Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of Southern railway.
On reflection, I think I could have tabled a different motion and begged to move “That this House has considered the performance of Southern railway and found it wanting.” I could also have included Network Rail in the scope of the motion that hon. Members and I want to debate this morning: we should all accept from the outset that Network Rail bears its share of responsibility for the lamentable performance of Southern over the past few months. I want to focus on the performance of Southern railway, but I will not speak for too long as I am aware that a large number of Members wish to make points. I hope everyone will have an opportunity to do so.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) has been assiduous in raising his constituents’ concerns about the performance of Southern; he very much regrets that he is unable to be here today, but I have undertaken to raise many of his constituents’ points for him. My hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) is attending a Select Committee, but he intends to come along to this debate. If there is time, I hope it will be possible to call him to speak, Mr Turner, because his constituents are concerned about what is going on.
The plain facts of the matter are these: according to Transport Focus, which conducts an authoritative survey of passenger satisfaction, 82% of passengers were satisfied with the performance of Southern in autumn 2010. That still meant that about a fifth of passengers were dissatisfied, but let us leave that aside. By spring 2015—these are the latest figures—only 72% of passengers were satisfied with Southern’s performance. According to this authoritative survey, more than a quarter, one in every four, of passengers travelling on Southern are dissatisfied with its performance. That makes Southern officially the worst franchise in England. It has the lowest satisfaction rate of any franchise. The company should hang its head in shame at what passengers are saying.
Southern actually has ratings lower than that. The percentage of passengers satisfied with the availability of staff at the station, for instance, remains at a very low 58%. The figures are simply unacceptable. My first key point is that the one thing that passengers expect and need is a reliable train service to get them to their chosen destinations, particularly if they have flights to catch or if they are going to and from work.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I apologise, but I will not be able to stay for the whole debate. Like me, in the past 24 hours the right hon. Gentleman will have received in his inbox an update on Southern’s performance improvement plan; it has clearly been a bumpy ride.
Another thing that passengers want is decent compensation. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that paying compensation after a 15-minute delay, rather than a 30-minute delay, would be appropriate? Does he agree that getting the train companies to publicise how people can claim compensation when their train is running late, or at the stations where they are arriving late, might be a good way to improve passengers’ views of Southern and Network Rail?
Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s points, which were well made. I will come to compensation—as, I suspect, will other Members. The current compensation arrangements do not properly hold the companies to account, and they need to be sharpened up.
On punctuality, according to the Office of Rail and Road, in the first quarter of 2005, the year in which I was elected to the House, 2.6% of Southern trains were cancelled or significantly late. That is by the official measure, which does not include trains that are just a few minutes late—that is a point on its own: commuters expect absolute reliability and get it from other franchisees and in other countries. In contrast with the 2005 figure, 6.2% of Southern trains were cancelled or significantly late in the fourth quarter of 2014. Over that 10-year period, the number of Southern trains cancelled or significantly late increased by two and a half times. That is an unacceptable deterioration in performance and relates specifically to an important point: neither Southern nor Network Rail can wholly lay the problems at the door of the London Bridge improvements.
Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. My constituents have to put up with delays, timetable changes, short-form trains, extended engineering works and overcrowding far too regularly. Southern seems incapable of communicating effectively with its customers when those problems arise. Does he support my view that the Office of Rail and Road and the Transport Committee should hold inquiries into Southern’s performance and, in particular, into its management?
Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend has made her points effectively. She speaks up for a large number of constituents, hers and mine, who are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with Southern’s performance and want to see real action.
In 2010, the figure for trains arriving on time was 90.8%, but this year the average is only 82.8%, although that figure has improved to 86.5% in the second period of 2015-16. There may be some belated evidence of improvement in Southern’s performance. If that is true, it will be welcome, but it must be locked in and sustained.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Brighton commuters certainly do not see any improvement on the Southern line. They are fed up with the service they are seeing—not least the notorious 7.29 train that did not arrive on time once in a whole year. He is eloquently taking the battle to the doors of Southern and Network Rail, but does he not think that the Government have a responsibility to look again at the whole franchise system? We have such a fragmented rail system; time and again, the rail network and the rail companies are not joined up. One problem that that creates is that we are simply not seeing the improvement that commuters and our constituents rightly expect.
Nick Herbert: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. I do not choose to attack privatisation in itself, which has resulted in significantly increased investment in the railways—there has been a huge increase in the number of passengers. However, given the split between the operating companies and the entity that owns the track and is responsible for signalling, effective co-operation between the two and effective communication to passengers are important. The very fact that I secured this debate singling out Southern is a reflection of the attitude that our constituents will have: first, they hold the train operating company accountable. The fact is that we need a joined-up service from the rail industry as a whole.
The hon. Lady rightly drew attention to the train of shame—the 7.29 from Brighton to Victoria, which was late every single day of last year. I think that train ran on 140 days, and it was never once on time. The Prime Minister himself was drawn to criticise that failure, saying that it was completely unacceptable.
David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman’s speech has been one of the most fiery we have heard in Westminster Hall for some time, and I congratulate him on it. On compensation, surely the fact is that because it takes so long to get recompense for late trains, the general public do not even bother to claim anymore. We should show them how and encourage them to do so.
Nick Herbert: I will see whether I can fire things up further and liven things up for the hon. Gentleman on Budget day.
While we are discussing the Brighton service, I should mention that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) is sitting patiently behind me listening to the debate. As a Government Whip, he has taken a vow of silence, but he feels equally strongly about Southern’s lamentable performance and the service it is delivering for his constituents. He wants to see improvements, and I know that he has fought hard for them.
I have dealt with how important it is for Southern to run a more punctual service. Secondly, there is the issue of overcrowding. It is unacceptable that commuters and others should so often have to endure an overcrowded service and be forced to stand for either part or the whole of a journey. The problems with Southern and Thameslink are exacerbated by trains that stop at Gatwick and pick up a large number of passengers, which overcrowds the trains. In part, that is a reflection of the significant growth in passenger numbers, in which case services must be expanded to accommodate demand. Regular overcrowding is adding to the frustration of commuters and others with the service.
Thirdly, all that is further exacerbated by the absence of timely information when there are problems with the service. The London Bridge improvement works have caused disruption, and some of the consequential timetable changes have been very unpopular. There will be incidents that are beyond the control of the train operating companies or Network Rail.
We all understand that such incidents—such as tragic accidents—will happen, but the travelling public’s tolerance for them is completely stretched given that so many other incidents are within the companies’ control. When it is clear that the companies could deliver a better service, people’s anger about what happens repeatedly is exacerbated by the absence of proper information about what is going on.
It may have been taking steps, but Southern must get better at providing information, particularly when there is major disruption, so that people are able to get home. On 30 April, during the election campaign, my excellent research assistant travelled down from London Victoria to Arundel to deliver some casework to me. The journey took her five hours because of significant disruption on the line. One issue she mentioned was the absence of good information.
Fourthly, the cleanliness of trains is a problem. A lot of the time, Southern trains are filthy, despite the introduction of new rolling stock. It is appalling for commuters and others to have to sit in trains surrounded by discarded food. The loos are often either disgusting or out of service. The cleanliness of trains is, in part, the responsibility of those who use them. Too many people leave litter, food and so on, but other companies are better at collecting it and ensuring that trains are clean. The situation adds to the poor quality of the service, and it is a constant complaint from my constituents.
