Skip to main content

Southern Rail

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the granting of additional funds, what further steps they will take to ensure a better service for all customers of Southern Rail.

My Lords, Network Rail has committed £20 million for improvements to the Southern network. This fund will be focused on track and infrastructure works and additional staff to ensure that performance improves. The Secretary of State for Transport has also announced the appointment of Chris Gibb to head up a project board, whose remit is to deliver service improvements and closer working relationships between Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail.

My Lords, the £20 million extra funding to assist Southern, despite its 27% increase in profits announced last week, surely gives the Government a stronger hand to insist that long-suffering passengers get a better deal. Can the Minister explain to us why Southern has been allowed to reject applications for compensation for train delays, which have been made using a special app, and when will the Government introduce the entitlement to compensation for delays of 15 minutes, which was promised last year by David Cameron?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State is looking at the whole issue of compensation, including making it available for delays of 15 minutes; noble Lords will know that it is currently available for delays of 30 minutes. On the specific app, GTR has specific processes for delay and compensation, and an online form is available. One thing it does not entertain is third-party applications. If there are specific examples of compensation applications being directly made via the online application that have then not been paid out, I would be happy if she wrote to me with the detail so that I can take it up directly.

My Lords, can the Government confirm that the train operators concerned in this present dispute have safety cases to allow one-person operation of the trains? I recall that it happens in many parts of the country and clearly, they must have got it, but this problem has been going on for much too long. Will the Government put as much pressure as they can on Chris Gibb and his team to get everybody around a table to sort it out once and for all?

I am sure that many of those who know the rail industry also know that Chris Gibb himself also brings around 30 years’ experience. His appointment will expedite the resolution of what has been, as the noble Lord rightly points out, a long-standing dispute; obviously, the people who are suffering are the customers.

My Lords, Southern is boasting about returning to service some of the trains which were cut—about 350 of them a few weeks ago. Yesterday a 12-coach train was reduced to five and this morning a 12-coach train was reduced to four. Is anybody monitoring the situation to find out what the impact has been on individual commuters and, more importantly, the tourist trade and the economy of this country?

Again, the noble Lord is right to point out the operational challenges posed to consumers and those visiting the UK. I assure him that the new Rail Minister is in constant dialogue with the operator and with Network Rail. In addition, it is important to note that while a reduced timetable has been in operation, I am pleased to say that 119 services which were originally suspended have today been reintroduced, which I hope will have a positive impact on the scheduling of services.

Unless the Government take the hardly objective view that no responsibility of any significance for the poor level of service provided by Southern Rail can be attributed to the performance, or lack of it, of the top management of the company and that industrial action is the only cause of that poor service, why is Southern Rail not in breach of the terms of its franchise contract? Why has the Government’s response been not to take any action against the company for that breach but, instead, to provide additional money to improve services when Southern Rail is part of a transport organisation which we now know would have no difficulty in finding that money itself. That additional money is coming from the taxes of the very passengers having to put up with poor service and cancellations over a lengthy period—a double whammy for Southern Rail passengers if ever there was one.

As the noble Lord is fully aware, while there have been issues with GTR, there have also been problems on the tracks. Only yesterday I learned that a challenge was posed by a hole appearing near Waterloo East, and other issues apart from the industrial dispute have compounded the challenges on this line. However, the Government have taken responsibility in imploring the train operator and representatives of the different trade unions to get round the table, negotiate a settlement and move forward on this long-standing dispute. It is important that we do so in the interests of the long-suffering commuters and other users of that network.

The Minister will know that some railway stations on those lines are dangerously overcrowded. Passengers can be dumped without notice, including foreign visitors who have just arrived at Gatwick. The passenger levels at some stations, including East Croydon and Clapham Junction, are reaching the point where there are going to be terrible accidents one day with so many people on the platforms. What health and safety issues are being discussed, and can the Government give us an assurance that these will be dealt with?

As I said, the Government are looking at this matter, and that is why the Secretary of State has announced the new fund. To give some reassurance to the noble Baroness, £2 million of the £20 million fund will be spent on additional rapid response teams, which will be located at known hot spots to reduce the time needed to fix problems, £800,000 will be invested in additional signal supervisors, and there will be additional investment in the stations mentioned by the noble Baroness to ensure that people are well informed. However, I totally accept, as I have previously, that there are major challenges on this network that require a resolution. The Government are seeking to provide this company with support and direction through the Rail Minister to get this long-standing dispute resolved in the interests of all.