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Rail-Air Connectivity (South-East)

Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise the issue of improving rail-air connectivity for London and the south-east. As a successful trading nation, we rely on aviation, and our commerce relies on connectivity. In the brief time that I have, I want to concentrate on the importance of air-rail connectivity for the world’s busiest two-terminal, one-runway airport.

The Government’s economic strategy rightly wants to see improved links with emerging markets. UK businesses trade 20 times as much with countries where there are daily flights than with those with less frequent or no direct services. Ministers correctly want to boost growth through increasing inward investment and boosting exports. Improved international connectivity is therefore critical. Gatwick airport’s recent investment programme has made it a credible competitor to London Heathrow airport.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was quite correct when he recently said that, under new ownership, Gatwick is emerging as a business airport for London, competing with Heathrow. The airport has recently invested £1.2 billion in facilities. In April, it announced proposals to invest a further £1 billion from 2014 to 2019. All of the money is going into making Gatwick a better, not a bigger, airport. Today, Heathrow, the UK’s largest and major hub airport is effectively full. Whether further capacity should be provided is a debate for another day. However, Gatwick is not full. At times of peak demand, such as in August, there are constraints, but, averaged out over the year, Gatwick currently operates at approximately 78% of capacity. There is potential for a further 11 million passengers to use Gatwick every year—a 25% increase on today’s levels, and a new runway is not needed to accommodate such numbers.

If Gatwick has airport capacity that can be used, the question becomes how do we best utilise that. There is no doubt that Gatwick faces a competitive disadvantage in taking on Heathrow to deliver this connectivity. Gatwick is not a “hub” airport. In pure economic terms, “hub” airports are more attractive to airlines than point-to-point airports. Although, under current market and capacity conditions, Gatwick could not become a “hub”, it is competing, and it is serving routes that are traditionally the preserve of Heathrow. It is at best simplistic, and at worst fundamentally inaccurate, to suggest that because Heathrow is full, there is no alternative in terms of enhancing the UK’s international connectivity to emerging markets.

Surface transport links are key to airline choice and can encourage full use of existing capacity. At present, Gatwick is engaging directly with Governments and national carriers in emerging markets, and asking them what it will take for new routes to the UK to be established. They hear time and again that airlines want to come to London, and that their choice of airports rests on available capacity, suitable facilities and, crucially, the airports’ surface connectivity to London. If we want new international air links to the emerging markets, good rail access to the airports that can provide them is critical.

The UK national infrastructure plan rightly recognises the national role that London’s airports have in increasing economic output and in enabling business to access new and larger markets. Indeed the NIP has identified Gatwick’s current £1.2 billion capital investment programme as one of the country’s top 40 infrastructure projects. It also outlines that the Government will

“improve road and rail links to the UK’s international gateways to help maximise the efficiency and competitiveness of the whole transport network.”

A £53 million upgrade of Gatwick rail station is already under-way. It will deliver much-needed additional platform capacity, concourse improvements and local track and signal infrastructure.

The focus now is on the services that run in and out of Gatwick station. Gatwick is already the home of the busiest airport railway station in the UK with more than 10 million passengers every year, and proportionally more people travel by rail to and from the airport than any other major UK airport. There is already a substantial growth in forecast demand. Along with Gatwick’s substantive growth, the number of ordinary commuters who use the same rail links is forecast to grow by 29% by 2026. The Brighton main line, which is effectively Gatwick’s main rail artery, is near capacity, and peak services on the line were already at almost 80% back in 2009.

The new Thameslink project will help the airport. Already, it is quicker to get to the City of London from Gatwick than from Heathrow. The airport should see a doubling in train frequency from 2018 through Thameslink, and someone living in, for example, Peterborough or Cambridge will be able to go directly to Gatwick by rail for the first time. It is partly due to this Government’s decision to progress the Thameslink upgrade project that we will see clear improvements in north-south links to and from the airport. However, further improvements are necessary.

A consistent implication from Ministers has been that the welcome improvements that Thameslink will bring are sufficient to deliver the improved rail connectivity and capacity that Gatwick will need in future. In my view, a far more holistic approach to improvement needs to be taken and, in particular, one that takes into account just how central high-quality express services from Gatwick to London Victoria are to the airport’s growth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that many of his arguments relating to Gatwick also apply to airports such as Stansted, which have masses of spare capacity and many millions of unused passenger journeys, but which, like Gatwick, suffer from very poor transport links, and that, if they were improved, they would transform an unattractive airport into a very attractive one and a potential alternative business hub?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I apologise if my contribution seems a little parochial in its concentration on Gatwick, but the points relating to Gatwick are replicated for other airports, not just in London and the south-east, but around the country.