I pay tribute to the Minister for her work to address the poor historical performance of Southern and Network Rail on the routes we are discussing. Along with other Members, I met her before the election, and she was already in the process of taking action. She chaired a meeting in the House between the Office of the Rail Regulator, Network Rail and Southern, and an improvement plan was put in place. Not content with that, she took further action, convening another meeting immediately after the general election to demand further improvements. No doubt she will tell us about that when she responds.
Nevertheless, those were remedial measures. To return to the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), we need arrangements in the rail industry that automatically ensure proper performance and do not require Members of Parliament to complain or ministerial intervention, however effective. That is not how the system is meant to run.
That leads us directly to compensation. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was right to ask whether compensation arrangements are effective. Compensation kicks in only when trains are 30 minutes late, and the arrangements are not very well known by the public. The take-up of compensation is low: according to the ORR, 68% of passengers say that they have never claimed compensation, mainly because of a lack of awareness. In July 2013, Transport Focus found that 88% of those eligible for compensation did not claim. One of the most effective ways in which we could sharpen the accountability of rail operating companies is by having more effective and automatic compensation arrangements, so that the companies feel pain when they fail to deliver an adequate service for passengers. Compensation arrangements must be improved.
Caroline Lucas: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be some focus on the fact that when a delay is Network Rail’s fault, it has to give quite a lot of compensation to the rail operating companies, but only a fraction of that is passed on to passengers? There is a real disproportionality between the amount of money the train companies get and what the passengers get. That ought to be looked at.
Nick Herbert: The hon. Lady makes a very good point.
Owing to Southern and Network Rail’s poor performance and passenger experience, all the good things that have happened have, in passengers’ eyes, been negated. That is a pity. There has been £21 million of investment in new signalling on the Arun valley line, which was meant to improve punctuality. The work at London Bridge will deliver improvements in future—no doubt the Minister will talk about them—and is the result of £6 billion of investment. There are new trains on the line, and no doubt staff are trying hard to improve the service.
None of that, however, will count for anything unless Southern can get its act together and deliver a better service to passengers on a daily basis. The whole concept of the rail industry being in private ownership is being undermined by this company, which is letting down not only its passengers but the very concept that a private company can deliver a decent utility to people in this country. It seems to me that that alone is a good enough reason for Southern to improve its performance.
In conclusion, the number of my constituents who have been complaining about Southern’s service has increased steadily over the past few years. People are absolutely fed up with the company’s performance, but they are also fed up with excuses. They want real action to deliver a better service. There are signs that such action is being taken, but it must be embedded and sustained. We need better arrangements to ensure that rail companies that fail to deliver pay the price and are held properly to account by the public.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. I am going to try letting Members decide themselves how much time they take.
Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab): I thank the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing this debate on an issue that has a significant impact on my constituents. My constituents use Southern railway services to travel into Victoria from Sydenham Hill, West Dulwich, Herne Hill, Brixton and Gipsy Hill, and into London Bridge from East Dulwich, North Dulwich, West Norwood, Tulse Hill, Sydenham, Forest Hill and Peckham Rye. That is the Metro part of Southern’s service, which has the lowest satisfaction rate of the three types of service that Southern runs.
Although there have been some improvements in recent reporting periods, average punctuality is still only at 76.1% as at 30 May. That is in large part due to the major changes at London Bridge station, which earlier this year saw passengers vaulting barriers to avoid a dangerous crush and the police called in to manage the crowds accumulating as a consequence of the delays. For any passengers who were disabled, frail, or travelling with small children, the journey to London Bridge station became an impossible ordeal.
There has been a marked deterioration over the past three years, which is a source of misery to many of my constituents, causing people to be late for work and to miss their children’s bedtimes. Constituents have got in touch to tell me that the unreliability of the service is making it difficult for them to hold down a job, and they are frustrated that delays are often without any explanation at all. Trains are often overcrowded, and only 64% of Southern passengers are happy that there is sufficient room for all passengers to sit and stand. At most of the stations in my constituency, passengers in the morning peak have no expectation at all of being able to find a seat on their train to work, and often the trains do not have the number of carriages that they are supposed to, which compounds the problem still further.
In return for such a service, regulated fares rose more than 20% during the previous Parliament and are still increasing above inflation at a time when most people’s pay has not been increasing. In some cases, journey times have actually got longer. For example, if someone took the 9.20 am service from Forest Hill to London Bridge in 2011, it took 17 minutes; today, the same train takes 21 minutes. It is therefore no surprise that satisfaction levels are low, particularly among commuters, only 60% of whom are satisfied with the service that they receive overall. I suspect the satisfaction rating in my constituency is even lower.
I have read the improvement plan in detail, and there are aspects of it that concern me, not least the very long timescale for improvement and the scenario whereby by 2018-19, the service will have improved to a performance level that is still not as good as that in 2012.
It is clear that the plan for investment in London Bridge station was put in place without any regard for its devastating impact on the Metro services, and all attempts to improve the situation to date have been insufficient in their impact. I should add that not all the dissatisfaction is on lines into London Bridge; there is dissatisfaction on the line into Victoria as well.
Today we will debate the Budget, and the issue of improving productivity in the UK is a key priority. A reliable commuter rail service for south London is vital not only for the comfort and convenience of my constituents but for the productivity of our economy.
The London Overground route, which shares with Southern part of the line into London Bridge through Sydenham and Forest Hill stations, has some of the highest satisfaction rates of any public transport service in London. Transport for London, which has responsibility for the Overground, has recently taken over the running of suburban rail services in north-east London, and I think it should be given responsibility for suburban rail services south of the river as well.
The complexity of London’s rail network means that it would benefit from strategic co-ordination by an organisation that is accountable to Londoners. I call upon the Minister to make the bold strategic intervention that is necessary to address the failures of Southern in my constituency, and hand responsibility for running suburban rail south of the river to Transport for London, which has proved that it can run services efficiently in the interests of passengers and our economy.
Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I am not sure congratulations are in order simply for winning the ballot, though, because I understand he was competing against my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon South (Chris Philp), for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani), for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and me. We were all competing for this subject today.
Nick Herbert: But I won.
Crispin Blunt: As my right hon. Friend says, he won. Given the number of hon. Friends who wish to contribute, I will try to restrain my remarks, despite the immense pain felt by my constituents because of Southern’s service. I have been president of the Redhill, Reigate and District Rail Users Association since my election in 1997, and I have never known anything like the situation that we face today. I do not say that Southern has been a beacon of excellence throughout that period, and my commentary on the performance of the company overall is that it seems focused on the interests of its shareholders rather than its customers. When service improvements such as increased train lengths during out-of-peak services are put forward, there is then an issue of cash and cost, and it appears that service levels for customers are a secondary consideration.
We face a company that has managed itself extremely tightly. The disaster over the introduction of the London Bridge upgrade scheme has seen company performance levels totally collapse, to the cost of the people we serve. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs has already illustrated some of the highlights: the five-hour delay on 30 April and the 230 cancellations and significant delays as recently as last week, on 1 July. Southern’s performance in the heat was worse than any other company’s.
The daily commute has become a wholly unpredictable experience, with the consequences that the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) mentioned. Too often it is a nightmare for the people we represent, so Southern’s levels of satisfaction being at the bottom of the league table are not remotely surprising.
