Happy New Year everyone! I hope you had a restful Christmas break and fun on New Year’s Eve. I had a lovely few days with my family, saw the fireworks in London on Thursday, and have caught up on sleep in between which has been really fantastic. I’m raring to go now, bring on 2016!
The week I arrived in parliament last May I went to see the Rail minister. It was the first meeting I sought as your MP, and you might remember that as commuter services affect our whole city I felt it was an issue our three MP’s should work together on. I openly thanked Simon Kirby for using his contacts to make the meeting happen so swiftly.
At that meeting, the rail minister told us that she would convene a weekly meeting between rail companies, Network Rail, department officials, and passenger groups in order to deliver demonstrable improvements to our commuter services over a six month period.
Since then I have been to every ‘transport questions’ in the Commons and participated, written to transport ministers holding them to their promises, asked dozens of parliamentary written questions (these are official questions MP’s can ask ministers which have to be answered in five days and if answers are untruthful a minister is held in contempt of parliament), spoken to ministers numerous times and met several times with both Southern Rail and Network Rail.
I have also spend hour after hour in parliament with Sam who works with me on policy. Together we went back through every promise made to passengers since 2010 and started challenging ministers on them. It’s amazing how many promises were made and then conveniently forgotten. On your behalf I’ve made sure they cannot be forgotten any more.
For example, we found the original promise from government to trail and introduce flexible and part-time season tickets. Announced and buried. A blizzard of parliamentary questions, research commissioned by the Commons Library (which is an amazing resource), and challenges to ministers on the floor of the Commons told us that the trail was in fact done, it was wildly popular with passengers….but still not close to being introduced despite several missed deadlines. Before Christmas I made TV headlines with my challenge on this.
George Osbourne came to Sussex a week before the general election and pledged his support for Brighton Mainline 2, a new line between Brighton and London. Did he mean it or was he just buying votes before the election? My job is to find out. Again, a torrent of parliamentary questions uncovered that the government had based its thinking on a Department of Transport report. The problem was the Commons Library and no one else had ever heard of this report. It did not exist. On budget day, the official budget document, the ‘red book’, said that BML2 was being examined based on a DfT report. So this time I challenged ministers again on the floor of the Commons about this mysterious report and they promised to release it to the Commons Library. And they did.
The ‘report’ was a 15 page document written in 2008 which was mostly survey data from passengers. This was four whole years before the term ‘Brighton Mainline 2’ was ever used or the project ever talked about. What a joke.
I’ve also spearheaded the campaign to improve our coastal services. We discovered that the rolling stock being used dates back to 1976 and has no toilets which mean the elderly, those with bladder complaints, and disabled avoid using the service. I spoke with a conductor who told me that staff purposely dehydrated themselves before doing the route because they couldn’t go to the loo until Portsmouth Harbour.
These are all issues that I am championing as best I can and will continue pushing with everything I’ve got. Since becoming your MP I’ve been learning the job as fast as I can. I want to know every trick in the book to hold ministers to account, and nowhere is this more important than for rail.
The ru-nup to Christmas saw the Brighton - London service descend into a total shambles. We all know what happened: signal failure, train break-downs, and heartbreaking suicides being compounded by chronic driver shortages to create the perfect storm of delays, overcrowding, and confusion.
One evening I was on a packed train home having had to change trains and wait for almost two hours for a service. Then I heard a parent apologising to his child for not being there at bedtime and start reading a bedtime story down the phone. For me there is no better illustration of the consequences of unreliable travel, it impacts our family life as well as our economy and it has to be challenged.
My latest challenge to ministers was on the very last day before parliament went into Christmas recess. Within 30 minutes of asking the question I had a arranged a follow-up meeting with the rail minister which will take place next week.
As you know it’s always my style to see what its like for frontline workers too. I try really hard to understand problems in the round and at the source, not just from one perspective. So I spent an afternoon with a train driver in his cab on the coastal route, and then met drivers, managers, and instructors before being taught how to drive a train in a simulator.
The job of driver is much more pressured than I had expected. It’s far less computerised than I thought it would be, with visual instructions from signals still paramount. Sounds are constantly ringing out which require different actions, such as one sound which requires you to hit a button within two seconds to prove you’re still alert. If you miss it the train stops automatically and an investigation is launched into the driver. Also, it takes two miles to bring a 12 carriage train to a stop and they must do it within a couple of feet of the stopping point or the doors won’t open. The skill level involved is extremely high.
It takes 18 months to train new drivers and I can see why. It’s a tough, pressurised and highly skilled job. I’ve posted some photos of me in the simulator. The one in black-and-white with my face scrunched up was taken without me knowing after the instructor placed a cow on the tracks…the train I was ‘driving’ turned the corner and I promptly ran it over, my face tells the story!!
Passengers and frontline staff have been let down by train managers and government. Even though they are training more drivers than ever before it came too late to help Christmas services. Ministers made a promise to my face - and as your MP that means the promise was to you too - that services would improve in six months but they have not.
The challenge we have is complex. In the short-term we need enough drivers and staff and rolling stock and to improve punctuality. In the medium term we need better rolling stock, more 12-car trains, and a tighter regime of maintenance to improve reliability and minimise disruption. And in the long-term we must have new track capacity. Passenger numbers increase 5% each year on the Brighton mainline and the track are already at 100% capacity between Gatwick and East Croydon. So when small things go wrong it quickly escalates into major disruptions and parents miss putting their children to bed.
We need quick action and long-term strategy. I hope in this post I’ve shown how I’m working on both for you. I will do everything I can as your MP to challenge government and rail company failure, I’ll work with our city’s MP’s from other parties, and I’ll support government when they do the right thing - whatever it takes to get you to work on time, in comfort, as cheaply as possible, and home in time to be with the people you love.
With today’s increase in season tickets it is even more important to get this right because we are simply not getting value for money right now.
I’m spending Monday morning meeting commuters outside Hove’s train stations and then meeting ministers later in the week. Please let me know your thoughts because I always, without fail, use the examples you give me to prepare for these meetings. All the best, Peter