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Southeastern Rail Services

Volume 605: debated on Thursday 28 January 2016

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

On one level it is a pleasure to raise this issue, but on another it is a great sadness. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to put the issue forward and a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a great sadness, because frankly the debate should not be necessary.

Bromley and Chislehurst is quintessential London commuter-land. A very high percentage of its working population travels up to London to earn its daily crust. They are dependent entirely on Southeastern trains. We have no underground as an alternative. There is, in effect, a monopoly supply. People in Bromley and Chislehurst, as in other parts of south-east London, are being badly let down. It is significant that a number of Members of Parliament served by the Southeastern trains franchise are here in the Chamber today. I note in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), whose constituents have suffered appallingly recently, following the landslide at Barnehurst. That demonstrated the complexity of the issues and the delay in putting them right—it was a long time before his constituents knew what was happening. It also demonstrated the fact that there is a shared responsibility between the train operator, Southeastern, and Network Rail, the owner and provider of the infrastructure. Both have failed woefully.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s opening statement. It is not entirely Southeastern’s fault: Network Rail is pretty abysmal too. Whoever takes over the franchise will still have the problem of Network Rail to sort out.

That is perfectly true and that is an important point. In terms of responsibility, the split is about 70:30. A lot of the problems are down to Network Rail and signalling, but there are real failures with Southeastern relating to the passing on of information and other issues, including poor areas of customer service, which I will come on to. I know my hon. Friend’s constituents have the same issues.

Passenger ratings show how bad the situation is. Key figures from Transport Focus show satisfaction ratings for Southeastern on value for money at 35%. Satisfaction ratings for how the company deals with delays are at 31%. Southeastern is ranked the second-lowest for overall satisfaction in the country, at 75%. If we look at the London commuter part of the Southeastern trains franchise, the figures are even worse—at about the mid-60s. I suggest even those statistics do not break it down. If we took off rush hour commuters from that, where the delays and knock-ons are often more acute, the satisfaction rate would go down even further, demonstrating the real difficulty.

My constituents also use the Southeastern network. Day after day their trains are being delayed, particularly at peak times. This morning all trains between Maidstone East and London between 6.30 am and 7.30 am were, according to a message I received from a constituent, cancelled. These are unacceptable levels of service. I have asked the Secretary of State to let us know whether Southeastern is compliant with its franchise. Will my hon. Friend join me in asking the Secretary of State to respond to that request, and, if it is not compliant, in calling for action?

I am sure we would all echo that. My hon. Friend is quite right. According to my information, well over 20 rush-hour trains from Kent to London were cancelled because of overrunning engineering works. Sometimes, the delays were over two hours, which affects my constituents at Bromley South station, many of whom use those trains into London. So there is a real problem here.

I have quoted from the official statistics, but people sometimes think them dry and remote, so I want to read out some of the experiences put to me directly, either on Twitter or by email, which I think capture the problem. These are people talking about their problems on Southeastern trains. In my constituency, people pay £1,600 to £1,700 a year for a season ticket. One reads:

“People’s lives are literally being made a misery by Southeastern trains”.

Another reads:

“The service I have personally experienced this month has been shocking, almost daily delays”.

A third reads:

“I got to the train on time, but the train itself seldom runs on time because of track problems, congestion, lack of stock, no drivers—not on”.

I cannot disagree with that. I use the service myself on an almost daily basis to come to Westminster, and I now factor delays into my journey. It is absolutely ludicrous.

A fourth quote reads:

“Weekend engineering works mean no trains and earliest bus doesn’t get me to work on time so no overtime for 5 weeks”.

This is somebody on low pay whose job is being made a misery by this poor performance. “Not value for money” says another—well, you can say that again! Another reads:

“There is not enough time to write all that is wrong”.

Even this Adjournment debate is not long enough to expand on all that is wrong.

I have two final quotes. The first reads:

“The delays happen on a daily basis. My train is delayed again…use the Hayes line for a week, you’ll see.”

That is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and is wholly within Greater London. One final quote, for those further into Kent:

“7.40 Dunton Green to London delayed this morning to let 2 fast trains through. Are Metro customers 2nd class citizens?”

That is the feeling actually. There is an inherent conflict or tension in the Southeastern trains franchise, as currently constructed, between the high-volume and frequent demands of the inner-suburban services, such as in my area, and the demands of those coming from further into Kent.

