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Rail Services (South-East London)

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise once again my concerns, and those of my constituents, about rail services in south-east London. The problems experienced by all rail users, whether daily commuters, pensioners, families or holidaymakers, remain frustrating and annoying for local people.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister is present and I know that she will listen carefully to the points raised and respond sympathetically. I put on record my thanks for her responses to my letters and questions. She is always constructive on such matters and her letter to me of 31 January was particularly helpful. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) is present, as is my neighbour the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). It shows that not only my constituents, but those in Erith and Thamesmead, Bromley and Orpington have had a tough time recently due to poor rail services in the area.

There are four stations in my constituency—Barnehurst, Bexleyheath, Crayford and Slade Green—and they are used to make nearly 5.5 million journeys every year. Some of my constituents also use Abbey Wood, Erith or Welling stations. Because there are no London underground or docklands light railway stations in Bexley, my constituents are more reliant on overground services than people in most other London boroughs. Therefore, when there is a problem with the trains, the only real alternative is to take a bus to a neighbouring borough to catch the tube or DLR.

I would like to make a short positive comment about the buses. Under the leadership of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, bus services in our area have improved considerably and buses are more frequent, reliable and cleaner than in the past. With the introduction of safer transport teams, which I know the Mayor is keen on, there have also been considerable improvements in safety on the buses. Obviously, there are things that could be improved. I contacted the Mayor and Transport for London about diverting the route of the 96 bus to serve Darent Valley hospital directly. My constituents use that hospital more and more, and it would be helpful for patients and visitors if the buses could be slightly re-routed.

I add my voice to my hon. Friend’s words of support for the Mayor’s bus policy generally and for the improvements to transport within London. There are small areas of criticism: the route of the 320 bus, the extension from Bromley North to Catford, has not worked. I urge TfL to revert to the old route of Biggin Hill to Bromley North, which was very successful.

I am sure that that will be noted and taken on board by the relevant authorities.

Rail services in south-east London are part of the integrated Kent franchise, and are currently operated by Southeastern railway. The present franchise agreement started on 1 April 2006 and initially runs until 2012. If Southeastern meets certain targets set out in the contract, the franchise may be extended for a further two years until 2014. At the time it was agreed that Southeastern would receive a huge public subsidy of £585 million over the lifetime of the franchise, and promises were definitely made about investment in facilities and improvements.

A written ministerial statement announced the franchise in November 2005. The then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), claimed:

“I am satisfied that the competition for the franchise has resulted in a contract that represents very good value for taxpayer. It is a tough contract on which Govia will be expected to deliver.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 34WS.]

That has proven to be wrong. Commuters are paying significantly higher fares, performance is not up to the level passengers rightly expect, and communication is very poor, especially when something goes wrong.

Trains are busier. Since Connex lost the franchise, there are 800,000 more journeys from stations in my constituency every year. As a commuter on Southeastern, I understand the anger that my constituents feel about the service that they pay for. They expect—and deserve—better. The Govia website makes many promises about the improvements that it will bring to the franchise, claiming that trains will be less crowded, more punctual and cleaner, and that there will even be wi-fi access on some stations. However, some of those things have not been delivered, and the improvements that I have requested for local stations have often been difficult to obtain.

In September I held an Adjournment debate about the campaign I started in May 2009 for step-free access at Crayford station. Currently, only the London-bound platform 1 is fully accessible. Platform 2 can be accessed only by a footbridge, and is therefore difficult for those with mobility problems or those who have young children and have problems with the steps. During that debate, I highlighted the numerous problems that I experienced in getting Southeastern to open an existing gate on platform 2 to a pathway that already runs along the side to Station road. The cost of the scheme was minimal, and the only issues concerned the ownership of the land that the path goes through, and making the area safer. All I asked was for Southeastern to open the gate and install an Oyster card point, but initially it decided that it would not proceed with that scheme for financial reasons. After the Adjournment debate, however, and the helpful intervention of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), Southeastern agreed to install the Oyster machine and open the gate.

That was welcome progress and I would like to put that on the record. At this stage, we are waiting for the transfer of land from the owners, Sainsbury’s, to Bexley council to be completed. That has taken some time because issues such as resurfacing and lighting need to be resolved. Bexley Councillor Linda Bailey is responsible for ensuring that the scheme goes ahead, and I understand that she and the leader of the council will be looking to see what they can do in that area. I have every faith and hope that the matter will be brought to a successful conclusion. I had similar problems with Southeastern when campaigning for step-free access to Barnehurst station. That was easier to achieve, however, and it was much needed and welcomed by local commuters and residents.

