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South Central Rail Franchise

– in the House of Commons at 8:52 pm on 14th October 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Blizzard.]

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. May I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quickly and quietly? We need to get on with the Adjournment debate.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 9:15 pm, 14th October 2008

I note that in this era of collapses, even the debate on the Government's Banking Bill has collapsed, but I am delighted to have additional time for the all-important subject of the South Central rail franchise.

I start by offering my warm congratulations to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Clark, on his promotion to ministerial rank. He may be wondering whether his time as a Minister will be measured in weeks, months or years, but whatever it is, I wish him well during his period in office. I am sure that as a fellow Kent Member, he will have more than a passing interest in my remarks during the debate.

The Minister may have asked himself why I sought a debate on the South Central rail franchise. The principal reason is that I recognise that the Government are rightly preoccupied with improving rail services in a north-south direction, predominantly into London. What dismays me and my constituents is that the Government appear to have lost sight almost completely of the vital importance of east-west connections from Kent, particularly down the Tonbridge to Redhill line with services through to Gatwick. I shall address most of my remarks to that issue.

I shall start by setting out the facts of demand from air travellers using Gatwick airport. I hope the Minister will not be tempted by what may be in his brief to reply that there does not appear to be very much demand for rail services from Kent through to Gatwick. If he ventures such a comment, I shall reply that the very existence of through rail services from Tonbridge down the Tonbridge-Redhill line to Gatwick is one of the best kept secrets of services available in the entire rail network. There has been a blatant and almost total lack of adequate marketing of those services on the Tonbridge to Redhill line by both Southern and South Central—an abject marketing failure. I do not believe that the present utilisation of the line in any way reflects what it might be if the line were properly marketed.

The facts relating to demand were well set out in the 2004 Brighton main line route utilisation strategy. That shows, interestingly, after demand from Gatwick airport air travellers from the Greater London area, the next highest area of demand is the county of Kent. It is the second highest source of air passenger travellers to Gatwick airport. The 2004 study shows that at that point 1.8 million people a year were travelling from Kent to Gatwick airport.

The present position was set out in an important letter from Mr. Bernard Ashley, the manager responsible for the planning and transport strategy at BAA, to the Department for Transport, dated 23 January 2008. He said:

"In 2006, some 11% of Gatwick's passengers, that is around 3 million trips, started or ended their journey in Kent. That number will increase in line with the overall airport growth. The actual number travelling from the Tonbridge district, Ashford and the East Kent towns, for whom the Tonbridge rail link is most convenient, will obviously be lower but is still estimated to be over 1 million passengers per annum."

May I just register that with the Minister? That is the position as accurately as we know it today—a huge potential demand for travel by rail of 1 million people from Tonbridge, Ashford and east Kent wanting to use Gatwick airport.

Then we come to the future, which was set out for me in a later letter of 25 June 2008 from the chief executive of BAA, Mr. Colin Matthews. On the future level of demand at Gatwick, he said:

"Our Airport Surface Access Strategy already incorporates a target of 40% public transport use by 2015, when the numbers using the airport are forecast to increase from 35m to close to 40m."

Therefore, at Gatwick we have absolutely clear evidence of rising demand for the use of the airport coupled with a substantial demand from people whose journeys originate in Kent.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I hope that it does not take the right hon. Gentleman by surprise that someone else is present supporting his concerns. I am at the other end of the line in Croydon. The development of Gatwick is important to the development of the economy in south London. With a limited service to Tonbridge from East Croydon, many residents have to travel to London to get down to Kent. Does he agree that that must emphasise the importance of taking the best advantage of those rail facilities that exist between Redhill and Tonbridge?

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He touches on an important point for a considerable number of my constituents. Large numbers travel to London, but they do not all go into central London. A number go to and from East Croydon as their point of work every day.

