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Rail Services (South-East England)

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Such is the strength of feeling about rail services in the south-east of England that quite a number of people have contacted me in advance of the debate. I have had assistance from Passenger Focus and from a community magazine in my constituency called Dartford Living, which has passed on the concerns and frustrations of my constituents about train services in the south-east. Good train services are not only desirable but vital to keep the economy improving and ensure that commuters in the south-east can access employment in London and the surrounding commutable areas. I hope that colleagues will forgive me if I concentrate on rail issues that affect Kent and my constituency. Of course, the debate covers the entire south-east and many of the issues that I raise will apply equally to the whole region.

In my experience, people use trains not for the fun of it but because they have to earn money to feed their families, pay their bills and keep the country going. We are talking, therefore, about an essential service that must work well. Good rail services are vital for the economic strength of the nation. I am a commuter and I experience the challenges and difficulties that my constituents face, which gives me some understanding of the frustrations that people experience travelling into and out of London.

It is inevitable that in a debate about rail services in the south-east, I will speak about Southeastern, the company that holds the franchise for the services on which my constituents and I commute. I have some observations and criticisms about the company, and I am frustrated by its lack of innovation. Several train companies—including Chiltern Railways, East Midlands Trains, Greater Anglia and at least six others—provide wi-fi on their trains to enable commuters to use portable internet devices, but Southeastern does not. I hope that the company is considering changing that in the near future.

When we think of commuter routes, we usually think of peak services during rush hour, but off-peak services are just as vital. When Southeastern proposed to reduce the number of off-peak services that stopped at Longfield in my constituency, local commuters rightly objected. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), who worked hard to persuade Southeastern not to cut off-peak services to Meopham and Longfield stations.

Perhaps the most frequent complaint that I hear from constituents about Southeastern is that they want better communication from the company. Good communication is vital to ensure that commuters are aware of the options open to them when things go wrong on the railway. We all accept that things can go wrong with any form of transport, and some of the problems that my constituents face are the fault not of Southeastern but of Network Rail, but it is incumbent on Southeastern and other rail providers to communicate those problems to their passengers. We have had numerous delays and cancellations as a result of poor weather, but Southeastern’s website has claimed that services are running on time. People have arrived at the station only to find that services were disrupted. That practice needs to stop.

After I secured the debate, I received a letter from Mike Gibson, the public affairs manager of Southeastern. He is a good man, who came down to Longfield to meet my constituents and hear their concerns about the rail service. In his letter, he made the point that several incidents that caused difficulties for commuters, such as a fire in October last year at London Bridge station and problems at New Cross and Hither Green, were completely out of Southeastern’s hands. I do not dispute the fact that problems have been caused to rather than by Southeastern, but that underlines the necessity for it to communicate well with its customers, which all too often it fails to do.

I hope that Southeastern will improve on its lack of smart card technology. The Treasury has provided extra money for such technology, but no smart card system has been forthcoming, despite many requests. Oyster cards work well across London. Has Southeastern asked Transport for London to extend their use into Kent? I doubt it. Even if not, we could have our own system in Kent, preferably one that works with the Oyster card system; we do not need TfL to take over Kent’s train stations in order to have smart card technology. Despite the fact that the money and the technology are available, that has not happened yet.

Each rail company must meet the punctuality targets set out in its franchise, and Southeastern is no exception. However, the company combines its mainline punctuality figures with those for high-speed services, which produces a distorted figure for people who travel only on mainline services. We need complete transparency on punctuality figures, because a perception exists that in the past, trains were sometimes cancelled or stations were missed simply to ensure that those targets were met. I have not been able to establish whether that is the case, but commuters in my constituency generally hold that view. If that is true, it must never happen again.

To be fair to Southeastern, it has worked hard to tackle some of the problems that we have witnessed on our railway systems, such as crime. Its safer stations scheme has been a success, and crime on the railway has dropped. Southeastern staff are often very capable, but they have to deal with flawed communication systems and challenges that are beyond their control. Many other issues frustrate me about services into and out of my constituency, including the lack of a fast service from Dartford, the cost of parking at Ebbsfleet high-speed rail station and the increase in fares on busier routes, and I hope that Southeastern will listen to its customers and act on those issues.

I pay tribute to the Government for their assistance in improving the commuting experience for many of my constituents, and for the £45 million investment made available by the Treasury for smart card technology. I pay tribute to the innovation behind the search for a flexible approach to ticket pricing, which I hope will result in products such as flexible season tickets that can be used by off-peak travellers as well as those who travel at peak times. That is very much to be welcomed and I hope that it will help off-peak commuters in future.

Ensuring that we have good-quality rail services in the south-east will always be a challenge. It is not an easy task for any train operator, yet many improvements are required before commuters in my constituency and around the south-east feel that they have been given value for money. I ask the Minister to consider the concerns that I have raised today when he deals with Southeastern, and when he is looking to award any new franchises.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing such an important debate. I want to look at some of the fundamental issues relating to the financing of rail and commuter services. Governments of any party face major challenges in trying to bring a fair and just approach to rail fare financing in the south-east. As I am sure the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), will set out, until the Chancellor was forced to act last summer, commuters faced a series of above-inflation fare increases.

