Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)
I thank the Speaker for having granted this debate. I recognise that the performance of South Western Railway is not a new subject, rehearsed as it was in this Chamber by the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) less than a year ago and as it has been repeatedly in general debates touching on rail issues.
For those of us unfortunate enough to be served by the franchise, it is a repeat customer to our postbags and our inboxes. It is an aggravation every single time we set off from our constituencies to this place, not knowing whether the train will be delayed, overcrowded, with functioning heating or air conditioning, dependent on the time of year—one can usually rely on the air conditioning in November and the heating on full blast in July—or, indeed, whether it will arrive at all. Those served by more minor stations—shall we describe them in that way?—all too often see late trains hurtling past, making up time by not stopping at all.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who cannot contribute to this debate but is here to listen enthusiastically, has asked me to remind the House that Gosport is still to this day the largest town in the United Kingdom with no railway station, so her constituents are obliged to find their way either to Portsmouth by ferry or to Fareham by bus to access a still substandard service.
I discussed my intervening on the right hon. Lady beforehand. The fact that multiple trains fail at the same time causes massive delays, but South Western Railway’s communications do not highlight that online, so people are left unaware of the difficulties until they reach the station and then it is too late to make alternative arrangements. Surely if it is any sort of a rail business at all, South Western Railway has a responsibility to its customers who deserve to know in advance what is going on. Does she agree?
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has highlighted one of the many problems, which is the lack of information. We all understand that problems on the network can cause trains to be delayed, but in the 21st century providing information in advance can enable passengers to work out a different route. Sometimes such information is simply not forthcoming. I well recall being at Southampton Airport Parkway station and buying a ticket for a train that the member of staff knew had already been cancelled, and I was then expected to take a convoluted route to get to Waterloo. Had he told me at the point of purchase, I could have simply got back in my car and driven to this place.
I want to start by giving credit where credit is due. Last Thursday, I returned from this place to Southampton on a train which ran ahead of time. That was a novelty. I wonder if it was a coincidence that it occurred a day after Mr Speaker granted this debate. Perhaps one should be granted every week and Mr Speaker has magical qualities of which we were previously unaware. It helped to strike up many a happy conversation among travellers when we stopped at Woking for a full five minutes, so far ahead of schedule was the train running. Oh, to have that driver again: truly his marvellous skills could be deployed on many a route across the network.
I would also like to give credit to the train staff who are in the main unfailingly polite and even jolly, sometimes in the face of extreme adversity, lack of information— as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned—and understandably bad-tempered passengers. But that is where the compliments cease.
I do not want my hon. Friend the Minister to think that I have come here just to whinge. I have not. I am seeking the opportunity to air the legitimate grievances of my constituents, but also to offer some constructive suggestions as to how the improvements identified as part of the Holden review might be encouraged in some instances, in order to improve the passenger experience.
Some of the railway’s services come to Bristol, although it is not the preferred route for getting to London as it takes so long, so I appreciate the right hon. Lady’s concerns. One group of passengers most affected by unreliable services of the types she describes are those with disabilities. It is easy to say that if information is made available passengers can change routes, but people with disabilities have to plan their journeys well in advance and it causes huge disruption for them if they cannot rely on the service.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. It may try her patience, but I will come on to the issue of disabled passengers at the end of my remarks. A constituent of mine has been in touch about a terrible experience he had on a train from London Waterloo to Basingstoke. As a disabled passenger, he was trapped on the train and unable to make alternative arrangements, and he had a distressing and dreadful experience.
I am concerned by the circular firing squad we sometimes see between South Western Railway, Network Rail and the Department for Transport. At times, all can appear keen to blame and turn on each other, when perhaps they might do better to establish a constructive relationship with clear accountability, instead of the obfuscation and fudge we have at the moment. It is not only in this House that we achieve more by working together.
