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Southeastern Train Services

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

I am aware that the Minister is not in his place. I am told that he is in a car on his way here. I just hope that he is not on a Southeastern train.

Southeastern runs virtually all the rail services that serve my constituency, providing links to a range of central London stations as well as out to Kent. There are seven stations in my constituency: Hither Green, Blackheath, Lee, Grove Park, Catford Bridge, Catford and Beckenham Hill. There are four railway lines, three of which converge at Lewisham station.

Although Lewisham station, which sits on the border of my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), has the docklands light railway, my patch of London remains untouched by the tube map. Extending the Bakerloo line to Lewisham might be the long-term aspiration of many of us, but for the time being the trains operated by Southeastern are one of the key ways in which my constituents get about.

I am conscious that a list of seven stations and four train lines may lead people to think that my constituency is well served by rail links. On the face of it, it is well served, but the reality for many of the 37,000 people in Lewisham who use the trains to get to and from work every day is grim: hot, horrendously overcrowded, late and slow trains, with a hefty price tag to boot. I am not prone to exaggeration, but I honestly believe that in this country we transport cattle better than some of my constituents.

Just last month, I was contacted by a constituent who told me that he had seen

“2 people collapse in the last 10 days due to overcrowded and overheated trains”.

This problem is very serious, and if the Minister had been present, I would have invited him to join me one morning to experience the problem for himself. Trains arriving at stations such as Hither Green and Blackheath at any time between 6.30 and 9.30 in the morning are already full. My constituents squeeze themselves on if they are lucky; if they cannot, they wait for the next train. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being graphic, but people literally start their working day stuck in one another's armpits.

The journey to London Bridge should take between 10 and 12 minutes, but routinely takes between 20 and 30 minutes. There is often a constant stream of tweets from Southeastern, usefully providing the information that a train that was supposed to have eight cars will instead have six or four cars.

To add insult to injury, year on year we are paying more and more for the pleasure. An annual season ticket on Southeastern for zones 1 to 3, a point-to-point ticket that allows travel only from one station to another, now costs £976. It has gone up by £216 since 2010—a 28% increase in four years. Travelcards, which allow onward use of the tube and bus network, cost considerably more. The rising cost of those tickets has massively outstripped the negligible changes that people have seen in their pay packets and it makes a very significant dent in household budgets.

I have lived in the Lewisham and Hither Green area for the past 12 years. In that time, platforms have become noticeably busier, and that is borne out by statistics compiled by the Office of Rail Regulation. In 2002-03, Lewisham was the 55th busiest station in the country, and there were 3.6 million entries to or exits from the station that year. In 2012-13, the last year for which data are available, that number more than doubled to 8.2 million, with a further 1.7 million interchanges, making it now the 38th busiest station nationwide. That is significant growth.

That pattern is repeated at all other local stations and is consistent with the regional breakdown of growth in rail usage, which shows that growth in London is markedly greater than anywhere else in the country. To put that in a national context, Lewisham is a busier station than Newcastle, Nottingham or Southampton; it is comparable to a station like Sheffield. When we talk about increasing capacity on our rail network, we must not forget places such as Lewisham which are neither part of the affluent commuter belt nor on London’s tube map.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on an issue that she has spoken out about in the past. Does she agree that although poor reliability may be Southeastern’s main failing, it is compounded by the poor communication with the commuters who are her constituents and mine?

I do agree. In part, the problem is reliability, but one of the main issues that I want to focus on is the degree of overcrowding that we experience on our train services.

The case for tackling overcrowding on my part of the rail network is irrefutable. The problem is getting worse and is likely to deteriorate further if urgent action is not taken. Thousands of new homes are planned in places like Lewisham and Catford over the next few years, and it goes without saying that future residents will need to be able to get around. They will need to be able to get to work and to get back from other parts of London at weekends. Basically, they need a decent railway service to live their lives.

The population of Lewisham continues to grow. Despite asking various parliamentary questions on this subject, I am at a loss to understand when commuters in my constituency are going to see longer trains. All I know is that, according to an answer I received on 8 April, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who is the railways Minister, does not think there is demand for longer trains on all services. Beyond that, I am afraid that I cannot get much sense out of the Department or Southeastern.

