that have been mentioned today. That is certainly the case on the train services I use as a commuter, and many commuters in the London suburbs have to deal with daily overcrowding.

In the Prime Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, he referred to an announcement to be made tomorrow, which we presume will be about high-speed train services. The experience of High Speed 1 has set an unfortunate precedent. As the hon. Member for North Thanet and other speakers have made clear, if a consequence of high-speed trains is that it costs people more to travel to a destination that they do not actually want to get to, and that is how people perceive the impact of new high-speed train services, the support in my party—and I am sure in other parties—for extending those services, particularly so that they can compete with short-haul flights, is likely to evaporate. The Minister will have to deal with that issue when he responds. Notwithstanding his interventions, there will be significant time at the end of the debate for him to set out how he will address these matters.

As we know, the new timetable was introduced on 13 December. The promise then was that high speed would provide an extra 200 trains a day and that capacity would be boosted by 5 per cent. However, many commuters’ experience appears to have been the opposite of that. There are fewer options, longer travel times, more overcrowded services and people have to pay a substantial premium if they want to travel on the high-speed link to a destination that, as other hon. Members have said, many people do not want to get to.

Who is responsible for the issue? Other hon. Members have made it clear that, in the correspondence they have received, Southeastern does not accept responsibility for the new service and has clearly fingered the Government—the Department for Transport. If the Minister believes there was any flexibility for Southeastern to implement anything different from what it has been required to implement, I am sure he will make that clear when he responds. Forecasts were apparently carried out to determine which services could be reduced or cut entirely, so will the Minister tell us whether those forecasts were correct?

The fundamental point about what has happened to the service, and about what risks happening to other high-speed services, is that there is a lack of vision and commitment from the Government on ensuring that high-speed train services are properly rolled out and implemented up and down the country. We need to hear from the Government precisely how they will fund an expansion of the programme.

We believe that there is a case for setting up an infrastructure bank to raise funds for public transport schemes. We favour the idea of supporting local improvements, for which people often clamour, rather than the high-profile schemes. In a time of constrained budgets, we should look at the roads budget and take money from it to invest in small rail improvements, such as signalling changes at pinch points, which the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) mentioned. That can make a significant difference to local commuter services.

We must hear something from the Minister on his vision of how to address the matter. It is clear from other Members’ contributions that the concern is not a cheap trick being pushed a couple of weeks before the starting gun for the general election is fired. The matter has had a direct and significant impact on people, has worsened their quality of life and made their journey to and from work considerably more difficult. Therefore, we require a considered response from the Minister and clarity on how he will roll back some of the changes that have been made while maintaining the high-speed link, giving back to commuters the services they have lost after using them for many years, and ensuring that they have the required standard of service.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) was surely right when he said that our hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) is not only liked, but respected in his area. He put one of the most eloquent cases on behalf of constituents that I have had the pleasure to listen to in my short time as a Member. I, too, have been contacted about that issue by some of his constituents, as he will know, and by those of other Members in Kent served by that line, and about the concerns my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent raised about the other line.

Having listened to the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet, I do not think that anyone could be anything other than utterly impressed by its strength. He started by saying that there were 1,500 reasons why the line needs improving and, with all due respect to him, at one point I thought that he was going to go through them all. His stop-by-stop tour of the misery line, including the stop in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), was a powerful evocation of local people’s concerns. One of the key roles of MPs, which we should never underestimate, is our ability to bring those concerns to the forefront in the House and in other places.

My hon. Friend was also right to talk about what he considered to be the failures of consultation. In a letter he received on the consultation, the concerns of so many people about the introduction of the timetable were dismissed in a statement that simply acknowledged that some people would be disappointed. That might strike some as complacent, and others as extremely condescending. Indeed, it is a telling point that the managing director of Southeastern, Charles Horton, when my hon. Friend met him, was clear about where much of the blame was attached, and I want to address that point in a few moments. Clearly, Mr. Horton thought that the Minister’s response that people were well served by the services in 2009 was not necessarily right and that, had he had the opportunity to do so, he would not necessarily have put that into his franchise. The failure of the specified franchises is at the heart of the matter we are debating today.

My hon. Friend also quoted the Secretary of State, Lord Adonis, and was right that the message that the service is working successfully must cause a hollow laugh in his part of the country. Again, the operators are restricted from pursuing sensible timetabling and ending short trains. They must have the chance to look at exactly which stations might be better provided for at better times of the day. That is what needs to happen, rather than the huge over-specification of the timetable, which the Department for Transport has got itself into, as its franchising policy has failed and is failing. The move to longer franchises, which I recognise, will offer no reassurance unless it is accompanied by a move to less specified franchises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent identified three concerns and also referred to the Adjournment debate, secured by our right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), on 6 January on another train service in Kent. My hon. Friend was right to end his remarks by pointing out to the Minister that there is a genuine concern. It is not electioneering, but the genuine and honestly-felt concern of a huge number of people.