I assure my hon. Friend that the frustration of the inner-London customers is shared entirely by those a little further out. I have the great privilege of representing people who use the Tonbridge line, the Maidstone East line and the Medway Valley line. All three have had a woeful service for as long as I can remember. A survey I put out recently found that nearly 90% thought the service had gone downhill since Christmas, which is really saying something, because it was hardly uphill before then. I urge the Minister to do exactly what she has been talking about, which is to hold these people to account, get the money back off them when they fail and make sure that privatisation works by making the companies pay.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although it is worth stressing that the failures are not just with the privatised train operating company, but with the publicly owned Network Rail. I draw a contrast between this line, which I now use, and the line I used before I moved to south-east London, the c2c line, which is also privatised but which has hugely improved its performance and satisfaction levels since it was privatised. So this is not an ideological issue; it is about sheer competence, and that involves enforcing the terms of the contract.

My hon. Friend has made the case for what we have all been asking for—Transport for London to take over as fast as possible.

That is entirely right, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is also present, would share that view too. We welcome that decision by the Department, but it is not going to happen until 2018. What we are concerned about is what will be done in the interim. For a start, when Southeastern is posting doubled profits, it sticks in the craw of my residents and commuters that they are paying a premium price for what is not an acceptable and not even a remotely premium service. There is plenty of money to pay the genuine financial penalties that are necessary if a private contract arrangement is to work. I hope it could be used to offer some form of reimbursement or remission of the fare increases for our commuters, who are simply not getting what they have paid for. That is a basic failing, and I hope the Minister will—

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

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

A sense of déjà vu has arrived, and probably rather more swiftly than the 7.39 at Waterloo East did last night as I was going home. That minor delay did not even warrant an explanation, which is another issue.

Punctuality is a real issue, as is overcrowding, which has been made worse by the timetable changes caused by the engineering work at London Bridge. That is necessary work, but there are some basic things that Southeastern can get right. More people from my constituency stations use the Cannon Street service in the rush hour than use the Charing Cross service, because it stops at London Bridge, which has the interchange for the Jubilee line, Canary Wharf and whatever. There are generally fewer carriages on the Cannon Street trains than on the Charing Cross trains, which is the complete reverse of where the demand is. That is a basic failure that could be put right now.

I know that Southeastern is talking to the Department about being able to transfer stock from other parts of the network. That needs to go ahead swiftly, because so far the new trains that have been produced on the franchise have tended to go on the high-speed link trains and have not benefited those of us on any of the commuter services. That needs to be taken on board straightaway. I would welcome the transfer of the franchise, because London Overground has a good track record of performance, but in the interim I hope the Minister will sit down and instruct Southeastern and Network Rail to work with the Mayor’s office and Transport for London immediately to talk about transitional phases, to see whether it is not possible by agreement to speed up the transfer of the franchise and certainly, as has been said, to enforce rigorously the contractual terms to the benefit of passengers and customers in the balance of the franchise.

Finally, let me highlight some other failings. I have talked about timetabling issues, such as the nonsense of the mismatch of rolling stock between Charing Cross and Cannon Street services. Even with the changes in the timetable, it is pretty bizarre that the interchange at Grove Park for the Bromley North service—a small spur line—was almost deliberately timed to miss the most convenient connecting train, which means people have to hang around for perhaps another 15 minutes or more. That is basic. Why can Southeastern not get that right?

Charing Cross station is in the heart of London’s theatre-land. Many London commuters, certainly from Chislehurst in my constituency, will go up to the theatre from time to time. The last direct train to stations such as Elmstead Woods and Chislehurst leaves at 10.36 in the evening. Otherwise, anyone who has gone to a show in town will have to wait until gone midnight. That puts huge pressure on them, because otherwise they will have to cart around on the District line to Cannon Street, when there is a station just down the way, or fork out for a taxi to come back from Orpington. The engineering work at London Bridge cannot be an excuse for that. That is just a clear lack of customer care.

On the most basic level, the staff at our local train stations are excellent. They cope with a pretty poor situation very well and sometimes they get it in the neck when it is not their fault. The people I regularly deal with at Chislehurst and Elmstead Woods are part of the community and they work really hard, but they are not given the information to deal with things and when they try to help, it is not taken up by the management.

Chislehurst—not the busiest station on the network, but a pretty busy commuter station, as most would imagine—has one automatic ticket machine. It is pretty busy in the rush hour. For the last four weeks, that automatic ticket machine has been unable to take credit cards. Despite daily reports by the station staff that that is a problem—one can imagine the queues it is causing, with people trying to fork out cash-only at that time in the day—it has still not been put right, and it was still not right this morning when I went there. That is a basic failure, and those are the sorts of things that ought to be jumped on from a great height by the operator.