Sometimes, issues with Southeastern are not easily resolved because the company does not take on board the seriousness of the problem. For example, at Barnehurst station—the station I use—the waiting room is open only for a couple of hours late in the afternoon. A similar situation exists at other stations. That is ridiculous because the majority of people do not travel at tea time, between 4.30 pm and 6.30 pm, and constituents have complained.

Southeastern needs to be more proactive in understanding what constituents and commuters want. It is also failing in other important areas and people are becoming increasingly vocal about their displeasure. One needs only to search for comments about Southeastern on Twitter to see what people really think about the services provided. Comments include:

“First train out of Victoria this filthy”

and there are complaints that the toilets are not clean, and that the service was late or cancelled. All aspects of the service are not up to the standard they should be.

My hon. Friend is generous to let me intervene again. I support his point. There is an urgent need for Southeastern to show more responsiveness to the concerns of constituents. The lift at Orpington, which is so necessary for people with limited mobility, was out of action for eight weeks at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. It took the threat of a wheelchair demonstration by disabled people to get the lift back to working order.

It is disappointing that Southeastern is not more proactive when dealing with the problems faced by constituents, the fare-paying public, so as to help to improve facilities and services.

Of course, the main issue that we are discussing today—an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead are well aware of and have raised concerns about—is the period of bad weather that we had at the end of last year. Despite the snow being forecast, it seemed that Southeastern was not in any way prepared for it. Trains were cancelled at very short notice, and a reduced service operated. Some stations had no trains stopping at all for long periods. If trains did run, they were very congested and were running with fewer carriages. As a result, many people simply gave up on the trains and tried to find alternative routes to work.

There were also real problems with the information provided to customers. On some days, stations such as Crayford were not manned at all. If station staff were able to make it through the snow to the stations, they were not properly briefed by their managers on the services that were running and where the trains would be stopping. I commend the staff at my own station of Barnehurst. They do a fantastic job; they are friendly, efficient and really nice people. But during that period, when they were asked when there would be a train, they had not been told—they had no information coming through—and they were the first point of contact for people who came to the station to see what was going on.

The Southeastern website was also useless and at times misleading.

I thank the hon. Gentleman both for giving way and for obtaining the debate. On the point about the website, constituents came to me saying that the website said that their service was running when it was not and they had unsympathetic employers who said, “I don’t believe you couldn’t get to work because the website says there’s a service running.” Did the hon. Gentleman have the same experience with his constituents?

I agree; I had exactly the same experience with my constituents. The website was useless, giving wrong information, which of course fed through to other people, who said, “Well, the service seemed to be running because it said so on the website.” That is a fair point and I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comment.

All that increased the pressure on station staff, and tempers flared in some circumstances. The communication was absolutely appalling. I cannot understand why that was allowed to happen and why someone from Southeastern was not briefing the local radio stations. I happen to listen to LBC and Magic in the mornings, and they are very good stations, but they had no information at all. Any good organisation would have passed the information to the media, so that they could update people who were getting ready to go to work. On one occasion, I had to drive up to Westminster because I could not guarantee that there would be a train to take me up and bring me back.

Recently, I was privileged to be at a meeting of Kent MPs with Southeastern, which was organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant). I was underwhelmed by the excuses offered by its managing director, Charles Horton, and his team. Although some of the blame of course lies with Network Rail, I do not believe that Southeastern has learned the lessons and I am worried about the consequences for passengers. I wrote to the Minister to ask questions about that and am grateful for her response.

However, the poor performance cannot be blamed only on the snow. I believe that the service has got worse since September. I receive regular e-mails and am regularly contacted by constituents on the matter—sometimes when I am travelling with them on our daily commute up to Westminster. The comments are universal. One person said:

“The service/performance is failing…The passengers’ charter is a list of meaningless words.”

I am told that the service is not any better; it is worse. Those are the words of constituents. I, too, have concerns and I share their views.

Some constituents say that the journey is taking longer and that the problem is affecting their job. Punctuality is a real issue. Despite the poor performance, Southeastern has been trying to avoid paying compensation and reducing the cost of season tickets. Regrettably, that is because of the low targets agreed with the previous Government. If punctuality falls below 82% during a 12-month period, Southeastern is supposed to cut season ticket prices by 5%. That means that nearly one in five trains can run late without incurring a penalty. That is poor service and it was a poor agreement at the time. Also, by running an emergency timetable during the period of bad weather, Southeastern was able to distort the statistics by not counting the trains that it should have run. Southeastern is therefore claiming that its punctuality was 82.04%—marginally above the season ticket discount threshold. That is a betrayal of commuters and it is unacceptable.

