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High Speed 1: Rolling Stock

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rolling stock on High Speed One.

It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place. He may feel at times in his life that he spends a disproportionate amount of time dealing with the affairs of Kent, but we are always grateful for his attention. I am happy to assure him, at the start of this short debate, that this is a different kind of rail debate from those he is used to. I imagine—indeed, I know—that most debates in this Chamber about rail services are a cry of rage about unreliability, delays, strikes, and how colleagues’ constituents are at the end of their tether. By contrast, this debate is about a hugely successful service, but one that will be choked by that very success and popularity unless Ministers and the industry take decisive action very soon.

Let me start with the good news. These are facts from Southeastern, which operates the line. Since High Speed 1 started under Southeastern in 2009, it has carried more than 100 million passengers. The passenger satisfaction over that period has been higher than 90%, which, as the Minister will be painfully aware, is an extremely good figure compared with some other lines. It has been calculated that it has delivered a £1 billion boost to the Kent tourism economy, and that it indirectly supports up to 72,000 jobs. Clearly, one of the main reasons for that is the speed. It is a high-speed operation, and the journey from my constituency, Ashford, to London is now 38 minutes. It used to be routinely 81 minutes, so that is significant. Other colleagues from Kent in the Chamber will no doubt have similar stories.

The line also has a hugely positive environmental effect. It has been calculated that some 6,000 cars a year are taken off the road because of the high use of the service. If I may be parochial for a second, it has contributed hugely to economic growth. In Ashford, seven major development projects—offices, leisure, shopping and education facilities—either have been built or are being built around the station. There is a direct business benefit to that: because it is only 38 minutes, using the high-speed train, from Ashford to St Pancras International, whereas office rents are 73% lower than in London, many businesses clearly find Ashford an extremely attractive place to do business. Of course, I welcome all that.

My last bit of positivity, if I can keep the Minister cheerful for a few more minutes, is about a study of what has become an increasingly key industry for the whole of Kent—tourism. HS1 Ltd did a tourism impact study a couple of years ago, and the figures are stark and very encouraging. The value of tourism and the visitor economy to Kent grew by more than £1 billion over the past decade, from £2.4 billion to £3.6 billion, supporting the 72,000 jobs I mentioned. To put that in perspective, that is 10% of all the jobs in Kent. It is a really significant industry.

Sustained investment in not just the tourism industry but transport links, of which High Speed 1 is one of the most important, has led to that significant increase. The study determined the perceived impact that HS1 has had on the sector. More than half the respondents in the tourism industry in Kent believe that HS1 has had a positive impact on their business. The most obvious reason for that is the speed to reach the destination. Perhaps more subtly, there is also the ability to attract visitors from further afield—it increases Kent’s range of attraction.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. There is no doubt in my mind that HS1 has been good for the county, but does he agree that, before proceeding further with HS2, we need to tackle the challenges of HS1, which has, in many respects, become synonymous with costs and overcrowding?

I am about to come to the issue of overcrowding, as my hon. Friend would expect, as that was my principal reason for securing this debate. He says “before proceeding further with HS2”, but I should say that I am in favour of HS2, partly because I have observed the benefits of HS1 on Kent, and I would not want to deprive other parts of the country of the benefits that high-speed rail services can bring. To some extent, the two debates need to be separated. HS1 has been hugely good for Kent, and I wish that to continue, so I urge the Government to address what will be a looming and imminent problem if they do not. The HS2 debate is rather a different one.

Some 71% of respondents in the tourism industry believe that leisure tourism in Kent has increased as a result of HS1. It has been a particular influencing factor in attracting couples and family groups—young families, those with older children and extended families—and that has contributed to a widening and deepening of the Kent tourism economy. I emphasise tourism because, although HS1 is by and large regarded, reasonably enough, as a commuter network—it clearly is of huge benefit to commuters, because it gives them many hours, days and weeks of their lives back through reduced journey times—it actually has a measurable and direct economic impact beyond that.

Overall, HS1 is one of the success stories of the rail network. It provides travel that is not only fast but more reliable than most lines, as reflected in passenger satisfaction surveys. But that, as I reach the halfway point, is the limit of the positive news that I wish to bring the Minister. Now for the bad news.

The bad news is that the service has become too popular for its own good. Overcrowding is a serious and growing problem throughout the line. The operator, Southeastern, has tried to compensate by changing the number of carriages on the most popular peak-hour services and improving the repairs and maintenance programme so that more of the rolling stock is available at any one time, but that is not enough. Essentially, we need more rolling stock on the line. Passenger numbers have grown by an average of 11.7% every year since 2010, and there is no evidence that that increase in demand will slow down in the future. Indeed, given that major housing developments are planned in not just Ashford but other towns in Kent along the line, we can expect the opposite.

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Although I agree with everything he says about the benefits of HS1 to Kent from an economic perspective, constituents from Snodland and Chatham who pay £5,500 for their annual ticket to use HS1 should at least expect a seat and working toilet on their train into London. Does he agree that, given the growth in house building across the area, communities such as Snodland are being built specifically around the services from HS1?

