Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Mar 2010 : Column 94WH—continued

The diagnosis-knowing what contributes to the problems-is well understood and should be addressed.

We have little time for this debate. I would like to say more about some of the other concerns that affect my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend. I could speak of the calamitous withdrawal of the service from Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells to Gatwick airport. At a time when we want to take cars off the roads, reducing a direct connection from one of the counties that supplies most passengers to Gatwick seems to fly in the face of environmental and transport logic. I could talk about the great anxiety of passengers who use stations south of Tunbridge Wells about proposed changes to the route into Cannon Street. I could mention this year's 10 per cent. increase in parking charges; at a time when inflation has been negative, it seems to be a way of exacting more and more money for less and less of a service.

With your permission, Sir Nicholas, I wish to make three requests of the Minister. I am grateful for his attendance here today. I hope that he will respond to these requests towards the beginning of his speech, so that we have the chance to button them down. The first is on data. During the short period before Parliament rises, will the Minister ensure that I am given the performance data to date for the Hastings line between Tunbridge Wells, High Brooms, Tonbridge and London? Those data exist. We know that Southeastern has the data, but I believe that they should be made public so that everyone knows about that line's performance.

The second request is this. If the data show that the performance of the line has been below the threshold where discounts on season tickets are usually triggered, will the Minister consider requiring, as an exceptional measure, the relevant compensation to be paid to passengers on that line for the disruption that they have suffered, recognising that they have suffered it on that line and that other lines are not relevant?

Thirdly, I understand that there are negotiations with Network Rail for Southeastern to be compensated for some of the winter's disruption. It seems to be a matter of natural justice that some of that compensation should go to the passengers who bore the brunt of the disruption. Will the Minister assure the House that he will put pressure on those companies to ensure that my constituents are compensated from whatever Southeastern receives?

I make a final plea to the Minister. Will he summon Southeastern's senior management, and ask them to explain why my constituents, and those of my right
24 Mar 2010 : Column 95WH
hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and of colleagues to the south of our constituencies, have had to endure such appalling service from a company that we were used to thinking of as one of the better and more progressive train operating companies? I can put it no better than a constituent of mine, who sent me a copy of his letter to Southeastern. He wrote:

11.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): May I say what a pleasure it is, Sir Nicholas, to serve under your chairmanship? I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) on securing this debate on rail services in west Kent.

The timetable change in December 2009 was the biggest change for 50 years in Kent. Indeed, no train stayed in its existing slot. For west Kent, it included the additional five peak trains mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, one of which is the fast train from High Brooms to London. West Kent also saw the implementation of an enhanced service between Tunbridge Wells and London, which gives the hon. Gentleman's constituents four trains an hour, operating at a 15-minute frequency all day. The changes also included the extension of the Medway Valley line from Paddock Wood, which will improve connectivity and create new journey opportunities.

I am pleased to be able to draw attention to these facts, because some people were not convinced that the new integrated Kent franchise would give passengers any benefit. Clearly, that is not the case, and the hon. Gentleman's constituents are some of those who are benefiting from those changes.

Southeastern has also invested in automatic ticket gates at Tunbridge Wells. That has improved access and security at the station, and ensures that everyone who travels pays their fair share. I cannot say that I am immediately aware of the rolling stock changes referred to by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall investigate and write to him about those concerns.

I realise that since December, performance has deteriorated to below the standard that Southeastern customers now expect. The two main reasons behind that are unreliable infrastructure and adverse weather. However, before I say more on the performance problems since last December, it is important to put Southeastern performance in context.

The Southeastern franchise is committed to run more than 20,000 more trains a year on time by the end of the franchise. Indeed, since the start of the franchise, performance has improved. Immediately before the start of the December timetable, 4.2 per cent. more trains arrived at their destination within five minutes of the advertised time, having called at all stations en route. That is more than 10 per cent. better than in the days of the Connex franchise, which indicates that some progress is being made.

It may appear unusual to start a debate on the performance of rail services in Kent by talking about the history of such services. I am not saying that there have not been problems with performance, but the evidence does not suggest that they are systemic. What
24 Mar 2010 : Column 96WH
is clear is that since December, performance has fallen below the standards that are expected from Southeastern. None the less, actions are in hand to recover the situation.