Currently, no 12-car trains serve stations in my constituency during the rush hour, but there should be such trains. Platforms have been extended. I suspect that millions of pounds has been spent on doing that job, although again, despite my asking parliamentary questions, the Department cannot tell me how much has been spent and refers me to Network Rail. When I have asked Network Rail, it has not got back to me. We have spent money on lengthening platforms but we do not have longer trains to stop at them. It is almost as good as the one about the aircraft carriers with no aircraft to use them. Surely in difficult economic times we should not be wasting expenditure in this way—we should be reaping benefit from it.

In the written answer I received from the Minister at the beginning of April, I was told that a study would be done in 2016 and that some capacity enhancements may be forthcoming from 2019. That is at least five years away. It is simply not good enough. The Minister is currently in the process of negotiating a new “direct award” contract with Southeastern. Following the mess that the Government have made of letting franchises elsewhere in the country, they have put on hold the letting of the new Southeastern franchise, deciding instead to award a series of shorter, directly awarded contracts. Is there no way in which they could negotiate longer trains on some services calling at stations in my constituency sooner than 2019? Could some trains not start closer into London?

I would be really grateful if the Minister could explain the issue. Is it the availability of rolling stock? Is it an unwillingness on the part of Government to fund longer trains? Is it that when he looks at overcrowding statistics for services into London he thinks that there is not a problem on services run by Southeastern? If it is the latter, I would urge him to speak carefully to his civil servants about how the standard definitions of overcrowding —passengers in excess of capacity, otherwise known as PIXCs—are calculated. My understanding is that the calculations include an allowance relating to what is deemed to be an acceptable number of people standing in addition to those sitting. The excess passengers figure comes on top of that and, given that my constituents experience the most crowded 20 minutes of the journey, I am not sure that those PIXC scores will paint a realistic picture of the levels of overcrowding experienced by commuters who live in my constituency.

I also understand that Southeastern amalgamates its performance data for all of its services, including its High Speed 1 services from the channel tunnel, which may also skew overall performance scores. Does the Minister look at disaggregated data for each of the different types of Southeastern routes?

The hon. Lady is doing a very good job of standing up for her constituents who use the Southeastern service, which is also used by my constituents. Will she join other Kent and south London MPs in calling for the disaggregation of data as part of the new franchise agreement?

I would be happy to join hon. and right hon. colleagues in calling for that. It needs to happen before the new franchise is let. Could we see it in the direct award contracts that the Department will be letting, I think, this summer?

I think you will have probably sensed my frustration, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am not the only one who feels strongly about the issue. I speak on behalf of a very significant number of my constituents. Sadly, it comes as little surprise to me that the national passenger survey and surveys by organisations such as Which? put Southeastern at the bottom of the train operating company league table. I suspect that much of my constituents’ dissatisfaction is driven by experiences of overcrowding and a general sense that the service offered is woeful value for money. It also relates, as the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) has said, to a lack of clear, reliable, real-time information when there are cancellations and delays.

I know that Southeastern has requested an official review by the rail regulator of Network Rail’s performance, as not all problems relate to things in Southeastern’s control. I understand that, but there needs to be better communication with the travelling public and a sense that Southeastern is not just constantly trying to shift the blame to someone else. It would be useful if the Minister provided an update on the official Office of Rail Regulation review.

It would also be useful if the Minister provided his latest thinking on what should happen come 2018. Given poor performance and the fact that Southeastern’s parent company, Govia, received £82 million in Government subsidy last year, is he satisfied that the current franchising system is delivering the best deal for the taxpayer?

We know that the Government are reluctant to do a root-and-branch review of the structure of railways in the UK, presumably because they are concerned that it may throw up pragmatic solutions that go against the grain of their ideology. The public, however, want to know that if they are paying exorbitant sums for their travel, they are getting the best possible bang for their buck.

Could Transport for London, for example, become the franchising authority for Southeastern in future? Experience in south London with the London Overground has been positive, and TfL will soon become the franchising authority for some Greater Anglia services. Why do not the Government want to do the same for Southeastern?

I am conscious of the fact that this debate started earlier than usual and I would like to take a few more minutes to pick up on two issues relating to Southeastern services and connectivity: the Catford loop line and access arrangements at Lewisham station.

Many local people share an aspiration for four trains an hour to stop on the Catford loop. I am told that such a service could be introduced without detriment to other existing services. I have asked Ministers about this before and have been told that the detailed specification for services in a new Southeastern franchise has yet to be decided. However, given this interim period of four years before any new franchise, is there any possibility of upping the number of stopping trains on the Catford loop?

