April 1st 2009
I met, last week, with Andrew Adonis. Lord Adonis, to give him his correct title, is the Labour Transport Minister with responsibility for trains. He is also the Minister who, a month or so ago, wrote to me to tell me that there were only two peak time trains currently running between East Kent and Victoria. As an Education Minister Lord Adonis, a private admirer of Grammar Schools, was well-regarded and I am sure that once he has got to grips with his new brief (and with the hapless civil servant who drafted his letter!) he will understand the problems facing rail travellers in Kent.
Most people reading this will, if we are honest, not care too much about the rail service between Thanet and London, about the year-on-year above average increase in ticket prices, about overcrowded trains or about planned timetable changes that will make the commuting journey worse, not better. Because most people do not travel by train to London very often.
I happen to think, however, that a Country's economic health can be judged in part by the condition of its transport infrastructure. It won't be raised at the G20 talks this week but on that basis as well as on many others UK Limited is in deep trouble.
Between now and at least the end of May (and knowing how timetables slip probably for longer) some of the modern train sets running on the Kent Coast line have been replaced by older Networker trains. These are units designed for inner-London travel. They have fewer carriages, fewer seats and demand that more passengers stand. They were not created to serve long journeys and those of my constituents now paying their third above-average season ticket price in as many years now find themselves travelling in acute discomfort.
The reason, for this shambles, so Lord Adonis tells me, is that our rolling stock was needed to serve the Thameslink. We have to pay the price for the fact that Thameslink cannot carry Networker Trains and that the UK company, Bombardier, has failed to deliver the Thameslink’s own trains on time. That is also why new orders are now creating jobs in Japan rather than in Britain. Quite simply, we have failed. And as a result, and because there are no Networker drivers based at Ramsgate, drivers are being sent by taxi from Faversham to Ramsgate to driver trains back to London. This is called "management"!
I was able to introduce Lord Adonis to the Advertising Standards Authority's report upholding three of four complaints made by East Kent Councillor (Herne Bay) Peter Lee and myself in which we asserted that South Eastern’s posters claiming faster train times were inaccurate.. They were, and they will not be appearing again and I trust that from here on in the train operating company will not try to pull the wool over the eyes of people who seem to know rather more about the timetables than some of the people currently running the railway!
On a brighter note the Minister has recognised the injustice of above-average fare increases and has capped future rises at inflation plus three percent. That will be of small comfort to commuters already paying through the nose and about to pay still more to travel more slowly via St. Pancras to their final destinations in London but at least the message is beginning to get through.
We are also, at last, going to take at least a sideways look at the need to complete the "high speed" jigsaw by upgrading the line between Ashford and a Thanet Parkway station and at the potential of Manston Airport that such an investment might unlock. I shall not hold my breath but I'd like to think that I might at least live long enough to see this brought to fruition!
Lord Adonis plans to spend a week travelling around Britain by train to acclimatise himself with his new empire. Some will regard this as a gimmick but I, at least, appreciate the fact that he is bothering to test the system for himself and I only hope that he does not find himself standing on a Networker train, delayed in the rush hour, between the Medway Towns and Cannon Street!