Let’s get rail services back on track
Liberal Democrat Transport spokesperson Baroness Randerson writes following her Lords question on the performance of the Southern, Southeastern and Thameslink rail franchises and how to secure an improved service for all passengers.
Commuters in the south east are sick and tired of being crammed into overcrowded, delayed trains. Their plight is epitomised by the 07:29 Brighton to Victoria, a train which never once arrived on time in 2014. Commuters in the south east live with a rail system that is failing them.
Under the coalition we took action to start to solve the problem. With Lib Dems in the Department for Transport, we saw the greatest investment in railways since the Victorian era. A corner was turned and the future looked brighter for our railways. Unfortunately, despite the south east sitting comfortably in the Tory heartland, millions of commuters are still suffering and budget cutbacks mean real uncertainty as to when problems will be solved.
Last week in the Lords I asked two questions on this problem, following the recent publication of the latest statistics from transportfocus. They showed that commuter satisfaction with Thameslink and Southeastern down at 68% and with Southern at only 70%. Refurbishment at London Bridge is always given as the excuse for poor performance, but it is only part of the problem. These are highly profitable companies and they need to invest more in improved rolling stock and driver and staff recruitment and training. I suggested two courses of action to the Minister, who did at least acknowledge that there was a serious problem. Firstly I suggested that the franchises might be terminated early. What is the point of franchise terms and conditions if sanctions are not applied when they are broken? I also suggested that we need a much more generous system of compensation for passengers when trains are delayed.
Compensation should be automatic, because all the evidence shows that the vast majority of passengers entitled to compensation under the current scheme do not bother to apply, either because they are unaware of their entitlement or because the process is so lengthy and bureaucratic. Even staff on trains and stations are confused about how to apply. On commuter lines, where journeys are relatively short, compensation needs to kick in earlier, because smaller delays can represent significant disruption to the working day. These are the regular daily travellers, the core of the railway’s business, paying thousands of pounds a year for the privilege of standing squashed together with other travellers on rush hour trains. We realise that it takes longer to improve the infrastructure itself, but the least that train companies should do is to ensure they have the staff and rolling stock in decent condition so that trains usually run on time.
My second question was about a specific proposal. There has been a vigorous campaign to reinstate the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes. This would provide better access to employment opportunities in Brighton for people living in the Weald and would provide an additional, badly needed, route between the Sussex Coast and London. The Coalition funded some studies of these proposals but the current government has so far failed to give a commitment to action on this in the near future. Regeneration in the coastal towns along this route is needed now and cannot wait until the 2030 and beyond, which is where current government plans seem to be kicking this particular ball.
Our railways are in many ways victims of their own success, with rising passenger numbers year on year, and among the most intensively used in the world. Under the Coalition we saw a major step forward with massive investment after years of stagnation and neglect. It is already clear that the current government does not have such high aspirations for our railways. Faced with a huge surge in demand they are like a rabbit caught in the headlights, frozen to the spot and not sure which way to turn. The Liberal Democrat message to them is, we need massive investment now and it will pay off, socially, economically and environmentally.
The Baroness Randerson is a Liberal Democrat peer & Principal Transport Spokesperson for the party.
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