South London Rail Services (GoVia)

Orders of the Day — Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] (Programme) – in the House of Commons at 11:42 pm on 20 March 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip 11:47, 20 March 2001

I welcome the opportunity for this debate on train services in the south of London. The Minister has expressed some surprise that we should be having yet another debate on this subject, but I assure him that things have moved on since the last debate a couple of months ago.

A new start for the south central rail franchise is very welcome. I am afraid that services have deteriorated over the past year. As we have had many debates on Connex South Central services, I do not think that it will be necessary to go over this old and rather stony ground again. However, a recent survey that I conducted at stations in my constituency shows that a substantial majority of respondents—no less than 78 per cent.—feel that services have deteriorated over the past year. No one who responded said that they had improved. This is the scale of the challenge faced by GoVia.

Before I discuss GoVia's proposals, I should like to know what efforts the Government are making to ensure that standards are maintained on existing services to stop further slippage. I draw the Minister's attention to one area of innovation—that of colourful excuses.

One of my constituents contacted Connex to ask why his train had been delayed, and was informed, in an e-mail, that a pheasant had been caught in the shoe gear of the train. That is certainly a radical departure from leaves on the line or the wrong kind of snow. Perhaps pheasants being caught in the shoe gear is a common problem in rural areas, but it is certainly not usual in urban areas.

Not all the problems of the train service are the sole responsibility of Connex—the current operator. Since privatisation, people have experienced horrendous problems with rail services everywhere—partly due to privatisation itself but also because of previous underinvestment in the rail infrastructure.

Local rail users want change and they want it soon, so a rapid and clean transition of the franchise from Connex to GoVia is desirable. If the Minister has any information as to when that transition might finally take place, I should welcome it. Such information will be of considerable interest to my constituents.

However, just because a franchise is being passed to a new company does not mean that my constituents or I will accept that any change is a change for the better. Recent public meetings in my constituency show that local commuters are extremely concerned about what will happen to their rail services. I should point out that GoVia was extremely co-operative in sending representatives to those meetings. To ensure that rail users get the service they deserve, it is important that the company keeps open the lines of communication to their customers to ensure that they remain part of the process. I am grateful to GoVia for that continued co-operation.

Unfortunately, my constituents are concerned about one particular change proposed by GoVia; I shall refer to that shortly. Many of GoVia's proposals are welcome. Over the 20-year franchise, the investment programme is valued at £1.5 billion. That planned investment includes £900 million for rolling stock; £325 million for infrastructure; £200 million for stations; and £50 million for depots.

There have also been encouraging signs in response to the 10-point plan proposed to GoVia by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and me. The plan is based on key concerns raised by our constituents and was the subject of a previous debate. GoVia has addressed seven of those 10 points and has expressed general enthusiasm for the plan.

I should still like solid progress to be made on three of those points. First, there should be a guarantee of clean trains and stations. Secondly, a plan should be published and displayed in stations, setting out the major works to be undertaken in the area and the date of their completion—so that when passengers suffer disruption, they can see a light at the end of the tunnel and know that there will be a solution at a given date. Finally, opportunities should be investigated for the provision of orbital rail services for direct services to places such as Bromley and Twickenham—an issue raised by my hon. Friend.

I do not want to be churlish about GoVia's proposals—they are promising. The company's eagerness to keep the paying passenger involved in the process is encouraging. For that reason, I do not want to jump to conclusions about the particular proposal that panicked me and my constituents, although it could disadvantage many local residents. As it is only a proposal, it is appropriate to raise it now—before it is set in stone.

It is proposed that direct trains to Victoria station would no longer run from Carshalton Beeches, Wallington and Waddon—three of the six stations used by my constituents. Under Go Via's proposals those trains would run direct only to London Bridge; people would have to change at West Croydon for a connection to Victoria.

I have some concern about the openness and clarity of the proposal. The matter has come to light only as a result of the public meetings organised by myself and my hon. Friend.

GoVia included a map outlining the proposals in its presentation document, but only by studying the map carefully can one get an indication that such changes are afoot. For instance, Carshalton Beeches. Wallington and Waddon stations are not even listed on the map, so it is difficult to determine what effect the proposals might have.

