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Indeed, and another concern is that although the SRA has done a passenger count from Milton Keynes Central in the morning peak, which is how it arrived at the estimate of 3,000 commuters daily, it has not done counts of people getting off trains in Milton Keynes. Until a number of commuters and I alerted the SRA, it seemed not to be aware of the growing numbers of people who are commuting into Milton Keynes. That is of huge concern to businesses and to my hon. Friend and me.
Is the Minister satisfied with the judgment made by the Strategic Rail Authority on the balance to be struck between the needs of long-distance travellers and commuters from Milton Keynes? The authority seems to be operating only with data based on estimates, and I am not certain how accurate they are. If the additional capacity proves inadequate and the fears of Milton Keynes commuters turn out to be justified in September 2004, will the Minister insist on action immediately, or will my and my hon. Friend's constituents simply be expected to put up with it?
So far, I have dealt with current commuter needs; I now turn to the likely future growth in rail passengers, and the action that needs to be taken to meet that need. The Minister will be aware that Milton Keynes has been designated by the Government for future housing and employment growth. The demand for rail services is bound to increase, so even more capacity will be required.
Knowledge of that future growth makes current commuters concerned about capacity. Even if the capacity is adequate now, they worry about how long it will be before demand exceeds supply again. The Deputy Prime Minister has assured both Milton Keynes Members and the council that all necessary infrastructure will be provided in parallel with housing growth, not after housing growth. If the rail capacity from Milton Keynes is not increased, either economic growth will falter or the extra traffic will be transferred to the road, cancelling out the effects of the improvements planned for the M1.
I urge the Minister to work with the SRA and the train operators; he should start now to plan the rail infrastructure required to sustain that planned future growth. I draw his attention to four items. First, an extra platform with a loop on the fast line is needed at Milton Keynes Central; that would allow the interval between trains on the fast line to be reduced from eight minutes to four, permitting more Virgin trains to stop at Milton Keynes at peak times. Secondly, the additional turnback siding at Wolverton would allow more services to Wolverton, to the north of central Milton Keynes, as well as to Milton Keynes Central, and would encourage more people from the north of the city to choose rail rather than road.
Thirdly, improvements to signalling at Bletchley and works to the junction have been postponed by Network Rail until at least 2009. Those works would enable Bletchley to run the 12-car trains, and would allow greater speeds for trains going through Bletchley. It would also pave the way for the opening of the east-west route from Bletchley to Bicester, with the possibility of services from Oxford to Milton Keynes Central. Fourthly, the Hanslope flyover would allow services from Northampton to cross the fast line without delay.
Negotiations with the SRA are taking place for a two-year extension of the Silverlink franchise, and the long-term franchise is still up for consideration. As more commuters will be using the Silverlink services, the quality of trains and rolling stock will become more important. I ask the Minister to guarantee that the SRA will ensure that the new franchise will include quality standards, and that the authority will commit the franchise holder to significant quality improvements on the Milton Keynes to Euston commuter service. That would include the introduction of better-quality rolling stock, equivalent to that being introduced next year across the whole network, complete with air conditioning and InterCity-style tables.
In conclusion, I accept that the needs of different groups of rail passengers need to be balanced and that the SRA feels constrained by past commitments to British Rail and Virgin. However, it is not acceptable for Milton Keynes commuters to receive a worse service just to save passengers from the north a few minutes. It is not acceptable for Milton Keynes to be expected to grow and accommodate a high proportion of extra housing need in the south-east without improvements to the rail transport capacity. I urge Ministers to intervene to ensure that the interests of Milton Keynes commuters are protected, and to guarantee that the future needs of Milton Keynes are met.