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Rail Fare Increases (South-East)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Watts.)
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I am extremely grateful for this debate on rail fare increases in the south-east, because it gives me the chance to put before the House an issue of real concern to my constituents, which is causing a great deal of anger among train passengers in my part of Sussex.
My constituents in Bexhill and Battle are particularly appalled at the astronomical train fare hikes being imposed by Southeastern Trains on the Hastings to Charing Cross lines. My constituents, who rely on stations such as Stonegate, Etchingham, Robertsbridge, Battle and Crowhurst, are rightly angry and up in arms about excessive and unjustified ticket price rises.
This January, as the Minister will know, regulated fares rose by an average of 6 per cent. nationally, more than 3 per cent. over inflation, despite repeated Government promises that they would rise by only 1 per cent. above inflation. The Government have chosen to use the July 2008 figure of 5 per cent. inflation rather than the year-end figure of 2.1 per cent. as the base rate, directly hitting passengers in the pocket at a time when Labour’s recession is squeezing hard-working families’ finances in Bexhill and Battle just as it is everywhere else in the country.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recall that in the period immediately after privatisation regulated fares were controlled at RPI—the retail prices index—minus 1? Does he agree that that was part of a sustainable transport policy that gave a clear signal to rail passengers that their fares would go up by less than the rate of inflation? Does not moving to RPI plus make it more difficult to have a sustainable transport policy?
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point about short-term rip-offs. Unfortunately, the combination that we have now is the worst of both worlds, as I shall explain a little later in my remarks. There is a total lack of long-term strategy and, as a result, short-term fare hikes are being made because of the failure to invest for the long term.
Why have these huge national price increases been made? The Government have obliged the train operating companies to pay huge franchise premium payments, which can be met only by increasing the fares. In effect, that is another way for the Government to claw money from the public: in effect, it is another stealth tax. Why are the Government making rail travel so much more expensive at a time when Ministers preach to us that we should all be switching to public transport to lower emissions and reduce traffic congestion?
Just this week, figures came out showing that, in terms of cost per mile, Britain’s rail passengers are the most hard squeezed in Europe. Now, I do not expect fares here to compare with fares in Serbia, where £10 will take one 512 miles, but it does seem ridiculous that, in Britain, for the same money one can travel just 26 miles. In reality, the Government’s mismanagement of our rail network over the past decade, and their failure to get costs under control, have meant that they have no long-term strategy to cope with the increasing demand for rail travel other than simply to price people off the railways by raising fares.
Consistent under-investment and a lack of strategic vision have led to unfair price rises and to the taxpayer, yet again, bearing the brunt of the Prime Minister’s sloppy financial management. Nowhere in the country is that more true than in my constituency and elsewhere along the East Sussex-Kent border, where commuters have borne price increases well into double figures. For example, my constituents who travel from Battle station into central London have suffered a 10.3 per cent. increase in the price of a weekly season ticket.
Etchingham is another town in my constituency, and people who commute from there have suffered an 8.3 per cent. rise in fares. That is clearly above the national limit of 6 per cent., but it is also higher than even the 8 per cent. that had to be permitted by the regulator as “an exception” to Southeastern trains.
So what is the justification for this extra cost? It is to subsidise the deployment of the Javelin train, on a line that will not even service any stations in my constituency. The pill becomes even more bitter for my constituents in Battle to swallow because they know that they are suffering fare increases greater than those being imposed at Ashford station, which at least will see the benefit of the new Javelin train.
Nor is the Javelin train on the Ashford line an easy alternative, as some people at head office seem to think, because in fact Ashford is 34 miles from Battle. This all smacks of a cursory knowledge of our area on the part of those making decisions in London. The rises imposed by the Department for Transport in Whitehall singularly fail to understand the geography of East Sussex: it is centralised, top-down decision making of the worst possible sort.
I understand and support entirely the need for new investment in our railways. Indeed, my party recently announced plans for a new national network of high-speed trains—British TGVs fit for the new century. In addition, I accept that our new carbon emissions targets, adopted in the Climate Change Act 2008, have give an even greater urgency and focus to the goal of modernising our transport networks.
After 10 years of neglect and under-investment, with severe capacity shortages on our networks and with the Treasury already at historic levels of debt, the costs of this investment are necessarily borne by those who will benefit from improved services. Indeed, the Government’s White Paper of 2007 enshrined the sensible concept that “the user pays”. But that, in essence, is the problem and the gripe on our line, because my constituents are not the users of this new service.
I do not object to the new Javelin trains—far from it. I welcome them, but why are my constituents being singled out to bear a disproportionate burden of the cost of that new investment? And to rub salt into the wound, rather than suffering fare increases to see an improved service on their own line at least, they are subsidising other areas. My constituents are paying over the odds and face the galling prospect of a deteriorating service on their own Hastings to Charing Cross line.
My constituents are not alone. Amber Rudd, the hard-working Conservative candidate in Hastings, has made this point in her local campaign against the 10.39 per cent. price increases at Hastings and has written to tell me:
Amber Rudd wrote:Each year local commuters have been stung by exorbitant increases in the price of rail travel. This year we are enduring an increase of over 10 per cent. But there is no corresponding improvement in our services—no more seats on the crowded trains, or faster travel to London. How long are Hastings residents to endure a deteriorating service at an ever increasing cost?
The figures bear out Amber Rudd’s concerns. More than a quarter of passengers using Southeastern’s services rate availability of seats as poor and complain about the company’s handling of delays, more than a third rate their value for money as poor, and more than 40 per cent. criticise the lack of parking space at stations, an issue that is particularly acute in my constituency at Battle, Crowhurst, Stonegate and over the border at Wadhurst in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). A staggering 50 per cent. rate the toilet facilities and availability of staff as poor.
Can we expect any improvements? Hardly. In the past two weeks Southeastern has announced the axing of 300 jobs, so it seems unlikely that my constituents will suddenly find cleaner toilets or more helpful staff on station platforms. Even more seriously, my constituents frequently endure severe overcrowding on long journeys. Morning peak services average 14 per cent. of passengers standing, and capacities hitting 36 per cent. over the recommended load factor of the trains. The Government’s response to such overcrowding seems to be simply to price people off the trains.
My constituents have suffered declining quality of service and sustained price increases, despite the long-running campaigns to improve services led at a district level by hard-working local councillors to whom I pay tribute, such as Rother Councillor Ian Jenkins from Etchingham, and at county council level by the cabinet transport member Councillor Matthew Locke. Can the Minister explain to my constituents what the double-digit increases will be paying for on their line? Can the Minister explain why, when the Government claim to be trying to attract people on to the railways, it now costs less for two people to drive into London from my constituency than to take the train, even at the cheapest fares?
