Skip to main content

Railways: Gatwick Airport

Volume 698: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, with regard to the proposals by Southern Rail to withdraw the Gatwick Airport service (Watford to Brighton), they have taken into account the three route utilisation strategies which highlighted the dangers of adding extra passengers to the interchange at Clapham Junction.

My Lords, station safety is controlled by station operators. In the case of Clapham Junction, this is South West Trains, which monitors safety matters through a process of risk management. It is the station operator’s responsibility to implement appropriate measures to control the risks that it identifies.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the West London Line service to Gatwick Airport is becoming increasingly popular? Can he say, therefore, why this service is going to be restricted to Clapham Junction, forcing passengers to change at the already overcrowded platform 17 on the grounds of the need to change and transfer the rolling stock on that line to Thameslink? I represent one of the boroughs through which the West London Line passes.

My Lords, as a regular traveller on the line and a user of the service, I am aware of this. However, it is a necessary change as part of the reallocation of rolling stock to make continued and more efficient use of the Thameslink line. I am sure that the replacement service will operate as effectively, if not more so, than the current one and that the service changes generally will benefit far more passengers, who will be able to access an increased range of services operating on the Thameslink route.

My Lords, as the noble Lord is a regular user of the line, does he agree that the route utilisation strategies on the Brighton main line do not provide sufficient capacity for people travelling to and from Gatwick? Will he talk to his honourable friend in another place about how the new franchise for that line, which is to be let in two years’ time, should include within it the reopening of the line from Uckfield to Lewes?

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised two issues. First, I appreciate the point he makes about the Lewes/Uckfield line. I know that there has been continuing pressure for the reopening of that part of a railway line which probably should never have been closed. I can well understand that, and of course refranchising will enable some discussion of that possibility to take place. It has already happened once when the franchise was let some years ago. On the noble Lord’s second issue about Gatwick and the route utilisation strategies, improvements are being made to timetabling, and from the end of this year there will be additional London to Brighton services created through extra running-on from Gatwick down to Brighton from the Victoria to Gatwick service.

My Lords, I and many members of my family frequently use the Watford to Brighton through service in order to get from west London to Gatwick Airport and vice versa. If it is abolished, we, together with thousands of others, I suspect, will revert to going by road with all the implications for traffic congestion and pollution that that implies. No one wants to hump heavy luggage up and down the numerous steps at the overcrowded Clapham Junction interchange. Is the noble Lord aware that in my experience this service is never less than half full and more often than not three-quarters full? Is it not the height of folly to think of abolishing such a useful service?

My Lords, I can well appreciate the problems described by the noble Lord at Clapham Junction’s platform 17 with its steps and the steeply curved platform which creates a rather wide gap. The noble Lord makes a point, but the service operates only once an hour outside the peak period. More adequate services will be provided so that the important link he spoke of between Watford and Gatwick can be maintained, and many other services that come through Clapham Junction stop at Gatwick. My understanding is that consideration is being given to reviewing whether it would be practicable to extend the Watford journey further south from Clapham, perhaps to Croydon.

My Lords, it is obvious from the questions being asked that this is a very popular service. What consideration is being given to other investments to help Thameslink? For example, I gather that there are single voltage trains which could be converted to dual voltage and thus might solve the Thameslink problem. There are also 422 series trains which are lying idle in sidings at Eastleigh that could have been converted. Would it not have been better to have invested in those trains rather than cut a service that is so popular?

My Lords, obviously those issues are worth considering, but in terms of deploying the rolling stock, it was felt that this was the best possible solution. The service is only hourly and many other services run on that route, but I understand that it is the interconnection which is the problem, and that is what we have been addressing. However, this issue should be understood in the context that yesterday the Secretary of State for Transport made it very plain that as from the end of this year a further 1,300 carriages will be added to the railway rolling stock. I can tell your Lordships’ House this: I cannot remember a single Conservative Secretary of State ever making an announcement of such a massive expansion of our rolling stock.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that platform 17 at Clapham Junction is by far the least customer-friendly and usable platform in the whole of that very busy station? It is on a very steep curve and passengers getting off the train have to step down a considerable distance to get on to the platform. There is no lift and the staircase is narrow and bends twice. It is the most dreadful station if one is carrying luggage, particularly if one is on the way to the airport. My noble friend hinted at the possibility of train services being extended at least as far as East Croydon. Should this not be actively pursued by the railway company?

My Lords, I cannot claim regularly to use platform 17 but I have made it plain that I have used it on a few occasions, mostly when I am going to watch Brighton and Hove Albion play Watford. My noble friend is quite right; the possibility of extending the route down as far as East Croydon is being actively looked at.

My Lords, can the Minister explain why it is that there are strict regulations insisting that restaurants and hotels provide easy access with not too many steps for the elderly and the disabled, whereas the railways, and London Underground in particular, have no such obligation when the problems are far greater?

My Lords, there is a health and safety obligation. Perhaps when the noble Lord was Chancellor of the Exchequer he should have made a few more funds available so that these things could have been pursued.

My Lords, why does the Minister say that it is an hourly service when it is a quarter-hour service? Going to Brighton has nothing to do with it. Gatwick is a major airport; it must have a high-speed express; it has worked very well for many years. Why is it that under this Government public services, which they claim are being improved, are getting worse?

My Lords, the Brighton to Watford service runs at five minutes to every hour from, I think, 9.55 am until 9.55 pm. As the noble Lord knows, there is already a high-speed service which runs from Victoria through to Gatwick. I have explained that that is going to be improved at the end of the year, with a further run-on to Brighton. We have improved rail services in this country immeasurably. We are now doubling the investment going to rail services. If the noble Lord could boast such a proud record when he was involved in government, I would be very impressed indeed.