Full text of Henry Smith MP's speech in the House of Commons General Debate on the Chris Gibb Report: Improvements to Southern Railway on 4th July 2017.
Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): As this is the first time that I have spoken when you have been in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I offer my sincere congratulations on your recent election?
It is difficult, without risking being accused of hyperbole, to describe the sheer misery that passengers and commuters in my constituency and across the south have suffered in recent years because of the significant disruption to Southern Railway services. Many hon. and right hon. Members have described people losing their jobs and facing disciplinary hearings at their place of employment because they are consistently late for work.
At the other end of the day, I have come across many accounts of my constituents being unacceptably prevented from getting home to do the simple but very important things, such as reading their children a bedtime story or sitting around the table to have an evening meal together. Lives and livelihoods are literally being wrecked by the disruption. I have yet to cross you in this way, Madam Deputy Speaker, but many times I have been late to Question Time and debates in this Chamber because of delays to the Southern service that I regularly use to get to Westminster.
Why has this situation come about? I think the reasons are fourfold. First, the franchise structure has been bizarrely established by the Department for Transport. The Government need to learn some serious lessons about the structuring of train franchises. Secondly, as many hon. and right hon. Members have said, the network is by far the busiest in the country, and it is at capacity, or over capacity, on too many occasions. On that point, I particularly welcome the £300 million of investment for Network Rail that the Government are putting in to ensure that the engineering problems are addressed.
Thirdly, Southern and the parent company GTR have, frankly, not performed very well at all. Without repeating the stories that were told earlier, some of the ways in which they have treated their customers have been quite appalling. Lastly, as highlighted in the Gibb review—I congratulate the Government on initiating it last year—militant unions are determined to exploit the misery of passengers and this situation for their own political ends.
There is blame on all sides on this issue, but the people who are suffering—they are standing, often on cold platforms, in the middle of this argument—are the travelling public from my constituency and elsewhere in the country. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) says people are also standing on trains, and that is certainly my daily experience.
This situation needs to be addressed. There have been improvements, and I welcome the millions of pounds of additional investment at Three Bridges and Gatwick stations in my constituency, which is important. Quite frankly, however, there is the issue of the image of Britain that is created when people arrive at London Gatwick airport and try to get to our capital.
Mims Davies (Eastleigh) (Con): Will my hon. Friend comment on the impact on Gatwick? There are problems for my constituents commuting from Southampton to Brighton who decide to travel that way to avoid the M27, and indeed for people trying to get to Gatwick for flights, who are missing them after simply being left on the platform.
Henry Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been a massive impact on the economy, for people trying to do business in the capital or around the south-east, and on lives, when people miss flights to go on holiday. That aspect has not always been highlighted, and I am grateful to her for giving me the chance to do so in the House today.
As I have said, this situation needs to be resolved. I call on the unions to stop their industrial action. A very generous offer is on the table, with over £60,000 for a 35-hour week for drivers. As we have heard, driver-operated doors have had a proven track record for over three decades on the London underground and many other rail systems around the world. As we have also heard, most of the guards on trains will simply be redeployed to more customer-focused efforts, which is very important, particularly in enabling them to help disabled passengers on the network. That means that rather than just standing by the doors that they are opening and closing, they can engage with and support customers better, which is very important.
I urge the unions to get fully back to work, and to support my constituents and other commuters. I urge the Government to continue their investment in our railway, particularly on the London to Brighton main line, and I urge Southern and GTR, as the operators, to be much more customer-friendly in the way they operate so that this misery can finally be ended.