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Southeastern Railway

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 2 March 2023

10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the performance of Southeastern Railway since its timetable change on 11 December 2022. (903827)

Southeastern’s new timetable was designed to improve resilience. The operator faced some initial challenges introducing the new timetable, so established a joint taskforce with Network Rail to identify and resolve issues. Changes have already been made, including adding services and carriages where required and we are already seeing an improvement. The taskforce will continue to monitor performance and make changes as required.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer and for his letter of the 28th of last month, but, as he will know, that very evening, there was yet another dangerous incident at London Bridge due to overcrowding. On 7 February, I was on a train which, due to delayed trains, was so overcrowded that someone fainted in my carriage. The system has been cut back to the point where there is no slack in it. Whenever there is a delay, there is dangerous overcrowding. The Minister has to address that before something serious happens to an individual. We were told that there would be no delays when the new system was brought in, because it would be so efficient that we would not have any of that congestion, but it has been worse. The Minister has to face up to that. He gave Southeastern permission to do that. We need to change the timetable.

The hon. Member will be receiving another letter from me this morning, because I have always said that I would listen, as did the Secretary of State, and that we would try to make improvements as the case was demonstrated. I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), who have met me and the Secretary of State to make the case for their constituents. I can confirm that we have agreed to the reinstatement of a direct off-peak service to Charing Cross on the Bexleyheath line, which will run hourly, Monday to Saturday. This service will be in addition to the current timetable, meaning a total of 309 services will operate each week direct to and from Charing Cross on this line. I hope the hon. Member will welcome that good news.

If the Minister had been on the 8.27 from Chislehurst today, he would not have seen very much by way of improvements, that is for sure, because it ran late, as ever. Is not the problem that, because of the loss of direct services on the Hayes line into Charing Cross and equally the cutback in direct services on the north Kent line into Cannon Street, unsustainable numbers of people are having to change trains at London Bridge? I have seen the chaos there, and I have actually stood outside the station, because it has had to be closed on occasions. It is not safe, Minister. At some point, somebody will get injured or killed as a result of this.

Will the Minister please get officials to sit down with south-east London MPs and get this sorted out?

Of course, I am very sorry about that issue. As my hon. Friend points out, there was a points failure, which caused issues in terms of crowd controls at London Bridge. I have spoken to Network Rail and it is looking to work with Transport for London, which of course has experience of overcrowded tubes, and we will learn lessons from that. However, I also hope that he will have heard about the changes we are making. The timetable change was brought in to try to add more resilience and to reduce cancellations, but we have got issues with Network Rail infrastructure and of course we have industrial action. All those matters I seek to resolve.

First, may I pay my respects following the tragic rail crash in Greece? I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with our Greek friends.

Last year, the Minister oversaw timetable changes on Southeastern routes, but the Government refused to consult on those changes because they did not want to listen to passengers. In a parliamentary debate in December, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), I and indeed hon. Members from across the House warned the Minister that the upcoming changes and cancellations of Southeastern routes would be bad for passengers and would lead to overcrowding, but he did not listen. Now that these changes have caused the predictable chaos he was warned about, will the Minister finally listen and end the misery this Government are inflicting upon Southeastern passengers?

That is patently not the case, because during that debate I made it quite clear that consultations would be better than they had been. I also made it quite clear that I would listen and, if the case were made to change the timetable, I would do so. This morning—obviously, earlier than the lines that have been written—we announced that these changes had been made. In fact, the very first individuals to be made aware of that were the MPs. They have had that information first; it is important to me that they receive that information first. We will continue to listen and learn. We had to make savings on Southeastern, and £10 million was taken off. The savings are because season tickets collapsed to 32% of pre-covid levels. If the hon. Member is pledging to fund the railway no matter what and make no changes—

Order. Minister, I think we have got the message. Can I just say to Members that this is about equality in going from one side to the other? I know it is important, and I am sure if you catch my eye during topicals you may have a chance of getting in then, but do not glare at me because I am trying to be politically right for both sides.

Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” It is quite clear that patterns of business travel have changed dramatically post covid, yet when I asked the Minister this week about the balance between first class and standard class travel in the north and the midlands, not only did he not know, but he did not even seem to be interested. Will the Minister now, with these changing business patterns, re-examine the case for HS2, or is he just frightened of the answer?

I am not frightened of the answer at all. I am an advocate for HS2 because, as I have mentioned, it will level up the country, interconnect our great cities, reduce the time for a train to Manchester by 54 minutes to one hour and 11 minutes, and deliver not just jobs for this country, but jobs we can export to other high-speed rail lines across the world.