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Rail Services: South-east London

Volume 655: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019

[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services in south-east London.

It is a particular pleasure to speak in this debate with you, Sir Henry, my long-term friend and colleague, in the Chair; it is a real privilege to do so.

I am grateful to be able to raise an extremely important issue that affects my borough of Bexley, and north-west Kent—indeed, it is a common problem across south-east London and north-west Kent—and that issue is rail services. I had hoped that I would not need to raise it again, but, unfortunately, improvements have not been forthcoming. It therefore remains a real concern for my constituents and for the constituents of my neighbours, who I am particularly pleased to see in their places: my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), and my neighbour and fellow campaigner for better rail services in Bexley, the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).

My constituents, and residents across the borough of Bexley, are entirely dependent on Southeastern when travelling into central London to commute and to work, or for social or other reasons. However, that operator has a poor reputation in our area. Bexley has endured a terrible rail service, with delays and cancellations occurring regularly. In our area, we have no underground services that could be used as an alternative, so Southeastern has a monopoly, but it is failing its customers on a regular basis. Warm words and apologies will not suffice when action is required, although I apologise that I did not mention the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook); I had thought he was here for the previous debate, but it is great to see him as well, because we all suffer from this appalling rail service.

The 2018 rail passenger survey found that just 78% of commuters were satisfied with their journey—a 2% decrease from the previous year. A mere 39% thought they got value for money, which is 5% below the average for London and the south-east. Only 72% were satisfied with the punctuality and reliability of trains, which represented no improvement from the autumn of the previous year. That shows that Southeastern is not heading in the right direction. Trains are constantly delayed, even if only for a short time. Between 2010-11 and 2017-18, Southeastern achieved its right time measure for only 62% of its main line and metro services. I regularly travel to London from my home in Barnehurst, which is in my constituency, and we recently suffered as a consequence of the Barnehurst landslip. While I appreciate that these things occur and cannot be predicted, that was the fourth landslip along the same cutting in the past 10 years, which is totally unacceptable.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on having secured this important debate. He is absolutely right: when a landslide last happened along that line, questions were asked in this House about surveying the infrastructure to ensure it would not happen again, yet it keeps happening.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. We have been ignored, which is unacceptable. Travellers have faced huge disruption, with little or no support from the operator, Southeastern.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on having secured the debate. He, and every Member in this Chamber, is a veteran of the campaign to improve rail services for our constituents. Does he agree that one way to improve the reliability of the service would be for a decision to be made about the franchise, which seems to be a never-ending process? I understand that a decision needs to be made by April. The making of that decision is imperative, so that investment in future services for our constituents can be forthcoming.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend, and I will be coming to that point later.

Network Rail, of course, is responsible for the tracks and for the problems that we have had with the landslip. I recently met with its route managing director, John Halsall, to discuss the situation, and he understood that it was unacceptable. There is nothing new in that; it is unacceptable.

Network Rail has regularly let down rail users, but it is not just that: Southeastern has been unable to act when contingency plans are required. It never seems to have them, and it does not provide information to our constituents about what is going on. It supposedly put extra trains on to the Erith and Sidcup line during the Barnehurst landslip, but many of us used that service when the Bexleyheath line was out of action, and when we got to Charing Cross or wherever, those trains were cancelled. The extra trains that Southeastern put on did not exist, so it is no good Southeastern saying that it is looking after the customer, because it most certainly is not.

As I have always said, Southeastern’s timetable is a work of fiction at the best of times; it was even more so on that occasion. The overcrowding, the cancellations and the distress caused to constituents who were trying to get home, pick up children from childcare, get to meetings or whatever were appalling.

Southeastern is full to busting at the moment, and given all the new development in my patch and in the right hon. Gentleman’s patch, does he share my concern about how on earth Southeastern is going to manage when it cannot manage at the moment? Does he believe that those developments will increase the risk of critical failure, given that the system will be overworked?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. Our area is ripe for further development, which is what we want. We want jobs, houses and opportunities, but we cannot have those without infrastructure. If the infrastructure cannot cope with that development, more problems are going to occur.

The Minister may be able to tell us different, but I believe no other rail network has had as many problems as ours. The excuses for delays and cancellations beggar belief: bad weather, leaves on the line, snow, low-level sunshine, overrunning road engineering works, and even drivers not turning up at Dartford because their taxi from Gravesend did not arrive on time. Southeastern could not run the train from Dartford because the driver did not turn up—it is really appalling. There have been breakdowns en route and doors that will not close—the list goes on and on. In my view, older rolling stock is the cause of some of these issues, not maintenance.