I want to turn to issues specific to Reigate and Redhill, given where my constituents sit on the line.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Or stand.
Crispin Blunt: My hon. Friend points out that they stand on the line. My constituents are at the point of the service where, if they are taking a busy train—a quarter of which have been cancelled because of the London Bridge upgrade—and trying to get on at Redhill, which is a significantly longer journey than for the constituents of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, the prospect of getting a seat is close to zero. At times, the prospect of getting on the train at all is now in doubt. Hon. Friends from further up the line will no doubt have more to say about the fact that they cannot even get on the trains because they are so crowded.
I stood for re-election in Reigate on a pledge to campaign for fair fares and compensation for rail users. It was a central part of my election campaign. I went to every single station to make the point about the campaign for fair fares and to meet the people getting on trains at 6 o’clock in the morning. There is no point in going at 7 o’clock, because it is far too busy, so people’s days have been extended because of Southern’s diabolical performance levels, combined with those of Network Rail and the botched implementation of the upgrade at London Bridge.
I want to focus on the milking of my constituents as cash cows for the system. Ours is a so-called negative subsidy area, so the people I represent pay not only for the rail service that they get, but for the rail service in the rest of the country. That adds insult to injury. For example, a Redhill annual season ticket holder who also buys zone 1 to 6 travel in London will pay £1,088 more than someone travelling from Coulsdon South, two stops up the line. Passengers from other stations outside zone 6, such as Dorking, Oxted, East Grinstead and Three Bridges, who have a greater or similar length of rail journey into London, pay less for the service.
Southern has enjoyed the second highest income among train operators, and unlike many other companies it has not received funding from the Government, because it is a negative subsidy area. There is a change to the franchise coming, with Govia Thameslink taking over the management of the contract from 26 July. From that point, unhappily for the Minister and her accountability, the Department for Transport will take the fare box. I strongly appreciate her moves to convene the rail bosses and oversee the implementation of a performance improvement plan, but I am afraid I have to put her on notice that we will expect a meaningful level of effort now that she is effectively taking responsibility, so that commuters will be given a decent level of compensation to take account of the deteriorated services until the London Bridge works are completed in 2018.
The opportunity for my constituents comes with the extension of Oyster to Gatwick, which is part of the requirement of the new franchise. Transport for London has been ready to roll that out for ages, but it is being blocked by the Department for Transport while it and Southern sort out their fare arrangements.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry) indicated dissent.
Crispin Blunt: The Minister is now shaking her head, so I am delighted that she will be pushing Southern and Govia to deliver that instantly. Will she intervene so that the Oyster roll-out can go ahead as soon as possible?
Will the Minister also take the necessary steps to extend TFL zone 6 to Reigate, Redhill, Merstham, Earlswood and Salfords, and out to Gatwick, until the London Bridge works have finished? At this point I declare my interest as a commuter from Horley who, along with the people I represent, would benefit. Some 2,000 people have signed the Reigate, Redhill and District Rail Users Association petition to the Secretary of State calling for zone 6 to be extended as a fair and proper reflection of the poorer service. That zoning could then be reassessed once the London Bridge works are complete in 2018. I look forward to a one-on-one meeting with the Minister to discuss that further.
Finally, I turn to the issue of compensation for delay, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs touched on. DelayRepay.net estimates that if compensation were properly claimed, 15% would go back to customers in the form of money reclaimed. That is using a service level whereby a train has to be 30 minutes late for someone to be able to claim, and a 30-minute delay on a 30-minute journey is a pretty shocking level of performance. A 15% reduction would be a return to customers of more than £500 on their season ticket.
If I understand the Minister’s private views correctly, she, too, cannot see why customers have to be put through the hoops that they are put through by some of the companies to claim compensation money. It must be possible to make things far more automated—indeed, from her briefings, I know that that is the case in other parts of the country. It is technically possible to use Network Rail data to allow passengers to enter their journey details and to receive the compensation that they are owed. Compensation could even be paid out automatically to those with a contactless card. Has she considered requiring the train operating companies to tender for the technologies available to put that into practice? Will she introduce phased compensation for journeys delayed by more than two minutes, as the data and the technology would now permit?
Southern’s performance, and therefore the Minister’s revenue when she takes responsibility from 26 July, will be a significant problem for her and the Department given that more than half of trains are late. I recognise that, but it is right that such an incentive is placed on her, so that she can then place it on the rail operating company. The incentive will be to ensure performance levels that secure for the Department for Transport the revenues that it deserves from customers, not the revenue that it can rake in as a monopoly supplier when people have absolutely no choice about how they travel to work.
Passengers using the trains in my constituency are at the end of their tether. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the actions that she will take to turn that appalling state of affairs around and to ensure that customers pay a fair fare for the service that they receive, which is definitely not the case today.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. If Members allowed themselves approximately five minutes, that would help us no end.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I congratulate my West Sussex neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), on securing the debate and on the robust way in which he introduced it. Other hon. Members have given the same reasons for complaint about the appalling service from Southern rail: poor timekeeping; cancellations; diversions; overcrowded trains; poor value for money; the rarity of refunds; the extraordinary coincidence that many delays seem to amount to 28 or 29 minutes, just below the 30-minute compensation threshold; and appalling communications when things go wrong. Problems are compounded for pedestrians as well. In my constituency and in Worthing West, delays while level crossing barriers have been down have meant pedestrians and motorists having to wait for 48 minutes out of every hour in some cases. Commuters on trains are therefore not the only people affected.
My constituents travel along the coastal strip—often having to change at Brighton—come into London and go to Gatwick airport. If that airport is to be expanded, when the issue is finally decided, having a reliable rail service will be an essential factor, but that is another argument for another day. The Southern rail problems go well beyond the ubiquitous, traditional excuse that always used to be trotted out of the signal box fire at Penge or the landslip at Balcombe.
I will not repeat everything that has already been said, but I will quote from two complaints that I have received from constituents in the past week. Last week a constituent left West Worthing at 10.32 am, heading for London Victoria. The indicator board stated that the destination was Haywards Heath, not London, but the train was cancelled due to electrical supply problems in the Purley area. She caught a later, stopping service to Brighton, but it arrived late, and the connecting fast service to London was announced as being delayed due to
“awaiting a member of train crew”.
Eventually she arrived at London Victoria some 23 minutes later than she had intended.
On the return journey, the 15.52 from Clapham Junction to Ore and Littlehampton was delayed because of the incoming journey, which had in turn been delayed by speed restrictions imposed because of the heat—that is the seasonal version of leaves on the line. Departure was at 16.12 and the service was 20 minutes late into Haywards Heath. A problem developed with the doors of the front portion of the train after splitting, so there was a further delay while the driver tried to reset the electronics. The late-running 17.03 Littlehampton and Eastbourne train arrived on the adjacent platform and detached, and my constituent says that
“we were advised to get off our train by our guard and board the Littlehampton part of the other train as that was going to leave first.
As we were boarding the train, platform staff were then telling us to reboard the train we had just got off because THAT one was going to depart first.
We then all reboarded the original train.”
Eventually, my constituent departed Haywards Heath at 17.11 and
“arrived at Preston Park where the driver announced that the Brighton signalman had decided to divert the train to Brighton and terminate it there, and passengers for coastal stations through to Littlehampton to alight at Preston Park and catch the following late running train (ie the one we had got on and got off again).
