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Crossrail Extension to Ebbsfleet

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 10 May 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Paul Maynard.)

I am pleased to have secured this debate and to have the opportunity to argue that the Government should prioritise the extension of the Crossrail line—now known as the Elizabeth line out of respect to Her Majesty—to Ebbsfleet in my constituency. That route was the original plan for Crossrail, so in effect I am asking for the job to be finished and for the line to be completed in accordance with that original plan.

Crossrail is a marvellous piece of engineering that stretches from Heathrow to Abbey Wood and connects London from west to east and vice versa. Ebbsfleet plays host to another wonderful technological achievement in High Speed 1, which connects London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam in a short period. It is the fastest rail service in the UK, and it is key to us pursuing the Government’s aim of a deep and special relationship with the European Union after Brexit. It is therefore absurd that those two great engineering achievements are separated by 10 miles—a gap that could be closed if we were to connect the two lines as previously envisaged. The two lines nearly merge further down the line at Stratford, but to travel on Crossrail and connect to High Speed 1, a passenger has to get off one train and walk a fair distance through a shopping centre to catch the second train. We all believe in connectivity in our transport network, but that example highlights the complete opposite.

High Speed 1 at Ebbsfleet, where the new garden city is being built, is currently denied a direct connection with Crossrail. That needs to change not just for the benefit of future generations, but for reasons of basic common sense. After Crossrail is completed, every county surrounding the capital will directly benefit from that project, with one exception—Kent. Despite not having any underground stations, we were chosen to be the county to miss out, and that simply cannot be right.

There is huge potential for economic growth east of London and for brownfield sites to be utilised, but the lack of connectivity holds back existing opportunities. There is also a clear demand for more capacity on rail services in north Kent. The number of people using Dartford station has risen by a third in the last 10 years, and the numbers using Ebbsfleet have more than doubled in the time that High Speed 1 has been operational.

The Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission is due to provide the Government with its recommendations for growth in the area—I believe that will take place at the end of this month—and I hope that, even at this late stage, it will include the points raised in this debate in its submissions. I pay tribute to the work the commission is undertaking to assist in this area. I also pay tribute to the tireless work of Dartford Borough Council, Bexley Borough Council and Kent County Council. Hon. Members across the House have worked with those authorities, in a cross-party way, to try to ensure that we get Crossrail extended out to Ebbsfleet.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, for giving way. Bexley Borough Council, which he knows very well, has a growth strategy for the north of the borough, where the Crossrail extension would come through. The extension is absolutely integral to the pace and change of the growth strategy and to ensure we have housing for Londoners to deal with the overspill coming out from the middle of the city.

It was an honour to serve for years with the hon. Lady on Bexley Borough Council. She is absolutely right. The Government try to identify locations where we can develop on brownfield sites and they are in abundance in this area. The same happened when the Labour party was in government. The infrastructure needs to be in place and a crucial part of that is Crossrail itself. If Crossrail extends to Ebbsfleet, providing the transport link that is currently missing, golden opportunities in north Bexley, Dartford and Gravesham could come to fruition.

There would be a wider benefit to what my hon. Friend is proposing for Kent as a whole. For example, it would provide Kent with direct access to Heathrow, which it currently lacks. That would relieve congestion considerably in all parts of Kent, not least on the M25.

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes a very important point. I read today that some 2 million journeys are carried out from constituencies in the south-east, such as Sevenoaks and Dartford, to Heathrow. A large proportion of those 2 million journeys would be unnecessary if there was a direct connection between Ebbsfleet and Heathrow airport. It is possible to go from Heathrow airport right across the capital to Essex and various other counties around London, but it is not possible to connect with HS1 at Ebbsfleet. It is complete madness to have that gap. It needs to be filled.

It is for that reason that I am reluctant to refer to this proposal as an extension, despite the title of the debate, because this is more about finishing the job that was started and completing the original plans for Crossrail. This debate is about completing the job. It is nothing short of ludicrous for the two greatest technological achievements in rail infrastructure, Crossrail and HS1, to not connect with each other. There is a gap here: 10 miles of missed opportunities; 10 miles that could lead to the transformation of the area and boost the economy in a way that would far outweigh any implementation costs.

