Rail Services: South-east London — [Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:17 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Jones Andrew Jones Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport), Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 4:17 pm, 6th March 2019

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett on securing this important debate. Many important issues have been raised, and I will be scampering through trying to answer all the comments from colleagues, including on the landslip that my right hon. Friend raised with me before the debate, as he is a vigorous champion for his constituency. I will also talk about the infrastructure works, Southeastern’s performance, Crossrail and Ebbsfleet.

I will start with the landslip at Barnehurst. Landslips cause significant delays and cancellations, as trains obviously have no real capacity to deal with any kind of small obstacle. If there is debris on the track after a landslip, Network Rail will often need to re-route services to enable the landslip to be cleared and the infrastructure to be checked to ensure that it is safe and operational. There are always concerns, even after a small landslip, that the slope may be permanently weakened. Some of the slopes, or cuttings, on the side of the tracks may need to be strengthened as a result. That may include improved drainage or adding stronger materials to the slope, such as steel rods or soil nails, and that work can take some time.

The landslip at Barnehurst took place on 11 February and the service was not fully reopened until the following week on Monday 18 February. That was a significant inconvenience for the travelling public in the area, but work has been done to mitigate future landslips. I know that it has been a regular problem in the area, and to help to prevent further landslips Network Rail has installed remote sensors and cameras that send its monitoring headquarters regular information, including visual information, about the condition of the cutting.

While removing the debris and the slope, Network Rail has taken the opportunity to put in place some further mitigation. It has taken away 300 tonnes of earth and trees, and built a 30-metre retaining wall with steel beams piled six metres into the ground to stop another landslip. Network Rail has also removed and replenished the contaminated ballast, and tested all the signalling. If any slips occur again in the area, the wall that has been erected should prevent any further disruption to the line.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford met representatives of Network Rail to discuss the issue, and that they have explained to him what is going on. That work includes geotechnical surveys to understand the cause, not just to deal with the symptoms. Network Rail also plans to carry out more intensive remediation work at the site over the next two years. That underpins the wider investment that is being put into the south-east through a Network Rail funding settlement for the next five years. That will allow for a significant increase in expenditure on maintenance and renewals, all of which is designed to reduce the frequency of serious incidents and to provide a more reliable service. That underpins the comments we heard from Members across the Chamber.

I note the clear concerns about Southeastern’s performance in the recent passenger survey. I fully understand, and strongly agree, that passengers want a timetable that they can rely on. Their days and working careers are built around predictable structures, and timetables matter. The May 2018 timetable changes caused some unacceptable disruption, but important lessons were learned and implemented. The December timetable change was introduced successfully. The industry has significantly reduced the timetable changes to minimise the risk of severe disruption, and has introduced a phased, more gradual approach to enhancements.

Many changes were focused on improving performance and reliability for passengers. It might be of interest that in the next control period, starting only next month, we will introduce a new “on time” performance measure to assess the reliability of every journey. That will provide greater transparency about performance at every station along the route, not just whether trains reach their final destination on time. It is part of a much wider commitment by the industry, and by Government, to provide a rail service on which passengers can rely.

If train operating companies are unreliable, we must hold them to account. We have worked closely with consumer groups and the industry to create an independent rail ombudsman. That scheme is free, easily accessible and simple to use. It is designed to be a one-stop shop for passengers on issues to do with complaints handling, customer service and compensation. Of course, we want to get to a place where we do not have to worry about compensation; we just want the trains to be on time, every time. That is the purpose of our investment.