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Railways: Southern, Southeastern and Thameslink Franchises

Volume 769: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the performance of the Southern, Southeastern and Thameslink rail franchises, and what steps they intend to take to ensure that passengers on those routes receive an improved service.

My Lords, customers on these parts of the rail network need to see improved services. There are problems that are being fixed. However, Govia Thameslink Railway—GTR—Southeastern and Network Rail still have to do much better when it comes to fixing faults and communicating with their passengers. The Government are determined to reduce crowding and improve the passenger experience, which is why we are investing in the multibillion-pound Thameslink programme that is due to complete in 2018.

My Lords, I am glad the Minister agrees that customers are not getting the service they deserve. Thameslink and Southeastern have commuter satisfaction down at 68% and Southern at 70%. The disruption at London Bridge has not helped but it is only part of the problem. As the Minister says, the operators need to do better. Do the Government intend to terminate franchises early if there is no significant improvement in performance? Does the Minister agree that punctuality and reliability are more likely to improve if train companies are penalised financially and automatically required to compensate all affected passengers, based on a more generous compensation scheme?

My Lords, I acknowledge the challenges and issues that have arisen, particularly with these two franchises. I assure the noble Baroness that the Government are determined to hold those operating the franchises to account. That is why my honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for Rail, Claire Perry, meets the operators, together with the ORR, on a monthly basis to ensure that the requirements of the franchise are being met.

My Lords, my friends in Elstree and Borehamwood are never happy when I am on the Thameslink platform because, when I am there, there is always a delay or cancellation. Will the Minister support the action of the MP for Hertsmere, Oliver Dowden, in his campaign to get Thameslink to provide a much better service for the people of Hertsmere, who pay a lot of money to be packed like sardines in an often-late train?

I assure my noble friend that the delays are not down to his presence on the platform, as he brings to our attention the delays that we are seeing on these lines. As I have already said, the Government are committed both to holding those operating these franchises to account and to ensuring that, yes, there is greater investment. That is why the Government have committed to the investment of more than £1 billion in the improvements at London Bridge and beyond, and we are committed to ensure that by 2018 these improvements are felt by commuters. He is quite right to point out that the current service is not good enough.

As one of those weekly commuters from Bognor Regis to Westminster, I also have my tale to tell. I only just made it in on time on Monday, having sat on three separate trains before one left the station, and along with other commuters was shunted from one platform to another three times just to get on a train that worked. Go-Ahead, the parent company that owns the franchise, reported an increase in profits of more than 30% last year. Can the Minister tell us why this money is not being invested to improve services for passengers but instead is going into shareholders’ pockets?

Investment is going into these franchises. There are three new fleets of electric trains, which will see an overall increase of 50% in capacity. Within the wider franchise, new trains will be introduced on the Gatwick Express later this year. But the noble Baroness is quite right to point out that the challenges remain. As I have already assured the House, the Government are working very closely not just with those who are operating these franchises but the Office of Rail Regulation to ensure that the challenges are met and the franchisees are held accountable.

My Lords, would the Government give some consideration to a restoration in the longer term of the vertical link so that “Notwork” Rail and the rail operating companies have one board of directors coming together to solve the problems, instead of blaming each other?

I note the reference that my noble friend made—I am sure he meant Network Rail. As noble Lords will be aware, we have appointed Sir Peter Hendy to look at Network Rail’s operations and we are working closely together, as many delays on these lines—my noble friend is quite right to point out—are because of Network Rail-related issues and are not down to the franchisee.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear the Minister being so tough about these things. Two weeks ago, my wife was on a Southeastern train to Ramsgate. When the train stopped, the doors opened, a woman tried to get out and the doors shut on her. She managed to extricate herself and the train took off—all within about 30 seconds—lugging my wife and 13 other people to Broadstairs, where there was no one to help them or advise them on how to get back to Ramsgate.

The concern that Go-Ahead, the parent company of Southeastern, has for the health and safety and convenience of its passengers can perhaps be demonstrated by the fact that I have rung it three times and have, so far, received absolutely no response. From what we have heard already today, this is not an isolated occurrence of its insouciance towards its passengers. Will the Minister agree to meet me and any other noble Lords with concerns about this company to discuss what can be done to improve its performance?

My Lords, I will add my name to that list. Southern is absolutely dedicated to reducing service to customers in all possible ways. Its first action when it took up the franchise was to abolish tea trolleys; its latest action is to abolish ticket offices, even though the ticket machines will not offer the best price and are extremely hard to use. Will the Government please take this franchise to task and either abolish it or make it better?

I assure my noble friend that we are of course holding those operating the franchises to task, as I have already said in your Lordships’ House. If they do not deliver, they will be held to account. We are going to see the completion of the investment by the end of 2018 and I think that that will be the real challenge and test of how efficient these franchises are.