The Labour Government seem to have no long-term strategy to fix the problem. They have pressed ahead with a policy of short-term franchises that has given operators no incentive to make long-term investments in infrastructure or rolling stock. Many carriages have a lifespan of 30 years plus. To expect standards to be maintained when franchise holders have as little as five years’ interest in the business is naive and ridiculous, and it is the passengers who suffer. No wonder nearly a fifth of Southeastern’s passengers complain about the upkeep of station buildings and the repair of trains.
Parking provision has clearly had no strategic oversight. I frequently arrive at stations such as Battle and Crowhurst to find streets around the station choked with parked cars. Passengers often find stations unmanned, which, as well as being frustrating for those in need of information, means that some disabled rail users struggle to access the service at all.
Is it not clear that we must re-evaluate how rail franchises are operated? We cannot just blame the companies. Longer-term franchises will give companies a sound business reason to make the long-term investment that is needed. In addition, squeezing rail companies for vast sums over short periods leads them desperately to cash-crop the consumers for five or eight years without making a significant investment beyond re-branding the timetables, before handing on a crumbling service to someone else.
We must free franchise operators from constant Whitehall meddling. There is a pressing need to incentivise private sector investment in our railways. Given that Ministers now have more control over rail operations than was the case under British Rail, it is not surprising that operators are often hard-pressed to find reasons to stay in the sector for the long term. Longer-term vision, and more flexible franchises with a focus on customer satisfaction and quality of service, are essential.
If we are to hit our 2050 emissions targets and enjoy the rewards of decarbonising our economy, rail must play a crucial role as it provides reliable low-carbon transport that is good value for money and enhances, not detracts, from the quality of life of constituents such as mine in Bexhill and Battle. We must put rail at the heart of a sustainable transport system and make the right long-term investments now to ensure that we have the transport system that we will need in future decades. However, if in so doing the Government tread unfairly on parts of the country, such as my constituency, that already rely heavily on these transport links, and if in these challenging economic times, they expect those areas to be unfairly and disproportionately penalised and to subsidise projects elsewhere after years of squandered public spending, they will punish the very rail users whom they profess to be making these investments to help.
People in the south-east are no strangers to being ripped off by Labour. The Prime Minister is desperate to tell us about all the “real help” that he is giving hard-working British families. We have seen precious little of that in Bexhill and Battle. Will the Minister tell us what real help he will give in respect of rail fares on the Hastings line? How can he make them fairer and more proportionate? Can he assure my constituents that the past 10 years of strategic anarchy on our railways will come to an end? Can he explain why, despite claiming to have seen the light on high-speed rail, the Government have given no commitment that any new high-speed rail infrastructure will be built? Can he explain why, despite their pledge two years ago to introduce 1,300 new carriages—without which the National Audit Office has said overcrowding will continue to get worse—they have yet even to order that number, let alone bring them into service?
Against that backdrop of failure, under-investment and lack of foresight, can the Minister claim to have a sensible and coherent strategy to provide a transport system that delivers value for money, let alone helps us reach our emissions reduction targets?
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important one-and-a-half-hour debate. Is he disappointed that not a single Labour Back Bencher from England is present in the Chamber?
Gregory Barker: I am disappointed. I thought that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster) might have been here, given his constituency’s significant interest in the debate. However, we know that Amber Rudd, who we hope will be his successor, is campaigning hard on these issues; I know that she will make the voice of Hastings heard on this issue.
Can the Minister at least give the House the assurance that his Department will, if nothing else, look again at the maps of Kent and East Sussex, take on board how unfair it is that my constituents are singled out to pay for the new Javelin train service—which lies way beyond a sensible drive time from Bexhill and Battle—and endeavour to come up with a more equitable and logical way to spread the load of payment for those trains?
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for creating this opportunity for those of us who represent seats in the south-east to refer to a source of burning anger for our constituents.
This is the third year in succession in which our constituents—my constituents travelling from Margate, and those travelling from Westgate-on-Sea, Birchington-on-Sea, Herne Bay and right across east Kent—have faced an above-average fare increase. We are told that that increase is necessary to pay for the bullet train to which my hon. Friend referred—the much-vaunted fast rail service that is going to speed the journey from Kent to St. Pancras. The advertising on Southeastern’s website says:
Southeastern wrote:New high speed train services from Kent to St Pancras...will dramatically reduce journey times.
Oh no they will not. They might reduce the travelling time just a little from east Kent to St. Pancras, but my constituents do not want to go to St. Pancras—they want to go to Victoria, Cannon Street and Charing Cross. Coming in from the south of London, most of them, as the Minister knows only too well, do not work in north London; they work around Westminster or Victoria, or in the City around Cannon Street. They are used to catching a train to one of the riverbank termini and then walking, or even taking a fold-up bike and cycling, to work. My constituents are going to be made to pay higher prices to travel to a station they do not want to go to and then pay a tube fare to get back to the place where they actually want to be, thus adding time to their journey. The bottom line is that my constituents are going to pay more for less.
The trains from east Kent are now slower than they were in 1927. I have looked at the timetable. It takes about an hour and 40 minutes to get by train from Thanet to London—a journey of about 70 miles. I am not a genius with figures, but that suggests a speed of between 30 and 40 mph, which is not very fast in this day and age. The high-speed link, we are told, will knock a few minutes off the journey time from east Kent to St. Pancras—but not to where my constituents want to be. I have travelled on this line previously; I am probably the only living person who has. British Rail—that shows how long ago it was—made the mistake of running an engineering train from Victoria to Ramsgate. It did that on old track, with old rolling stock, in one hour flat—60 minutes. To be fair, to enable that to happen it had to clear a path by moving two trains in front, but the point is that it can be done. Under these proposals, it will not be done and we are facing an above-average fare increase designed to pay for a service that my constituents do not want to use.
In a letter to my commuting constituent, Sharon Reeve from Herne Bay, the customer relations team leader for Southeastern, Frances Maynard, wrote:
Frances Maynard, Southeastern wrote:the 2009 increase for Southeastern ‘regulated’ fares (season tickets and many Anytime tickets) is based on the retail price index (RPI) plus another three per cent. This is the formula that was set by the Department of Transport when the franchise began in...2006.
The July 2008 RPI figure is used, which was five per cent.—
much higher than inflation now. She goes on:
Frances Maynard, Southeastern wrote:So the average increase for Southeastern regulated fares is eight per cent. This is an average, so some will be more and others will be less.
Surprise, surprise—for the Kent coast line it is more, as it was last year and the year before. Why? Because, says Frances Maynard:
Frances Maynard, Southeastern wrote:Government’s policy is for passengers to pay more towards the cost of their rail travel and taxpayers to contribute less. So as regulated fares increase the subsidy given by Government to Southeastern decreases.
