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Luton Railway Station

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for having selected this debate about the development of Luton station. I realise that when compared with the current economic problems it might seem a rather parochial matter, but for the people who live and work in Luton it is important. I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. I had hoped that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) would have been here, as he has significant constituency interests in the development of Luton station. We have worked cordially together on these matters before.

Luton station is to be found in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran). However, my hon. Friend and others will be aware of why I have raised the matter. I have travelled daily from Luton station for the past 41 years, and many hundreds if not thousands of my constituents do the same, so the problem has a significant constituency interest for me as well.

As the House will know, we in the home counties all face growth pressures; some are welcome, and some are not. When we agree with the policy directions being taken, we press for action to address our local difficulties—or, more urgently, to improve barely tolerated situations. That is what I seek to do today.

There has been positive and continuing progress on transport investments in the area, thanks to intervention by Ministers and the Government office for the east of England. Recently, there has also been high-level support from Network Rail. However, we face a crucial series of separate funding decisions. Although approvals are welcome, each time we are left to identify the remaining gaps and to decide what further decisions are needed to assure a strategic future for Luton. The town that I represent is an integral part of the wider east of England regeneration and growth agenda. I look for the continued support of Ministers and Departments to assist in the strategic delivery of those priorities.

Luton Gateway is part of the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area. It includes Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis and the surrounding area. The gateway is a collaborative organisation, combining the interests of Luton borough council and the new Central Bedfordshire council. In recent decades, the area has faced huge economic pressures, resulting from the run-down of car and van manufacturing. Indeed, it is a priority regeneration area.

The total urban population was estimated at more than 236,000 in 200l. It continues to grow. To achieve a more balanced local economic position, we have a target of creating 35,000 additional jobs by 2031. We foresee there being a further 41,700 households in the same period. There are major implications for housing requirements, including another 7,000 so-called affordable homes, and for inward jobs investment and transport infrastructure.

The current downturn has increased local economic pressures, so it is even more important to achieve fundamental changes in the transport offer. In that way, congestion on the roads and railways could be reduced, and Luton Gateway could become a major point of inward investment that is easy to reach and attractive and easy to travel around. Those who know the Luton area well will understand that it is a significant task.

I wish to focus on the quality of access to central Luton. At its heart is Luton station. To put it at its simplest, the station, which adjoins the town centre, is not something that I am proud to show to visitors—nor, indeed, to people from Luton. It has been assessed as one of the worst stations in Britain, measured by equivalent passenger numbers. It is drab, dreary and depressing.

The station approaches are essentially unchanged since investment in the 1930s by the London Midland and Scottish railway. The station was badly designed and is difficult to reach by foot, bus or car, yet 3.5 million passengers entered and left it in 2007-08, making it busier than Norwich or Bedford. It is the 10th busiest station in the east of England.

Rebuilding Luton station is clearly a project that needs to happen now. We were pleased to welcome the Secretary of State for Transport to see its dismal night-time reality at the end of his marathon journey around England on 17 November last year. The “Better Rail Stations” report prioritises immediate works at Luton station. We in Luton are also excited by the long-term vision of that report, with its potential of becoming a super-hub integrated with the town centre, the busway and the airport—a true gateway for a regional growth centre.

Several project elements are already under way, to which Luton borough council has contributed more than £2 million. That contribution is helping to accelerate design and project progress by Network Rail—first, on a new station footbridge, which is critical to achieving direct access between the high town community and central Luton and to provide disability-compliant access; and, secondly, an engineering assessment of the Luton station slab, which is critical to the comprehensive station redesign. In addition, the council has secured funding for the £20 million multi-storey car park, which will replace the current surface parking; it is due to open in August this year.

Work has already begun on an adjoining Luton station quarter development. There is strong local enthusiasm for including an improved station and transport interchange into that plan. The announcement by the Minister of State for Transport on 10 March this year to authorise the construction of the Luton to Dunstable busway and to fund £80 million of the work was widely welcomed.