I will conclude my comments there, because I know that other Members wish to speak. I will simply say that for all the time the gap is there, in my mind the Crossrail project will be incomplete.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson)—my constituency neighbour—on securing this important debate. It is a pleasure to join him in helping to highlight the potential benefits of extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet.

For years, the borough of Bexley has suffered from a terrible rail service. Delays, cancellations and poor excuses have become the norm. The situation is made worse because Bexley is one of the only London boroughs that does not have an underground service. We are at a great disadvantage, because we have only the one service, Southeastern, that goes through the borough. When there are problems with Southeastern, which as the Minister knows occur far too often, there is no viable alternative to travel to central London other than taking a bus to a neighbouring borough to catch the tube or the docklands light railway.

Today, we are specifically discussing the potential extension of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet, which is a campaign I strongly support. Locally in my borough and my constituency, there is huge support for a project that finishes the job. People want better rail availability and choice.

Extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet not only improves the opportunities for commuters to get into London, but provides a great opportunity to improve the whole area in so many different ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford has highlighted the extension into Essex and the extension into west London. The only part of London that does not benefit from either of the two huge railway infrastructure projects that he highlighted is, of course, our area of south-east London and north-west Kent.

I say to the Minister that it is great news that Crossrail is coming to Abbey Wood in the London borough of Greenwich, but that does not provide a viable alternative for Bexley residents, nor—it is very important for him to take note of this—does it provide the opportunity for development in Bexley, as well as in north-west Kent.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is about not just housing development, but business development? In Abbey Wood, which is in the middle of my constituency, a major new supermarket has opened ahead of the opening of Crossrail. That has happened completely because of the Crossrail effect.

Indeed. I am delighted to see the hon. Lady here, showing that we have cross-party support for what we are discussing—and she is absolutely right. I was going to come on to that, but she is ahead of me. This is not just about new homes; it is also about businesses and jobs, which are vital for our local economy.

Estimates from the C2E—the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet—campaign suggest that extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet, as was initially intended, would create an additional 17,500 jobs in Bexley alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said. The C2E campaign also suggests that along the whole route, the extension would bring forward a possible 55,000 new homes. In Bexley alone, it is estimated that this would accelerate the provision of 30,000 new homes across our borough, directly unlocking 16,000 of these. This is not just a railway, but a regeneration and an opportunity to develop—to get jobs, homes and businesses.

As both my hon. Friend and the Minister will be aware, Crossrail was originally intended to be extended through Bexley and out into Kent. Disappointingly, that was not taken up, but now is the opportunity to do that and make something really worthwhile. The arguments that my hon. Friend has presented today, assisted by interventions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), highlight the compelling reasons to do just that. By completing the original plans, there is a unique opportunity to secure major new housing and growth between Abbey Wood and Ebbsfleet. We should jump at this opportunity, because I believe that without action, poor transport will continue to hold back our area in development, regeneration and improvement. We cannot accept that and I hope that the Minister takes that on board. It is so important to south-east London—as a Member in Bromley, he knows exactly the situation.

We are going to be in post-Brexit Britain. We need to be proactive and never more than on vital infrastructure projects, which will give us the cutting edge in our area to develop, go forward and achieve for our constituents and our country.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate about the proposal to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet. At the outset, I pay special tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett) and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is not here this afternoon, as well as the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), for their consistent championing of the—well, we are not allowed to call it the “extension” to Ebbsfleet, but the “completion” of the Crossrail project. They have worked very closely for a long time alongside council leaders, some of whom are in the Public Gallery this afternoon, from Bexley—Teresa O’Neill—as well as from Dartford and Kent.

Across the UK, the Government are investing record amounts to improve the experience of rail passengers. State-of-the-art infrastructure, new and longer trains, smart ticketing, improved information and updated wi-fi are all contributing to the creation of a modern, 21st-century railway that will drive our economic prosperity—and drive it into the post-Brexit period evoked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford a few moments ago.