The level of repeated delay is the issue that really irritates my constituents, but the issue of compensation is also raised. People can claim compensation, but it is not a lot of help on a London suburban network, because the delay has to be 30 minutes. If a journey is supposed to take only 25 minutes, it will have to be doubled or more before anyone is entitled to compensation, which will not matter, because the start of their day’s work will have been mucked around no end in any event. That does not work effectively for suburban commuters—another strong reason why it is better to split the franchise and put short-journey but high-frequency services under the Mayor’s office. Perhaps we could have a better compensation scheme to reflect those commuters’ needs more effectively.

Against that context, I hope that I have taken the chance to ventilate my constituents’ concerns. It is not good enough if large public bodies or current privately owned bodies acting under contract are persistently unresponsive. I give credit to the Minister for taking steps and holding summits with local MPs and the top management of both Network Rail and Southeastern—an initiative that we had not seen before. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. She also warned that when the franchise was renewed, it was the last chance. I am sorry, but they have drunk the last-chance saloon dry by now, and it is about time to start calling time on their franchise.

I hope that the Minister will continue to press on these issues and provide us with a detailed timeframe for when she is next going to meet the management. Will she undertake to meet me to discuss the specific concerns I have raised on behalf of other Members in the area and ensure that all Members are kept briefed on what specifically is happening? We need to be able to see the whites of the eyes of the management, which does not always happen. More initiatives have to be followed up with real measures, which hurt any company where it normally hurts—in the pocket—and we need to look more rigorously at the publicly owned entity Network Rail, which is responsible for a very great deal of the problem, but basks in comparative protection in contractual terms. It should not be allowed to do so. That needs to be thoroughly investigated. Frankly, in the private sector, heads would be rolling if services were run in the way Network Rail and Southeastern run them. There would be proper accountability to customers and shareholders.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have trespassed on the House’s time, and I believe that my constituents and those in neighbouring constituencies are still more grateful for that opportunity.

I have had a dry January, so I have not been in the last-chance saloon once, but it has enabled me to have a clear head and to look carefully at the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has raised—and this is not the first time they have been raised. Indeed, silenced on the Front Bench next to me are my right hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) and for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). They, and many others who are able to speak, have left me in no doubt of the concerns of their constituents. These are daily concerns, because many people use these trains on a daily basis.

I welcome the opportunity once again to express my concerns about some of the issues raised, to talk a bit about what the Government are doing and to try to offer some bright spots. We have talked a bit about déja vu, and I am happy to keep talking about these matters for as long as it takes to get these services fixed. These are vital services that are delivering people to high-value jobs, and not necessarily just to high-earning jobs, but to lower-income jobs. These jobs are vital in the most dynamic part of the UK economy. It is absolutely right that those people have the transport investment that they need.

I do not defend the current system in any way, but my hon. Friend knows very well that these lines have been neglected for many a long year. It has been a failure of successive Governments to invest. In some cases, the tracks these trains are running over date from the 1930s and have not had proper investment subsequently. It was always going to be a challenge to deal with what is the busiest part of the railway, with 23% of this country’s railway journeys made under the Govia Thameslink Railway and Southeastern franchises, and to keep this huge number of people moving. It was always going to be a challenge to do the required improvements for the Thameslink works and the London Bridge investments without creating disruption. I want to thank passengers who, I know from my many visits to the station, get that and are very forgiving about the need for that investment.

I know my hon. Friend will be pleased to be reassured that I have made sorting this out an absolute priority. The return of services to a high-performing railway on this franchise and indeed on GTR has been my No. 1 priority since May. He may well say, “What have you achieved over all this time?” What I will say is that we have had Network Rail, the operators, Transport Focus and anyone who needs to be there down in the weeds of the problem.

Although I am interested, I do not think customers are interested in whose fault it is. They do not need to know that engineering works overran this morning, or that a tamping machine broke down. All they care about is that 20 of their services from my hon. Friend’s constituency were cancelled. We are not in the business of finger-pointing; we are in the business of working together to solve the problems as these necessary engineering works proceed.

Passenger numbers have more than doubled since privatisation, and, indeed, the number of passengers trying to travel on Southeastern’s trains has increased by 30% since it took over the franchise. As we know, investment has not kept up with that level of demand.

My hon. Friend mentioned crowding and rolling stock, an issue on which we have specifically focused. I am determined to review the business case for running the additional, bigger 12-car trains on the metro service in particular. I give the House an undertaking that there will be a decision on that in the next couple of months. If we decide to go ahead—if the business case is favourable —Southeastern will put additional trains on the tracks late in 2016.

