It is a pleasure to have your train-related interventions from the Chair, Mr Hollobone.
I congratulate Heidi Alexander on securing this important debate. I also thank the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford) and for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) and for Hendon (Dr Offord) for participating. I also thank the participants in the important performance summit we held last week, at which MPs from across the House were able to quiz the Southeastern management team and Network Rail, and air concerns on behalf of their constituents. The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Simon Hughes, in whose constituency London Bridge station lies, has written to me with his concerns; he is attending an engagement to mark Holocaust memorial day and apologises for not being here.
As my final bit of preamble, I will say that I really welcome this debate and all interactions I have with hon. Members on the issue. The tone of these discussions is not ideological and we are not debating ownership of the railways; we are trying to work out how to get the best possible service from the current structure and investment. All of us are clear that it is passengers who matter on the railways. We are not moving boxes or units of capacity, but people, who are trying to get to work or get home to see their families. For me, it is vital that their interests are at the heart of this essential improvement work and, indeed, all investments in the railways.
As we all know—the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge alluded to this—we face two problems. One is decades of under-investment in many parts of our network, and in particular, in vital transport infrastructure such as London Bridge station. The other problem, if we can call it that, is the extraordinary growth in passenger numbers right across the country that has happened since privatisation. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his long history of using London Bridge, passengers have faced an almost 200-year-old station, with tangled access tracks and problems getting in and out. It is the poor relation to the other great London terminals, yet has some of the busiest platforms and intersections in Europe.
I think all Members welcome the decision to proceed with such vital investment even when economic times were tough. The £800 million invested at London Bridge, and the wider investment of almost £5 billion across the Thameslink network, will unblock the vital north-south bottleneck for our constituents. That investment will also deliver longer trains to provide more frequent and reliable services across London and the south-east.
The prize for London Bridge, in 2018, will be a world-class station that handles more trains, with 60% more capacity and all platforms accessible from the wonderful concourse we have heard about. I am told that the development is the most complex set of works ever undertaken on an operating station in the UK. In my view, it was the right decision to keep the station open during the works, given that 56 million people use it each year.
With such a mammoth engineering undertaking, some disruption is inevitable, but that disruption must be minimised for passengers, who must be kept in the loop as to what is happening. No one could say that either aim has been achieved for London Bridge users in the past few weeks, so what is happening? As we heard last week, there are some long-term service changes that were well known and, to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, reasonably well publicised. Thameslink services are being diverted and Southeastern services to Charing Cross will run through until August 2016. When the Charing Cross services resume calling at London Bridge, the Cannon Street services will stop calling until 2018.
During those planned changes, everything has to be done to ensure that passengers know about the changes for their destinations. One part of that is to ensure that passengers can use their tickets on alternative routes. I am pleased that we have negotiated a £25 million deal with Transport for London to enable that. The hon. Member for Lewisham East made the sensible suggestion of running more express buses to try to offer a joined-up solution to serve passengers. I will certainly discuss that idea with TfL.
Another element it is vital to address is crowding at stations and on trains. I am aware that, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge said, there has been dangerous overcrowding on platforms 1 and 2 at London Bridge. That is being addressed right now. Southeastern and Network Rail are freeing up space for passengers, trying to move them more dynamically along the platforms and providing additional “next train” indicators so that people do not lump together in one place before surging at once to get on a train.
At Lewisham station, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewisham East, Southeastern and Network Rail are also making changes to mitigate the crowding at peak times as people move between the Cannon Street and Charing Cross services. They are extending public announcement systems along the length of the platforms so that people can hear what is happening, putting up extra passenger information screens and generally trying to help passengers to get the information they need so that they can move smoothly through the station. That work is under way, and it will be complete by February. Additionally, the operators are moving existing retail units and British Transport police accommodation to make more space for passengers, and that work will be complete by July.
The key, however, is for the operator and Network Rail to put in place a timetable that delivers capacity and space when people need them. Since
What is happening, however, is that passengers are still working out the best way to make their journeys, and the situation is very fluid. We know, anecdotally, that Charing Cross services are quieter than anticipated and that Cannon Street services are very busy. Southeastern says it is operating the maximum number of trains per hour into and out of Cannon Street at peak times, and there is no space for extra services, but it has put in longer trains, providing higher capacity into Cannon Street, with 8,000 additional spaces in the morning peak and 13,000 in the evening peak.