I shall move on to the specifics of where it still seems to be going wrong. The independent review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the previous Secretary of State for Transport, and chaired by Sir Michael Holden, reported over a year ago now, making a number of important recommendations. This is perhaps a good time to consider those recommendations and allow my constituents the opportunity to reflect on the progress they think has been made. It is also a good time to pose questions to my hon. Friend the Minister about what oversight he has of the progress of South Western Railway against those recommendations, which particular ones he regards as the highest priority, and what sanction he might consider imposing if there is not adequate improvement. As I indicated earlier, SWR has had a year since the review, and the patience of my constituents—if not the Minister—has run out.
I would like to highlight in particular the frustrations regarding overcrowding. Of course, I welcome the additional trains introduced following the timetable changes in May, but there is a nagging suspicion that this has been achieved by pinching carriages from other services. As my constituent David Willey explained to me, the most significant change on the service he uses has been the reduction in capacity by 17% from 720 seats in 12 carriages to 600 seats in 10. This has meant he has had to stand in his carriage usually two mornings a week.
Barnaby Wilson of Chilbolton let me know that he could not remember the last time his commuter train in or out of London was not short-formed and/or late. He comments on the regular occurrence of a 10-carriage train running with just five, thus halving the capacity at rush hour. And we all know the consequences: people crammed in like cattle, standing for the entire journey, or forced to wait for the next train as they simply cannot get into the reduced number of carriages.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case on behalf of her constituents. When the service gets further up the line, shortened carriages cause even more problems, for constituents in Wimbledon and elsewhere. SWR promised to address this in its franchise bid, and we should now be reviewing that and asking whether it will be held to account.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. As my constituents pass through places such as Wimbledon, they see that no one is able to get on those trains.
As one constituent put it to me, the only change he has noticed in SWR’s service is a further deterioration, from a very low base: short formations, broken trains and stations being skipped, and delays continue unabated. As he correctly points out, if SWR publishes a revised timetable the evening before the service is reduced, there is no recourse to Delay Repay unless the service deviates from the newly published timetable. He describes it as a consumer rights void that he would like the Minister to address.
I would like to ask about the way transport strategy is joined up. Ian Dickerson of Romsey assured me that his preferred route from Romsey to Waterloo was to drive to Sunbury and then join the rail network on the Kingston loop to Waterloo, thus saving over £50 a week in tickets and parking costs, but undoubtedly adding to emissions on our road network. It is simply not a green solution.
One of the recurrent themes from constituents has been that SWR’s predecessor, South West Trains, had its moments, as they put it, but most of the time ran a robust, if no frills, service. If anyone in 21st century Britain regards functioning wi-fi as a frill, let me tell them that SWR has not even managed that. The passengers I sat across from yesterday commented in amazement that the wi-fi was working for once—right up until the point it wasn’t.
The consensus is that this performance is a breach of contract between company and traveller, and there is a suspicion that the Government have been duped by a provider promising what it simply cannot deliver. SWR won the contract pledging more seats and services and it has produced neither. The 442 shambles has meant there are now fewer seats and services. The promised new rolling stock has not yet arrived. It was promised by the end of this year. That clock is ticking and passengers are watching closely. Peak-time payers suspect they have been sacrificed on the altar of winning a contract and left with the old SWT trains, where the promised refurbs seem to have come to a grinding halt. It is far too simplistic to say we should renationalise—that is not the issue. The Department was sold a pup and needs to work out how to hold SWR to account against the Holden review challenges.
The final comment I have from a constituent is about the provision for and the treatment of disabled passengers. We all know there was an extremely hot spell during the summer, when rails got very hot and there were challenges right across the network. I am tempted to comment that it coincided with my hon Friend’s arrival in the Department for Transport, but I do not blame him for train conditions that were in some instances hotter than hell. But rail services run better in countries that are a great deal hotter than the UK ever gets in July and without the same level of chaos.