Against the background of that demand, not surprisingly, when those who these days are termed stakeholders—in other words those representing the rail passenger interests—came to respond to the Brighton main line utilisation survey, they made a clear recommendation, which was set out in appendix A of the survey, entitled "Stakeholder aspirations", which I thought was somewhat condescending. The recommendation states:

"New fast service from Gatwick to Tonbridge, Ashford and the Kent coast"— an absolutely logical and correct recommendation in the light of the self-evident scale of the demand for east-west services into Gatwick from Kent.

Against that background of rail travellers' wishes and the clear evidence of demand, one then comes to the Government's response. That response, from a Government supposedly committed to enhancing travel by public transport and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from car use, is to smash—that is not an exaggerated word—east-west rail travel between Tonbridge and other parts of Kent along the Tonbridge to Redhill line into Gatwick. I shall explain why I have used that word, advisedly, and why I believe it to be absolutely accurate.

The Government propose to take three steps, each of which, and taken together, will result in virtually nil use of the Tonbridge to Redhill rail service to Gatwick. First, the Government are ending the existing and very important through services to Gatwick from west Kent along the Tonbridge to Redhill line. Perhaps the Minister has been briefed to reply that although the through services are ending, indirect services can still be used via a change at Redhill. I do not know whether he has ever done the change at Redhill, but it is not particularly easy for passengers.

Each and every passenger makes the straight decision on every trip to or from Gatwick airport about whether to go by car or train; every impediment makes it more likely that they will go by car. As the Minister may or may not know, if a person goes from Tonbridge to Gatwick, making the change at Redhill, they have to go down the steps, along the subway and up the steps on the other side. If they are taking the family and are heavily laden, with a pushchair and everything else, that is quite an operation. Furthermore, for the disabled it is a non-starter.

Ending the through services to Gatwick is a serious move. It is being coupled with an equally disastrous decision: to replace the current half-hourly service during off-peak periods with one that takes place only once every hour. That is a fundamentally important difference in time scale. Presumably the Government are familiar with them, but extraordinarily there is no matching of Gatwick aircraft arrival and departure times with the timing of the morning and evening peaks for rail travellers. The flights come in and out all through the day. With only an hourly service, someone going to or coming from Gatwick will be certain to take a car rather than the train. I am sure that the Minister uses Gatwick regularly; I certainly do. Someone there with a maximum of 29 minutes to wait for a train might be prepared to wait. However, I am certain that virtually every passenger faced with the prospect of waiting 59 minutes would say, "No—blow the train! I'll go by car instead."

The final nail in the coffin of the through services to Gatwick is the proposed change in the franchise arrangements. That crucial change is to remove Southeastern in toto from providing services along the Tonbridge-Redhill line and to give those services exclusively to South Central Trains. That is disastrous because Southeastern provides virtually all the rail services in Kent; the Minister knows that well from his own constituency background. Southeastern can market the services and generate the demand along the Tonbridge-Redhill line. As far as South Central—Southern—is concerned, it is only a small part of its total operation. The Tonbridge-Redhill line is just a bit player as far as Southern is concerned, and it cannot access the rest of the market through to Kent. The transfer of the franchise from South-eastern to South Central is a final reason why the combination of those three factors will mean for air travellers virtually the extinction of the use of the Tonbridge-Redhill line for services to Gatwick.

As the Minister will not be surprised to know, that situation and that forecast is not just being made by me, but by every group representing rail travellers all over Kent—the local authorities and the relevant rail traveller groups. In the representations that his Department has received, the criticisms of the extinction of the use of the Tonbridge-Redhill line by those travelling by rail to Gatwick have been a universal chorus. His Department has heard it from Kent county council, Tonbridge and Malling borough council, Sevenoaks district council, Edenbridge town council, the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers Association and from Tonbridge Line Commuters. I can tell the Minister that those last two representative organisations of rail travellers have as their honorary secretaries two extremely independent and most expert individuals, Mr. John Bigney and Mr. Lionel Shields, who provide an outstanding, expert and independent service to those organisations.

