Thameslink

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 2nd February 2010.

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Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford 11:00 am, 2nd February 2010

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate about planned major improvements to a transport route that is of considerable importance not only to many of my constituents in Bedford and Kempston but to hundreds of thousands of other people along the route and those who use its many connections. It is also crucial to the economy of London and a wide area north and south of the capital.

Since I first sought this debate, we have unfortunately experienced the serious deterioration of the rail service operated by First Capital Connect. Therefore, before completing my presentation, it would be entirely remiss of me not to take the opportunity to raise some points about that, not only to reflect the inconvenience suffered by my constituents and others but because what has happened raises some legitimate questions about capability to deliver the much improved service to passengers promised by the Thameslink programme. I shall return to those matters later.

I am pleased to see many hon. Members present for this debate, especially fellow members of the all-party Thameslink route group-my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), for Brighton, Pavilion (David Lepper) and for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), and Mr. Horam-and others such as my hon. Friend Mr. Laxton. I apologise for not referring to the others who are here. I do not think that they have signed up to the all-party group, but they can do so later.

Some of us have benefited from opportunities to inspect aspects of the Thameslink programme works, for which we are grateful to Network Rail, First Capital Connect and various construction companies. The Thameslink service has become such an accepted part of the transport infrastructure of south-east England that it is easy to forget how relatively recently it came about. The electrification of the midlands suburban route between St. Pancras, Moorgate and Bedford had already been started by a previous Labour Government in the late 1970s, when the idea of joining it up with what was then known as the Southern region began to be discussed.

British Rail engineers devised a plan to reopen the Snow Hill tunnel route between Farringdon and Holborn Viaduct stations, a route that had not seen a passenger train since Lloyd George was in Downing street, and from which the last freight service had been withdrawn in 1970. The plan initially was for some kind of shuttle between West Hampstead and south London, but the project eventually grew to become Thameslink: a full-blown network of services linking Bedford and Luton in the north with Gatwick and Brighton in the south via the City of London, with an additional loop serving Wimbledon.

Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I apologise that I am not a member of the hon. Gentleman's all-party Thameslink route group. Someone who represents East Croydon station should definitely be a member of such a group. Would he agree that the small public sector investment in that station was important because it ended up relieving a great deal of stress and strain in terms of cross-London passenger traffic? Does that not emphasise how important it is for the Government to continue to be supportive of such initiatives? Huge amounts of money are being proposed for Crossrail, but north-south movements are just as important as east-west movements in the whole south-east and London area.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

The hon. Gentleman anticipates my comments, although I shall not speak against any other project. Crossrail is important as well, but I agree with the fundamental point that we must commit to this programme, and I will say so later on.

I shall give a little of the history, because it is sometimes helpful to put things in that context. A special fleet of dual-voltage trains was ordered from British Rail Engineering which were able to draw electrical power from overhead cables north of Snow Hill and from the third rail to the south of it. Full service was introduced in 1988 and became an immediate success. Indeed, we all recognise that it quickly became the victim of its own success: overcrowding and standing room only became the norm at peak times. I would have liked to illustrate that with passenger numbers for 1988, when the service started, for 2000 and for last year, but, unfortunately and unacceptably, I have been informed that the Department for Transport will not release such figures on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

Whether overcrowding is official or not, commuters on the Thameslink route certainly have good reason to feel that they endure unacceptably overcrowded conditions at peak times. The Bedford to Brighton line features in the top 10 most crowded in every survey. Indeed, some research by Network Rail has revealed that 50 per cent. of regular peak-time Thameslink users claim that sometimes the train is so full that they cannot get on it at all. [Interruption.] Like London underground.

Overcrowding was recognised by British Rail, which sought to address it and to widen the scope of the Thameslink service through the Thameslink 2000 programme, which, unfortunately, became mired in the fallout from the chaotic privatisation of the railways and also the complexity of dealing with issues around the Town and Country Planning Acts, especially in south-east London. But, eventually, thanks to the hard work and determination of many, mostly in the public sector, and the robustness of the business case itself, in 2007 the Government were able to give the go-ahead for the Thameslink programme.

The main part of the Thameslink route covers 140 miles of railway and 50 stations between Bedford and Brighton. It interchanges with major rail hubs at St. Pancras and London Bridge, plus international airports at Luton and Gatwick. The core section, from St. Pancras to Blackfriars, carries more passengers than Heathrow airport every day. The Thameslink programme aims to deliver a massive increase in rail capacity through longer trains and high-frequency services, and, in so doing, should indirectly help to tackle overcrowding on other railway lines and parts of the London underground.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the case for the benefits of extending Thameslink to each and every one of the 50 stations from the Sussex coast up to mid and, indeed, north Bedfordshire, but does he recognise that ensuring that we have sufficient capacity in the centre of London-this obviously applies to the Crossrail debate as well as to the Thameslink debate-is of crucial importance if there is not to be the overcrowding to which he referred earlier?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Indeed, the whole of the programme is predicated upon delivering that capacity through engineering changes and improvements in the core, in central London.