The busway will be the spine public transport for the gateway urban area. It will increase public transport’s capacity and capabilities, as part of a balanced transport investment programme to support the regeneration and growth agendas. The remaining £9 million is being provided by Luton borough council and private investors. The busway is due to open in 2012. It will make Luton station the primary interchange hub for most of Luton, and for Dunstable and Houghton Regis in central Bedfordshire.

Completion of the comprehensive station redesign and reconstruction is now the critical task. Progress on the immediate scheme awaits the release of funding by the Department for Transport and project approval by Network Rail. The immediately available funding offered by Network Rail is £5 million of the £50 million award that was announced by Lord Adonis. That leaves a £3 million shortfall. Luton borough council is already funding more than £7 million of the total works for the hub, including its contribution to the busway. The council will seek to identify other sources of funding, but it cannot be guaranteed. However, early funding completion is required.

With the growth prospects for the gateway and the additional accessibility that will be achieved by a new high-quality hub station, I believe that the project deserves regional and central funds, and that it should be included in Network Rail’s regulated asset base. I recommend that rather modest project to the House and to my hon. Friend the Minister. I look to the Minister to say what discussions there have been within his Department and with colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, taking account of the infrastructure funding priorities that I highlighted earlier.

My final observations are about access between the motorway network and the hub, which will provide an interchange to the east midlands InterCity railway. We still have a problem, as the east of England Minister knows well, with the need to rebuild junction 1OA on the Ml. That is acting as a blockage to the economy of Luton. The problems are compounded by the Highways Agency providing a free-flow slip from the Ml on to the Ml spur as part of the motorway widening scheme between junctions 6A and 10. We now have traffic queues every morning peak from the Ml.

The Government policy document “Delivering a Sustainable Transport System” was published in spring 2009. It defines the route between the Ml and Luton airport as a “strategic national corridor”. The improvement of a junction in that location would meet the three key criteria set out in the Eddington study on transport’s contribution to economic growth and productivity. They focus on main urban areas, inter-urban journeys, and access from the urban areas to international gateways.

In light of the Eddington study, it is unfortunate that the £22 million scheme to improve junction 10A is not yet agreed as a high priority in the regional funding programme. From a business point of view, the congestion directly reduces efficiency and profitability. It adversely affects the ability to regenerate and develop sites in Luton and their value, which might be a source of funding for the public transport investments needed at Luton station and its sister station, Luton Airport Parkway.

I emphasise again that Luton Gateway is a growing urban region that makes a major contribution to Government-directed targets. In turn, we welcome recent positive decisions that reaffirm the importance of Luton as a transport hub. We look to the Department for Transport to work jointly with the Department for Communities and Local Government and east of England Ministers, and with local and regional interests, to help complete the investment authorisations for those strategic regeneration and growth objectives.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this debate, on what is clearly an important issue for his constituents as well as for others travelling to and from Luton station. I have carefully listened to his points.

Stations should be attractive gateways to the railway system, incorporating modern and user-friendly interchanges between different forms of transport, and they should be important gateways to our towns and cities, providing that important first impression for visitors. Unfortunately, too many stations fall short of such objectives, and there is little doubt that Luton station fails to match up in those respects. That view was confirmed by the station champions whom the Secretary of State appointed last year to look at ways to improve stations. They identified Luton as one of the 10 major interchange stations in most need of improvement.

The good news is that we have accepted the station champions’ diagnosis and have already agreed to Network Rail making an additional £50 million available to tackle the problems at the 10 priority stations. Such funding, together with local and private sector contributions, should enable an early start to be made on the 10 key stations highlighted in the report, with other stations to follow as part of future investment and refranchising decisions.

Luton station has a long history, and has gradually grown to deal with increasing demand. It was built in 1868 on the midland main line and originally consisted of three platforms. Modernisation in 1937 saw an additional platform added, and a further platform was added in 1960 for suburban services to and from St. Pancras.

The station adjoins the town centre and is the 10th busiest station in the east of England. Some 3.5 million passengers entered and left the station in 2007-08. However, the station is difficult to reach by foot, bus or car, and the station approaches are essentially unchanged since investment in the 1930s.

