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Rail Services (West Kent)

Volume 508: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2010

I am delighted, Sir Nicholas, that you share my love of my constituency.

I should declare an interest, in that I am a regular and frequent user of the Hastings line, between Tunbridge Wells and London, and I want to bring the attention of the House to its performance. I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for granting the debate, because it gives me the chance to ask the Minister the question that is on the lips of many travellers from my constituency: what on earth has gone wrong with the performance of Southeastern trains in recent months? A service and company that were in the past reliable and well run have in recent months undergone such a collapse in performance as to add to the stress of my constituents and subject them to daily delays and uncertainty. I want to get to the bottom of that.

My constituents have gone through three phases with Southeastern in recent months, which could be called the good, the ugly and the bad. To start positively, with the good, six months ago we were looking forward to what we hoped would be a new era for travel from Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms to London. Through the construction of a new turnback facility over the summer at Tunbridge Wells, we had the prospect of a new timetable, which would allow trains at quarter-hourly intervals throughout the day, and five new peak-time services. That came on the back of a 10 per cent. increase in rail fares the previous January, so we thought that it was overdue. Nevertheless, it would be a significant improvement in services.

It would be fair to mention that we have had some improvements to the facilities in the stations. As a result of a debate that I obtained a year ago, the Minister’s predecessor kindly put pressure on Southeastern to reverse—which it did—a cut in the capacity of the trains. It had reduced the capacity from 10 carriages to eight, but thanks to that intervention it reverted to the full 10. We have had improvements to the condition of the stations—an overhaul of all the stations in my constituency—including the installation of a long overdue new passenger lift in Tunbridge Wells and a much better look and feel to the station. Even the station clock, which was out of action for many years, is now restored and in full working order.

The Minister will understand that we looked forward to the new timetable in December with a degree of hope and confidence. However, the ugly phase began. The first warning signs were when the new timetable was introduced and much of the new rolling stock turned out to be inferior. It was inner-suburban stock, which was much more crowded and less comfortable than the higher-quality rolling stock that was previously available. In a crowded journey of an hour and more for stations to the south of my constituency, that is a material change in the comfort of the journey.

The big collapse in service, however, came with the bad weather in December. Of course, everyone accepts that severe weather will have consequences for the rail network generally and the service operators in particular. However, it exposed some real failings in the management of Southeastern’s response to the events, however severe. First, information was affected. When the snow hit, High Brooms and Tunbridge Wells were, from the point of view of Southeastern, cut off. The information conveyed to my constituents was completely inadequate. People turned up at the station and were told over the public address system to go home and inspect the website for information about when the next trains might be available. They went home and found no more useful information on the website than was available in the station; their journeys were wasted.

A service was continuing from Tonbridge, further up the line, and the natural response would therefore be to put on a bus service to connect Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms with it. However, that service was much delayed in starting, and was then completely inadequate. I pay tribute to the bus drivers of Arriva, the local bus company. However, despite the fact that the regular buses were able to operate, the number of buses put on by Southeastern was completely inadequate to my constituents’ needs.

I remember turning the corner to approach the station, to try to come to the House at the time in question, and finding a queue snaking out of the station, over the bridge, round the corner and up a road called Mount Pleasant. A vastly greater number of people than could be accommodated were waiting to board those very infrequent buses. Surely it should have been possible to mount a response that would have provided enough capacity?

When, eventually, some trains were got moving again on the line, we had a limited skeleton service—a shuttle service—between Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms and Tonbridge. However, it went once an hour. I said earlier that we are now used to four trains an hour at peak times, and in fact throughout the day, from Tunbridge Wells and High Brooms to Tonbridge; the consequences of attempting to pack the passengers of four trains into a single train can be imagined.

The result was chaos, confusion and misery. I understand from conversations that the reason for what happened is that the Hastings line south of Tonbridge was considered to be a branch line and was not given the same priority as the line to Tonbridge. However, the Minister will know, having done his research, as I am sure he has, that there are probably just as many commuters in Tunbridge Wells as in Tonbridge, and the line should not be classified in that way. I hope that that will not happen again.

To move on from what can be seen as a very ugly phase of transport in my constituency, we at least hoped that when the weather improved services would improve with it. Instead, although we may have come through the worst, we are still in what everyone would consider a bad phase, with continuing problems. I can do no better than to quote some of the e-mails that I have received from my constituents. I have received them in recent days, during the improved weather, not at the height of the bad winter weather. A constituent wrote at the end of February to describe the effect on his wife, who commutes to London, saying that

“the delays and breakdowns continue even during ‘normal’ winter weather and she rarely receives any explanation…The season ticket from Tunbridge Wells is in excess of £3,000 and every year it costs more; for this she receives a poorer and poorer service and yet has more and more additional stress”.

