Matthew Pennycook on southeastern Rail Franchise

This is the official Hansard record of the Adjournment debate secured by Matthew Pennycook MP.

South-eastern Rail Franchise

24 January 2018

Volume 635​

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Craig Whittaker.)

7.04 pm

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Deputy Speaker. I should like to add my sentiments to those that have been expressed to you today. It is very good to see you back in your place. Huge numbers of my constituents, including me and my family, depend on local metro train services on the south-eastern rail network for work, for leisure and as a means of accessing the wider transport network in our city, so a let me start by thanking you for giving me the chance to speak on their behalf on this important issue. However, as much as I am grateful for the opportunity, I am also struck by a depressing familiarity in having to raise concerns about services on the network—a feeling that I know will be shared by a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House, including those who have stayed behind to attend the debate and, I suspect, the Minister himself, whom I welcome to his new role.

In the relatively short time that I have been a Member of Parliament, we have had several debates on this issue. I recall an Adjournment debate that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) secured in January 2016 and a well-attended Westminster Hall debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) in that same year, along with scores of oral and written parliamentary questions, all driven by the same basic grievance: passengers using the south-eastern rail network have suffered for too long from overcrowded and unreliable train services.

My own journey to work today was sadly typical of what many of my constituents experience every week. The 6.59 am service from Charlton to Charing Cross that I caught this morning was six minutes late, had two fewer carriages than advertised and was badly overcrowded as a result.

My argument is simple: the residents that I represent in Blackheath, Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich and Plumstead, and those across south-east London represented by other Members of the House, deserve better from the next franchise, but I am concerned that the way the Government have approached it will not deliver the improvements my constituents need.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He is absolutely right: we have been discussing this for a very long time, but nothing seems to have changed. Does he agree that one of the particular frustrations for constituents in suburban London is that the current franchise appears to be structured in such a way that the rewards go to the longer-distance trains from the coast and that the suburban or metro trains tend to bear the brunt of the cancellations and lack of space, and are treated as the poor relation in all this?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. There has been a long-standing tension on the network between metro trains and the longer services, and it often feels as though the suburban services and those who use them get a raw deal.​

I think that it is fair to argue, although the Minister might disagree, that the record of successive operators of the franchise since privatisation in 1996 has not been particularly impressive. That would certainly be the view of many of those I represent. When the Strategic Rail Authority took the decision in June 2003 to strip Connex South Eastern of its multi-billion pound franchise, it did so because of concerns about the company’s financial performance, but anyone who used Connex services will recall just how dire its operational performance also was.

Under South Eastern Trains—a subsidiary company of the SRA that took over and ran the franchise for three years—we saw a steady improvement, but the SRA really only adopted a care and maintenance approach pending the new franchise. Under the current operator, Southeastern—a subsidiary of Govia that has run the franchise since 2006—services on the network have all too often been less than satisfactory.

That is not a criticism of Southeastern staff, whom I know to be dedicated and hardworking. I recognise that Southeastern is not solely responsible for service failures. A lot of the problems on the network are infrastructure-related. They are the responsibility of Network Rail and will remain an issue, whoever takes on the new franchise. I am also very much aware that maintaining services throughout the London Bridge rebuild would have presented any operator with enormous challenges. But all that said, there have still been real failures with Southeastern.

The provision of additional rolling stock has failed to keep pace with entirely predictable local population growth and a corresponding growth in passenger numbers. Despite much earlier requests from Southeastern, supported by a number of hon. Members, only in September last year did the Department for Transport finally authorise the purchase of 68 extra carriages for the network from GTR. Even with the addition of that extra stock, 12-car trains are still a rarity on the lines that run through my constituency, and overcrowding at peak times is frequently unacceptable, if not dangerous.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. It is absolutely imperative that the new south-eastern franchise should deliver 12-car trains in the rush hour. The 68 extra carriages to which he refers are simply inadequate. This is the key concern for many of our constituents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is absolutely right that, along with reliability, capacity and overcrowding are the No. 1 concerns of passengers in my constituency. It strikes me as odd, as I am sure it does her, that many of the platforms in our constituencies have had money spent on them to lengthen them, yet they will still not be receiving 12-car trains, even under the new service that will come in with the next franchise.

