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South Eastern Rail Franchise

Volume 650: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2018

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the South Eastern rail franchise.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Residents in Bromley have had real concerns for years now about the state of service that they get from the current franchise holder of the south-east London and Kent franchise. I know you are not unfamiliar with this area from a past life, Mr Hollobone. It involves the trains going up from the Kent coast, through the London suburbs, particularly in my case, the lines through Chislehurst and Grove Park to London Bridge, Cannon Street and Charing Cross, on the one hand, and, on the other, the line through Bromley South to Victoria.

Southeastern has operated the franchise since 2006. It is one of the largest in the UK with some 1,900 services each weekday. Some 65% of those are commuters travelling at peak times; it is essentially a commuter franchise. My constituency is essential commuterland. It has the second largest number of rail commuters of any constituency in England and Wales, following our neighbours in Lewisham West and Penge. There are a cluster of not dissimilar constituencies in the area because, of course, we have no underground provision and Southeastern is effectively a monopoly provider.

The truth is that it has been a lamentably poor monopoly provider in recent years. There are failings in the train operating company and in Network Rail’s operations as well—something like 60% of the failures are probably attributable to the failings of Network Rail. We can put the two together, because it makes little difference frankly for my commuters standing on a platform waiting for a cancelled train or sitting on a delayed train to have any degree of blame shifting between the two. As far as they are concerned, it is one railway and they have no alternative.

What the hon. Gentleman says about Network Rail and Southeastern is true. People buy a ticket from Southeastern, but the issue may often be with Network Rail, and the two do not work together. I am sure that he will not be surprised that, a few years ago, Network Rail spent a fortune extending all the platforms so that they could take 12-car trains, but Southeastern did not buy 12-car trains. That is the sort of not-working-together that makes the lives of our constituents miserable.

That is absolutely right. A number of us have raised these issues in the past, and we raise them today because the franchise is due for renewal. It was consulted on in 2017 and is due for a decision imminently.

My constituents are deeply concerned that we will simply get more of the same. I have said publicly, and I have said it to his face, that the Secretary of State missed an opportunity to shake up the franchise when it was re-let on its current geographical basis. I believe, as do many of my constituents, that there is an inherent tension between the needs of those commuter trains that come up from the coast and those that are part of the London metro service, where they are fulfilling a function similar to that of the tube. It is very difficult to reconcile the inevitable conflicts between the two in the current configuration of the franchise.

I am a Member of Parliament who represents one of the areas where the train comes up from the coast. Along with colleagues from Maidstone and the Weald and Tonbridge and Malling, I have significant concerns about the amount of house building going on. The train service infrastructure is not necessarily there to support that. Does my hon. Friend agree that when a commuter is paying more than £5,000 a year to get into work in London, they expect the service to match the cost?

That is absolutely right, and I have total sympathy with those further down the line. Investment has not matched capacity. The few trains that come up from the coast and stop at somewhere such as Bromley South are crowded by the time they get there. Despite the promise that the London Bridge rebuild would solve the congestion, it has not, and all too often, it is necessary, for whatever reason, for the signalling arrangements to let trains from the coast go through, sometimes not full, while people are sitting on commuter metroland trains that are absolutely rammed. That is not working for anybody. We also frequently get points failures in that first six miles out of London, and that affects everybody who uses the network, however far they are going.

It is no exaggeration to say that I could probably fill the whole of this half hour by reading out emails, tweets and messages from social media sites that I have received since this debate was announced. I have had scores and scores. The numbers are perhaps exaggerated this time because of the publicity, but it is more or less a normal arrangement for me. There is not a day on which I do not see some complaint or other about some failing on the trains.

I commute up every sitting day from Chislehurst and I see it myself. I got the 8.09 from Chislehurst today. That is supposed to be a service of about 25 minutes, but I allow half an hour, to Charing Cross. That is not what it is supposed to be, but nobody expects these trains to run exactly to time—that is how bad it is. It is an exception if it runs to the minute. As it was, we arrived at 8.55, so it took nearly three quarters of an hour. My maths is not brilliant this afternoon, and I will be generous, but that is a 30% or 40% increase on what the journey time is supposed to be. That is not an exception; all too often, it is the norm.