My constituent, a wheelchair user trying to return home via Andover, was advised at Waterloo to get on a Basingstoke train, as most other trains had been cancelled. With SWR assistance, he boarded a Basingstoke-bound train that was about to depart. Once he was onboard, it became apparent the heating was stuck on in the carriage and passengers were told to move forward, but my constituent was in a wheelchair; he was trapped. By the time the train arrived at Clapham, only a few minutes down the line, he was in serious medical difficulty, but he remained trapped in the carriage, as it was too far off the platform. He was in carriage nine, and we are all conscious of the shortness of some platforms at Clapham. No help was forthcoming from train or station staff, and it was only because another passenger intervened by preventing a door from shutting—literally putting his foot in it—that a medical emergency was averted. My constituent was seconds away from calling 999. However, the event prompts us to ask why the rolling stock is so antiquated that it had the maximum heating on the hottest day of the year, and why SWR staff at Waterloo helped my constituent into a carriage when there was an immediate announcement that the heating was stuck on.
Finally, let me return to the recommendations of the Holden review, and how SWR can be held to account for any failure to deliver. If Network Rail does not fulfil its obligations it can be held responsible by the Office of Rail and Road, which, in November 2018, took formal action to ensure that it would deliver on the recommendations in the review. However, SWR is accountable only to the Department for Transport, so I respectfully remind my hon. Friend the Minister that it is up to him to ensure that it delivers. May I ask him how robustly he intends to do that?
The medium-term recommendations are all due to be completed by the end of this year. There are 12 of them, ranging from ensuring the competence and training of controllers to ensuring that there is adequate provision of CCTV on platforms to assist with the dispatching of trains. Crucially, the review identifies the misalignment of incentives. It recommends that by the end of the year, the non-aligned objectives of Network Rail and South Western Railway should be dovetailed to ensure that the two organisations are pulling in the same direction at the same time—rather as we might expect a train engine to do. I simply ask my hon. Friend what steps he is taking to make sure that that actually happens, so that he may avoid having to return to the Chamber time and again to listen to what currently appears to be a tale with no end in sight for the poor passenger from my constituency who will pay just short of £6,000 a year to be subject to a sub-standard service.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing the debate. It is timely, and I am fortunate enough to have a few more minutes than I expected in which to make some remarks.
The performance of South Western Railway is of ongoing concern in Guildford. It causes people frustrations and at times considerable anger. My constituents are not asking for an exceptional service, although they pay fairly exceptional fares. They would rather settle for a reasonable service; that would be sufficient. However, like my right hon. Friend, I want to praise the staff at the stations and on the trains. Many of them do an excellent job, often with no more information than the passengers, and sometimes in very difficult circumstances. I also want to associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments about those travelling with disabilities, who face even more harrowing journeys. I am pleased to see that there is some more seating at Guildford station, but that took a long time to achieve.
Late trains, missed stops, overcrowding—I have previously got into some trouble with my comments about my rail journeys on Twitter, and where I have ended up sitting. The Minister is nodding; he will possibly remember this. In particular, I commented on the fact that the seats designed for three people were adequate only if all three of the people occupying them had average-sized bottoms. If anyone has a more than average-sized bottom, they do not really work for three people.
The overcrowding is really shocking. When a train is late and there have been last-minute platform changes so that people have to rush to another platform and then find themselves sitting on the floor, or squashed almost on to someone’s lap, that is not acceptable. Insufficient information is probably one of the things that turn frustration into real anger. People do not know what is happening. There are a number of options for those living in Guildford—they can get out at Woking and share a taxi—but they may not know that the train will not start again for half an hour, or that they will have to change trains. Further problems are high fares and the fact that not enough ticket offices are open at peak times.
Lastly, I must say a word about the Solum redevelopment of Guildford station. I will not take too much time. The redevelopment of the station is welcomed by everybody. Everybody wants the station redeveloped. It is being done under the umbrella of Solum—an association between Kier and Network Rail, but nobody likes the plans that have been passed by the borough council. I believe that they went through on appeal. It is extraordinary that when the development was in its planning stages, the website did not at any time mention trains. It was simply about the station.
