Nick speaks in Commons debate on Hassocks rail services
Today Nick spoke in a debate in Westminster Hall, which he secured, about rail services to and from Hassocks in his constituency. His speech can be watched and read in full below.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I welcome the opportunity to raise the subject of the rail services provided for villagers in Hassocks in my constituency, and for others who use the station there, which is on the Brighton main line and which offers Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express services. Hon. Members may wonder why I am talking about rail services to a village. Although it has a population of only 7,700 people—making it the largest settlement in my constituency—Hassocks is nevertheless the 10th busiest rail station in west Sussex and is used by many people who do not live in Hassocks itself. It is a commuter village.
Many people move to Hassocks specifically because of the rail links that it provides to London and other places. In fact, 1.3 million passengers a year use Hassocks station. Therefore, my first and key point—I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has taken it on board, because he very generously met me to discuss this issue before the new timetable was introduced last month—is that this is not a small issue. A large number of people use the rail service from Hassocks in my constituency, and the Minister knows that they are very angry indeed. They have put up with two years of disruption because of the problems with the Southern service and the London Bridge upgrade. They fully accept that the London Bridge upgrade will ultimately be of benefit to passengers, but they are certainly not seeing that at the moment. Just as it looked as though we might be moving towards a steadier state for rail services in West Sussex, which over the past two years have been absolutely dismal, we have serious disruption again.
This all started with the introduction of the new timetable last month. I should say straightaway that I fully appreciate that the new timetable provides more peak trains to Victoria from Hassocks and the same number to and from London Bridge—theoretically; I will come to the actuality shortly. Theoretically there are more such services, but—here is the “but”—there are no longer any direct services to Clapham Junction, the busiest rail station in Europe, from Hassocks. Despite the size of the village and the numbers of people commuting from there, the direct services to Clapham Junction have simply been withdrawn, and I am talking not about the disrupted timetable, but about the new timetable, which was meant to offer an improved service to everyone.
Four peak-time morning trains to Clapham Junction have been removed, and Govia Thameslink Railway admits that three of those journeys will now be slower by up to 10 minutes because of the need for my constituents to change services. Six peak-time return trains from Clapham Junction to Hassocks have been removed, and GTR admits that four of the journeys will be slower by up to 10 minutes. GTR has told me that it appreciates that
“passengers will need to change trains,”
“the journey time is only increasing by an average of 7 minutes.”
Commuters dispute that: they say that changes at Gatwick or East Croydon are rarely quick or easy, because of overcrowding. I know that GTR is giving figures based on a four-minute change time at Gatwick. I defy the Minister, GTR executives or anyone else reliably to be able to change at Gatwick at peak time, even if the trains were operating properly, based on only a four-minute window.
Jeremy Quin (Horsham) (Con)
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for the work that he is doing. Many of us in West Sussex are working together on this; it is a huge problem across the county. On his particular point about a changeover time of four minutes and with crowded platforms and mass disruption, commuters in my constituency are very concerned about the safety aspect. I am sure that that is a concern for his commuters as well.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. We have indeed been working together in West Sussex and we have been working closely with our right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who is also very concerned about the disruption to services on the line. We are all concerned about the unfeasible interchange times and the safety implications, the implications for disabled passengers and so on. It is no good producing figures that show a theoretical benefit or not much of a change or not much of a problem for commuters, because of course it is actually very disruptive for people to have to change when they had a direct service before. These are busy working people. They often cannot get a seat once when they have changed. Their working patterns are disrupted, and they are just very irritated by the claim that somehow the service is nearly as good as it was before. It really is not.
There is a mismatch between demand and train routes. Gatwick Express trains, which stop only at Victoria, are relatively empty, whereas Thameslink trains have been severely overcrowded. I have raised before with the Minister whether it makes sense for Gatwick Express trains not to stop at the busiest station in Europe, Clapham Junction. If they did, that would offer more choice to people flying to and from Gatwick. The demand that those trains run direct from Gatwick to Victoria is problematic anyway, but it is certainly disadvantaging my constituents at the moment.