In the franchise briefing document issued by the Strategic Rail Authority before Southeastern took over the franchise, it was made plain that these increases and the Government’s decrease in subsidy could be phased over the lifetime of the franchise. What Southeastern is doing—it is blindingly obvious—is loading the costs up front as far and as hard as it possibly can in order to get as much money in as quickly as it possibly can.
Sadly, the Government have declined to make available the models for those fares and journey times, and for the number of trains running on those lines to individual stations—such as Victoria, Charing Cross, Cannon Street and St. Pancras—on the grounds that it might be commercially sensitive with regard to Southeastern and Govia. Govia is a good name because if someone wants to get to Cannon Street, Victoria, Whitehall or the City, they will have to go via St. Pancras, and then do so again on the way back home, to get where they wanted to be. That does not sound like progress to me.
The Minister, who is a personal friend, has to come up with some answers. He knows the situation only too well because his constituents use the same line as mine —they just catch it a bit closer to London where the trains are a bit more crowded. They, too, will get less for more and will have to travel to a station they do not want to go to. I suggest that his majority is—if he will pardon the pun—on the line, literally. In this case, it is the Kent coast line. When he replies, I hope he will explain to me how he will explain to his constituents who travel from Kent why they are being burdened with the costs of journeys they do not want to make.
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing this important debate. Commuters in Tunbridge Wells suffered a double whammy at the beginning of the year because they faced fare increases of 10 per cent., while capacity on some of the peak services has been reduced by 20 per cent. It is as if they are subject to a bizarre game of musical chairs in which they pay more for a seat and it then gets taken away from them. I shall address both of those points in turn.
As my hon. Friend eloquently said, we face fare increases well above inflation. The increase is 10 per cent. in Tunbridge Wells this year, following one of 7.9 per cent. the previous year. We can look forward to increases for a further two years, all because the Government, in the tendering document, required Southeastern customers to pay for the costs of the channel tunnel rail link. On the Hastings line, from Sevenoaks right down to Hastings, none of our constituents would benefit from the high-speed line. It is fantastic that it is going ahead, and those who can benefit from it clearly have cause for celebration, but no one in Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge or any of the stations used by my constituents will benefit. Indeed, we actively disbenefit in the following way.
Journey times from Ashford, which now last 83 minutes on average, will fall to 36 minutes. In so far as there is competition between our towns, Ashford will be more attractive in commuting terms than Tunbridge Wells. We think we have manifest charms that might make up for that, and we are confident that we can hold our own, but nevertheless it is galling for my constituents that they will have no reduction in journey time, while paying the same or more than commuters in Ashford.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, in Hastings the situation is even worse. MPs representing constituents along the A21 and the line from Sevenoaks to Hastings have come together with the district and county councils in the area to create a reference group to promote the importance of improving transport links in the region. One of the consequences of the fare increases and the new high-speed rail line is that Hastings will be more isolated in transport terms than it has been to date. Ramsgate will have a high-speed rail link, and people will be able to get to London much faster; train services from Brighton to London are much better than they are from Hastings; and the relative position of a town such as Hastings, which needs all the help it can get to regenerate itself and is making great efforts in that regard, will be relatively disadvantaged. We can add to that continuing problems with congestion on the A21, which desperately needs an upgrade in the form of a dual carriageway between Tonbridge and Pembury, and between Kippings Cross and Lamberhurst. Until we get that improvement, and as a result of the fare increases, Hastings will be further disadvantaged by the changes.
I shall deal with overcrowding, although I am disappointed to have to raise the issue. It is important that we get value for money. My constituents feel that the service provided by Southeastern over the past few years was much better than that provided under the Connex South Eastern franchise; there was an improvement. There have been improvements to stations, too—they have been painted and brought up to date. The service has deteriorated recently, but up until then, the service was more reliable than in the past. Given that background, it disappoints me that without any fanfare—without any publicity at all, as far as I can see—the decision was taken to reduce capacity from 10 carriages to eight on five peak-time trains servicing Tunbridge Wells. The reason that Southeastern gives for that is that it needed to react to deteriorating economic conditions.
Southeastern is implying a radical cut of 20 per cent. in the number of commuters—a cut that I am certain has not taken place, because the consequence of the move made in recent weeks is that peak-time trains have become even more crowded. Of the five trains between 6.56 and 7.56 in the morning that link Tunbridge Wells and Charing Cross, three have had their carriage numbers reduced from 10 to eight. Let me share some of the consequences with the House.
My constituent Philip Ashworth wrote to me on the issue. Again, he was not informed of the policy decision. He says:
Philip Ashworth wrote:Monday 5th Jan...8 carriages rather than 10...commuters pack in the carriages like Sardines!
Tuesday 6th...8 carriages rather than 10...standing all the way to London...
Wednesday 7th, short rail stock—train packed.
Thursday 8th short rail stock—train packed.
And so it continues on Friday 9 January and beyond. We have a deteriorating service, but the price has rocketed.
My constituent Chris Comorford has done calculations that show that however one looks at it—whether we base the calculation on distance travelled or the speed of the service—Tunbridge Wells is becoming one of the most expensive places in the south-east to commute from, mile for mile or minute for minute. For example, commuters travel an additional 4 miles to get to Reading, but they do so at more than twice the average speed. The journey from Tunbridge Wells to London is twice as expensive. We are paying more money and getting a poorer service. We need to address that before measures to ensure sustainable transport are affected in the wrong way. We want people on the rails, not the roads. The Tunbridge Wells and District Railway Travellers Association, led by Martin Lewis, shares my concerns and those of my constituents on the issue.
I close by putting to the Minister a suggestion made by my constituent, Mr. Ashworth:
Mr Ashworth wrote:Can I suggest that we are able to buy 3rd class tickets, standing room only at half current price, perhaps commuters would not feel so grieved!
I hope it will not come to that. I hope the Minister will be able to exert his influence on Southeastern. I hope that Charles Horton and his staff at that company hear my constituents’ stories and learn of the situation that they face, and so review the decision to cut peak-time capacity. The company has promised us extra trains by December 2009—two extra trains from Tunbridge Wells to London—so it seems perverse to squeeze capacity now only to increase it later. I hope the Minister can use his good offices to influence the company, and I hope the company listens to constituents and returns to the high levels of service that, until recent months, we had come to expect from it.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I am delighted to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) in this debate. You will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on my Bench the epicentre of sensible transport policy for the Tunbridge Wells, Bexhill and Battle, and Wealden triangle; we are the people driving forward change and making sure that the interests of our constituents are well-represented. I agree with every word my hon. Friend said. What he said applied to many of my constituents. Many of them use the Hastings line. They get on at Frant or Wadhurst, but the train is often full by that time. They have to park a significant distance from the stations because of inadequate parking facilities in the area, and they are paying more for the privilege all the time.