Periods of improvement in reliability and punctuality under Southeastern are all too often followed by periods of deterioration, such as the one we have experienced over the first few weeks of this year. While the published data bears out the fluctuating performance standards, I am sceptical about whether it paints an accurate picture given that it is measured against the published timetable. What I suspect we have seen over recent years is the introduction of revised timetables that, yes, have improved ​Southeastern’s public performance measure, but have meant reduced services for passengers. While the latest data available suggests that customer satisfaction has increased, it is little wonder that Southeastern’s overall customer satisfaction rating is still lower than those for all but three train operating companies in the UK.

All that is happening despite Southeastern securing £70 million of extra investment from the Government in 2014 as part of the directly awarded franchise agreement. At the time, we were promised that that investment would lead to improved train performance, customer service and station facilities. The fact remains that we are still a world away from the service that passengers in my constituency expect for the fares they pay.

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We would do better not to pit suburban passengers against those who travel longer distances—perhaps to and from my constituency—because we should all recognise that the franchising process is an opportunity to secure more capacity, more reliable trains and better-value services for all our constituents who rely on the railway.

I have to disagree to the extent that the thrust of my argument is that I am concerned that we will not get that from the next franchise, but the hon. Lady is right that it must be the aim.

My constituents understand that the network faces challenges, including rising passenger demand as well as complex and ageing track, junction and signal infrastructure, but they expect services to be punctual, reliable and not overcrowded, and those expectations are not unreasonable. The fact that expectations are not being met is partly due to the inherent limitations of the franchising system and the tension that has always existed between metro and long-distance trains.

Under the current system, the Department for Transport is responsible for designing and procuring new and replacement services on the network. The Department specifies, often in minute detail, service levels, timetables, rolling stock and most fares. It is a one-size-fits-all approach to rail franchising premised on franchises driven by the need to chase revenue and meet targets, rather than devolved concessions focused on reliability and investment. The latter is what I believe would have been achieved by the devolution of Southeastern services to Transport for London and, frankly, why I am still incensed by the Secretary of State’s decision to torpedo plans to that effect.

The plans were published jointly by the Department and TfL in January 2016 and endorsed by the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), and the previous Mayor of London, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). As we know from a leaked letter, the Transport Secretary rejected the plans due to a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution based on his belief that the services should be kept out of

“the clutches of a Labour mayor”.

No detailed explanation has ever been produced, as far as I am aware, as to why the business case submitted by the Mayor of London was considered inadequate. What particularly frustrates my constituents, whatever their political persuasion, is the knowledge that if a Conservative ​Mayor had been elected in May 2016, they would now be looking forward to our local trains being integrated into TfL’s successful Overground network next year.

I remain convinced that the devolution of metro services in London would have led to more punctual, more reliable metro-style services. They would also have facilitated—in many ways, this might have been just as transformative—the effective integration of services with others across the capital in ticketing, fares and investment, and improved customer service, particularly for passengers with a disability, because all stations would be staffed from the first train to the last. That plan represents a real missed opportunity and, while I have little hope, I urge the Minister to think again even at this late hour about making provision for the devolution of control over metro services under the new franchise.

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because time is short and the Minister has to wind up the debate.

At the very least, the Department should guarantee that the service standards delivered by the new south-eastern franchise match those that would have been delivered by London Overground. My fear is not only that the new franchise will not match those standards, but that it could lead to a deterioration in the services on which my constituents rely.

Slipped out alongside an announcement that it will look at reopening lines across the UK that were lost under the Beeching cuts, the Department published its invitation to tender for the new franchise on 29 November 2017. With one operator, Trenitalia, having withdrawn from the process, there are now only three operators bidding: Abellio, Stagecoach and the current operator, Govia.

As expected, given the instant and, I suspect, co-ordinated opposition they generated from Conservative politicians across south-east London and Kent, proposals that all metro services on the North Kent, Greenwich and Bexleyheath lines will terminate only at Cannon Street have been dropped, but that does not mean all services on those lines will escape cuts under the Government’s franchise specification.

The requirements set out in the ITT include the introduction of a revised train service, no later than 2022, that will see Woolwich and Charlton stations in my constituency lose direct services to Charing Cross, and Blackheath station, along with other stations on the Bexleyheath line, lose direct services to Victoria. Those revisions come on top of the proposed replacement of two of the six hourly off-peak Southeastern services on the line with Thameslink services that I fear might be slower and less reliable and that will not stop at Woolwich Dockyard station in my constituency or at Erith and Belvedere stations in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce).

