Parliament has been back from summer recess for ten days now and I’ve already spoken to the rail minister four times and chaired two meetings of the Southern Rail All Party Group of MPs which is designed to amplify your voice, concerns and anger to the people who run our network.
This afternoon I chaired the latest meeting of the group of MP’s with Sir Nicholas Soams, MP for Mid Sussex. At the meeting were many MPs from different parties but most importantly the rail minister and his team were there.
I know how strongly you feel about the shambles on our network. I know that many of you are incandescent. I just want to assure you from the start that your anger was fully represented to the new minister and his team, not only by me but by all of the MPs in attendance. I really want you to know this because you must feel like your screaming into the abyss mostly, well today it was heard by one of the people making decisions about our service.
We ran through all of the problems you have suffered over the summer, from the ‘sink hole’ catastrophe through to the daily delays that you suffer.
At the heart of the Southern network is dysfunction and I’ve been saying this since the day I became your MP. The minister, for the first time in my experience, seemed to grasp the full extent of this. All MPs at the meeting were stunned to hear that he has discovered that a third of delays are caused by Network Rail, another third by Southern Rail, but no one accepts responsibility for - or even knows what causes - the final third. Yes, you read that correctly! So all those times we’ve been on trains that stop for ages and you get no information…well most likely no body else knows either.
This is shocking, but there at least we are finally getting to know the full extent of the problem and I give credit to the minister for doing so.
There are two areas of compensation that we quizzed the minister on. The first is for a review of the compensation regime which is hopeless and 80% of people don’t claim the refunds they’re entitled to. We’ve asked for simplification and also for ‘delay repay’ to kick in after a 15 minute delay not 30. This is due to happen next year but I asked for it to be brought forward - when the minister asked when I thought it should be implemented, I said ‘this evening!’.
Secondly, the way compensation money swills around the system is complex and difficult to follow. When Network Rail are responsible for a delay they have to pay Southern and vie versa. Someone has contacted Sir Nicholas suggesting that Southern only pays out to passengers a fraction of the money it receives in compensation from Network Rail. We don’t know if this is the case but we will get to the bottom of it.
On both of these compensation issues the minister will investigate and supply us with a report in October.
We were told that the Southern commuter belt has risen to the top of the Department for Transport’s priority list. The department believes that by October there will be improvements that you as passengers will notice, including:
- A return to the full timetable
- Introduction of more new rolling stock
- The impact of the partial opening of London Bridge
- The new £20m fund to target parts of the network that fail regularly with a comprehensive upgrade rather than patch
The industrial dispute is obviously crucial to this too and I am expecting government to be far more active in delivering a settlement.
So, what does all this mean? What I’m never going to do is make promises because I will not believe anything I’m told by government of the rail bosses again until I see it happening. But what I will say is that I have more confidence than I have had for a long time that things will get slightly better before long. Even if all this works it will take months before we can count on a reliable service, and the overall improvement plan will still take years to complete.
I told the minister that we expect him to be more active and interventionist when problems arise. And I also asked about the very long-term solutions like a new line between Brighton and London, all of which I’ll have to save for another update because I’ve already gone on too long!
In the last year I’ve work shadowed a driver, done an afternoon of driver training myself so I can understand the situation better, I’ve held a public meeting with the Govia boss, visited London Bridge construction site to see the source of many delays myself, and I’ve set up the first ever All Party Group of MPs to scrutinise the Southern network.
And perhaps most importantly of all, I put the piano on the Brighton concourse to add a tiny bit of light relief to your commuting nightmare!
I know none of this has solved your misery, but I really am doing everything I possibly can. Please let me know if there’s something I’ve not covered and please share this with any friends who commute so they can see what’s happening. All the best, Peter