The Minister will tell me that only 9% of journeys in relation to Hassocks are to, from or through Clapham Junction. It sounds like very few when we hear that only 9% of my commuting constituents are affected, but actually it is 9% of a large number. It is 9.45%, to be precise, of the nearly 595,000 journeys that are being made to London. That means that more than 56,000 single journeys a year from Hassocks to Clapham Junction, in either direction, have now been withdrawn, in terms of the direct service, so that is not a small impact. It is impacting on the village, and people are very upset about it. Hassocks is a growing village—the number of houses will increase by one third in Hassocks alone, never mind the surrounding area—so to pick on one of the biggest stations in West Sussex and withdraw entirely the direct service to Clapham Junction simply does not make sense. I would therefore be very grateful if I could repeat to the Minister the request that I have made to him, to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to GTR and to Network Rail, in so far as it is a matter for that organisation: will they please reconsider the new timetable, which has withdrawn what was an essential service for a large number of my constituents?
All this would be one thing, and I might not even have raised it in this Chamber, if it were not for the fact that these are theoretical new services anyway, because the disruption that has resulted from the new timetable has worsened the service not just for the commuters who have seen their service withdrawn, but for hundreds—no, thousands—of others. Frankly, the service since the introduction of the new timetable has been completely intolerable. I said at the beginning of the debate that my constituents were angry about it—they really are angry. This disruption is happening on a daily basis. It is deeply ironic that before the new timetable was introduced, GTR told me:
“We hope that with the introduction of this timetable, we will be in a position to provide…much more reliable services for all passengers travelling on our network.”
That would produce a very hollow laugh indeed from my constituents. The Minister knows that there has been widespread withdrawal, cancellation and delay of services.
The important thing for the Minister to note is that the situation is not getting better; in fact, it is just as bad as it was when the new timetable was first introduced. In the week before the timetable change, to 19 May, there were 18 train cancellations. That was a “normal” service. “Normal” service in West Sussex appeared to mean that my commuters had to accept that level of cancellations. Can people imagine an airline being run on the same basis? But never mind; there were “just” 18 cancellations in that week. In the first week of the new timetable, 245 trains were cancelled, and I am talking about trains to and from Hassocks. In the second week, there were 267 cancellations, in the third week 312 and in the fourth week 290. We are now in the fifth week and still nearly 300 trains a week are being cancelled. Might we have expected that after one month of the new interim timetable, which is resulting in services being withdrawn altogether, there might be some improvement? I am afraid not.
On Monday morning I received an email from a despairing constituent, Mr James Read, who lives in Hurstpierpoint. He said:
“I feel I must write to express my dismay at the current situation which appears to somehow deteriorate further everyday. This morning for example, I have never seen so many people waiting for a London train on the platforms at Hassocks. This morning, the 0623 was virtually full before it reached Hassocks. Then there were additional stops at Hayward’s Heath and Three Bridges to compound matters. It is totally unacceptable for people to be standing on a train service at 0630!”
I agree with that. I have a simple question for the Minister: when will this shambles come to an end? We are now four weeks on and it continues to be appalling.
I have here a timetable for rail services from Brighton and Hassocks in 1905, well over a century ago. The fastest of three direct trains from Hassocks to London Bridge took just one hour and 17 minutes. Those were steam trains. Theoretically, we now have direct services from Hassocks to London Bridge that are 23 minutes faster, but the reality is that we have a completely unreliable service. My constituents would be grateful to be transported back to the days of 1905, when they had three reliable steam trains that took them to London every single morning, compared to the chaotic, shambolic, disrupted, withdrawn and cancelled services that they are facing now.
What will be done about this? There is the issue of redress. I am grateful to GTR for at last recognising that tickets that are valid on one of the services should be passported to the others. I specifically asked for that and am grateful that it has been introduced. If a passenger has a ticket for a Southern service that is cancelled, they should be allowed to use it on a Thameslink or Gatwick Express service, or whichever service is available.