Many of my constituents have been appallingly disappointed that no decision has been made about the new franchise, as was mentioned earlier. That ought to have been in place by now, but we have just extended the existing franchise, which is one of the worst possible options that we could have chosen. If the operator cannot invest for the future, it is not going to do anything.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There have been two extensions to the franchise; the latest, I think, takes us up to 22 June. Does he agree that our constituents at least deserve to know pretty soon who the new operator will be, so they can have some confidence that, going forward, that new operator is going to improve the service?

I totally agree with that. The sooner we know, the better, so the new operator can get cracking on what needs to be done to improve the service.

The new franchise contains some good proposals. Working more closely with Network Rail will be a great improvement, because I do not think the operator and Network Rail work together terribly well at the moment. We welcome the fact that there will be direct services from Bexleyheath to Abbey Wood, tougher demands for reliability and more frequent services to Charing Cross. However, with no decision having been made and no action, we suffer more and more, and our constituents have had enough. I know that the Minister is relatively new to his post, but I have a high opinion of him, and he is well respected across the House. I hope he will take some action within his Department.

On the point about the new franchise, commuters in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in mine have journeys that are meant to be about 30 to 40 minutes, but Delay Repay kicks in only if people are 30 minutes late. Under the new franchise, it will kick in if they are 15 minutes late. Does he agree that as Southeastern has opted to bid for the new franchise, it should bring in that change now?

That would show good faith to the public, who are suffering from that situation now, would it not? I totally agree with the hon. Lady, and I hope that a 15-minute Delay Repay policy will motivate whoever holds the new franchise to operate a better service.

As the Minister will know, we have been blighted by endless signal failures at Lewisham, which again have caused misery, delays and cancellations. Sometimes, once those signals start to go wrong, they go wrong all through the day—it is unbelievable. We have already suffered from the London Bridge development, which caused considerable distress and disappointment. I understand from Network Rail that it is going to fix the signalling problems at Lewisham; it is going to start this Easter and finish next Easter, in 12 months’ time. Do we have to continue to suffer over the next year? Frankly, that is not acceptable.

There is also the problem of Crossrail. We were hopeful that Crossrail from Abbey Wood would give us an alternative and be part of what we need, but, regrettably, that has been delayed. It should have happened last December, but we do not yet have a date for when it is expected to be operational. That is a huge disappointment for our constituents. I know that it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but that of Transport for London and the London Mayor, but he should put more pressure on to get a date, at least, for when it will start. We have no date.

The other thing I want to raise is something we have been campaigning for. Originally, Crossrail was not going to stop at Abbey Wood, but would go to Ebbsfleet, and we are really keen to see that happen. We have had meetings with the Secretary of State. He came down, along with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and me, to have a look at what could be done and to have discussions with the council. An extension there would be so welcome. Other parts of the capital have Crossrail going out much further. We, who do not have an underground and have a poor rail service, have been put on the back-burner.

My right hon. Friend mentioned Ebbsfleet. Does he agree that this is not so much about an extension out to Ebbsfleet as it is about completing the project as originally envisaged? We have High Speed 1 there, but it is increasingly overcrowded for my constituents who use it. Having Crossrail go out to Ebbsfleet as originally planned is exactly what the Government’s policy should still be today.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Solutions are what are needed. I therefore hope that the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign proposals will go forward to a full business case, allowing for a detailed engineering design, land and financial modelling, and a legal framework to be progressed, because then we could get the plan on the books to look at it. Extending Crossrail is not just for commuters; it would allow a redevelopment of our area for jobs and houses eastwards along the south Thames.

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. I agree with absolutely everything he is saying about transport infrastructure. He has already referred to this, but I want to underline the fact that south-east London is a desert when it comes to infrastructure. If the rail service breaks down, we have no alternative. There is no direct access to the underground for those who are slightly away from the river. That is a real problem for south-east London and it needs to be addressed.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the Minister will look seriously at other alternatives we could also have, such as going into Thamesmead or wherever with the docklands light railway or something. That could help not only our regeneration, but the existing population who live there and need to commute.

I will not go into all the benefits that an extension of Crossrail to Ebbsfleet would bring, other than that it would help to deliver the Government’s housing and industrial strategies, directly unlocking 55,000 homes and 50,000 jobs, as well as supporting thousands more across the sub-region. It would also deliver a vital strategic link between HS1 destinations, Canary Wharf and London City airport, and onwards to the City of London and Heathrow. With our roads so congested in south-east London, it would be a godsend to travellers and commuters. The Department has certainly procrastinated a bit on this matter and we need some action.

The Thames gateway has huge potential for economic growth and development. It has huge opportunities for the development of brownfield sites, yet connectivity is significantly holding things back. In pushing forward the original plans, we would have a unique opportunity to transform our area. When the Secretary of State visited Bexley, we highlighted the problems with our existing rail service, the problems with there being no decision on the franchise, the problems with Crossrail and the problem that when things break down, we are in difficulty.

