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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:37 am on 2nd March 2016.

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Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Transport) 10:37 am, 2nd 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.