It is worth looking at some of the figures. I have looked at the increases in train fares—season ticket prices—highlighted by Passenger Focus on a number of south-eastern routes. Sadly, my constituency is not included, but a number of others are. The increases in fares are compared with the increase in wages of the people living in the relevant areas. For example, in Gillingham in Kent—not too far from the hon. Member for Dartford—in the year from January 2010 to January 2011, the cost of a season ticket rose by 8.3% and wages by 2.1%. The following year, season tickets rose by 6% and wages by just 1.2%. In the next year, season tickets went up by 4.2% and wages by just 0.2%. In the year up to January 2014, season tickets went up by 3.1% while wages went up by just 0.7%.

A similar pattern is repeated across the south-east. In Portsmouth, from January 2010 to January 2011, fares went up by 7.2% and wages by just 2.1%. Fares went up the following year by 6.1%, but wages by just 1.2%. In 2012-13, season tickets went up by 4.2% and wages by 0.2%. In the past year, fares have gone up by 2.7% and wages by just 0.7%. Right across the south-east, year after year, we have had increases in season ticket prices that massively outstrip the real increases in wages earned by our constituents and many others in the region.

The annual season ticket from my constituency in Southampton is now more than £5,200, and commuters have faced many additional costs. I have not checked it on any websites, but I use the station and, as I recall, the parking charge at Southampton airport parkway has gone up from £10 to £14 a day in just the past three years. That is, of course, outside the regulated system; costs are being piled on to commuters wherever we choose to look.

It is easy just to list statistics and say that there is a problem, but we must look at some of the railway financing fundamentals that are driving the increases. We have a good opportunity to do that this morning. I take an unashamedly south and south-eastern view of the problem. The system operates in ways that are particularly unfair for our constituents in the south-east, and we must be prepared to face up to and challenge that.

What are the essential financing issues? We must look at two flows of money. The first is the money paid by the train operating companies—that is, the passengers who travel on their trains—to the Treasury. Some companies, almost all clustered in the south-east, are paying substantial amounts of money out of their fares in payment to the Government. In other parts of the country, it is the other way around: a subsidy goes from the Government to the train operating companies and their passengers. The second flow of money is the grant that train operating companies receive from Network Rail to train companies.

We must look at each flow in turn, and when we do we see an extraordinary situation. As I said, my constituents in Southampton pay £5,200 a year for a season ticket. For every mile they travel—every single mile from Southampton to London and from London back to Southampton—they are paying 8.7p to the Treasury. That is the highest rate in the country, but they are by no means the only set of passengers paying substantial amounts to the Treasury—not towards the cost of their rail service—for every mile that they travel.

These figures are from 2012-13, because this debate came up suddenly and I did not have a chance to see whether Passenger Focus has updated its analysis. The following figures were accurate in December. Passengers on Southern were paying 7.9p per mile to the Treasury; First Capital Connect passengers, 8.2p per mile; c2c passengers, 2.7p per mile; and for Greater Anglia, feeding into London from the other side, passengers were paying 5.5p per mile to the Treasury. Those train operating companies, clustered around the south-eastern commuter services, are between them paying more than £1 billion to the Treasury through such contributions. South West Trains paid £314 million, Southern paid £215 million, First Capital Connect paid £187 million, c2c paid £176 million, and Greater Anglia paid £139 million, all in the last year for which figures were available.

By contrast, in other parts of the country the payments went in the other direction—I will come on to the extent to which such payments are justified or not. Northern Rail received a subsidy from the Treasury of £152 million, Arriva Trains Wales received £140 million, First Trans- Pennine Express received £41 million and CrossCountry received £21 million. The only London commuter services that attracted a significant subsidy were Southeastern, which received £82 million, and Chiltern, which received £21 million.

I am probably the only person who has done so, but I have dubbed these payments a “commuter train tax” that our constituents—including yours, Sir Roger—pay to get to work in London. Of course, people say, “That is not the full picture,” because train operating companies receive a payment from the Government through Network Rail that must also be taken into account. However, if we do that, we discover an interesting pattern. The lowest subsidy per mile through Network Rail is for First Capital Connect, at just 5.3p per mile. Southern gets 7.3p per mile, c2c gets 7.1p, and South West Trains gets 7.6p.

If we look at other parts of the country, the Network Rail grant is worth 29.1p per mile to Northern Rail, 13.9p for East Midlands Trains, and 12.3p for First TransPennine Express. In other words, the same broad pattern is shown: not only are our constituents paying more per mile to the Treasury in one direction, but they are receiving less back per mile through the Network Rail grant. That is a major problem.

I must acknowledge that the architecture of the current system was introduced by the previous Labour Government. We are looking, therefore, not at some fundamental change that has been introduced in the past three years, but at the implications of simply rolling forward an approach that was put in place a number of years ago. I would argue that for my constituents the system is getting completely out of hand and completely unfair.

In the last year for which figures are available, the south-east commuter train companies were collectively paying more than £1 billion to the Treasury—or rather, their passengers were. That has quadrupled under the current Government—it was just £230 million in 2009. One might argue that, as part of a general shift towards putting greater pressure on passengers to pay for the rail services—my party, Labour, did that in government, and it has continued—some move in that direction was fair. However, we must now ask whether putting such a big weight on the pockets of commuters in the south-east is really fair.

There are a number of reasons for saying that we are producing real injustice, as regards the extent of the burden that passengers are expected to bear. We can look at two measures. The first is season ticket price as a percentage of salary. A season ticket on a medium-length journey is about 20% of the income of an operative who commutes to London, according to the Hay Group. For a professional, it is about 12%. That is twice the proportion of income paid by people commuting to Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow or Edinburgh. In other words, commuters from our constituencies are paying a much higher proportion of their incomes to get to work than commuters do in comparable cities around the country. There is a similar pattern—not quite as marked—for people making long journeys to London from our constituencies, compared with those in other parts of the country. That is one indication of unfairness.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the figures from the Campaign for Better Transport, which show that for a couple with two children in London, rail fares and child care costs can amount to 40% of their income? Does he agree that it is the cumulative impact of such outgoings—fares, child care, rent—that have such a devastating impact on many families in the south-east?

