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House of Commons Hansard
Preston Park Train Services
24 July 2018
Volume 645

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered train services to and from Preston Park.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I welcome the Minister and the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who cares deeply about this issue and other subjects relating to rail services in Brighton and Hove. Today, the focus is on Preston Park.

This debate is sadly necessary because of the decimation—quite literally—of rail services at Preston Park station in Brighton. People travel from that very busy commuter station to London, and to the station to attend the many schools and the two sixth-form colleges in the area. The station also supports Brighton and Hove Albion—fans are shuttled to and from the station by buses located near it—and is essential for key events such as Brighton Pride and the marathon.

It therefore beggars belief that, following the introduction of the new timetable on 20 May, services have been slashed by about 30% at peak times. Cancellations on top of the devastated timetable have left Preston Park almost unusable. Even with the new timetable, since 16 July some 63% of Preston Park services have been either delayed or cancelled. Although cancellations appear to have been slightly improved, I hope the Minister will not suggest that people should be grateful that 37% of trains now run on time, compared with 29% after 20 May.

The ongoing fiasco is leading to dangerous overcrowding and distress. Preston Park commuters are at their wits’ end. It is no surprise to me, given the daily messages of distress that fill my inbox, that in just five days more than 1,000 people signed a petition, which I presented to the House of Commons last Tuesday, calling for the restoration of services. I have repeatedly raised my concerns with the Rail Minister, and he recently wrote to me in response. I want to take this opportunity to explain to him directly why his reply did not go down well with the constituents I sent it on to.

On the inadequacy of the new timetable, it has been explained to the Minister that the Gatwick Express to Victoria no longer stops at Preston Park, after having served the station for 10 years. There is not a reduced Gatwick Express service; the service no longer stops at Preston Park. People have bought annual season tickets with a huge premium to enable them to use Gatwick Express services from that station. They moved to that area to make their lives work with a commute to London, based on an understanding and an expectation that the service would be there. The Southern trains that have replaced the Gatwick Express start at Littlehampton, 11 stops before Preston Park, so by the time they reach Preston Park they are—unsurprisingly—crammed full.

The service cuts are causing massive distress and are ruining lives. These are just three quotes from my bulging inbox. The first person said:

“I commute from Preston Park to London Bridge...The trains are cancelled and delayed more than they run on time. I spend the (standing) journey fretting as I’m late for work. I spend the journey home fretting as my child has one parent, me, and I’m left stranded 70 miles away.”

The second person said:

“I would like to let you know about the severe difficulties I have experienced going from Preston Park to London Victoria and back for work. I pay nearly five and a half thousand pounds a year for a Gatwick Express service that no longer stops at Preston Park.”

Finally, the third person said:

“The train service from Preston Park is appalling with trains constantly cancelled. The ones that do are packed and often I am left sitting on a dirty floor.”

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I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate. I had the pleasure of speaking to one of her constituents today, who told me that the train he now regularly gets to London now is only four carriages long. The problem is not just that some trains do not stop at Preston Park, but that the ones that do stop have only four carriages, so many people cannot get on in the first place. Does she agree that, if the Government are going to prevent the Gatwick Express from stopping there, at the very least they should ensure that every train that stops there is 12 carriages long?

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Of course I agree, but I do not want to concede yet that the Gatwick Express might not be restored. That is my big ask from today’s debate: we need those train services restored. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it adds insult to injury, first, to see the Gatwick Express trains fly through Preston Park station pretty much empty and, secondly, to have four-car trains, which, as he says, are simply not enough. Somebody told me today that they had been commuting for 18 years through rail strikes and all kinds of problems, but this is the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused them to give up commuting and their work.

I have raised this issue with the Minister on many occasions. When he wrote to me on 12 July, he suggested that services to Victoria are better since the introduction of the new timetable:

“Before the timetable change, Preston Park received six services into Victoria in the morning peak made up of three Gatwick Express services and three Southern services. Following the timetable change, Preston Park now receives seven services into Victoria into the morning peak, all of which are Southern services.”

He ended the paragraph with a spectacularly out-of-touch comment:

“Scheduled journey times have in fact improved since the timetable change, with the average morning peak journey time being around a minute quicker.”