The scope of the Thameslink network opened up by engineering improvements in the core, which have just been referred to, will greatly increase beyond the Bedford-Brighton corridor, extending to Peterborough, Cambridge and King's Lynn in the north and to a large number of destinations south of London. Work is well under way in delivering the Thameslink programme. The first phase was completed on time and on budget in March 2009, and essentially prepared for the main construction phase that we are now in, but we should not take that preparation for granted, as it was all about enabling services to run as smoothly as possible during the main construction phase.

We have already benefited from a superb new station at St. Pancras International, which replaced the appalling King's Cross Thameslink, and we will soon see delivery of a new station at Blackfriars, which will span the Thames. It will be ready in time for 2012. Farringdon station has been transformed, including preparation for an interchange with Crossrail, which will greatly increase connectivity for millions of people throughout the Thameslink network as well as east-west along Crossrail itself.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have had disagreements with Thameslink over its choice of the route through London Bridge and the consequent potential effects on Borough market. The battle was fought and lost, so we will have to wait to see whether Borough market survives with the character that it has had. However, the extension from Blackfriars to the south bank is extremely welcome and will do what has been necessary for a long time to link that station to others, although it is a short walk to the Jubilee line, and to make all sorts of other connections possible. That is a very exciting opportunity, and those of us on the south bank look forward very much to the station's opening.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I am sure they do. As far as the Thameslink programme is concerned, some people think that Bermondsey is the centre of the universe. I am pleased to see Simon Hughes in this Chamber. I did not mention his name when I began my speech because I do not think that he was here then, but he is a welcome member of the all-party group that I mentioned.

Outside London, work is proceeding to extend station platforms to accommodate the new 12-car trains. Phase 3 is London Bridge, which is the most congested place on the whole network: the result of the unplanned approach to railway construction in the capital during the 19th century, creating a railway headache that no one has really sought to tackle until now. London Bridge is crucial to the success of the programme and will unlock the railway and release capacity for 24 trains an hour through the core.

I recently submitted 10 written parliamentary questions to the Department for Transport to check on the progress of this vital scheme. I compliment my hon. Friend the Minister on the fact that most were answered within 24 hours. I should have asked about passenger numbers-and I will. His Department told me that some 1,500 construction workers are currently employed full time on the Thameslink programme, with a further 500 to 700 working part time.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour, Brighton, Pavilion

I suspect that my hon. Friend will give us some more information about the number of workers employed on the scheme. Does he share my concern that possible redundancies of some of Network Rail's engineering staff could compromise not only the Thameslink programme, but important maintenance work in the whole Southern region?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I understand that there are concerns about maintenance on the whole rail network. This is not the place to go into detail on that, although those concerns are certainly shared by many hon. Members. By having such a debate, we put these issues firmly on the agenda and help to get them addressed later, which I hope will happen.

Mentioning the people employed in the Thameslink project helps to reinforce the point that public transport infrastructure schemes can provide much-needed employment during a recession, when the construction sector is always the first to feel the pain. I have also been informed that an additional 80 train drivers will need to be recruited to operate the additional services from around 2013 onwards. I will say something about driver vacancies and recruitment before concluding.

Through written answers I have learned that the first of the new 12-car and eight-car trains is expected to be delivered by the end of 2013. There is some time to go before that happens and I hope that my long-suffering constituents will be able to stomach that wait, but at least it is coming.

The programme is costing between £5.5 billion and £6 billion, which is a little more than was originally estimated. This information apparently led to briefings or leaks to The Observer newspaper, which reported on 15 November 2008 that the Thameslink programme was facing

"£750 million of cutbacks in a Treasury crackdown on costly infrastructure projects" and that

"According to" unidentified

"rail industry sources, the number of trains passing through central London at peak times could be cut from 24 services per hour...to 20", which would be most unfortunate.

There has also been speculation about the orders for the new trains and the 1,100 new carriages for the Thameslink network as a whole, which are due to be awarded either by the end of March or during the summer or autumn. I hope that we get some clarity on that situation.

Photo of Bob Laxton Bob Laxton Labour, Derby North

It is crucial for my constituents and for the rail industry in total that this order goes to the only UK-based train assembler or manufacturer that is left in the country. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I find it ironic that after 150 years or more of the rail industry, if this order went to a company outside the UK, it could be the end of train manufacturing here in the UK and with it could go many jobs: 2,500 in Derby and 12,000 or thereabouts in the supply chain. It is crucial that this contract goes ahead and equally crucial that it is awarded to a UK-based company.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I understand my hon. Friend's point and share his view. Of course, the process for dealing with bids must be above board.