To support its case, Southeastern recently commissioned the university of Sheffield to audit the statistics. Predictably, it found the following:

“As judged against the present validation criteria, the source data, processing and public information for the Passenger’s Charter are satisfactorily accurate.”

I am sceptical about that and I understand from correspondence with the Minister that the rail industry’s national taskforce will be looking into the operation and performance of both Southeastern and Network Rail. I hope that the Minister will look closely into the validity of Southeastern’s figures and perhaps consider an independent audit, taking into account all the matters that I have raised.

Fares have gone up again dramatically because of the agreement that they could be increased by retail prices index inflation plus 3%. That has meant that many people in our area have been clobbered by high fare rises. Again, that seems unfair to me and to my constituents.

So what of the future? There are some welcome developments under way that should help to increase rail capacity and reduce overcrowding. I know that the Minister is working hard to improve the opportunities for travel in and around London and throughout the country. I am a big supporter of Crossrail and hope that it will be delivered on time. I believe that, when the time is right, it should be extended beyond Abbey Wood. We are very keen for that to be done. The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead has been an advocate for that as well. We are looking forward to having Crossrail at Abbey Wood. There will be more capacity then.

There is the redevelopment of London Bridge station, which should help to relieve some of the congestion problems caused by the bottlenecks. Again, we have to be patient and wait, but I do not want the improvements to be made in the long term—I would like improvements to be made now for our constituents and residents of Bexley and Bromley, so that they can get to work in a more satisfactory fashion.

Information is vital, but that has been the greatest failure of all. However, I am very happy with the approach that the Minister has taken. I hope that she will help me even more this afternoon in her response to the debate, because there is real concern in my area and that of my colleagues about the current operator, the current franchise agreement and the future bidding process. She is reasonable, understanding and usually pretty positive in her approach. I hope that she will look at the transport in south-east London and say that it is not acceptable at the moment and it must improve.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) on securing the debate and on his passionate defence of his constituents, particularly his commuting constituents. He is a steadfast campaigner for his constituents. I am very much aware of the significant concern expressed about the quality of rail services in south-east London and Kent by my hon. Friend and a number of other MPs, stakeholders and passengers. It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) and the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) here to take part in the debate as well.

I fully appreciate how important rail service provision is in the suburban constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford, where so many people commute into London every day and which I have enjoyed visiting on a number of occasions during the past 10 years or so. As he set out, recent months have seen an overall decline in the reliability of services under the Southeastern franchise, culminating in the huge disruption that occurred during the cold weather episodes at the end of last year. He outlined some of the most troubling examples.

Ministers and officials were in constant contact with train operators and Network Rail throughout the severe weather. I think that we all accept that, unfortunately, some disruption is unavoidable when extreme weather conditions occur, but it is imperative to ensure that lessons are learned from the severe problems that passengers experienced in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere during the severe weather at the end of last year. That is why we asked David Quarmby to conduct an urgent audit of how our transport networks performed. We now expect the rail industry to act on the findings of that audit.

I have already had many discussions on the cold weather episode with senior representatives of the rail industry and will be meeting them again soon for an update on extending the trial of heated conductor rails, which could make a significant difference to resilience on the third rail networks; strengthening de-icing arrangements; dealing with stranded trains; and, crucially, improving passenger information generally and during times of disruption.

My hon. Friend rightly said that that was exposed as a severe problem during the recent poor weather. Like him, David Quarmby emphasised that electronic information on its own simply is not enough; train operators need to ensure that staff are properly briefed so that they can give passengers as much information as possible about which services are running and what they can expect despite the disruption.

It is imperative that reliability on the Southeastern network improves. It is imperative that the train operator becomes more responsive to its customers, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford and for Orpington emphasised. I will ensure that their comments on step-free access at Crayford, the waiting rooms at Barnehurst, toilet cleanliness and the lifts at Orpington are passed on to the train operator. The rail reforms that we are considering are designed to give train operators more opportunities to invest in improvements to such facilities, to make them more responsive to passengers and to give them the right incentives to perform reliably and well.

I have asked the rail industry’s national taskforce specifically to consider the performance of Southeastern and Network Rail in Kent. We need improved performance from the operator and Network Rail, as the infrastructure provider, if we are to make the progress that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford want. I say that because Network Rail is responsible for about 60% of delays and cancellations on the Southeastern network.