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point; there is a cumulative impact. Another recent study, published a couple of weeks ago—I forget what it was called—showed that the increase in rail fares in various towns and cities in the south-east has now offset the apparent benefits of living outside London, where there are lower house prices. Fares have risen so much that, despite the disparity between London prices and those in other places, the costs are extremely high.

The other indicator of unfairness in the system is the fact that customer satisfaction with value for money, as measured by Passenger Focus, is lowest on the London commuter services. The hon. Member for Dartford talked about Southeastern, where only 31% of customers believe that they get value for money. On First Capital Connect, it is 32%; on South West Trains, 33%; on Southern, 36%. Perhaps we are not surprised that the more highly subsidised services, like Northern Rail, get a customer satisfaction rating of 54% on value for money, and Arriva Trains Wales 54%.

Westminster Hall debates are meant to raise issues, rather than to say there are simple answers to problems. The architecture of the subsidy and cross-subsidy system has been in place for some time, but it is now getting out of hand. It is perhaps comparable in some ways to measures such as the fuel duty escalator, which was originally introduced with cross-party support. It is sometimes amusingly referred to as Labour’s fuel duty escalator, even though it was introduced by a Conservative Government. Although there was cross-party support when it was introduced, the point came, as has been recognised by all parties, where simply rolling ahead with it became politically and financially untenable for many of our constituents. Those of us who are speaking up for the south-east must say that we cannot simply roll forward the current way of doing things without questioning it.

The Campaign for Better Transport recently published a consultant’s report, which said that even with fares capped, as the Chancellor has just done, by 2018 the Government will be making a profit out of running a rail system. In other words, passenger revenues paid to the Treasury will exceed the money paid out. That means that our constituents—commuters in the south-east whom we represent—will be paying the entire cost of subsidising railways in other parts of the country, and making a profit for the Government to boot. That is not tenable; we have to do something.

There are no easy answers. There is clearly no pot of public money sitting there that can be sloshed into a greater subsidy. I am not familiar with all the railways serving London, but there are lines where the quality of the rolling stock and track in the south-east is significantly better than in other parts of the country. A backlog of investment needs to be addressed in some areas, so it is not a matter of simply saying, “Let us tilt the balance in another direction”. However, looking forward, we have to try to set out a long-term strategy—hopefully one that can be agreed by all parties—for getting some basic fairness and justice back into the system, and for putting a cap on what our constituents are expected to pay, not only for their journeys to work, but for the cost of funding the rail system as a whole.

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham), who has put some very thoughtful points forward, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing the debate. I should say at the outset that I have a meeting that I need to chair at 10.30 am, so I hope Members will forgive me if I cannot stay for all of the debate.

Most people think that people who live in London travel by tube or bus to work. That is not strictly the case. In south-east London, we have swathes of the capital where people rely wholly on the rail network to get to work. The tube map barely reaches the boroughs of Lewisham, Bromley, Bexley and Greenwich, so the overland rail services, provided predominantly by Southeastern, and also by Southern in some areas, are essential for people’s daily lives. In Lewisham, 38,000 people travel to work by train—nearly a third of all the people who work. The figures are comparable for the other London boroughs that I have just mentioned.

If anyone had stood at any station in my constituency this morning, they would have seen thousands and thousands of people trying to cram themselves into horrendously overcrowded trains operated by Southeastern. One of the problems for my constituents living in Lewisham is that when the trains arrive at our stations—Blackheath, Grove Park or Lee Green—they are already packed full of people travelling to central London. For that pleasure, my constituents are asked to pay astronomical amounts of money. For a journey that should be about 10 minutes, from Hither Green to London Bridge, a zone 1 to 3 annual season ticket now costs £976. It has gone up by £216 since 2010. That is a 28% increase in four years. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen said, wages have simply not kept up with that increase. Ministers might want to tell themselves that they are being tough on rail fare increases, but it certainly does not feel that way to many people in Lewisham.

To add injury to insult, the service is not getting any better. In fact, many would say it is getting worse. Ms Mulvey, who wrote to me last year, said that her problems with Southeastern are a “daily source of frustration”. She went on:

“This week my train to work has been cancelled twice, and this is not an unusual occurrence. My annual season ticket from Grove Park costs me £1,368 and rises significantly every year, even though the service does not get any better...It is quite embarrassing to be regularly late for work. Luckily my current employer is understanding and flexible, but I would not be confident of always having such an understanding employer.”

Alternatively we could take Mr Jolly, who is a frequent correspondent on matters to do with Southeastern. He says:

“Generally speaking, over the last quarter of 2013 the service offered by Southeastern rail has been mediocre at best, appalling at worst. It has markedly deteriorated recently, not that it was ever up to standards.”

These comments are not one-offs; I suspect that they are echoed by virtually every person who boards a Southeastern train during rush hour in my constituency.

The sentiments expressed in those letters and e-mails to me are borne out by industry surveys. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen, referred to the national rail passenger survey. When it asked people last autumn about satisfaction levels, 42% of those asked thought that Southeastern services offered poor value for money. If we expect people to pay huge sums to travel, surely they should be able to expect a basic standard of service.