Then there is the issue of compensation. Of course, we must compensate passengers, but the compensation system is simply not good enough. It is not direct enough, immediate enough or sharp enough. It is too complicated for constituents to use. It just increases their irritation even more. We need a modern, sharper form of compensation system that is better than delay repay, so that the rail operating companies feel real pain when they are providing a shambolic and shoddy service like this, and passengers are compensated on a much more immediate basis. We need that not just because it would be fair to customers, but because it would introduce greater accountability.
Who will be accountable for this shambles? We have seen the resignation of Charles Horton, the chief executive of GTR, but what about Network Rail’s responsibility for this matter? It has admitted that it has some responsibility for the problems with Thameslink services, because of its failure to deliver in the north, which meant that it did not have enough staff to manage the new timetable. GTR says that one of the reasons it was in such trouble is that it was not given enough time to introduce the new timetable. The blame game is being played a lot. Who is being held accountable at Network Rail for this shambles? Yes, other projects may have been delivered on time and London Bridge might be wonderful, but that is not the point. My constituents want to know that people are being held accountable for these problems, so that they will not happen again.
Those were unforced errors, frankly. This is not the same situation as we are seeing in the north with union disruption. It is not the same as the situation over the last two years with the disruption to Southern services, which, we all came to realise, were largely driven by the unions manipulating problems that already existed with the lack of track because of the London Bridge upgrade and the shortage of drivers. There were other responsibilities, but the unions were driving it particularly. That is not the case with these Thameslink services now. We cannot lay the blame at the door of the unions for this. The blame has to be laid with the managers, whether in Network Rail, GTR or the Department for Transport, who presided over this shambles.
Why was there not an early warning system or risk register? Why were red lights not flashing, because this was a major change and could result in problems? We were still being told right up to the introduction of the new timetable that it might have minor teething problems, but it would be all right on the night. I am afraid it has not been all right on the night. We have to learn the lessons. I know that there will be an inquiry into that.
I am being placed—as my hon. Friends are—in a position where we are constantly having to apologise for the performance of the rail industry in our constituencies. It is difficult to explain to our constituents why more drastic action has not been taken to deal with this franchise.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is making a speech of great passion and he is spot on with every point. As he knows, we are facing the same issue in Balcombe. I have discussed it with the Minister before. Balcombe is a small village with a huge number of commuters who come into it. They pay a fortune every year in order to get to and from London. The least they can expect is to be able to do so reliably.
I like my right hon. Friend’s tone. Does he agree that an inquiry is one thing, but we simply need to know when these drivers will be trained and when the timetable will be working? Those are two simple questions, to which we need to have the answers as soon as they can be provided.
I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made the point directly, and I am sure the Minister will have heard it.
We will have to look at the size of this franchise again. It is too big. It was meant to deliver benefits in economies of scale, but it has only given us problems from the moment that it was introduced. We also need to look at the franchise holder. I appreciate that that is a legal process, but my constituents cannot understand why GTR is still running this franchise. There are longer term questions about the level of investment necessary in these lines. Hon. Members representing West Sussex constituencies will be very supportive of an increased level of investment, but that does not deal with the short-term issues.
In conclusion, my constituents in Hassocks are paying in excess of £5,000 a year for their season tickets. They rely on these rail services. I would, therefore, be grateful if the Minister would, first, look again at the question of whether direct services to Clapham Junction from Hassocks can be restored and, secondly, if he can tell us when normal, reliable services are likely to be restored.
I am grateful to the Minister for his attention to these problems, and I know how hard he has been working on them. His door has been open to us, and he has been receptive to the points we have been making. I certainly attach no blame to him or his colleagues. He has been badly let down indeed. I am sorry to address him in such tones, but it is important that I do so, because it is important for him to understand just how angry our constituents are now about this perpetually bad service and how despairing they are that there seems to be no end to it. They just want a normal, reliable rail service. In the 21st century, is that really too much to ask?
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Joseph Johnson)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who, as we have just seen, is an extraordinarily powerful champion for his constituents, on securing this important debate on rail services in Hassocks. At the outset, I assure him that it is the Department’s No. 1 priority to ensure that his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin) get the rail services to which they have every right to feel entitled as soon as possible.