When Bombardier failed to deliver the 23 new train units last March I visited it and was impressed: it put its hands up, did not blame anyone else and said that it had made mistakes. In fact, some of Bombardier's suppliers had got into serious difficulties because of the recession and it took over some of the supply chain to ensure that the delivery was completed. Only two weeks ago the last of the 23 trains was delivered, which has caused all kinds of knock-on effects. I was impressed by Bombardier's positive attitude and the fact that it made no excuses whatsoever.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Independent, Castle Point

I agree with what Mr. Laxton said in the previous intervention. While Patrick Hall is considering related matters, may I say that I am grateful to him for his work on Thameslink? Thousands of my constituents use Thameslink every day and find that train fares are far too high-much higher than the average in Europe-and do not give value for money. Does he want the Minister to address that issue while he is captive in this Chamber?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

The degree of state subsidy in railway systems around the world is an interesting question that I would happy to debate on another occasion. It is a matter of choice for Governments. Peak-time travel in this country is expensive, but off-peak travel is often much cheaper than in many other continental countries.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I will be speaking for a long time if I take interventions on the cost of travel to the passenger. None the less, I know that my hon. Friend will persuade me to give way.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I will be brief. Does he accept that a major cause of the rise in the cost of fares in Britain is privatisation? The costs of laying track have increased by five times and maintenance costs have increased by four times. That is why fares have had to rise.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

If my hon. Friend wishes to secure an Adjournment debate on the case for public ownership of the national asset that is the rail network, I shall be there with him.

We all know that concern about public finances is high on the political agenda. The Government's deficit-reduction plan will include tough departmental cuts and the official Opposition have stated that the country has run out of money, that we face a decade of austerity and that an emergency Budget will follow within 50 days of a Conservative election victory. I state as firmly as I can that the Thameslink programme must be delivered: no delays, no dilution. It is essential on social, economic and environmental grounds. The business case depends on completion of the major works at London Bridge, which must not be cut. Indeed, it turns out that the programme is integral to supporting the economy as we emerge from the recession. If anyone doubts this, they should ask the passengers along the route, including my constituents. Up to £6 billion is a lot of money, but this is an extremely cost-effective use of money. To cut back on the final phase-London Bridge-would put the brake on the part of the programme that will deliver the biggest benefit. It would be short-sighted, foolish and a tragedy to do so.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we cannot stop-start railway projects, which are long-term projects that, once committed to, should be followed through and, if curtailed, would be a cost to the public purse. Does he agree that it would help if, prior to the election, all three parties committed to proceeding with the Thameslink programme as planned? May I say, to start the ball rolling, that the Liberal Democrats do so?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

I certainly endorse that example of parties working together in the country's interests, because that is what should happen sometimes. We will have an opportunity today to hear about that if someone picks up that helpful suggestion.

Before concluding with questions to the Minister, I shall speak about First Capital Connect. I appreciate that there will be an Adjournment debate on the subject tomorrow, so I need not go into great detail, as I could, but issues arise that are relevant to how trains will operate on completion of the Thameslink programme.

I acknowledge the disruption, inconvenience and additional cost borne by many of my constituents and thousands of others from mid-November to the end of January. That arose principally from the decision of drivers, mostly at the Bedford depot, to work only their contracted hours, and not to volunteer to work on their rest days. That was connected with FirstGroup's decision to offer a pay award that included a 0 per cent. increase for the first year. However, negotiations were still proceeding with ASLEF, and there was no need, in terms of collective bargaining procedures, for the unofficial action. It seems that the situation was bound up with frustration owing to disruption and delay of promised training, triggered by Bombardier's failure-it was not entirely its fault, as I acknowledged-to deliver 23 new class 377 trains between October 2008 and March 2009, and principally because of knock-on effects of First Capital's taking on the new Bedford-Sevenoaks service. That combination created difficulties in delivering the driver training that FCC had promised. Suffice it to say that FCC must now demonstrate to the public and the Government that it will get on top of its industrial relations and help to restore the good will that is essential to running the railway.

Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour, Brighton, Pavilion

Does my hon. Friend agree that First Capital Connect should have been swifter in coming forward with a compensation package for regular travellers on the line, and does he share my hope that even now it will widen the scope of that package?

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Because things were happening so fast daily, and with the exceptional weather, it was probably difficult to please everyone instantly. People always want more compensation, and the latest offer, which I believe is about to go online, is much more generous than was mooted earlier. Some of my constituents may not be happy with it, but on balance I have concluded that the compensation package is now reasonable and fair. FCC has taken on additional staff to cope with the demands and claims, and I believe that it is determined to learn lessons for industrial relations and compensation from its dreadful experience.

