The success of HS1 will be choked if ministers fail to commit new rolling stock
The popularity of HS1 has produced serious overcrowding and repeated delays, we need a quick resolution to avoid one of the few success stories of the rail industry becoming tarnished, writes Damian Green MP.
Most articles by MPs about rail services in their constituency will be a cry of rage about unreliability, delays, strikes, and how their constituents are at the end of their tether. By contrast, this is one about a hugely successful service, but one which is going to be choked by that very success and popularity unless Ministers take decisive action very soon.
The high-speed service between Kent and London is not just important for my constituents in Ashford, but for the whole Kent economy. In its first ten years it provided 100 million passenger journeys and gave a £1 billion boost to the increasingly important Kent tourism industry. It supports around 72,000 jobs. Ashford and London are now only 38 minutes apart, compared to previous journeys which were routinely 81 minutes.
At its best it is one of the success stories of the rail network, providing travel which is not only fast but more reliable than most lines. This level of performance is reflected in the regular passenger satisfaction surveys. Indeed those considering the future of HS2 might reflect on the success of HS1 and hold their nerve that short-term unpopularity can be replaced by long-term acclaim.
So what’s the problem? It is that the service has become too popular for its own good. Overcrowding is a serious and growing problem. The operator, Southeastern, has tried to compensate by changing the number of carriages on the most popular peak-time services and improving the repairs and maintenance programme so that more of the rolling stock is available at any one time, but this is not enough.
Essentially we need more rolling stock on the line. Passenger numbers have grown by an average of 11.7% every year since 2010, and there is no evidence that this increase in demand is going to slow down in the near future. Indeed with major housing developments planned not only in Ashford but in other places along the line, we can expect the opposite.
The need for extra train services, and longer trains more often, is clear. On current projections 31 high speed services a day will be full to capacity by 2025, meaning that no passenger will be able to board even to stand all the way. Another 25 a day will have standing room only.
Solving this problem has been complicated by the repeated delays in deciding a new operator for services to the south east of London. This is one of the many franchise awards that has run into difficulties, and I expect another short-term award to be made shortly. This uncertainty has prevented the sensible long-term planning needed to ensure another decade of high customer satisfaction.
This is why I have called a debate in Westminster Hall, not just on behalf of my own constituents but thousands of other people in Kent. I am asking Ministers first of all to acknowledge that this problem is real, and then to commit to devising a solution which will allow passengers to continue to enjoy the benefits of high-speed rail. We need decisions very soon to avoid one of the undoubted successes of the rail industry becoming tarnished.
Damian Green is a Conservative Member of Parliament for Ahsford.