He is under the impression that services have not been improving in recent days. I am disappointed to hear that. I will look into the statistics and the picture he painted of performance to and from Hassocks. Passengers travelling on those services already should have started to see improvement in their performance since GTR started cancelling services in advance, rather than on the day.
During the week beginning 28 May—some time ago now—there were several days with just three morning services from Hassocks to London Bridge. The other scheduled services were cancelled on the day, meaning that passengers could not plan ahead. Last week, by contrast, there were no on-the-day cancellations and five services ran in each morning peak period. I grant that performance is still far from being at the level that my right hon. Friend or we in the Department would find satisfactory, but I hope that passengers seeing that change feel that improvement is starting to happen. It must now accelerate and that is the priority for the Department.
On the Hassocks to Victoria route there are still too many delays. I should add that in the morning peak last week, 12 services ran each day, compared with the seven scheduled services before the timetable change. Even if there is much more room for improvement on the Victoria line, even there we are starting to see things move in the right direction.
Network Rail and GTR are urgently developing and delivering plans to do more to reduce the disruption, and to give passengers the greatest possible certainty of train services so that they can better plan ahead. As I have mentioned, GTR is removing services from its timetable in advance, rather than on the day, and reducing weekend services to pre-May timetable levels. It is now updating journey plans on Fridays with the information about which services are being cancelled for the following week being all loaded up there and then, so that passengers can get a sense of what the travel patterns will be like for the coming week. That should bring about a more stable service than we have seen in recent weeks and will be in place, to answer my right hon. Friend’s question, until a full replanning of driver resourcing can take place. GTR also aims to publish an amended timetable across the whole network. Once that is in place, the promised improvements of the May timetable will be introduced incrementally, rather than as a big bang, to reduce the risk of further disruption.
Let me turn to the questions about the future timetable, once we are over this difficult period of disruptions following the implementation of the timetable. When it is fully implemented, the new timetable will deliver improvements to as many passengers as possible while balancing the competing and often contradictory demands of different passenger groups.
As my right hon. Friend noted, peak-time services from Hassocks no longer stop at Clapham Junction. That is because all peak services between Hassocks and Victoria are Gatwick Express trains coming from Brighton, which cannot stop between Gatwick airport and Victoria. However, there can be a single change at Gatwick airport. We can examine his view that a four-minute positive interchange was an unrealistic ambition; I will certainly go back to Network Rail and GTR to see whether four minutes is a realistic interchange time. However, if we assume for a moment that it is possible to interchange in that time, Hassocks passengers can make the journey to Clapham Junction with an average journey time that is roughly the same as before the timetable change, with some journeys being faster and, I grant, with some being slower.
It may be helpful if I explain the reasons behind the change. Since the end of the industrial action to which my right hon. Friend referred in his remarks, the main cause of disruption on the Southern network has been trains and train staff travelling on different lines during the day. That has meant that when disruption has occurred, it has often spread rapidly across the network because if a driver or a train were caught up in disruption on one route that can impact very quickly on their availability for the route on which they are next meant to be working.
The new timetable keeps trains and train staff working on the same route throughout the day, containing any disruption on that specific route. In addition, work has been done so that the timing of services does not conflict with that of other services on the network. This work has included separating Gatwick Express services and Southern services on the Brighton main line.
The net result is that Hassocks now receives a consistent four Gatwick Express trains per hour on the route from Brighton to Victoria during the peak, and two Southern trains per hour from Littlehampton during the off-peak. Previously, as my right hon. Friend knows, Hassocks was served by a combination of Southern and Gatwick Express services coming from Brighton or Littlehampton at all times.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s point that a considerable number of passengers are still being affected, but I believe that they are now in a position where they are able to choose between Southern and Gatwick Express services. Passengers from Hassocks will benefit from the performance benefits that will come in time from the full separation of Gatwick Express and Southern services.
I also emphasise that the vast majority of passengers travelling to London from Hassocks are being well served by the timetable change. None the less, I recognise that 9.45%, or somewhere under 10%, of weekday journeys represents a significant number of my right hon. Friend’s constituents who use services from Hassocks. However, it is also worth remembering that more than 90% of passengers using Hassocks are going to Victoria or are on Thameslink services. Overall, connections from Hassocks into London are much improved.