The period during which drivers started to work to contract, leading to the emergency timetable and the 50 per cent. reduction in the service from Bedford, led to all sorts of claims about driver numbers and vacancies. I have heard all sorts of suggestions about the number of unfilled vacancies, which I have not yet got to the bottom of, but I am determined to do so, and it is in the public interest that the House does so. Whatever Department of Transport officials say is commercially confidential, I ask the industry to be clear and open with the public, because that will help to restore confidence.

When FCC took over the franchise in 2006, it proceeded to recruit 30 extra drivers-13 were recruited after April 2009, and 16 more were recruited after November-beyond the normal recruitment level needed to cope with retirement and so on. The extra trains integral to the Thameslink service will generate further recruitment needs. I have been assured that FCC has in place mechanisms to review the establishment regularly to ensure that the enhanced service made possible by the Thameslink programme is delivered.

FCC must acknowledge that the difficulties created for passengers by the drivers' work-to-contract episode, and later the snow and ice, were greatly exacerbated by an incompetent communications system. Again, I am confident that lessons have been learned, and that improvements will be made over the next several months. FCC is spending money on that. I have referred to the point about compensation made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North.

I shall conclude with some questions to the Minister. Will he confirm the Government's unwavering commitment to completion of the whole of the Thameslink project as already programmed? Will he tell me, now or later, what proportion of the overall benefit will be delivered by completion of phase 3, which is officially, if clumsily, known as key output 2-that is, London Bridge? Will he tell me why delivery of the 1,100 new carriages in the form of 12-car and 8-car units does not coincide with the planned completion of the Thameslink programme? The latter is 2012, but the new trains are apparently due at the end of 2013. Will the Minister confirm when the preferred bidder to supply the new trains will be announced, and when the contract will be placed?

The Minister will know that First Capital Connect encountered further problems during the cold weather because the sliding doors on the class 319 units froze tight due to snow penetration. That did not happen throughout the network on trains fitted with plug doors. As the 1,100 new carriages will have sliding and not plug doors, will he reconsider that specification?

FCC is addressing the need for improvements that it can deliver on passenger and station staff information, but industry-wide issues are being examined by the Minister's Department, with Network Rail and train operators as a whole. Is he in a position to apprise me and the House of progress and a programme of action?

Will my hon. Friend tell me what might happen to the Bedford depot and sidings when the 12-car trains are introduced? I understand that there is insufficient space to accommodate trains of that length, which are of the fixed formation type, so they cannot be broken up.

Finally, it is in the public interest to know about passenger numbers.

There is always more to add, but despite the problems of the past two and a half months, we are approaching a time when the congestion and overcrowding of the past 20 years will be overcome. That is good and positive news, and an outcome to which I hope everyone is committed.

Several hon. Members:

rose-

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

Order. I remind hon. Members who wish to contribute to the debate that the Front-Bench contributions must start not later than 12 o'clock.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington 11:28 am, 2nd February 2010

I congratulate Patrick Hall on securing this debate. He is an energetic chairman of the all-party group on the Thameslink route, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of that group. As he said, the core part of that important project is the bit between St. Pancras and Blackfriars, but the third stage, to which he referred, is the improvements that we will get up to 2015-unfortunately rather a long way away-to the Borough market junction and London Bridge station, which are equally important to the project. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the project because I represent people in south London and Orpington who use that service. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been huge problems with congestion of services through London Bridge station over many years because of the historic bottleneck resulting from unplanned development of railways during the 19th century. The problem was not tackled during the 20th century, and it is amazing that we have had to wait until the 21st century.

Perhaps I can read out a short section of a letter that amply exemplifies the problems faced by my constituents. On 8 January, a lady wrote to Southeastern Trains about a train journey that took place between London Bridge and Orpington on 7 January:

"I wish to make a strong complaint about the overcrowding on the above train...I was unable to move or breathe easily. It was not possible to remove my hat, gloves or answer my mobile phone. With lots of layers of clothing on and my coat"- obviously, January 7 was a very cold day-

"I was unable to stop myself from overheating. I can honestly say you were lucky no one was injured in my carriage...There was no security or help from the platform before leaving London Bridge...Thoughts were going through my mind of the Heysel stadium".

It does get that bad on some of these overcrowded commuter trains at certain times of day or night. That letter, written this year, indicates the daily problems that my constituents are facing, which, hopefully, will be alleviated in years to come by the Thameslink programme.