My constituency is served by three lines. The line to Hastings is one, the Uckfield line is another—one would be forgiven for thinking it a tourist route it is so slow; it takes about an hour and an quarter to do the 40 miles from Uckfield to London—and the third is the line down to Lewes and Eastbourne. Those lines present different problems, but the challenge for my constituents is that, as others have said of their constituents, they are paying more and getting less for it.
We have to be fair to Southern. On the Uckfield line in particular we have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of the service in the seven years in which I have been the MP. Since Southern took over the franchise, we have had trains that largely run on time, which are clean and which have friendly staff. The travelling experience on that line has been significantly enhanced, although that does not apply to the other lines in quite the same way. The consequence of that improved service is that the popularity of those lines has grown, and there is now significant overcrowding. People travelling from London down to Uckfield find that they may stand as far as Eridge or Crowborough. People getting on in the morning often have to stand for as much as an hour of the journey up to London. That is not an acceptable level of service for people to expect.
If people were getting more in return for the money that they are paying, they would not mind so much, but we are not seeing the longer trains. We ought to have longer trains to accommodate the passengers who are using the services. We ought to be seeing more trains later in the evening, too, to ensure that people can come up to London and get back, having gone to the theatre or been for an evening out. We ought also to be seeing more regular trains. However, we are not seeing those improvements in the service; we are seeing a reduction in the service. On the line that serves the constituency of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), which runs down to Polegate, where people in Hailsham would catch the train, people are seeing a reduction in the number of trains offered. The service continues to be chipped away at, when it should be being improved.
One fundamental problem is that although people are paying a lot of money for their train tickets and a significant amount to park, they simply cannot park, because of the inadequate number of parking spaces available. On the Uckfield line, that problem starts at Uckfield, where we have 14 parking spaces. That means that people cannot park there, so they go up the line to Buxted, parking all around the village, causing huge amounts of disruption and damaging the interests of local businesses, because shoppers cannot park outside. The car parks will be largely full as far up the line as Eridge, where there will typically be 100 cars parked on the verges round the station, blocking people’s driveways and causing huge inconvenience. If people are paying premium prices for the service, they should be able to expect the right investment to go into improving the overall travelling experience.
Indeed, people in Uckfield do not even have a station at the moment. The previous station had to be removed because it had rats. The station mistress was attacked by a rat and the station was closed as an unfit place to work, but we do not have anything else. In spite of the huge amount of money that people are paying, they do not even have a station that they can use. We are told that if a new station were put on the site, we would have to find a significant amount towards its cost from local council tax payers, who are already hard-pressed; but they should expect a station as of right.
We are not getting the service that we expect, but there is another thing that I hope the Minister will address: this evening we are highlighting a problem that has got worse, but we are profoundly concerned that it will get worse still. We know that the Government plan to impose thousands of new houses on our constituencies over the coming years. They are not wanted. We recognise that there needs to be some additional new house building, but building on the scale proposed is absolutely without justification and will do massive damage to the beauty of our constituencies.
What we are not getting, however, is the investment in the infrastructure to support those houses. The people in my constituency, in Bexhill and Battle, in Tunbridge Wells and elsewhere would be much more willing to accept the imposition of new housing on our constituencies if we felt that the investment in the rail infrastructure was going to be made to enable people to travel to where they need to go. What we have seen, however, in the discussions that we have had about reopening the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, is that the Government’s formula for the proposals means that we cannot secure funding to open just a 7-mile stretch of line that would significantly enhance the train service in the whole south-east.
I ask the Minister not only to look at the problems that people are facing today, but to look forward and to try to reassure us that the Government are thinking about a sustainable transport policy. At the moment, we feel that we are constantly being charged more for the travelling experience, but that the experience itself is not getting better.
Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I must stress that I am speaking in my capacity as a local Member for East Sussex, rather than in any Front-Bench role for the Liberal Democrats.
I welcome the opening comments made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). I agreed with virtually every word that he said. This is an important issue, and it should affect all local MPs in East Sussex, Kent and elsewhere. I therefore share the disappointment that there are no Back-Bench Labour MPs here from any of the constituencies that are affected, such as those in Brighton and Hastings. However, 100 per cent. of the Liberal Democrat MPs from Kent and Sussex are here in the Chamber tonight.
When I undertook a survey of my constituents in Lewes, Seaford, Newhaven and Polegate before Christmas to ask their views on the railways, there was general acceptance that the quality of the carriages had increased, that the trains were more reliable and —to echo the words of the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry)—that Southeastern seemed to have done a reasonable job with the railway. One concern stood out among the plaudits, however: the cost of travelling by train. That was the issue of greatest concern to 68 per cent. of those who responded to my survey.
That is not entirely surprising. The formula referred to by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, which pushes the cost of travelling by train up above inflation every year, is simply not acceptable in terms of value for money or the consequences for the rail passenger, who is caned every year. It is certainly not sensible in regard to tackling the climate challenge that we all face. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) intervened earlier to point out that the formula used to be RPI minus 1, but that it is now RPI plus 1. It is the Government’s policy to push up rail fares above inflation every year, and that is neither sensible nor defensible. It is even worse than that, however, because the cost of travelling by train increases even more for those paying unregulated fares, which have gone up beyond RPI plus 1. Although it does not affect my constituency, I also sympathise with the problem mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle with the consequences of the Javelin train in his part of the world.
We are facing economic hardship at the moment, as all Members know. People are being made redundant and losing their jobs day after day. When such pressures have existed before, the Government have reacted. For example, in three years out of the past 10, they have reacted by freezing fuel duty for motorists, following hard campaigning, yet they have never frozen rail fares for passengers. There is one rule for the motorist and another for the train passenger.
If we look at the figures for the past 30 years, we see that the cost of travelling by train has risen by roughly 70 per cent. above inflation in real terms in that period, and the cost of travelling by bus has risen by even more, but the cost of motoring has gone down in real terms. The rail passengers in my constituency ask why the Government occasionally freeze fuel duty when the cost of motoring is going down, when they never freeze the cost of travelling by train, even though it is going up beyond the level of inflation. The Government really need to get a handle on that. I suggested earlier this year that we should have a freeze on rail fares, which could have been paid for simply by cancelling 3 miles of motorway widening. That would have paid for a fares freeze this year, and if people were asked which they would prefer, I think I know what the answer would be.
The cost of rail travel in this country is also high compared to that in other countries. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle kindly referred to some Lib Dem research—without mentioning that it was Lib Dem research—in his opening remarks. The cost of a journey in Serbia that is the equivalent of travelling from John O’Groats to London would get someone from here to Basildon in this country. Would Members rather be in John O’Groats or Basildon, in terms of getting value for money when travelling from London? That money buys a journey of 512 miles in Serbia, compared with one of 26 miles here. I am afraid that the Government are pricing people off the railways, and that is a transport policy that does not make sense.
