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South Western Railway

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 3 February 2022

1. What recent discussions he has had with representatives of South Western Railway on the adequacy of its service levels. (905397)

Along with Department officials, I am in regular dialogue with South Western Railway about its service levels. I have also recently met all managing directors of the train operating companies, including the managing director of South Western Railway, to discuss service provision, among other key industry topics.

I am glad the Minister is holding meetings with South Western Railway, as Putney residents have faced dreadful service from SWR for years, with overcrowding, delays and the cancellation of trains. Currently, they are on a temporary timetable—a chaos omicron timetable. The Prime Minister announced in Prime Minister’s Question Time that that timetable would end on 19 February, but that seems to be news to SWR. Did he inadvertently mislead the House?

As I explained to the hon. Lady, my officials and I are in regular dialogue with SWR, working hard on the issue of services, because we absolutely understand that it is what matters to passengers right across the country. Services will be restored as soon as possible.

I very much welcome the news from the Prime Minister yesterday that services in Dorset and across the west country will be returned on 19 February. Will the Minister share with the House how we got to the place where an entire region of the United Kingdom—Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire and Devon—had its direct service to London completely severed and slashed in half, without MPs even being told about it?

I assure my hon. Friend that the Department continues to work closely with rail operators, as we work through mitigating the impact of staff absences on rail services. I assure him that the current temporary rail timetable is exactly that—temporary—but it is providing passengers, especially the country’s key workers, with certainty, so that they can plan as much as possible, with the confidence that we want. I really hope that as staffing pressures start to ease, alongside passenger demand increasing, we will see those rail services, which are key, starting to increase accordingly.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) a speedy recovery from covid.

Rail commuters in towns and suburbs across the land did their patriotic duty: they stayed home when asked by the Government at the start of the pandemic. They were told after that that if they did not go back to work, they were shirkers. Then, before Christmas, the Government asked them to stay home again. Now, on their return, they find that fares, including on South Western Railway, have risen by nearly 4%, on a reduced service. Do this Government take rail commuters for fools?

We absolutely do take passengers—[Laughter.] We absolutely do take passengers very, very seriously. I assure the hon. Gentleman of that, and I am not taking any nonsense such as the language he is using, not given the amount of support that this Government have shown to the rail industry throughout the omicron situation and the covid-19 pandemic more broadly.

Clearly taking its lead from South Western Railway, Southern has suspended all direct trains on the Brighton line into Victoria, meaning that my constituents along the south way have to change twice, which they calculate is adding about a third to their commuting times. That is completely unacceptable. Given the special funding arrangements between the Department for Transport and Govia Thameslink Railway, what compensation can be given to my constituents or, better still, what pressure can the Minister bring to bear on that company to provide a decent service again, at last?

I share my hon. Friend’s frustration and, as I said in response to earlier questions, we have been supporting the industry heavily throughout covid-19. During the omicron part of the pandemic, the industry has been handling staff absences, but this is absolutely about getting those services back up and running as soon as possible. I assure him that that is what we continue to focus on.