What are the problems and what needs to be done? The first main problem on Southeastern relates to overcrowding. I know that significant work has been done at stations in south-east London to lengthen platforms, so that they can take 12-car trains. As I understand it, at the moment, none of the rush hour trains are 12-car trains; they may be 8-car or 10-car trains. Can the Minister tell me today when my constituents can expect to see 12-car services on all rush-hour trains stopping in my constituency? I am conscious that discussions are taking place between Southeastern and the Department for Transport, but I want to know by which date my constituents can expect to see longer trains on the services they use.

Can the Minister also say what action he is taking to ensure that Network Rail properly manages engineering works and has robust plans in place to deal with episodes of signal failure? In December last year, there was an almost farcical situation whereby no trains were running out of any of the mainline stations that serve south-east London when there was a fire at a signal box at London Bridge. It created absolute chaos on the travel network. Many of my constituents contacted me at that time to ask what the problems are in getting Network Rail to address such one-off incidents speedily. However, we experience such problems time and again when engineering works overrun, meaning that on a Monday morning there are delays on the network. That just adds to the sense of frustration that people feel when they are being asked to pay exorbitant amounts of money for the service.

I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Dartford about the need for better communication in, and better contingency planning for, times of bad weather. I understand that the challenges of providing a rail service, especially when the weather is as it is at the moment, must be huge; it is very difficult to run a rail service at such times. However, when a company’s website is not updated in real time, we can understand why people just feel so frustrated that they are not receiving timely and adequate information about the services that will be available to them. Also, can the Minister say whether he believes there is an adequate compensation regime in place for the occasions on which people cannot access the services that they have paid for?

I will conclude by saying that London is a fantastic city to live and work in, but we have to get to grips with rail services that are failing, and failing badly. With the franchising chaos that the Government have managed to create, it seems that Southeastern will continue to limp on and deliver services for a number of years to come, before a new franchise is let. There is merit in exploring whether Transport for London should become the franchising authority for rail services in London. I know that there is some pushback against that idea from some local authorities in Kent. However, TfL has been the franchising authority for the East London line on the London overground, and there we have seen services of a high quality, with high standards and good reliability. My constituents, who live in London, would like the same standards applied to their services.

I ask the Minister to assure me that in his discussions with the senior management of Southeastern and Network Rail, he will raise the matters that I have brought to his attention; that he will do all he can to ensure that our rush-hour trains in south-east London are lengthened to 12 cars; and that he will do all that he can to ensure that my constituents, who make a huge contribution to the London economy, get the sort of rail services that they deserve.

I will give the last word to my constituent, Mr Jolly, whom I quoted earlier, because he encapsulates the challenge for us politicians in Parliament. He says:

“Ultimately, if Southeastern rail is incapable of running an acceptable service over an extended period—and I am talking about 25% of the year here, but the service is mostly poor or very poor all year round anyway—isn’t it time to set up a commission of enquiry as to why, and try to find lasting solutions beyond the DIY approach that appears to prevail?...At present, and against a background of rising fares across the board, I have the feeling there is a complete lack of accountability and an inability to take action at a political level, which I find disturbing and depressing, to say the least.”

Thank you, Sir Roger, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this topical debate. All the hon. Members here in Westminster Hall this morning have ably described the challenges facing individual commuters and the vital role that rail plays in the wider south-east region. As we have heard, too often commuters face overcrowded trains and disruption, and season tickets have risen by an average of 20% since the election in 2010 while on many routes punctuality figures have stagnated or declined.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) emphasised the importance of the train to her constituents. Rail accounts for 45% of journeys into central London, a figure that rises to 79% of journeys if we include the underground and the Docklands Light Railway. Rail also serves the expanding leisure and freight markets, not only from the channel tunnel but from the region’s growing ports, such as Southampton.

The severe weather encountered in recent weeks has exposed the fragility of some of that infrastructure. Much attention nationally has focused on the enormous disruption in the south-west, but passengers are also facing cancellations and delays in the Thames valley, which has seen extensive flooding. The line between Oxted and Woldingham in Surrey is due to close for up to a week, and the line between Eastleigh and Fareham is not expected to reopen until the end of February. Landslips are causing misery for commuters in Hastings, as there have also been closures on the line to Tonbridge. The Minister should say today what assessment Network Rail has made of the stability of trackside banks along this route, and whether more maintenance work should have been done to secure them.

Even when closures are inevitable, clear information and decent alternative rail or bus replacement services are vital, but unfortunately they are often lacking, as both my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East and the hon. Member for Dartford confirmed. To go back to one of the cases I mentioned before, as one passenger told the Rye & Battle Observer:

“As a regular commuter I am used to disruption but this is the worst I’ve ever seen in 27 years of commuting.”

Another passenger said that the operator was

“not talking with the bus company. There are scenes of chaos.”

The operator advised passengers to make use of its “delay repay” scheme, but Sarah Owen, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye, has been contacted by passengers who have not received a prompt reply after contacting the company.

Train operators receive substantial compensation from Network Rail if the weather causes disruption, and when commuters are paying more than £4,000 for a season ticket—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) said, some commuters pay more than £5,200 for a season ticket—they expect and deserve better when there are problems.

Those problems are not limited to one particular line or operator. During last week’s debate secured by the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) about the Hertford loop line, which runs from Alexandra Palace to Stevenage, the Minister spoke about the timetable improvements that could be delivered when the new Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises were let, although he did not go into detail on that occasion. However, the Minister should recognise that this Government’s actions have led to concerns on the part of passengers and communities.