May I ask the Minister to revisit my correspondence with his predecessor, who is now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, about Southeastern’s determination to keep the platform 4 gate at Lewisham station permanently closed? If we want people to use the railway instead of their cars, stations need to be as easily accessible as possible. Although I understand Southeastern’s desire to tackle fare dodging by having a fully gated station, that makes no sense when the next station stops are not gated. With a significant regeneration scheme now under way next to Lewisham station and access arrangements reduced as a result, the platform 4 gate issue has taken on new importance. Even if it cannot be reopened permanently, might a temporary relaxation be allowed for the duration of the construction works on the adjacent development project?

I realise that I have been down in the detail of rail provision in my constituency, but these are important matters for many of those I represent.

London is a fantastic city to live and work in, but it is let down by its failing rail network. I am afraid to say that I am not sure that Ministers seem willing or able to intervene, let alone to learn lessons and correct the system. The result is that existing train operating companies are limping on, with passengers feeling voiceless and out of pocket. Put simply, when we ask people to pay sky-high fares for their travel, they should at least get a half-decent service.

I apologise for my slightly late arrival at the Dispatch Box, Madam Deputy Speaker. Perhaps that was rather apt, given the subject we are discussing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) on securing this debate on Southeastern services. At the very outset, I want to make the point that the rail franchising system and the way in which the Government engage with private sector operators is all about improving rail services for people, not some ideological opposition to state provision. In practice, the system has been shown to deliver in many parts of the country. As we have seen during the period since privatisation, rail usership has doubled from 750 million to 1.5 billion. Of course, that is part of the problem: as more and more people use rail services in this country, the overcrowding on trains and the problems of squeezing more and more trains on to what is by and large a Victorian network is a real challenge that I know frustrates commuters daily.

As the hon. Lady has contributed so fully to previous discussions in the House—for example, the debate in February secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), who I note has joined us in the Chamber—some of my points will sound familiar. I hope that she will forgive that repetition, but I will cover some of her questions from the last debate, particularly on overcrowding and passenger compensation.

I thank the hon. Lady for her invitation to join her on the train to Lewisham. I suggest that I can do better than that, as I have a member of staff who lives on that very line, and I get a daily update about the problems of getting a seat on the train. Indeed, when she moved slightly further away from the centre of London, she said, “Although it’s a longer journey, at least I can get a seat.” It is something of an indictment of that particular service that people see living further away as a good idea, because they can get a seat before the train sets off. I am made aware of some of the daily trials and tribulations; indeed, I also sometimes get excuses about why she sometimes arrives at work late.

Let me first state that this Government are committed to continuing the strong growth in rail travel experienced over recent years. We have invested billions of pounds in railway infrastructure, and we have set out our plans to continue to do 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, it will virtually double the number of north-south trains running through central London at peak times. It will deliver 1,140 carriages of high-capacity next generation rolling stock, in addition to about 600 new carriages that will be provided as part of the Crossrail project. That represents a significant enhancement to the capacity of the entire UK rail network. That might be no consolation to people in Lewisham, but it shows that we recognise the problem and are investing not only in new infrastructure, but in new rolling stock.

I was aware of discussions about the new Thameslink franchise that could have meant that some services would call at stations such as Lewisham. I wonder whether the Minister can update me on whether there is any chance of some Thameslink services being routed through Lewisham, instead of along the more traditional routes, and on whether that could add capacity to our part of the network.

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Lady any news on that subject. However, as it has been raised on the Floor of the House, I know that officials will be keen to revisit it to see what potential there is. In her contribution, she spoke about the potential for improving services on the Catford loop. However, the system is by and large operating at capacity, particularly at peak times in the morning and evening. In fact, it is operating at more than capacity given that many people cannot get a seat on their train.

The key headline indicator for rail performance is the public performance measure, which measures the percentage of services that arrive within five minutes of their timetabled time. From April 2013 to March 2014, the Southeastern network achieved a disappointing PPM score of 89%. That is 3.8 percentage points below the target agreed between Southeastern and Network Rail. I note the point that the hon. Lady made about aggregation, which means that those figures may hide worse performing parts of the network. She mentioned that High Speed 1 has a good punctuality record. That is a good reason why we should be building brand new rail infrastructure in this country. It does not have the same problems, such as those related to bad weather, that we see on parts of the creaking Victorian network.