My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he agree that the Government’s reason for terminating Victoria services on the Bexleyheath line—that the services somehow create problems because they have to cross over and that the complexity is not surmountable by modern technology or signalling—is an excuse? The people who run the service are benefiting at the expense of the passengers who use it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Far too much is made of the problems that undoubtedly exist at the throat point at Lewisham. Those problems do not ground the proposed service revisions under the franchise specification.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. What he says about Belvedere and Erith stations in my constituency is true: services to Charing Cross will be stopped and the Thameslink will not stop there. There are substantial new housing developments, and the people who move in will stand on the platforms at Belvedere and Erith and watch trains whizz past them, with no way for them to get to work.

My hon. Friend is a mind reader, because she anticipates my next point.

Viewed in the context of the Department’s serious and significant underestimation throughout this process of the scale of development and projected population growth in the area—my hon. Friend raised the point at the time of the consultation—the service revisions are of real concern and I ask the Minister to revisit them, but they are not my only concern.

It is difficult to understand why the ITT includes nothing that will encourage bidders to offer enhanced services. Indeed, it includes stringent conditions that militate against any attempt to do so. If a bidder determines to propose an enhanced service and the DFT judges that the conditions are not met, the bidder risks being penalised by having its score reduced. Surely, if one of the three bidders believes it could maintain services from, say, Woolwich and Charlton to Charing Cross to meet passenger demand, why should it not be able at least to explore the option?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the new franchise specification is that none of the commendable aspirations set out in the joint plan published by the Department and Transport for London in January 2016 has been included. Will the Minister tell the House why options such as greater integration of fares and the staffing of stations from the first train to the last were ruled out? Given the tangible benefits those options would bring, will he reconsider including them?

Lastly, although in the circumstances in which we now find ourselves I certainly welcome the introduction of a new “one team” model of franchising that will bring the future operator and Network Rail together under a single director responsible for both infrastructure and operations, whether it will work is another matter entirely. The Minister may recall that a previous attempt to foster closer working between South West Trains and Network Rail fell apart. How confident is he that this latest attempt will succeed where that one failed?

To conclude, it is beyond doubt that passengers using the south-eastern rail network have suffered from substandard services for far too long. All of us would agree, I hope, that they deserve better from the next franchise, but I have real concerns—concerns shared by passengers and the rail user groups in my constituency—that the way the Government have approached the franchise that is to be let later this year will not deliver the level of service that passengers expect and deserve. We will all have to live for the best part of a decade, and perhaps ​even longer, with the franchise and the operator who secures the award later this year. It is crucial that we get it right.

I would like to ask the Minister not only to address in his reply to the debate some of the specific concerns that I have raised, but to go away and think again about some of the limitations of the franchise specification published by his Department last year and what might be done, even at this late stage, to address them. I fear that if he does not, we will all be back here next year, and potentially for many years after that, repeating concerns about services on the network on behalf of those we represent.

7.20 pm

It is good to be here with you today, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook) on securing the debate and giving colleagues from across the south-east region an opportunity to make the very powerful representations that they have made this evening on behalf of their constituents. On my side of the House, strong points have been made by my neighbour and dear friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), and from the Opposition Benches powerful points have been made by the hon. Members for Eltham (Clive Efford), for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). I sympathise with many of the points they have made and understand very much where they are coming from.

This intense and sincere engagement by Members is of a piece with the deep engagement that stakeholders have shown to the entire process of formalising the terms of the next operator for the new franchise. In addition to debates, questions and meetings, the public consultation about the new franchise, which ran from 14 March to 30 June 2017, generated over 10,000 responses. These included detailed representations from key stakeholders such as Kent and East Sussex County Councils, Transport for London, Transport Focus, London TravelWatch and, of course, hon. Members. As a result, we have designed a specification for the new franchise that serves the priorities as set by passengers, businesses and local communities from London to the coast. Turning around performance, passenger satisfaction and creating value for money are the key priorities, and I am delighted that much of this is already happening.

I would like to say a word about the planned changes to London terminal services and the benefits that those should bring for suburban routes. Our plans for services to London terminals reflect exactly our commitment to putting the passenger at the heart of decision making. Many south-eastern stations serve more than one London terminal, causing operational complexity and sub-optimal timetables for passengers on some parts of the network. In our consultation about the new south-eastern franchise, we proposed initially a redesign of the timetable that would reduce the number of London terminals served by these stations. Such a move would have allowed a more even spacing of trains and improved operational performance. However, the proposals were rejected by a majority of respondents in the consultation, many of ​whom valued the flexibility and variety of London terminals served by Southeastern and many of whom had made decisions to move to certain areas because of this broad range of travel options. We listened; we evaluated; and in the end we decided not to move to implement the single terminus solution.

