Sir George speaks up for Rail Travellers in Hampshire
2 Dec 2014
GY in Cab
GY in Cab
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Below is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons, on the subject of future capacity on South West Trains. The debate was initiated by his parliamentary neighbour, Maria Miller

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con):
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to follow the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), who is a fellow former chairman of the all-party group on cycling—I propose to say something about bicycles in a moment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller) on her choice of subject and on the way in which she made her case. My constituents are further west than hers, but they share an interest in increasing the capacity from Basingstoke to Waterloo. I commend her on the commitment to her constituents that she has shown in leading the campaign to drive up the quality of the service from Basingstoke to Waterloo.

As my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Exeter both said, this is a timely debate, as the Network Rail-South West Trains alliance route study has just been published for consultation. It is a good example of how the public and private sectors can work together for the benefit of customers by taking local ownership of a problem and producing a collaborative solution. It is a thorough document running to 159 pages.

To put the debate in context, nearly 20 years ago I went on the first privatised train service from Twickenham to Waterloo. It was at 10 past 5 in the morning on Sunday 4 February 1996. The franchisee was South West Trains, which has retained the franchise. A fare dodger joined us, thinking that the train would be sparsely populated. Sadly for him, there were 100 journalists and 10 revenue protection officers on the train, so his crime was swiftly detected.

I mention that journey to emphasise how the context has changed in the past 20 to 30 years. Before privatisation, the only sources of investment in Wessex rail services were British Rail and the Government. If there was pressure on Government spending, the railways had to bear the pain. Nowadays, HMG are not the only source of investment, although I commend the Minister on the deal his Department has done with the Treasury. We now have rolling stock operating companies and train operating companies, which can invest in station improvements and service development using private funding.

We have also created a railway operating industry, which we did not have before. We have bus companies, airline companies and shipping companies. Train operators from overseas bid for franchises, thereby driving up the quality of the service for rail passengers. That was simply not possible when British Rail had a monopoly. The new system keeps the franchise holders on their toes.

Since winning the franchise some 20 years ago, South West Trains has done much to build on what it inherited. Crucially, it has increased services. We now have two trains that run at off-peak times to Andover. It has also increased capacity, which I will return to in a moment. There has been significant station investment at Overton and Andover, where we have a new newspaper and coffee shop, a refurbished waiting room and a new ticket office. I commend the regular surgeries that South West Trains holds in the House, at which Members of Parliament can discuss issues on behalf of their constituents.

However, South West Trains has become the victim of its own success, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke explained. It has attracted more people to the railways, and there are now serious capacity issues. My constituents who return home in the evening often have to stand from Waterloo to Basingstoke because of the pressure on capacity. For those who travel in the morning from Andover, by the time the train reaches Whitchurch and Overton it is often standing room only. There is enormous pressure on seating at off-peak times—for example on Sunday evenings when university students are returning. As my right hon. Friend said, that problem is likely to become more acute. There is a forecast 40% volume growth over the next 30 years. Andover, like Basingstoke, is growing fast, with major expansion towards the east of the town, and both Overton and Whitchurch are likely to have more commuters.

The west of England line will be a vital lifeline when the A303 is dug up. As we heard yesterday, there will be a major improvement at Stonehenge, which I suspect will cause disruption, so people will rely on the west of England line. As the right hon. Member for Exeter said, it is a vital artery to the south-west, and it was the only rail connection during the bad weather a few months ago.

The problem at the moment is the massive constraint on capacity between Basingstoke, Woking and London. That is the key issue addressed by the timely Wessex route study, which rightly takes a long-term view of what needs to be done. I strongly support the measures to speed up journey times and increase capacity on the west of England line from Basingstoke to Salisbury by electrification and investing in faster and better rolling stock. The study proposes possible solutions, including running double-deck trains to Basingstoke and increasing some line speeds to 125 mph—something available for more than 40 years on other lines, such as the Great Western railway line.

If possible, we would like more carriages during the off-peak period. Often, the trains to Andover have three cars, which are under pressure. I would have thought that more rolling stock was available. Ticketing technology should be utilised. I would like to be able to print my ticket at home, which one can do on some lines, but at the moment one cannot do it on that franchise. I hope that in due course travellers will be able to swipe in and out at both ends of their journey.

One needs to keep an eye on the balance between first class and standard class to ensure that there is not over-capacity in first class and congestion in second class. We need to keep an eye on provision for bicycles—I am sure the right hon. Member for Exeter agrees. The most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way of making a journey is to bicycle to the station, go by train and bicycle at the other end. To do that, the trains must have the capacity to carry bicycles. I hope that will be a provision in the franchise.

