Mid Sussex’s three MPs have led criticism of the ‘galling’ performance of Sussex’s rail services.
The Westminster Hall debate last Wednesday was secured by Horsham MP Jeremy Quin, whose constituency covers Balcombe, and he described a ‘horrible sense of déjà vu’ that politicians were having to discuss something that was causing such ‘misery’ to so many passengers across the county.
Mr Quin said that despite rail minister Claire Perry’s ‘hard work’ and entreaties from many MPs ‘we still seem incapable of securing the service for which our constituents pay so much’.
His constituents had a ‘sense of wonderment’ that Govia Thameslink Railway, which runs the Southern and Thameslink franchises, was looking at cutting opening hours of its stations’ ticket offices with self-service machines slow and difficult to use. Horsham, Burgess Hill and Hassocks are three of the stations set to be affected.
Mr Quin called for Network Rail to be more customer-focused in the way it approaches problems, as well as more efficient, simpler, and more generous refunds through delay repay.
Mr Quin added: “The lines we are discussing subsidise the rest of the national network. It is right that there should be a relentless focus on customers throughout the network, but the service on this franchise is particularly galling.
“When I mentioned to one of my hon. friends that I had secured this debate, he said it was good because it would enable him to let off some steam on the grounds that he had simply run out of adjectives to describe to his constituents the performance of the franchise.
“I am grateful to the minister for saying that she will not shy away from more debates on this matter, although it is our sincere hope that this will be the last debate we need on it.”
He suggested this constituents were asking ‘in what parallel universe anyone could believe that the public infrastructure laid out in the 19th century to serve rural towns and commuters could possibly support Gatwick Airport were it to double in size with a new runway’.
Sir Nicholas Soames, Mid Sussex MP, said: “Does he [Mr Quin] agree that despite the great efforts of the company and Network Rail to carry out improvements—we all know how complex they are—there remains a real industrial relations problem?
“In some depots, the standards of modern manpower management are not nearly good enough.
“Does my hon. friend also agree that the company needs to confront these issues and deal with them?
“If very highly paid drivers will not act in the interests of passengers, that is another reason why the company needs to get its act together?”
In response Mr Quin said it was not for them or the minister to micromanage what the companies should be doing, but said they needed answers that work.
Nick Herbert, Arundel and South Downs MP, said it was a ‘matter of deep regret and enormous frustration’ that they were having to come back and discuss Southern’s performance less than a year after the industry agreed to an improvement plan.
He added: “In the original performance improvement plan, the industry said: ‘You will notice real improvements from now onwards in the punctuality and reliability of our trains’. That promise has been broken. It will evince nothing more than a hollow laugh from passengers, who are absolutely fed up.”
Ms Perry said: “I was asked at what point we do something radically different. Do we take the franchise back? Do we change? The truth is that this is an exceptionally busy, very difficult franchise to run.
“In my view, nobody out there could do a better job than the current management team, but we have to ensure that there is a relentless focus on the customer.”
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