Bob Neill responds to consultation on the future of local rail services

As many local passengers will already be aware, the Department for Transport is currently consulting on the future of the South Eastern rail franchise. The contract with the current operator, Southeastern, expires in December 2018, and this is an opportunity for residents to make their thoughts known on the existing service, as well as to set out their views on what the priorities for the future franchise should be.

The consultation closes on 23 May, and if you have not already submitted a response and to wish to do so, you can here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/future-of-south-eastern-rail-services

I have long campaigned for better rail services in Bromley and Chislehurst, providing residents with a strong, independent voice in Parliament on this important local issue. My detailed response to the consultation can be read in full below, but in summary, I believe the future train operating company (TOC) must oversee:

  • A far more reliable, punctual service. This will require an increasingly integrated approach between the TOC and Network Rail to overcome problems on the network, as well as the introduction of meaningful financial penalties to ensure targets are met;
  • Urgent action to procure additional rolling stock and alleviate overcrowding on carriages, making better use of existing trains and the expertise of station staff;
  • A service that provides passengers with flexibility across the network. That means direct services to a number of London termini, improved interchanges at Grove Park and Lewisham, as well as access to other travel routes, such as Thameslink and the Elizabeth Line;
  • Improved customer services, particularly with regards to the visibility and helpfulness of staff during disruption, the ease of claiming compensation when problems occur, and ensuring greater transparency on things like fare increases;
  • Improved passenger facilities, especially for those with mobility issues, introducing step free access at our local stations wherever possible.

The considerable pressure on the suburban network means that, sooner or later, a radical shake-up of the franchise will be needed, both in terms of its geographical size and shape. This is something I have been campaigning for over a number of years, and again, I have set out my thoughts further in the response below.

Please be assured that this is a cause I will continue to throw my full weight behind if re-elected on 8 June, both as a local representative and as a daily commuter on Southeastern services.

 

As the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Bromley and Chislehurst, its Member of Parliament up until the General Election, and as a daily passenger on the Southeastern network myself, I write to place on record my response to the Department for Transport’s (DfT) open consultation on the South Eastern franchise renewal.

Bromley and Chislehurst is quintessential commuter-territory, with a very high percentage of its population travelling to and from central London every day for work. With no local Underground provision as an alternative, passengers are entirely dependent on what the consultation acknowledges has been an ‘unacceptably poor [service] for far too long.’ In effect, there is a monopoly supply, overseen by a wholly discredited service operator.  

Taken together with the rising cost of travel, it comes as little surprise that very few customers have confidence in the operator being able to deliver the improvements that are needed, as demonstrated in consecutive Transport Focus passenger surveys. By association, the ongoing, well-documented problems across the network have also tarnished the reputation of the DfT. It has therefore become clear that a major rethink is required with regards to both the management and organisation of the franchise.

I set out below the main issues I see as being a priority for the residents of Bromley and Chislehurst in the years to come.

Reliability

The top expectation of any rail operator must be to transport passengers from A to B in a timely, safe and cost-efficient way. While many of the proposals this consultation puts forward are to be welcomed, they frankly count for little if a future operator is unable to deliver this most basic of aims – a reliable, punctual service.

I believe the large majority of customers appreciate that occasional disruption will be inevitable given the complexity of the network and the pressure it is under, and have understood and accepted that considerable alterations to services have been necessary to enable the rebuilding works at London Bridge to take place. However, as I have stressed to Ministers on numerous occasions, it is the tangible deterioration in day-to-day services that is the cause of most frustration to residents in Bromley and Chislehurst, as well as the frequent failure to communicate effectively the reasons for disruption. I would point out that this is a not a new problem, and neither Southeastern nor Network Rail should be allowed to use the renovation of London Bridge as a scapegoat for their own failures.

Reliability is now so bad, especially on Metro services, that many local residents have encountered problems at work, and a number of examples have been brought to my attention where families have had no choice but to move, from what is otherwise an attractive place to live, due to the area’s increasingly poor rail provision. Part of the solution lies in greater joint-working between the Train Operating Company (TOC) and Network Rail, and I therefore welcome the consultation’s general thrust to ensure a more cooperative, integrated approach to managing the franchise.