PPM is the responsibility of Network Rail and the train operating companies, and a failure by one or both will cause the PPM to fall. To assess where the blame for the declining PPM lies, it is necessary to consider performance against the delay minute targets agreed between Network Rail and Southeastern. In general terms, Network Rail is responsible for approximately two thirds of the delay minutes across the UK rail network, with the train operating companies accountable for the remainder.

The performance of Southeastern over the past 12 months was 6% adrift of its cumulative delay minute target. That 6% represents an additional 16,000 delay minutes over its target of 271,000. Network Rail, on the other hand, finished the year more than 50% adrift of its targets, which represents 200,000 delay minutes above its target of 400,000. The results of both Network Rail and Southeastern are clearly influencing the downward PPM trend, with Network Rail’s performance having by far the greatest impact.

What is being done to improve Network Rail’s performance? First, it is important to acknowledge that safety must remain the highest priority. Network Rail’s performance in that regard has ensured that the UK has one of the safest, if not the safest, railways in Europe. That said, Network Rail’s rapidly increasing share of delay minutes shows that its performance has simply not been good enough and must improve.

It would be remiss of us to ignore the impact that severe and unprecedented weather has had on its operational performance, and the inevitable delays that that has caused. Since October last year, the severe weather has led to landslips, flooding and vegetation issues—I presume that that means the wrong kind of leaves—all of which have impacted heavily on the service that Southeastern has been able to deliver. To take one example, passengers using the Hastings line endured closures and disruption between December 2013 and March 2014 owing to multiple landslips. Although it is fair to put Network Rail’s performance into perspective, extreme weather should not be allowed to mask underlying issues and risk factors that could have been controlled or at least mitigated. In other words, the weather is not an excuse for everything.

Southeastern recently referred Network Rail to the Office of Rail Regulation to highlight its poor performance with regard to trees on the track, landslips and engineering possession overruns. The ORR held a formal review of Network Rail’s performance in March in the presence of Southeastern and Network Rail’s senior management teams. At the review and in subsequent communications, Network Rail accepted that performance on the Southeastern network had fallen below acceptable levels of late, and it has provided assurances that performance will be improved—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gavin Barwell.)

Encouragingly, Network Rail has already reviewed its management of engineering possessions and taken action to implement new processes designed to overcome identified weaknesses in planning and delivery.

Although Network Rail’s recent performance on Southeastern’s network has been unsatisfactory, investment through Network Rail has not been neglected by the Government. In control period 5—2014 to 2019—Network Rail will deliver a £38 billion programme to help transform the busiest parts of Britain’s rail network. That programme takes forward the plan set out by the Government in their rail investment strategy published in 2012.

Southeastern is currently performing within its contractual benchmarks for “cancellations”, “train capacity” and “delay minutes”, and has done so for the duration of its franchise. The Department monitors those benchmarks regularly and, in the event of a breach, swift and appropriate action will be taken. The hon. Lady raised Southeastern’s compensation scheme and overcrowding at the last debate in February. I shall now deal with those points in turn.

On passenger compensation, Southeastern’s official compensation scheme is called Delay Repay. Under Delay Repay, all passengers are entitled to claim compensation for each delay of more than 30 minutes, whatever the cause. There are no exclusions for delays outside the control of the train operator, such as those caused by Network Rail, or even outside the rail industry, such as those caused by vandalism or cable theft. Delay Repay is more generous than the previous compensation regime, and allows compensation to be claimed as follows: 50% of the single fare for delays of 30 to 59 minutes; 100% of the single fare for delays of more than 60 minutes; 100% of the return fare for delays of more than two hours.

Southeastern has paid out millions in Delay Repay compensation over the past 12 months, dwarfing payments made the previous year and showing increasing passenger awareness. It is certainly a way of concentrating the operator’s attention on shortcomings in that area. In addition, given the ongoing disruption on the Hastings line, and in recognition of the loss of service to season ticketholders, Southeastern decided to compensate those passengers with £50 Marks and Spencer vouchers. When the line opening was again delayed owing to a further landslip, Southeastern chose to further compensate season ticketholders with cheques ranging from £100 to £250. Those were commendable actions by Southeastern that it was not contractually required to make.

