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I should like to set the scene, if I may, of a beautiful town on the south-east coast. Some very exciting new projects are taking place in Hastings. We will have a new gallery at the end of this year, and we are rebuilding our pier after recently receiving Heritage Lottery Fund money. Saga, which moved to the town in the past year, is bringing 800 new jobs. I could go on and on about the amazing positive developments that are taking place in Hastings, but we also have some major problems, and sadly, I should like to take this opportunity to draw attention to those for a few minutes.
The index of multiple deprivation is like a sin list for boroughs. There are 352 on the list and Hastings has risen steadily up it—the top is the worst. We recently found ourselves, sadly, at No. 19. There is poverty and a lack of industry in the town. There has been much debate in the town on what can be done to change that. How can we bring about the regeneration that we so desperately need? Everyone has a different view, but transport is the one matter on which we are united. How can we improve transport, and particularly rail links to London, to stimulate the regeneration that we need?
We feel cut off, like an island. Road problems compound the rail problem. From London, it takes 1 hour and 50 minutes to get to York by rail, 1 hour 55 minutes to get to Cardiff, and 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to Hastings. It is clearly absurd that such a short distance takes such a long time. Under the previous Labour Government, we had no investment in our roads or rail. We were shamefully neglected.
I am encouraged by the Government’s speedy and affirmative action in respect of electrification on the Great Western route and other railways in the north-west of England, and I dare to hope that they will also deliver improvements for the people of Hastings.
Why is the train service in Hastings quite so bad? This is an unfortunate, historical situation. We were let down when the new railway was built in the 1850s, because it competed for speed with the one being built to Brighton. We have problems with our tunnels, single lines in certain areas and we are vulnerable to points failure and slow periods during journeys. We also have electrification problems, so 12 cars cannot go south of Tunbridge.
How do we achieve the improvements that we so badly need? I am happy to say that Network Rail is working with Southeastern trains on small improvements. Incremental improvements are being made that will shave seconds, possibly minutes, off our journey times. We so hope that we will not for ever be known as the Cinderella line. Improvements are being made this year to some of the assets, including the points, and in order to rein back some of the speed restrictions.
We had horrific problems over the winter caused obviously by the snow, but what my constituents really objected to was the lack of information—they were kept waiting for hours unable to access the right information. I am told that Southeastern Trains and Network Rail are now working closely with National Rail to provide that information. However,I am ambitious for my constituency. I want to get rid of this end-of-the-line reputation, and I want us to have a much, much better line in order to achieve the necessary regeneration. I do not want just these incremental improvements; I want a first-class line, so that we can make the great leap forward that we need. We need a better quality of line, and we need that without enormous costs to the taxpayer.
The recent McNulty report leads the way. We were faced with the shocking statistic that our lines cost over 40% more than European ones. It points out how to stop above-inflation rises and it tells us about the reforms that can be instigated within our railway lines to stop this constant rising of costs and deterioration of services. My constituents have had enough of these constant inflation-busting rises. McNulty stresses value for money, and that is what we need but are not getting in Hastings. We need the reforms to stop these constant rises.
I believe we need to be ambitious with our railway service. I believe that we need investment—we cannot make these changes without investment—but I am very aware of the situation in which the Government find themselves with the terrible deficit they inherited. Where else can we look for the investment we so desperately need? We should look to a longer franchise. Those of us in Hastings were disappointed when the Secretary of State for Transport said that there was likely to be a three to six-year franchise after 2014. We should remember that the McNulty report calls for longer franchises—he makes the point that it simply makes good business sense. Sadly, we are told that the franchise proposal is because of Thameslink, but why should Hastings, which is so urgently in need of regeneration, be subject to Thameslink? We feel that we are always an afterthought—the little sister to be hushed up in the corner. I respectfully ask the Minister to stop ignoring us when it comes to deciding transport priorities. We do not want always to be a consequence of what is going on in the Thameslink project. Let us have a longer franchise—at least in double digits—and then we can get some investment in our line.
We can surely include some requirements for change to modify and adapt within the Thameslink requirements. We should be part of the consideration of Thameslink. Thameslink can go ahead, and we can have our franchise extended within certain requirements for modification if Thameslink requires it. However, having three to six-year franchises, as suggested, is like treading water with a repeatedly shoddy line. We urge the Minister to ensure that we are not let down and to reconsider the proposal. However, if the Department proceeds with a shorter franchise, at the very least we would ask it to focus on requiring an intermediary timetable change across the network for Hastings services to ensure that one of the existing trains per hour converts to a fast one.
My rail action group had a meeting with Southeastern Trains to put this proposal to it, and it responded by showing us the existing franchise to demonstrate that it had no room for manoeuvre. If we are to have the same type of shorter franchise as a stop-gap, which is not what we desire, we would ask that it be less prescriptive, so that we can at least have some fast trains a day. What we need from this investment is upgraded electrification and, eventually, double-tracking. I urge the Government to consider what could be done to help us achieve that. Perhaps there could be match funding when the new franchise is introduced. With £34 billion going into High Speed 2, perhaps we could have a small amount down in Hastings, so that the new franchise could have some investment to encourage the upgrades that we so desperately need.
I would also like to mention European funding. It sometimes feels like an elusive rabbit that keeps skipping across us in the picture. People say to us, “Have you tried European funding?” or, “What about TEN-T funding?”, but it seems to slip away from us whenever we try to reach out, or find out where it comes from or who can guide us. I would therefore be grateful for any guidance from the Minister on whether we should try to get European funding.
The franchise should be longer, but less prescriptive. My right hon. Friend Greg Clark has long campaigned for this. He has recent experience of travelling on the line—I believe at the front of the train, with the driver—and supports our efforts to secure a longer franchise.
Let me say a word about the Cannon Street to Hastings line. Every few years, it seems that we in Hastings have to fight once more to keep the service. Once more, we are being told, “Well, you may or may not get to keep it—it depends on Thameslink.” Please do not make us dependent on Thameslink. We need our Cannon Street service. We are a town that has some areas of deprivation. I hate going on about the deprivation—I would much rather extol the virtues of Hastings—but given that we have those problems, I must point out that the commuters who take the Cannon Street line are important to us because they are the higher earners. Sometimes people say, “Don’t worry about Cannon Street: if they get to Blackfriars or St Paul’s, they’ll be absolutely fine,” but I do not agree. Some 80% of the passengers who arrive at Cannon Street make their way on foot. Arriving at London Bridge or St Paul’s is entirely different. We need to keep the Cannon Street service, and we will campaign hard to do so.
My hon. Friend Gregory Barker has asked me to add his voice to this debate. He has said that the Cannon Street service is
“essential to both commuters and businesses” in his constituency, and that it
“should not be put under threat or in any way adversely affected by the Thameslink programme. Rail companies in East Sussex are already struggling to maintain a reasonable level of service due to poor investment in the track, signalling and rolling stock in the past. My constituents deserve a better deal. I seek investment to improve rail travel to make it affordable, reliable and sustainable.”
He puts it well and reinforces the arguments that I am making.
My constituents are patient, but we believe that we deserve better. We are ambitious for our town and for our regeneration. We have a rail action group, the St Leonards and Hastings Rail Improvement Programme, which is known locally as SHRIMP. SHRIMP is not known for its militancy, but we hope to change that. We will be stepping the campaign up and making our case, to make it clear that the rail links for Hastings are not incidental to our regeneration, and that we do not want to be incidental to the Thameslink programme. I would ask the Minister to consider helping us to structure a franchise to deliver a first-class line to a first-class town.