One of the most important decisions for the future of thousands of commuters from Ashford, and other rail users, will be taken in the next few months. This is the decision over who will run the rail franchise for our area from the end of 2018 for the next nine years.
The current franchise was extended for a few years to cover the period while London Bridge station is being upgraded, as this has caused inevitable disruption, and it would have been unfair to judge the current operator Southeastern for its performance during this disruption. The key improvements at London Bridge are not just the better facilities at the station itself, but more importantly the addition of another platform which will make the services much more reliable. All this is due to come in effect next year, and then the new franchise operator will take over.
I have been speaking to the bidders over the past few weeks, and making the case on behalf of rail users in the Ashford area. The ask for high speed users is pretty simple, and boils down to more capacity. Over the years of the high speed service people have been willing to pay premium prices as long as they are receiving a premium service. Increasingly at some times of day this is not the case, with seats simply not available.
I agree that paying more than £6,000 for a season ticket and then having to stand for more than half an hour is not good enough, so I have been stressing this to the bidding companies. They either need longer trains (which means more rolling stock) or more frequent services to make better use of the track.
On the other lines, I have been making the case for the continuation of services to the smaller village stations. These are often vital links, especially for off-peak services, and I expect the Department of Transport to make them a condition of the Invitation to Tender which all bidders have to meet.
I have also asked them to look at the problems of parking in the smaller stations, as well as the current configuration at Ashford station itself, which needs a major overhaul. This is a chance to make improvements which will last for the next decade, so it is really important that we get it right.