GoVia has sought to clarify matters in correspondence with me and has confirmed that, under its proposals, there would be four trains an hour to London Bridge station from places such as Carshalton Beeches station. The decision has apparently not yet been made and public discussions are continuing, which is a relief as there may be an opportunity for it to change its mind.

I am concerned that matters have been made worse by rail privatisation. It is difficult to find out about GoVia's proposals from the Strategic Rail Authority, because some of the proposals are commercially confidential. For example, it is impossible to find out whether the stations served by the different train operating companies come under the SRA' s jurisdiction. Again, because of commercial confidentiality, the SRA was unable, or unwilling, to reveal whether that came within its remit, so we seem to have lost accountability in relation to the public railways. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us how he intends to ensure more open government in the franchise bidding process, so that the public can influence it.

We are certain from the proposals that GoVia will increase the frequency of train services, but, as I have said, it will do so at the expense of sending trains to two terminals in London. I wonder whether the SRA was aware that that was one of the implications of GoVia's proposals. I also wonder whether the SRA considers the bids in that detail and whether it considers the impact that such proposal can have on commuters. Certainly, the response that I have received to the proposals is one of great alarm. People have told me that they chose to live in a certain place because they want quick and relatively reliable access to Victoria station. People are worried about the impact on house prices and so on if the rail services alter.

I understand why GoVia has made those proposals: more slots are available at London Bridge station, so there are more opportunities to provide a greater number of trains. However, the local view is that people would prefer to forgo the advantages provided by a more frequent train service, preferring to keep the flexibility of travelling either to Victoria or London Bridge.

To remove the direct train service to Victoria station would constitute great inconvenience to local rail users and they would not accept that that would be offset by providing more frequent train services. We are not able to look at GoVia's planned timetable because we have not yet been given a copy, but it seems that the impact of its proposals, and this is being optimistic, would be an extra six minutes on the journey of passengers who wanted to go to Victoria station, and thus had to get out at West Croydon station.

Considering the fact that the survey results showed that 57 per cent. of commuters felt that current travelling conditions were poor or appalling, I suspect that many of them would prefer to wait on the platform for a less frequent train service, rather than have to endure a lengthier journey. A number of people have written to tell me that, if they want to change trains at Clapham Junction station, that would add yet another complication—yet another changing point—to their journey.

The proposals will not affect only a small number of my constituents. In the survey, Victoria station was the destination of 38 per cent. of customers, compared to 32 per cent. who travelled to London Bridge station, so there is clearly strong demand for trains to Victoria.

I do not believe that GoVia and the SRA have considered adequately the full implications of the proposals, so will the Minister tell us whether the SRA was aware of the implications of the proposed changes to the service? Does it take into account specific commuter needs when it makes its strategic decisions on train services?

Once upon a time our railways were a public service, not just a business. Privatisation has changed that, and we have seen the consequences. The nature of business means that GoVia wants to encourage the most customers to use its services, so that it can make the most profit. However, it has promised a "people first" culture that has given local rail users hope that they will have a real service for their money. That means that GoVia must embrace the needs of a minority and provide a service that caters for all. I urge it to live up to the hope that local people have placed in it and to be careful to weigh up all the options before it cuts off the direct services.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 12:01, 20 March 2001

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on securing this debate on an important issue that affects many of my constituents as well as his.

I want to put two issues to the Minister, and they both go to the heart of the services provided to my constituents. The first relates to the legacy of investment in the infrastructure at Sutton station and Cheam station by Connex, the current train operating company. The Minister will know that I have raised this issue on a number of occasions. Other Ministers have given welcome undertakings and the SRA has been monitoring that work.

The problem is that, at Sutton station, the work would have been finished last November if Connex had delivered on Ministers' undertakings. The work to upgrade Cheam station and to reopen the toilets and the waiting room should also have finished last year, but it has not even been started. I hope that the Minister will ask the SRA to chase Connex up on those matters, because we have not seen any improvements in the conditions at either station.

The work at Sutton station is now nearing completion, but it seems to be a matter of churlishness on the part of Connex—because it has lost the franchise—that it will not apply a lick of paint to the old fabric to bring it up to the standard of the new fabric that has been installed. I hope that that churlishness will be dealt with and that Sutton will have a decent station in the near future.