For example, Milton Keynes is a rapidly growing town that relies on its strong rail links to London. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) is in the Chamber. The collapse of the west coast main line franchise competition, which, of course, has cost the taxpayer at least £55 million, has led to uncertainty about future services. The franchising debacle has put orders on hold, hurting the supply chain and threatening jobs and skills, including at the Railcare maintenance company in Wolverton. Commuters from Milton Keynes Central to London have seen the cost of their season tickets increase by £940 and are now paying 25% more than they did four years ago, well above the average increase of 20% in season ticket prices. They are paying the cost for the Government’s failure to impose a strict cap on rail fare rises, which Labour has called for. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East rightly recognised, when commuters are already spending a large proportion of their income on transport costs, such increases in fares, far outstripping salary increases, are a real drain on family living standards.

My right hon. Friend highlighted passenger concerns about value for money, which reflects not just the amount that they are paying, but the quality of services that they are able to attract. Two main operators serve the station in Milton Keynes—Virgin west coast and London Midland—and both have been offered franchise extensions until the middle of 2017, as a direct result of the fiasco on the west coast main line. Is the Minister able to offer local commuters reassurance that the Department is planning at least to maintain current service frequencies when it re-lets that franchise, and will train operators be able to vary the current definition of peak time, under which some commuters could be paying even more? The Minister needs to answer such questions about problems directly caused as a result of extensions to timetables.

The Minister should also explain how he will tackle the aspirations of the constituents of the hon. Member for Dartford for wi-fi and smart ticketing and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East, including Mr Jolly, when the re-letting of the south-east franchise is delayed by more than four years.

Questions about service frequencies cut to the heart of one of the most pressing issues facing the railways: the lack of available track capacity. We have debated this issue many times in this Chamber and I do not intend to revisit those arguments in depth now, but it is a fact that passenger numbers have doubled over the past 20 years. Some lines that 50 years ago were deemed incapable of paying their way now form vital commuter arteries. For example, the link between Cambridge and Marks Tey in Suffolk was condemned in the Beeching report, although a short stub was eventually saved. The surviving route, which is sometimes known as the Lovejoy line, after the TV series, now supports bustling services during the morning peak. How many former routes might be similarly used today—reflecting some issues that hon. Members have raised today—to provide a better quality service?

As the capacity constraints on our existing network become increasingly apparent, it is right that we have to look at ways of enhancing the capacity of our existing lines, as well as exploring the opportunity for reopening old lines where there is a compelling case for doing so. This is particularly important in light of the severe disruption caused in the south-west by the storm damage at Dawlish. That is why Labour supported High Speed 1, which has enabled greatly enhanced commuter services from many communities in Kent, including those on the line itself, and those which benefit from Javelin services, which transfer to and from the conventional rail network. These trains have created commuter routes that previously would not have been feasible for many travellers, including the high-speed services from Deal. I pay tribute to the local campaigners, including Labour’s parliamentary candidate Clair Hawkins, who have put real pressure on the operator and the Department for Transport to secure those services, despite timetable extensions putting those at risk.

Labour is also committed to the £6 billion Thameslink programme, which represents a huge investment in new rolling stock and infrastructure improvements that will substantially increase capacity on one of the most intensively used routes in Europe. Unfortunately, the programme was paused after the election and it took an unacceptable two years to reach financial close on the contract for the new rolling stock. Given the limited number of officials working on Thameslink, the Public Accounts Committee has warned that

“we remain sceptical about whether the Department has the capacity to deliver the remainder of the programme by 2018.”

It is vital for rail services in both London and the south-east that Ministers get this project back on track and deliver it on time and within its budget.

Labour also oversaw the devolution of rail services in London to Transport for London, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East mentioned. The Campaign for Better Transport has provided compelling evidence of the improvements made since 2007: the new rolling stock secured and stations transformed from the drab, unstaffed stops that characterised the old Silverlink franchise. As a result, passenger numbers and passenger satisfaction is up, bringing in more revenue for the service. I am sure that hon. Members who represent communities along the West Anglian suburban lines to Enfield and Chingford hope for similar improvements when services are devolved to London Overground next year. I understand my hon. Friend’s aspirations in asking for further devolution to be considered.

Labour also passed the legislation for Crossrail and committed funding to make a project that had been discussed since the 1940s into a reality. Crossrail will radically improve rail connections and capacity in London and the south-east, while supporting the wider UK manufacturing industry and the supply chain. The previous Government also took the important step of safeguarding potential future routes to Reading and Gravesend, which could include extending the service to the constituency of the hon. Member for Dartford.

The previous Government took action to address the growing constraints on the rail network in the south-east, and the important work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen focused minds on the challenges facing ordinary families in the south. Today, Labour’s candidates are taking the lead when it comes to campaigning for better services in Hastings, in Dover and Deal and in Milton Keynes, and across the region as a whole. Labour is the only party campaigning for a strict cap on rail fares to benefit commuters facing the cost of living crisis, and we are committed to improving rail services for passengers.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of fairness. We are the only party willing to take a fresh look at our rail industry to secure a better deal for passengers and taxpayers from the billions of pounds that are invested every year.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on keeping a straight face during that last bit of her speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) on securing this debate on Southeastern services. As always, I am pleased to engage with him on issues that affect his constituents. Indeed, yesterday, we had a meeting about the introduction of free-flow on the Dartford crossing, which will deliver better reliability there. He is a champion for his constituents. Indeed, one of his constituents sent me a text while he was speaking to me, to ask why he did not mention that the toilets are dirty and often locked on the service from Lewisham. I am sure that that is another issue that he will be keen to campaign on.

