The very second you chose me as your MP in 2015 I knew there was one overarching thing you wanted me to do: sort the trains out! At the time the network was in total crisis and I knew the misery it was causing to people and the harm to our economy.
At the time I was the only Labour MP in the area and I knew it would take everyone working together to get it sorted. At times like these tribalism is a barrier to getting things done and you needed things to get done. So as soon as I got to parliament I sought out Sir Nicholas Soames as he was the most senior Tory in the area and I strode up to him just outside the Commons chamber and pitched to him an idea. How about the two of us set up a group of MP’s with one sole aim…to bang heads together and do whatever it takes to get the Brighton Mainline sorted?
To his total credit considering he didn’t know me from Adam, he agreed, and at our first meeting (and most thereafter) every single MP for the area turned up. The meetings were private to avoid grandstanding and focus us on solutions, and right from the start the most senior directors of GTR/Southern Rain, Network Rail, and government came along. We were firm, fair, and ruthlessly focussed.
At the same time I was doing everything I could to truly understand the network so I could talk with authority. I work-shadowed train drivers, undertook driver training on the simulator, visited the signalling centre in Three Bridges, learned about every piece of rolling stock that left our stations, and I even went underground in London to learn about tunnelling and rail maintenance.
In short, I became a train nerd because you needed a train nerd as an MP.
I charmed my way to getting the mobile numbers for all the rail executives, and I used them regularly! When the crisis was at its worse I would sometimes sit in my office in parliament early in the morning reading your messages as they came in. They were extremely distressing. If they had a mobile number on I would sit there calling people up who were stranded on a delayed train or abandoned on a station platform somewhere. I let people tell me directly what they were experiencing and the impact it was having on their life. I would then call up the rail bosses and relay to them directly what I’d heard.
One morning I spoke to someone who’d just been given his second written warning for being late even though it wasn’t his fault at all. Later that day I went into the Commons and told this directly to ministers and asked them what he should tell his bosses, ‘don’t worry government say it will get a bit better in 18 months time?’. That led the evening news. I did everything I could to give voice to your anger whilst at the same time get the problem sorted.
Via the group of MPs we found out what the maximum about of extra money was that could be spent on the mainline in the coming year. The answer was £300m and that became mine and Sir Nicholas’ mission! I won’t say publicly precisely the nature of the threat we made, but I can tell you that every MP for the whole area trusted each other to allow me to pass on a message to government ministers…and three weeks later £300 million in additional funding was released to Network Rail. It worked!
Since that time:
– 35 miles of track have been replaced
– The Balcombe tunnel has been renovated, it was the ‘leakiest’ in the country
– Every piece of signalling has been maintained or upgraded
– Old rolling stock removed from the Gatwick Express
– Bridges fitted with ‘anti-collision’ systems to prevent high vehicle contact
– Additional measures installed and staff trained to identify and support vulnerable people at risk of suicide
I also brought the managing director of GTR down to our community for a massive public meeting to meet passengers and commuters directly. I also worked to get specific investment into our own stations. Working with local campaigners we got £30,000 invested into Aldrington Station for a new shelter on the eastbound platform, and right now another £150,000 is being spent in all three of our stations.
There’s been some funny moments too. Last winter someone stopped me in the street and said ‘will you tell them to stop shutting the network down so much for maintenance please’, and I had to tell her that it was all my fault! Because of all the extra money, the line had to be shut a lot over a year to spend it all!
The crisis has been tackled and now I need to crack on to deliver the transformation in reliability and service which is what we really need. These are the things I’m working on now:
– A multi-billion pound upgrade to ‘windmill junction’ near East Croydon which would transform punctuality and increase capacity on the track.
– An end to the old Series 313 trains on the coastal route that lack toilets
– More staff to support passengers with mobility challenges
– Better ticketing services in the station and online
– Automatic compensation for late trains and poor service
– Flexible season tickets promised by the Tories at election time but never delivered
And of course, cost. Government have been cutting the subsidies for rail use and piling more and more costs on to passengers. This is precisely at the time when we need more people to be using public transport to tackle climate change. I want us to rethink funding to make train travel more affordable and I also want a rethink of the ownership models we use on this vital piece of our national infrastructure.
But most importantly, you need to know that I will always put our community first and that means I will never put party politics ahead of sorting your problems out and making our community a more comfortable, prosperous place.
This is an example of how I have aspired to be as your MP: practical and pragmatic; building consensus and working with people from every party; connected and accessible; and hard working – I’ve been like a dog with a bone when it comes to sorting this mess out!
I know you need loads more done when it comes to public transport and that’s just one of the reasons why I’m putting my heart and soul into this campaign so I get the chance to carry on fighting for our community.