Constituents say to me that they like the area, but are seriously thinking of moving because the trains are unreliable. As the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) said, that is compounded by the failure to invest in stock. Short train formations are a regular bane on both my lines and those going into north Kent, which creates serious overcrowding at peak hours. There is also pretty poor communication in terms of making people aware of last-minute cancellations and changes. The one shining light of Southeastern is the quality of the station staff at our local stations. I have found every one of them to be absolutely excellent; they really do their best and are well linked into the communities they serve. It is not their fault. It is a case of lions being led by donkeys, as far as the operation of the franchise is concerned. They deserve better leadership and could do with better investment in some of their stations. They have to bear the brunt of the frustration of passengers who pay a lot of money and are simply not getting the service they are paying for.

The issues have been well documented. The Department conceded that the number of responses to the consultation on the proposed renewal of the franchise was “unprecedented”. It is not surprising, given the amount of anger and angst. There are assurances that the new franchise documents will meet the concerns and that they will be taken on board. People’s trust is running pretty thin. The Minister is new to his post, but trust in the Department is running thin as well, as is trust in the regulatory apparatus and the operator. We were told that there would be much more joint working. The reason given for not redesigning the franchise and putting the metro services into Transport for London was that the Secretary of State wanted to bring train and track together. Although there have been efforts at joint working and there is a joint board, in practice what I seem to get is senior managers from both sides coming and giving me their excuses together rather than separately. I am not sure that it makes much difference to my constituents on the platforms.

There are some pretty blatant examples beyond the daily grind of cancellation and failure. When I was sitting on the train waiting to get into Lewisham about 10 minutes behind time, I had a tweet from one of my constituents, Tommy, who is known to Network Rail because it tried to block him once, because it did not like the fact that he was calling it out for the errors that it was consistently making. He tweeted about three trains delayed in the Lewisham area. He was spot on. That was because they had all been held to allow a late-running Dartford train, which was already behind schedule, to come through. Owing to the way it was operated, there were now four trains behind schedule. Clearly, that joined-up working is simply not happening.

We have had other errors on basic things such as timetabling. A lot of my constituents travel from Bromley North and Sundridge Park, then change to the mainline at Grove Park. That is a busy station, because even trains that start from Orpington are pretty full by then. The timetabling means that often people have one or two minutes to get from one side of Grove Park station—it has about four mainline tracks plus a baby platform stuck on one side—to the other. It is a very short period for people to have to go up a lengthy walkway and then on to a footbridge. That is assuming that the mainline trains run to time. When they do not, the shuttle service leaves without people. People either run—and sometimes slip, as I have seen on the footbridge—and pile on to an overcrowded train, or else they are left hanging around for perhaps half an hour until the next shuttle returns.

Local MPs and I have repeatedly raised the issue of timetabling. Time and again, I have said, “Why can you not align the timetables properly on the Grove Park branch?” but nothing has ever happened. Only three stations can be saved on the app’s dashboard, yet most people would like to have a choice of which London terminal they go from if there are going to be problems. That has been raised time and again with the most senior level of management. They say, “That’s an interesting idea,” but nothing ever happens.

About a year ago, there was a scandalous incident that ended up being investigated by the rail safety authorities. Just before Christmas, about half a dozen trains were stranded for up to four hours in the Lewisham area, affecting both sets of lines. There was very heavy snow and there were poor weather conditions—I accept that the central rail form of electricity on that line is particularly susceptible—but there was a complete failure to rescue people from the trains in any decent time, as my constituents regularly point out to me. A plan was supposed to be put in place to get people out of those trains—it should have been activated within an hour and got people out within two—but it failed. We had people sitting on those trains for five to six hours with no power.

One might think that something would have been done about that after the report was published by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch, but my constituents remind me that there have been another four incidents of people being stranded for two hours or more. The basic procedures for getting people off delayed trains are still being ignored—there is no other word for it. That seems to be an extraordinary failure.

I could go on at length. An excellent councillor for Bromley Town, Will Harmer, has just tweeted me. He says of the Grove Park scenario:

“Yes, it happened again last night. Train just left as the first person got on to the platform.”

How many times do people have to say that before it sinks into the minds of the people who run Southeastern trains? Another message reads:

“Thanks for raising this, Bob. The delay problems have been steadily getting worse. Southeastern trains have been getting away with murder.”

My constituent Alex Le Vey commutes, and he says:

“The service is getting worse—more overcrowding, more delays.”

Another constituent says:

“Trains are late almost every day. The 17.52”—

it goes down to the Medway towns—

“is 15 minutes late on average, and only on time 20% of the time.”

