A huge amount of my energy is devoted to fighting for the reliable, comfortable and efficient rail service all passengers deserve.
I became an MP right at the time our train service plummeted into crisis. Long-term underinvestment and crumbling infrastructure was compounded by a driver shortage, London Bridge upgrade works, government incompetence, mismanagement, poor communications between Network Rail and Govia and DfT…and strike action to top it off.
I set up an emergency All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs whose local areas are affected by Southern Rail, with Sir Nicholas Soames MP. It’s designed to amplify the voice and concerns of our constituents to the people who run our network, and together we coordinated a response to the crisis with every single MP in the region. Ministers and rail bosses attended every meeting, and always have since, and I can promise you that your anger was conveyed loud and clear over that period. As a group we continue to push for crucial investment in the South East route, and we’ve helped unlock an additional £320 million to invest in critical infrastructure upgrades.
You’ll have noticed that there have been a lot of closures over the last year for upgrade work, and I have to fess up, it’s my fault! Because we got all this money out of government it now has to be spent on upgrade work! In that time every single part of the network has been worked on, from signalling to replacing 35 miles of track to huge amounts of work on the Balcombe tunnel – which was the leakiest in the country. There’s also been a complete management change at Govia.
To understand the problems I’ve visited the signalling centre, done driver training, shadowed a train driver along the Coastway route, and spoken to rail bosses on the phone almost every week for months and months on end.
It’s all starting to pay off. Customer satisfaction has risen 20%, and in recent weeks the performance index for our service has touched 90% for the first time in five years. As a very frequent user of the service myself, I have noticed the improvements and have thanked staff for them.
I do know there’s a long way to go. Right at the beginning of all this, even in the midst of crisis, I always mentioned the long term at these meetings. The improvements we’ve seen means we can now spend more and more time on the long term investment to deliver real reliability and robustness to the line and a much more focus on customer service.
A lot is happening. A massive upgrade programme is scheduled for Gatwick Airport station that will see the entire redesign of the station and platforms there. This is funded by a combination of our local development partnership, Gatwick Airport, and government. And most important of all will be the upgrade to Windmill Junction just the other side of East Croydon.
This upgrade is massive and won’t cost millions, it will cost over a billion. That’s why we need to fight for it, and believe me I will. If we can get a flyover system installed there then it will transform reliability for the line and hopefully unlock some more capacity too, so let’s get it done! Thanks to our campaigning, government have released the first set of funds which is to do the feasibility and planning investigations and to secure the land. I’m fighting for the next stages to happen as soon as possible.
I’ve also used the contacts I’ve made to deliver for our communities here too. Earlier this year campaigners from Aldrington Station – including the brilliant councillors Chris and Carmen- got in touch because they wanted a new shelter installed. So I arranged for the managing director of Southern Rail to come to the station itself and meet them. Well, just to prove that community campaigns work, a few months later the managing director, Angie, came back to join me and campaigners to open the new shelter! I promise you, getting together as a community really can make a difference.
And there’s even better news! Govia (the parent company to Southern) have made available a pot of money to be spent on our three stations. Portslade will get £50,000, Hove will get £50,000 and Aldrington will get £30,000.
The journey to where we are now has been a tough one. There was a time when I would sit in my office in parliament for an hour early every morning reading the messages from passengers as they came in. Some people had their mobile numbers on the message and I’d call them up. The number of people who I spoke to at their wits end or in tears. It was harrowing and I will never forget it.
One day I hope to be in a position to change the rail network fundamentally. I’d like a system owned by locally by the people and accountable to the regions they serve, not run by Whitehall. But for now I promise you I am doing everything I can within what is possible and I won’t give up.