SOUTH Western Railway has come under fire again in the House of Commons for overcrowding and late trains.
Less than a year since Sir Vince Cable MP called for the company to be stripped of its operating franchise, which includes the New Forest and Lymington lines, Hampshire MP Caroline Nokes has added her voice to demand improvements.
She secured a debate in which she listed further complaints of disabled passengers trapped on trains, services running past “minor” stations to make up time, malfunctioning air conditioning and Wi-Fi, bad communication and poor value for money.
People were regularly “crammed in like cattle”, said Mrs Nokes, who represents Romsey and Southampton North, while the company had formed a “circular firing squad” of blame with Network Rail and the Department for Transport.
As reported in the A&T, SWR is also facing industrial action by the RMT union in a dispute over the role of guards.
The company took over the franchise in 2017 with a promise of £1.2bn of investment by 2024. It is a joint venture between FirstGroup and Chinese firm MTR which has a 30% stake.
But Mrs Nokes said that “there is a suspicion that the government have been duped by a provider promising what it simply cannot deliver. SWR won the contract pledging more seats and services, and it has produced neither”.
In response transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris said it was “clearly not good enough” that only 59.7% of SWR’s trains were within a minute of being on time in the first quarter of this year. The network is used by about 600,000 people using 1,700 services every day.
But he said around 70% of the delays and cancellations which affect passengers result from problems with the infrastructure, which is down to Network Rail.
He pointed to £3.5m invested to redesign the SWR control centre and the fleet being increased by 1,700 extra vehicles – although that had been delayed. Improved Wi-Fi was set to be installed over three years, he added.
Mr Heaton-Harris concluded: “So, a whole host of things are going on to try to improve the situation for my right honourable friend’s constituents and all who travel on the SWR network.”
Key findings of an independent review by Sir Michael Holden last year, commissioned by SWR, were that it was not investing enough after becoming “financially stretched” by underbidding for the franchise.
Sir Michael is due to return in November to check on SWR’s progress on meeting his 28 recommendations, Mr Heaton-Harris said.