I mention that because managers, Department officials and Ministers often come out with statistics and say, “Actually, things are improving. Things are getting better. Statistics show that reliability has gone up.” That is not the lived experience of people on the trains and platforms. On the operation of Southeastern trains, I am inclined to take the view that there are

“lies, damned lies and statistics”.

Looking at that scenario, it is understandable that we have real concerns about the franchise renewal. We might well get the same operator or one very much like it.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Many of my constituents are disappointed that the Government changed their mind and ultimately decided not to hand responsibility for the service to Transport for London. Knowing that the franchise will be renewed, they are worried that the renewal might be delayed. Earlier this year, we were promised that there would be an announcement this month—we have four days left. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concerns that we need a decision to be made, and that the new franchise cannot be delayed? In the minds of my constituents, the worst possible scenario would be the current operator extending the service far beyond April next year.

I agree. The Minister will not be able to tell me the likely outcome, but some of our problems are with the franchising process. I was a believer in franchising out because I thought it would bring competition, but there are only about three big conglomerates that are capable of bidding for those franchises. Competition is non-existent—those big conglomerates have a nice, captive market, and there is nothing like the incentive that there should be for them to come up with the goods for paying customers.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is uncertainty and no guarantee of the investment that the network is crying out for. The thought of simply renewing franchises for operators that have failed would be, I think, pretty outrageous to most of my constituents and to most people who commute on that line. They do not want just a change of badging or a renewal or change with lots of promises that things will be better this time; they want to see precisely what is in the franchise document when it is published. We have seen the consultation, but we need to see the contract itself. What benchmarks is the operator being held to, what will be the penalties, and will those penalties genuinely be applied at this time? What more incentives will be offered to Network Rail to keep their end of the bargain? That is a big part of it, too.

What penalty will we sensibly apply to the public sector? When the private sector fails, franchises can be taken away—it should have happened more often in the railway network in the past—but we must also have proper recompense when the publicly owned Network Rail is at fault. What delivery timetables will ensure that overcrowding will be reduced and that the number of signal failures on the Network Rail side will be reduced, and over what time period? When will we have investment in the new carriages and the extra rolling stock? When will we have upgrades to the communications system? I recognise that we have seen some changes, such as to the delay repay system. With respect to the Minister and the Department, that is just skirting round the edges.

It is genuinely a pleasure to see the Minister back in his place. I hope it is not too much of a displeasure for him to have to come and listen to a debate on Southeastern trains again, because he did so a good deal in his previous incarnation. There must be a sense of déjà vu for him, as there is for me. Above all, there is a sense of déjà vu—not in a good way—for my constituents who are commuters. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise these issues, and after the debate I will happily supply the Minister with a detailed list of all the complaints that have been sent to me on social media platforms. I will get that across to his office tomorrow—it will set out what has happened in the past 14 days or so to one Member of Parliament. I suspect that there are plenty of other Members across the franchise area who can say exactly the same thing, and I look forward to the Minister’s response so we can find out what is happening, when we will have some action and real promises, and how those promises will be delivered—frankly, people in our area have had enough.

Order. I am sorry, but I have not been notified that the hon. Lady wanted to speak. In half-hour debates, Members may speak only with the permission of the mover of the motion and the Minister. I am sure she can intervene during the Minister’s speech if she so wishes. I ask the Minister to bring the train into the station no later than 4.30 pm, because that is when the debate will end.

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. The world of transport provides a wonderful array of images.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) for securing this debate and for being a champion for his constituents and the users of this important franchise, which, as he said, has been operated by Govia since 2006. It is the third largest of all the departmental franchises. There were more than 450,000 passenger journeys per day in the first quarter of this year, so we are dealing with a railway of scale.

The franchise agreement between the Department and train operators includes key performance benchmarks —they all do—to ensure that the franchise delivers with passengers at its heart. I do not think that claim could be made consistently throughout the history of British railways. That is our objective, and that is how I will approach the whole industry.

Despite what my hon. Friend said—I look forward to receiving that dossier, as I am keen to hear direct feedback—Southeastern’s performance, as we measure it, is consistently above the average for London and the south-east. Of course, that should never be a cause for complacency. One should always try to improve, and the Department has regular conversations with Govia.

I anticipated that the Minister would make that point. Will he consider one point? Many commuters on the line firmly believe that the statistics are skewed by, for example, changes to the timetable, which actually lengthen the journey time to give more dwell time between the stations so as to avoid penalties. They feel that there is an element of questionable counting. Once we have sorted this issue out, will he sit down with us to get a common view of how the statistics are calculated? People are beginning to lose faith in some of them.