Over the past few years, Gatwick has lost direct links to Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Watford and Kent and, importantly, due to decisions taken by the previous Government, the Gatwick Express is now under threat. On-board ticketing has been discontinued, and 25-year-old carriages have replaced new ones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He has highlighted the important point that the rolling stock that is now used on the Gatwick Express is inadequate for airport passengers because there is insufficient luggage space, and wheelchair access is difficult. The irony is that that stock has replaced purpose-built stock, which has been cascaded elsewhere on the network. I urge my hon. Friend to impress on the Government that when we argue for the Gatwick Express to be a dedicated franchise or part of a broader franchise, there should be flexibility to have appropriate rolling stock to make it an attractive airport link.

My hon. Friend raises an erudite point. It is incredible that purpose-built rolling stock for the Gatwick express is now elsewhere on the network and that, as he rightly points out, unsuitable carriages are used. The matter is even worse because the Gatwick Express starts many of its journeys in Brighton, and by the time those carriages have reached Gatwick station, particularly at peak times, they are already full, and arriving air passengers cannot get a seat on what is supposed to be a dedicated service to London. Additionally, Network Rail is proposing a further stop for the Gatwick Express at Clapham Junction, which would be a retrograde step. It would threaten Gatwick's ability to compete with Heathrow, and because of that, reduce its potential for growth.

Passengers are noticing the trend. Already, the Gatwick Express ranks below its equivalents at Heathrow and Stansted, and is at the bottom of comparative league tables for other services, behind airports such as Heathrow, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Stockholm. Gatwick is not effectively connected to locations to the east and west of the airport either, with no direct rail service to and from Kent. Trains have to go via London, meaning that the 2 million passengers from Kent who use the airport every year cannot reach it directly.

The new Southern-Thameslink franchise must deliver improvements to the Gatwick Express. In December 2009, the Government announced that they were inviting tenders for new franchises for the south-east region from 2015. The new service will integrate those currently operated by First Capital Connect and Southern, including the Gatwick Express. From 2015, nearly all rail links in and out of Gatwick will be operated by one company, with the exception of a direct link to Reading. We currently have the unique opportunity to address many of the issues.

Preserving the Gatwick Express is a priority. It should be recreated as an all-day, dedicated service between Gatwick and London, to support Gatwick’s role as a key economic driver for London, the south-east and the UK economy as a whole. To guarantee its success, bidders for the franchise should be required to outline a vision of how both the quality of the journey and the range of direct routes to and from Gatwick can be improved. In addition to the invitation to tender for the new franchise including direct express rail services to London from the airport, there must also be a clear requirement for fit-for-purpose rolling stock that caters for the needs of air passengers—so ably pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart)—as it is clear from Gatwick’s research that the current stock is not. Gatwick is particularly concerned about the installation of ticket gates at the airport railway station and the removal of on-board ticketing adversely affecting passenger experiences.

In the long term, the requirements in the recent rail Command Paper need to be implemented. The paper states that during the next regulatory cycle Network Rail and the broader rail industry should look at how best to improve surface access to major airports. Network Rail should, as part of its development of the south-east’s rail network, take advantage of the new capacity that the Thameslink programme will provide from 2018, to reorganise the way in which lines running though Gatwick are used. Gatwick’s plans for long-term infrastructure improvements deliver a win-win solution for commuters and air passengers alike. The line that supports Gatwick’s direct rail links into London is important for both air passengers and local commuters, and the airport is not suggesting that the needs of the airport outweigh those of the everyday user.

I note that the Office of Rail Regulation has projected that, independently of air travel, passenger numbers on the main line running in and out of Gatwick could grow by 29% by 2026. The office believes that Gatwick airport’s technical proposal would allow for the needs of both sets of users. This is not an either/or choice for the Government, but a solution for all.

The plans that Gatwick has published support the growth of the airport and help to ensure a better experience for the ordinary commuter using the same rail links. They provide adequate capacity for the projected growth of both sets of users, and help to deliver the connectivity that the national economy needs. In essence, they meet the needs of most user groups, and the interests that Ministers should consider.

There would be substantial benefit to the Treasury, too, because air-rail users pay a premium. Gatwick Express users reduce Government subsidies by £27 million every year, lessening the burden on the taxpayer. More users would mean less taxpayer money being spent on the network, and keeping the service as a non-stop one would allow a further £6 million to be saved by reducing journey times.