Meaningful financial penalties and incentives for both the TOC and Network Rail should be considered respectively when underperformance occurs and targets are met, ensuring both organisations work together to address shortcomings on the network. The current level of penalties seems inadequate to change behaviour and is instead almost brushed off as an occupational hazard. This should be significantly sharpened.

I see no reason why this proposal, given due consideration, cannot be implemented as soon as possible, and certainly before the new franchise begins in December 2018.

Overcrowding

With no additional rolling stock having been procured since 2009 – which consisted of high-speed Javelin trains not serving Bromley and Chislehurst – overcrowding on the South Eastern network is severe. For a number of years I have been pressing the DfT to introduce additional rolling stock on Southeastern Metro lines, and given the public assurances passengers have received, it is unacceptable that this problem is yet to be resolved.

Significant housing development in North Kent and the London suburbs will increase demand throughout the duration of the next franchise period. This issue will therefore only worsen unless action is taken now. Already, the situation is dangerous, with passengers frequently witnessing fellow customers fainting due to overcrowding on carriages, something I have seen more than once myself. For those who are pregnant, elderly, or disabled, travelling at peak times is often unbearable, and for many, out of the question altogether. That is simply not good enough. Securing additional rolling stock, and identifying suitable stabling facilities, must therefore be a priority for the future service operator.

I support other proposals put forward by the consultation to alleviate overcrowding, including the introduction of high capacity carriages, with wider doors and quicker access, on Metro services, as well as plans to reconsider the feasibility of twelve carriage trains and extending platforms to accommodate these. It would also be wise to assess whether station staff can do more to oversee and manage the problems caused by overcrowding, both to maintain passenger safety and to ensure on-board space is maximised. This role is effectively carried out by staff across the London Underground network, with what Transport for London (TfL) managers describe as the ‘hustle factor’ at their stations. Overground operators should learn from this good practice.

Providing the passenger with travel options

Customers rightfully expect a responsive, flexible timetable that allows them to easily travel around the network for employment and recreational purposes, as well as adapt when delays occur and different routes are needed. I therefore strongly oppose the consultation’s proposal (Question 17) to reduce the number of London destinations served by Metro routes, restricting each line to one terminal – London Victoria, Charing Cross or Cannon Street. While I understand the complexity of the network, and the problems these junctions can cause, Metro services to a number of termini is one of the few strengths of the franchise. Simplifying the services on offer may, from a logistical and operational standpoint, appear attractive, but will inevitably only shift this pressure elsewhere on the network, forcing passengers to travel across the capital. It would represent a serious diminishment of service for commuters in London and inner Kent.

From a local perspective, I would urge for more services to stop at Lewisham – so that the City and Canary Wharf can be easily accessed – and for the TOC to make better use of existing infrastructure, particularly the Bromley North Branch Line. Passengers continue to suffer from poor connections due to rigid and poorly integrated timetabling when changing at Grove Park station, and I therefore welcome the consultation’s suggestion that timetables should be more regularly reviewed, with the operator taking steps to engage further with the communities it serves to ascertain local priorities for the network.

With Bromley town centre designated as an Opportunity Area in the London Plan, and given our capital’s exponential population growth – which will rise to 10 million people by 2030 – it is vital that the franchise increasingly operates as part of an integrated travel package, which includes Thameslink, the Elizabeth Line, Crossrail 2, and a potential extension of the Bakerloo Line. Working in tandem, these would deliver significant journey time improvements and increase access to employment opportunities across the city for people living in the suburbs.  

Customer services

Staff at Southeastern stations are, generally, very helpful, dealing with enquiries as best as they can during times of disruption. They are clearly often caught between a rock and a hard place, fielding questions with little information or support from the control room. Although I am told Southeastern have issued station staff with tablet computers to help them better disseminate advice when things go wrong, I have seen no evidence of this at the coalface.

Improving communication during disruption must be a priority for the future TOC. Indeed, as Transport Focus’ report – ‘South Eastern rail franchise: what passengers want’ – recently highlighted:

‘Passengers highly value staff presence and visibility, and they would like to see this enhanced. Helpful, informed staff on stations and on trains would help to improve satisfaction with handling disruption and perceptions of personal security, which are both seen as important areas for improvement.’

