[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair] — Southeastern Train Services

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 2 March 2016.

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Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 9:30, 2 March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the reliability of Southeastern train services.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and I welcome the Minister. We had hoped to meet her to discuss the Southeastern situation before this debate, but we are here now and perhaps it is better to discuss it in public, so that people know what is said.

The situation that we have found ourselves in since Christmas is not entirely the fault of Southeastern—Network Rail is responsible for more than 70% of the failures—but quite frankly my constituents do not care who is to blame. They want their trains to turn up on time, as stated on the timetable, and to take them where they need to go. Since Christmas, the situation has deteriorated significantly. Trains are constantly being delayed, cancelled or diverted, and the landslide took services out for about a week.

My constituents and those of other hon. Members are bombarding us with complaints and angry messages. I will give a few examples. One constituent complained about the

“appalling level of service provided by Southeastern on the evening of Friday 19...Trains reduced from 8 and 12 carriages to only four”.

Another wrote:

“Terrible service on the Sidcup line…Constant complaints to Southeastern but no improvements despite repeated promises”.

One constituent said that when the first Bexleyheath service of the day was cancelled, he found that he could not use his season ticket to get the bus and tube from North Greenwich, because it was not recognised by Southeastern as a “reasonable alternative route”. Someone else complained about the

“appalling and deteriorating levels of service on the Sidcup line”, which also serves part of my constituency. She regularly uses the delay-repay compensation scheme, which she found to be “clunky and time consuming”. I will come to that later, but I have received constant complaints about difficulties in claiming compensation for lateness or cancellations. Another person complained about constant delays after Christmas in a commute to London Bridge:

“Been commuting for 40 years and never complained before. Worst it has ever been.”

It just goes on and on, and I am sure other hon. Members could give similar examples.

To give my own experience during this chaos, on one occasion I managed to get a train in the direction of Eltham as far as Lewisham, from where there was supposed to be a replacement bus service. It was impossible to find the bus stop for the replacement service; the signage was appalling. I approached a group of staff, who were clearly beleaguered, and asked them when the bus service was likely to arrive, but they had no idea. I asked, “Where does it stop?” and they waved in the general direction of the outside of the station. I felt sorry for them, but they were not providing a good service, although that has to be because they had not been provided with the information by the rail company.

On another occasion—it was the same scenario—I went outside the station to get a bus and found a blind man wandering around the building works. I do not know if anyone else has had the pleasure of trying to find a way through the roadworks outside Lewisham station, but it is difficult for someone who is not blind. Yet I found that man just wandering around. I grabbed him by the arm and asked, “Where do you want to go?” He wanted to go in the same direction as me, but how is it that he was not given assistance? Why were the staff not on the lookout for people who clearly needed such assistance? He wanted to get to Bexleyheath; he could have been put on the replacement bus service, but was given no help whatever.

On another occasion, going home late in the evening on a Bexleyheath train, we got to Lewisham only to be told that the train was no longer for Bexleyheath, but for Sidcup. People on the train just got up and blocked the doors. They were so fed up with what was going on that they stood with their feet in the doors and said, “We’re not putting up with this anymore.” When they saw me—I had got off the train and was wandering across to see if a train was ever going to be going in the general direction of Eltham—they said, “We’re protesting: we’re fed up with this.” I do not know what the end of that scenario was, but it demonstrates the scale of the frustration that people are feeling about the standard of the service.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. The Labour party may be divided over its leadership, the Conservative party over Europe, but what unites us all is Southeastern. It is fair to say that its service has deteriorated of late. Does he agree that Southeastern seems to have all but given up on getting its franchise renewed?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

That is a worry and something the Minister should consider. If that is the case, the Government should take the franchise away now, because if Southeastern is going to look at its bottom line rather than the quality of the service, passengers will continue to suffer. That was a prime example of giving way to someone and them coming up with a better line in their intervention than I have in my speech, so I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on pulling all that together.

People in south-eastern London have suffered for decades. We had the disastrous privatisation that gave us the Connex franchise. We then had a period of relative stability, when the franchise was taken back in-house—in effect, nationalised—but that was followed by the ridiculous decision under the Labour Government to reprivatise it. I opposed that at the time, but we are where we are.

Passengers who use London Bridge station understand that the Thameslink scheme is bound to cause disruption. They have accepted that, despite the chaos at Christmas 2014. At the time, the Minister accepted that there had been an unacceptable deterioration in the service and she took action—I commend her for that—but this year’s performance has deteriorated to an all-time low. Passengers had accepted that train patterns would be substantially altered and that regular journeys had to change, because trains that people were used to catching might no longer be going to Cannon Street or Charing Cross, but the level of disruption they are suffering now is nothing to do with that. On the lines between Dartford and London Bridge, the service has failed, although when we had discussions before the Thameslink works started, we were told that the situation was under control. As I said, my constituents do not care who is to blame; they want to know that the tickets they purchase will get them to where they want to go.

I am grateful to the Library for an excellent paper it has produced to provide Members with information for this debate. It sets out how the public performance measure is calculated. The PPM shows the percentage of trains that arrive at their terminating station on time and combines figures for punctuality and reliability into a single performance measure. It is the industry standard for measuring performance, but it does not distinguish between extreme lateness and a brief delay. Southeastern’s PPM has fallen from 91.3% 12 months ago to 83.2% now. The average for all operators is 89.3%, so we are way below that. Another measure is right-time performance, which uses the percentage of trains arriving at their terminating station early or within 59 seconds of schedule. Southeastern’s right-time performance has fallen from 65.2% 12 months ago to 53.5% now. The average for all operators is 64.8%. Again, it is well below average.

The cancellation and significant lateness measure is for when a train is cancelled at origin or en route—this was my experience on the train that was going to Bexleyheath but then went to Sidcup—and when the originating station is changed or the train is diverted. A train is significantly late if it arrives at its terminating station 30 minutes or more late. On that measure, 2.4% of Southeastern trains were cancelled or significantly late 12 months ago, but the figure is now 4.3%—it has nearly doubled—while the average for all operators is 3%.

On every single measure we see poor performance from Southeastern. In autumn 2015, Passenger Focus showed that Southeastern’s passenger satisfaction was 75%, down from a high of 84% in 2013. In autumn 2015, the Chiltern franchise had the highest satisfaction rate, at 91%. The bottom three ranked operators were Thameslink, Southern—they are franchised as Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern—and Southeastern, which share the common factor of going into London Bridge. That must account for some of the dissatisfaction that people have with the service.

Last week, Which? published its annual passenger satisfaction survey. Southeastern was placed joint last, with an overall score of 46%; last year it was at 45%. Which? considers the impression of passengers over the previous year of the service provided. The difference between that and the Passenger Focus survey is that Passenger Focus considers the last journey that passengers made. That can be open to all sorts of factors, which can distort the figure. I would say that the Which? methodology far more accurately reflects the passenger experience than that of Passenger Focus, which is now Transport Focus. Those figures demonstrate just how consistently poor the service has been.

Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

I am sorry that the fracture clinic will prevent me from being here for the entirety of the debate. I thank and congratulate the hon. Gentleman for holding this debate. Many of my constituents have experienced the same difficulties he has described. While I believe there will be better times around the corner once the track and station at London Bridge are developed, I am still concerned that we are short of capacity on these lines. Does he agree that it would be a huge concern if plans to give the Mayor of London wider powers for outer London were to affect the capacity further south? Does he also agree that to free up capacity we need a high-speed rail link from Bexhill and Hastings to St Pancras to create more capacity for his constituents?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I wish the hon. Gentleman luck in pursuing his scheme; I have got my own, which I will come to shortly. I have to say, Transport for London cannot be worse than Southeastern. It has had a positive impact when it has taken over other lines in similar circumstances, so hopefully it can achieve what Network Rail and Southeastern have failed to achieve in south-east London. Key bottlenecks such as Lewisham have to be overcome to achieve some of the things that Transport for London is talking about. I remain sceptical about whether it can achieve everything it says it can, but I am prepared to run with it and to be a critical friend, guiding it along the path of improving our train services in south-east London.

We need to hold people to account for what the figures demonstrate is consistent failure. The Minister did take action last Christmas when the service was appalling and there was a dangerous number of passengers on the concourse at London Bridge, but we must do more. To quote the Minister back at herself, on 28 January she admitted to Robert Neill that

“Southeastern was not at the top of the list for overall satisfaction. It is not quite at the bottom, but it is not at the top either.”—[Hansard, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 526.]

It was actually second from bottom and it has been so consistently. The Minister was reluctant to call it how it is, but we do our constituents a disservice when we do not do that. We really need to call it how it is to hold these people to account.

One concern I have about accountability is that the penalties that the franchise operators are required to pay the Government if they fail in their obligations are shrouded in commercial confidentiality, as are the payments made if they overperform. I would like to see some examples of overperformance—it would cheer me up no end. Why is that shrouded in secrecy? It is public money and a public service, so there should be public accountability. The Government should be proud to say, “We have penalised this franchise” when it fails our constituents. They should say, “Yes, we have made them pay a price and forced them to reinvest this money in this way to address this failure.” We should not say to the companies, “You can come and run a public service. You can hide behind commercial confidentiality and not let people know the price being paid.” All too often we see these people paying themselves huge bonuses in public services after such failures and that is not acceptable.

I want the Minister to ensure that we can see how the companies are being penalised for failures, because of the effect of those failures on people’s lives. They are late for work, late for job interviews, late getting a connecting train. We have all travelled on these train services that get stuck, and we have heard people’s life stories on their mobile phones as they go into meltdown around us because of delays. It is not right that the companies are not held publicly accountable when their failure is on such a scale.

Given the scale of the problem, the compensation scheme seems to be underused by passengers. Something needs to be done about that, because if we can make compensation easily accessible the companies might start to consider the standard of their performance a little better. People are eligible for compensation after their train is delayed for 30 minutes. The compensation scale goes up to a 100% refund for 60-minute delays, but according to the Library’s document no figures are available for take-up. I suggest that take-up is extremely low. The Office of Rail and Road found that just 11% of passengers surveyed nationally always or usually claimed compensation when they were entitled to it; 15% said they rarely claimed; and 68% said that they never complained.

We clearly need to do more to encourage passengers to come forward. Rather than come to their Member of Parliament, because they see us as the only outlet to vent their spleen, perhaps they could by right claim their compensation and make their voices heard directly with the franchise operators. Which? is running a campaign to make rail refunds easier that calls for

“clear information on how to get a refund for rail delays…all train companies offering cash as the first option” and for train companies

“to be held to account if they fail to encourage passengers to claim refunds.”

I commend that campaign to the Minister and urge her to support it.

The Minister said on 28 January:

“We effectively now have rail fares going up at the lowest level”.—[Hansard, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 526.]

Is that absolutely correct? I have figures that say an annual season ticket from Eltham to central London has gone up by £328 a year—33%—since 2010. I do not think my constituents would say fares have been going up at the lowest level. Would the Minister care to comment on that? I do not think it is true. People are being forced to pay more for a service that clearly is not up to the standard they have a right to expect.

I know that an announcement is pending about increased capacity on our rail services—12-car trains. I have been campaigning on that for 15 years and been fobbed off with “The electricity supply isn’t up to it. The platforms aren’t long enough. We have terrible bottlenecks at Lewisham and London Bridge. Twelve-car trains are such a drag,” and all the rest of it. The fact is that in south-east London we do not have direct access to the London underground. Most of our journeys are like the spokes of a wheel, going in to central London and the main terminals at London Bridge, Charing Cross, Waterloo and others. Our constituents rely heavily on those services and have few alternatives. Buses do not really provide an alternative for journeys of that length, nor do buses have the capacity for the number of people who want to make those journeys. There is a transport deficit in south-east London.

We constantly hear from the people at Transport for London about how much TfL must invest in the London underground and how important it is to increase capacity, and I get that. I understand how vital it is to London. However, TfL is even calling the new underground line going through New Cross the orbital route; that is how far TfL thinks London goes out—as far as New Cross. People outside its orbit are Pluto, or something. Because we do not have direct access to alternatives, our rail services are vital.

For too long people have been crammed on to overcrowded carriages, particularly at peak times. This morning, for example, I was waiting at the station at 7.35 at Eltham. The Victoria train came in and it was six carriages long, at peak time. It is not acceptable. The train that I caught to Charing Cross was eight carriages long. At those times of the day they should be 12-car trains. Trains are packed by the time they get to places such as Eltham, Kidbrooke and Blackheath; anyone getting on at Lewisham needs a crowbar. It is not acceptable. We have got to have increased capacity on our rail services.

TfL is very keen to take over the service and it would have my blessing, but as I said, I will be a critical friend. If it is going to increase the frequency of trains on the service it will have to deal with the signalling system. It is no good putting more frequent trains through with fewer carriages; we need more capacity. I will support TfL’s bid for the metro services on Southeastern, but we need to ensure that the Government and MPs scrutinise what it says about what it will deliver. We need to improve the service and increase its capacity significantly.

The landslide caused me great concern. I thought, “What if it had happened as a train was going by?” which was highly likely, because the vibration of a train could have exacerbated the situation and brought a landslide down. Some infrastructure was involved, so I want to know if a proper survey of the infrastructure has been done. As I said, more than 70% of the delays have been due to signals and infrastructure under the control of Network Rail. Does it survey the infrastructure to the point at which it identifies likely problems and puts them right, so that they do not become constant nagging problems and a cause of future delays? It seems that the system is creaking at the seams. Is Network Rail on top of that? I would like the Minister’s assurance that she is on top of Network Rail, and that she will ensure it tries to drive out the gremlins that cause all the problems for Southeastern and our constituents.