We need a rail link to Heathrow from Woking station. There was a proposal, which I think was called air link, when I was in the Department that is now graced by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). In the study, it is now called the southern rail access to Heathrow. A lot of travellers from the south-west want to get to Heathrow. At the moment, they must get off at Woking and catch a bus. It would be much more convenient for them to simply get on a rail link to Heathrow. I think the track is there for most of the journey, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will confirm that that remains a priority.

There are some local issues on which Kit Malthouse, who I hope will be the next Member of Parliament for North West Hampshire, and I are campaigning. There are real constraints on car-parking capacity at Andover, Overton and Whitchurch stations. There are proposals for a two-storey car park at Andover, which is urgently required. We also need more capacity at Whitchurch, where land is available to the north of the station. There is a proposal for a private operator to provide a passenger service from Andover to Ludgershall, perhaps on a steam train. It is supported by my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), a fellow Minister in the Department of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings. The Ministry of Defence has kept that line working—it is not used very often. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will smile on a proposal to have a privately-run steam train on that branch.

Finally, I want to underline the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. We have done as much as we can with the existing infrastructure, and we now need a step change to increase capacity. The study offers a way forward. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister, when he winds up the debate, will smile on it and commend it as the right way forward.

Below is an extract from the reply by the Minister, John Hayes

My right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, speaking with all the expertise from his own involvement in this Department as a distinguished Minister many years ago, before I entered the House—I was going to say “when I was a child”, but that would be something of an exaggeration—raised any number of fascinating matters. I will make all kinds of commitments to him, because if one is the Rail Minister for the day, one can do just that.

The civil service will be shaking in its boots as I make this speech.

Sir George Young:
Go for it.

Mr Hayes:
Ongoing developments for cycle space provision should be part of all franchises, in my judgment, and from today they will be.

The business decisions of train operators on the issue of first and standard class balance has been raised by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. We need to ensure that we make best use of space on trains. That use will vary from time to time and I do not want to make any prescriptive judgment, but discussion of that issue needs to take place regularly, based on a proper analysis of use. If, as has been described, some carriages are empty and others are full to the point of bursting, we need to respond to that situation.

The argument about Heathrow southern access was a really good one. We need to have a new study on that issue, which should begin this autumn and which should be published as soon as possible, ideally—indeed, at the latest—by early next year, and we need to consider what more can be done.

On the issue of car-parking capacity, it is important that we identify demand and sites for car parks, and I am more than happy to commit to working with local councils to do that. Perhaps we just need to drop a line to those local authorities to remind them of our willingness to have that kind of dialogue, particularly where we know, from Members across the House, that there are pressing problems. There is a history at certain stations of parking issues, so perhaps we can initiate some new thinking on that.

When they think of railways, everyone thinks of Stephenson; some, with a more curious turn of mind, think also of Hodgkinson; and all romantics—such as you and me, Mr Streeter—think of Jenny Agutter and John Betjeman, do we not? We think of “The Railway Children” and Betjeman’s advocacy of the romance of rail. To that end, I would be very happy to facilitate contact with Network Rail to allow the steam train that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes, who has ministerial responsibility for rail, has pressed for. Indeed, the case for that train was amplified today by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire. Let us allow this to happen, and in that spirit let us look again at the historic estate. We have many old railway stations, some of which could be brought back into use. We also have many glorious signal boxes; more of them should be listed. Let us once again be bold and ambitious to have our dream of the romance of rail, and turn that dream into a reality.

My right hon. Friend talked about the capacity issue. Of course, his area will benefit from the commitment to increase capacity at Waterloo during the period between 2014 and 2019, and from proposals to “grade separate” working junctions in control period 6. I will come on to that in a moment, because it is important to say first that the process for identifying possible investments and upgrades for the next control period—between 2019 and 2024—began recently. As such, there are opportunities for my right hon. Friend, other Members and the public in general to contribute to this process and to influence the Government’s next rail investment strategy.

When these drafts are issued, it is important that right hon. and hon. Members understand that they can play a part in shaping the final outcomes. When I last spoke on railway matters, I emphasised that these things are not set in stone. The whole process is by its nature consultative, and drafts should not be deemed to be the final word on these matters, but instead a catalyst for fresh thinking, with right hon. and hon. Members playing a vital role in the process.

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