(How does diverting and then terminating a late service get counted in the ‘performance statistics’, or is it a canny way of not being counted at all?)”
I hope you are keeping up with “this farce”, Mr Turner, because then:
“Four carriages of passengers got off the train.
The indicator board and automated announcement at Preston Park then ‘advised’ us to ‘please stand clear of the platform as the next train will not be stopping at this station’,”
because that service was not scheduled to stop at Preston Park. Fortunately,
“it did, four carriages of people reboarding a train that they had already boarded once and then had to get off earlier in their journey”,
eventually arriving at West Worthing at 18.59,
“48 minutes later than scheduled.
Any apologies/communication etc. from Southern? Why bother asking—the poor guard knew as much as we did! Did Southern care or think about the passengers as we were being told to get off trains, get on others, only to then get off what became a diverted and terminating train, and reboard another, yet again. What about people with children, children in buggies, people with mobility problems, people with cases and large bags? Any thoughts about them from Southern”?
Of course not.
“My overall journey was delayed by more than one hour, and according to the delay repay leaflet I should be entitled to compensation ‘made in respect of the OVERALL delay to the planned UK rail journey’.
Will I actually get that?
I suspect not, because on previous occasions when similar delays have occurred on my daily outward and return journeys, Southern have only compensated me for a single journey delay of over 30 minutes…Over the last few months the 10.30 and 11.06 West Worthing-London services, on the Tuesdays that I have to catch them, have all regularly been cancelled”
My constituent also asked:
“I would also like to know why the real time train running app from Southern shows those cancelled services as ‘running on time’. Another example of totally inaccurate and misleading information that passengers have to endure from a company that doesn’t know how to provide clear, timely, accurate, consistent information from its staff, indicator boards or announcements.
Southern rail services are beyond a joke for those of us who have to use them regularly and I think my experience from yesterday is a graphic illustration.”
Nusrat Ghani: My hon. Friend raises a valid point about customer experiences, which do not seem to be heard about at the top table at Southern or Network Rail. Will he join me in urging the Minister to call on Network Rail and Southern to convene regular meetings with passengers so that they can share their real day-to-day experiences on the line?
Tim Loughton: I absolutely urge that. Communication is the heart of the problem. If there were real reasons for the delays, and those were communicated properly, there would be greater understanding, and surely also better ways of getting around the problems.
I will quote one final constituent who wrote to me a couple of days ago:
“I am writing to inform you that I believe that Southern Rail has lost its strategic direction and has lost the respect of both its customers and its staff. The Performance Plan published by Southern Rail clearly shows a continuing and substantial reduction in the quality of service over a three-year period and the management of changes at London Bridge further demonstrates a lack of planning and the mitigation of risk. Credibility has been further lost by the recent publication of changes to services to improve performance by reducing the level of service being provided.”
Poor communication, poor time keeping, poor value for money and a worsening situation: things are not getting better, and given the rising demands on our rail service and the increasing population in the south of England in particular, they can only get worse. Frankly, the rise in passenger numbers that the rail companies always quote to us as some sign of satisfaction has come about because our constituents have no choice but to catch trains if they are heading northwards into London. The fact that they do not get proper compensation payments only adds insult to injury. This has gone on for far too long, and our constituents deserve better.
Maria Caulfield (Lewes) (Con): I will not go over all the issues raised so far, as my experiences of Southern mirror those of a number of Members. Passengers in my constituency of Lewes include those travelling from Wivelsfield, which is not in my constituency but is used by a number of my constituents, Cooksbridge, Plumpton, Seaford, Newhaven, Polegate and Berwick. They are commuters going to London, air passengers going to Gatwick, business people trying to get to appointments and tourists trying to visit the South Downs national park and the coastal strip.
Although it is good news that fares are to be frozen for the duration of this Parliament, a season ticket costs £4,408, so let us not pretend that it is cheap by any means—and the service is poor. Passengers and my residents are fed up of game playing and excuses—national rail issues are often used as an excuse when the problem is actually a Southern issue. A number of Members have mentioned London Bridge station. Although the improvement works there are welcome, they are too often used as an excuse for Southern’s poor service.
There are improvements in the way that we can claim back fares, but that is not what people want. They would far rather have a decent rail service so that they can get to work on time. The delays are so frequent that, as the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said, people are not bothering to claim, because it is too time-consuming. People are missing flights to and from Gatwick, and are late for work. Several key problems are now happening on almost a daily basis.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the hon. Lady agree that the issue that has come up time and again in the debate is the frequency of lateness, the lack of information for passengers so that they can put complaints in at the time rather than several weeks later, and then the inability of the company to react to complaints immediately and resolve the issue?
Maria Caulfield: I absolutely agree with those points, which replicate the experience of a number of my constituents.
On almost a daily basis there is no longer a rush hour, as people leave earlier and earlier for work and then leave later and later to get home, so that they can actually get on a train—never mind having to stand. Train drivers do not turn up on regular basis. As a commuter myself, I would say it happens almost two or three times a week; certainly I have heard that excuse on a number of occasions. As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said, the number of carriages is cut, often at very short notice—almost as people are getting on the train—leading to further overcrowding and congestion.
Southern has recently cut a train from the timetable to try to make the 7.29 from Brighton run on time, meaning passengers are no longer able to get on that service at Wivelsfield. The advice is to travel to Haywards Heath instead, which can take half an hour, and anyway there is no parking at the station for those who travel there. That is not an acceptable way of keeping to the timetable. I have also experienced elderly people, who cannot stand for the hour and 10 minute duration of the journey to London, being ticketed for being in first class. That is completely unacceptable when they have to stand because there are no seats for them in standard.
Instead of campaigning about complaints, I should be campaigning for improvements to rail services for my residents. We are trying to get a second rail main line from the coast to London, and more services for stations such as Cooksbridge, where passengers see the trains go through at high speed and have to wait at the level crossing, unable to get on, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said. I am trying to get better access to platforms and trains for people with mobility needs, whether people with a disability or young mums with pushchairs. I am also trying to get better carriages so more bicycles can fit on our trains and people can commute onwards after they get off their train.
Instead, I am campaigning on a daily basis about the poor rail services my residents have to endure. It is not good enough. It has an impact not only on people’s purses, as they have to pay for extra journeys, but on their quality of life. It should not be the case that people experience such a poor rail service just because of where they live. I welcome the initiatives the Minister is trying to take, but we need to see improvement soon.
Chris Philp (Croydon South) (Con): I add my voice to those we have heard this morning lamenting the woeful performance of Southern railway over the past year or two. There are four principal problems, which other hon. Members have already alluded to: consistent lateness; excessive cancellations; short trains that lead to the gross overcrowding we have already heard about, which is particularly difficult for pensioners and people with disabilities; and the practice of station skipping, when a station stop is missed out to catch up on journey time. I strongly suspect that station skipping occurs so that services can get just inside the half-hour delay repay deadline. My own local station, Coulsdon South, appears to be a particular victim of that insidious practice.
The figures tell their own story. As recently as three years ago, the performance and punctuality measure on Southern was around 90%—I know there are other measures, but that one is published most often. Over the past two or three years, that figure has consistently declined, month on month, and now sits at only just above 80%. That is far too low. If we compare that with other parts of the railway system we can see how woefully bad it is. For example, London Overground, a metro railway run by Transport for London, has a PPM figure of 95%. That shows what can be done with a well organised system.