Although Luton station is owned by Network Rail, it is operated by First Capital Connect, which is the station facility owner. Both First Capital Connect and East Midlands Trains operate services from the station, with the former currently operating 27 services to London in the morning peak and 29 services arriving back from London in the evening. Around two thirds of those trains operate fast to and from London. From December 2011, 12-carriage services will be introduced, thereby increasing capacity and reducing overcrowding.

A number of projects have been developed in recent years to improve the station and the linkages between the station, the town centre and the local transport system. Improvements over the past few years have included refurbished waiting rooms and toilets, additional and upgraded ticket machines, new and enhanced customer information system screens and cycle parking improvements. The old car park has been demolished and Network Rail is constructing a new multi-storey car park that will connect the existing footbridge and station. As my hon. Friend says, more needs to be done. It looks as if the station champions’ report will be the catalyst for ensuring that even more fundamental improvements are made at the station in future.

Following publication of the “Better Rail Stations” report last November, my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I arranged a special meeting on 20 January to discuss the report with the managing directors of the train operating companies and the leaders of the local authorities of the areas of the 10 priority stations. Senior figures from First Capital Connect and Luton borough council attended the meeting and heard Network Rail explain to the Secretary of State that it should be possible in the next few months to announce an improvement plan for Luton station involving a contribution from the £50 million fund coupled with significant contributions from other sources.

Luton borough council, Network Rail and First Capital Connect have been working hard together to develop a £20 million project to transform Luton station so that the town finally gets the station that it deserves. I understand that Network Rail is hoping to make an announcement soon about a plan that pulls together a range of projects and funding initiatives, including a contribution from the £50 million fund. I understand that, at the moment, there is a small funding gap. However, as the economy recovers, I hope that it will be possible to find further funding from the private sector to fund that gap, in recognition of the role that the improved station will play in the revitalisation of the whole surrounding area, and indeed in the economy of Luton as a whole.

The station redevelopment project is designed to deliver an enhanced station environment through a combination of sensitive refurbishment of the existing building and the construction of new features. The scheme will enlarge the station, providing a new entrance and frontage, an integrated footbridge, a new booking hall and improved retail provision. I recognise that this is a scheme of major importance to Luton. It is just one of a number of improvements to public transport in the area.

Work has already started—as part of the Thameslink programme—to extend the platforms at Luton station to accommodate the longer 12-carriage trains that will be introduced from December 2011. The work entails replacing the bridge deck to the north of the station, remodelling the track layout with the associated signalling and power equipment, and constructing the platform extensions. The Thameslink work at the station is progressing well with a scheduled completion date of October 2010. While much of the platform extension works can be carried out without disruption to passengers, Network Rail can only proceed with some of the work, such as bridge replacement, track realignment and changes to the signalling equipment, when trains are not running. However, I am assured that such work is kept to a minimum to ensure that the impact on passengers is as low as possible.

Some £2 million of funding from the Department’s access for all programme has already been allocated to a project to provide an accessible route to and from the platforms, including brand new lifts, which can also form part of the larger redevelopment of the station. Luton station has already benefited from a number of smaller-scale improvements, which were financed by the access for all small schemes fund, including an accessible ticket office window and new signage. A bid for funding in 2010-11 to improve access via the footbridge is currently being considered and an announcement on that is expected shortly.

The station redevelopment project is part of Luton borough council’s development framework for the town centre, which aims to make Luton a vibrant and attractive location. Regeneration of the area surrounding the station will be a crucial component in the delivery of the council’s aspirations for Luton town centre, which include improving the appearance of the public realm and enhancing accessibility to public transport.

I welcome the support given by my hon. Friend to the announcement made on 10 March by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who was here a moment ago. It confirmed the Government’s full and final approval to a funding contribution of £80 million towards the cost of the Luton-Dunstable busway scheme. The scheme will serve Luton station when it is completed in 2012, and will provide travellers in Luton, Dunstable and Houghton Regis with a fast, frequent and reliable alternative to travelling by car. It will significantly improve transport connections in the area and help to tackle congestion in the town centres. It will also support the emerging growth in housing and employment planned for the area.

With respect to my hon. Friend’s point about the need to rebuild junction 10A on the M1, it is for the region to decide the priority of such a scheme within its regional funding allocation. I therefore recommend that he approach the east of England region to discuss this issue further.