The problem is not simply one of overcrowding on a daily basis, but of some of the choices that the Southeastern Trains operating company has to make. For example, it has had to cancel the only services between Orpington, Petts Wood and New Cross-an important area of employment for my constituents with Goldsmiths college and so on-to put in a new service to Lewisham to serve Canary Wharf. Obviously, Canary Wharf is also a source of employment for my constituents, but Southeastern Trains has had to choose between the two because the capacity constraints on that line are such that there cannot be both. That is frankly ridiculous in the 21st century.

That is the overcrowding problem that we face. As we know, the notes sent out by Network Rail for this debate stated:

"The track and signalling around London Bridge is the most complicated and congested in Europe. By 'untangling' the rail infrastructure at London Bridge we can deliver the massive capacity increase that 100,000s of passengers need and a high frequency service through central London.".

That is what we are looking for. I appreciate the point made by Simon Hughes-who is also a member of the all-party group on the Thameslink route-about the serious conflict between Borough market and the needs of passenger services in that area. It is a great pity that the problem has had to be resolved with some disadvantage to Borough market. The market is a wonderful piece of London's heritage, and although the solution that has been reached means some truncation of Borough market, I hope that it will none the less mean that the service can provide for what is an important part of south-east London's history.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's sensitive reference to that issue. Only time will tell, although we will lose some listed buildings and the whole configuration will be different. I accept the case for having more lines to London Bridge, but the only issue that has not yet been resolved is that of ensuring that the South London line has enough platforms and can continue its loop round from Victoria. The Minister is aware of that point, as I have been to see him. That is the one remaining piece of engineering organisation that, if it could be resolved, would considerably help people in our part of the world.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

I am sure that the Minister will hear what the hon. Gentleman has said. The final point made by the hon. Member for Bedford, quite rightly, is that this programme should not be cut. Norman Baker strongly supported that, and it is certainly uppermost in our minds. This programme should not be cut and we should be committed to it.

Unfortunately, I must point out to the hon. Member for Bedford that his Government have presided over an economic crisis that has led to the spending of billions of pounds that could otherwise go towards this sort of infrastructure. Equally, they have squandered public funds on a heroic-perhaps I should say unheroic-scale, as a result of which, productivity in the public sector has gone down. There is a problem that we must face realistically.

The sort of solution we need was set out on 26 January in the Financial Times, which pointed out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced cuts in capital expenditure of about one half over the next four or five years. Our worry is that the project under discussion could be included in that sort of cut. It was pointed out that we could match up the funds of the pensions industry, for example, which need long-term revenue to service, with the income flows from such transport infrastructure. That could provide an alternative source of financing for these big projects, apart from public sector funds. Unfortunately, we have a rather unhappy history with the private finance initiative, which, again, has not been handled well by the Government. If we are to save such projects, alternative ways of financing the transport infrastructure must be taken into account and used imaginatively. It is vital that such projects go ahead.

Recently, I was on a trip with the Foreign Affairs Committee to Madrid and Lisbon, and I saw for myself the effect on a capital city of modern transport services and roads-of course, in those cases there was access to large amounts of European Union funds. One can see the galvanising effect that that sort of infrastructure has on quality of life, as well as on the economic performance of those cities. London desperately needs that sort of spending on such schemes. That is why I am an enthusiastic member of the all-party group on the Thameslink route, and I hope that the scheme will go ahead in its entirety.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 11:35 am, 2nd February 2010

I shall try to be as brief as possible to enable other hon. Members to speak. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend-and my genuine friend-Patrick Hall on securing the debate and on what he has said today. Like him, I am a massive enthusiast of railways in general, and the modernisation of Thameslink in particular. I have thousands of constituents who, like my hon. Friend, travel every day by Thameslink. I have been a commuter on that line for the past 41 years, and I still use it every day. Therefore, I know the problem. Some years ago, I think I had an influence in persuading Ministers to build the box station at St. Pancras International, pointing out that if we had not done that, Eurostar services would have been seriously damaged. The line is a serious provider of passengers straight on to Eurostar. Because of that box station, those of us who live on the Thameslink line can pop over to Paris at short notice-something I have done myself.

The improvement of the through-London service is excellent and vital, and I am happy about the concept. However, I must raise some concerns about the engineering and the technology. Friends of mine in the industry-engineers in particular-have said that there are serious problems. From time to time I read magazines such as Modern Railways, which give me a bit of insight into how things work. Trying to get 24 trains through that middle section is a major problem. That is a large number of trains, and it is not a simple through-route. There are two routes feeding in from GNER and from the midlands to King's Cross and St. Pancras. Sequencing all those trains and ensuring that they get through on time and can stop, offload, onload and move on will be a serious problem.

