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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 2nd March 2016.

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

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.