He continues:

“Sir, I see my wife come home from work in tears some nights due to frustration at the treatment she receives on this so called service. We barely enjoy our evenings together because she has to get earlier and earlier trains in the morning when she needs to be assured to arrive for meetings on time in London because the timetable cannot be trusted.”

Another constituent writes that he needs to

“take the 8.18 service from Tunbridge Wells”


“This is the earliest possible train that I can take as I have to take my children to nursery in the morning which only opens at 8 am. The 8.18 train is consistently late arriving at Cannon Street; in fact by my estimation…I believe that it has arrived on time at Cannon Street…twice this year…Clearly this is a huge issue as it means that I am late for work nearly everyday.”

I could mention some of the knock-on effects of the recent chaos. Another constituent wrote just this week to say that

“people have started to use Southern’s”—

the neighbouring franchise’s—

“service from Eridge to London Bridge which costs £2,268 per annum compared to Southeastern’s £3,352 from Tunbridge Wells. It’s more reliable, there are more seats and it is much less stressful.”

That constituent and his partner

“have considered moving to Crowborough as a result.”

I might add, Sir Nicholas, that from your earlier remarks it seems that you are aware that the station at Eridge is 5 miles further from London than Tunbridge Wells. The situation is ridiculous.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware that my constituents in west Kent have been sending me similar communications? Is he also aware that those of my constituents who use the Maidstone East line have in addition suffered the axing, from last December, of all services to crucial London stations, particularly Cannon Street, Charing Cross and London Bridge? Is he further aware that, as a consequence, several of my constituents have been forced to move home, incurring enormous costs as a result? Does he not agree that that is a reflection of the profound stupidity and social irresponsibility of the Government entering into the integrated Kent franchise agreement, which enabled Southeastern to axe those services?

My right hon. Friend is right to describe the strength of feeling of his constituents about those services. His constituents know how assiduous he is in holding those responsible to account. I am delighted that he has come to support us today.

When I asked Southeastern about the performance of the Hastings line after the recent cold weather, I was surprised to be told:

“We do not make this data public, as our obligations for performance are across mainline and metro services rather than on individual lines.”

That strikes me as a worrying argument. The concern of those of my constituents who use the Hastings line is the Hastings line. It matters not that the service of the new High Speed 1 line might be performing well, as they do not use it. They are galled enough at having to pay for the service, let alone to realise that the possibility of compensation for poor performance is excluded because of an averaging out across the whole region. People use a particular service. It is almost as if someone bought a TV that broke down, but when they asked for a refund from the store they were told that one was not available because the washing machines were working. It is a ridiculous way of proceeding.

I am fortunate in my constituency in having an excellent local rail travellers group. It has investigated the performance of the Hastings line. It estimates that in the first three weeks of February at least eight trains were cancelled, 33 trains were delayed due to asset failure and 115 trains were disrupted because of absent train crews and other operational reasons. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that there is a particular problem on that line.

Many of my constituents are well aware of some of the causes. One constituent e-mailed me, saying:

“Main recurring problem (on the evening service I catch it happens at least 3 days every week) is that conductor gets stuck on a late incoming train and as a result the train which he is next supposed to be the conductor on is delayed waiting for him to come in—essentially the problem is that there is virtually no ‘turnaround’ time for conductors on some services; the train crew know that and tell passengers that they are trying to get Southeastern management to do something about it—so far with no joy.”

The diagnosis—knowing what contributes to the problems—is well understood and should be addressed.

We have little time for this debate. I would like to say more about some of the other concerns that affect my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. I could speak of the calamitous withdrawal of the service from Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport. At a time when we want to take cars off the roads, reducing a direct connection from one of the counties that supplies most passengers to Gatwick seems to fly in the face of environmental and transport logic. I could talk about the great anxiety of passengers who use stations south of Tunbridge Wells about proposed changes to the route into Cannon Street. I could mention this year’s 10 per cent. increase in parking charges; at a time when inflation has been negative, it seems to be a way of exacting more and more money for less and less of a service.

