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First Capital Connect

Volume 499: debated on Thursday 12 November 2009

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport if he will make a statement on the deterioration in passenger services on the First Capital Connect route, including the route that passes through St. Albans into London.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to ask this urgent question, particularly on behalf of passengers in my constituency who have had an absolutely miserable journey to work this morning.

The action by drivers on First Capital Connect appears to be co-ordinated, and given that talks are continuing, it is highly regrettable. Passengers are being seriously inconvenienced and we urge all parties to resolve this unacceptable situation as soon as possible. Concerted action to stop trains running is irresponsible, but train companies need to ensure that their staffing arrangements are robust, so that they cannot be held to ransom in this way. The franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. We are reviewing the position on a daily basis, but the disruption should be halted immediately by an end to the current concerted action.

I thank the Minister for that answer; I noticed his reference to “robust” arrangements. Will he tell me whether First Capital Connect is in breach of its franchise by introducing today a new timetable with a 50 per cent. reduction in services? Was he aware that First Capital Connect was planning to introduce that new 50 per cent. timetable, which is causing absolute chaos? What engagement has he had with First Capital Connect in the lead-up to its introduction? For the sake of my constituents and other commuters, will he step in and meet First Capital Connect to bring this matter to a closure as a matter of urgency?

As I said in my response to the hon. Lady’s urgent question, the franchise agreement with First Capital Connect requires the company to use reasonable endeavours to run a full service. As I said, we are monitoring that situation daily. The change to the timetable requires agreement, which has been given on a day-by-day basis. First Capital Connect is being asked to justify the level of reduction in service that it is asking for in that reduced timetable on a day-by-day basis. I can assure the hon. Lady that officials from the Department for Transport have engaged with First Capital Connect on a regular basis, and the Secretary of State met the managing director this morning.

As well as today’s massive disruption to Thameslink services, the same concerted action by drivers caused all First Capital Connect’s Great Northern line services to be cancelled on Sunday. Does the Minister share my anger that drivers chose to disrupt services on a day when many, including my own constituents, would have wished to use the train to attend Remembrance day events? Does he agree that it is really not credible that the unions are not tacitly giving encouragement to drivers who are causing this disruption, and that they are acting in a deeply irresponsible way in using passenger misery as a bargaining chip in pay negotiations?

In the dying days of the last Labour Government, the unions brought this country to a halt. With more strike threats looming as the rain falls down on stranded passengers standing on grossly overcrowded platforms waiting for cancelled trains, what is the Minister doing to stand up to the unions and stop them winding back the clock to the 1970s and bringing our railways to a grinding halt?

It was, of course, deeply regrettable that services were disrupted on Sunday when, as we know, a number of people wanted to travel in order to pay their respects on Remembrance day. I have to say that the questions raised by the hon. Lady are essentially matters for the company. We have a franchise system in which we place trust in the companies to deliver the service that we franchise to them. It is for them to get on with the discussions and negotiations with their employees to ensure that this matter is resolved as rapidly as possible.

The Minister will share my dismay at the grotesque disruption caused to passengers from Brighton to Bedford and elsewhere on the network. The Secretary of State took strong action against London Midland in relation to events that occurred in September, and I welcomed the written statement about that. Can the Minister tell us what action, if any, he intends to take against First Capital Connect, and if the answer is “None”, will he tell us what is the difference between those two events?

Will the Minister provide Members with an analysis by the train operating company showing what percentage of train services depend on voluntary shift working, which has been the cause of massive disruption and cancellations today? Is it not rather worrying that so many trains are dependent on that? Will he also urge the rail union ASLEF to call off the threat of a strike on which it is to hold a ballot whose result will be known on 9 December? Will he suggest that both sides sit down with ACAS, and with the Department for Transport if appropriate? If, as he suggested at the beginning of his statement, industrial action is indeed co-ordinated—I think that that was the word he used—by the rail union ASLEF, is that legal without a ballot?

I asserted in my statement that the action appeared to be co-ordinated by employees, and I will not go beyond that assertion today.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the position on the use of voluntary and shift working was the same as that in other train companies. We are currently trying to determine the extent to which that arrangement is a problem, but it is clear that it is not universal, although it has been inherited by some franchises from former British Rail regions. We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to be able to answer some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman has posed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever the merits of a dispute and whatever the issues involved—including the issue, which has been raised today, of whether a company should rely on overtime to run basic services—punishing the passengers is never the answer, and is never acceptable? Will he make it clear that the Government will consider the wider issues involving how the company operates, and how the union is dealing with these matters?

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government’s clear view is that it is not appropriate to disadvantage passengers in that way, whatever the merits of any disagreement between any group of employees and the management. I also assure him that we will continue to look into the degree to which the company was prepared for this situation, and will consider whether that suggests that it needs to take further action to prevent such events from happening again.

The Minister will appreciate that my constituents, who use the neighbouring line run by First Capital Connect running to King’s Lynn and Peterborough, will want to know whether there is a risk of the action spreading. We have had Great Northern and we have had Thameslink. Does the Minister feel that he can reassure my constituents that there will not be a rolling series of disputes that goes on and on and damages my constituents as well?

As has been made clear, the action is currently unofficial, and we have no intelligence that suggests that it is likely to spread.

As a daily user of First Capital Connect services, I have a personal interest in the situation—particularly today, because train cancellations caused me to miss Question Time. Last year First Capital Connect was given the Evening Standard award for the company that combined the worst service with the biggest profits. May I ask my hon. Friend to intervene with the company, and suggest that it solve the problem by spending more of its profits on drivers?

The question of remuneration is obviously part of the package that the management need to consider in their relationships with their employees. It must be said that before the start of this series of incidents the actual performance on the line had improved significantly, and was relatively good.