As I have mentioned, I want the penalties and rewards for train operating companies’ performance to be published and the people concerned held to account. I would like the Minister to put pressure on the transport operating companies to make people aware of compensation schemes. Above all I want the Government and TfL to recognise that south-east London has a transport deficit, which cannot continue to be ignored when the future expansion of rail services, including such things as the underground and the docklands light railway, is considered. The situation in south-east London is unacceptable. I look forward to hearing what the Minister intends to do about it.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

As we can see, seven hon. Members want to speak. I will start the winding up speeches at 10.38, which gives 10 minutes each, plus two minutes for Mr Efford to wind up. Please do the maths, but I think we are looking at perhaps just under five minutes each.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 9:57, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I pay tribute to Clive Efford for calling this important debate. I stand here as the representative of two communities—the one that relies on and is tortured by the Tonbridge line, and the one that is tortured by the Maidstone East line. On their behalf I voice my displeasure at Southeastern’s woeful performance, not just in the past three months, which—let us face it—have been particularly awful, but in the 10 months for which I have represented my constituents, and indeed many years before that.

I have had the great privilege of meeting some people from Southeastern, and only this week I heard that they believed they were still meeting their franchise targets. I do not know quite to the smallest detail how the franchise targets are met, but if their belief is correct it tells me something simple—that the franchise targets are wrong. It cannot be right that one in five trains is coming in late, leaving workers late for meetings, leaving families without a father or mother at home for dinner, and forcing people to change plans—and that that is still somehow acceptable in relation to meeting targets.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about Southeastern’s performance. I have travelled by train for the past 15 years, but now, as a Member of Parliament, I do so every day; and it is the regular day in, day out delay, even if it is a few minutes, that means a lot to my constituents. If Southeastern cannot perform it should do as c2c does. After two minutes, if there is a delay, there should be automatic compensation for constituents.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I agree entirely and thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I have spoken to the Rail Minister about it, and am delighted that she is in her place, because I know she is addressing those very points. I know I am not speaking against her but in support of her as she fights for all our constituents.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

On that point about compensation, does my hon. Friend agree that the “delay repay” scheme should kick in far earlier than the 30 minutes that Clive Efford alluded to? Perhaps compensation for passengers who are delayed should commence after 15 minutes.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

My hon. Friend is right; we need to get responsiveness into the system, and the way to do so, I am afraid, is through the pocketbook, as we all know.

I was canvassing in Old Bexley and Sidcup this weekend for the Conservative party’s wonderful mayoral candidate, my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith. I know that he will be working hard on this issue and ensuring that the trains respond significantly better to his constituents, although perhaps not mine. In his seat as well, the pressure on the trains is great, so I hope he will forgive me as I take his name in vain and press for a better service in Old Bexley and Sidcup.

I have been calling for more rail carriages on the Maidstone East line in my own area. The carriages introduce at least an element—I know that is not all of it—of resilience and flexibility into the system. That is why I raised only this week with Southeastern the question of what more it can do. It said, “Well, we could have a few more drivers on stand-by.” I asked why it was not doing that, and it said, “It’s not about the money.” I ask Southeastern again here today: why is it not doing that? If this is not about money, and if more carriages and more drivers allow for a bit of resilience and flexibility, surely that is the right thing to do for people across our county.

This is a county-wide problem. Tonbridge is the heart of the Kent rail network and, as Members will know, is the most important rail exchange in the county. Indeed, it has running through it one of the longest pieces of straight track in the United Kingdom. It was built in days when the Victorians did not value the land around the beautiful weald of Kent or the extraordinary richness of our communities. However, that is not true today. Our communities are the most blessed and the most beautiful in our country, and those train lines now provide the opportunity for some of the finest people in our entire kingdom to get to work and to generate the income that pays for the schools, hospitals and, indeed, armed forces across our country. It is therefore essential that we look at these rail networks not as a luxury—they are not that—or as some way of getting people home or to work on time, with 15 minutes here or there being just a problem, but as a fundamental part of the British economy.

It is essential we get this right, and the only way to do that is by holding the people who run the rails and the trains to account. This is not a question of public ownership or private ownership. It is not an ideological question for us to discuss; I think one Member of the House of Lords recently described the Opposition as “croissant eating”. No—this is a very important question about how we deliver results for our people. I am adamant that we forget the ideology and focus on what matters: delivery, delivery, delivery.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich 10:02, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I do not want to repeat the points that have been made today but rather touch in my remarks on three particular issues that affect my constituents: the overcrowding of carriages; the reliability of the service; and the poor communication from Southeastern about the delays and overcrowding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Clive Efford on securing this vital debate. As other hon. Members have said, Southeastern trains and the lines that run through our constituencies are vital not only for getting our constituents to work and bringing economic benefits—with delays causing a loss of productivity—but for people’s general quality of life. There is a historical under-investment in public transport in south-east London. My constituents rely heavily on these lines and have suffered for too many years. We know the particular problems associated with the London Bridge rebuild, but as other hon. Members have said, this issue predates that and has got far worse since Christmas.

I now receive complaints about late, cancelled or overcrowded Southeastern train services nearly every day. As a commuter, I know just how frustrating not only major disruptions but the disruptions and delays that happen every single day can be. Whether it is two minutes here or five minutes there, it is often without explanation and causes immense frustration to the people waiting, who cannot get adequate compensation and are not regularly notified. The 7.39 train this morning from Deptford was cancelled without explanation, forcing people on to other lines or tube lines such as the Jubilee line which are already crowded.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

The hon. Gentleman echoes a point I have made before. If there are constant daily delays, and if Southeastern cannot get its act together—whether that is through trains with more carriages or ensuring that trains run on time—it should surely give up the franchise to someone who can do it.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

I think that Southeastern has lost the chance it had to restore faith and confidence in its service. The franchise should be removed. I would like to hear the Minister’s view on whether that should happen now or in 2018, when the contract lapses. However, Southeastern has lost the opportunity to recover that confidence.

The complaints and the frustration have given rise to a number of community groups in my constituency. I think of the Charlton Rail Users’ Group and the Greenwich Line Users’ Group, which exist solely to represent constituents’ concerns about the inadequate performance of Southeastern and to lobby for better services. Those groups are concerned with the three elements I mentioned.

The first element is overcrowded carriages. In late 2014, as a local councillor, I met the then managing director of Southeastern trains with my predecessor, the right hon. Nick Raynsford. We were promised that there would be 12-car trains by January 2015 on the Greenwich line. They did not materialise. I believe that that was because they were put on the Lewisham line, which if anything is more pressured in terms of capacity constraints. It is essential that we get those 12-car carriages, because on many occasions at the moment we do not even have 10-car carriages; as my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said, they are often carriages with eight cars or even less.

Southeastern, to give it its due, has squeezed out as much as it perhaps can in terms of enhancements via changes to the timetable. It now comes down to a question of rolling stock. There has been a delay in the Government’s announcement on rolling stock. I will be interested to hear whether the Minister can shed any light on what may be coming forward, in particular for the Greenwich line.