We need to recognise that more people want to travel by train. Some have no alternative, including the commuters in my part of the world, but many people want to travel by train. Trains are attracting more and more passengers, yet the Government’s answer is either to force people off the railways by pushing the prices up or to allow the increase in cattle-truck conditions that we are now seeing on lines all around London and elsewhere in the country. More people are now standing for longer distances on trains and paying more for the privilege in the south-east and in my constituency. That cannot be right in any shape or form. As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle rightly said, the Government are extracting more money from the rail companies and, through them, from passengers in order to reduce the call on the Treasury purse. It is a tax on the railway passenger and it is also a tax on good environmental practice.
My constituents in Lewes are very keen on protecting the environment—it is a major theme in my postbag—and they are saying that they want to travel by train and want to see the link increasingly made between carbon emissions and the price paid for a particular activity. How can it have become cheaper over the last 10 years to travel by air, with its carbon-busting implications, and far more expensive to travel by rail, when we surely want to see the opposite occurring if we are going to tackle climate change? How are the Government going to reach their target of 80 per cent. carbon reductions by 2050 when the transport sector contributes about a quarter of our emissions and the Government’s policy is to deter people from using lower-carbon means of transport? That simply does not make sense.
My constituents also tell me that if they have to pay above inflation for their train tickets, the deal must be that they get a better service in return—not a service somewhere else in the country, but a service for people in Lewes who have to pay for tickets on their particular line. The reality is that the service is getting worse, with overcrowding and with the new timetables having not been well received in my constituency either. Journey times are getting worse and the service is getting more unreliable. The Government’s interfering with the Gatwick Express timetable has also thrown the whole thing out of kilter, making it difficult for trains to run on time and meet their punctuality targets.
Neither has the situation been helped by the Government’s failure to invest in enhancements. It would be something if my constituents could see enhancements in return for the ticket prices that they have to pay, but we are not seeing that. We are not seeing the Lewes-Uckfield line reopen; although it has massive support from all three parties locally, all the local MPs and local councillors of all persuasions, it is not on the Government’s agenda. We are not seeing any efforts made either to tackle the dreadful overcrowding between Brighton and Ashford. Diesel trains—two-car diesel trains—go through my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, but regular announcements at Lewes station warn people not to get on the train because it is too crowded. They are told to wait for the next one, even though it is an hour away on that service. Unless the Government want to resort to having Japanese-style employees to push people on to trains, they should seriously address the issue and get some more carriages. Yet there is no indication of that. Southern wanted more carriages and the Government blocked them.
That is this Government’s record on local services in my constituency. If we are to have rail fare increases above inflation, let us have some improvements to the service to justify them.
One thing that the Government could do with the Southern franchise is eliminate some of the padding in the timetable. My constituents tell me that they are fed up with waiting nine minutes at Haywards Heath for the trains to split or to join, when Network Rail requires only three minutes operationally to do it. My constituents are fed up with waiting three minutes at Clapham Junction because the trains arrive too early and do not want to go to Victoria when no platform is available. My constituents are fed up with going to Polegate, arriving at Lewes on the way back and waiting seven minutes there for the trains to depart. There is so much slack in the timetable in order to ensure that the train arrives on time that the punctuality figures have, of course, improved dramatically. The shortest journey time from Lewes to London in 1989 when I began commuting was 53 minutes on a slam-door train. The shortest journey time now is one hour and three minutes, and the average journey time is one hour and nine minutes. There is padding in the service. If fares are going above inflation, we need to improve the service as well.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle for providing the opportunity to raise this matter tonight and I thank him for his contribution. I note the support from both Opposition parties for a more sensible strategy. I note the support from elected people and, indeed, from unelected people: I have never heard of this Amber Rudd; she sounds a bit like a rail signal of some sort, but I am sure she is campaigning very actively for improvements, just like the rest of us.
Let me end by making a political point. If the Government want to rescue some of the 13 seats in the south-east that they are in danger of losing at the next election—they are all quite marginal, including the Minister’s—they had better start delivering on some of the issues that are important to people in the south-east, such as train fares. They have not done that so far.
Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing the debate. Those of us who represent Croydon seats are well aware that Croydon’s economic success relies heavily on the railway. We know how much the history of the town’s expansion has depended on the main line, and how much its continuing success depends on that line and on the success of East Croydon station, a station blessed with hard-working and excellent platform staff.
I strongly endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I especially agreed with two of his comments. I believe that people’s experiences of commuting are important to their perceptions of the improvement or otherwise of public services, and I believe that there is an impact on the popularity of Government when commuters spend two hours a day, five days a week, experiencing what are at times extremely crowded rail services. People are very disappointed when they find themselves paying higher fares for rush-hour travel on trains which often operate—on purpose—at 120 or 130 per cent. of capacity.
One of my local railway stations is South Croydon. The largest unregulated increase in fares at that station is 10 per cent. Other Members have spoken specifically about Southeastern provision, but my constituents and I are not paying for the introduction of the Javelin; what we are experiencing is just a plain increase in fares. It is the unexpected juxtaposition of the Government’s decision to introduce fare increases in addition to increases related to the retail prices index with a significant peak in inflation during the summer, followed by a further significant deflation, that has proved so punishing. The fare increases were not advertised by Southern by means of leaflets or notices at East Croydon station, although there were notices at South Croydon. I think it deplorable that they were not advertised—perhaps because the operator was so ashamed about them, and so aware of the detrimental effect that they would have on business.
It is also particularly galling for those of us who hold longer-term tickets such as seven-day travel cards to note that we still have a tradition in this country of paying for a service on Christmas day or Boxing day, but either are not receiving any service or receiving an inadequate service. I do not see why it should not be possible to buy a seven-day travel card covering Christmas day or Boxing day but making them exempt, and allowing the extra days’ travel to be added at the end of the seven-day period. I do not believe that the current lack of provision is due to some kind of religious observance; I think that it has more to do with the tradition that has accepted that there should be a Christmas present for the train operators. I calculate that given the number of people who hold travel cards, at least £4 million is probably paid each Christmas for services that are not provided.
As well as paying a great deal for their commute to London, commuters from Croydon face the prospect of any Thameslink trains from London Bridge after 7 pm being hugely overcrowded, and of other mainline services being gradually withdrawn. Those who travel from Victoria to many of the destinations mentioned by Members this evening, particularly East Croydon, will find that platforms 15 to 19 are still being used as sidings, and they must walk virtually halfway to Croydon to board a train in the first place.