We need the new franchise. We need Crossrail to open. We need the finance to pursue the business case for the Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign. I hope the Minister will respond positively.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks wants to say a couple of words, if that is acceptable, Sir Henry. He has a slightly different perspective, being somewhat further out into Kent. We are suburban south-east London and Dartford, and we are a little region.

It is a privilege to be able to raise these matters on behalf of my constituents and my borough, and neighbouring boroughs and constituents. Their Members of Parliament have worked tirelessly together, across parties, to get things done and to improve the facilities and services for our constituents.

We have just heard a superb example of how to present a Westminster Hall debate. With the permission of the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) and the Minister, I call the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) to make a brief contribution.

I am most grateful to you, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. Others may want to contribute, and we want to hear from the Minister, so I hope in two minutes to cover three points very briefly.

First, in recent years we have had fare increases that are too high, but they are also unfairly constructed. For Harlow and Sevenoaks, the cost of a weekly season ticket is over 15% of average weekly earnings. There is no reason why that should be the case there when the cost is less than 11% in Brentwood, Barking and Reigate. We need to look again at the fare structure and ensure some reasonable level of equity for our respective commuters.

Secondly, I hope the Minister will be able to dispel the rumours circulating about the franchise and say that it will not in fact be delayed again. There are even darker rumours about the faster service from Maidstone East stopping at Otford and Swanley, after already being postponed for a year. Will that still go ahead this December?

Finally, there is the whole issue of accountability. We learned during the timetable chaos of last May, as we pursued the two train operators—Southeastern and Thameslink —Network Rail and Ministers in the Department, that overall no one was actually in charge. As we look at implementing the Williams review when it comes up with its findings, we need to move to a better system where it is clear to all of us who is in charge.

I believe that our commuters deserve better. They are suffering from ever higher fares every January and unnecessarily complex fare structures. They need services that are more reliable and more fairly priced. Above all, they need a railway system that is properly accountable.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) on securing this important debate. Many important issues have been raised, and I will be scampering through trying to answer all the comments from colleagues, including on the landslip that my right hon. Friend raised with me before the debate, as he is a vigorous champion for his constituency. I will also talk about the infrastructure works, Southeastern’s performance, Crossrail and Ebbsfleet.

I will start with the landslip at Barnehurst. Landslips cause significant delays and cancellations, as trains obviously have no real capacity to deal with any kind of small obstacle. If there is debris on the track after a landslip, Network Rail will often need to re-route services to enable the landslip to be cleared and the infrastructure to be checked to ensure that it is safe and operational. There are always concerns, even after a small landslip, that the slope may be permanently weakened. Some of the slopes, or cuttings, on the side of the tracks may need to be strengthened as a result. That may include improved drainage or adding stronger materials to the slope, such as steel rods or soil nails, and that work can take some time.

The landslip at Barnehurst took place on 11 February and the service was not fully reopened until the following week on Monday 18 February. That was a significant inconvenience for the travelling public in the area, but work has been done to mitigate future landslips. I know that it has been a regular problem in the area, and to help to prevent further landslips Network Rail has installed remote sensors and cameras that send its monitoring headquarters regular information, including visual information, about the condition of the cutting.

While removing the debris and the slope, Network Rail has taken the opportunity to put in place some further mitigation. It has taken away 300 tonnes of earth and trees, and built a 30-metre retaining wall with steel beams piled six metres into the ground to stop another landslip. Network Rail has also removed and replenished the contaminated ballast, and tested all the signalling. If any slips occur again in the area, the wall that has been erected should prevent any further disruption to the line.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford met representatives of Network Rail to discuss the issue, and that they have explained to him what is going on. That work includes geotechnical surveys to understand the cause, not just to deal with the symptoms. Network Rail also plans to carry out more intensive remediation work at the site over the next two years. That underpins the wider investment that is being put into the south-east through a Network Rail funding settlement for the next five years. That will allow for a significant increase in expenditure on maintenance and renewals, all of which is designed to reduce the frequency of serious incidents and to provide a more reliable service. That underpins the comments we heard from Members across the Chamber.

I note the clear concerns about Southeastern’s performance in the recent passenger survey. I fully understand, and strongly agree, that passengers want a timetable that they can rely on. Their days and working careers are built around predictable structures, and timetables matter. The May 2018 timetable changes caused some unacceptable disruption, but important lessons were learned and implemented. The December timetable change was introduced successfully. The industry has significantly reduced the timetable changes to minimise the risk of severe disruption, and has introduced a phased, more gradual approach to enhancements.