The purpose of the debate is to explain to the Minister again why his suggestion that Preston Park services to Victoria are more frequent and faster has gone down like a cup of cold sick with Preston Park commuters. When the seven trains he referred to are not cancelled, a large proportion are full on arrival. As I mentioned, they start at Littlehampton, 11 stops back, rather than at Brighton, just one stop back. I repeat that point, because I am not quite sure it is getting through. Trains are short formed, as the hon. Member for Hove identified, and often have only four carriages, making journeys extremely unpleasant, if commuters can even squeeze themselves on to the packed trains when they arrive.

Crucially, of the seven new services, one arrives in London after 9 am and two arrive after 9.30 am. Those times are too late for the large proportion of commuters. In place of six reliable peak trains to Victoria, three of which were Gatwick Express, we have effectively just four or five totally packed short-formed trains, and on top of that there are chronic cancellations and delays. I want to ensure that the Minister really understands why people who have paid in advance for the premium Gatwick service are incredibly angry and not at all satisfied with his letter.

The solution to the mess cannot be only to address the cancellations and delays, because the base timetable itself is unacceptable. The Minister is aware that Hassocks has four Gatwick Express trains an hour and Preston Park none. That simply does not make sense. The Gatwick Express sails by virtually empty while people who have paid a premium to catch it from Preston Park are making the journey backwards into Brighton to get it—a significant number of them drive to do so.

More than 40 people have replied to a post on the Preston Park train campaign Facebook page, saying that they now have to travel to other stations by car or via other means because the Gatwick Express service no longer runs. It urgently needs to be reinstated. There is no justification for removing the Gatwick Express from that incredibly busy city station while Hassocks, a small town, gets four Gatwick Express services an hour. Gatwick Express must be reinstated at Preston Park, and more trains need to start from Brighton, with enough carriages to meet demand. People have paid a huge amount of money to commute a relatively long way. They need to be able to get on the trains that arrive, and they need to be able to get a seat.

The Victoria service is not the only issue. London Bridge-St Pancras trains have been massively hit with a 43% cut in the morning and a 53% cut in evening peak time. Again, the Littlehampton issue in the morning makes those trains unusable, and in the evening it is complete carnage as none of the 53% fewer trains start from London Bridge, which leads to massive overcrowding. Trains often miss out London Bridge completely because more passengers cannot be fitted on, so the trains and platforms are a serious health and safety risk.

Added to that, there are massive gaps in the timetable to Preston Park, including a 1.5-hour gap between about 6 pm and 7.30 pm. That is a key commuting time, but if people miss the train—or, more likely, the train does not stop or is full—they have to wait 1.5 hours with no service at all. Preston Park commuters want more trains that start at London Bridge, as they used to. Commuters face packed trains when they arrive for boarding, so it is plain that there is demand.

The Minister’s 12 July letter to me showed that he is aware of the huge cuts to Thameslink services from Preston Park to London Bridge, Blackfriars and onwards. He simply said that, before the May timetable change, there were 12 morning peak services to those London stations, and that from 15 July there would be eight. He said that, for people going home, the numbers went from 15 trains before the May change to seven. He had two comments for those affected: first, that journey times are now quicker, and, secondly, that he expects Govia Thameslink Railway to keep the timetable under review.

Constituents are incredulous, as am I. Nearly half their services have been removed and the ones that remain are overcrowded, and telling people who cannot get on trains that the ones that do go are very slightly faster simply does not cut it. Vague assertions about expecting things to be reviewed are an appalling dereliction of duty. People are losing their jobs over this; they are missing family events, unable to pick up their children on time and looking at moving house. How bad does it have to get before the Government get a grip?

On the issue of demand, there are serious concerns that the footfall at this incredibly busy and vital station has not been accurately measured and taken account of. The Office of Rail and Road has produced statistics for Preston Park, but without barriers it is hard to know how many people are using that station. A lot of guesswork is going on. How confident is the Minister that he has a sound estimate of Preston Park numbers? It would be very interesting if he shared that estimate with us. Not only are there no barriers, so the number of people going through cannot be counted, but when commuters buy their season ticket they often designate Brighton, or even Hove, as their station of origin because it does not cost them any more to do that but it gives them greater flexibility.