Overcrowding is a persistent issue on that and other lines, and from the passenger counts it collects, Southeastern is aware of services that are over-capacity and require strengthening. The Department encourages train operating companies to increase train length on overcrowded trains where it can reasonably do so without causing greater problems elsewhere on the network. Until additional rolling stock is introduced, increasing capacity will depend on Southeastern’s ability to deploy effectively its rolling stock to meet demand.

I am aware that Southeastern is looking into the possibility of running 12-car trains in the London metro area, but that is subject to the successful completion of power supply upgrades, as well as ongoing work to ensure the safe deployment of driver-only operation at stations. I understand that Southeastern is working with Network Rail to resolve those issues as a matter of priority. On additional rolling stock, we are in discussions with Southeastern to determine whether an affordable solution exists to augment its fleet by the end of 2017. Those discussions are ongoing, as part of the direct award negotiation.

The hon. Lady will know that the Department is currently negotiating a four-year direct award contract with Southeastern from October 2014, in accordance with the re-franchising programme. Those points will be familiar following her debate in February, but I consider the enhancements to be of considerable benefit to passengers and worthy of repetition. The new Southeastern franchise has been purposefully designed with customer satisfaction at its core. For that reason, an innovative performance regime has been included, which contractually requires operator-funded investments where National Rail passenger survey targets are not met. In addition, a financial incentive regime will be linked to the standard operator benchmarks of “delay minutes”, “cancellations” and “train capacity”. Attaching financial reward to customer satisfaction and operational performance is an essential element of the new franchise. This is designed to drive passenger benefits and, ultimately, continued strong growth in rail travel.

By which date will 12-car trains on the Southeastern network call at any station in my constituency in the morning rush hour?

As I said, discussions are ongoing, so I cannot give the hon. Lady a precise date. I hope that she will be reassured that it is an issue of great importance to the operator. Given the incentives, and the penalties that non-performing companies will incur, it is in the company’s interests to improve services and meet those key performance indicators.

Making performance more transparent is a further key aim of the new franchise. While Southeastern currently reports an average public performance measure by monthly period, in the new franchise it will be required to publish PPM data by route, in addition to its overall PPM average, which answers the point the hon. Lady made about individual performances being masked by the best performing services such as HS1. We will also be discussing with Southeastern what other information can be published about customers’ experience of using its services. I hope that she will engage with that process and let Southeastern know which indicators she wants it to focus on. I suspect that overcrowding is probably the issue that most affects customers after delays. There is compensation for delays, but that does not help customers in overcrowded trains, especially in bad weather.

My expectation is that increased transparency will help passengers make better informed travel decisions, as well as allowing the operator and Network Rail to target improvement strategies on the worst performing routes. Greater transparency will also enable the Department to challenge more effectively the operator’s delivery.

The hon. Lady mentioned the platform 4 gate at Lewisham station. I have to admit that I was not aware of that problem, which is due to engineering works, but I will certainly look into it and see that it is addressed. She also touched on the extension of the contract through direct award. As with all direct awards, this is a necessary step to achieving a manageable and deliverable franchise schedule for both the market and the Government. We continue to monitor the performance of Southeastern very closely.

Southeastern’s operational performance has been relatively good in the last 12 months, although it remains 6% off its delay minute targets. For the first period in the new rail year, it is ahead of its targets. Southeastern continues to work with industry partners Network Rail to improve performance for passengers, and has recently called and attended a formal review of Network Rail’s performance.

The massive investment being made by the Government in the Thameslink programme will improve services for the whole of the south-east of England, with 40% more capacity on services between Sevenoaks and the Thameslink core, via the Catford loop. However, in the short term, the Thameslink programme will cause significant disruption at London Bridge station. We believe that certainty of ownership and a stable partner will help better to manage the services for passengers during this period.

In summary, operational performance has declined sharply on the Southeastern network since October last year, and I agree that this is not acceptable. I expect to see improvements now that the Office of Rail Regulation has conducted its formal review, and Network Rail has provided commitments to Southeastern. There is also room for improvement in Southeastern’s performance, given that it was 6% off its delay minute targets by year end in March 2014. It has, however, made a strong start to the new rail year, with delay minute performance for the latest period in April ahead of target.

I hope that, by outlining some of the Department’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 the hon. Lady for her continued interest in the Southeastern franchise, and for bringing this debate to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.