Southern’s figure of 80% is the worst in the United Kingdom. We are not complaining about the structure of the railways in general, but about this particular line, which is the worst in the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell), a party Whip, is in the Chamber; I know he shares my views on this terrible service, which affects his constituents every bit as much as mine.
I deplore the fact that in the document on improving performance on Thameslink and Southern, published a few months ago, the targets for improvement are extremely unambitious. The 2015-16 target for PPM is only 81%, barely better than what we are experiencing at the moment; it is an unacceptably low aspiration. Even by 2018-19, nearly five years away, the aspiration is only for 87%, still below where the railway system was a few years ago.
The problem is perhaps best illustrated by a few tweets I have recently received. One is from a gentleman I know quite well, who tweets as MaximusThurbon—I think he is modelling himself on the guy from “Gladiator”. He says:
“Train late this morning by 10 minutes, train home cancelled. Another normal day on Southern”.
Another tweeter said that
“evening rush hour can only mean one thing…Southern network delays and cancellations!”
Another person said that
“Southernrail provides a horrific service”.
“It’s starting to turn into a full time job filling out the delay repay forms”.
It is no surprise, therefore, that when rail users are surveyed, satisfaction is very low. The consumer organisation Which? recently found that Southern railway had the second-lowest satisfaction rating of any train operating company in the country and the worst satisfaction rating for delays. Moreover, figures from Transport Focus, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) mentioned, have seen Southern’s passenger satisfaction rating slump from 82% to 72%—once again, the lowest level in the country. Most tellingly, however, the satisfaction rating among commuters using the line is just 60%. I contrast that with the figures for lines such as the Heathrow Express, which has a 94% satisfaction rating; the east coast main line, which has a 94% satisfaction rating; and a railway system called First Hull, with which I confess I am unacquainted, but which has a 96% satisfaction rating. So why does our local railway have only a 60% satisfaction rating among commuters?
I would like the Minister to reply to two or three points, because I know she is working hard to fix these problems. First, will she confirm that she is chairing weekly meetings of a taskforce with Southern railway and Network Rail to fix these problems? Secondly, will she consider improving the compensation system, perhaps by having better publicity and by reducing the threshold to 15 minutes, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) suggested? I certainly endorse the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) that we have an automatic refund so that, where a commuter says, “I am always on the 8.30 train,” and that train is late, compensation is automatic.
Will the Minister also consider fining the operating company for station skipping—a problem that affects my local station?
Tim Loughton: Hear, hear.
Chris Philp: Thank you.
Furthermore, if things do not improve in a reasonable time—say, one year—the entire operation of the franchise may need to be looked at again.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Andrew Turner (in the Chair): Order. We have about four minutes for each speaker. I call Tom Tugendhat.
Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Thank you for calling me, Mr Turner. I will be brief, because the points covered by many of my hon. Friends have been extremely clear and relevant to Southern railway users at the stations of Cowden, Hever and Edenbridge in my area, all of which suffer badly from a poorly run service. These people are not, of course, merely using the rail service for the hell of it or for recreation—it is a means of getting to work. People are paying £3,740 for annual season tickets so that they can do the jobs they are employed to do. Yes, some work in the City, but many work in schools and hospitals. I also know of one senior diplomat whose work is often affected by late running and failed trains.
I get a continuous litany of emails and tweets from constituents who are rightly angry. I am adding my voice to those of my hon. Friends and to that of the Rail Minister, who is doing so much to address this issue. I welcome her efforts. I am registering my complaint not so much with her, but with Southern’s operators. The rage they have caused among my hon. Friends and me is so great that they are putting their careers in jeopardy. I urge them to think hard before they continue this failure.
I have been working with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) for more than a year to try to address this issue, and we have discovered time and again that the operators are unwilling to address the basic problems. Working with organisations such as the Edenbridge and District Rail Travellers Association, we have begun to get some changes and accountability. However, there is so much more to do. I will leave it to others to speak now, because I have made my points clearly, and I very much hope the management have heard them.
Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. I am pleased he has managed to ensure that things have not been conducted like Southern’s services—otherwise, half of those in the Public Gallery would have missed his speech.
In my area, as in that of the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), punctuality at Christmas was running at less than 50%, which is unsustainable. I am pleased it has now improved, but, at 76%, only three out of every four trains are running on time. For commuters, that is unacceptable.
During my election campaign, I saw one of my opponents tapping his watch in front of an indicator board at a station. I was amazed to see that it was showing that the only two trains running that hour were on time, which is very untypical of what happens in Sutton.
In the same campaign, I talked about extending the London Overground, which is run by TfL; we have heard a lot in the debate about the London Overground having good satisfaction levels and good punctuality and being well thought of. That point was well received during my campaign, and a lot of people said that increasing the capacity and frequency of trains in Sutton was great. However, they also said, “What we really want is to make sure that the trains we have run on time, that we can get a seat and that we don’t pay for something and then see no investment coming back into the south London metro lines.” Those lines seem to be one of the forgotten parts of the network, with satisfaction at 67%.
We need investment at Clapham Junction and in rolling stock in that part of the network so that we can have a service we are proud of and pleased with. I echo the fact that TfL should be well placed to take over the line through Sutton when the franchise is renewed. I say that not because I am harking back to the days of British Rail when everything was centralised, but because TfL has shown it can run a good railway system. In an era of accountability, transparency and rewards for good performance, TfL should be recognised for that. It should be able to improve the lines in Sutton and south London.
In conclusion, it is unacceptable that a train can take up to 50 minutes or an hour to do the 15 miles into central London from south London. That is about the same time it takes to get to the coast. In the modern day, when commuters are paying a fortune, they should be able to get into London in good time. Twenty-five minutes for the fastest train from Sutton is a good time, but 50 minutes to an hour for those taking the Gypsy Hill route is unacceptable. However, I will leave my remarks at that.
Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Given that the debate is about punctuality and timekeeping, I shall come well within the four minutes; otherwise, I will hand out my own compensation forms, albeit that, using Southern’s own ratio, I shall pay out only at six minutes plus.
I am also a daily commuter on Southern—I have been for the last nine years, and I continue to be one as an MP. I use the Upfield line, which is in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Nusrat Ghani) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I am also a member of the Transport Committee, so I take very well the suggestion that the matter before us would be a good one for it to discuss.
Perhaps I have become immune to the overcrowding I have suffered for almost 10 years on my daily commute, but my experience is that, although things are difficult, they are not perhaps as appalling as others may have found on their lines. The Upfield line has one track, and capacity is, indeed, an issue. Twitter messages come through when people are rightly frustrated. I missed my child’s last-day-at-school performance, because I was stuck in Oxted for two hours. These things happen, and they are frustrating, but, today, the 6.43 am train came in on time, and I dare say there were no tweets putting that message across. It is important that we also consider the views of the majority who do not get in touch with us.
Capacity is, indeed, an issue, and it concerns me hugely that, as more housing is built in my constituency, the Upfield line and the coastal line will become even more overcrowded. Those lines are served by diesel engines, so it appears that little can be done—certainly on the coastal route—to introduce more carriages.