Hassocks now receives 12 direct services to Victoria in the morning peak, compared with seven before the timetable change. This provides a significant capacity increase for those passengers going to Victoria. As this is a Gatwick Express route during the peaks, it is run with new trains that have air conditioning, wi-fi and power sockets. On average, the journey from Hassocks to Victoria in the morning used to take more than an hour. Now it takes, on average, 51 minutes, which is significantly better than the amount of time that services took in 1905, the timetable for which my right hon. Friend produced and referred to.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Before he experiences the fate of politicians and other public figures in Sussex who have particularly infuriated us and is burnt in effigy, may I ask him to reconsider his comment that services are “much improved”? I think what he meant was that they might be much improved when the new timetable is finally introduced and works properly, but he cannot say, and nobody can say, that the current level of service is much improved.
Indeed. I prefaced all my comments by saying that this was about what would happen once we are over this hump—the current difficulties—and once the timetable is fully bedded in and working to the levels that it should. Of course my right hon. Friend is right and I repeat what I said earlier: there has been improvement, as I hope he acknowledges, but there is significant room for further improvement, so that services are of the standard that his constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham have a right to expect.
On average, the journey times for trains into Victoria from Hassocks will be reduced by 10 minutes in the morning, when the service is operating at the level it should be operating at.
I appreciate that there is an ongoing inquiry. Will my hon. Friend confirm whether this situation is attributable purely to the retraining of the drivers, so that when that training is concluded the new timetable will operate properly, or are there other issues to be got to grips with as well? As I say, I appreciate that there is an inquiry ongoing, but I would be most grateful for any light that he can throw on this situation.
Yes, the sheer magnitude of the timetable change affecting GTR, which is one of the biggest changes that the railway industry has ever seen, and the late delivery of the timetable as a consequence have meant that GTR was substantially behind where it should have been on driver training and on getting in place all the appropriate train diagrams. That driver training and reorganisation work, which should have been completed in time for 20 May, is now being done at pace. Once that has worked its way through, we anticipate being able to move progressively back to the full May timetable.
There are the same number of services going from Hassocks to London Bridge as there were before the timetable change. I grant that for a temporary period Hassocks will receive fewer peak services to Blackfriars compared with the situation before the timetable change. However, that is a temporary result of the rephasing of the timetable and this route will receive an extra service each hour from December this year. Average journey times to Blackfriars and London Bridge are now between five and 10 minutes shorter than before, providing passengers with quicker direct access to London Bridge, Blackfriars, the City, Farringdon and St Pancras.
The new Thameslink service also offers passengers different options for getting to their final station. For example, people who interchange at Clapham Junction for Waterloo will instead be able to interchange at London Bridge for Waterloo East. The opening of the Elizabeth line through Farringdon in December will offer further journey opportunities.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs mentioned compensation. As ever, passengers are encouraged to apply to their train operator for delay repay compensation for affected journeys. We are seeing increased take-up of that compensation, as awareness of it and the ease with which people can access it grow. We have also announced a special compensation scheme for GTR passengers. It is to be funded by the rail industry and it will ensure that regular rail customers receive appropriate redress for the disruption they have experienced. I encourage passengers to apply to GTR for delay repay compensation. GTR operates the scheme for all of its passengers and under it passengers can claim compensation for each delay of more than 15 minutes, whatever the cause of the delay.
I conclude by thanking my right hon. Friend for bringing this subject to Westminster Hall. It is an important subject and it is absolutely right that his constituents get the services they deserve as rapidly as possible. I remind the House that in time the vast majority of passengers will end up being well served by this timetable change, once it has bedded in. Those travelling to Victoria from Hassocks will have an extra five additional services during the morning peak; for those travelling on Thameslink, journey times will be between five and 10 minutes quicker than before. In time, I hope that he will agree that rail services into Hassocks will be much improved once those services are fully bedded in.
To read the Hansard of the full debate, click here.