My hon. Friend is exactly right and she makes a good point about season ticket prices. Obviously, season tickets are slightly more expensive for my constituents and, the further towards the coast, the more expensive they get. As the inability to sit down spreads along the line, the difficulties she rightly pointed out will no doubt get worse for people. The need for extra train services and longer trains is clear.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The service goes through Gravesend. Why on earth are the people who pay most for their tickets standing up for 23 minutes from Gravesend, or indeed for 38 minutes from Ashford? That is completely wrong, and something needs to be done about it.

My hon. Friend makes a good point.

On current projections, 31 high-speed services a day will be full to capacity by 2025, meaning that those passengers who have paid for expensive season tickets and rightly complain about having to stand every day might not even be able to get on the train. Things as they stand will get worse rather than better and, on top of the 31 inaccessible services, another 25 trains a day will be standing room only. The scale of the problem is becoming clear.

In preparing for this debate, I spoke to the rail industry. Hitachi made the interesting point that the trains on the HS1 line are specifically designed for it and for the Southeastern conventional network. The trains use two different power sources and have three different signalling systems on board, so standard UK network trains cannot be used. How to extend or replace the rolling stock on this particular line is a special issue. Hitachi itself advises planning for a lead time in the order of four years before new train sets could come into service on the line—consider the design time, procurement, testing and approvals for a specialist product. For that timescale to be achieved, clarity on the future of the franchise at the earliest opportunity is vital.

The Minister is of course aware of the history of the franchise, its difficulties and the succession of relatively short-term solutions brought into being to keep the franchise operating. I appreciate the problems that he, the operator and the industry more widely have faced with the franchise—this debate is not the time to discuss those—but I plead for some long-term thinking to be introduced now, instead of our continuing simply to apply short-term patches to franchising or to whatever succeeds it after the review is published. Now is the time, on this specific issue, to impose some long-term thinking and to say, “We need to start planning now”, if we are to avoid something that would be tragic for the rail industry, turning a success into a failure in the future.

My right hon. Friend mentioned tourism in his opening remarks. He knows, because I have bored for England on the subject, that I am looking forward to the reopening of Manston as an airport, with the synergy between Manston, Ramsgate and the port of Dover, which is a highly successful cruise-liner port. If we are to attract tourism, it is vital that we have reliable train services with a swift connection to London. In terms of connectivity, does he agree that we must urge the Minister to recognise that we need those trains now and not in 10 years’ time?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend in all but one particular: he never bores for Britain on any subject, so I disagree with him about that, but completely agree with him otherwise.

To conclude, this morning I have two requests of the Minister: first, to acknowledge not just that this is a problem but that it is one that needs to be addressed now—it cannot be kicked into the long grass any longer—and, secondly, to commit to devising a solution that will allow passengers to continue to enjoy the many benefits of high-speed rail. We need decisions very soon to prevent one of the great successes of the rail industry over the past 10 or 20 years from being tarnished by short-term decision making. I urge the Minister to make those commitments this morning, and I am grateful to colleagues who contributed to the debate.

It is a pleasure, as always, Mr Hollobone, to serve under the chairmanship of my near neighbour. I hope that you will look kindly on me if I make any errors and inform me later, rather than during the debate.

It is also a pleasure to respond to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I congratulate him on securing this debate on rolling stock on High Speed 1, and all Members who have contributed by intervening this morning: my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and for Gravesham (Adam Holloway), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale).

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford was right to say that in my time as a Minister I have been interested in the affairs of Kent—or, depending which side of the Medway we are on, Kentish affairs. I appreciate how he has phrased his words today, his tone, and how he has gone about the debate. It was kind of him to do that.

The Southeastern high-speed franchise has cut journey times dramatically for passengers travelling into London from all destinations in Kent. For example, Ashford to London has seen a reduction of 43 minutes, from the bad old days of 81 minutes to a regular journey time of 38 minutes. Over the past decade, more than 100 million passenger journeys have been made on Southeastern’s high-speed service. As my right hon. Friend highlighted, the popularity of Southeastern’s high-speed service has led to significant growth in passenger numbers, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 11%, more than double that on the rest of the Southeastern network. It is a very successful railway.

My right hon. Friend rightly stated that the national rail passenger survey results from spring 2019 showed that overall satisfaction with the journey for the Southeastern high-speed service was 92% satisfied or good, placing it in the top 10% of all UK train routes; and 82% of passengers were satisfied with the level of crowding on their service, placing it in the top 14% of all UK train routes. In addition, Southeastern’s customer satisfaction survey from the end of December 2019 indicated positive overall passenger satisfaction with the high-speed service, which received a score of 91%. If only the other franchises and train operating companies operated with such levels of satisfaction, my job as Rail Minister would be a lot easier.

There was also a 96% positive response to the question, “Did you get a seat on the train?” My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford is talking not only about what is going on now but about the future, but that is a remarkably good statistic. However, we are not sitting on our laurels in any way.