Crossrail is a key part of that investment. The project is now over 92% complete, and, as Members have recognised, it will have a truly transformative impact on the public transport network, not only in London but across the south-east and beyond. When it is fully open in December 2019, the railway will deliver a 10% increase in London’s rail capacity, carrying up to 200 million passengers a year and with up to 24 trains per hour running at peak times. The new line will bring an extra 1.5 million people to within 45 minutes of London’s key business and entertainment districts. It will link major employment, leisure and business districts—Heathrow airport, the west end, the City and Canary Wharf—which have never been linked in that way before, enabling real and valuable economic development to take place.

I want to take this opportunity to reflect again on the magnificent scale of what is being achieved with Crossrail: not only the surmounting of engineering and technical challenges to build the first new railway for a generation, but the immense economic impact that the project has had, not just in London but throughout the UK. Companies of all sizes across the country have won contracts for work on it, including the construction of 70 brand-new trains at Bombardier’s historic plant in Derby. Overall, it is supporting up to 55,000 new jobs, creating more than 1,000 apprenticeship opportunities for our young people and adding up to £42 billion to the UK economy. The sheer ambition of this project cannot be overestimated; neither can the great legacy that will be created by its use of innovative technologies, and the vast skills capital that it will leave in its wake, to be passed on to other infrastructure projects that are planned across the UK.

The Elizabeth line—as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, that is how it will be known from later this year—will have a transformative effect on travel in south-east London and beyond when it opens in December. Journey times to and from central London will be significantly reduced, wider regional connectivity will improve considerably, and I anticipate that new travel patterns will emerge. Indeed, I expect that a significant number of passengers will wish to transfer to the Elizabeth line at Abbey Wood.

My hon. Friend asked about the current route of the Elizabeth line and whether it could be extended to Ebbsfleet. The Department for Transport, which sponsors this project jointly with Transport for London, has received many queries over the years about whether the route could or should be extended beyond its western, eastern or south-eastern arms, or whether, indeed, entirely new branches should be developed. As Members will know, the current 60-mile route runs from Reading in the west to Shenfield in the east and Abbey Wood in the south-east, with a spur that will also serve Heathrow airport terminals 2,3,4 and 5 when it is fully open in December 2019. The Elizabeth line, which will pass through 41 stations—10 of which are newly constructed—was developed over a period of many years, and it has been planned to maximise benefits to passengers as well as ensuring that the timetable is operationally viable. It is therefore crucial for any discussion about extending the current route to be placed in the context of the transport improvements that are already planned for the area. Let me say a few words about those.

In respect of the specific issue of an Ebbsfleet Crossrail extension, my hon. Friend is aware that a detailed review of the business case was undertaken in 2004. It recommended that the south-eastern branch should go only as far as Abbey Wood, and that was reflected in the Crossrail Act 2008.

I am aware, however, that Transport for London is currently working with local authorities in London and north Kent as part of the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership to prepare a strategic outline business case. My understanding is that this will look at options to improve transport connectivity and capacity to support the development of new homes and jobs in the area—the regeneration of the area to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford referred. I pay tribute to the work in particular of the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign and council leaders Teresa O’Neill and Jeremy Kite, and I look forward to seeing the outputs of this work and to the Department receiving the full strategic outline business case in short order.

I further acknowledge the work undertaken to develop the regeneration aspirations for Ebbsfleet and the wider area by the Thames Estuary 2050 Growth Commission. I understand the commission is shortly due to publish, in this case its report on the vision for the development and growth in the region.

I hear what the Minister says about the decision made not to extend out to Abbey Wood, but does he agree that this part of north Kent has changed significantly since that decision was made? We have thousands more homes and greater pressures on our rail system than at that time, and the pressure on housing generally is greater now. We also had traffic problems with the Lower Thames crossing, and the issues relating to Heathrow airport that I mentioned and people getting from north Kent to Heathrow. All those issues have evolved over this period, strengthening the arguments for extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet.

I do indeed recognise that that part of north Kent has changed considerably over the decade since the passage of the Act I mentioned, which is why it is important that we are about to receive this new work from the Thames Gateway Kent Partnership looking at overall growth prospects for the region, and are also about to receive the fully developed strategic outline business case. This will enable the Department to take a fresh look at the case for extending Crossrail to Ebbsfleet, but, as a Member who also represents a constituency in that part of the world, I share my hon. Friend’s frustration and recognise that there are aspirations that are currently unmet, and he has made a strong case for the extension today.

