Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:17 pm on 11th November 2014.
I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the quality of the rolling stock we have to endure, which I will certainly talk about in due course.
My constituency is home to Gosport, the largest town in the UK without a railway station. Since the last election, £52 million of public and private money has been pumped into our fantastic new Solent enterprise zone at the disused Daedalus military airfield, but the state of our transport links does not reflect the potential of that investment. Even getting to the nearest station is famously difficult: when we want to catch a train, we must either fight our way up the peninsula to Fareham, on the pitifully inadequate roads, or head across to Portsmouth harbour on the Gosport ferry.
It must be said that business at these stations is booming. The number of passengers using Fareham railway station has gone from 1.5 million in 2009-10 to
1.7 million in 2012-13, while the figure for Portsmouth harbour has gone up from 1.8 million to 2.2 million in the same period—a 20% increase in just over three years. That reflects trends across the country, and the huge increase in demand since privatisation is a tribute to the success of our railways. However, it has been more successful for some than for others.
On journey speed, for example, someone travelling north out of London can be past Peterborough in 45 minutes—a distance of almost 100 miles. By contrast, the distance between Portsmouth and Southampton is just 20 miles, yet that train journey often takes more than an hour, with only two or three direct trains per hour. Inevitably, slow journey times and poor service frequency on the rail network mean that more and more people take to the roads, clogging up the already over-congested M27.
I mentioned earlier the painful journey times up to the capital. If passengers make the pilgrimage from Portsmouth to London, their journey to the busiest station in the UK is rarely pleasant. My hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt has spoken regularly about that, and Mr Hancock has alluded to the infamous class 450 carriages, the seats of which South West Trains itself found that 59% of passengers cannot squeeze into
“when their elbows are taken into account”.
Mobile reception is poor along the route and, should a passenger and their elbows manage to make it to Waterloo, they will arrive at a station so heaving that it sees more people in three hours every morning than Heathrow does in a full day.
Crushed on to little more than benches with limited mobile reception and no wi-fi before being spat out into the cauldron that is Waterloo station, it is little wonder that my constituents feel they are not getting value for money. People in the Portsmouth Harbour area pay a premium to travel in cramped conditions at a snail’s pace. I know that a chunk of the £38 billion the Government are due to invest in the railways will go to South West Trains, and that is, of course, welcome. Indeed, one could argue that it is not only welcome, but deserved. My constituents who travel by South West Trains—in fact, all those who do so—are already subsidising train lines in every other part of the country.
The House of Commons Library estimates that, unlike almost every other line that is subsidised by the Government, passengers on South West Trains will subsidise other train lines to the tune of £1.2 billon over the course of the franchise. Given the pressure on that part of the network, would it not be possible for South West Trains to keep hold of at least some of that money to reinvest in and upgrade the network in the south? This is not a case of asking for more money—we are simply asking for our own money back so that it can be invested in the area where it is needed most. Given the unique population pressures we face in the south-east—the south-east of England and London will grow at an unmatched rate over the coming decade—that seems both necessary and fair.
That could also be a sweetener to incentivise further improvements as part of the refranchising process. When that process comes around in September 2017, there simply must be commitments on better signalling to cut journey times—potentially even involving a change of signalling around Portsmouth to create more space further up the line—and, of course, refurbished carriages to increase capacity.
In addition, as I said earlier, one of the biggest problems at the London end of the line is the overcrowding at Waterloo. In the recent debate secured by my hon. Friend Mr Raab, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, who has responsibility for rail, said that a few winters ago she saw a wonderful production of “The Railway Children” on one of the former Eurostar platforms at Waterloo. Down south, we do not need the theatre to experience the glamour of 1930s train travel. Our tracks operate on the same lay-out as those laid in 1936. As she said, it is good news that the platforms are coming back into service, but will the Minister give my constituents a timetable for that process?
Finally, better signalling, bigger carriages and longer platforms are all necessary, but they will not be sufficient. In London and the south-east, we will have an extra 2 million people in 10 years’ time, so although all the upgrades to the existing line that I have mentioned are desperately needed, they will be no more than a sticking plaster.
I understand the difficult decisions that this, and indeed the next, Government will have to take on spending—there is less than no money to spend—but if we are seriously committed to building infrastructure fit for the 21st century and want to protect communities along the south coast as we undergo deep economic changes, the only long-term solution will be the construction of another line south from London. That might radically cut journey times, increase capacity and tackle head-on the deprivation that is endemic in too many communities in the south. With that sort of radical thinking, we could create a southern engine to match our northern powerhouse.