My constituents endured similar problems with London Midland earlier in the year. Does the Minister not agree that at the heart of the problem is the fact that railway companies are relying on drivers with shift patterns involving four-day weeks? Will he ensure that when he awards franchise agreements in future, the staffing arrangements are robust and do not rely on goodwill and overtime for the provision of a proper seven-days-a-week service?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the challenges for us in the management of franchises is that the starting arrangements can be one thing, but arrangements can change over time. We will need to consider that in the letting of future franchises, and ensure that arrangements that companies put forward as robust, and able to deliver what they commit to in the franchise, remain so.

Does my hon. Friend share the bemusement of commuters from my constituency who use Mill Hill and Hendon stations at the fact that their daily travel to work can be disrupted because of a shift pattern whereby voluntary overtime is the main way of supplying a weekday commuter service? Does he agree that that is not acceptable and has to be dealt with? Does he also agree that if industrial action has to take place, it should take place with proper notice given to employers and travellers alike, irrespective of the merits of the dispute?

My hon. Friend has gone to the heart of the question. The shift patterns are clearly a big part of the problem, but we expect the businesses to have the freedom to manage the franchises within the outputs that we expect them to deliver. Whether the shift patterns need to be changed is essentially a matter for the companies, but we will have to discuss it further with them. My hon. Friend made a point about unexpected changes to the timetable. Those are clearly more disruptive to passengers than anything else, which is why, when there needs to be a change to the timetable, we have to agree it with the company. As I said in my original answer, we intend to ensure that we get back to a full pattern of operation as soon as possible.

My constituents will be as grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) as her own will be for bringing the Minister before the House today to answer these questions. My constituents have been flooding me with e-mails complaining about not only cancellations, but short trains, overcrowding and poor communication by the company. Many of them are spending more than £3,000 a year on season tickets and they want to know whether they will get any reimbursement for the failure to deliver the services for which they have paid. They also want to know from the Minister, who says that these actions appear to be co-ordinated, whether such actions are, thus, outside the law. Does that mean that the company can take action against the unions, or do the Government propose to do so?

The right hon. Gentleman will, no doubt, already have welcomed the investment that the Government intend to make in the Thameslink service over the coming years: some £5.5 billion of investment will be made to improve trains, stations and frequency of service to meet the capacity on one of our busiest railway lines. I am sure that he will want to support that. Reimbursement is a matter for the company—as, indeed, is judging whether the co-ordinated action is anything more than just that.

I note the Minister’s strictures about drivers, but will he also bear in mind the fact that the company involved has a terrible record? Therefore, will he—or one of his ministerial colleagues—stand ready to intervene personally if it fails to get an agreement with the drivers and others in the very near future?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest. I repeat the encouragement to all parties to seek a negotiated settlement that will allow the railway to resume its full pattern of operation as quickly as possible. On his second question, we will of course stand ready to intervene as a matter of last resort, if necessary.

The Minister says that he is going to monitor the situation. As another regular user of this line, may I assure him that he will not have to monitor it for very long to see the misery that it is causing to my constituents in Radlett, Borehamwood, Elstree and Potters Bar, who pay substantial amounts of money and feel that their interests have been completely overlooked by both the company and the union, and for whom the word “Connect” is a misnomer? Will he tell us exactly what he is going to do to bring this intolerable situation to an end?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a privatised railway in which the franchises are let by the Government, and that within the period of the operation of the franchise we expect the companies to use their best endeavours to ensure that the service is delivered. Beyond that, it is not appropriate for us to intervene directly unless the situation gets significantly worse.

My constituents and I use both the First Capital Connect lines: the Great Northern and the Thameslink. Indeed, my constituents who were using Sandy, Biggleswade and Arlesey stations last week to go to remembrance events could not get there. As the Minister is given at least 24 hours’ notice of changes in timetables, can he tell us whether there is any suggestion that there will be further disruption on the Great Northern line? Will he ask the company whether it will extend the courtesy of saying what the timetable changes will be to Members of Parliament so that we can give some comfort to passengers, as we will know at the same time as the Minister?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive intervention. The whole purpose of the notice arrangement is to ensure that we can get that advance information to passengers when the timetable has to change for such reasons. He makes a reasonable point about alerting Members of Parliament, and we will seek to ensure that that happens.

Rail travellers from Kettering will be affected by this disruption, not least because many of the Thameslink refugees will seek to use midland main line services. Will the Ministers speak with those who run the midland main line to see how capacity and service slots might be improved to absorb this flow?

The hon. Gentleman is a tad optimistic if he thinks that franchises can turn additional capacity on and off quite as quickly as that. Perhaps he would be more prepared to welcome the announcement that I made earlier in the year that the midland main line would have some additional capacity running in from Watford to relieve congestion on some of those trains.

My constituents use those services. For the sake of balance in this debate, can the Minister tell us how many Labour MPs are sponsored by ASLEF?

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), will the Minister explain to the House how the public can feel that the Government are an honest broker between the unions and the companies in this outrageous situation, especially when I notice that in just six years there have been 81 donations by ASLEF to the Conservative party—sorry, I mean the Labour party—[Interruption.] Sadly, not to the Conservative party. They totalled £359,554.01. Is it not true that this Labour Government have been bought and paid for by the unions, are no longer honest and cannot be trusted?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Ministers in this Government take their responsibilities seriously and impartially, and would not be influenced by any such factors.

Will the Minister take a constructive initiative on this issue? East Croydon commuters cannot use their First Capital Connect tickets on Southern railways. Will he talk to First Capital Connect, if there are issues to do with compensation to Southern, so that we can find an easy way to increase capacity in that way?

As I said, we are in continuous dialogue with First Capital Connect. As I told the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), there are no easy ways to turn additional services on and off.