Direct rail links to Gatwick would help to improve the environment for inward investment in the south-east, because 51% of potential investors cite international transport links as an important factor in deciding where to locate. Easy rail access to airports means better links to key export markets. In the short term, Gatwick’s proposals would greatly assist the airport in marketing itself internationally to airlines operating from emerging markets, because a high-quality, dedicated rail link is key in their decision-making process. In that way, improved rail links would help efforts better to manage the capacity shortages that airports in the south-east face, and which have the potential to hamper our economy.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) on securing a debate on such an important and interesting topic. He is a great advocate for his constituents, and I welcome his expertise in and understanding of aviation issues, which I am sure are of great importance to many of his constituents who work at Gatwick airport.

I fully appreciate all the points that my hon. Friend made about the importance of high-quality rail services to airports, and particularly to Gatwick, which is one of our biggest and most successful airports. I echo his praise of and congratulations to Gatwick on its investment programme, and I welcome the new services that it is attracting, including Air China’s new service from Gatwick to Beijing. Gatwick well deserved the praise that it received from the Prime Minister, to which my hon. Friend referred.

It is entirely correct to say that the debate about aviation connectivity in this country is not just about Heathrow. Heathrow is an extremely important airport, but we should not forget that London’s five successful airports together make us one of the best connected countries in the world, and Gatwick plays a very important role in that system.

High-quality surface access to our key airports is important for air passengers and for our international economic competitiveness, as my hon. Friend rightly highlighted. In addition, improving rail services to airports can provide important assistance in addressing local road congestion problems and, in certain places, in dealing with air quality problems. As he said, one of the Government’s strategic priorities for the nation’s rail network is improving rail links to major ports and airports.

A significant programme of rail infrastructure improvements is under way, and a number of the projects will benefit airports. If time permits, I shall deal with those later, but first it would be best for me to address some my hon. Friend’s points that were specific to Gatwick.

We have recently started consulting on the new combined Southern, Thameslink and Great Northern franchise. All the responses to that consultation will be shared with the five shortlisted bidders that will compete to become the next operator. The consultation is an important part of the decision-making process on what goes into the new franchise. This debate is therefore very timely, and I encourage my hon. Friend and his constituents to take part in the consultation.

The task that the bidders for the new franchise face in balancing the competing priorities of those who use the Brighton main line, which serves Gatwick, will not be easy—there is no getting away from that fact. Along with much of the nation’s rail network, the line is a tribute to the engineering excellence of our Victorian forebears. Driving tunnels through the downs and building a nine-track viaduct over the River Thames are the sort of engineering projects that we take for granted today, but they were a massive challenge when they were built more than 150 years ago, largely using only manual labour and sheer hard graft.

Brilliant as those Victorian engineers were, however, they bequeathed us a railway that had only 19 platforms at Victoria, and only five tracks south of East Croydon. Since Victorian times, commuting demand has increased dramatically. In a typical weekday morning, the Gatwick Express carries more than 2,000 passengers from Gatwick airport into London, but there are more than 35,000 Brighton mainline commuters, and approximately the same number again commuting into London on Southern’s services from the inner suburbs. Expanding our inherited railway network is neither low-cost nor easy, especially where it runs through our crowded cities, so we will expect the bidders to think hard about how they can make best use of the track capacity available to them in such a way that they can continue to provide a high-quality service to those travelling to and from Gatwick, without compromising their ability to meet the needs of the thousands of commuters who also use the line every year.

Against that background, there is certainly some pressure for more trains to call at Clapham Junction, which is one of the busiest stations on the route and arguably one of the busiest in the world. My hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that although that proposal was included by Network Rail in its south-east route utilisation strategy, that is not binding on the Government. No final decision has been made on it. When we make our decisions on the new franchise, we shall carefully weigh the needs of airport passengers and commuters, as well as taking into account wider strategic economic considerations of the sort to which my hon. Friend referred. This debate is useful for feeding into that decision-making process.

My hon. Friend has concerns about rolling stock. The Government are keen for such decisions to be made, when possible, by the people who run the railways rather than Whitehall. However, I agree that when making choices about rolling stock and its internal layout, the current and future franchisees will need to balance carefully the different needs and wants of railway users.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley also referred to decisions about on-train ticketing and the installation of ticket gates at Gatwick. I am aware of the concerns of the airport operator and I have held discussions with Gatwick on several occasions. However, the installation of gates is one of most effective ways to ensure that passengers pay the fares that are due. Protecting that revenue is an important element of delivering a more financially sustainable railway. I note that efforts were made to try to respond to the airport’s concerns, with a choice of wider gates to facilitate passengers with larger bags. I hope that that provides some mitigation to the concerns that my hon. Friend and the airport operator expressed.