Southern Rail takes the view that all its revenue goes to the Government, and that anything it adds on has to come out of its bottom line, so it refuses to add anything. I would like further measures and incentives from Government, to make sure that Southern adds those carriages on. The overcrowding that my constituents in Bexhill suffer at rush hour is incredibly difficult. Equally, however, at other times during the day those two carriages are not really used at all; so, again, I take a reasonable view of the circumstances.
The conclusion of the London Bridge building work will be an amazing experience, and I hope that many of the issues will then become a distant memory. The fact that the rail companies and, indeed, Network Rail, have continued to operate in the station during the largest station engineering project in Europe is testament to their hard work. There have been issues; I was there on the day of the overcrowding that was mentioned. It was incredibly difficult and frustrating, although it is fair to say that some people were making a leap for it because, frustratingly, they could see empty trains moving out, rather than because trains were that crammed. I was in the cram and can testify to that.
London Bridge will be amazing, and it is important to be positive. While we chastise where we should, we also need to give encouragement and welcome the work.
Nusrat Ghani: My hon. Friend mentioned Uckfield in my constituency; locally, the line is called the “misery line”. He must have heard news of the Southern engineers strike that may be called next week, because they have been unable to negotiate through the union. My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) andI wrote to the union and to Southern urging a cancellation of the strike. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) will join me in trying to make sure that they resume the negotiations.
Huw Merriman: I happily do so. I note the reference to the “misery line”; perhaps I have become immune through being a daily commuter for 10 years, but I tend to look on the brighter side. Things are sometimes incredibly difficult and frustrating, but for the vast majority of the time they work well. It is important to encourage people to see things that way; otherwise, there is a danger that we will become doom and gloom merchants, and we cannot then encourage people to see better times ahead.
I have now gone over four minutes, for which I blame my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. I just want to make three points. First, it would be good to have more rolling stock. Secondly, it would be good to have a facility for dealing with the add-ons such as exorbitant rises in parking fees and the charging that now happens for duplicate tickets when someone forgets their season ticket. That is outrageous, in my view, because commuters should not be used as a cash cow. Thirdly, there is the issue of compensation. Why do we still have pieces of paper to get us through? Why can we not tap in with a smart card that tells us when the train should arrive and automatically compensates us when it does not?
Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP): I thank the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing the debate and giving me the opportunity to show common purpose with other Members. He has done much to raise the profile of the performance of Southern railway and to call for improvements to the service provision. I note also that Southern is committed to an improvement plan over three periods: May and December of this year and December 2018. Of course, although I welcome the planned improvement periods, it is our job to ensure that we hold service providers to account on behalf of our constituents.
For Scottish constituencies, Gatwick is a main link for tourists and for business and leisure travel. Consequently, many people from those constituencies, including mine in the highlands, use the services of Southern railway—mainly, though not exclusively, the Gatwick Express. From the point of view of my constituency, Gatwick is Inverness airport’s main business destination. Gatwick airport is Edinburgh airport’s second top destination, and Edinburgh is one of Gatwick’s top three UK destinations.
The issue is clearly one of management and accountability. The staff I have met on the services have been exemplary, helpful and pleasant, often working with passengers who are tired, busy, sometimes lost and often frustrated. They do their job well, and none of my comments is directed at the hard-working men and women deployed on the network. However, the management needs to hear the realities of using the company’s services.
Having become a regular commuter to London and a frequent user of the Gatwick Express, I know only too well how frustrating and disruptive delays and unreliable links can be. We heard about a “gladiator” earlier; people need to take part in some gladiatorial games to share the service, including the platform shuffle—the game of working out which train standing at Victoria will not leave the station. That usually involves passengers packing an overcrowded train and then, if they are lucky, finding a seat or wedging themselves into a corner. Often they simply sit on the floor or on luggage before the announcement is made that the train will not be leaving the station. The chase is then on to decamp, rush to the adjacent platform and join another train even more jam-packed with passengers. Then there will be the unscheduled stop to accommodate a broken-down train on another line.
Of course, a train and service that work to schedule and a seat are the basics. If I travel between Edinburgh and Inverness on ScotRail, I can at least get some work done using the free wi-fi on board. There is none of that on the Gatwick Express, which should be a flagship service. I am surprised that hon. Members can actually get tweets from their constituents; I do not know how they get out. If commuters on other parts of the network are sharing my experience, that is pretty desperate stuff.
Tom Tugendhat: I thank the hon. Gentleman for one thing: ScotRail has recently handed over some diesel carriages for the Uckfield line. I hope that when ScotRail has had enough of its old rolling stock, he will encourage it to allow our dinosaur of a line, the Uckfield line, to get access to something that the Scots have rightly upgraded from.
Drew Hendry: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that worthwhile point. Of course, good rolling stock and engines on the network are important. I am pleased that in Scotland we tend to get good service, although there will always be some complaints and service issues. The hon. Gentleman and his constituents should be able to enjoy good service, too.
Last week I overheard some American visitors—this affects everyone here—sitting on the floor of the train discussing just how much they had paid for this “luxury”. It was not cheap, at least in terms of the cost. That reflects not only on the tourist industry here but on the experience of visiting Scotland. According to a recent House of Commons Library report, Southern railway’s moving annual average is, as we have heard, only 82.8%. That is the lowest of any train operator in the UK, and dramatically below the service levels that we experience in Scotland. That has come as something of a culture shock to me. We might ask what it means for rail users. The most staggering example I found was that the train from Brighton to Victoria was late every day of 2014. Simply put, every single day the poor commuters from Brighton to London did not receive the service they paid for. I do not use that service, but I understand their problems.
I will not go into more statistics, because other hon. Members have already covered a lot of them, but customers are paying for a poor service with their time and their pockets. That is unacceptable. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned the “train of shame” and we have also heard about the “misery line”. It is too poor.
Crispin Blunt: On the subject of fares for an inadequate service, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is wholly unreasonable that those customers are paying to subsidise services elsewhere in the country, including Scotland?
Drew Hendry: I do not accept that calculation for Scotland. I could give the hon. Gentleman a lengthy argument—a treatise—about it, but he will allow the fact that time is limited, and I am sure he will want the Minister to have time to speak. Perhaps we can catch up another day on why that does not apply to the situation.
Rail companies have a duty to ensure that customers are aware of their rights to compensation. I call on the Minister to review rail service compensation arrangements: first, to ensure that all franchised operators are moved to the delay-repay scheme as a priority; and, secondly, to raise awareness of compensation rights so that rail users know exactly what they are entitled to. It is ludicrous that rail companies can profit from delays caused by Network Rail. They receive compensation but given the lack of uptake in compensation claims made by users they can, as has been mentioned, often profit as a result.
The 30-minute delay rule for compensation is unacceptable, as has been mentioned. Perhaps hon. Members will want to call on the Minister to establish an ombudsman-like body to ensure that rail companies are subject to appropriate scrutiny when they handle complaints. Perhaps it will only be when rail companies pay from their pocket and time that appropriate improvements to services will be made.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner.
I begin by congratulating the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate. As we have heard in a number of powerful contributions, the declining performance of Southern is clearly a cause of major frustration and, at times, real anger for the millions of commuters and occasional travellers who rely on its services. Even after hitting ever lower ebbs, Southern’s performance has continued to deteriorate further.
