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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:09 am on 2nd March 2016.

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

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?