With your permission, Sir Nicholas, I wish to make three requests of the Minister. I am grateful for his attendance here today. I hope that he will respond to these requests towards the beginning of his speech, so that we have the chance to button them down. The first is on data. During the short period before Parliament rises, will the Minister ensure that I am given the performance data to date for the Hastings line between Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge and London? Those data exist. We know that Southeastern has the data, but I believe that they should be made public so that everyone knows about that line’s performance.

The second request is this. If the data show that the performance of the line has been below the threshold where discounts on season tickets are usually triggered, will the Minister consider requiring, as an exceptional measure, the relevant compensation to be paid to passengers on that line for the disruption that they have suffered, recognising that they have suffered it on that line and that other lines are not relevant?

Thirdly, I understand that there are negotiations with Network Rail for Southeastern to be compensated for some of the winter’s disruption. It seems to be a matter of natural justice that some of that compensation should go to the passengers who bore the brunt of the disruption. Will the Minister assure the House that he will put pressure on those companies to ensure that my constituents are compensated from whatever Southeastern receives?

I make a final plea to the Minister. Will he summon Southeastern’s senior management, and ask them to explain why my constituents, and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and of colleagues to the south of our constituencies, have had to endure such appalling service from a company that we were used to thinking of as one of the better and more progressive train operating companies? I can put it no better than a constituent of mine, who sent me a copy of his letter to Southeastern. He wrote:

“We currently have to use you to get to work. Wouldn’t it be nice if we wanted to use you to get to work?”

May I say what a pleasure it is, Sir Nicholas, to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this debate on rail services in west Kent.

The timetable change in December 2009 was the biggest change for 50 years in Kent. Indeed, no train stayed in its existing slot. For west Kent, it included the additional five peak trains mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, one of which is the fast train from High Brooms to London. West Kent also saw the implementation of an enhanced service between Tunbridge Wells and London, which gives the hon. Gentleman’s constituents four trains an hour, operating at a 15-minute frequency all day. The changes also included the extension of the Medway Valley line from Paddock Wood, which will improve connectivity and create new journey opportunities.

I am pleased to be able to draw attention to these facts, because some people were not convinced that the new integrated Kent franchise would give passengers any benefit. Clearly, that is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents are some of those who are benefiting from those changes.

Southeastern has also invested in automatic ticket gates at Tunbridge Wells. That has improved access and security at the station, and ensures that everyone who travels pays their fair share. I cannot say that I am immediately aware of the rolling stock changes referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall investigate and write to him about those concerns.

I realise that since December, performance has deteriorated to below the standard that Southeastern customers now expect. The two main reasons behind that are unreliable infrastructure and adverse weather. However, before I say more on the performance problems since last December, it is important to put Southeastern performance in context.

The Southeastern franchise is committed to run more than 20,000 more trains a year on time by the end of the franchise. Indeed, since the start of the franchise, performance has improved. Immediately before the start of the December timetable, 4.2 per cent. more trains arrived at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time, having called at all stations en route. That is more than 10 per cent. better than in the days of the Connex franchise, which indicates that some progress is being made.

It may appear unusual to start a debate on the performance of rail services in Kent by talking about the history of such services. I am not saying that there have not been problems with performance, but the evidence does not suggest that they are systemic. What is clear is that since December, performance has fallen below the standards that are expected from Southeastern. None the less, actions are in hand to recover the situation.

The lines in west Kent are electrified by the third rail system. It has been established that the third rail system struggles to cope with heavy snowfall and prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures. During the recent bad weather—the most extreme for some 30 years—we had both and, as a result, performance suffered, but west Kent was not unusual in that regard. The lines in west Kent were particularly badly affected as the weight of the snowfall was, at times, very localised. The geographical lay-out is very challenging for the rail industry, as it is built in deep cuttings and the line has some very steep gradients. That meant that on many occasions during the adverse weather problems it was not possible to deliver a train service.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the accuracy of customer information during times of disruption, and I can advise him that there is a rail industry review of customer information, focusing, in particular, on the consistency of the service during the winter period. It will look at ways in which customers can have better and more consistent information available to them through all the channels—whether that be the individual giving advice on the station platform, the web channels or the information displays on the platforms.

As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt remember, rail services in Kent suffered from adverse weather in February 2009. Following that, Southeastern advised my Department that it was reviewing its response and that it was going to work with Network Rail to see what improvements could be delivered.