To an extent, that has been partly recognised, but there are other problems. That section of the line has some of the steepest gradients in the country. Will we have sufficient power to allow trains to get through those gradients sufficiently quickly? I understand that most trains have eight driven axles for a four-car unit, but we may need to increase the number of driven axles-which increases costs-to ensure that trains can cope with those gradients at sufficient speed to get through the system.

The switchover from overhead AC power lines to third-rail DC drive also takes time. I see that every day at Farringdon. That is another potential problem that can slow trains down. As I have said, that has been recognised to an extent. There is some suggestion of having automatic train operation between Kentish Town and Blackfriars. Automatic train operation has not been tried in Britain on a mainline service. It is used on the Victoria line, but not elsewhere. It has not been tried, and certainly not on a complex system such as Thameslink, where there are two railway lines coming into one at St. Pancras. Automatic operation in a dry, straight tunnel with no complications is one thing, but where there are problems with weather such as wet track, leaf fall or frost if some of the track is exposed, something called defensive braking will be required in the automatic operation to ensure that the trains do not slip and that they get through. Again, that could cause delay and would certainly add enormous costs.

I therefore suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that what we need at this stage, before things go wrong and we say, "Oh dear, we can't deal with this; there's a problem", is a thorough review of all the engineering problems in the system by BR-trained engineers in all the specialisms required, not by project managers and people who have little experience in railways, and without pressure from Network Rail or contractors to gloss over details. We must get this right, and I ask the Minister to secure a thorough engineering review by an independent group of engineers with all the necessary skills to ensure that we do not make mistakes and that we get it right.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I hope to be able to advise my hon. Friend. This may not negate the need for the engineering review that he is calling for, but I understand that the intention is to have a section of track available to test the automatic train operation technologies well in advance of any intention to implement them.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I thank my hon. Friend for that. It is welcome. One other point is that there are signalling and electrical power problems. Already there have been line-side fires in the tunnel between Farringdon and City Thameslink. That, I understand, is caused by arcing from the third rails, because the delivery for electricity to those tracks is at one end of that section of track rather than, typically, in the centre, which means that the voltages must be higher to drive the current longer distances. Those points have been made to me by engineers who understand these things-I have some technical knowledge myself-and they are serious matters. If one line-side fire stops 24 trains an hour, a two-hour blockage stops 48 trains, and if 48 12-car trains are suddenly stopped, we have a real crisis. We cannot afford to have things going wrong on a line of this importance any more than we could afford serious problems on some of the major underground routes. At least sometimes there are alternatives to underground routes. There may not be alternatives for Thameslink. I have raised those matters with the Minister to ensure that he is aware that there are potential engineering problems and to ask him to investigate the possibility of having a thorough review.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change 11:42 am, 2nd February 2010

I am grateful to Patrick Hall for the opportunity provided by the debate. I shall make just a short contribution, but I am one of those colleagues who have been involved in all the discussions about Thameslink for many years. I just gently say that of course the project used to be called Thameslink 2000; we have slipped a little in relation to its delivery.

I want to make several points. One is that at the fantastic new St. Pancras station-I agree about how wonderful it is-there is still, for both British and international travellers, some confusion about which lines run from where. Obviously, the Eurostar is clearly signed, but it is not entirely clear, from all entrances, where people should catch other services from, and that information can be crucial to people's timetabling and their ability to get from ticket office to train and from one line to another. Although that is not directly a Thameslink responsibility, it is relevant to users of Thameslink and interconnecting passengers, so I make a plea that Thameslink use its good influence, and Network Rail and those who manage St. Pancras also act to ensure that there is a clear set of signs so that people can be clear about which trains leave from the upper level, about which trains leave from the lower level at the back and about Eurostar.

Secondly, in relation to London Bridge, which is the biggest issue affecting my constituency and has been referred to already by the hon. Members for Bedford and for Orpington (Mr. Horam), I shall not refight the battle that we fought. We argued that there was an alternative route that might have been a good one-either the Herne Hill route or a new route by a new bridge over the Thames. That could have avoided the problem of having to demolish many listed buildings at London Bridge. However, it is important that as part of the new project London Bridge station is reconstructed. I think that it is still the station in London that has most passengers through it every day. It is phenomenally busy and congested, and many of the trains into and out of it are, as the hon. Member for Orpington rightly pointed out, phenomenally busy and congested. That can be very unpleasant and, indeed, dangerous.

The local community that lives around the station will have to pay the price of all the works, which have started on the site next door. The tallest building in London is being built there at the moment. I am referring to the Shard of Glass at London Bridge. The community is signed up to that project, on the understanding that phase 1 will be completed before 2012. There will be a pause during the Olympic period and there will be a second phase after that. I absolutely endorse the plea from the hon. Member for Bedford and others that we do not see the project grind to a halt after phase 1. I am very grateful for the commitment by my hon. Friend Norman Baker that makes clear the importance that we attach to the completion after 2012 of the rest of the project.