Like the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser), I am in little doubt that the new high-speed trains that run on High Speed 1 represent a great leap forward for our railways. This country has waited a long time for high speed to come into operation, and it is clearly an achievement that it now is in operation. The UK has 68 miles of high-speed services, compared with 3,480 miles on the continent. The Minister knows that an incoming Conservative Government would address that, but we will also ensure that any development of the high-speed network is integrated with the classic network, that the cost of travel is affordable and that it is not just a premium network, and that it sustains economic growth. I suspect that several Members will be looking to the test tomorrow—maybe—when the Secretary of State might talk about high-speed rail and the development of the network in the country as the Government see it.

The hon. Gentleman has just said that in the event of a Conservative Government he will ensure that high-speed rail is affordable. Would he explain to Members how he will do that?

Absolutely. I would be delighted to explain that to the hon. Gentleman. The economics are simple. If one does the detailed financial modelling, as we have done, but as I understand his party has not done, one can take the average fare available and set it as the average fare available for high-speed rail and therefore say that that is the fare one would introduce. That is exactly what we have done in detailed financial modelling, which has enabled me to make that claim.

The debate is not about the success or otherwise of high-speed rail, but about the failure of the Government’s franchising policy. I cannot help but agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet when he said that, while some of the people of Ashford and some parts of Kent might have gained as a result of the new services into St. Pancras, those in other parts are clearly losing out. The new timetable was drawn up to accommodate the high-speed services and has undoubtedly resulted in winners and losers. I am sure that the Minister will remember his comments in the Adjournment debate on 6 January, when he more or less dismissed the concerns of others. He stated that

“between 20 and 50 per cent. of the people…board and alight the trains at Ashford.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 79WH.]

He dismissed the concerns of the 50 to 80 per cent. of people who do not board or alight at Ashford.

The winners and losers aspect was freely admitted to me by Southeastern, as it was to my hon. Friend. When the timetable was in draft form last summer, I wrote to the management of Southeastern and was told:

“I’m afraid that no timetable will please every passenger.”

That may be true, but to disadvantage so many passengers clearly cannot be right.

It is clear that for those travelling to St. Pancras, the new high-speed services will greatly enhance the journey, but if one is accustomed to using the classic network, if one lives in other parts of Kent, or if one still needs to get to Cannon Street, Victoria or London Bridge, the new timetable, as my hon. Friends have pointed out so well, makes the commute worse. There are fewer trains on the classic lines in order to free up paths for the high-speed trains. What is more, fares across the whole network have risen to fund the cost of the high-speed link.

I am trying to understand how the hon. Gentleman justifies the assertion that fares across Kent have risen in order to support the high-speed link. I thought that it was generally understood by most people that the RPI plus 3 was to fund replacement of the slam-door stock, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) referred, with the new trains on the Southeastern franchise.

The Minister says that it was generally accepted. Would he like to confirm that no part of the fare increase of RPI plus 3 went in any way to subsidise the cost of the new trains and the new high-speed link?

We had better get this right for the record. It is not RPI plus 3 per cent. The Minister knows that and is being disingenuous. RPI plus 3 is an average for the whole of Kent. The increase on the Kent coast line has been way above RPI plus 3, as he knows.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am sure that the Minister will want to deal with my question in a moment.

The new timetable, which was designed to integrate the high-speed lines with the classic network, has clearly left several problems. We must not fall into the trap of assuming that nothing can be done, or that it is entirely Southeastern’s fault. When I wrote to the company last summer, it replied that

“the service pattern for the timetable was set by the Department for Transport.”

The main reason why Southeastern has been unable to respond to the needs of its customers is that its hands have been tied behind its back by the overly tight specifications of the franchise agreement, which was set out by the Department. I am delighted that the Government are accepting the need for longer franchises, but, as I said, longer franchises will not work unless they come with fewer specifications.

That begs a question that the Minister may wish to come back to in his remarks: are officials in the Department still writing timetables? Conservatives want to see an end to the absurd practice of civil servants setting detailed timetables across the network. That cannot and should not be right.

The Minister will remember that one of his many predecessors, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), told this Chamber, and confirmed it in a written response, that there were 16 civil servants in the Department writing detailed timetables. The clear message from today’s debate is that this is not a failure of high-speed rail but of the Government’s franchising process. I certainly believe that the Department’s role in franchising should be stripped back, and that the focus should be on overall policy decisions rather than what we see today, which is detailed intervention that so often leads to a diminution of the service for so many people.

Today’s debate presents us with a conundrum. We all want high-speed rail services, but we do not want them at the expense of classic services. The future success of the high-speed network in this country will depend on the ability to ensure that it does what it should do, which is to create extra capacity for many people.