I would encourage the future operator to strengthen lines of communication with the passengers it serves, making the most of social media and other digital platforms to provide customers will real-time updates and advice for multiple routes. I am aware that Network Rail is currently trialling the use of infographic updates to keep passengers in the loop, and it would make sense if the TOC worked with Network Rail staff to expand the reach of this. To improve passenger confidence in the industry, both organisations should seek opportunities to further engage with their customers, as well as making their decision making process more transparent, especially on issues of timetabling and fare increases. 

This is particularly pertinent given the media attention Southeastern have received this week for their stealth fare rise. The future franchise should include a commitment to transparency on fares, including a requirement for clear advance notice of any fare increases.

With regards to compensation, I welcome that the new franchise will be committed to Delay-Repay 15, a vast improvement on the current 30 minute threshold, which patently fails suburban passengers. This should be accompanied by measures to ensure that the claiming of compensation is made easier, again through digital platforms, rather than relying on the archaic, individual forms disgruntled passengers are often forced to submit. The future operator should also consider other options to make the system fairer and increasingly hassle-free, in particular exploring whether the use of smart-ticketing can be used to automatically identify passengers entitled to compensation.

Passenger facilities

Having successfully campaigned for the installation of the elevator at Bromley South station in 2012, I believe step-free access at all local stations should be a key aim of the future franchise. This is especially important across the London Borough of Bromley, which has the highest population of pensioners anywhere in London.

Where, for spatial reasons, step-free access may not be possible, efforts should be taken to improve existing staircases and ticket halls with handrails and anti-slip tread. Other initiatives, including the Assisted Travel service, should be better publicised so that passengers with mobility issues are aware of the support available to them.

The upkeep of stations ensures a more positive travel experience, and I am aware that some passengers would like to see more seating available, especially at large stations and interchanges. On-board, customers should be able to easily access an adequate Wi-Fi network.

Improvements are needed to the current rolling stock – particularly the 456/466 units – to better ventilate air in warm weather, a frequent cause of frustration during the summer. On newer trains, drivers should have the ability to manually control air conditioning.

The future of the franchise

The current situation - in which passengers are paying a significant portion of their income on a frankly substandard level of service – cannot continue. Real, tangible improvements are needed on the ground to restore passengers’ faith in the industry.

Demand across the network is set to rise considerably, and with Southeastern already overseeing 1,900 services a day, 65% of which are at peak times, it is clear that the franchise area as currently envisaged will soon become untenable. I therefore welcome the consultation’s openness to a new, radical approach to dealing with the challenges of the future (Question 24).

Recent consultation exercises have exposed a vast difference in priorities across the network. Residents in Bromley and Chislehurst will want certain things from the service which will inevitably be at odds with the wishes of passengers travelling from further afield, yet clearly, neither should lose out. Without changes to the geographical size and shape of the franchise, it is difficult to see how the future operator will be able to achieve many of the aims this consultation sets out. 

Passengers will not be well served by a renationalisation of the railway, and it should be made clear that those advocating such a model are selling an undeliverable product. I welcome the consultation’s aim of securing more private investment for specific projects, as well as across the network more generally.

Greater integration between the TOC and Network Rail is certainly needed, and the next franchise holder would do well to learn from TfL, who run an infinitely more efficient Metro service. Indeed, many of the consultation’s ambitions seem to have been adopted from the joint prospectus published by the DfT and TfL in January 2016, and a great number of passengers remain very disappointed by the decision not to proceed with those proposals last year.

At the very least, the new franchise should include a clear requirement for closer operational alignment with TfL’s tube, bus and tram services on fare levels, ease of interchange, timetabling, systems of ticketing for all modes of transport, as well as passenger information systems.

The renewal of the South Eastern franchise provides an excellent opportunity to rethink how rail services in London and the South East are operated, and I would urge Ministers to consider whether more of Network Rail’s responsibilities can be brought in-house by the future TOC, as they are by TfL. Given that the next franchise will run until at least 2025, I would also encourage the DfT to assess what measures and safeguards should be introduced to ensure the future operator delivers the terms of the franchise agreement.

I would be very happy to discuss any of the points above with Ministers or Department officials at a time convenient to them.