Constituents of mine are suspicious. They see it as an opportunity to increase revenue. There would be a fantastic opportunity at Guildford station if the plans were moved by simply 3 feet. That would allow sufficient resilience in the service. If something went wrong there would be a platform 0 that could be used. I urge the Minister—as I have urged Ministers before and urged Network Rail—and urge Kier to look at this. I know why they are nervous about reopening this planning application, but we will throw a party for Network Rail and Kier in Guildford near the station if they will be reasonable and reconsider this plan.
The Minister is looking hopeful, so I look forward to being able to invite him to that party. I have had numerous meetings with South Western Railway and Network Rail, and on every occasion they are nothing but helpful. They assure me that services are getting better and they explain the problems, but we are at the end of our tether. Ministers must act. The high fares that people in Guildford pay are acceptable only if there is a reasonable service.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her comments. She says that high fares are acceptable only if there is a reasonable service. I received two comments from Guildford constituents on Twitter when they heard that this debate was occurring. One of them, Philippa, tells me that 2% of her trains this year have been both on time and in the correct formation. Scott, who travels into Waterloo, says that he has had one train on time in two months, over seven hours of delays, and four out of the last six trains cancelled. Does my right hon. Friend agree that her constituents are simply not getting a reasonable service for the price that they pay?
They most certainly are not getting a reasonable service. I know Scott well. That is seven hours of his working time. The cost of rail delays to constituents and to businesses is significant. We have talked about wi-fi. We could go on and on. People cannot even work on those delayed trains. I urge the Minister not to just read out his speech. I am sure that he has a speech ready. I am sure that he will have taken note of all the comments that have been made today. We need him to act, to thump the table with the operators and Network Rail and make sure that the concerns of my constituents and those in Romsey, Gosport, Wimbledon and any other constituency that is represented here today are taken note of and acted on so that by the end of the year we are starting to get messages from them highlighting the improvements that have been made.
I thank Members who have contributed to this interesting debate this afternoon. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate and for the opportunity to discuss this important issue in the House. She mentioned in passing Mr Speaker’s magic touch—her train appeared early the day after he granted this debate. As my right hon. Friend knows, Mr Speaker can work in mysterious ways. She also mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) possibly having in her constituency the largest town without a railway station. The hon. Member for Daventry might have a competition with her on that, because the main town in my constituency does not have a station, either. [Interruption.] It is not good enough, obviously, but there are plenty of towns that do not.
And Leigh in Greater Manchester.
And Leigh in Greater Manchester, I am informed by a terrible heckler from a sedentary position, suffers the same.
The current operational performance of South Western Railway for the period 18 August to 14 September, measuring arrival time to within five minutes at the final destination, was 82.9%. That is the common measure used by the rail industry. Using the measure that we, as a Department, now like to use—being on time within a minute—for the first quarter of this year performance was 59.7%. That is clearly not good enough.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North knows that we are a relatively new ministerial team in the Department, and when the Secretary of State came into the Department he set out his priorities for improving the railway. He is absolutely determined to work with the rail industry to deliver a more reliable, passenger-focused railway.
Those are appalling statistics, but the Minister is absolutely right about a customer-focused railway. He must bang the desk of Network Rail, because a number of those failures have been signal failures, such as those which we experienced on the line yet again yesterday. When he bashes South Western Railway, will he please also make sure that Network Rail is brought into that attribution, and make sure that it recognises its responsibilities to customers?
I completely hear what my hon. Friend says. I promise to take up the mantle on this issue. It has not been lying still on the table—I can also promise that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) informed the House that her constituents just wanted their rail service to do simple things—run, and be on time. I think that is a fair expectation. Maybe have enough room for three bottoms on some chairs as well, but basically that is it. I do regularly look at the various sets of statistics for the things that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I know that the Guildford ticket office has caused great concern to Guildford customers, and I do know, because I was warned by previous Rail Ministers, that the Guildford station platform 0 option is a matter of great contention locally, but I have not formally looked into it. I will ensure that I do, if that is okay as an offer to my right hon. Friend.
My Secretary of State’s vision is that the industry must make innovative changes to make the trains run on time, all of the time. South Western Railway agrees that its general performance is not yet up to the standard that it would like, and that its customers expect.