Southeastern has quite a lot of capacity. In the morning peak, Southeastern provides 9,772 seats into London, with passenger demand that is higher than that, at 10,888. Already, as my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford and for Chatham and Aylesford indicated, people are standing on their journeys—the statistics prove that to us without any shadow of a doubt. In the evening peak, Southeastern provides 9,423 seats out of London, with a passenger demand of 10,354. Overall, capacity of about 13,000 is provided on HS1 services during peak hours.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford talked about rolling stock. Southeastern regularly reviews whether reallocating stock to different trains would be appropriate to ensure that capacity is catered for. For example, last December Southeastern transferred an Ebbsfleet stop from an overcrowded six-car service to a 12-car service with spare capacity to continue to make the best effect of the assets. However, as my right hon. Friend indicated, only the class 395 and Eurostar trains can run on that route, because High Speed 1 trains need to run at 140 mph, with the technical issues and excitements that he detailed, so it is not possible to use trains from other routes on this one.

Regrettably but inevitably on a rail network, delays occur. However, performance on the Southeastern network on the whole has been positive. This year, around 90% of Southeastern services have arrived at their final destination within five minutes of the published timetable. More specifically, about 87% of peak and off-peak HS1 services have arrived within five minutes of their destination time. Those are relatively good statistics for the rail industry.

Eurostar carries about 11 million passengers a year on services between London and Paris, Lille, Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, with seasonal services to the Alps in the south of France. Some services call at Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International on the HS1 line. At peak times of year, the number of daily Eurostar services operating in and out of London St Pancras via the HS1 line can exceed 55. We know that it is becoming quite a busy railway.

On 13 June last year, a direct award was signed with Southeastern to extend its franchise for five rail periods to 10 November, with an optional extension of another five periods, which has been exercised. The franchise is now due to expire on 1 April 2020, to ensure continuity of services for passengers following the cancellation of the Southeastern franchise competition.

My right hon. Friend alluded to uncertainty about the franchise’s future. My Department’s objectives for the franchise in the near term include enhancing capacity and continuing to build on the recent improvements in operational performance and reliability. My Department is focused on determining how that can be achieved now that the competition for the franchise has been cancelled. An important consideration for my officials is to align that work with the emerging recommendations of the Williams rail review, due for publication in the next couple of months.

I highlight that because it is quite an important factor to answer one of my right hon. Friend’s questions: what could be done to sort out the problem of overcrowding and to bring in new rolling stock? It is highly likely that the Williams review will decide that franchising is not the way forward for our rail industry, and another model will be introduced quite swiftly. Within the new contracts, an ask could be framed on what rolling stock needs to operate along those routes. I gently suggest to my right hon. Friend that this debate is extremely timely because the thought processes are already happening. The whirring heard in the background is the brains of officials and others in the Department for Transport ticking over how best to include in the ask for companies that might operate those lines in future what rolling stock might be required to improve that service. Now is the best point in which to intervene to get the answer he requires.

On the point about the future, vis-à-vis HS2, if we had different technology—not obsolete rail technology but new technology such hyperloop— we would be able to avoid some of the problems of HS1, because pods are far more scalable than great big trains.

I guess my hon. Friend is slightly unlucky to have the Rail Minister in front of him; had the Minister of State for the future of transport responded to this debate, my hon. Friend would get a good 15 minutes about the wonderful new technologies becoming available on our rail network. My job is to try to ensure that the existing rail network works for the people who use it. I understand his enthusiasm for what could come this way, but I want to improve things for passengers on our railways now and, in this debate, to talk about what we can do to improve the journeys of passengers who use HS1 in the next few years, as improvements will be required.

The Williams review, which will be published very soon, will not just be parked by Government as in the normal process of reviews—we have had a few rail reviews that have reported like that in the past—but will come out in the form of a White Paper. There will be proper consultation. The Select Committee on Transport and Members will obviously take their views, and we will have a Bill in this Session—as mentioned in the Queen’s Speech—that will take the review into legislation. There will be a relatively short-term pitch for my hon. Friend to get involved in.

I am heartened by the Minister’s words. He said that, traditionally, reports have often been shelved. Even more traditionally, they have been an excuse for delay because people say, “We have to look at the big picture; therefore, we cannot take individual decisions.” I gently emphasise again that the decision on rolling stock for HS1 needs to be taken in the coming months if we are to avoid the problems that we know will hit in the middle part of this decade. I urge him again that the early decision-making process will be vital post the White Paper publication.

The White Paper will come out shortly. It had a good mention in the Queen’s Speech—it will be legislation and it will be the framework by which the problem he outlined for the future can be solved, because it is intended to put the railway on a long-term, sustainable footing, where the passenger is put first. It is important that the next Southeastern franchise award reflects that and fits into whatever the Williams review might suggest. I am completely aware of my right hon. Friend’s point. Any options will fit directly into the Williams review’s conclusions.

Let me conclude by thanking everyone who took part in this debate, and my right hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important part of the railway in our country. We discussed a range of issues on High Speed 1. The popularity of Southeastern’s high-speed service has led to significant growth in passenger numbers, with a compound annual growth rate of over 11%. It is a very successful, normally very good and reliable railway. Options considered for the future of the Southeastern franchise will be developed and informed in a matter that puts passengers at the heart of the process. I guarantee to my right hon. Friend that we understand the time that it takes to get new rolling stock on our network. His words will have been taken to heart.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.