My second point deals with the experience that we have had from GoVia's running of the Thameslink franchise—the running times of Thameslink trains are truly appalling. GoVia is the worst provider of rail services in London. Out of the 10 train operating companies in London, it runs more trains late all day than any other company. More than half the trains do not arrive on time. Even at peak times, it is the ninth worst out of 10. That does not bode well if the company takes over the south central franchise and provides those services.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that Thameslink will soon be subject to the close attention of a refranchising process and that we will soon see the benefits of the trains running on time and that long-term investment will be made to improve the services. At present, services on the Wimbledon loop, which covers Sutton Common, Sutton West and Sutton stations, are not up to scratch. My constituents—including Sheila Bullock and Debbie Shepperd—write to me frequently about such matters and they make it clear to me that hundreds of my constituents suffer from an appalling service day in, day out. They do not want that when GoVia takes over the south central franchise nor do they want the current service on Thameslink to continue. I hope that the Minister will be able to give them some reassurance.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth):

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) on securing this debate and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss GoVia's proposals for south London rail services. I was a little surprised that he has managed to obtain yet another Adjournment debate on fundamentally the same issue; he will have to tell me how he; does it. If he tells other Back Benchers how he does it, he may find his style a little cramped.

The hon. Gentleman secured similar debates on 11 April and 15 November last year. Although there is little new to report since the announcements that were made when the south central franchise was awarded to GoVia, I welcome the opportunity to remind the House of what the deal represents in terms of investment and service improvements for passengers.

Before I speak about future proposals, I should like to mention current performance. The performance of Connex South Central services has improved over recent weeks. There was a serious decline in punctuality following the emergency speed restrictions that were imposed by Railtrack for safety reasons in the aftermath of the tragic accident at Hatfield. However, latest figures show that, in the four weeks to 6 January, there was a 9.3 per cent. improvement over the previous four week period on the number of trains reaching their destination within five minutes of the timetable. I expect that upward trend to continue and very much hope that the industry continues to co-operate to improve services across the national rail network.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about how passenger views are gauged. The Strategic Rail Authority carries out a national passenger survey twice a year. It asks for comments on punctuality, reliability and frequency of trains, on the standards of rolling stock, including comfort and seating, and on information about train times. He asked whether people were consulted during the refranchisement process. Consultation does take place in those circumstances. Local authorities, passenger committees and other stakeholders are encouraged to get involved. However, some aspect of the process will always be commercially confidential. It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that in last autumn's national passenger survey, only 67 per cent. of Connex South Central passengers were satisfied with their journey and 17 per cent. were dissatisfied. Only 37 per cent. of Connex South Central passengers thought the company offered value for money, however.

It is evident from the previous debate on 15 November that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the chief executive's announcement on 24 October that the Strategic Rail Authority had signed heads of terms with GoVia and that the current operators of the Thameslink franchise were the preferred counterpart for the new replacement south central franchise. The aim of the franchise replacement is to secure a sustained improvement in performance and a step change in customer service through increased levels of investment. The proposals by GoVia and Connex Transport UK Ltd. offered substantial improvements over current standards of service. However, the chief executive decided that GoVia had demonstrated that it had the vision to bring about a step change; in quality and the capacity to deliver, while offering better value for money.

As the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), reported to the House in the debate on 15 November, GoVia plans to brand the services that run to south London, Gatwick airport, Brighton and the south coast as the new southern railway. GoVia is expected to run the business for 20 years and over that period is expected to implement an investment programme valued at up to £1.5 billion. Of that investment, £900 million is for rolling stock, £325 million is for infrastructure, £200 million is for stations and £50 million is for depots.

My hon. Friend mentioned the early benefits that are expected from the new franchise, which I shall not repeat. However, GoVia has undertaken to support all forthcoming industry safety initiatives and comply with all relevant recommendations of current inquiries.