I am grateful for that assurance, but will my hon. Friend also undertake to provide my colleagues and me with a timeframe for that process in due course, along with the precise details of how it is to be achieved? All too often, Southeastern has made promises, but the deadline for delivery has been extended.

I shall be happy to do that, but I want to ensure that Southeastern gets the best possible deal for those trains. They would be provided by a third-party rolling stock company, and I do not want to prejudice the negotiations. As I said, I want the trains with the additional carriages to run on the metro service, because there has been so much overcrowding.

It would not be possible for 12-car trains to run on my line, the Greenwich line, because one of the stations is very short and there is no alternative door-opening facility. Will the Minister commit herself to having a conversation with Southeastern to ensure that it fits the software that will enable the right doors to open at the right station?

I shall be happy to have that conversation. The hon. Lady probably finds it as frustrating as I do that selective door opening works perfectly well in some parts of the country and not in others. There may well be very good operational reasons for the need for a software change. I will certainly look into the matter.

The Minister said that Transport for London might take over some metro services. I understand that, but my constituents are rightly concerned about the fact that we do not have a vote on the mayoralty of London, and therefore have no democratic control over Transport for London. They fear that Transport for London would ignore our area in favour of those who would—how can I put it?—benefit more electorally from the change in service.

If my hon. Friend will bear with me and can spare the time, I will say a couple of words about the genuine consultation that we are running. The change could indeed solve some problems, but I know that constituents outside the London boundary have real concerns.

The intention is to complete the review very quickly and secure a final decision on the business case in the next couple of months, so that, if it makes sense, the extra capacity can be put on the metro services by the end of the year, with an additional slug of capacity to come in 2018. Southeastern has already added 95,000 seats to the network, although it is a bit like the M25: as soon as the seats are provided, people travel, because they feel that they can now get on to the trains. In some instances, we are running to stand still.

Southeastern has also refreshed and improved its trains. I sometimes get on to a train and think, “This looks nice”, and then remember that it is a 40-year-old train that has been repainted. What we want are trains that look good, provide capacity, and have state-of-the-art toilets, and some of that has been achieved on this line.

Let me now deal with the issue of performance. Basically, people can tolerate a great deal if their trains run on time, but I know that my hon. Friend shares my disappointment at the fact that this franchise holder has not met its public performance measure targets at any time over the last year—well, it may have done so on a daily basis, but not on a monthly basis. I can tell my hon. Friend that 60% of that failure is infrastructure-related, about 25% is the fault of Southeastern and involves issues related and unrelated to trains, and the rest is “train operator on train operator” stuff. I do not think customers care about that. My hon. Friend is right to say that we can demand improvements through the franchising programme, we can hold operators to account, we can demand plans and we can issue financial penalties, but what we actually want to do is run a reliable railway. I also make the following commitment to my hon. Friend and the House. Although the quadrant taskforce has been running and there has been an unprecedented level of co-operation between the operator and Network Rail, the industry needs to do more. I will be having that conversation with it in the next few days.

It is crucial, not least for the delivery of the Thameslink service which is so important in increasing the number of journeys through the core of London, that the outer bits of the track work effectively. Not only are the current levels of delays unacceptable, and in some cases inexcusable, but we have to get this working right to get the benefit out of the £6.5 billion the Government are investing in Thameslink. We have to keep demanding that Southeastern and Network Rail work together to keep the disruption to a minimum.

There have been some changes, although that is not always obvious. There have, for example, been small changes such as putting relief drivers at Cannon Street, so if there is a delay drivers are quickly on hand and do not have to move around; continuing to review the timetable to make sure there is resilience should there be a delay; and making sure trains leave the stations and the depot exactly on time—not 10 or 20 seconds late—because in a busy stopping service all that builds up.

I am very sorry to say one of the great causes of delay is trespass and suicide on the line. Someone takes their life every 30 hours on the national rail network. That causes an immense amount of delay and is, of course, often a dreadfully distressing experience for the staff and train drivers, as well as there being the tragedy of the loss. I know that Southeastern and the whole industry are working closely with the Samaritans to try and reduce that.

On compensation, in an ideal world we would not be paying it at all because the trains would be running perfectly on time. I am keen, however, to reform the delay repay scheme. It is already among the most generous in Europe; train users in other countries do not get a lot of money back. However, although in delay repay we have one of the most generous compensation schemes, we want to go further. As the Chancellor said in his autumn statement, we want to take the time at which the clock starts ticking from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, which will start to address some of my hon. Friend’s constituency problems. I expect to make announcements on that shortly. We are gearing up to reform that and I will have further details on it.