The only body that has been barely critical of the Government's proposal is, extraordinarily, the very body that is meant to speak up for rail travellers: the Government-appointed quango Passenger Focus. If there ever was an issue on which one would have expected them to make a good lion's roar for rail travellers, it would be the threatened extinction of the Tonbridge-Redhill line to Gatwick for many of passengers. In its response to the Department, what did Passenger Focus say? All it offered was this:

"Future options to enhance or restore the East West links provided by services between Gatwick-Redhill-Tonbridge should not be overlooked."

That is all they could say—frankly, an absolutely pathetic whimper.

As far as I am concerned, that is all of a piece. As the Minister will recall, we used to have the highly effective community health councils, which the Government wrapped up and replaced with Patient Focus, which has been conspicuous in its ineffectual nature. The highly effective regional rail user consultative committees have been wrapped up and replaced by the ineffectual Passenger Focus, and now I am dismayed to see that the Government are wrapping up the consumer bodies that deal with energy and replacing them with a body called Energy Focus. If the past track record is anything to go by, that will be equally ineffectual.

Returning to the South Central franchise, there are other points that I want to put to the Minister. It is not just rail travellers to Gatwick who will lose out under the Government's proposals on the Tonbridge-Redhill line. It is a significant issue for many schoolchildren. As the Minister, with his Kent background, will know, there is no secondary school west from Tonbridge to the Surrey border. Large numbers of schoolchildren travel along that line from Kent and the Edenbridge area—indeed, some come from Surrey and even from Sussex—to the schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. The implications of reducing off-peak services to only one hour on the Tonbridge-to-Redhill line are liable to include a significant increase in the school day for considerable numbers of schoolchildren. That is another factor that the Minister should weigh in his mind.

There is another factor that arises from the transfer of the franchise along the Tonbridge-Redhill line from South Eastern Trains to South Central. As the Minister may be aware, the Sevenoaks tunnel is one of the longest in the country. It is a Victorian tunnel and from time to time it needs to be shut for maintenance and repair. It is inconvenient when that happens, but it has happened periodically. The diversion line from the main London-Sevenoaks-Tonbridge line goes down the Redhill-Tonbridge line. Once the transfer of the franchise takes place, however, train drivers on South Eastern Trains will no longer have any familiarity with their main diversion route, the Redhill-to-Tonbridge route. I do not believe that the issue has been properly considered by the Department, but it is a serious one and, potentially, a safety issue.

I also want to make a couple of points about the other major line going through Edenbridge in my constituency, which is the Uckfield line to London. There is no doubt at all that some of the villages in my constituency that are served by stations on that line currently have an unjustifiably poor service. That is brought out well in the submission that the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers association made in response to the Department.

For example, for those who want to commute to and from Cowden and Hever stations in my constituency, there are no trains from London in the evening rush hour between 4.33 pm and 7.08 pm. That is a gap in the evening peak of two hours and 35 minutes between those two trains. Just as bad, the last train down the Uckfield line from London, which leaves at 10.05 pm, does not stop at Cowden or Hever either. They are villages, not towns, but I assure the Minister that they are villages from which a considerable number of people commute to London each day. Most of them have to drive round the country quite unnecessarily because there is an inadequate service for those two villages.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

Can the issue also be seen from the point of view of additional traffic, which will come to Croydon? Many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who do not have a reliable rail service will inevitably have to travel to Coulsdon or Croydon, and will therefore end up congesting the roads between his constituency and south London.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I am coming to that very point, which is the issue of capacity on the Uckfield line. The Uckfield line suffers because insufficient stops are made by particular trains, and because it is currently experiencing serious overcrowding due to an insufficiency of trains, the reason for which I shall explain in a moment. Some people who commute every day now have to stand all the way from Edenbridge into London. That is simply not acceptable, given the distance that they are travelling and the money that they are paying for their season tickets.