The hon. Member for Lewes spoke of the distorting effect that the altered Gatwick Express service is having on services to Croydon and to many stations south of it. It is especially galling that the Government thought it appropriate to support the judgments of others that further extension of the Gatwick Express should take place, and that strong emphasis should be put on it. I sometimes count—perhaps it is rather anorak-like of me—the number of passengers using the Gatwick Express, and I frequently find that fewer than 40 are doing so. Priority is given to that service on the tracks from Victoria to Croydon and beyond to an extent that compromises the capacity, which means that passengers who are paying high fares have to stand on inadequate services.
The reduction in quality of service is partly linked to the Gatwick Express and partly to other changes made to the Coulsdon South service. For example, the direct service from East Croydon to Crystal Palace has been withdrawn. That is inappropriate when we are trying to encourage the use of public transport and at the same time as it has been announced that the proposed tram link extension to Crystal Palace will not happen. However, Mayor Boris Johnson has subsequently announced that he is at least willing to campaign for additional moneys from the Government to provide that extension after all.
We need improvements to the Crystal Palace service, and many Labour Members with constituencies to the north of mine have been campaigning strongly on the need to maintain the best quality of metro services in the area, and in some cases they have gathered large online petitions. One cheap solution might be to allow reverse running on the railway lines that run northwards from Crystal Palace and to re-open platform 7 on Norwood Junction station. There is a strong argument too for additional platforms at East Croydon. Among the greatest constraints on the rail services to stations such as Lewes are the lack of capacity at London Bridge, the slowness of the introduction of the Thameslink 2000 project, the constraints at Windmill Bridge junction and the lack of two additional platforms at East Croydon station. I would much rather see additional platforms at East Croydon station than the preposterous 52-storey residential property development that is proposed for the area next to the station. It is redolent of the 1960s, and that land should be used for additional platforms to improve public transport. That would improve the capacity for trains from London to all the areas served by all those hon. Members who have spoken tonight.
Of course, we should not be entirely critical because some improvements have been made. For example, the removal of the slam-door trains has improved the ride and the quality of the environment on the trains so we no longer suffer so much in hot summers. However, it is not appropriate for passengers to have to clamber over each other to reach seats that are too small.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) mentioned the impact of short-term franchises. Improvements have resulted from those franchises—one of my local stations has been painted—but they are not enough. We need real investment in stations such as South Croydon and Waddon, so that—for example—people with buggies do not have to jump down to low platforms.
Much investment is needed before our constituents can enjoy a commute that is reasonably comfortable, so that someone who is not entirely well can face it in the morning. It is therefore important for the Minister to explain why increases of up to 10 per cent. have been introduced when the services have seen no real improvement.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friends’ excellent contributions to the debate. Although my constituency is just in the south-west, the incremental basis for fares means that ours are determined by those that South West Trains sets in the south-eastern part of its line, up as far as New Milton. Much as people might like to start their journey to London in Hinton Admiral, and pay less than the cost of the journey from New Milton to London, they have to pay more. I therefore believe that I have a legitimate interest in participating in the debate.
In the south-east, train fares between New Milton and Waterloo have increased significantly above the rate of inflation because of the Government’s policy of using a stealth tax against a captive commuter population. Although there are nothing like as many commuters to London from my constituency as from some of my hon. Friends’ constituencies, the position of those commuters in the current economic climate is dire. They cannot afford to pay such increases out of their taxed income.
I can imagine the Under-Secretary asking why those commuters do not move closer to London. That would involve selling their houses in a difficult market, and having to buy another house, thus incurring the steep penalties that the Government have imposed on house buyers through increases in stamp duty. Those people are squeezed all round. One might ask why they do not try to get a job more locally, but in the current climate, anyone who has a job wants to hang on to it, and not risk losing it in the hope of getting another somewhere else.
The position of my constituents, like so many others, is that they are captive customers of the railway system. The Government are behaving uncharitably in the current climate in imposing above-inflation fare increases on those people. I have talked about regulated fares, but the increases in unregulated fares are even greater.
I would like the Under-Secretary to deal with access to unregulated fares. Some of the best bargains on the railways can be obtained by going to the ticket office and saying, “I want to travel next week;”—or next month—“what’s the best deal?” However, that depends on the ticket office’s being open during advertised hours. I went to the ticket office at Hinton Admiral to try to get a ticket to go to Scotland. Although the ticket office should have been open—it is not open that often—it was shut. I then went to Christchurch, and I was lucky because there was only a small window of opportunity due to that ticket office’s being manned for six hours a day. That is completely contrary to the Government’s agreement with the franchisees—South West Trains being the franchisee in this case.
Something bizarre is happening. A consultation about ticket offices’ opening hours took place. In advance of the results, South West Trains withdrew staff from the ticket offices and reduced the opening hours so that they were even shorter than those for which it had sought permission. That makes a mockery of the Government’s consultation. I hope that the Under-Secretary recognises that ticket offices that are open regularly are fundamental for people who want to take advantage of the best deals on the railways. Commuters who use unregulated fares and travel off peak are penalised if they buy their ticket on the day. People in my constituency therefore understandably prefer to book in advance if they can. To do so, they must have a system that allows that to happen. That means having a ticket office that is open regularly.
I make a plea to the Under-Secretary to tackle the problem, and to consider the longer-term consequences of imposing stealth taxes on a captive commuter population. I hope that, even if he has no Back-Bench support this evening, he will show some sympathy for our hard-pressed constituents.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—( Mr. Watts.)
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): This is a timely debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for initiating it.
Rail privatisation in the 1990s fundamentally changed the requirements for the regulation of rail fares. As long as the rail system was in public ownership, it was, effectively, possible for the Treasury to determine the rate at which fares increased, but once the railways were transferred to the private sector, a commercial monopoly was, in effect, created. For those of us who represent south-east commuting constituencies, our constituents are basically captives of monopolies: people who live in Tonbridge have to commute from Tonbridge, and people who live in Borough Green or West Malling have to commute from those villages unless they want to drive all around Kent.
When the railways were privatised, it was clear to me that privatisation would be acceptable to my constituents only if it was accompanied by a proper system of regulation of rail fares. I very much supported privatisation as a policy, but I was one of three Conservative Members who declined to support the privatisation Bill on Third Reading: I was not willing to do so until I was satisfied that a proper system of fare regulation was in place. I might add that the other two Conservative Members were my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and the late Robert Adley, who knew more about trains than anybody else in this House and pretty well everyone in the country. I am very glad to be able to say that following the passage of the legislation, the then Government did introduce a rigorous system of regulation of rail fares to protect the commuting public. As has been mentioned, for three years from 1 January 1996 rail fares were regulated in line with inflation—the retail prices index—and for the following four years the regulation was 1 per cent. below RPI. Therefore, for the first seven years after privatisation a full and effective system of fare regulation was in place. That, I believe, was the right and proper way of balancing privatisation with protection of the travelling public against exploitation by, in effect, a private sector commercial monopoly.