I should like to set the developments at Luton station in context as part of the £3 billion programme of improvements to stations across the country over the next five years. As mentioned earlier, we warmly welcomed the “Better Rail Stations” report from the station champions, which was published last November. We were very grateful to Chris Green and Sir Peter Hall for the energy and enthusiasm with which they tackled their remit. It was not without its challenges. There are more than 2,500 stations, which service 2.6 billion passengers a year. Most stations are at least 100 years old and, of those, 15 per cent. are listed. The report comprehensively addresses the many important issues about the current state of our stations and offers a strategic blueprint for stations of the future.

A core part of the station champions’ report was its recommendation for a set of minimum station standards based around the areas of access, information, facilities and environment. For example, improved access would include better cycle and car parking facilities, improved directional signage and convenient interchange with other modes of transport. The recommendation is central to achieving many of the aspirations in the report and ensuring greater consistency in station standards across the network. It is important that passengers know what to expect from their stations, and are satisfied with the facilities available to them. I am delighted that Luton is set to be one of the first beneficiaries of the proposals in the report.

Another important part of the report concerns the need to make it easier for people to get to stations and catch a train. That is an issue to which the Government attach great significance. There are economic and environmental benefits in encouraging more people to travel by train, but they will do so only if they can access a station easily. The new multi-storey car park that is being built at Luton station should help to improve access and should make it easier for people to use the train.

We share the station champions’ aspiration to achieve a step change in the proportion of rail passengers arriving at a station by bicycle; I do not know whether my hon. Friend has ever cycled to the station in his 40 years in Luton. In September 2009, we announced a new £14 million programme to extend and improve cycle storage provision at stations. Network Rail is currently drawing up plans to increase the number of cycle parking spaces across the network and it will consider Luton’s needs as part of that process.

The “Better Rail Stations” report also identified significant scope for additional retailing at stations. We welcome such additional retailing, as it benefits passengers and it can provide extra revenue for the railway. It also opens up the prospect of innovative solutions, such as the combined shop and ticket facility that has been introduced by Merseyrail. That facility gives travellers the opportunity to buy their rail ticket and refreshments or a newspaper in a single transaction, and it has been a significant contributor to improved customer satisfaction and improved security. The proposed new frontage at Luton station could provide opportunities for new and improved retail facilities at the station.

More generally, the Government are committed to improving existing stations through a number of initiatives. The national stations improvement programme is a five-year initiative worth £150 million, which will modernise approximately 150 medium-sized stations in England and Wales between 2009 and 2014. NSIP has already funded projects to improve seating and signage at a number of stations operated by First Capital Connect. There are currently 275 schemes identified for NSIP funding, 152 of which have been confirmed in the programme.

The access for all programme is a 10-year programme worth £370 million to improve access at stations in England, Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2015. There are 148 stations in the programme, including major stations such as Clapham Junction—access work at which is due for completion in the spring of 2011—as well as Luton. More than 1,000 stations, again including Luton, are benefitting from the access for all small schemes fund, which allows train operators, local authorities and other third parties to bid for about £6 million of match funding a year to provide smaller-scale improvement schemes.

About 1,000 stations are currently accredited under the secure stations scheme, including Luton station and Luton Airport Parkway station, and more than 90 per cent. of all overground rail journeys currently involve passengers starting or finishing their journey at such a secure station. There is also a five-year platform lengthening programme of work across the network from 2009 to 2014 to accommodate longer trains. As I have already mentioned, Luton is part of that programme.

Furthermore, there are a number of major station developments and many of them will benefit passengers from Luton, including the development at King’s Cross station, which is being upgraded with a new concourse. There are also major improvements at Blackfriars, Farringdon and London Bridge stations, which are all part of the Thameslink programme. There are also plans to upgrade Waterloo station.

In conclusion, I hope that my hon. Friend has been reassured that, as part of the Government’s major investment in stations, work is progressing on a plan to improve Luton station, so that the town finally gets the station that it deserves. Such a station can play a key role in revitalising Luton town centre in the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.