The reason for such overcrowding is a serious insufficiency of diesel units. As I hope the Minister knows, the Uckfield line is one of the relatively few left in the southern region for which the previously privatised rail companies—before they were nationalised after the war—must have run out of money and were unable to electrify various bits. One of those bits is along the Uckfield line. It is therefore necessary to use diesel engines on it. I put it to the Minister that it is particularly disappointing that, despite a demonstrable shortage of diesel engines, there is no requirement in the Government's franchise document for the winner of the South Central franchise to introduce or procure more diesel units or to deal with the capacity problems. That is a serious omission.

I have referred previously to facilities for the disabled at Redhill, and I want to return to that topic tonight. On the Tonbridge-Redhill line, and at both the two Edenbridge stations, the facilities for the disabled are totally inadequate. Last year, a constituent of mine took part in paraplegic games on the continent in Europe. He came home to Edenbridge in his wheelchair, but the only way in which he was able to get out of Edenbridge station quickly was to be taken across the tracks in his wheelchair by his relatives. That is self-evidently pretty dangerous, and it is disgraceful that, in this day and age, disabled people should have to be carried across the tracks because of the inadequacy of facilities for the disabled.

I am in no doubt that, in the South Central franchise consultation document, the Government have made a very serious error of policy in emasculating the use of the Tonbridge-Redhill line as far as services into Gatwick airport are concerned. I can only urge the Minister in the strongest terms to scrap that policy and start again. As the stakeholders said in 2004—it holds good today, just as it did then—the point from which he should start is with a

"new fast service from Gatwick to Tonbridge, Ashford and the Kent coast."

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Additionally, given that the Brighton Line is at capacity, there is the issue of re-instating the Uckfield - Lewes section to give and additional or alternative LONDON - BRIGHTON through route.This would also give the opportunity for better intermediate services to (e.g.) Cowden, Hever et al.

Submitted by Ron Sutton

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 9:43 pm, 14th October 2008

I congratulate Sir John Stanley on securing this debate, and on providing the House with this opportunity to discuss these important issues based on the new South Central rail franchise. I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to speak for more than the traditional amount of time. I should also like to thank him for his kind words about my appointment. I assure him that I am not thinking about days, weeks or months; rather, I am focusing on the task in hand, for however long that might take. I now want to concentrate on trying to answer some, if not all, of his questions, within the limits that constrain me in regard to the current franchise process.

Our railway service now has more people and more freight moving across the country than in the past 50 years. It is safer than before, and its reliability is much greater than before. In the command paper on a sustainable railway, which was launched in July, we committed further record levels of investment with the aim of doubling the numbers on the railways and the freight service and making them safer, as well as tackling the carbon footprint of the rail industry. That is the background, with record use of our railway system, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman recognises as very important. In dealing with his comments, it may be helpful if I explain where we are with the franchise process and pick up on some of the issues that he raised.

The Department for Transport issued a general advertisement for the franchise in May this year and announced in August that four groups had pre-qualified to receive an invitation to tender later this year. Those groups were National Express, the operator of the East Coast, c2c and East Anglia franchises; Stagecoach, operator of South West Trains, East Midlands Trains and a significant shareholder in Virgin Trains; GoVia, the current operator, which is also the operator of Southeastern Trains and London Midland; and NedRailways, the Dutch railway operator, which also operates Northern and Merseyrail in the consortium with Serco.