It is clear that if we are to continue the strong growth in rail travel over recent years, passengers must be confident that the service that they receive is reliable, quick and comfortable. That is why the Government have invested billions of pounds in railway infrastructure improvements over this Parliament, and we have set out our plans to continue doing so. The Thameslink programme is one of those key investments, and we are committed to funding and delivering it in its entirety. On completion in 2018, the Thameslink programme will virtually double the number of north-south trains running through central London at peak times.

The Minister just said that he believes that all passengers should have services that are reliable, quick and comfortable. He will know, from my contribution, that none of those adjectives applies to services experienced by my constituents. What will he do to improve the quality of services for the people travelling in on Southeastern trains from south-east London?

The hon. Lady is right. The situation has not just developed in the past four years; there has been a backlog in investment in our rail, particularly in rolling stock. Northern Rail has some very old rolling stock. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, we had a debate in which my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) suggested that the rolling stock on his line is older than he is. There is a lot to be done, but that is no reason for not continuing with the investment that we have announced and with the projects that we are continuing to deliver. I often hear the criticism that we are spending far too much in London, when other parts of the country are being neglected.

I am familiar with that north-south argument that suggests that all the investment is going to the south-east. Does the Minister accept my concern that my constituents, who are paying so much over the odds for their rail journeys, are no keener than constituents in the north of England to subsidise a railway in another part of the south-east? We have a situation in which we are asking a relatively small part of the country to pay the bill for all the railway investment that is taking place, whether in the north or the south.

I suppose that my constituents would counter that by saying that the east coast main line is the line that contributes to the Government’s coffers, whether through a franchise operation or its current nationalised express, as I think someone called it the other day. A lot of investment is going into London and the south-east because that is where we see the most congestion and overcrowding. The £6.5 billion investment in Thameslink will link Kent, Sussex and Surrey, through central London, with Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. The Thameslink programme will deliver up to 1,140 carriages of high-capacity, next-generation rolling stock, in addition to some 600 new carriages that are being provided as part of the Crossrail project, which is a significant enhancement of the rail network’s capacity. I do not need to mention that Crossrail is the biggest engineering project in Europe. I was down there yesterday morning to see how work is progressing, and it is expected to be delivered on time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford referred specifically to the service provided by Southeastern. As one would expect, the Department closely monitors rail performance, and I will spend a moment providing a little more detail on some of the recent performance trends. The key headline indicator for rail performance is the public performance measure, which measures the percentage of services that arrive between one minute early and five minutes late of their timetabled time.

The most recent period data available, from April 2013 to 1 February 2014, show a total average PPM score for the Southeastern network of 89.8%, which is 2.4 percentage points below the target agreed between the operator and Network Rail. Southeastern’s PPM score positions it in the lower mid-table when compared with all other train operating companies. Compared with similar operators in the region, Southeastern has a higher PPM score than Southern Railway, which is at 86.8%, and a slightly lower PPM score than South West Trains at 90.2%.

Southeastern’s franchise agreement, in keeping with all franchise agreements, includes operator performance benchmarks for delay minutes, cancellations and train capacity. Those benchmarks are a contractual requirement, which, if breached, can result in actions against the operator, such as additional passenger benefits at no cost to the Department or, in the case of extreme poor performance, franchise termination. Southeastern is currently performing within its contractual benchmarks and has been doing so for the duration of its franchise. My officials assure me that swift action will be taken if performance benchmarks are breached.

Those figures indicate that, for many passengers, one in 10 services will be delayed, and the franchise has been extended by more than four years. How can passengers feel confident that the system is on their side when, effectively, the franchise will continue for a long period without passengers seeing any improvement in performance?

As the hon. Lady knows, not all delays are due to the actions of the franchisee. Network Rail sometimes has some explaining to do, particularly on overrunning engineering works, which can be a problem. I will address that later in my speech.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he is being very generous. He talks about Southeastern’s contractual obligations, with specific reference to delays and cancellations. Can he tell me what proportion of trains on the Southeastern network have been shorter than they are contractually obliged to be? One of my constituents’ main complaints is that a six-car train turns up when an eight-car train should arrive. How often is that happening?

I confess that I do not have that figure in my head, but I will drop the hon. Lady a line to give it to her. She is right that if a train is shorter than expected, it will result in either more people standing or, in some cases, many people not being able to get on the train and having to wait for the next service. In fact, the person who texted me recently has always made the point that living in Dartford is good because the trains are usually fairly empty when they get there. As people get closer to London and go through places such as Lewisham, the trains get fuller and fuller and it becomes more difficult either to get a seat or, in some cases, to get on the train.

Of the total delay minutes for the Southeastern network, around one third are attributable to Southeastern. That is within Southeastern’s contractual benchmarks and 1.6 percentage points outside its improvement target set with Network Rail. The most significant amount, almost two thirds of all delay minutes, are attributable to Network Rail. Network Rail remains cumulatively 37.9% adrift of its targets, which is clearly influencing the downward PPM trend.

Delays attributable to Network Rail, however, include significant and, to a large extent, unavoidable delays. The St Jude’s day storm, for example, caused widespread disruption, as has the sustained severe weather we have been experiencing since just before Christmas. It is inevitable that some disruption will occur in such extreme weather. On a number of occasions Network Rail has been forced to order the suspension of rail services until a full route inspection has taken place, which has caused major disruption on many routes. I gave evidence to that effect to the Select Committee on Transport before Christmas.