The lines in west Kent are electrified by the third rail system. It has been established that the third rail system struggles to cope with heavy snowfall and prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures. During the recent bad weather-the most extreme for some 30 years-we had both and, as a result, performance suffered, but west Kent was not unusual in that regard. The lines in west Kent were particularly badly affected as the weight of the snowfall was, at times, very localised. The geographical lay-out is very challenging for the rail industry, as it is built in deep cuttings and the line has some very steep gradients. That meant that on many occasions during the adverse weather problems it was not possible to deliver a train service.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about the accuracy of customer information during times of disruption, and I can advise him that there is a rail industry review of customer information, focusing, in particular, on the consistency of the service during the winter period. It will look at ways in which customers can have better and more consistent information available to them through all the channels-whether that be the individual giving advice on the station platform, the web channels or the information displays on the platforms.

As the hon. Gentleman will no doubt remember, rail services in Kent suffered from adverse weather in February 2009. Following that, Southeastern advised my Department that it was reviewing its response and that it was going to work with Network Rail to see what improvements could be delivered.

One improvement was to implement the key route strategy, which explains some of the shuttle services that the hon. Gentleman described. Network Rail gives priority to the most important routes and every effort is made to keep those routes open. Southeastern also aims to operate services in such a way that as many people as possible, given the prevalent weather conditions, are able to travel. More people were actually moved during the last period of adverse weather in 2010 than in February 2009, despite the fact that the weather was worse. Although lessons were learned following the weather in February 2009, the challenges this time round were more severe.

As I have said, the geography of much of the railway in west Kent meant that it was not always possible to offer a service, and when services did run they were often heavily delayed. However, Southeastern has advised me that, together with Network Rail, it is now considering what improvements can be delivered to ensure that more services run during adverse weather.

Greg Clark: Before the House rises for Easter, will the Minister agree to give me the figures for the performance of the Hastings line during that period of underperformance?

Chris Mole: I have to look at what data are available from Southeastern that can be put into the public domain.

Greg Clark rose-

24 Mar 2010 : Column 97WH

Chris Mole: I was going to come to the general question of monitoring performance by train operating companies and the way in which we consider the aggregate performance, but the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene again.

Greg Clark: The Minister obviously does not necessarily know the answer to this, but I can assure him that the data exist. Given that that is the case, will he require the figures to be given to me?

Chris Mole: Although I am aware that the data exist and that I might be able to have sight of them, I am not sure whether the train operating company is prepared to put such information in the public domain. Let me take away the matter for consideration.

Greg Clark rose-

Chris Mole: Let me try to address the generic point at this time.

Greg Clark: Will the Minister give way?

Chris Mole: No, not at this point. I am quite sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's objectives, but let me draw his attention to the fact that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) frequently tells the Government not to interfere and micro-manage train operating company regulation so much. I therefore fear that his Front-Bench colleagues would take a different view from me, but I am sympathetic to his objectives.

Greg Clark: I am grateful for the Minister's sympathy, and I hope that he will translate it into action. Can he think of any reason why members of the public should not be given the right to see the data on the performance of their train line that we all accept exist?

Chris Mole: I do not know whether there are commercial sensitivities around the data, but I will try to action my sympathies into something concrete for the hon. Gentleman to look at.

As I was saying, Network Rail, Southeastern and South West Trains are considering how to improve the robustness of the third rail electrification system during adverse weather conditions. That could include solutions such as third rail heating. On both reviews, it is too early to know what noticeable improvements will be delivered, but we anticipate significant improvements in robustness. The industry is tackling the challenge head on and seeking to ensure that the services that are offered to rail users in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are improved.

The railways are complex, and affordable solutions will come about only following proper consideration. Our performance monitoring shows that in the autumn, traditionally a time of poor performance, there was a step change in improvement in the delays caused by leaves on the line. This year, delays were 18,000 minutes less than in the corresponding period last year. That should give us some confidence that the rail industry can and will deliver improvements in performance during periods of adverse weather.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 98WH

It is regrettable that since December, the infrastructure has not been performing as reliably as it had been. Southeastern has advised me that it has reviewed the causes with Network Rail, as one would expect following a period of poor performance. A series of unanticipated infrastructure failures has surprised all the partners, but through a series of action plans, each particular mode of failure is being addressed.