It is indicative of how Southeastern has planned the improvements to its services that even if we get those 12-car trains, some of the stations on the Greenwich line in my constituency, such as Woolwich Dockyard, will not be able to have those trains stopping at the station because the station has not been fitted in a way that allows 12-car trains to stop, or if the trains are able to stop, it will be with selective door operating to allow people to get on and off at those stations. I would like some assurance that if 12-car trains do come online, the people who will be put out by that problem will get fair compensation if they have to travel onwards to another station, such as Woolwich Arsenal.

I turn to service reliability, which, as Members have said, is extremely poor on these lines. By the magic of social media, I asked my constituents if they had any thoughts or comments in advance of this debate. I asked them to keep it clean, which reduced the number of responses. You could not make up some of the responses I got back. One gentleman told me that the 6.01 pm train yesterday on the Greenwich line was delayed for 30 minutes because of problems with the announcement system; passengers learn that from the driver via the announcement system. That is quite a common example of the bizarre things that happen. I was once on a train that had to stop and wait outside London Bridge because the sun was in the driver’s eyes. That sort of service just irritates people, frankly, when they are paying a lot of money for their train journeys.

I will finish on poor communication. I made the case long in advance of the London Bridge rebuild that communication about the disruption that would take place because of the Thameslink programme was inadequate. My constituents still regularly think that the Charing Cross line is going to be restored on the Greenwich line; it is not. I think there are good reasons why it should not be, in terms of increased frequency of trains and reliability, but some of my constituents do not know that. Communication in general is poor and needs to improve.

Turning to the future, I fully support the removal of the Southeastern franchise. There is a good case for Transport for London taking over these services in partnership with the Mayor. The way that that potential deal was announced a few weeks back was rather shabby and got mixed up with the election campaign, but there is general cross-party consensus on that. Some of us have been campaigning on it for a long time. We need to scrutinise that deal. In particular, we need assurances that in the years left to the Southeastern franchise up to 2018 it will not be allowed to let performance slip even further. It has an incentive, as part of the service groups, to perhaps bid for elements of Transport for London’s services once it is taken over in 2018. However, we need to know how Southeastern can be pressed in the years ahead, if it is going to lose its contract, to not let performance slip even further. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent 10:09, 2 March 2016

I will try to be brief and keep to your advised timing, Mr Evans.

I congratulate Clive Efford on securing the debate and thank him for asking many important questions about infrastructure, compensation and penalties.

Like my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, since becoming a Member of Parliament last May I have received a steady flow of complaints about the problems with Southeastern rail services on the line that goes through Maidstone East in particular, and on the lines from Faversham and Headcorn. Since Christmas, however, that flow of complaints has accelerated, reflecting a substantial deceleration in the train services and their reliability. Regular weekly complaints from people have now become daily complaints, as day in, day out, their trains to and from work are delayed, and not just by two or three minutes, which is irritating and causes difficulties for people, but often by half an hour or an hour, with train cancellations, too. Many major events have also completely kyboshed the services for hours.

Other hon. Members have shared the data so I will not go through those again now, but as my hon. Friend said, we are now seeing about one in five trains running late. What the averaging of the data obscures is how often it is the same train that somebody is delayed on, day after day, and how very often they are the peak-time trains. That is not to say that other trains do not need to be on time, but we know that people on peak-time trains are rushing to get to and from work and to get to meetings, appointments and other commitments. The statistics mean that people’s lives are being affected badly by this experience of the train service. They are unable to be as effective at work and are missing meetings. They have to leave earlier and get home later, which is affecting their family life. Parents are unable to get home to put children to bed. All these things that people build their lives around and make decisions about are being affected so seriously by the problems with the train services at the moment.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

My hon. Friend is making a very powerful point about the delays and what they mean for people’s lives. Linked to that point is the fact that if somebody gets to the station and their train is delayed, when they do get on a train, it is packed. They cannot even get a seat, so it is also about the conditions they face. The argument to be made to the Minister and Southeastern is that there should be the extra carriage. I see that from Victoria to Gillingham on a daily basis. Capacity is a key issue, along with delays.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

I agree with my hon. Friend that capacity is an issue as well as the problem of delays.

I appreciate that Southeastern and Network Rail have made some effort to communicate with Members such as me, who have been in frequent contact with them, urging them to give us explanations. They have told us about the problem at Dover with the sea wall coming down and how that has made things more difficult for them. They have told us about landslips because of the extra rail, signalling problems with the upgrades and problems with de-icing. The Minister may well cover that in more detail. We understand that it is not always easy to provide a good service and that things happen, but still, that is not good enough. We also appreciate that they are making efforts to improve the services, with extra drivers, more engineers and de-icing at milder temperatures. Those are steps in the right direction, but still, I am afraid that I do not have confidence on behalf of my constituents that these services are going to improve sufficiently to provide a reliable and acceptable level of service.

I say that having directly asked Southeastern and Network Rail just a couple of days ago, face to face, how good the service was going to be as a result of the changes they are making. They were unable to say. They were unable to say even what improvement they are aiming to achieve as a result of the changes. There was a bit of a shrug of the shoulders—“We’re trying”—and that is not just not good enough. Along with their warning that the problems with the sea wall at Dover might continue through to the end of this year and with London Bridge work continuing through all of next year, this will drag on for two years at best. My constituents need to know that they will get a better service within that time.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, we also found it bizarre that, given all that is going on with the service—I appreciate that both Southeastern and Network Rail are involved, although that answer is not acceptable to passengers—we are told by Southeastern that it is compliant with its franchise. That suggests that something simply is not right with the way in which it is held to account.

Along with solutions to the short-term problems, we need to start seeing some plans for better service beyond the next couple of years. We are seeing enormous population growth across Kent—my constituency is part of that—and there is infrastructure there that is often 50 or more than 100 years old. It is simply not fit for the level of use that it is getting.

Although we have had High Speed 1, for my constituents that is largely a myth. They sometimes get trains that are called “high speed”, but after a short stretch of going at high speed, the trains just clunk along on the old infrastructure and are scarcely faster than the ordinary service, although they are more expensive. The high-speed service simply bypasses most of my constituents who commute on the Maidstone East line. Other parts of the country are getting High Speed 2, Crossrail and great investment. Given all this population growth and with the economy being so dependent on the productivity of all these people—their quality of life is an issue as well—we need to know that there is material investment coming down the line, no pun intended, in the train infrastructure, so that beyond the short-term problems, we will see an improvement in quality.

Will the Minister say what she is going to do to make sure that Network Rail and Southeastern get on top of the problems in the short term? We cannot let them continue all year and next year. We need to ensure better transparency for passengers so that they also know what is going on with performance. We need better communication and to know such things as the level of compensation that is paid out, as well as make sure that it is easy for passengers to get it. When possible, compensation should be automated.

I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Huw Merriman that although it feels as though nothing could be worse than it is now, if the franchise for the suburban lines goes to Transport for London, we must not see passengers further out lose out as a result. Finally, I would like the Minister to provide reassurance that work is being done on how to improve the service further out, given the population growth. We know that London Bridge is being refurbished —trains from my constituency do not go into London Bridge—but there is no confidence that that will be a magical improvement, so what is going to be done further out to improve the performance, reliability, speed and quality of the services for my constituents?