Safety must remain the highest priority, and it is in no small part due to Network Rail’s performance on safety that the UK now has one of the safest, if not the safest, railways in Europe. However, adverse weather should not be allowed to overshadow risk factors that can be controlled. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the High Speed 1 line did not experience any problems due to the recent bad weather. Lines built to that standard, such as the new High Speed 2, should also not encounter such problems.

The Minister mentions the High Speed 1 statistics, which are relevant to the punctuality targets that Southeastern has to meet. Southeastern amalgamates its main line statistics with the High Speed 1 statistics to create the overall figure. To my knowledge, Southeastern is the only company in the country that does that, so it gives a distorted impression of punctuality to the communities that use its services.

I note that point. Commuters use High Speed 1 to access London, so it would probably be unfair to exclude the line from the figures. I merely note that the figures are skewed because of the excellent performance of High Speed 1, which is built to a much higher standard. The angles of embankments, the engineering and the standard of the overhead lines are of a higher standard than the third-rail service used by many other trains, which can be disrupted by bad weather.

Southeastern is keen to influence improvement in Network Rail’s performance, and it recently requested a formal review with the Office of Rail Regulation, given several periods of missed delay minute targets. There are particular concerns about trees on the track, which can be mitigated through good vegetation management. There is also concern about landslips, which are controllable through targeted drainage management. Network Rail has its own views on the reasons for the disappointing drop in its performance, which it primarily puts down to extreme, unprecedented weather. Network Rail does, however, accept that performance must improve significantly, and it is engaged in open dialogue with Southeastern. We have told Southeastern that it must continue to challenge Network Rail to improve its performance on the Southeastern network. I await with interest the outcome of the formal review and expect to see both parties working together on targeted improvement strategies in the coming months.

Although Network Rail’s performance on Southeastern’s network has been unsatisfactory recently, investment has not been neglected. Major programmes of investment completed or started in the past 12 months include a £16 million upgrade of Gravesend station, a £7 million upgrade of Dartford station and a £6 million upgrade of Denmark Hill station.

The Minister is generous with his time. Returning to the point he made a moment ago, is he satisfied with the work that Network Rail has done to assess the stability and resilience of its railway? Has it been doing enough maintenance work to ensure that the network can cope with the difficult weather conditions that we have seen in recent weeks?

I have already said that a full assessment needs to be done on how the adverse weather might have affected the stability of some tracks and on how vegetation management could contribute to fewer instances where lines are blocked by fallen trees. It is, however, often difficult to predict these weather situations. With the St Jude’s storm, the trees were in leaf, so trees that normally would not have succumbed to the high winds were brought down. I am sure that the hon. Lady would not suggest widespread desecration of the green corridors, which many rail lines offer and have environmental and ecological benefits.

In the near future, a new station at Rochester will be built, with completion in the winter of 2015. Nationwide, Network Rail has invested and will continue to invest billions of pounds in maintaining and improving the rail network. Between 2009 and 2014, it invested more than £37 billion, and more than £38 billion will be invested in the next five years.

Although the operational performance on the Kent route as measured by PPM has been disappointing over recent months, there is some positive news from the autumn 2013 passenger survey results, which were published by Passenger Focus last month. That independent survey of passengers’ views showed that 84% of passengers are satisfied with Southeastern’s service, matching the company’s record performance achieved off the back of the Olympics success in 2012. The result was also better than the national average of 83% and the average for London and south-east operators of 82%. That is an industry-leading result and is very encouraging, particularly given the severe weather experienced during that period. I suspect that some of that result is down to passengers understanding that severe weather causes disruption and not blaming the rail company specifically for that.

In further positive news, Southeastern’s performance on the provision of information about trains and platforms rose significantly to 83%, from last year’s score of 78%. That is a London and south-east sector-leading result. Southeastern’s performance did, however, decline on punctuality, reliability and rolling stock condition. Southeastern remains relatively close to the London and south-east average, and it exceeds the sector average on punctuality. In fairness to Southeastern, it is hardly surprising that customers’ ratings on punctuality and reliability have fallen, given the severe weather experienced and the escalating delay minutes attributable to Network Rail. Even given those relatively positive results, there is no complacency in the Department. My officials have discussed the issues with Southeastern and have received assurances that it is committed to driving improvements in the national passenger survey variables. Indeed, the future franchise will link financial reward to NPS performance.

On the specific points raised in the debate, I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford mentioned the safer station scheme, which has been such a success. I hope that we will build on that progress. He also mentioned the cost and availability of parking at stations. We need to build more cycle parking. I have been to a number of cycle parks at stations around the country and know that providing cycle parks facilitates the use of more environmentally benign ways to get to stations, and we are keen to build on that progress.

The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) discussed how the rise in fares and season tickets affected his constituents. A season ticket from Southampton costs £5,200 and the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) mentioned that a season ticket from Hither Green costs £976. People planning their commute might look at alternatives, and purchasing and running a car for £5,200 would be a challenge, particularly if the congestion charge was included. A season ticket from Hither Green costs less than paying the congestion charge for a car for a year. We are aware of the real issues that people face in paying for their commute and how it affects their decisions on where to live. People might find that they cannot afford property in central London, but also that they cannot afford the commute from further afield.