The facts are stark: just 83% of trains were on time in the past year—the worst annual punctuality rate in 15 years. Only 70% of trains were on time during the morning peak, when thousands of commuters struggle to find a seat on increasingly expensive and overcrowded trains. The 6.35 am train from Caterham to London Victoria was reckoned to be one of the most overcrowded trains in the country at the time of the last surveys in 2013, with more than 200 passengers left standing. One in 20 trains were cancelled or seriously late. The operator reports some improvements in recent months, but overall, Southern missed its punctuality targets by almost 5%—the most significant gap between target and performance of any operator—which helped to trigger the regulator’s current investigation of Network Rail’s performance in 2014-15. Famously, of course, the 7.29 am train from Brighton to London Victoria did not run to time on one single day last year.
It is therefore not surprising that passenger satisfaction has fallen. As the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, overall satisfaction is down by 10% since 2010. Among commuters, less than a quarter of passengers say that they are getting value for money for their fares, which have risen by 23% on average since 2010, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) noted.
This is a world away from the standards that passengers expect and deserve, and we have all seen the disgraceful scenes at London Bridge station. The closure of tracks and platforms may be an unavoidable consequence of the £6.5 billion Thameslink project, but the poor management of London Bridge station and the lack of information provided to passengers during periods of disruption are inexcusable.
We also have to look at how Network Rail and the train operators work with one another. Even after it was known that tracks would be taken out of service, the decision was taken to run 22 trains an hour during the peak period. As Network Rail and Govia later admitted,
“we have discovered that this number is not feasible.”
At a time when the planning of rail projects is under intense scrutiny, it is clear that that lack of adequate preparation cannot be allowed to happen again. Network Rail and Southern have produced a recovery plan, about which I will say more later. I know that the Minister has been meeting the responsible parties, but the Government’s involvement must be judged on the results that it yields, not just the number of meetings that are held.
Claire Perry: As always, the shadow Minister is saying a lot of things that I entirely agree with, and I am looking forward to addressing those points. However, will she join me in condemning the rail unions, who are determined, across London and across the network, to maximise disruption at a time when we all should be working together to deliver the best possible service for our customers?
Lilian Greenwood: I agree that it would be very unfortunate if industrial action went ahead, because I know that it would cause extra disruption to passengers. However, as Government Members said, the way to avoid that is to get back round the negotiating table and talk about the issues at stake.
When the Minister replies today, I hope that she will give hon. Members an update on the progress that has been made against the short and medium-term goals in the recovery plan. When we look at the wider problems facing Southern, it is important to identify where responsibility lies. In spite of the best efforts of its engineering staff, Network Rail has not consistently provided reliable infrastructure services on this route over the last year, and indeed the regulator has identified Southern as a franchise where
“punctuality and reliability is below expectations”.
I note, however, that 31% of delays were attributed to the operator during the last year, so it does not escape blame. It is clearly for Southern to address issues such as the cleanliness of trains and the provision of information to passengers—including about delays, cancellations and compensation—but there are also areas in which the Government are directly accountable for the treatment of passengers. I will move on to that issue in the time remaining.
It is often asserted that Ministers exercise influence through the franchising process, but Southern will cease to function as a traditional franchise by the end of the month, when it will join Thameslink and Great Northern under a single, combined management contract. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) noted, that contract gives the Department and Ministers significant new powers over the operator, including in relation to the setting of fares. Last year, the Government confirmed their intention to remove gradually cheaper “Thameslink only” tickets on the Brighton main line from 2016. The cost difference for annual season tickets to London was as much as £664. At the time, the Minister said:
“When we move from two operators to one on the line…fares will be gradually equalised.”
Will the Minister confirm that that is still the Government’s position, and will she set out what level of fare rises commuters will face when they return to work in January?
Or has the policy had to be abandoned as a consequence of the Government’s last-minute decision to adopt Labour’s policy of scrapping the unfair flex loophole?
Claire Perry: That you introduced—that Labour introduced.
Lilian Greenwood: That was introduced under privatisation.
We have heard today that compensation arrangements need to be improved. The Minister has previously indicated that she is willing to consider an automated system for awarding compensation when services are more than two minutes late. That would certainly be welcomed by passengers, but it is worrying that the introduction of such a system appears to be explicitly tied to the franchising process. Does that mean that Southern passengers could have to wait until the early 2020s, when the next franchise will be awarded, before enjoying that benefit?
Equally, the Government could take action now to require train companies to provide cash compensation, in contrast to the inflexible national rail vouchers that cannot be used online. Our understanding is that the Secretary of State could make that change by authorising a revision to the national rail conditions of carriage. Will the Minister confirm that that is the case, and if so, why that authorisation has not yet been given?
Similarly, the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), said that part- time season tickets—if they are ever created—will be implemented through franchise awards. Does that mean that Southern passengers could face a wait of at least six years before accessing those products, even though part-time season tickets could save some commuters hundreds of pounds a year?
Another issue, which is clearly of particular interest to a number of hon. Members, is the possible devolution of some routes to Transport for London. London Overground, as has been said today, has transformed services elsewhere in the capital, and significant investment is going into the recently devolved routes to Cheshunt, Enfield Town and Chingford. Southern’s punctuality, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood highlighted, is poorest on its south London metro routes, so there is real interest in TfL taking over management of those services. What consideration has the Minister given to those proposals? Has she had any recent discussions with TfL on the devolution of those routes, either in whole or in part?
If Southern is to accommodate growing demand, further infrastructure improvements are likely to be necessary. The operator is running 700 more trains a day than the route carried 20 years ago, across some of the most complex and congested sections of the national rail network. There appeared to be cause for celebration in March, when the Chancellor promised
“a feasibility study into Brighton Main Line 2, speeding up journeys and relieving congestion”.
However, the Budget document itself mentioned only
“a further study into reopening the Lewes to Uckfield rail line”
and not into the whole of Brighton main line 2. Will the Minister say a bit more about whether the scope of that study will extend to the whole project or not?
I come to my final point. The recovery plan that I mentioned earlier stated that the quality of signalling equipment was
“under review, with the potential for investing in enhancements being assessed.”
However, the reality is that the status of Network Rail’s whole investment programme is now unclear and is unlikely to be clarified before the end of the year. Ultimately, better services will require investment in improved infrastructure, but Network Rail is facing enormous cost pressures on its enhancement, renewals and maintenance budgets. Will the Minister confirm today that while passengers face delayed and cancelled trains, rising fares and cramped carriages, essential measures to improve their journeys are now in jeopardy?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Claire Perry): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) did not adhere to the four-minute rule. I appreciate that she raised a lot of points, many of which I may not be able to answer, but I will write to everyone whose questions I do not cover today.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing the debate. Many people in the Chamber have either been, or have replaced, Members of Parliament who are absolutely assiduous and dogged in their pursuit of a better transport system. It really shows—I extend this point to the shadow Minister as well—the importance that we now place on our national, local and regional transport infrastructure not only as an absolute agent of economic growth, but as an agent of human happiness. I was struck by the point made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), and I entirely agree. The worst thing about the whole situation would be to be that mother or father trying to get home to pick up their children from childcare, and month after month, week after week, day after day, being unable to say what time you will get home. That is an unacceptable burden on working families.