I live near London Road station, another Brighton station, but my season ticket is for Brighton, because that allows me to use London Road or any surrounding station. Simply looking at the destination written on the season ticket will not make the Minister any wiser about the number of people using that station. I urge him to look at other ways of counting, perhaps manually if necessary, to demonstrate to him how busy the station is.

In response to the dire impact of the cancellations and delays that have come on top of the slashing of the base Preston Park timetable, the Minister is likely to talk about the new interim timetable of 15 July. However, from my inbox and just a glance at the Preston Park train campaign Facebook page, it becomes clear that that has not solved the problems. Indeed, the campaign analysed the new timetable and found that there are still severe cuts and the service remains, in commuters’ words, “catastrophically inferior”. The campaign explains that there are now even fewer trains or connections to the hub of Haywards Heath, making travel to all destinations more difficult and time consuming. At night, there is often only one Preston Park train an hour from Victoria; if trains are missed there are no timely connections at Haywards Heath or Brighton. My inbox is full. Last Thursday—19 July, after the new timetable came into effect—a constituent wrote to let me know:

“It has been consistently awful since I last wrote. Yesterday the 08.11 to Cambridge was cancelled without explanation so all passengers at Preston Park could do was watch as two Gatwick Expresses whizzed by. Getting home in the evening is still a game of chance.”

Even when passengers get on a train, their station might be skipped. Following such an infuriating experience at the end of last week, one constituent wrote:

“How do you expect people to be able to run lives, collect children, arrive for NHS, police, rail and other security shifts, be punctual for meetings, keep businesses viable?”

I would like to hear the Minister’s response. I must ask him, when he does answer, not to suggest that things are getting better on other bits of the network, as that is tantamount to saying that it is fine for Preston Park to be sacrificed in the interest of benefits somewhere else. It is not fine for my constituents to be sacrificed in that way.

Preston Park is considered a station for which the higher amount of one month’s season ticket cost can be claimed as compensation for recent disruption. However, that is only for those whose season tickets start at Preston Park and are valid for Thameslink services. As I mentioned, plenty of people have season tickets from Hove, Southern-only season tickets or other types of ticket. They will be left out of that compensation, even though they start their journey at Preston Park. I urge the Minister to find a way to ensure that they too are eligible for compensation. Passengers are often advised at rail offices to buy their season ticket in a way that is more flexible, not specifically for Preston Park. As a result of doing so, they will lose out.

Why should my constituent, who is a low-income freelance worker who visits London only two or three times a week, be left out of the compensation? Many different people—men and women—work part time, but a disproportionately large number of those who work part time are women, such as those who go back to work after maternity leave. Has the Minister considered that the season-ticket-only system of compensation he has devised is discriminatory, particularly since we do not yet have part-time season tickets in Brighton and Hove? It cannot be right for non-season ticket holders to be excluded; there is no principled basis for that.

This debate is not long enough for a discussion on the shambles of our fragmented and privatised railways, which should be reunited and put into public hands, but I will say something specific to the dog’s breakfast of the GTR franchise. As Ministers well know, the word “franchise” is utterly misleading in this case. GTR has a management contract and Ministers are meant to be overseeing it. The Rail Minister said last week:

“There is too much buck-passing, and we want to bring that to an end.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 417.]

I can only agree, but to follow that logic the Secretary of State himself should resign. If that is what was meant, I would certainly support it.

I want today’s debate to be a constructive demonstration of what real democracy looks like: hundreds of people contacting their MP, and getting together to campaign to seek resolution and accountability over something that is drastically affecting their everyday lives. A very large number of passengers want to hear the Minister’s response to their very reasonable demands, which include a reinstatement of Gatwick Express trains, for trains to and from Preston Park to have adequate capacity when passengers board, no gaps of more than 15 minutes in peak time services, investment in the stations and trains to be fit for commuting.

I end with a request for the Minister to provide solutions, not excuses. I want to hear that there will be an end to the ongoing Preston Park train nightmare.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this important debate on rail services to and from Preston Park. She is a powerful champion for her constituents. This debate is the latest in a number of representations she has made to the Government on their behalf.