Photo of Teresa Pearce Teresa Pearce Shadow Minister (Housing) 10:17, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend Clive Efford on securing the debate.

I have just one train line running through my constituency—two tracks, three stations, one train line. What could go wrong? Well, Southeastern could go wrong, that’s what. I was elected in 2010 and have used the train line since then, but I also used it a commuter for 20 years beforehand. Before Southeastern, we had Connex, which was terrible. We thought Southeastern would be better, but we were wrong.

I have a real appreciation, as many in this Chamber do, of the frustration of standing on a platform in the certain knowledge of the uncertainty of the train service—wondering whether the train will arrive on time, or at all; whether we will be told what is happening; whether the train will be full when it gets there; whether, once it sets off from the station, it will actually arrive at the other end at the specified time. Commuters have a feeling of being resigned to the inevitable about Southeastern. If they have to be at a meeting a certain time, they will aim for two trains earlier than the one they actually need to get, because they know that the timetable may, on many mornings, be a work of fiction.

During my first five years as an MP, complaints were of the kind that one would expect—they were about unreliability, late-running trains, overpriced tickets, a lack of information—and that discontent was borne out in the passenger focus surveys. There was therefore both some surprise and horror when Southeastern was re-awarded the franchise. At that point, we were told that things were going to improve and that, for instance, there would be more seats. At a meeting that the Railways Minister held in one of the Committee Rooms in Parliament about 18 months ago, I remember pressing Southeastern about those extra seats. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also doing that, and at that point, Southeastern admitted that there were extra seats but that they were on off-peak services—so absolutely no use whatsoever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham raised a point about compensation. Every time I contact Southeastern, it says, “Don’t forget to remind your constituent that they can claim compensation.” Compensation is fair enough, but people want a service; they want what they have paid for. If someone keeps going to a shop to buy something that breaks every time, despite the shop saying it will give them their money back, they will stop going there. What happens on Southeastern is that people do not have an alternative and that has a knock-on effect on the clogging up of the A2. People are taking to their cars because they cannot rely on the train service.

It is interesting that since saying that people should claim compensation, Southeastern seems to have changed its compensation for season ticket holders. It wrote to a constituent, a season ticket holder, setting out the formula it is now using: it calculates the number of journeys it thinks the season ticket holder will make in a year and divides the price by that. Southeastern is part of Govia, which divides the season ticket price by 464 journeys, but Southeastern decided to divide it by 546 journeys, which is less generous. The compensation is not generous anyway, but Southeastern’s calculation makes it even less generous. I believe Southeastern has decided to do that because it is getting more complaints and more claims for compensation. Will the Minister look at that to see why Southeastern is using a different formula from the rest of the group?

My hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook referred to 12-car trains, saying that Woolwich Dockyard is a problem. I have been pressing for 12-car trains on the Greenwich line for a long time, knowing that Southeastern cannot run them on that line because of the Woolwich Dockyard problem, but there is an answer: selective door opening. When I originally wrote to Southeastern, it said there were 12-car trains on my line. I wrote back saying, “No, there aren’t, but what time do they run? I want to get one tomorrow.” Southeastern came back to me saying, “Oh no, actually they’re not on your line,” and then blamed the council, saying that it could not run the trains because the council had complained about Woolwich Dockyard. So it was saying, “We can’t run the 12-car trains that we don’t actually have.” Its responses were nonsense and typical of its disrespect.

Eventually, Southeastern said that if it gets 12-car trains it will not run them on my service even if there is no problem at Woolwich Dockyard, because although my line is bad, the Sidcup line is worse and that line will get those trains. It then wrote to me and other hon. Members asking us to lobby the Minister to help it to get 12-car trains. That just added insult to injury.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham said that it appears that Southeastern has given up, but in case it ever diversifies into bus operation, I want to illustrate a point. Currently, it is running a rail replacement bus service at weekends from Abbey Wood station because work is going on every weekend on the new Crossrail. I had an email from a constituent who had recently used the service. The journey from Abbey Wood to Woolwich Arsenal, which should take five minutes, took an hour. The bus did not arrive until 20 minutes after the scheduled time; it took my constituent to the next station, Plumstead, where they waited 30 minutes for a train, which was cancelled with no information announced. My constituent then gave up and took a bus to Woolwich. When I wrote to Southeastern to complain, its response was:

“I am sorry for the excessive delay on the replacement bus service. To be honest, I have no explanation as it would have been quicker to walk!”

That is no way to run a railway. Southeastern has given up. Complaints about its service are becoming more frequent than the services themselves.

Photo of Kelly Tolhurst Kelly Tolhurst Conservative, Rochester and Strood 10:23, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank Clive Efford for securing this debate. I know how important the train service is for his constituents. It is also important for my constituents, who live only 26 miles from London. Since being elected to the House, I have had to commute to London for the first time in 15 years. Hon. Members will have heard me say that I do not see an improvement in the delays to the service. It has been an eye-opening to see what my constituents face daily.

In Rochester, we have been lucky to have the wonderful investment of a £20-million station. It was much needed and long anticipated, and we are grateful for it. Sadly, however, the shine has been taken of it because since it opened in December, train users have seen the service decline rapidly, with delays, cancelled trains and lack of communication. One reason why my constituents were so excited about the new station was the hope of more train services, using the longer platforms and the potential for increased capacity. Sadly, that has been completely overshadowed by the events since Christmas.

People were hoping that the new station and the longer platforms would enable longer trains to be run, so that they could have seats on the train in the morning—like people in Eltham, my constituents in Rochester struggle with capacity. In north Kent, particularly the Medway towns, we are being expected to deliver high housing numbers over the next 15 years. In Medway we are looking at a 30,000 increase in 15 to 20 years. Southeastern agrees that it has had a 40% increase in capacity and use of its services. My plea for the future is about how we will tackle the growth in the south-east. The reality is that Kent and south London are extremely important in providing a workforce in the City of London and Greater London. How can we deliver that and keep up with the demand?

Teresa Pearce referred to the A2, which is another significant issue in my constituency. It is true that people are getting in their cars to come to London rather than using the trains. Frankly, my constituents deserve a hell of a lot more. I need to get to London on time, as do my constituents, but we also need to get home on time. I support what my hon. Friend Helen Whately said about the quality of people’s lives. People who work in London accept that they may be travelling for one or two hours to get to work, but they want to be able to get home, live their life, spend time with their children and do things other than work. Unfortunately, the service that Southeastern provides does not allow my constituents to have that extra time. I live only 26 miles from London and people further down the line in Kent will be experiencing even more challenging limits on their time.

I welcome this debate and want to hear from the Minister what plans there are for coping with demand and the increasing need for more capacity and longer trains. We want to know whether Southeastern will get its act together once and for all, so that we have a better spring and summer on the train service.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Clive Efford is forgoing his wind-up, so the Front-Bench winding-up speeches will start at 10.40. Two Members are trying to catch my eye, and perhaps they will divide the time between themselves.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West and Penge 10:28, 2 March 2016

It is a delight to serve under your sagacious direction, Mr Evans. I start with an apology for having to leave before the end of the debate because I have an appointment later this morning at King’s College hospital and it has already been postponed twice. You will understand, Mr Evans, that when one gets to my stage in life, one does not take liberties with one’s cardiologist. I look forward to reading what the Minister says and I congratulate her on taking the problems not just of Southeastern, but of Southern and the whole debacle of the London Bridge redevelopment seriously for quite a time.

