I congratulate my hon. Friend Gregory Barker on securing this important debate. Commuters in Tunbridge Wells suffered a double whammy at the beginning of the year because they faced fare increases of 10 per cent., while capacity on some of the peak services has been reduced by 20 per cent. It is as if they are subject to a bizarre game of musical chairs in which they pay more for a seat and it then gets taken away from them. I shall address both of those points in turn.
As my hon. Friend eloquently said, we face fare increases well above inflation. The increase is 10 per cent. in Tunbridge Wells this year, following one of 7.9 per cent. the previous year. We can look forward to increases for a further two years, all because the Government, in the tendering document, required Southeastern customers to pay for the costs of the channel tunnel rail link. On the Hastings line, from Sevenoaks right down to Hastings, none of our constituents would benefit from the high-speed line. It is fantastic that it is going ahead, and those who can benefit from it clearly have cause for celebration, but no one in Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge or any of the stations used by my constituents will benefit. Indeed, we actively disbenefit in the following way.
Journey times from Ashford, which now last 83 minutes on average, will fall to 36 minutes. In so far as there is competition between our towns, Ashford will be more attractive in commuting terms than Tunbridge Wells. We think we have manifest charms that might make up for that, and we are confident that we can hold our own, but nevertheless it is galling for my constituents that they will have no reduction in journey time, while paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, in Hastings the situation is even worse. MPs representing constituents along the A21 and the line from Sevenoaks to Hastings have come together with the district and county councils in the area to create a reference group to promote the importance of improving transport links in the region. One of the consequences of the fare increases and the new high-speed rail line is that Hastings will be more isolated in transport terms than it has been to date. Ramsgate will have a high-speed rail link, and people will be able to get to London much faster; train services from Brighton to London are much better than they are from Hastings; and the relative position of a town such as Hastings, which needs all the help it can get to regenerate itself and is making great efforts in that regard, will be relatively disadvantaged. We can add to that continuing problems with congestion on the A21, which desperately needs an upgrade in the form of a dual carriageway between Tonbridge and Pembury, and between Kippings Cross and Lamberhurst. Until we get that improvement, and as a result of the fare increases, Hastings will be further disadvantaged by the changes.
I shall deal with overcrowding, although I am disappointed to have to raise the issue. It is important that we get value for money. My constituents feel that the service provided by Southeastern over the past few years was much better than that provided under the Connex South Eastern franchise; there was an improvement. There have been improvements to stations, too—they have been painted and brought up to date. The service has deteriorated recently, but up until then, the service was more reliable than in the past. Given that background, it disappoints me that without any fanfare—without any publicity at all, as far as I can see—the decision was taken to reduce capacity from 10 carriages to eight on five peak-time trains servicing Tunbridge Wells. The reason that Southeastern gives for that is that it needed to react to deteriorating economic conditions.
Southeastern is implying a radical cut of 20 per cent. in the number of commuters—a cut that I am certain has not taken place, because the consequence of the move made in recent weeks is that peak-time trains have become even more crowded. Of the five trains between 6.56 and 7.56 in the morning that link Tunbridge Wells and Charing Cross, three have had their carriage numbers reduced from 10 to eight. Let me share some of the consequences with the House.
My constituent Philip Ashworth wrote to me on the issue. Again, he was not informed of the policy decision. He says:
"Monday 5th Jan...8 carriages rather than 10...commuters pack in the carriages like Sardines!
Tuesday 6th...8 carriages rather than 10...standing all the way to London...Wednesday 7th, short rail stock—train packed.
Thursday 8th short rail stock—train packed".
And so it continues on
My constituent Chris Comorford has done calculations that show that however one looks at it—whether we base the calculation on distance travelled or the speed of the service—Tunbridge Wells is becoming one of the most expensive places in the south-east to commute from, mile for mile or minute for minute. For example, commuters travel an additional 4 miles to get to Reading, but they do so at more than twice the average speed. The journey from Tunbridge Wells to London is twice as expensive. We are paying more money and getting a poorer service. We need to address that before measures to ensure sustainable transport are affected in the wrong way. We want people on the rails, not the roads. The Tunbridge Wells and District Railway Travellers Association, led by Martin Lewis, shares my concerns and those of my constituents on the issue.
I close by putting to the Minister a suggestion made by my constituent, Mr. Ashworth:
"Can I suggest that we are able to buy 3rd class tickets, standing room only at half current price, perhaps commuters would not feel so grieved!"
I hope it will not come to that. I hope the Minister will be able to exert his influence on Southeastern. I hope that Charles Horton and his staff at that company hear my constituents' stories and learn of the situation that they face, and so review the decision to cut peak-time capacity. The company has promised us extra trains by December 2009—two extra trains from Tunbridge Wells to London—so it seems perverse to squeeze capacity now only to increase it later. I hope the Minister can use his good offices to influence the company, and I hope the company listens to constituents and returns to the high levels of service that, until recent months, we had come to expect from it.
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