The infrastructure lay-out poses a number of challenges to delivering high levels of performance. First, the trains from west Kent travel via London Bridge. As demand for rail services to and from Kent has grown, the number of trains that travel through this area is much greater than was ever envisaged when the lay-out was designed in the 1970s. It is expected that the £5.5 billion Thameslink programme will improve the lay-out in the London area and provide solutions for many of these issues.

Secondly, the Tonbridge to Hastings line has four single line sections, which means that delays escalate much quicker than on sections of line where there are two or more tracks, and that can spread across the whole network. When the line was electrified in 1986, work was carried out to a lower specification as an economy measure, which has led to several operational constraints and complexities. Although there may be technological solutions to some of those issues, the business case is not readily identified.

There is no evidence to support the argument that performance has deteriorated solely because of the implementation of the new timetable. As I said earlier, the main causes have been poor weather conditions and unreliable infrastructure. However, since December, 200 more trains are operating on the network. Although that is welcome in normal operating conditions, it can mean that when incidents occur on the network, delays spread quicker than before.

The rail industry has to ensure that incidents that cause delay are kept to an absolute minimum. Over the years, it has established robust procedures to manage the delivery of performance. I am confident that such structures will ensure that the high levels of performance planned for this franchise will be delivered. From Monday 7 March to Friday 19 March, the provisional public performance measure for Southeastern was 91.6 per cent. I appreciate that that is for the franchise as a whole and not for the particular route with which the hon. Gentleman is concerned. None the less, I suggest that such a measure provides signs that performance is recovering.

Greg Clark: Does the Minister have the figures for the Hastings line for that period?

Chris Mole: Not today, no, but we have discussed that already.

In conclusion, although I regret the performance that passengers in west Kent have experienced over the winter months, problems have been identified and solutions developed. I believe that we can look forward to performance improvements being delivered from now until the end of the franchise.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

24 Mar 2010 : Column 99WH


[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Today's debate gives us an opportunity to discuss the Africa all-party group's latest report, "Land in Zimbabwe: Past Mistakes, Future Prospects". I begin by declaring an interest: the Royal African Society seconds a member of its staff, Alex O'Donoghue, to work three days a week for the all-party group, and I sponsor her parliamentary pass.

I thank colleagues from all parties and from both Houses of Parliament who have contributed to the report. I also thank Alex O'Donoghue for her work in collecting the evidence and setting up our oral evidence sessions. Finally, I thank the Secretary of State for International Development for considering our report and its conclusions, and for responding, on behalf of his Department and the Foreign Office, to those conclusions.

Our all-party group chose to investigate this subject because it is a pivotal and emotive issue in Zimbabwe. The violence from farm invasions has destroyed the livelihoods of 200,000 farm workers and halved the commercial agricultural output of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's current land reform policy is a barrier to both the county's economic recovery and its longer-term development.

We also decided to address this subject because of our concern that UK policy is misunderstood in Africa. Many Africans, particularly those from southern Africa, believe that the UK promised to fund land reform in Zimbabwe as part of the deal made 30 years ago at the Lancaster house talks, which brought to an end the illegal unilateral declaration of independence by the white settler regime in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, many in Africa believe that we oppose farm invasions in Zimbabwe principally because it is white farmers whose land is being expropriated, and many believe that we support the European Union's restrictive measures-often referred to as sanctions-because we have political differences with the President of Zimbabwe.

I do not believe that any of those views are right or true. For example, the EU's restrictive measures ban arm sales to Zimbabwe because of the human rights violations that the armed forces in that country have committed against civilians. Those measures also freeze the assets of 203 individual members of ZANU-PF, which until recently was the sole ruling party in Zimbabwe, and of 40 parastatal companies. Those assets abroad have been frozen because of the real fear that Government or state property from Zimbabwe was being taken out of the country and used for personal benefit, rather than for the benefit of Zimbabwe's people.

I must say, however, that sometimes the comments made by Members of this House about land invasions in Zimbabwe reinforce the belief that our concern is based principally on kith and kin. I do not believe that that is the case. Addressing that concern was one of the reasons why the all-party group decided to write our report.

Next Section Index Home Page