In my constituency there are seven stations served by Southeastern, and a further six on the borders are used by large numbers of my constituents—all the stations are in zone 4—so it is obvious how critical the Southeastern service is to the life of my community, not just economically but socially. The cost of an annual rail ticket between Penge East and Victoria starts at £1,280, and a zones 1 to 4 annual travelcard costs £1,860. Southeastern even has the effrontery to offer a first-class season ticket between Penge East and Victoria for a staggering £1,920. That is spoiled only by the fact that none of the trains that run between Penge East and Victoria actually has first-class carriages. The ever-increasing cost of rail tickets is a different debate entirely, but it is surely not unreasonable for the constituents of all hon. Members present—I join in the general wailing and gnashing of teeth about the service provided by Southeastern—to expect a reasonable service, particularly in light of the amount of money that they pay.

I wish that Southeastern would put as much effort into running the trains on time as it does into providing excuses for why it does not. I complained on behalf of a constituent about the service from Charing Cross to Hayes and received the following reply:

“The causes have been primarily infrastructure-related, i.e. track, signal, and power supply failure, fatalities”—

I personally would not call that infrastructure—

“the collapse of the Dover Sea Wall”— other hon. Members have mentioned that—

“landslips on the Bexleyheath and Hastings lines, fatalities at Hildenborough and Dover”—

I think those were probably passengers who gave up waiting for a train—

“a broken rail in the Crayford area and only this morning, a track…failure at Gravesend. While these may seem unrelated to the Hayes line the complexity of our network means that disruption on one line inevitably has a knock on impact on another.”

Well, I would have great difficulty explaining to people at Kent House and in Sydenham and Penge why the collapse of the Dover sea wall means that they cannot get into London. That is just ludicrous.

Recently, Southeastern even blamed service delays on “strong sunshine”—my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook has already mentioned this—making it difficult for drivers to read signals. Of course, the rail industry once came up with the wrong kind of snow; now, the wrong kind of sunshine affects people’s service. It is, as many other hon. Members have said, a scandalous position.

I could quote at length what other constituents have said, because I get complaints about the service three or four times a week, if not every day. One constituent said:

“I genuinely cannot remember the last time the trains were running even remotely close to the timetable. This is hugely frustrating when juggling commuting and childcare commitments. It is not fair on my employer that my time of arrival at work is largely in the lap of the gods and not fair on my son when I have to work late to make up for my late arrival.

As you are aware, it is an expensive business commuting into London and it is absolutely unacceptable to receive such a shoddy service at such a high price.”

And so say nearly all the constituents who have contacted me on this matter. Another said:

“I board at Kent House on the 8.59 or 9.14 trains most working days and the trains have been late by 5-15 minutes every day this year, and some are cancelled on a semi-regular basis. As the services are costing more and more every year, the level of service…is not adequate.”

Indeed, it is going backwards. That is the experience of my constituents and those of most other hon. Members who have spoken. It is completely intolerable. As others have said, if Southeastern cannot run the trains, it should hand the franchise over to someone who can.

Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:33, 2 March 2016

I thank my hon. Friend Clive Efford for securing this very important debate. This is the first time that I have spoken in a Westminster Hall debate, and my reasons for speaking in this one will not surprise anyone. Lewisham, one of the stations that has been mentioned quite a lot during the debate, is in my constituency and I am bombarded by constituents contacting me because of the numerous problems that many hon. Members have mentioned.

I intended to start by shining a light on some of Southeastern’s recent performance issues, but the problem with shining any light on Southeastern is that that is one of the excuses that is quite often used by the company. It has said that congestion in Lewisham is down to strong sunlight, so along with snowy days, wet days and windy days, Southeastern apparently cannot function on sunny days. As well as the poor performance that everyone has mentioned, it has poor excuses.

I have spoken to hundreds of people about their dissatisfaction with the state of the trains in south-east London. In my constituency, Southeastern operates six of the 10 stations. I will outline some of the concerns expressed to me. Oliver wrote to me in January, telling me that each time he used Southeastern trains in a two-week period he experienced monumental delays and cancellations, and often no explanation was given at all. Of course, there is a complaints procedure, but when my constituent Jos attempted to complain twice, after being dropped off in the middle of the night at a platform that she did not recognise because Southeastern had failed to announce that the train was no longer scheduled to arrive at her station, she received no response. One constituent even told me that she had considered moving because she was so miserable with the state of travel in Lewisham, Deptford.

I could go on—we all receive hundreds of emails and Twitter messages, and people come and speak to us every time we travel to work, about the poor customer service—but I will not. What I will say is that the current franchise system combines the worst of both worlds. It is definitely not a public system, but neither is it wholly privatised: the taxpayer still subsidises the operating systems to the tune of millions of pounds every year. Astoundingly, it costs the taxpayer much more since the railways were privatised than it did under a public system. Commuters are constantly met with rising fares and diminishing service, while Southeastern’s profits continue to soar.

Last month, Lewisham, Deptford welcomed the news that Transport for London will be taking over Southeastern routes and stations throughout south-east London in 2018. That is a great start, but as many hon. Members have said, if Southeastern cannot run the service properly now, perhaps it should lose the franchise sooner.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:37, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend Clive Efford not just on initiating the debate, but on the way he—and other hon. Members—brought to life the daily frustrations of travelling life. We all recognise the frustrations that hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have expressed. I can vividly see passengers jamming their feet in doors in protest and frustration; I see that on my own train line. It should not have to be that way. And we can all recognise the collective groan when an aged train that should be 12 carriages long and turns out to be four carriages long comes into the station. We have heard from everyone who has spoken about some of the problems.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham, very sensibly, pointed to the Which? passenger survey. He is right to say that it gives an accurate representation of where we are at with Southeastern trains. Of course, he and many other hon. Members raised the issue of compensation. The Minister has spoken about that in the past, and I am sure she will say more about it this morning, but it is clear that it does not work for most people and needs to be strengthened. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham also made a very important point about the decline in reliability since Christmas. Again, that point was echoed by many other hon. Members.

I also recognised very much the points made by my hon. Friend Matthew Pennycook. He talked about overcrowding, reliability and some of the communication issues. Again, those points were echoed by other hon. Members. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to some of the user groups, which play such an important role on all our lines. Those people beaver away, amassing the information that we need to hold these companies to account. Another important point that he and other hon. Members made is that there is a real sense that passengers have lost confidence in the company, which raises some important questions about what happens next.

I thank Gareth Johnson, who is not here now, for uniting the Chamber in a vote of dissatisfaction with the current services. There are things on which we disagree, but I suspect we all agree on this.