I also want to point out to the House the London Bridge improvements. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Part of that station will be open in August of this year, although there will be continued disruption to some Southeastern services. I urge the operators and all Members to make sure everyone is fully aware of those changes. By 2018, when this station opens, it will be a brand-new, state-of-the-art station with much more capacity, able to run many more services through the core of London.

I welcome the Minister’s comments on the compensation scheme. When she discusses, with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, funding issues with the Treasury, might she bear in mind that, while London Bridge improvements are critical in the long term, the price of that has been that my constituents and those in the surrounding areas have been deliberately given, in effect, a substandard service for the better part of four-plus years or so? That should be reflected in any future fare increases and in making sure that there is proper generosity in future compensation schemes.

My hon. Friend raises a good point, and it was exactly that conversation which led to the decision to cap fare increases at RPI plus zero for the whole of this Parliament. We effectively now have rail fares going up at the lowest level, certainly relative to wages, in over a decade. We will continue that cap, which is costing the Government about £700 million a year, precisely because we do not think that fares should be going up at a time when we are doing engineering works and causing disruption, not just at London Bridge but right across the country. We have a £38 billion investment programme and we cannot deliver that without some disruption. That cap is worth about £425 to the typical commuter on a season ticket over the course of this Parliament.

My hon. Friend raised the question of customer service levels, and he was right to say that Southeastern was not at the top of the list for overall satisfaction. It is not quite at the bottom, but it is not at the top either. I know that there are many people out there who are genuinely in despair about their journeys. Nothing could be more dispiriting for them than showing up at the station only to find that their train is delayed, or being unable to get home to pick up their children from day care at the regular time. That is incredibly dispiriting, and that is why we need to make these investments. However, 75% of the users of Southeastern say they are satisfied with their journeys. There might be pockets of dissatisfaction, but overall, three out of four users are satisfied. We would clearly like that figure to be higher, of course.

I can tell the House that we included in the franchise agreement some specific improvements to customer services that we wanted the operator to make. My hon. Friend talked about information systems, and they are not always perfect. However, the company has made a considerable investment in better information systems, including through giving its staff real-time devices. Drilling through the numbers, I was interested to note that the score for how well Southeastern deals with delays has gone up by 9 percentage points in the past year. Similarly, the score for the attitude and helpfulness of staff has gone up by 4 percentage points, so it looks as though some of the improvements are starting to bear fruit. The company has also made a £5 million investment in stations, which has included deep cleans at Bromley South, Bromley North and Chislehurst, which I hope my hon. Friend has noticed. I do not have the numbers on station improvements, but I think that passengers are starting to recognise that they are taking place.

I understand the concerns and I know that the industry has to do more, particularly on the infrastructure side, to stop the delays. My hon. Friend is a long-standing campaigner on these matters, and I want to draw his attention to the proposals for London Overground to take control of some of these metro services. This is in response to tireless campaigning on the part of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) —for obvious reasons—and the prospectus sets out some thoughtful questions that need to be answered. Clearly, some hon. Members will think that some of the services involved should go into a TfL-type service, although others might wish to raise concerns about that, particularly in relation to democratic accountability. I believe that there is a solution out there. This kind of devolution of service has happened before.

The new partnership is designed to give passengers what they need. We are trying to design the industry around passengers and customers. This proposal could deliver more frequent services and more reliable trains. It would also move the decisions on stations and stopping patterns away from Horseferry Road—much as I have fantastic officials—and closer to the people who actually use the services. This will be similar to the devolution process that we have seen in relation to transport investment in the north, as well as the support for TfL. I urge all Members who have an interest in these devolution proposals to stand up and ensure that their voices and those of their constituents and transport users are heard. The deadline is 18 March.

I would be the first to acknowledge that the system is not delivering for customers at the moment. When we talk to commuters, we find that they have been incredibly tolerant and understanding. They welcome the investment, and they want to see a joined-up industry that can respond to their needs, particularly when there are disruptions and delays. It is my Department’s job to facilitate that, either through the contracting process or, as my hon. Friend rightly says, through conversations with Network Rail, which is indeed an arm’s-length public body. I give the House my full commitment to ensure that this happens.

The aim is to return these vital parts of the railway, which move people around the busiest parts of the network, to high performance by 2018. If the results of these unprecedented levels of investment cannot be seen and felt by passengers, we will need to do better, and I offer the House my full commitment on this. I thank my hon. Friend once again for providing this opportunity to discuss these matters. He asked whether I would agree to meet him to discuss what is happening, and of course my door is always open.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.