Deeply regrettably, the Government have almost entirely dismantled the system of rail fare regulation that they inherited. They have, in effect, created for the rail operating companies an open-house situation in terms of the rail travelling public. Worse still, at the same time as dismantling the system of rail fare regulation, the Government have, in a very well concealed manner, fundamentally reversed the policy that has been followed throughout the entire post-war period on rail subsidy of commuter lines into London. Everybody knows that it is not possible to operate a peak demand system economically; if we pay for the peaks, we will have a great deal of uneconomic extra capacity that will be on the railway lines for the rest of the day, and the staff to man it. For that reason, successive Governments since 1945 have found it necessary to ensure that the rail companies running commuter services into London have a measure of Treasury subsidy. What the Government have done—very little attention is paid to this, because they have kept it well concealed—is embark on a process of reducing year by year the level of taxpayer subsidy, and they are going even further than that. They are going from reducing subsidy to the point of elimination to requiring train operating companies also to pay a premium—in effect, a tax—back to the Treasury for the privilege of operating the franchises.
That situation was exposed to me by the managing director of Southeastern, Charles Horton, who wrote to me on 23 July 2008 as follows:
Charles Horton, 23 July 2008 wrote:With regard to subsidy, that given to Southeastern started at £139.9M in year one and will decline to £24.7M in year seven. In year eight, we will be expected to pay a premium of £9.3M to the DfT to operate the franchise.
I put it to the Minister that it is outrageous for the Treasury not merely to have discontinued paying any subsidy to inherently uneconomic railway lines—the commuter lines into London—but to go further by taxing the rail operating companies for the privilege of operating the franchises. This is a gross stealth tax on the rail travelling public who journey into London. The policy should be stopped and reversed.
I have referred to the position of Southeastern, but Southern, too, provides a major commuter service, including the Uckfield line in my constituency. Southern’s franchise is up for bidding, so will the Minister tell the House whether those making bids are being asked to do so on the basis that they will have no subsidy from the Government and possibly at the end of the franchise period will also be asked, like Southeastern, to pay a premium—a stealth tax—back to the Government and the Treasury that can be financed only out of the pockets of the luckless rail travelling public? I must put it to the Minister that the Government’s policy, as far as the thousands of commuters in the south-east are concerned, is resulting in one very clear trend: our commuters—our constituents—are paying ever more for ever less.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): We have had a good and wide-ranging debate, and I am delighted to congratulate the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) on securing it, because it has given us a real opportunity to discuss the issues facing rail operations in the south-east. As has been shown today, he, like many other hon. Members, has a keen interest in the subject. I include the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), who said that some Labour colleagues whose constituencies lie to the north of his had been arguing about rail travel. I assure him that other hon. Members have raised various issues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), who just before Christmas addressed regeneration and travel in his constituency.
I intend to deal with as many of the points raised as fully as possible in the time available, but I must say at the outset that over the decade that we have been in government there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of people travelling on the railways. Secondly, unprecedented levels of investment have gone into our railways, day in, day out, to rectify the substantial underinvestment that had lasted for decades. In addition, there has been investment in rolling stock, and in High Speed 1, which has been pilloried by Conservative Members. It was the first new railway line to be built in this country in more than a century, and it was delivered on time and on budget.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who was then the Deputy Prime Minister, came to the House to announce the renegotiation of that contract, because it was in a mess when we picked it up. He ensured that we ended up with a high-speed line that is providing essential services to businesses and individuals in the constituencies of Members who have spoken in the debate. It is used for leisure and business purposes, and it brings us into the 21st century.
Let us remember that the privatisation of the railways happened in 1995-96. I noted carefully the comments of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) about why he did not support his own party’s Government on the privatisation Bill, to which I shall return shortly. Since the privatisation was forced through, contracts have always governed what rail operators that are private companies can and cannot do. We have sought to renegotiate those contracts to end up with a balanced situation with better punctuality, better reliability and more investment. There is also regulation of fares—we have not abandoned that requirement.
We have sought to find a balanced position, and the current position answers many of the points made by Opposition Members. Those who have been honest have said that their constituents say, whether in surveys or to them in person, that there have been improvements to the service that we provide, to rolling stock and to reliability. I shall come to the issue of “padding”, which the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned. Such improvements cannot happen without investment in the rail services that are so important to the constituents of the Members present, including mine in Gillingham and Rainham.
We have limited most fare increases to an overall RPI plus 1 per cent. cap. However, that cap is applied to a group of fares called a basket, and individual fares may increase by up to 5 per cent. more than that as long as the overall cap is not exceeded. I emphasise that it is a cap—it is up to the individual train operating companies, and they do not have to increase prices by that much. They have that flexibility to vary fares in their fares basket, allowing an increase of up to 5 per cent. above the overall cap.
There are two exceptions to that. Southeastern has a higher overall cap of RPI plus 3 per cent. for five years from 2007, in recognition of the fact that almost £693 million has already been invested in new trains for Southeastern passengers and in the infrastructure needed to support them. Those are not the high-speed trains that are coming into service in December but replacements for the old slam-door stock. The only Member to refer to that old stock in his contribution was the hon. Member for Croydon, Central, but I am sure I do not need to remind Members that Southeastern services had some of the oldest rolling stock. The old slam-door stock from the 1960s and ’70s was unwanted by our travelling constituents and by those who used the services. That replacement had to be paid for in a sensible way. The current regime also addresses the historically low fares on Southeastern, normalising them with those for similar services.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young)—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place—said that the cap used to be RPI minus 1 per cent. Indeed, it did. I could take hon. Members back to the days when a franchisee invariably missed targets, which meant that every time targets were met for season ticket holders, they got a 5 per cent. rebate and the subsidy from the public purse went up. All the time that that was happening, there was a reinforcement of the under-investment in our rail service that, with due respect, we got so used to under the Government led by Conservative Members during those years. That was the situation we faced with the service on the Kent and Sussex lines. There had been substantial under-investment and the franchisee moneys that were coming in through the fare box were falling as a result.
Hon. Members should not think that Southeastern is the only company to have a franchise set at RPI plus 3 per cent. Indeed, the other exception is the Northern Rail franchise for the West Yorkshire passenger transport executive area, where fares, for similar reasons, are set at RPI plus 3 per cent. Leeds fares have a higher cap, like those for Southeastern, from 2007 until the end of the Northern franchise and that money has funded investment in additional trains in and around the Leeds area.