My hon. Friend Teresa Pearce painted a vivid picture. A number of us probably got up earlier than we needed to this morning in order to get the train to arrive here on time. It should not be that way. People should not have to get a train that is two trains earlier than one that should get them to their destination on time just to ensure they reach their appointment. She eloquently outlined people’s frustrations.

The hon. Members for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) and for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst) raised important points about the challenges ahead in a growth region. This is not just about getting the problem sorted out for now, but about how we face the challenges of the future.

My hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham West and Penge (Jim Dowd) and for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) eloquently detailed some of the complaints and problems with which we are all familiar.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made some opening points about customer satisfaction, which dropped dramatically for the Southeastern franchise from 83% in autumn 2011 to 75% in autumn 2015. A quarter of Southeastern’s passengers are dissatisfied with the level of service provision. Among commuters, that statistic is even starker, with satisfaction plummeting from 77% to just 68%.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge mentioned some of the excuses that are proffered. Well, sometimes Southeastern’s public relations department is even more bizarre. Some hon. Members may remember an article in Metro, in which one of Southeastern’s people said that the real problem was that people did not really want to go to work or pay their fares in the first place, and that people were grumpy because the service

“takes people somewhere they don’t want to be with money they don’t want to pay.”

That is not great, is it? Southeastern went even further, claiming that if the surveys had been carried out on a “sunny summer’s day”, the satisfaction ratings would be better because passengers would be more “upbeat”. From what we have heard this morning, passengers would need to be very upbeat to ignore some of the crammed compartments and torn up timetables.

Although it is a pretty tough job spinning for Southeastern, let us look at the collection of companies. All the franchises are part of Govia and therefore part of Go-Ahead, which reported that profits in its rail business had shot up by 30.5% to £25.7 million in the year to June. That is astonishing considering what we have heard today. The operator is reporting rocketing profits and is managing to hand out some pretty big bonuses at a time when services are declining. Rising profits should mean rising service standards, not appalling delays, overcrowding and severe disruption. Punctuality was only 87.7% over the past year, with 37% of those delays attributable to Southeastern, not Network Rail. The failures come despite Southeastern receiving £32.5 million in subsidy last year.

We have heard about some other problems, including the Dover sea wall and the landslips to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham made reference. I would welcome information from the Minister about whether any warnings have been raised with Network Rail about the condition of the areas in both cases and an update on the progress Network Rail has made in compiling its long-awaited register of the condition of its assets.

The Department for Transport gave the incumbent operator of the Southeastern franchise a four-year contract extension without running a wider tendering competition. The franchise began in April 2006 and was due to end in October 2014, but the Government gave the operator a direct award to continue running the service until June 2018.

Photo of Matthew Pennycook Matthew Pennycook Labour, Greenwich and Woolwich

The Government not only re-awarded the contract, but gave an additional £70 million to Southeastern to improve performance standards. All the promises and commitments that came with that have not materialised, as far as I am aware.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport)

That is a very good point, to which I am just coming. The extension until June 2018 was awarded even though Southeastern had some of the lowest passenger satisfaction scores in the country and even though the Minister knew that passengers on the route have not always received the service they deserve. The Government essentially gave Go-Ahead the go-ahead for four more years of misery for passengers. The direct award was nothing more than a reward for failure.

At the time, the Minister assured us:

“We have also totally changed the contract terms to make sure they deliver on their promises.”

Has Southeastern delivered on its promises? Looking at the most recent passenger satisfaction survey, it seems that the answer is no, and I think, having listened to their comments, that hon. Members would rather agree with that.

We have heard quite a bit about the length of trains. My own experience is with the Cambridge line, on which, under the Labour Government, trains were extended from eight to 12 carriages, which made a huge difference. When it happens, it really does help. Again, I will quote the Minister, who said just over a month ago:

“I am determined to review the business case for running the additional, bigger 12-car trains on the metro service in particular. I give the House an undertaking that there will be a decision on that in the next couple of months.”—[Hansard, 28 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 523.]

I would be grateful if the Minister would let us know whether that decision has been reached and, if so, what decision has been made.

Another question that hon. Members raised is what will happen when the extended franchise comes to an end in June 2018. In January this year, the Government and the Mayor of London announced that they would consult on transferring London’s suburban rail services to Transport for London, which many hon. Members have welcomed this morning. Devolving routes in some areas of the capital has been transformative; indeed, significant investment is going into recently devolved routes to Enfield town, Chingford and Cheshunt.

We would welcome the devolution of control to ensure that passengers are put before profits, so that they get the level of service they desperately need and deserve. However, despite the headlines, that devolution is still a mere proposal. There has been no firm commitment from the Department. In 2012, the current Mayor of London attempted to get Southeastern services devolved and he failed. Despite what Government Members might say, there is no reason to believe that Zac Goldsmith would enjoy any more success if he were successful in his mayoral campaign. The devolution of control might well be a calculated pre-mayoral election announcement, unaccompanied by any meaningful action to improve commuters’ journeys. It would be helpful if the Minister provided further information about the consultation and her Department’s consideration of the proposals.

Finally, with the Shaw report published later this month, it seems worth asking the Minister whether she really believes, after the disastrous precedent set by Railtrack, that breaking up and privatising Network Rail would improve services for passengers. Do we really want to return to the dark days of Railtrack? Passengers on Southeastern trains deserve better.

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:47, 2 March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am sorry that I have not been left with an enormous amount of time. I will endeavour to answer all the questions raised, but if I do not get to them, I promise that I will write to hon. Members.

I congratulate Clive Efford on securing the debate. He is an assiduous campaigner for better rail services, and we work best on this when we work together. Many hon. and right hon. Members have attended and spoken, including the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, my right hon. Friend Mr Evennett and the Minister for Immigration, my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire, both of whom were rendered mute by high office, but made a point of coming.

I want to step through a couple of the tactical questions and then go through some of the broader issues. The landslip and Southeastern’s response to it was mentioned several times. Heavy and persistent rainfall closed the Bexleyheath line between 12 and 15 January. A recovery plan was put in place by Southeastern and Network Rail. My officials stayed in close contact with the operator and Network Rail to ensure that those actions were carried out. I was disappointed to hear today some examples of partially-sighted passengers and others not given the care and support they needed. There was a plan to offer taxis to passengers. I will certainly ensure that the company receives those comments and responds to them.

Dover sea wall was mentioned. Of course, major issues happen. I have been asked whether Network Rail’s surveying and early warning system is adequate for those sorts of events. I went to see the Lamington viaduct, which washed out and broke the west coast main line for a period of weeks. I am assured that the surveying programme is proactive, comprehensive and appropriate. Extreme weather events are clearly becoming even more common, and there is an important question to be asked, in particular about the level of funding that is baked into the current period—which, again, I am assured is appropriate. I do not have an answer on whether early warnings were received, but I will ask and respond to the hon. Member for Eltham on that point.

