Thameslink and Crossrail Contracts

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:19 pm on 20th November 2012.

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Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport 4:19 pm, 20th November 2012

Thank you very much for calling me to speak, Mr Howarth. I will do my best in the 10 minutes or so available to try to answer as many points as I can.

First, I welcome this debate on Thameslink and Crossrail, two schemes that are of great importance to this country’s rail industry and, more widely, to supporting growth and jobs. I know that Chris Williamson has been an active campaigner on behalf of Bombardier, which is natural, as it is situated in his constituency and city, and the company of course plays a key role in Derby’s economy. I am pleased to respond to this Adjournment debate on a subject that I know is of great importance to him and his constituents. I am especially pleased to do so in the week after Southern announced that it intends to exercise an option for 40 new Electrostar carriages from Bombardier, which I am surprised he did not mention.

Let me start by saying that rail is a success story and this coalition Government is committed to continuing to invest in the success of rail. Since the 1990s, both the number of passenger miles and passenger journeys on rail have nearly doubled. In the same period, use of rail freight has expanded by more than 60%, and in the past decade we have seen significant increases in passenger satisfaction and train punctuality. However, this Government requires, and is driving, even more improvement. We are investing £18 billion in this spending review period alone on a programme of rail improvements as large in scale as anything seen since the 19th century.

In Derby, the Department for Transport is investing in transport improvements, including investing £4.9 million from the local sustainable transport fund; more than £2 million from the better bus area fund; more than £8 million in highway maintenance and pothole repairs; and more than £9 million as part of the integrated transport block. We have also provisionally approved a £4.4 million contribution to a replacement road-over-rail bridge over the Derby to Birmingham railway line.

Thameslink is an urgently needed programme that will provide additional capacity for key London commuter routes and relieve overcrowding on the London underground. It includes major infrastructure works at key London stations, including the complete modernisation of London Bridge station and the procurement of next-generation rolling stock. In time, it will include changes to franchise arrangements to support delivery of the service.

Thameslink is already making a difference to passengers. Farringdon and Blackfriars stations have been transformed, platforms along the route have been extended to support new 12-car services, and enabling works have begun on the reconstruction of London Bridge station and its approach tracks. I take this opportunity to commend the industry, and especially Network Rail, for the work that has been done to upgrade Blackfriars, which was unique in scale and difficulty. I saw that work at first hand and thought that they did a fantastic job.

As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there have been delays in awarding the Thameslink rolling stock contract. The Thameslink train order is a significant investment and the detailed contract terms need to be right, so that we can meet the demanding customer and performance requirements of this next-generation rolling stock. The contract places much greater responsibility for the train’s performance in service on the train manufacturer and maintainer than has been the case traditionally. That is the right thing to do, and given the size of this order, it takes time to get the detailed contract documentation completed. The Government is confident that it is very close to final agreement of these commercial arrangements, and we expect to be able to conclude the associated documentation by the end of this year.

As the hon. Gentleman stated, we recently revised our target date for achieving financial close to early in the new year. Of course, agreement on financing has to come after agreement on commercial arrangements, and we have to allow a proper period for the rating agency and banks to perform their due diligence. As he will appreciate, the lending environment remains challenging for all projects. Notwithstanding that background, Siemens remains confident that the funds can be secured for Thameslink.

Members will know that the Government has recently paused existing franchise procurements, including for the new Thameslink franchise, while reviews take place of the serious errors that were uncovered on the west coast main line franchise competition. The Government is wholly committed to learning the lessons from that episode, but Members will appreciate that I cannot pre-empt the findings of the independent inquiries looking into those matters.

Regarding train fleets, however, I am quite clear that the key features needed by the new Thameslink trains are those that support the demanding performance requirements needed to operate a high-frequency service through the central core between Farringdon and St Pancras of up to 24 trains per hour in either direction. Those are very different train performance requirements from those needed by trains on other routes operated by Southern. Hence, a different train fleet is required for Thameslink.

There has been some question whether there will be sufficient electric trains from the existing Thameslink programme to support all the announced electrification schemes; I think the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue in parliamentary questions. Let me be clear that the Government’s electrification programme covers both regional and commuter services, alongside long-distance, high-speed services for passengers and freight. The existing Thameslink rolling stock will be cascaded to regional and commuter lines, the very uses that it was designed to be suitable for. Overall, there is sufficient cascaded stock available to meet the needs of the electrification programme. We are working with our industry partners to ensure that that rolling stock is made available in time for the electrification of the routes.

Thameslink is also good news for jobs. The rolling stock contract will support the creation of an estimated 2,000 jobs in the UK, supporting manufacture of train components, construction of depots and subsequent maintenance of the new fleet of trains.