It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank you and the rail Minister for allowing my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Eltham (Clive Efford) to participate in the debate. I also thank the Minister for organising the session that we had with Network Rail and Southeastern last week—perhaps I should call it a grilling—which was much appreciated. I expect that she will have some idea of my concerns, but I am pleased to have the opportunity to put them on record.
The rebuild of London Bridge station is long overdue. It is a poor relation of King’s Cross, Paddington and Waterloo, but no less busy. I fully support the redevelopment of the station, but I am concerned about the impact of the latest phase of works on rail services and passenger experiences. I know there has been mayhem on Southern routes—my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge might speak about that—but I will focus my remarks on the Southeastern network, given its importance to my constituency.
The new timetable, which has been introduced as a result of the 18-month closure of four platforms at London Bridge, has caused havoc. With no Charing Cross trains stopping at the station, many Cannon Street services have been dangerously overcrowded. There have been reports of fights at stations on lines into London Bridge because people simply cannot get on to a train. The remaining operational platforms at the station have seen scenes of utter chaos due to the volume of people and last-minute platform alterations. What has always been a poor and overcrowded service is now abysmal and yet, as with every year, fares have gone up. How that can be justified when some people cannot even get on a train is beyond me. In my constituency, many trains are full when they arrive at stations and people are paying for a service that they can barely access.
What can be done and what do I want the Government to do? Commuters in south-east London are crying out for longer trains and better communication from the train operating companies. If we cannot find a way to ease the current problems, the Minister will need to look carefully at next year’s annual fare hike and ask herself whether it is acceptable. At the most basic level, we need extra carriages on the Cannon Street services. Those should not be pinched from other overcrowded services, but if any reasonable adjustment can be made, that should happen. Given that, on the Southeastern network, only Cannon Street services will stop at London Bridge for the next 18 months, every rush hour train into Cannon Street should be a 12-car train.
If we cannot get extra carriages immediately, we will desperately need the old Thameslink rolling stock when it becomes available towards the end of the year. Will the Minister guarantee that those old Thameslink carriages will end up on Southeastern services? Is it true that the current plan is to use the Thameslink carriages for services between Manchester and Liverpool? Will she review that, as well as looking at what can be done to source extra carriages in the interim?
Southeastern also needs another communications drive. Rather than waiting for frustrated passengers to work out alternative routes for themselves, a big communications effort is needed that prompts people into changing their journey patterns. It should set out all alternative travel options and ticketing arrangements.