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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:47 am on 2nd March 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Claire Perry Claire Perry Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:47 am, 2nd 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.

[

Interruption.

]

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)).