The fares that we collect enable us to secure investment in the rail infrastructure, and the fare box must play its part. Passengers on Southeastern trains have experienced large fare rises because of the retail prices index plus 3% fares cap, which was put in place when the franchise was let under the previous Government. The hon. Member for Nottingham South drew attention to those rises, but did not volunteer to take any of the blame for them. Members will be aware that the Chancellor announced that we would lower the cap on regulated fare rises, and that includes most season tickets. On average, those rises will be no more than RPI. That applies not only to Southeastern trains, but to all franchises for which the Government are responsible. It is the first time in 10 years that that has been the case.

Mention was made of other franchises around the country and the level of satisfaction with them, despite large subsidies. In my constituency, the Northern Rail franchise does not receive very high customer satisfaction ratings, and a lot of that is down to the regularity of the services. The first train from Whitby to Middlesbrough, for example, does not arrive at its destination much before 10 o’clock in the morning, and much of the rolling stock is old indeed.

I am reluctant to ask the question, given that the debate is on rail in the south-east, but the Minister mentioned rolling stock on the Northern Rail franchise. The Pacer trains are extremely old and rather uncomfortable. What plans do the Government have to update the rolling stock on that franchise?

I fear we are digressing, Sir Roger, but my point was that I share the pain, given the level of ridership on those trains. The hon. Member for Lewisham East mentioned the 12-car trains and called for longer trains through her constituency. She will be aware that discussions are ongoing on a new Southeastern franchise, and I will ensure that her views are fed into that discussion, to see what can be done, although it is a busy stretch of railway and there are limits on the amount of rolling stock available. She also mentioned overrunning engineering works, which are a perennial problem that affect a number of lines up and down the country. We are aware of the possession overruns by Network Rail, but one cannot plan for unexpected situations, such as fires at signal boxes, suicides and copper theft, which result in disruption on the railway and Network Rail has little control over them.

The shadow Minister made a number of points and was very good at mentioning many prospective candidates, and I wish them well. It is true that Southeastern has cancelled many more trains than usual, particularly in December 2013. Cancellations for the previous five months were ahead of plan, and Southeastern has admitted that the problems in December could have been managed better. The spike in cancellations was due to staff and drivers not working overtime, as is normal, due to the poor weather. In addition, many drivers could not get to work due to disruption to roads and rail infrastructure. Southeastern said that it has learned lessons from the incident.

On the Thameslink upgrade, the plans are completely on track and it will be a phenomenal success, delivering a step change in capacity through central London from 2018.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford will know, the Department is planning a four-year direct award contract with Southeastern from October 2014, in accordance with the refranchising programme borne out of the Brown and Laidlaw reviews. As he will understand, I cannot go into the specifics, as we are due to enter negotiations with Southeastern in the coming months. I can, however, outline some of the expected service and performance benefits.

The new Kent franchise has been specifically designed with customer satisfaction at its heart. For that reason, an innovative performance regime, which contractually requires operator-funded investments where national passenger survey targets are not met, has been included. In addition, a financial incentive regime will be linked to the standard operator benchmarks of delay minutes, cancellations and train capacity, which are the contractual measures that I mentioned earlier. Attaching financial reward to customer satisfaction and operational performance is an essential element of the new franchise and is designed to drive passenger benefits and, ultimately, continued strong growth in rail travel.

Making performance more transparent is another aim of the new franchise. Southeastern currently reports an average monthly public performance measure, but in the new franchise, it will be required to publish PPM performance data by route, which addresses my hon. Friend’s point, in addition to its overall PPM average. We will discuss with Southeastern what other information can be published about customer experience. I expect that increased transparency will help passengers to make better-informed travel decisions and allow improvement strategies targeted by the operator on the worst-performing routes. Greater transparency will also enable my officials more effectively to challenge the operator’s delivery.

On timetable enhancements, Southeastern has consulted on a number of improvements for the new franchise, including extending Victoria to Dartford services later into the evening and all-day services between Deal and Sandwich and St Pancras. There is, of course, no guarantee that the proposed enhancements will be accepted by Network Rail, but they are under active consideration and demonstrate that Southeastern is responding to customer demand. Southeastern is also in discussions with Transport for London about extending Oyster services to Stratford International, Dartford and Swanley. Again, I cannot guarantee that the proposals will be realised in the current franchise or the direct award period, but they are under real consideration. Indeed, when I last met the Mayor of London and Sir Peter Hendy, they said that they were keen to roll out cashless payments for journeys into London, but I note my hon. Friend’s comment that that need not be facilitated by extending TfL’s empire into Kent.

In conclusion, we are aware of the issues that my hon. Friend has raised about this important commuter area. I assure him that we will maintain pressure on the operator both to exceed performance targets and to work with Network Rail to facilitate a step change in their performance. I am currently satisfied that Southeastern is committed to driving improvements, as evidenced by its efforts to secure an Office of Rail Regulation formal review with its industry partner, Network Rail. I hope that by outlining some of the Department for Transport’s plans for the four-year direct award period, I have shown that the Department is committed to driving real improvements in transparency, performance and customer satisfaction. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing performance on the Southeastern network to the attention of the House.

Order. With the leave of the House and as we have the time, I will make an exception—this is exceptional—and invite Mr Johnson briefly to reply to the debate.

Thank you, Sir Roger. This has been a constructive debate that was borne out of the contact that I have had with several constituents. They were critical of the service that they have experienced and are frustrated at the service on their lines when trying to go about their work in London and when travelling further into Kent. The complaints and concerns that have been brought to my attention—as a commuter, I have experienced similar things myself—follow a pattern. A lack of communication, innovation, value for money and reliability are the core concerns of commuters in the south-east. I ask the Minister to take those comments on board when dealing with Southeastern and other rail operators.

Sitting suspended.