Gregory Barker: Are the members of the other community who have had the additional premium put on their fare increases paying for services that they will see the benefit of or are they, like my constituents and so many others who are being represented here tonight, paying for improvements elsewhere?
Paul Clark: It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman did not listen to what I just said. The RPI plus 3 per cent. is invariably there to cover the £690-odd million that is being invested principally in replacing rolling stock, such as in the case of the slam-door services. It is not for use on the Javelin trains that many hon. Members referred to.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and others said that their constituents will have no use of the High Speed 1 service. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that although his constituents may not have direct access to that service, nine trains run in the morning peak to London Bridge and nine run to London Charing Cross and from December 2009, when the high speed trains come into being, the frequency of that service will increase to 13 and 11 trains respectively. Additional services will be operated because the introduction of High Speed 1 elsewhere will free up capacity, so capacity improvements will occur through the investment in High Speed 1 and domestic services.
Greg Clark: The Minister will recall that I mentioned that there was that prospect in December. Of course, the benefit of that increased capacity will be swept away if the trains are going to be 20 per cent. shorter.
Paul Clark: I shall certainly come to the issue of the reduction in the length of the trains and the steps that I took as soon as I heard that that was the case.
Mr. Gale: The Minister has referred to an increase in some services from some places. Does he accept that from east Kent there has been a diminution of the services to Victoria and Cannon Street?
Paul Clark: Clearly, there is a need to manage the demand from the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and from the constituents of other hon. Members. People travelling by train clearly find it an attractive option, because the number of people doing so has increased substantially. I have already said that the travelling public have increased by 50 per cent. over the past decade. One way of increasing the number of spaces is to increase the route options through measures such as High Speed 1 or to increase the length of trains, notwithstanding the comments that have been made by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells.
Let me move on to one or two other items, as I shall come back to the issues that have been raised so far. I have said already that the RPI minus 1 formula was leading to substantial under-investment and that we could not have had the improvements that have been made if we had retained it.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that there had been a decade of under-investment in our railways, but one has only to look at the record that I have set out to see that that is clearly nonsense. The High Speed 1 and rolling stock changes that I described have been accompanied by the £8.8 billion that has been put into the west coast main line. In addition, £10 million has been devoted to increasing the number of carriages, and more carriages will be delivered under the fiscal stimulus package announced a few weeks ago by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Moreover, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced in the House last Thursday that he intended to look at the further electrification of the great western and midland main lines. All that deals with the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the Government have no long-term plans for rail transport or for ensuring high-speed rail links between London and the midlands, and beyond.
The hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) spoke about inadequate parking, although he said that the service from Uckfield had improved. The Government do not regulate parking: we are sometimes blamed for regulating too much, but this time we have been blamed for not doing enough about providing more parking, which is clearly a matter for the private companies involved. I will not enter into the debate about housing provision, but I will point out that we have changed the regional funding allocation process. Local authorities are now able to look in a far more joined-up way at their requirements for housing, business development and transport, and to make their decisions and organise their priorities accordingly.
The hon. Member for Lewes said that his survey of residents showed that there had been improvements, but that his constituents were concerned about fare rises. That is absolutely understandable, as no one ever likes a price increase. Asked whether they are for or against a rise, people of course will say that they are against it. I recognise the difficulties that people face, especially at this time.
Norman Baker: On a point of clarification, I must tell the Minister that the survey was carried out in December, before the rises came in.
Paul Clark: The hon. Gentleman claimed that the rises were not always known about but, with due respect, I must tell him that it was well known that they were being introduced. They were announced in November, as I well remember.
The vast majority of travel—some 60 per cent.—is undertaken on regulated fares, while any-time unregulated fares apply to approximately 20 per cent. of all travel.
The hon. Member for Lewes made a comparison with our ability to freeze fuel duty, but that is directly under our control. Although it seems to have escaped his memory, I know that he is well aware that we are talking here about private companies, with which the Government have legally binding contracts. They are in a long-term business, and they know that they have to use investment to make the railway work effectively and efficiently.
The hon. Gentleman said that not extending the motorways would allow us to pay for a freeze in rail fares and that everyone preferred having money spent on the railways, but I suspect that people using the M25 might say something else. The difficulty of being in government is that we have to manage a balance between requirements. Our policy on congestion and the targets that we need to meet are set against the background of Eddington’s study in respect of road and rail and in our cities and towns.
Research shows that, between 1996 and 2008, average rail fares paid increased by 4 per cent. in real terms. The hon. Member for Lewes referred to padding. A robust timetable is far preferable to journey times that are not deliverable. The travelling public want to know what time the train will arrive, not some airy-fairy estimate of the time that it might arrive, when in reality the train arrives five, 10 or 15 minutes late because of the complexity of the system and the number of people using it.
The hon. Member for Croydon, Central reminded us that slam-door carriages had disappeared and reported a great improvement in rides and in the environment in his area. In response to a comment from him, I reiterate that fares are not set to pay for the Javelin services. It is intended to extend Gatwick Express services to the south and to add capacity. During peak hours some Gatwick Express services pick up commuters.
The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) argued that the Government were behaving uncharitably by imposing fare increases. One assumes that he voted with the last Tory Government to introduce privatisation of the railways and in order to set up private companies. Is he suggesting that we should tell them that they cannot increase fares? We have introduced a system under which we agreed a cap and which will deliver the investment and the improvements that his constituents will have seen in Christchurch, as have the constituents of other Members in the Chamber.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the requirement for the opening of ticket offices. Some people have moved online or to telesales, but my noble Friend and ministerial colleague, Lord Adonis, recently rejected many of the changes proposed by South West Trains because the ticket offices would not be properly staffed. That decision was taken by the Government to protect the travelling public.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was one of three who opposed privatisation because there was not a robust system of fare regulation. There is now a fare regulation process in place to ensure fair and equitable investment in our railways. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there are only two sources of funding for investment in rolling stock, staff and signalling—the taxpayer or the fare payer.
Sir John Stanley: Will the Minister say how the Government justify requiring the train operating companies to pay a tax by way of a premium back to the Treasury during their franchise period?
Paul Clark: We have put in substantial sums, as evidenced by the letter from Charles Horton, managing director of Southeastern, which the right hon. Gentleman quoted. I find it interesting that Members in the Chamber argue that they should not ask their travelling public to pay for a service that is almost on their doorstep, albeit High Speed 1, yet consider it okay for the pensioner in Yorkshire to subsidise the travelling public in the south-east. We are seeking to achieve a sensible balance.
The Leader of the Opposition announced a few weeks ago that there would be a 1 per cent. reduction in the Department for Transport’s funding from 2009 if they were in power, which would cost it £840 million. We have been investing in the train service and we will continue to do so. We will not cut that investment, so the travelling public will have a decent service that is reliable—
House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).
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