Around 70% of the delays and cancellations that affect passengers result from problems with the infrastructure, which is down to Network Rail, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) identified. Overall, Network Rail will spend around £48 billion nationwide on maintaining the network over the next five-year period, running from this year until 2024, and the Wessex route has seen a 20% increase in its funding compared with the previous five-year period. This funding should see more maintenance and a huge uplift in the renewals, to increase reliability and punctuality for passengers, but I know that it has not been delivered yet.
The train services provided by the South Western franchise are relied upon by 600,000 passengers every day. The train operator, South Western Railway, runs around 1,700 services each day on the network. The latest figures published show that 110,000 passengers pass through Waterloo station during the morning peak. It is a very, very busy network.
People are rightly frustrated and angry about the level of delays and cancellations that they are suffering, and I personally am sincerely sorry that that performance has reached this level—to the extent that we are having to hold this debate again on the Floor of the House. This has not happened overnight; sadly, the service has been deteriorating since about 2011-12. The Department for Transport has been working closely with South Western Railway and Network Rail to try to ensure that the causes of the problems are identified and understood and that there is a plan to turn performance around.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North referred to Sir Michael Holden’s review of South Western Railway and Network Rail’s performance on the Wessex route. The review was commissioned by the previous Secretary of State to ensure that everything was being done to understand and address the causes of the downturn in performance on the route. Sir Michael made 28 recommendations for improving performance. Some of them could be implemented in the short term and others will take longer. He was clear that there is no silver bullet and that it will take time to restore performance to acceptable levels, and that is our highest priority.
Sir Michael’s recommendations cover a range of disciplines, including performance management, train operations, infrastructure maintenance and renewals, and control and resourcing. He also suggested a number of infrastructure changes that could be made to improve the service. SWR and Network Rail are documenting their progress and sharing a copy of their “tracker” with the Department each month so that we at the centre can see how they are progressing. I can assure my right hon. Friends that we are monitoring it very closely.
I welcome the fact that the tracker is being shared with the Department, but does my hon. Friend have any plans to share it more widely with Members of Parliament from across the south-west who are hearing the same levels of frustration in their postbag?
I asked my officials the very same question before the debate, and currently there are no such plans. However, I am sure that we can have a conversation afterwards and perhaps get to the stage where we do not need a humble address or anything too exciting to get the information.
Sir Michael has also been retained by SWR and Network Rail to review their progress. He has confirmed that 16 of his 28 recommendations have already been delivered to his satisfaction, including key infrastructure changes and relaunching SWR’s approach to performance management. I understand that he is due to return to check on progress in November.
A range of recommendations were made on performance management. SWR and Network Rail have established a joint performance improvement centre at Waterloo to focus on the critical areas of delivery across the infrastructure and train operations, and that is key to understanding what is actually happening and, more importantly, what can be done to prevent delays. I have an outstanding invitation to be shown around the JPIC, and I would be delighted if my right hon. Friend, and perhaps other Members, joined me to see at first hand how the executive teams at SWR and Network Rail are tackling the performance issues. I will happily arrange for my office to have the invitation extended if that is suitable—it seems like it could be a date.
Other areas of progress have seen £3.5 million invested to redesign the SWR control centre arrangements and create an industry-leading set-up to improve train performance. As part of that work, SWR is implementing enhanced decision support tools and improving training and competency management systems for controllers—lots of long words, but they refer to unbelievably important things that are going on. SWR is reforming its control centre operations, recruiting more people to improve decision making and providing information to customers during disruption. I heard very loudly indeed the complaints about communications to passengers. I have seen the complaints about communications—just type “SWR” into Twitter and have a cursory glance. The point is well made and well understood. Improving the control centre operations is a crucial part of improving performance and, ultimately, providing a better service to customers.
Other progress is being made to mitigate the biggest causes of delays within SWR’s control. It has introduced an innovative scheme that employs paramedics to work at the key London stations that are most impacted when people fall ill, and it has made significant investments in suicide prevention measures to ensure that SWR is doing as much as it can to reduce the impact of these tragic events.
