I AM glad that Janet Mortimer welcomes many of the suggestions I have put forward to improve our local railway service, but she disagrees with my push to end the splitting of trains at Haywards Heath. Perhaps I could explain my thinking a bit more on this aspect.
Firstly, let me assure her that nothing I am suggesting will reduce the frequency or length of any train to Lewes. Indeed, if we can make better use of the existing tracks, we should be able to get more trains on the line. It is not sensible, or necessary, to have four trains per hour blocking platforms, for up to ten minutes per train, as part of the splitting arrangements presently in place.
I have put forward to the five franchise bidders timetable changes that would keep the existing frequency to Lewes and Polegate but, by ending splitting, would shorten journey times to and from London by at least 8 minutes. My suggestions have been well received and I am hopeful they will become a reality.
In terms of carriage numbers, we do have to deal with the problems of success. We now have more people travelling by train each year than at any time since 1929, on a network barely half the size. Numbers have virtually doubled over the last 15 years, and have continued to rise year on year through the recession, with particularly strong growth on Southern.
To help deal with this, the Coalition government has begun the biggest rail investment programme since the 19th century. For instance, we are electrifying close to a thousand miles of rail track. This compares to just NINE miles electrified under the last government in 13 years.
We are also funding thousands of new carriages to cope with the increase in numbers including 130 extra carriages for Southern, costing £80m. Actually there is no reason why the late-night trains she refers to could not be longer now, as there is certainly spare rolling stock at that time of day. I will pursue her suggestions with Southern. The new franchise also gives the opportunity to extract from the bidders commitments to extra rolling stock, and I have pushed in particular an extra carriage on each 2-car train from Brighton to Ashford International.
The challenge now is to drive much more efficient performance from Network Rail, which will release significant sums which can then be used to end the era of above-inflation fare rises begun by Labour in 2004.
Norman Baker, Lib Dem MP for Lewes and Transport Minister