One improvement was to implement the key route strategy, which explains some of the shuttle services that the hon. Gentleman described. Network Rail gives priority to the most important routes and every effort is made to keep those routes open. Southeastern also aims to operate services in such a way that as many people as possible, given the prevalent weather conditions, are able to travel. More people were actually moved during the last period of adverse weather in 2010 than in February 2009, despite the fact that the weather was worse. Although lessons were learned following the weather in February 2009, the challenges this time round were more severe.

As I have said, the geography of much of the railway in west Kent meant that it was not always possible to offer a service, and when services did run they were often heavily delayed. However, Southeastern has advised me that, together with Network Rail, it is now considering what improvements can be delivered to ensure that more services run during adverse weather.

Before the House rises for Easter, will the Minister agree to give me the figures for the performance of the Hastings line during that period of underperformance?

I have to look at what data are available from Southeastern that can be put into the public domain.

I was going to come to the general question of monitoring performance by train operating companies and the way in which we consider the aggregate performance, but the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene again.

The Minister obviously does not necessarily know the answer to this, but I can assure him that the data exist. Given that that is the case, will he require the figures to be given to me?

Although I am aware that the data exist and that I might be able to have sight of them, I am not sure whether the train operating company is prepared to put such information in the public domain. Let me take away the matter for consideration.

No, not at this point. I am quite sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s objectives, but let me draw his attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) frequently tells the Government not to interfere and micro-manage train operating company regulation so much. I therefore fear that his Front-Bench colleagues would take a different view from me, but I am sympathetic to his objectives.

I am grateful for the Minister’s sympathy, and I hope that he will translate it into action. Can he think of any reason why members of the public should not be given the right to see the data on the performance of their train line that we all accept exist?

I do not know whether there are commercial sensitivities around the data, but I will try to action my sympathies into something concrete for the hon. Gentleman to look at.

As I was saying, Network Rail, Southeastern and South West Trains are considering how to improve the robustness of the third rail electrification system during adverse weather conditions. That could include solutions such as third rail heating. On both reviews, it is too early to know what noticeable improvements will be delivered, but we anticipate significant improvements in robustness. The industry is tackling the challenge head on and seeking to ensure that the services that are offered to rail users in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency are improved.

The railways are complex, and affordable solutions will come about only following proper consideration. Our performance monitoring shows that in the autumn, traditionally a time of poor performance, there was a step change in improvement in the delays caused by leaves on the line. This year, delays were 18,000 minutes less than in the corresponding period last year. That should give us some confidence that the rail industry can and will deliver improvements in performance during periods of adverse weather.

It is regrettable that since December, the infrastructure has not been performing as reliably as it had been. Southeastern has advised me that it has reviewed the causes with Network Rail, as one would expect following a period of poor performance. A series of unanticipated infrastructure failures has surprised all the partners, but through a series of action plans, each particular mode of failure is being addressed.

The infrastructure lay-out poses a number of challenges to delivering high levels of performance. First, the trains from west Kent travel via London Bridge. As demand for rail services to and from Kent has grown, the number of trains that travel through this area is much greater than was ever envisaged when the lay-out was designed in the 1970s. It is expected that the £5.5 billion Thameslink programme will improve the lay-out in the London area and provide solutions for many of these issues.

Secondly, the Tonbridge to Hastings line has four single line sections, which means that delays escalate much quicker than on sections of line where there are two or more tracks, and that can spread across the whole network. When the line was electrified in 1986, work was carried out to a lower specification as an economy measure, which has led to several operational constraints and complexities. Although there may be technological solutions to some of those issues, the business case is not readily identified.

There is no evidence to support the argument that performance has deteriorated solely because of the implementation of the new timetable. As I said earlier, the main causes have been poor weather conditions and unreliable infrastructure. However, since December, 200 more trains are operating on the network. Although that is welcome in normal operating conditions, it can mean that when incidents occur on the network, delays spread quicker than before.

The rail industry has to ensure that incidents that cause delay are kept to an absolute minimum. Over the years, it has established robust procedures to manage the delivery of performance. I am confident that such structures will ensure that the high levels of performance planned for this franchise will be delivered. From Monday 7 March to Friday 19 March, the provisional public performance measure for Southeastern was 91.6 per cent. I appreciate that that is for the franchise as a whole and not for the particular route with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. None the less, I suggest that such a measure provides signs that performance is recovering.

Not today, no, but we have discussed that already.

In conclusion, although I regret the performance that passengers in west Kent have experienced over the winter months, problems have been identified and solutions developed. I believe that we can look forward to performance improvements being delivered from now until the end of the franchise.

Sitting suspended.