The reason why we are all here is that, despite such one-off events, performance on these services is not where it should be, not where I want it to be, not where the operator wants it to be, and certainly not where anyone in this room, or the customers they represent, wants it to be. I would gently point out that if Members look at the overall performance schedule, it has dropped from 91% of trains arriving on time last January, according to the public performance measure—I want to say a word about that, because I think the hon. Gentleman and I agree on whether it is adequate—to 88.3%, which means that almost nine out of 10 trains are getting to their destination on time. It is important to bear in mind that sometimes the vociferous complaints that we hear are a response because a particular line runs very ineffectively, which is important, or because there are certain passengers who are just extremely unhappy and now have the ability to let us know.

As hon. Members know, after the election I set up the south-east quadrant taskforce, which brought together, for the first time, Network Rail, Govia Thameslink Railway, Southeastern, Transport Focus and my officials. I continue to chair that group, and the next meeting is tomorrow. The group is an attempt to sweep away all this blame game and accounting for who is wrong. Our constituents do not care who is responsible for a delay; they just want to make sure that they are going to get to work, or home to pick up their kids from day care, on time. It is complete nonsense that for generations that was not the case. By the way, this has nothing to do with who owns the railway: it has always been the case that the railway has argued among itself about whether the engineers or the passenger-facing bits are correct. Frankly, I am sick to death of that conversation. If there is a problem, I want all aspects of the industry to work together to sort it out, which is very much the message that we give through the taskforce. Indeed, things are starting to improve, which I will mention.

Jim Dowd mentioned suicides. Let us not trivialise that. Somebody takes their life every 30 hours on the railways. It is a tragedy, it causes disruption to millions of people and it is absolutely ghastly for the train staff and train drivers. It is something that we must work to solve.

The taskforce is determined to sort out performance. I send a message to the industry that public performance measures, or right-time measures, that ignore the number of people whose lives are affected by disruption are irrelevant. There is no point comparing the PPM on a very lightly used franchise—say, the one north of the border—with the PPM on franchises running around London and the south-east. We are talking about the busiest parts of the railway. Tens of millions of people are travelling every year, and a delay for one train on those lines creates misery for millions, which is why I am working with the industry to try to ensure that these measures that we all like to throw about actually reflect the human experience of what is happening on the tracks.

We talk a lot about one of the fundamental causes of delay, which is the work at London Bridge. That is a real problem. It is a multi-million pound unpicking of a very tangled set of lines, some of which date back to the 1930s, and the rebuilding of what will be a fabulous station. That work is clearly putting immense pressure on the operators, and I am sympathetic. We are trying to encourage them to work much more closely with the Thameslink team to ensure that the works proceed without too much disruption. Let me flag for MPs in the room that, before the station opens, there will be a significant timetable rejigging for Southeastern customers in the summer. I want to ensure that everyone is aware and that that communication work goes out as effectively as possible.

My hon. Friends the Members for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately) asked the important question of what “good” looks like once all this disruption works through the system. What is the level of performance at which we can hold up our hands and say that it is a high-performing railway? Many activities have already happened. New maintenance regimes have been put in place, and new bunches of relief drivers are stationed around the system to ensure that if a misplaced train arises, drivers can quickly get to it.

Right-time starts from stations and depots to ensure that trains leave on time are fundamental. A question has been raised several times about whether Southeastern is meeting its franchise commitments. When the franchise was originally let under the last Labour Government, and re-let under a direct award a couple of years ago, franchising tended to focus on processes and inputs. If an operator said, “Yes—tick—I have deep-cleaned my stations. Yes—tick—I have hired an additional number of drivers. Yes—tick—I have made sure that all my front-line staff have better information systems,” the Department, under all colours of Administration, would say that that franchise holder was doing its job. That is not good enough. Franchising should be about delivering outcomes, delivering performance and delivering customer satisfaction.

Daniel Zeichner and I occasionally share a train ride, and it is much better than he likes to say, but there we are. The new franchise for the Greater Anglia area is focused on contractual outcomes on performance and customer satisfaction. It is not just, “Have you done the following things?” but “Have you actually delivered the results that we want you to deliver?”

The important issue of customer care and handling has been raised several times. Indeed, customer satisfaction is not quite at its bottom, but I admit that it is almost there, at 75%, which is actually the highest score in the last two years. The score for the autumn period is improving, but customer care on this franchise has to improve. Many hon. and right hon. Members have pointed out that there are still gaps. Staff have to be outward-looking, and they have to be thinking of people on the trains as customers who have a choice—they are not just units who need to be moved to and from their lives. Indeed, Southeastern is committed to pushing out more information to the frontline and upgrading customer information systems. All those obligations that were in the franchise agreement have been completed on or ahead of schedule.

Southeastern has also invested almost £5 million in improving stations. The scores on satisfaction with stations have gone up, which is important to see. Southeastern is liable under the terms of its franchise agreement if it does not meet its national rail passenger survey scores. At the moment, it is still meeting those scores, but it is liable for penalties if they should drop further. I also want to put into the mix the question of what we expect during major works, such as the London Bridge project. We will face that problem with HS2, and we have to make it absolutely clear what outcomes we expect from operators at those times of disruption.

I will not delight Members and say that we have made a decision on the rolling stock. I am bound and determined to get new rolling stock on the line by the end of this year. New rolling stock will add capacity, particularly on the very crowded metro lines. I do not need to bore

Members with details about the departmental investment cases, but all of them are being worked through. As Members might imagine, I am pushing hard to ensure that I can make a positive announcement for capacity both later this year and again in 2018, because I understand the point and its relevance. I take the point raised by Matthew Pennycook. We must make sure we know where we can use the trains effectively so that people can walk forward, with selective door-opening if necessary.




Oh dear: that’s thunder.

The other point that has been raised is about compensation. We have among the most generous compensation schemes in Europe. People travelling from the constituency of the hon. Member for Eltham have a journey time of only 36 minutes to Victoria, so compensation is not particularly relevant because it kicks in at 30 minutes, which is not terribly helpful. It is a manifesto commitment of my Government, reiterated by the Chancellor, to introduce in a relatively short time—I certainly want to do it this year—a compensation commitment on which the clock starts ticking at 15 minutes. Several Members alluded to the c2c scheme, which is now providing compensation per minute of delay after the first two minutes. That is possible because of the Government’s investment in the south-east flexible ticketing programme. That is being rolled out to Southeastern, which will have the capability to offer compensation for these minutes of delay when it goes live on the SEFT system with smartcard season ticket holders by the end of the year.

Fare increases have been mentioned. I am proud to represent a Government who have capped fares at RPI plus 0% not just for this year but for the whole of this Parliament, which on average is worth more than £400 to every season ticket holder in the country.

I have very little time left. I will write, in particular on the point that Teresa Pearce raised about changes to compensation, because I am not aware of that and I want to investigate. None of us is satisfied with the performance of the franchise. The question is whether anyone out there could run it better. My considered judgment is no. This is difficult, and there are huge engineering works taking place on the line. The company and Network Rail are absolutely committed to driving up performance, to the extent that Network Rail’s operating director is now devoting 40% of his time to sorting out the performance problems on these very congested lines.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).