The national rail passenger survey results for 2018-19 show that SWR failed to meet the expected levels against all nine benchmarks, with only 83% of passengers satisfied overall with their journey. SWR is therefore being required to make additional investment in initiatives to try to meet the contracted levels within the coming year.
There are obviously occasional strikes on the network, which are causing disruption to SWR. I understand and share the frustrations of all users of South Western Railway services who are being unnecessarily inconvenienced by the action being taken by members of the RMT union. My Department has been clear that it wants to see more people, not fewer, working on our railways so that it can deliver more services for passengers. SWR’s plans are completely in line with that. It will be employing more guards on trains in future, not fewer, and it has been clear from the outset that no one will lose their job and every service will continue to have a guard or conductor rostered to work. SWR wants to discuss with the RMT the method of operation of the new trains, which may involve transferring the task of closing the train doors from the guard to the train driver on the new suburban trains that are due to be introduced in 2020. This is a safe, well established practice that has been in place on our railways for the last 30 years. The RMT currently objects to it. We do not think that is right, but I hope that there will be proper dialogue to overcome that situation.
Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for taking a bit longer than normal, but we have a bit longer than normal and I want to address properly the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North raised on behalf of her constituents.
Overcrowding continues to be an issue on this franchise. Significant investment that has already been made has seen suburban network trains lengthened from a maximum of eight cars to 10 cars. In the very first year of this franchise, SWR completed the introduction of 150 more carriages when the class 707s were introduced. Where possible, mainline services have also been lengthened using the units that were freed up by the increase in the suburban fleet. We have also introduced more terminal capacity at Waterloo by fully reopening the former Waterloo International platforms.
SWR’s plans for the franchise anticipated further capacity increases from changes to the layout of the existing fleet, the refurbishing and introduction of class 442 units, which my right hon. Friend mentioned, and the replacement of the entire suburban fleet with a new fleet of 750 carriages in Bombardier five and 10-car class 701 Aventra trains—an increase in the fleet taking it to almost 1,700 vehicles by the time that they are all in service. It is absolutely true, regrettably, that these projects are running behind schedule, but everything is being done to see those trains enter service as soon as possible.
Turning to the specific concerns of my right hon. Friend’s constituents, Mr Willey and Mr Wilson, about short formations, I am aware that, following the changes to the May timetable, a safety issue emerged with the operation of the class 442 fleet, so the trains that had been introduced have been withdrawn until the problem—electromagnetic interference with a signal, so quite a significant safety issue—has been resolved. SWR and Network Rail are working as fast as possible to resolve it.
The Minister has referred a number of times to things being done as fast as possible and the new fleet being introduced as soon as it can be. Can he give any indication of a timescale?
I can, and I will probably get to that in a minute, because I am going through this in some detail. I will also write to my right hon. Friend to clarify completely any points that I do not pick up on in my speech.
As I said, SWR and Network Rail are working as fast as possible to resolve the issue, but in the meantime, SWR has had to make some changes to its timetable and train plan to minimise the impact on passengers. I am pleased to say that Delay Repay 15 has been introduced on the franchise and the process for claiming compensation has recently been streamlined. That includes the introduction of automated Delay Repay in the case of advance tickets bought on the franchise’s website and Touch smartcard season tickets.
I note the concerns that my right hon. Friend mentioned, on behalf of Mr Whiteman, about compensation when there is a revised timetable. Measuring entitlement against the revised timetable is an established feature of delay repay compensation policy; publishing a revised timetable is designed to help passengers plan their journey—she suggested that is a good idea—and thereby avoid delays where they can.
My right hon. Friend also asked, sensibly, about how transport strategy is joined up, citing the journey of Mr Dickerson as an example of an interesting multi-modal journey. It is of course for individuals to make decisions about what works best for their own circumstances. A train timetable has to be planned based on making best use of the capacity available to meet the forecast demand, especially at peak times. Network Rail regularly undertakes route studies as part of its long-term planning, to ensure that plans for investment in the network are developed and targeted at adding capacity where it is most needed. I am hopeful that as one of the results of the Williams review, which will come before this place in a White Paper later—we hope it will be this year—we will start to see the emergence a much more integrated system, of the type that my right hon. Friend envisages, rather than of the type that Mr Dickerson now takes part in.