It is our intention that the formal invitation to tender will be issued in early November, with bids received in February next year. A final decision on who will be awarded the franchise will be announced in the summer of 2009. The new franchise will come into operation, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, on 20 September 2009 and will run for five years and 10 months, with the final year dependent on the operator having achieved a number of performance targets. There will be an optional extension of an additional two years, which the Government will be able to introduce at their own discretion.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is equally aware that this franchise will probably be shorter than the average franchise of seven to 10 years, but he will recognise equally that that is because of the substantial investment going on, which will benefit his constituents as well as many others among the travelling public, with the implementation of the £5.5 billion Thameslink programme to which the Government gave the go-ahead in the summer last year. The completion of that Thameslink programme in 2015 may require significant changes to the franchise map in 2015; thus a period of five years and 10 months gives the Government maximum flexibility in that regard without the need to carry out costly and time-consuming franchise termination negotiations. That, in turn, will save the taxpayer money.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman's comments about stakeholder engagement and, particularly, about Passenger Focus. He will know that extensive discussions have taken place in the build-up to the franchise consultation. The Department carried out briefing events with local authorities in January this year with the aim of gaining a broad understanding of key local issues in advance of the outline work of the franchise specification.

In May, we launched the formal consultation document, setting out the objectives for the franchise and the key issues that we were seeking to address. Consultation events were also held with stakeholders in Croydon, Worthing and Eastbourne, and 60 organisations were represented at those events. Alongside that, we have received some 156 written consultation responses. We remain grateful, of course, for the time people have taken to address those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that Passenger Focus has been strengthened to ensure that there is a good voice for the travelling public, whether it be for rail or bus passengers, who are dealt with in the Local Transport Bill. This is the first time that Passenger Focus has provided detailed advice to the Secretary of State about the issues that the new franchisee should be required to address. The right hon. Gentleman rightly asked for that document to be placed in the Library, and that will be done.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

If, as the Minister says, Passenger Focus is being strengthened, will he explain why the Passenger Focus response to the Secretary of State on the issue of the Tonbridge to Redhill line and services to Gatwick is so completely out of synchronisation and so completely out of touch with the unanimous criticisms of the Kent local authorities and the rail passengers' organisations involved?

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish me, or come to that the Secretary of State, to dictate to Passenger Focus what report it should present. However, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Passenger Focus conducted surveys of some 6,500 South Central passengers seeking their views on areas of deficiency and the improvements that they wanted to see. It is on that basis that I would assume that it has compiled a report, and the process has been invaluable in securing information from precisely the people whom I know the right hon. Gentleman represents: the potential users of the services concerned. That is what we believe Passenger Focus, among others, has done, and because the operation has been so valuable, we intend to continue the process in similar vein when it comes to future franchises.

Passenger Focus has provided Ministers with some 70 recommendations. We continue to consider them, and to consider which of the issues that it has raised can be accommodated within the specification. Our consultation document already addresses a number of the issues that Passenger Focus raises, such as later services at weekends and better access to stations. Let me say something about better access with particular reference to people with disabilities. We have committed funds via Access for All. More than 2,500 stations nationwide have been identified, but it is not possible to improve all of them at once. Of course we will keep the requirements of individual stations under review, and will take all the necessary steps through funding organisations such as Access for All.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has received a number of submissions from his constituents about the specification for the franchise, and has raised them with my former ministerial colleagues. As I suspect he will appreciate, I cannot at this stage give the House more details of our response to the specific concerns expressed about all aspects of the issue, but I am sure he will understand that we are considering all the issues in full before making the formal announcements in November.

It should be borne in mind that the franchise specification aims to set out the minimum level of service provision that we expect bidders to offer, while the bidders decide where, for example, additional car parking spaces or ticket machines might be allocated. That is a matter to be dealt with by the operator, in conjunction with the consultation processes that are available.

Let me turn specifically to the Tonbridge and Redhill services. The right hon. Gentleman has made very clear the concerns that exist. The changes on this corridor are being made in December, before the start of the new franchise. As he will know, they are part of the implementation of the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy. The strategy is intended to improve capacity on the Brighton main line, especially in peak periods, but provides for additional services from the Redhill corridor to London, and off-peak services from Reigate, for the first time in many years. However, the implementation of the route utilisation strategy will result in the withdrawal of the hourly Tunbridge Wells to Horsham service, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, with its direct link to Gatwick airport, and a reduction in frequency on the Tonbridge to Redhill corridor to hourly, although some peak period through-services to Victoria will again operate for the first time in many years. I understand that the current operator, Southern, consulted on these plans earlier this year as part of the development of its December 2008 timetable proposition.