My officials monitor Southeastern’s performance on a four-weekly basis. I met Charles Horton, managing director of Southeastern, on 14 February and I asked him a series of searching questions based on the concerns raised with me by MPs and their constituents, many of which my hon. Friend has echoed. In the coming weeks, I will follow that up with a further meeting with Mr Horton and the Network Rail route director for Kent, and I will expect them to set out how they plan to improve their performance and to respond to the concerns that have been rightly raised in the debate. I will interrogate them on their response to the Quarmby audit and on the lessons to be learned from the cold weather disruption, although I should emphasise that there was already a significant problem before the snow arrived, as my hon. Friend said. I will urgently seek assurances from Network Rail and Southeastern on how they propose to improve overall performance.

In those discussions with the management of Southeastern, will my right hon. Friend please ask when fast trains will stop at Orpington during peak hours? Orpington is a major commuter town, but we do not have fast trains during peak hours. My constituents are on their knees begging for such a service.

I appreciate the importance of that issue. Although my discussions will focus on the reliability of the current service, I am happy to take on board my hon. Friend’s representations, and we will obviously take them very seriously as and when preparations are under way for timetabling changes.

It is important to mention some major capacity improvements, which will be delivered in the years to come. Despite the crisis in the public finances, the Chancellor has prioritised rail, and £18 billion will be invested in rail capital projects during the spending review period. Our ambitious programme will deliver real benefits for rail users across the country, including in south-east London and Kent.

Thameslink is going ahead in line with its original scope, albeit over a slightly longer time frame than originally envisaged. That will virtually double the number of north-south trains and deliver up to 1,200 new carriages. It is too early to say exactly how the programme’s benefits will be shared between different areas, because timetabling decisions are still some way off. However, even those communities that do not benefit directly from the new upgraded services could receive cascaded rolling stock to relieve overcrowding.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford recognised, the coalition has secured the funding to ensure that Crossrail is delivered in its entirety, including the Abbey Wood branch, which was the subject of so many scare stories from our political opponents. The project will deliver a 10% uplift in rail capacity across London and much improved access to jobs for many people across the capital, including south-east London, and in the south-east. It will open up new journey opportunities to docklands, the City, central London and our major airports. Furthermore, the Secretary of State recently announced that negotiations had been successfully concluded to allow a station box to be constructed at Woolwich. The coalition’s plans for rail therefore offer real potential benefits for people in south-east London.

I very much recognise the concerns that my hon. Friend’s constituents have expressed about rail fares. The retail prices index plus 3% formula was included in the franchise when Labour let it in 2005. That was to reflect the more than £600 million spent on 618 new rolling stock vehicles and the £93 million of investment in power supply, stations, depots and related infrastructure. Much as I would like to see the RPI plus 3% formula abandoned, that is unfortunately not possible in the current fiscal climate. The deficit we inherited from the previous Government means that we face some difficult choices, including asking passengers to pay a little more to support the massive investment in rail that I have just outlined, although we expect significant elements of that programme to benefit people across south-east London. None the less, it is imperative that the cost of running the railways comes down, because it is too high. Sir Roy McNulty is running an in-depth review into why the cost is so high. For the sake of taxpayers and fare payers in my hon. Friend’s constituency and across the country, we are determined to find the right solutions to deliver a more sustainable financial future for the railways.

My hon. Friend talked about his long-running campaign to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet. The route to Ebbsfleet was safeguarded in 2009, and we expect that to remain the case. Safeguarding preserves that option for the future. Of course, our current priority is to press ahead with construction and to deliver the Crossrail project within budget and according to the new timetable. However, we do not rule out the option of extension in the future.

My hon. Friend also raised concerns about the compensation regime that applies to Southeastern. I have not seen evidence that the figures have been dealt with inappropriately, but if any were drawn to my attention, I would of course take action. I recognise the concerns raised by his constituents about the way the compensation regime operates, and we are certainly happy to consider a more robust regime for future franchises that perhaps gives passengers more effective protection.

I am grateful for that helpful answer, but Southeastern is so marginally over the figure that one can understand constituents being sceptical.

I am aware that there is a lot of concern and scepticism about the figures, but, as I said, I can reach a judgment only on the basis of the facts that are presented to me. My hon. Friend will appreciate that Southeastern is legally required under the franchise to have its figures independently audited, so we have that safeguard of an independent check on the figures.

In conclusion, it is vital that Southeastern and Network Rail significantly improve their performance on the lines serving my hon. Friend’s constituency and the whole of south-east London, as well as on its routes in Kent. I will continue to press both on the issue, and I very much welcome the opportunity to debate it today.