I certainly understand the frustration and immense distress that the hon. Lady’s constituents have experienced in recent weeks and months. The Government are alive to that and to all the concerns that she has raised on their behalf. They have not been well served by recent developments on the railways, and the Government are working hard to ensure that we see improvement for them, as a result of not just the timetable change introduced on 20 May but the interim timetable introduced on 15 July. Although there is still a considerable way to go, I hope that her constituents in Preston Park will have begun to see positive changes in the week or so that has passed since then. We will hold GTR to account for continued and accelerated improvement over the weeks to come.

The new timetable that came in on 15 July is by and large performing well so far. The last few days have certainly demonstrated that, but the Department for Transport is looking at this extremely carefully. We will hold the operator and its new chief executive to account for continued progress.

With respect to Preston Park, passengers should see some benefits, including a very significant reduction in on-the-day cancellations, which were an unfortunate and unwelcome feature of the aftermath of the introduction of the timetable on 20 May. On-the-day cancellations are sharply down. The public performance measure has improved considerable across Thameslink and Southern services from Preston Park. Although it is not yet where it needs to be, it is a significant improvement on where it was in the immediate aftermath of 20 May. The Thameslink Brighton main line is now more or less back to pre-20 May 2018 levels of performance. As I said, the Department is monitoring the rate of improvement by GTR and will hold it and its new chief executive to account in the coming weeks.

On compensation, the Government have said on many occasions that the disruption that Thameslink and Great Northern passengers have suffered is unacceptable. Compensation is part of the plan to put things right and to ensure that passengers have some redress for what they have experienced.

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Under the scheme announced by the Government, passengers travelling from Brighton receive level 1 compensation, but those leaving from Hove receive level 2 compensation. They are one stop apart, they pay exactly the same for their tickets and their season tickets, and they leave from the same city, so does the Minister not think passengers leaving from Hove station are entitled to the higher level of compensation, which would fit what they pay for the service?

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The hon. Gentleman has been a strong voice for his constituents in recent weeks—I have had almost as many conversations and meetings with him as I have had with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. It is obviously important that the Government focus on compensating first those passengers who have suffered the most disruption. That is the approach we took to the disruption of Southern services a year and a half ago, and we are taking a similar approach now.

That means we have created two categories of passenger. Category 1 passengers are those with a very heavy dependence on Thameslink or Great Northern services from their station. Passengers with a lesser dependence on those operators receive a lower level of compensation, reflecting the fact that they have an alternative means of getting to or from work, primarily. That explains the different approaches to passengers travelling from Preston Park and those travelling from the station the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his constituency.

The compensation scheme covers the period from 20 May 2018 to 28 July 2018, and it will go live in two waves. GTR will contact registered qualifying passengers proactively by the end of August before a web portal is opened for other passengers at a later date. As I said, that is identical to the system used for the Southern industrial action disruption about 18 months ago. Annual, monthly and weekly season ticket holders will all be eligible for up to one month, or four weeks, of the cost of their ticket. That is in addition to the standard Delay Repay compensation GTR passengers are entitled to after any 15-minute delay. That package was designed to compensate the worst affected passengers, who travel every day on season tickets bought in advance. Those who travel less frequently can claim Delay Repay compensation for the disruption they have experienced.

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Will the Minister address the point that there are people who are not season ticket holders because they work part time? There are a lot of flexible workers in Brighton who do not necessarily go up to London every day but none the less need to be there on the days they do go. Simply saying, “Use Delay Repay,” does not address the fact that, as I understand it, if their train is cancelled rather than late, they cannot use Delay Repay. Will he look at ensuring that those part-time workers—particularly women—have some way of getting more compensation than he describes?

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Let me correct the hon. Lady. Passengers are entitled to claim Delay Repay against cancelled services—that very much is possible. On her broader point about part-time workers and those who do not have season tickets but travel regularly, our priority has been to get compensation out fast using a model that was already up and running—namely, the model that was used for the Southern disruption of about 18 months ago. That was the best way for the Department to get compensation out quickly to the people most affected by the disruption. As the Secretary of State has said, we are looking carefully at the logistics and affordability of compensating other groups of passengers. The logistical challenges of doing so when there is not a season ticket to look at as evidence of regular travel to and from work should not be underestimated.

The Department has not just compensated affected passengers; it is also looking to ensure it learns all the lessons from what has happened, and it has commissioned two reviews into what went wrong with the implementation of the 20 May timetable. The independent Glaister review by the chair of the Office of Rail and Road is under way. That seeks to understand all the factors that led to the disruption following the timetable change. Within the Department, we have also started a hard review of the franchise to establish whether GTR has met, and continues to meet, its contractual obligations.