This debate also touches on rolling stock, which so often causes constraints in providing the service that so many people require. I would be delighted if the Minister would address the questions about rolling stock that I have asked him in two previous debates, which he will remember. Indeed, when does he expect a more detailed rolling stock plan to be produced?

I look forward to the Minister’s response, and to his saying that he accepts that this is a real and genuine issue, and that the concerns raised by my hon. Friends the Members for North Thanet and for Faversham and Mid-Kent are not a closed book. I hope that he will tell us that operators need to be given greater freedom to react to the demands of their customers. I am convinced that, if he is prepared to accept that, the problems that my hon. Friends have so eloquently set out this afternoon can be addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Benton. It would be normal for me to congratulate the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) on securing this debate on rail services to and from the north Kent coast, and I recognise that his contribution was forceful. The contribution of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) was thoughtful, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser) was well focused, that of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was somewhat tangential, and that of the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) was, as usual, better informed than a contribution from the shadow Secretary of State for Transport would have been. If I am unable to deal with any of the issues that have been raised, I will ensure that I write to hon. Members.

I shall start by outlining some of the benefits that have been and will be derived from high-speed services in Kent. The introduction of such services has facilitated a number of journey time improvements across the network for existing users who wish to take advantage of them. In addition, high-speed services will create new markets for and in Kent, and will contribute to the regeneration of the area. That will be achieved, in part, by much greater connectivity between Kent and areas such as the docklands, the midlands and the north of England. The current timetable started on 13 December 2009. It represents the biggest change to train services in the area for more than 50 years. It offers integrated main line, metro and high-speed services across Kent, south-east London and East Sussex, and offers more choice to people who live or work in Kent or visit the area.

I do not want to disrupt the Minister too much early on but, in a sense, he has put his finger on the problem. He just said that the great advantage is the connectivity that the service offers people who live in east Kent, in Faversham or in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet. If one thinks that through, the problem is that anyone who works in the west end or the City and decides to move out of London—they get to that stage in life and often end up in the areas that two of us represent—does not want connectivity to St. Pancras. Only a tiny proportion of rail traffic goes from Faversham or North Thanet up to St. Pancras, then uses the connections to the north. What such people want is a good service that takes them from their place of work, which is typically in the west end or the City, back home at night and up again the next morning. To predicate all of this on connectivity to the north of London is to grab the wrong issue.

The hon. Gentleman has gone to the heart of the concern. Of course, if one focuses only on commuters, one will perhaps take only one set of solutions from the opportunities that arise from reviewing the timetable. I was a regular commuter from Northampton to Canterbury at one time, and my journey involved several train changes. People have described to me some of the journeys that they now make, and they take advantage of being able to change at St. Pancras. The point was made on a number of occasions about people transferring from St. Pancras to the City. That may not be the best journey choice for someone who has been travelling on the high-speed line; they have an opportunity to change at Stratford International, then take a seven-minute ride into the City, which may be a better choice.

The timetable was developed following extensive research and feedback from stakeholders and the public over several years. I remind the hon. Member for Wimbledon that, despite his protestations, timetables are not written by the Department. Specifications cover the number of station stops, the frequency of trains and the times of the first and last services. May I point out to him the processes that the east coast main line services are undergoing? The Office of the Rail Regulator has developed the outline, and industry interests and the Department have engaged in an iterative process in defining the final timetable. Saying that the Department writes the timetable is not strictly correct.

I am delighted to hear about the new iterative process. Is that a new process or was the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), mistaken in his view that the Department wrote timetables?

At the end of the day, when the Department lets a franchise, it lets a franchise associated with a timetable, so I suppose one could say that that gives it a certain degree of definition, but the process has always been as described. The hon. Gentleman made frequent reference to 16 people writing timetables. People may be engaged in writing timetables as part of their role, but to suggest that there are 16 people sitting around doing nothing but writing timetables is perhaps disingenuous.

As I was saying, consultations took place as far back as 2003 and 2004 to determine the minimum service level required to meet current and future demand in the region. The Strategic Rail Authority published the findings from that consultation in January 2005 in the integrated Kent franchise stakeholder briefing document. The document’s objectives require potential franchisees to develop and deliver a financially and operationally robust strategy; deliver a safe and reliable high-quality service for customers; deliver value-for-money services; support the development of the Government’s communities plan in the south-east to meet the transport needs of defined areas and deliver accurate information on services and future demand to enable the development of the franchise during its term and for the next refranchising of the integrated Kent franchise.

The franchise was awarded to Southeastern in 2006. Since then, Southeastern has undertaken further extensive consultation with local stakeholders as it has developed the detailed timetable required to meet the specification. Southeastern has also undertaken extensive market research on travel patterns and preferences across its network. That study looked at demand for services now and in the future. It is important to set out exactly what services are available for customers travelling along the Kent coast. The December 2009 timetable specifies services along the Kent coast to London Cannon Street, London Victoria, London Bridge and London St. Pancras stations, so services operate to four London terminal stations, whereas most other train operators serve only one or, if they are lucky, two London terminal stations.