Sorting out the route will deliver potentially the biggest productivity gain in the UK. The Southern route carries the second highest number of passengers. It is the biggest franchise: it will, as my hon. Friends pointed out, be merging into the GTR franchise at the end of the month. It has some of the oldest and most complicated track layout in the country—there is a reason why the upgrade works have not been done by successive Governments. Some of the track is 176 years old. Doing this work is like doing open-heart surgery on a marathon runner. It creates delay, and misery when that delay becomes too great. There are serious lessons for the railway industry to learn about how works are done. Is it right to keep stations open and running, or is it better to use a blockade and have all the pain at once? Those are very important questions and challenges for the industry.
The work on the route is one of the largest investment programmes in the UK, and it is contributing to the problem—it is not the sole cause. It is not just about London Bridge station. There is the new station at Blackfriars, which has a wonderful layout and has added new capacity into the system. There is the introduction of new trains, which has started to happen on the route that my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned. I know that he has seen the 387s already introduced, but equally the class 700s that come in will double the number of people who can be brought into London during peak commuting hours. So much is going on, but it is true that performance is often unacceptable and sometimes inexcusable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) made the point that the majority of the time—I have the latest right-time performance figures—the trains are on time. It is not all doom and gloom, but we have got to a situation in which passengers have lost their trust in the operator and front-line staff have been left to deal with some unacceptable delay incidents themselves. It is not fun to work at London Bridge and not have the tools and information; to want to help deliver better performance for customers but be unable to do so; and to be spat at and abused. We should recognise that behind all these problems are often good people trying to do their best but lacking the tools to do so. I wanted to say a bit about that.
I have heard consistent themes in the debate, which I will try to address today. I am referring to reliability of service, communication and compensation. The reason why it is so important to get this right is that the Government have an unprecedented investment plan for transport infrastructure over the next five years. It is not jam tomorrow; the new stations and new trains will be delivered. I say to the hon. Member for Nottingham South that it is churlish to suggest that Network Rail’s £38 billion investment programme is in jeopardy. The only part of the programme that has been paused is the electrification programme. All the rest of the works are proceeding as scheduled, and quite right too.
Demand has increased by more than 60% in this part of the country, and of course passengers have expectations of a better service now. People do not want to be shuffled around and not given information. I think that one of my hon. Friends said that the guard had less information than he did, because he was able to dial into social media applications.
There have already been some improvements on this line. I know that hon. Members mentioned this. We have started to see a slow uptick in the various performance measures, whether public performance measures or right-time performance measures. We have seen driver recruitment increase. One big challenge for Southern was that it did not take on enough drivers when it took on the franchise. Its driver recruitment plans are now running ahead of where it wanted to be. It is losing drivers as other parts of the network grow, but it is recruiting. It is 50% ahead of plan, and training is proceeding apace. That is incredibly important.
Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con): My hon. Friend the Minister talks about the investment programme over the next five years. My commuters from Horsham and elsewhere are already focusing on the control period beginning in 2019 and the pinch points in Clapham and elsewhere. I hope that we will continue to have investment flowing in the next control period as well. I am not asking the Minister to commit herself completely right now on what will be going on in 2019—other events this afternoon will determine that—but I hope that that will remain a priority.
Claire Perry: I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comment. I think that on the day of the Budget, it would be a foolish Minister who committed to longer-term spending, but my hon. Friend has my assurance that I will listen to him and his constituents on this important matter.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs for his kind comments about my involvement. I think the hon. Member for Nottingham South is possibly the only member of the shadow Transport team who is actually interested in transport. She shows up at every debate; her boss is too busy running various leadership campaigns. She knows the issues on the railways well, and I look forward to continuing to work productively with her, but this is not about the Department getting involved and Ministers trying to drive change. As has been said today, what we want is the industry to be able to do this itself, so what are the levers that we need to use?
It is reassuring, I am sure, for hon. Members to know that the chief executive of Network Rail, when he gave a presentation to the Department for Transport board, said that the recovery of the area of the country that we are debating was one of his top five priorities for this year. It is obvious to everyone that the system is creating millions of hours of misery for millions of people in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. That is simply unacceptable, and it is not good enough to have one-off interventions, despite the fact that we have unprecedented levels of work going on. The industry has to learn how to do things differently. The challenge, in thinking about Euston, High Speed 2 and connectivity into London, is to learn the lessons now to ensure that mistakes are not repeated.
I think the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood may have made a point about the existence of current passengers not being valued enough in the overall process. I cannot remember whether it was her, but that point came from the Opposition Benches. I agree. Understanding what matters to people now is crucial, so let me outline some of the things that are happening and will happen. I invite my hon. Friends to be part of the process.
The merger is happening, and that will bring in a raft of new performance measures that will hold to account those responsible a fair amount. Hon. Members may know that the franchise is currently in breach of some of its performance measures, and there has been a conversation with the Department about the implications of that. Performance improvement plans were presented back in the spring—I know that hon. Members saw them—and are already starting to be implemented. That is driving the slow and steady improvement in performance.
Beyond that, there are three main problems. The first is that delivering the London Bridge improvement programme will not solve all the problems on the lines in question, particularly the Brighton main line. The second is that although the public performance measure is improving, recovery from delays and the volatility of the service remain real challenges. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is no longer in her place, some trains are always late, and that is simply not good enough. The third point is that rail customers—those who are paying for the goods and services—are consistently unhappy. They have lost trust. They do not see the improvements, and they do not think they will be sustained.
So what has happened? Network Rail brought in its chief engineer to do a deep dive on the real, underlying problems on the line, from both an operations and an infrastructure point of view. That has been turned into a short-term and long-term plan for real recovery. I know we talk a lot about plans, recoveries and summits. There is a war room at London Bridge station that all hon. Members are invited to visit with me on the 20th. I would be delighted if the hon. Member for Nottingham South would join us. It is a cross-party invitation, which I believe she has already received, to see the depth of planning and understanding that is going on on a joined-up basis between Network Rail and the operator.
I can confirm to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs that I chair the weekly meeting. We have also invited in Transport Focus, because I am keen for improvements to be seen and felt by passengers. We are not just telling ourselves that things are getting better. We are tracking social media sentiment and how people feel about their journeys. We are tracking what matters to people and what is actually improving for people.
I want to mention some of the points that have been made about compensation. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) made a valuable point. Compensation should almost never be paid, because we should have a system that delivers people to their destination on time. Members are right that it is estimated that only 12% of people claim compensation. We have a manifesto commitment to deliver better compensation—and part-time season tickets—right across the industry. I continue to look at the problem of giving compensation to passengers from London Bridge. It is difficult, because it is hard to target those passengers in a fairly open network, but we continue to work on it.
Of course, there are already companies, such as c2c, that are delivering compensation automatically to people’s phones if they are more than a minute delayed. That is the sort of model that we want to see. I will also refer to DelayRepay.net, which is a way to take all the paperwork out of claiming compensation. There are already some important innovations in the industry.
Ultimately, we have to have an unswerving commitment to and focus on passengers—customers—in the industry. The industry does so much right, but when things go wrong, the fact that we have capped fares at RPI for the remainder of this Parliament almost does not matter, because people are frustrated about their journey. So I am determined, and the Department is determined, to hold the industry to account. I am agnostic on the structure—whether this is done through an alliance or in another way. Whatever the structure happens to be, I just want better services to be delivered. I believe that the best way to do that is through transparency, a continued focus on quality in the franchising process and all of us being involved in holding the companies to account.
Question put and agreed to.