I turn to the core of the hon. Lady’s remarks: the pattern of services to and from Preston Park. I understand that some passengers would prefer to have the choice of travelling on either Gatwick Express or Southern services. However, the timetable change was designed specifically to bring about improved performance on Southern services, and having a regular and repeating pattern of services during the peaks is important to making that work. That is why Preston Park now receives a half-hourly Southern service rather than the mixture of Gatwick Express and Southern services it previously received.

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Does the Minister not concede, though, that Preston Park passengers are worse off? Before, at least Southern trains started in Brighton—they were not already full—and passengers had the option of taking the Gatwick Express. The service they are now offered is massively worse. As I said, some trains arrive too late to be useful to commuters, no Gatwick Express trains stop at all, and the others start in Littlehampton and are full.

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I certainly recognise the hon. Lady’s points about short formations and crowding on some Southern trains as the result of the knock-on impact on Southern of disruption elsewhere. Trains must have the capacity to meet demand, and GTR’s performance regime, which the Department monitors very closely, includes capacity and short formations. Where they happen, short formations are counted by the Department as a fail under the performance regime, which we keep under close scrutiny. However, the consistent calling pattern that results from moving to just Southern services rather than the mixture of Gatwick Express and Southern services is designed to bring about a more reliable and resilient service in the long term.

As I wrote in my letter to the hon. Lady, the frequency of services to Victoria has remained roughly the same compared with the pre-May timetable. Before 18 May, Preston Park received six services into Victoria in the morning peak, made up of three Gatwick Express services and three Southern services. Following the timetable change, services from Preston Park have increased—her constituents now receive seven services into Victoria in the morning peak, all of which are Southern services.

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Will the Minister give way?

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Let me finish this point. The hon. Lady complained that the journey time was just a minute quicker, but ultimately, when the service is up and running, that extra minute will be welcomed by passengers.

There is a similar picture in the evening peak, with the same number of services from Victoria to Preston Park as before the timetable change and a very similar average journey time. Although the request for another stop to be introduced on that service is reasonable, the service is already under significant pressure to maintain punctuality. Extra stops would increase that pressure and lead to additional delays, to the detriment of passengers using the service.

Turning to Thameslink, before the May timetable change Preston Park received eight services to Blackfriars and four to London Bridge in the morning peak. In the interim timetable, there are eight Thameslink services in the morning peak from Preston Park to London Bridge and Blackfriars, and onwards through the Thameslink core. Although, overall, that represents a loss of three Thameslink services compared with the pre-May timetable, it provides Preston Park with the same number of Blackfriars services and four additional London Bridge services. Before the May timetable change, there were six services from Blackfriars and nine from London Bridge in the evening peak. In the interim timetable, seven evening peak services make that journey. That provides an additional service from Blackfriars but two fewer services from London Bridge.

Journey times from Preston Park on Thameslink services are now quicker than they were before May. Once GTR has stabilised performance, it will reinstate the additional service in each peak that was removed as part of the interim timetable. In addition, the Littlehampton to Bedford service and the Brighton to Cambridge service are currently one train per hour, but the next wave of the Thameslink programme will bring one additional service on the Brighton to Cambridge route each hour all day, as well as additional services on the Littlehampton to Bedford route. That was originally planned for December 2018, but it will now be delivered once GTR has delivered the May timetable as planned.

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s constituents’ request for services to start from London Bridge. However, one of the key benefits of the Thameslink programme is that it provides passengers with direct services through London Bridge to Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and St Pancras. In many cases, that provides an alternative route for passengers who would previously have changed at London Bridge to connect with the London underground.

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Will the Minister give way?

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No, I am going to conclude my remarks.

I expect GTR to keep the timetable under review to identify any particular pressures and make amendments as appropriate if they are possible. However, GTR will be able properly to assess the viability of the timetable only once it is performing reliably, and ensuring that happens is our overriding priority. I will ask for an update from GTR on its assessment of the performance of the interim timetable and its impact on Preston Park passengers ahead of the hon. Lady’s meeting with the operator on 23 August.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.