I want to discuss the wider programme of activity that is under way to improve rail-to-air links in the south-east and elsewhere. A fleet of brand new trains built by Bombardier in Derby is now in use on the Stansted Express to improve the experience for passengers going to that airport. Network Rail, with the assistance and support of Gatwick Airport Ltd, is investing £53 million in upgrading the station, tracks and signalling at the airport, which includes new platforms and escalators, and a refurbished concourse. That will greatly improve the attractiveness of rail services to and from Gatwick, and I was delighted when the airport and Network Rail put together the funding to make it possible.

Through the regional growth fund, we have awarded £19.5 million to Luton borough council for junction enhancements that will improve access from the M1 to Luton. The RGF has also awarded £40 million to Kent county council for its Expansion East Kent programme, which includes rail improvements affecting journey times between Ashford and Ramsgate that could support the further development of Manston airport as a passenger airport. In the north of England, Manchester airport is getting linked up to Metrolink for the first time, and funding has been secured for a new airport link road connecting the M56 and the A6. Looking ahead, Manchester airport is also set to benefit from our programme of rail electrification in the north of England and from the work on elements of the northern hub that we are committed to delivering.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley rightly pointed out, the Thameslink programme, which took some years to get started under the previous Government—they started out calling it Thameslink 2000, but for some reason dropped that title as delivery got later and later—is very much under way. It is a £6 billion programme that will benefit Gatwick and Luton airports through the operation of a brand new fleet of high-capacity trains running at greatly increased frequency. The trains serving the two airports will be able to stop at London Bridge at peak times, which is not possible at the moment. The Thameslink programme also means that, for the first time, Gatwick will get new direct services to destinations north of London, such as Cambridge, Stevenage and Welwyn.

Crossrail is finally under way, with tunnelling under London commencing at the beginning of May. Once it is completed, we expect Crossrail to provide new services linking Heathrow directly with the west end, the City of London and Canary Wharf. In the longer term, Heathrow will also benefit from the Piccadilly line upgrade, and High Speed 2 will connect to Birmingham airport and provide radically improved access to Heathrow from destinations in the midlands and the north of England. A great deal of work is under way to improve our links between rail and air in the south-east and elsewhere in the country. We shall be giving further thought to whether more can be done as part of our HLOS—high-level output specification—programme for the 2014-to-2019 railway control period.

Let me respond to the hon. Friend’s comments in the context of the overall debate about aviation. The coalition has been clear that it wants a successful and sustainable aviation sector that supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts. Our forthcoming consultation on a sustainable framework for UK aviation will be a further opportunity to consider surface access to airports and the kind of issues that my hon. Friend shared with the Chamber. For example, in response to the scoping document on aviation with which we began the policy development process last year, a number of people advocated the potential of new fast rail links between Heathrow and Gatwick as a way to deal with connectivity. Such ideas will be considered alongside the many other responses that I am sure we will receive in our consultation, in which I hope that hon. Members will participate.

The Government will continue to work with airport operators, the rail industry, local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and MPs on ideas to improve rail access to our key airports in the years to come. All the matters mentioned by my hon. Friend will be carefully taken into account when decisions are made on new franchises for the railways—we are about to embark on the biggest programme of refranchising since privatisation—and we will ensure that we consider the importance of good surface access to our key airports.

Will the Minister reconfirm that it is her view, and that of the Government, that the Government’s first priority is to find ways of making better use of existing capacity? Will she confirm that any thoughts of expansion in the south-east take a very clear second place, and that people will not be subjected to the horror of expansion unless it is an absolute last resort?

I agree that whatever decisions are taken about long-term capacity needs in the south-east, it is essential that we do everything that we can right now to make our airports better and to ensure that we make the best use of existing capacity. Two separate things need to be done: to work out how we improve our airports today—we have initiatives on that important aspect under way, such as the operational freedoms trial at Heathrow and reforming how security is delivered—and, at the same time, to give serious, evidence-based consideration to what our future capacity needs might be.

On rail-to-air connectivity, we must be mindful of affordability constraints and value for money. When appropriate, we continue to look to the airports that will benefit from transport improvements to make a fair contribution to their funding. When there are decisions on how limited capacity is allocated between competing priorities, we will need to consider carefully the needs of all railway users—those who are travelling to the airport and those who are not, including commuters and freight operators. We need a successful and sustainable aviation sector that is supported by a railway that delivers reliable, high-quality services for all its users. That is what the Government are striving to achieve, and I am sure that our discussion today will provide useful input into forthcoming decisions on aviation and rail matters.