Thirdly, there is a bit-I say "a bit"; it is not insignificant. A further part of the work is on the line out of London Bridge station, as part of the works in Bermondsey. Again, that is entirely supported by me and the community. We just want to signal and register our support for that.

Fourthly, I have indicated the real excitement that there is about the opportunity of Blackfriars station extending across the river. That is being sold and presented very well by Thameslink, which has put posters across Blackfriars bridge making it clear that it will be the first cross-river railway station either ever or for a very long time-I cannot remember, although I ought to. That in itself is exciting. It is frustrating that we did not win the battle all those years ago when the Jubilee line alignment was determined, meaning that there could have been an interconnection at the station, on the south side, so people would not have had to come out of the station but could have linked to another. The local community is paying a small price at the moment in terms of pedestrian disruption, but the community negotiated with Thameslink and Network Rail; it is understanding of that. As long as the timetable is kept to, it is entirely understood and appreciated.

Photo of Chris Mole Chris Mole Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I tried to visit Tate Modern over the Christmas period and I know exactly what he is talking about.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

I am pleased to hear that. The Minister is very welcome to visit my constituency socially, as well as for political reasons, at any time. As someone who, wearing another hat, chairs the Mayor of London's Thames festival, which now has just short of 1 million visitors in September every year, I know that ensuring that the pedestrian flows along the riverbank work well through all the building work is important to ensure that there is no inconvenience. Again, we shall need to ensure, as Blackfriars station comes on-stream on the south side, that we have the most effective signs and intercommunication, so that people understand the great benefit of getting off at Southwark underground station on the Jubilee line and making that connection. We need to ensure that that works well, even though it is a few hundred yards out in the open.

Fifthly, I turn to signalling, a point that was made by Kelvin Hopkins. I was keen, when the opportunity arose again in the time of the Conservative Government, to ensure that we had an extension to the London underground. In the end, it was not the initially preferred solution, but the Jubilee line extension was certainly welcome. We had to fight to ensure that it was not just a fast line that went from London Bridge and Waterloo straight to Canary Wharf, and we managed to win the battle to get stations in Southwark and Bermondsey, which are also welcome. Ten years on, we are celebrating 10 years of the extension, but there are many closures for re-signalling work. That will obviously produce a good outcome but, although I am no engineer, I want to flag up the importance of ensuring that we get the signalling work in place such that there will be a longer period through which it will be expected to work without disruption, because little is worse than having a fantastic new line that then needs upgrades and on which there are weekend closures and other disruption fairly shortly after it has been put in place.

My last point is one that I have made to Network Rail and to Thameslink. At the moment, there cannot be a seamless connection, because of the works done, from the south to the north, particularly at weekends or at night, when people might be able to get to London Bridge but then find that there is no service that goes all the way through, and they have to reconnect at St. Pancras. It is therefore very important to ensure, again, that the information is clear in advance. Having once gone with others to catch a plane, I know that if a service is not there when people think that it will be, they will miss not just their train, but their flight from Luton, Gatwick or elsewhere. Can we therefore make sure that there is really good advance information all the year round at all stations along the line about what happens at weekends and at nights when there is no connection? People will then know exactly what to do and what the quickest connecting route is. Can we also ensure that all the other transport operators work together with Thameslink and Network Rail?

Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Labour, Crawley 11:50 am, 2nd February 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Patrick Hall on raising this important issue. As a member of the all-party group, I have learned exactly what the Thameslink programme will mean for our constituents, which is why we have put in extra work looking at improvements, watching out for the things that will affect our constituents and trying to intervene through debates such as this. It is a pleasure to be here, although I shall take only a couple of minutes to speak, so that all hon. Members get an opportunity to contribute to this important debate.

We are here because of our constituents. The lives of some have been disrupted by what, in many ways, is the First Capital Connect debacle, and people have had a difficult time. It is hard for us as Members of Parliament fighting for improvements to Thameslink to see our constituents experience that totally avoidable disruption to their lives; all those of us who travel into London every day understand exactly what they are going through. Having their rail journeys disrupted is truly upsetting and can make the rest of their day a miserable experience. That is the last thing that we want.

We understand what the £5.5 billion of improvements will mean. Those of us who were lucky enough to take a cab to look at the magnificent improvements around King's Cross and at the amazing work that is going on there were immensely proud to see that we can have first-class rail travel services. As I said, we are all here for our constituents, and although we have a firm eye on the Olympics and on the important improvements that can be put in place for people travelling into London-certainly from Gatwick airport-that is a bit of a side issue; we are talking about our constituents and ensuring that their journey times are good.