Many changes were focused on improving performance and reliability for passengers. It might be of interest that in the next control period, starting only next month, we will introduce a new “on time” performance measure to assess the reliability of every journey. That will provide greater transparency about performance at every station along the route, not just whether trains reach their final destination on time. It is part of a much wider commitment by the industry, and by Government, to provide a rail service on which passengers can rely.

If train operating companies are unreliable, we must hold them to account. We have worked closely with consumer groups and the industry to create an independent rail ombudsman. That scheme is free, easily accessible and simple to use. It is designed to be a one-stop shop for passengers on issues to do with complaints handling, customer service and compensation. Of course, we want to get to a place where we do not have to worry about compensation; we just want the trains to be on time, every time. That is the purpose of our investment.

As the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Sir David Evennett) mentioned, rolling stock is key to reliability. The rolling stock on this line is, I think, 25 years old or more. Is the Department working with the operator to introduce new rolling stock in the near future?

I am coming on to the next franchise, but I should point out that we are seeing a fantastic change to the rolling stock right across our nation. We are going through a change that is equivalent to when we went from steam to diesel, with about 7,000 new vehicles entering service across our nation.

There were clear concerns about Southeastern’s performance. It has been improving recently and remains stable. Cancellations are reducing. A key change has been the improved collaboration between Southeastern and Network Rail. The latest statistics on the public performance measure indicate that 88.1% of services arrive at their final destination within five minutes of the planned arrival time. Today, it is 96%—I checked just before coming into the Chamber. However, we recognise that there is much to do, and we want the trains to be on time every time.

The issue of Lewisham signalling was raised, which is a significant piece of work. More than £130 million-worth of work will take place between now and Easter 2020. This Easter, £55 million will be invested in the Lewisham, Woolwich and Charlton area. In Easter 2020, £81 million will be invested in the Hither Green area. All of that will upgrade the signalling to provide a more robust service.

I cannot announce to the House when a decision will be made on the next franchise. The current franchise was extended in December, and the agreement will now expire, as was said, on 23 June. We are still in the process of evaluating the agreement for the next franchise. It has taken longer than anticipated because we want to ensure that passengers get the best possible deal. The invitation to tender is expected to bring some significant benefits in the new franchise, including longer trains, more space for passengers, increased availability of staff and improved communication with passengers, especially during periods of disruption. A comment regularly made whenever there is disruption is, “Just tell us what’s going on.” That is the voice of passengers, and it has not been as strong as it should have been.

As the Minister will know, I was very pleased to have the Oyster card extended to Dartford. Does he agree that the provision of smart ticketing must be included within any new franchise agreement?

I strongly support smart ticketing, and it will be in the next south-eastern franchise. It is popular with customers, and helps them with the convenience of their journey, though it is tough to deliver. We have also had requests regarding Delay Repay compensation. The next south-eastern franchise will include Delay Repay compensation kicking in from 15 minutes of delay. Alongside that we will see new services on Sundays, and wi-fi and mobile connectivity. I am keen to bring that significant range of customer benefits to the constituents whom the Members present serve as soon as possible. I have heard what has been said about the urgency of delivering it, and I will update the House as soon as we can.

I share both the excitement about the scale of Crossrail and what it will deliver for the country and the frustration that it will not be delivered on time. The Crossrail board decided to delay the opening on 29 August last year, and informed the Government of that. We do not yet have a new date for the opening. I have met representatives of Crossrail to press the case. I want to see the scheme out there as fast as possible. It will increase capacity and rail transport in London by 10%, and bring an extra 1.5 million people within 45 commuting minutes of London’s key business districts.

On extending Crossrail or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson) said, completing it, I am instinctively sympathetic to the idea that transport investment is a driver of economic growth. It unlocks potential for commercial and residential opportunity. I fully understand the strategic importance—not just in the areas represented by the Members present, but nationally—of the potential of the Thames estuary. A strategic outline business case has been submitted to the Department, looking at options to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet. We are considering those proposals and will respond to the promoters in due course. I cannot give a date yet, but I recognise the urgency.

I will look at the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon) regarding fares. The Government want to help people to keep more of their own money. That is why we have increased the personal allowance, and why we are in our sixth year of freezing the regulated fares, or capping them so that they can increase only in line with inflation. However, I will look at the specific points mentioned. I will also look at the point about Maidstone. We are certainly committed to improving regular services between Maidstone and the City as soon as possible, and we are working very closely with the industry to finalise plans for the remaining stages of the Thameslink timetable. That work includes future services from Maidstone East.

I fully recognise the importance of rail to the constituents served by colleagues present. Work is taking place to strengthen the area around the Barnehurst landslip, and we are working to bring the matter of the franchise to a conclusion as quickly as possible, so that people know where they stand and the travelling public receive the benefits. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I hope to leave the travelling public watching the debate with the clear impression that we are working to give them the rail service that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.