As a result of the new timetable, there are fewer services to London Bridge and Cannon Street in the early morning and late evening, and fewer services to London Victoria during peak times. However, with the introduction of high-speed services, the overall number of trains is broadly the same as it was before the new timetable was introduced. That means that Southeastern customers along the Kent coast now enjoy unparalleled access to and from London and have a fantastic number of journey options.

The introduction of high-speed services has required a restructuring of the service patterns on the Southeastern network to account for introducing services to London St. Pancras. The changes are founded on the premise of developing a better timetable based on meeting customer demand and providing greater choice in stations served. For example, commuters can, if they wish, choose to travel to St. Pancras, which offers, as I suggested, excellent connections to many parts of London.

The Minister reading a prepared script quickly will not make any difference to the people we have been talking about for the past hour. They do not want to go to St. Pancras. A journey is from the point at which someone leaves home to the point at which they arrive where they want to be, whether that is back home or their place of work. If he adds the time that it takes to get from St. Pancras to virtually anywhere that anybody wants to be, he will find that it is a longer journey at more expense. He cannot gainsay that. I have the details from the Department with me. It is not improved choice; it is nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman has his views—others beg to differ.

It is important to recognise that introducing these services has significantly reduced journey times to several parts of Kent and, while the hon. Gentleman has made the argument that journey time-savings for his constituents are not significant, the Department feels that a typical high-speed journey time of 1 hour and 31 minutes from Margate to St. Pancras during the morning peak represents a significant time saving for travel to London. It represents an approximate time-saving of 15 to 25 minutes on main line services to London Cannon Street and London Victoria stations.

It is recognised that journeys on main line services along the Kent coast generally take longer than they did before the introduction of the new timetable. That is because they call at more stations, and that is based on the desire to improve choice for customers. In addition to stops at those new stations, all destinations scheduled before December continue to be served.

I heard the concerns of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent about Selling, which I will certainly take on board and consider, as well as his concerns about the stabling of class 395 trains at Faversham. Although I am sure that he is engaging with his local authority over his concerns about noise, I will commit to talking to Southeastern because the concerns are obviously real and immediate for his constituents.

I am aware that there has been a performance problem on the Southeastern network since the end of December 2009. That has been caused principally by the adverse weather conditions and unreliable infrastructure. Having said that, on a number of days, over 93 per cent. of trains arrived on time. It is important to state that poor performance on the Southeastern network since the introduction of the December 2009 timetable is not a result of the introduction of the high-speed service.

Since the introduction of the Southeastern franchise in April 2006, performance on the Southeastern network has improved markedly. At the end of rail industry period 9, from 15 November to 12 December 2009, Southeastern achieved a public performance measure moving annual average score of 91.1 per cent. That figure has dropped since the new timetable was introduced but, as has been mentioned, that is due to adverse weather conditions and infrastructure reliability problems. The level of investment that Southeastern has implemented since the commencement of its franchise in April 2006, with almost £700 million invested in new rolling stock and infrastructural improvements, reflects the general improvement in performance on the Southeastern network.

It has been suggested that there is little demand for high-speed services and the requirement to call at St. Pancras. It has also been claimed that the majority of people who use Kent coastal services wish to travel to London Cannon Street and London Victoria stations. Since the commencement of its franchise in April 2006, Southeastern has undertaken extensive market research into travel patterns and preferences across its network. That research indicated that St. Pancras was an attractive destination for people in Kent, and that the improved journey times resulting from the introduction of high-speed services across Kent would lead to a dramatically different demand for rail services in Kent. Southeastern’s research confirmed that the specification for the franchise was correct and that a number off-peak leisure markets could be developed as a result of the introduction of the high-speed service.

The standard forecast modelling tools used in the rail industry suggest that it generally takes some years for a new market to reach its full potential. The Department’s view is that it is far too early to judge the merits of the recently introduced high-speed services to St. Pancras. That is not meant to imply that the service is not being monitored rigorously, but it does mean that snap judgments will not be made about the success of the new services.

The argument has also been made that customers from the constituency of the hon. Member for North Thanet are not using the high-speed service. Information provided by Southeastern indicates that in the four-week period between 11 January 2010 and 6 February 2010, one in three journeys from his constituency took place on high-speed services, which represents a good take-up rate during the short period for which the service has been operating. In conclusion, the Department, train operators and other stakeholders have worked hard to deliver high-speed trains to Kent successfully. Inevitably, there have been changes to the timetable affecting other services, but it is early days to judge the final pattern of usage and satisfaction in Kent.