I understand that, but it is important to have a set of statistics that give us comparable data from franchise to franchise over time so we can measure performance. Dwell times obviously influence journey lengths, and they are nearly always to do with how quickly people are able to get on and off changes at a platform. That is to do with the capacity and the popularity of the network. I will look at the statistics. I want a set of customer statistics that we can trust so we can hold the rail companies to account. My job is to speak up for the passenger. We are spending a huge amount of public money, with £48 billion of investment in the next control period, which starts in April, so we need to focus that to ensure we deliver for passengers, including those represented by my hon. Friend.

We have talked about the new franchise, which has been designed with a specification to ensure that Southeastern joins up with the new Thameslink routes across Kent. That will ensure the best possible service for passengers, in terms of services, space on trains and reliability.

Questions have been asked about the timing of the award of the franchise. It will be made not this week, but in the new year. I will keep all colleagues who are served by the franchise posted on the timing. The reason for the delay is that the evaluation of the agreement for the next franchise has taken longer than anticipated because we wanted to ensure that passengers get the best deal possible.

I completely share my hon. Friend’s view that we need reliability. The new franchise recognises the importance of reliability to passengers. As such, bidders must jointly appoint an alliance director with Network Rail, who will be responsible for overseeing joint teams, including one focused solely on performance. That individual is expected to be the single public face of the railway to its passengers. The point about communication in the industry was made clearly. We all know that it has broken down at times, but this is a positive move to address those concerns. Bidders are being asked to work with Network Rail to develop proposals for a digital traffic management system to allow more trains to recover from minor delays and still meet the published timetable.

All those measures are expected to deliver a railway that is more reliable and accountable to the passenger. If my hon. Friend is interested, I would like to invite him to join me on a visit to the Kent Integrated Control Centre at Blackfriars—not too far away—to see the excellent joint working that is already going on between Southeastern and Network Rail. It will be enhanced and built on in future franchises. He may wish to consider that; we can discuss it outside this debate.

The specification for the new franchise is intended to allow room for an additional 40,000 passengers in the morning rush hour by December 2022. It is designed to tackle the crowding levels and uncomfortable conditions on services today.

The introduction of High Speed 1, which runs through my constituency, has helped to alleviate the pressure on the branch lines. In fact, it has been so successful that we have managed to get it to stop at Snodland, around which there has been a vast amount of house building, and it has been enormously popular. I raised the issue with the Minister’s predecessor, but there are now concerns that, as part of the new franchise, High Speed 1 will no longer stop at Snodland. Given that there is a delay in announcing the next franchise, will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure my constituents in Snodland are still served by an incredibly successful and important part of the South Eastern franchise?

I will of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We will set up that meeting promptly.

The hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and others asked how we will deliver more capacity. It will be through longer trains. The new trains will be able to carry more passengers because we are increasing the number of the longer 10 and 12-car trains at the busiest times. First-class accommodation will be converted to standard class on commuter services to increase space for passengers further. That builds on the point that this is a hugely busy and hugely successful commuter line.

Incremental changes are being sought to today’s timetable that will deliver a more operationally robust daily plan. For example, we are reducing instances where services must cross at congested track layouts, such as those at Lewisham, which are a significant cause of passenger delay. The intention is that the next franchise will deliver a more regular service where possible. The key thing we are trying to get across is that this is about predictability and reliability. I know full well that passengers need a service they can rely on, and that is our plan.

Hon. Members will be interested to know that Sunday services will be enhanced and will be comparable to the level of service on Saturdays—a significant increase from today. There will be a Sunday service on the Bromley North branch for the first time in a considerable number of years. I hope that is of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and the constituents he serves. Services on the Medway line will also be improved, and an additional two trains per hour will run to Ashford via Tonbridge outside the peaks. That will allow Hastings services to miss some stops to improve journey times. I know from my visit to Hastings that that is a key passenger aspiration.

A significant amount of work is being done to deliver an enhanced railway. It is clear that travellers are impatient to see the new services. I fully understand that. We are focused on placing the passenger at the heart of everything we do and working with the existing management of the franchise to maintain and improve its performance before the new franchisee is announced.

The new franchise will offer the passenger very significant benefits. I have urged my officials to ensure we get those benefits as soon as possible. Everybody is impatient for them; that is certainly a message that I have taken from this debate. I thank my hon. Friend and all colleagues who have contributed to the debate. Their contributions have been heard and understood, and we will take them on board as we work to make this rail franchise better.

Question put and agreed to.