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.