All SWR trains are fitted with wi-fi, including the new trains that will arrive in 2020. By December 2020, an on-board media service of films, TV shows, magazines and games will be available on all mainline fleets.
I think it is important to take the opportunity to press the Minister when I can. He makes the point that wi-fi is fitted—it is, but it simply does not work. It is complicated to log on to and it drops out frequently. Will he use all power to his elbow when discussing this with SWR? We know it is there, but make it better.
That discussion has already been had, so SWR is working with BT to install 31 new masts and upgrade 104 existing lineside masts to deliver better phone signal improvements for more than 90% of customer journeys. Full deployment of that will come in the next three years.
Full deployment of that will come in the next three years.
On the experience during the summer of my right hon. Friend’s constituent who uses a wheelchair, clearly this situation was handled badly and is unacceptable. I had not heard of this particular case beforehand, although I follow these cases closely in my office. I used to be the chairman of the all-party group on learning disability, and I think accessibility on our railway should be and is absolutely a priority of a modern-day rail service.
I am pleased that the Minister is touching on this point, because I wanted to raise it. Accessibility, both for people who are disabled and for young mothers and others, is a real issue. Major stations up and down the SWR network have failed to have that step-free access implemented. I am thinking of places such as Raynes Park, in particular; currently, disabled people have to catch a taxi to Wimbledon in order to get on the train. That level of access is not acceptable.
I completely get the point that my hon. Friend is making, as well as those made by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and a host of other points I have picked up on since I became the Minister of State with responsibility for rail. I can honestly say that we are looking at this as hard as we can. Obviously, it would be much more helpful if people were able to book in advance, and they are able to. I know from my commute home on London Northwestern that a huge amount of investment has gone into some software at Euston and 35 people work there to ensure that disabled people or people who need help to get on and off trains can book that help in advance and get on and off in the right place. The work is being done and it is extremely important to me and to all the franchise holders.
We are continuing discussions with FirstGroup about train service operations for the future great western franchise, which will start in April 2020. The hon. Member for Bristol East has left the Chamber, but she would be interested to know that the discussions include options for the heart of Wessex line, which was a route that respondents to the public consultation suggested would benefit from improvements in the frequency of train services.
As I said in my opening remarks, SWR agrees that its general performance is not yet up to the standard that it would like, that its customers expect and that we all would expect. SWR’s joint performance improvement centre at Waterloo, which was established together with Network Rail last year, is focusing on performance improvement initiatives that should have a real impact on services. I look forward to taking my right hon. and hon. Friends to see it. SWR is working to reduce the number of incidents on the network to be more responsive to them when they occur. So, a whole host of things are going on to try to improve the situation for my right hon. Friend’s constituents and all who travel on the SWR network.
Will the excellent Minister give way?
Well, the Minister will happily do so.
I thank my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for securing this important debate. One bit of homework that I would give to the Minister and the new ministerial team is on the issue of smart ticketing, and specifically on part-time season tickets. We had a commitment in the 2017 Conservative manifesto and, two years into the Parliament, the work is still outstanding. SWR’s carnet product is not a part-time season ticket, and my constituents see through attempts to present it as such. Work patterns are different these days and people feel that they are paying a lot of money for a five-day season ticket that they do not need. I do not ask the Minister to respond in detail at this point, but if he would write to update me on where we are with respect to that manifesto commitment on part-time season tickets, I and the good people of Winchester would be intensely grateful.
It would be a pleasure to write to my hon. Friend on those matters, and I think he will quite like the response he gets.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and all Members who have taken part in this important debate. I have mentioned that the service on this part of our railways is currently absolutely not good enough, but I have spoken about the many ways in which we are trying to make improvements and to eradicate the reasons for the poor standard of performance—but there is much more to do.
Question put and agreed to.