Southern Railway (Performance)

Nick's speech in the Westminster Hall Debate

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 any more. 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.

 

To read the full Hansard of the debate, see: http://tinyurl.com/pte68tz