In the context of these plans for housing-led regeneration of this part of north Kent, I also recognise that there is renewed interest in discussions about the transport infrastructure and capacity improvements that would be required to unlock development. I am sure my hon. Friend welcomes the future enhancements to the strategic road network with the planned A2 junction improvements at Bean and Ebbsfleet. These improvements will support economic and housing growth in north Kent, including Ebbsfleet Garden City, and demonstrate the Government’s commitment to invest in transport infrastructure.

I acknowledge that many of these recent discussions have focused on the proposal to extend the south-eastern arm of the Elizabeth line to Ebbsfleet and that the extension proposal was included in the Mayor of London’s transport strategy published in March. The Department’s current priority is the delivery of the Elizabeth line. Any extension to the route would require a strong business case and need to be technically feasible, and include the identification of funding.

As my hon. Friend will understand, any request for Government support would need to satisfy the value-for-money and affordability criteria and be consistent with the new process we announced in March for the development and delivery of rail enhancements. The rail network enhancements pipeline is designed to ensure that future rail projects are properly planned and scrutinised to deliver maximum value and benefit to rail users and taxpayers. Alongside this pipeline, we have launched a call for ideas for market-led proposals to create a new tier of investment in rail infrastructure from the private sector.

I shall now describe some of the improvements already planned for rail in the south-east. From later this month, new Thameslink services will link Woolwich, Abbey Wood and north Kent to Blackfriars, Farringdon and St Pancras for the first time, which, together with the Elizabeth line from December 2018, will deliver faster, more convenient journeys for passengers and improved connectivity.

I also want to draw attention to the work the Department is doing with regard to the new Southeastern franchise due to launch from April 2019. The Southeastern rail franchise public consultation document, also published in March 2017, set out ambitious proposals to transform the train service for passengers on the Southeastern network. Our specification for the new franchise is expected to be delivered by no later than December 2022 and will provide better and more reliable journeys and more room for passengers, integrating seamlessly with future Thameslink and Elizabeth line services. I have no doubt that this will transform travel across London, Kent and parts of East Sussex and will be delivered through a brand-new collaborative partnership between the next operator and Network Rail.

In addition, longer, higher-capacity trains will provide space for around 60,000 more passengers in the morning rush-hour. Metro-style trains will operate on suburban routes in south-east London and north Kent, similar to those on other high-capacity lines into London.

The Government’s vision for stronger performance and reliability will be delivered through a brand-new collaborative partnership between the next operator and Network Rail. This will deliver shared incentives to ensure that both organisations work together to put the passenger first and to deliver a more reliable, efficient railway. The new franchise also recognises the step change in connectivity that the Elizabeth line to Abbey Wood will offer Southeastern passengers. Bidders must provide regular services to and from Abbey Wood and deliver innovative pay-as-you-go ticketing.

In summary, I hope I have demonstrated the Government’s commitment both to rail improvements and to wider regeneration in this area of the south-east.

I have listened carefully to the Minister. Would he not accept that south-east London is massively underserved by transport compared with the rest of London and that stopping at Abbey Wood does not help Bexley at all?

I agree that south-east London is dependent on the Southeastern franchise and that particular train operator. It is unique in not having competition. I would not wholly agree, however, with the hon. Lady’s point about Abbey Wood or with the early point that Kent will not benefit at all from Crossrail. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) said, it will benefit, to the extent that it will have increased connectivity at Abbey Wood, with options to connect Southeastern services directly to the Elizabeth line.

Yes, a new franchise would be great and is desperately needed—at the moment it is so bad it cannot be believed—but the problem is the bigger picture: investment, regeneration and getting more homes, jobs and businesses into the area. That cannot be done just by improving a rail service that is inadequate at the moment.

My right hon. Friend has long been a powerful champion for the completion of this extension and is continuing to be a strong advocate for it. All I can say is that the Department is looking forward to receiving the work of the commission and the full strategic outline business case so that we can give this proposal the fullest possible consideration.

In conclusion, I hope I have demonstrated the Government’s commitment to rail improvements and the wider regeneration in this area of the south-east.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.