Commuting from Chislehurst, I am only too familiar with the problems residents continue to experience when travelling by rail. I suffer the same inadequate service described in your emails, letters and tweets every week; I am equally frustrated that, almost on a daily basis, I am delayed when trying to get to work, and frequently can’t get a seat; and I share other passengers’ anger at how poor communication can be when trains are disrupted, especially during peak times.
The problems this week have not only been immensely frustrating, but certainly on the trains I travelled on (as well as on others, from what I have seen on social media) dangerously overcrowded too, both on and off the platform. These are matters I have raised repeatedly with Southeastern, Network Rail and the Department for Transport in recent months, through various letters, in debates and Transport Questions, as well as in a number of follow-up meetings.
After writing to the new Rail Minister on his first day in office - a copy of which is attached below - I met with him on 18 October, and again at a roundtable I sponsored last Monday, which also brought together officials from the Department for Transport, the senior management of Southeastern and Network Rail, as well as other Members of Parliament whose constituencies Southeastern serve.
At both of these I have urged Southeastern and Network Rail to make urgent, strategic improvements to the day-to-day running of their service. I summarise below the main issues that were discussed:
During the debate I held on Southeastern in January, as well as at a follow-up meeting with the former Rail Minister on 17 March, I received assurances that a decision on new rolling stock would be made in the very near future. Given that passenger numbers have increased by over 30% since 2006, but Southeastern have had no new stock since 2009 (which was used on the high speed line), a decision on this issue is long-overdue.
After Southeastern submitted a revised proposal in March, the Department for Transport has been working with Southeastern to make their proposals work. There have been a number of practical hurdles to overcome, including finding suitable depots and stabling facilities in the franchise area, which they have been able to do at places like Slade Green.
The proposals would see Southeastern acquire rolling stock from Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), so ultimately the timescale of any agreement is reliant on GTR receiving their own class 700 stock - which for a number of reasons is being held up at production by Siemens - before releasing their class 377 carriages to Southeastern. From the conversations I have had, the need for additional stock is accepted by the Government and I will continue to press to get these hold-ups removed as soon as possible.
Members of Parliament have also been pushing officials again to introduce 12 car trains to alleviate pressure on capacity. The main challenge to this is in certifying electricity supplies, but it is something I have been assured is being worked on.
Addressing the lack of reliability on Southeastern services remains a priority for the Department for Transport, who are looking at a range of measures to improve performance. Network Rail, rather than Southeastern, continue to be the main culprit for disruption, responsible for roughly 70% of all delays and 60% of cancellations.
The Minister has re-established the South East Quadrant meetings, which includes Transport Focus, Southeastern, GTR and Network Rail, to hold operators to account and encourage joint working. A number of changes to the senior management of Network Rail, including the appointment of a new Route Director, will, I am told, have a positive impact in the long term.
I have raised my concern that Network Rail are focussing too much on their big ticket projects, like Thameslink and the London Bridge rebuilding, at the expense of the day-to-day running of the network, and that timetables are being padded out by Southeastern to improve their performance statistics. The responsibility for any delay over 3 minutes is ascribed to one of the organisations involved, in theory allowing people to see what caused the problem, and, I hope, enabling lessons to be learnt. I will continue to monitor these issues closely.
I have also been assured that Southeastern will look again at ways of improving communications when there is disruption. In particular, I want to see more information made readily available to passengers travelling to and from places like Bromley South, Grove Park or Chislehurst, who often have different options open to them as to which route or London terminal to choose.
Following the meetings I held with Transport for London (TfL) earlier this year, the transfer of the responsibility for our metro services to TfL remains one of my top priorities. As you may be aware, the Mayor of London submitted a detailed business case to the Department for Transport in October, and this is something I have discussed, both as a constituency MP and in my role as co-chair of the APPG for London, with the Mayor, the Secretary of State, and others at the Department on a number of occasions.
I was very disappointed that no update was provided in last week’s Autumn Statement, but I remain convinced that this is the right option for our local rail and will continue to work with the Mayor in urging Ministers to make a timely, favourable decision.
The Department is still on track to introduce new reforms to the compensation framework, namely through Delay Repay 15. This will be a vast improvement on the current system, which is often meaningless to suburban commuters whose delays are frequently under the 30 minute threshold, but no less irritating or disruptive.
The new scheme should mean that Network Rail bear the brunt of the charges when things go wrong, and will, I hope, bring about an effective carrot and stick model to incentivise improved performance. I have asked the Minister to ensure this is implemented on the Southeastern network as soon as possible.
Southeastern have also recently updated their online claim process, allowing passengers to create an account which retains their details and auto-fills standard information to speed up the claim. I have encouraged Southeastern to continue to do everything they can to ensure their passengers are fully aware of the rights available to them.
Smart ticketing will be introduced to season ticket holders from 5 December, providing passengers with a more convenient, paperless form of commuting. While further improvements would require changes to ticket gates and ticketing policy, in time this could pave the way for oyster style cards across the network. Details can be found through the link below:
Going forward, I will of course continue to make every effort to ensure real improvements are made. I was one of the MPs to oppose the rewarding of the franchise to Southeastern in 2013, and still believe our interests would be better served by a metro service overseen by TfL. I have been very clear that the standard must improve, and will push for change at every available opportunity.
In the meantime, you may want to look at the revised timetable for the festive season, which can be found here:
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