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The minister's reply in fact confirms John Stanley's remarks in his initial speech. The trains are being used, but not to their full potential. There is no marketing. A big sign could be on the station roadbridge at Edenbridge (and elsewhere) "Regular through services to Gatwick" but nothing like this is attempted. Guards on the Line have told me that traffic was building as word gets around - but the rail companies do nothing. Another example - there is a late night connection from Victoria (11.02 pm) via Redhill to the Tonbridge Line which is very convenient for theatregoers (like me) but whenever I mention this to fellow Edenbridge residents, they've never heard of it. No marketing again!
John Stanley's remarks are spot on in every particular.
Of course the main line routes are important, but they are also fed by the lesser lines and it is essential to actively develop the latter if road congestion and carbon footprint are to be reduced.

Submitted by Ron Sutton

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

At a time when, on BAA plc figures, 1 million people from Kent per year use Gatwick airport, how can it possibly be sensible for the Government to make certain that virtually every single one of those 1 million people do not use the rail service, but use the roads instead? How can that conceivably be a sensible transport policy?

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I was just coming on to precisely the point about the potential customers for rail services. The Gatwick services have been in existence for more than 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman said in his opening comments that the Minister would probably respond by saying services were not being used and were under-utilised. That is exactly what the position has been—the demand has been very low. Initially, those services were operating from as far afield as the Medway towns, but the retention of two trains per hour on the corridor cannot be justified on the levels of usage of the services during that period, when there are other competing pressures for an increase in operational requirements.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

Will the Minister give a little more background as to why it is that the welcome improved north-south provision on that route compromises the ability of trains to come in from the east in Kent? Is there a possibility that one of the reasons why this compromise has had to be made is the Government's previous decision to support too much capacity for the Gatwick Express, bearing in mind that that service also seems often to run far below capacity, while at the same time it compromises other services that might well draw in passengers from elsewhere to the important Gatwick stop?

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark PPS (Rt Hon Ed Balls, Secretary of State), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that where we have an infrastructure and we are trying to achieve the best possible utilisation, there may well be consequences as a result of required changes. In such cases, one looks at the services that are being best utilised and where there is a possibility of increasing capacity. For example, increased capacity is available for the travelling public at Redhill station.

However, let me make it clear that if bidders for the franchise decide that a commercial case exists for operating the service and sufficient network capacity is available, they can implement the service and take any associated profits from it, because the Government would not stand in their way. From this December, the London services will be operated by newer class 377 Electrostar rolling stock, which we believe will enhance the attractiveness of the service, but our current intention is to require the operator to continue to monitor the use of the service—as we will, with other elements of the franchise—to ensure that off-peak services provide value for money and carry sufficient demand to justify their continuation.

Our overriding wish is to improve train services. The franchise process enables all the comments received to be considered seriously. We will take on board those that have been raised with us, including those on Uckfield, and we are asking Network Rail to look at the possibility of increasing services on that line. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this subject and I look forward to further developments when we invite tenders.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Ten o'clock.

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Strategic decisions about infrastructure, service provision and marketing are being hampered by the fragmented nature of the rail network.

Many rail services feed and complement one anther but are operated by different franchises and so are perceived as competitors, particularly for the infrastructure. The Gatwick Express is an example of this in that it is a flagship service which has the potential to provide a good impression to foreign visitors and thus persuade them to use rail throughout their visit. But it adds to congestion on the Brighton main line and so is seen as a competitor by other franchise operators who fail to appreciate its flagship role.

Rail services and infrastructure need to be united in some way that facilitates a more strategic approach - nationalisation?

Submitted by John Byng