It is still necessary, however, to make some minor timetable changes to deliver the broader benefits that we were seeking to achieve for passengers and to improve value for money. The most important changes—some of which have been mentioned—will be as follows. For the Bexleyheath line, services will in future run to London Bridge, Charing Cross and Cannon Street, with longer 10 to 12-car trains, which will be too long for a number of stations on the route into Victoria.

Is the Minister aware that the line from Bexleyheath to Victoria has a stop at a major hospital, and many people on that line work there or have to attend as patients? Will there not be a huge effect on that line?

I am aware of the importance of services that go to Denmark Hill, serving King’s Hospital and the Maudsley. In developing the plans for the new franchise, the Department was acutely aware of the importance of accessing those facilities. To address that, as the hon. Lady may know, we are doubling the frequency of train services along the line from Lewisham to Victoria from two to four trains per hour all day.

We have asked bidders to operate those trains at 15-minute intervals, so that passengers will benefit from a genuine turn-up-and-go service for the first time on this route. Direct services to Denmark Hill will run on the Hayes and Sidcup lines, and passengers travelling from elsewhere will use Lewisham station as an interchange, benefiting from the new turn-up-and-go service frequency.

For those with accessibility needs, Lewisham is already a fully accessible station. However, to make the connection even easier at that station, we are asking bidders to adopt a single platform for Denmark Hill services, so that passengers will always know where to find their onward train. I hope that assures the hon. Lady of our understanding of the importance of the medical facilities at Denmark Hill.

The Minister talked about Lewisham station as an interchange. While he is right that it is compliant with disability legislation, it is a severely constrained station. Will he say what money, if any, his Department has allocated to renovating and refurbishing Lewisham station to accommodate increased numbers there?

I will happily write to the hon. Lady with those figures. I do not have them off the top of my head, but I commit to providing additional information on the money we are spending on Lewisham station.​

To continue on the changes, Hayes line services will in future run to London Bridge, Charing Cross and Victoria. Again, a small minority of passengers will lose a direct service. Those who currently travel to Cannon Street will have to change at London Bridge. On the North Kent line, which is of particular interest to the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, services to Charing Cross via Lewisham, which serve his constituency, will run to Cannon Street, as he noted, to facilitate new Thameslink services to London Bridge, Blackfriars, Farringdon and London St Pancras along the route.

Sidcup services will continue to run to Charing Cross, with Cannon Street services moving to peak times reflecting that the principal demand for those services is commuter-driven. Outside peak hours, the small number of passengers for Cannon Street will change at the new London Bridge station.

I recognise, like all Members who have spoken, that Southeastern passengers have had a torrid time in recent years and that there is considerable room for improvement in the quality of service. A combination of major infrastructure problems such as the collapse of the Dover sea wall, the impact of major enhancement works such as Thameslink and crowding have seen the operator regrettably languish at the bottom of satisfaction league tables for too long. However, I believe we are turning the corner.

To help alleviate crowding, members will applaud the fact that 25 trains have transferred from Govia Thameslink Railway to Southeastern to add capacity to both metro and mainline services.

The extra trains are welcome, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is utterly bizarre that, even with the extra trains and the fact that the stations on the line from Sevenoaks through Orpington and my constituency can take 10 and 12-car trains, rush-hour trains are still being run to Charing Cross with eight-car trains? That is just poor use of the assets that the Government have given to Southeastern.

My hon. Friend is a tireless and brilliant champion for his constituents in Bromley and Chislehurst, and he makes important points that doubtless the operator has heard and would be well advised to take note of.

The new trains are providing 5,300 additional seats in the morning and 4,300 seats in the evening peak. All metro routes have now have longer trains, and the 13 most overcrowded Southeastern trains now have significant additional capacity. The past 12 months have also seen important performance improvements, with the official public performance measure moving up from 85.9% in February 2017 to almost 89% in the most recent figures. The positive impact of all that for passengers is clear and we want to see things continue to improve in the months ahead.

Question put and agreed to.   7.30 pm