The company has undertaken to ensure that all new trains in service after December 2003 will be fitted with the train protection warning system and provision will be made for European rail traffic management systems. It plans to invest £1.2 million per year in training and development for staff, including, for train drivers, the use of simulators and other forms of improved training procedures.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about future service levels, especially for services to and from London that serve stations in his constituency. At this stage GoVia can only work on the indicative timetable. The south London metro concept, which I will discuss in more detail later, will also have an affect on the current service pattern. However, GoVia is obligated to engage in formal consultation with consultees as the timetable develops.

The hon. Gentleman raised the concerns of many of his constituents about the fact that the desire to increase the frequency of trains into London appears to affect the company's ability to be flexible about which station those trains arrive at. I know that he has raised that matter at a public meeting. Consultation continues and no decision has yet been taken. I am told that there are operational problems in increasing the frequency and achieving the right mix of stations. The hon. Gentleman probably understands that better than I do, because of his meetings with the train company. No decision has been taken as to whether the trains would run into Victoria or London Bridge if their frequency were increased. Problems occur if they try to go to both, as the hon. Gentleman understands. I hope that he will continue to discuss that matter with the train company and consider carefully what is in his constituents' interests. I understand that change to their travel arrangements can be upsetting, but increased frequency might bring benefits that they do not fully appreciate at the moment.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

It is important that I reflect my constituents' views, as well as talking to the train company. It is clear that the constituents who have contacted me are unhappy with the current proposals.

Mr. Ainsworth:

That debate will obviously continue. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that service provision will be based on existing passenger service requirements, which provide a specified minimum service level. In some cases where new services on new routes have been introduced and become a valued part of the network, passenger service requirements will be extended to cover them.

Where the passenger service requirement is currently augmented by higher levels of service, the Strategic Rail Authority requires the aggregate additional train mileage to be incorporated in the replacement franchise agreement as a separate contractual obligation. The Strategic Rail Authority will consult the relevant rail passengers committees and local authorities on any proposed changes to passenger service requirements.

I mentioned the south London metro, which is a concept jointly developed by the Strategic Rail Authority, train operating companies, Transport for London, Railtrack, the London Users Transport Committee, and the London borough-led partnerships, Seltrans and Sweltrac. Rail passengers can look forward to a "turn up and go" metro service similar to the London underground. Key features will be consistently high standards of station environment, information provision, passenger facilities, security and accessibility, with frequent, regular train services, including improvements to the level of service provision at weekends and in the evenings. The network will be branded and marketed as a single entity, even though services will be provided by a number of franchisees. A simplified fares and ticketing system, integrated with the tube and buses, is also an aspiration towards which progress is being made.

The emphasis on improving interchange with other modes of transport and the development of orbital routes will bring much needed relief to the London terminals. The south London metro concept will use sections of the existing Connex, South West Trains and Thameslink networks. Many of the features of the metro can be established within a three-year horizon, although achieving all the desired service improvements may take as long as 10 years where major infrastructure projects are required to relieve pressure on the network. Much of the financing will be provided through the Strategic Rail Authority's programme of franchise replacement, but significant contributions are also expected to come from the London boroughs, Railtrack and Transport for London.

The current Convex South Central franchise agreement is not due to expire until May 2003. However, it is expected that a date for formal change of control will be agreed shortly, to come into effect within the next few months. That will allow GoVia to assume control of and responsibility for south central services under the same terms as those presently provided by Connex. Final negotiation and signature of the new agreement with GoVia will then follow as soon as possible. Until the early transfer can be agreed, Connex is required to meet the terms of its existing franchise agreement, including service provision, performance regimes, station standards and customer satisfaction requirements. Failure to comply will result in a breach of its contract.

The Government are committed to delivering a better, bigger, safer railway with increased punctuality and reliability, reduced journey times and higher standards of customer services. Our 10-year transport plan provides £180 billion, which includes £60 billion for railways. The Strategic Rail Authority has recently published its strategic agenda, which will be followed by its more detailed strategic plan in the autumn. The agenda is essentially a situation report, describing the main issues that the industry faces and the actions that the Strategic Rail Authority has taken, to date, to tackle them.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured that passengers in and around his constituency, as well as in the rest of the country, will benefit from the improved rail services that these initiatives will generate.

Question put and .agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes past Twelve midnight.