Of course, we also want to ensure that our constituents' journeys are safe. Like my hon. Friend Kelvin Hopkins, I have been concerned about the loss of engineering jobs at Network Rail. That is because we have been listening to people who know and love the railways and who understand what that loss might mean. I am delighted that the Office of the Rail Regulator is now keeping a close eye on what Network Rail is up to, to ensure that my constituents are safe.

We need to know that the Thameslink upgrade programme will be completed in its entirety; if it were not, that would be a travesty of justice. We have sold the whole programme to our constituents on the basis that their lives as members of the travelling public will be massively improved soon, in five years. That is what people deserve. We know the prosperity that the changes will bring. When we were at school, we understood how important the Stockton-to-Darlington railway was and what improvements and prosperity it brought to communities. In the same way, we know that the current programme will improve the way in which people live and work in the south-east. That is why we are so desperate to see the programme finished in its entirety.

I completely understand that those who have to make a decision about the two remaining competitors for the Thameslink rolling stock project must be extremely careful, but I do not have to be. I should say that I am convinced that the Bombardier project needs to be selected. I went on an Industry and Parliamentary Trust transport group visit to look at the trains being constructed in Derby, and I was utterly blown away by the professionalism that I saw. As we know, there have been difficulties, but those involved have held their hands up, and we can move on. I am firmly putting my flag up for the Bombardier team and I hope that it gets the project.

The Thameslink programme is enormous. If we go to the Network Rail and Thameslink programme website, it is hard even to conceive of the number of projects that are running at one time-it is tremendous. People should look at the magnificent depot proposed for Three Bridges, which is the central station in my constituency. The project will provide 300 new jobs, but I need the Minister to reassure me that it will go ahead so that we can look forward to restoring Three Bridges and making it the major hub that it was many years ago. When I was a small baby, my parents moved to Crawley New Town, and Three Bridges was at the heart of the train service. We look forward to those days returning. The Minister has been fantastic on train issues, and I ask him to reassure us that the Thameslink programme is safe in the Government's hands.

As Simon Hughes asked, can we ensure that information is there for passengers and gives them the opportunity to know when there will be disruptions? Major improvements mean disruption for our constituents, so we need to let them know what is going on. I have been impressed by the information that has been put in place so far, but that needs to continue. Let us see the Thameslink programme benefit all our constituencies, so that we can be proud of it for many years to come.

J

Laura Moffatt is right to highlight the way in which Three Bridges can be a railway hub of economic value to the region.

We also need to think of the importance of nearby Gatwick as a multi-transport hub. Development is needed there to ensure that those switching between car, coach, train, bus and plane can do so easily and be served by frequent public transport services. This sort of hub can be of considerable benefit to the regional economy providing good connections without the need to go up to London. Development of the rail network and of the railway station is essential to this. And the station design needs to include easy access to the other types of transport.

Investment of this sort is vital to sustainable economic development of the region.

Submitted by John Byng

Photo of Bob Laxton Bob Laxton Labour, Derby North 11:56 am, 2nd February 2010

I congratulate my hon. Friend Patrick Hall on securing this debate. I acknowledge-no, more than acknowledge-the comments made by my hon. Friend Laura Moffatt about awarding the contract to Bombardier, which is a UK-based company.

It is clear from the debate that some hon. Members in the Chamber have far more knowledge about the ins and outs and the nuts and bolts of the Thameslink route than I do. My expertise, if I have any, comes from my home city of Derby. I want briefly to reinforce the points that I made in my intervention.

Although Bombardier in Derby has a reasonable amount of work, it will be disastrous if the company fails to win the Thameslink contract, because it would effectively run out of work over the next couple of years. As a result of what is happening in the world economy, the UK wants to rebuild its industry, to get people back into work and to sustain them in work.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I absolutely support my hon. Friend's point that the contract should go to Bombardier. However, this is about not only Bombardier, but British manufacturing and the loss of skills. If we ever lost that manufacturing capacity, it would be almost impossible to recreate, and our balance of trade deficit, which is already massive, would become even larger. We would be on the way to ceasing to be a manufacturing nation, with seriously damaging consequences for the long term.

Photo of Bob Laxton Bob Laxton Labour, Derby North

I agree entirely. That is why it is vital that a UK-based company should win the work.

I am on record as being somewhat critical-that is perhaps an understatement-of some of the ordering processes at the Department for Transport. The most recent example involved the inter-city express contract being awarded to Agility Trains, a consortium that includes Hitachi of Japan. The contract was said to have the potential to create 12,500 jobs, but as we will find out in due course, there will be no manufacturing jobs or supply-chain jobs for UK plc. There might be a few hundred jobs maintaining the trains, although that would apply whoever won the contract, because maintenance depots would have to be established. I am particularly critical about that.