[Joan Walley in the Chair]
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for St. Albans, let me say to hon. Members that it might be helpful if everybody could co-operate. I think that there might be a few people who will try to catch my eye, and I would like to call the Minister by quarter to 4.
Thank you, Ms Walley. It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship today in this important debate on our rail services.
In October last year—this will come as no surprise to anybody who has been watching the news—drivers on the First Capital Connect Thameslink route, which serves my constituency and those of many other hon. Members here today, began industrial action. A virtual ban on overtime and rest-day working was imposed due to a dispute over pay. Since then, that action has been causing intense disruption and frustration for hundreds of thousands of commuters who use the route.
In early November, the company informed me that it would be introducing a new timetable that offered only 50 per cent. of the services that usually ran on that busy commuter route. It was not exactly a formal notification. I rang the company one evening and said, “Excuse me, this situation is getting so bad that I need to talk about it.” The reply was, “Don’t worry. It’s going to improve tomorrow and there will be a much more reliable service”. I said, “Oh good. How is that going to occur?” and the reply was, “We have cut the train service in half and we can guarantee that that half will be delivered.” At that point, I decided that a point desperately needed to be raised about the matter on the Floor of the House.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because my constituents have exactly the same problems as the ones she describes, and I congratulate her on securing this important debate. However, my constituents have had not only that 50 per cent. cut, but on the Crystal Palace line, City workers cannot now get to the City without using another form of transport. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is outrageous? To say that there is a 50 per cent. service is to exaggerate just a little.
I am not aware of that particular incident, but I know that commuters in my constituency are experiencing the frustrations that my hon. Friend describes. I am sure the Minister will have plenty of time today to address all points that are raised about the whole route.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way as I know she wants to make progress. She has been leading the campaign not only in this debate but elsewhere, and she should be congratulated. Does she agree with my constituent, Colin Withey, and with the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), that the franchise should be removed? A 50 per cent. reduction is absolutely appalling.
I will talk about whether the franchise should be removed or whether it should stay with the company later in my speech. I hope the hon. Gentleman will bear with me and I thank him for his warm congratulations.
The new timetable with the 50 per cent. reduction resulted, needless to say, in chaos. Many passengers at St. Albans and further down the line spent hours trying to get to and from their workplaces in central London. Trains often arrived late, or already full so that people could not get on them, or they were cancelled at a moment’s notice. Platforms were changed at a moment’s notice, meaning that people could not board a train. The situation only worsened last month, with adverse weather conditions causing some of the older trains to become frozen; motors and doors became inoperable and further cancellations occurred over a period of weeks due to the poor weather, as well as the problems with the drivers.
The original problem stemmed from the company’s heavy reliance on staff good will to ensure that it could run its services. The drivers were not contracted for enough hours to run a full service, and their contracts did not include Sunday working. The model was bound to come to grief at some point.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I offer my apologies that I cannot stay for the whole debate because I have a meeting on child poverty shortly.
My hon. Friend has put her finger on the nub of the question. Does she agree that it is up to the Department for Transport in future not to award franchises to companies that rely on good will for overtime to run a scheduled service on which our constituents rely to get to work?
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous). It is not only the company that was relying on good will—the franchise model given by the Government specified that and allowed the company to do it. When the specification was written, there was an innate failure in the Government’s franchising model.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I know that she does a lot of work on behalf of her constituents on the matter. On the franchising process, together with other hon. Members, I have tabled early-day motions to ask questions about termination of the franchise, as many of my constituents feel that the only option is to get a fresh start with a new provider. Ministers have been vague about how much longer they are prepared to tolerate the catastrophic failure of the service before they will terminate it. Is that a question that the Under-Secretary should answer today?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I shall certainly ask the Under-Secretary exactly what he is considering doing. I have heard some strong words from Lord Adonis in the other place about the ultimate sanction of stripping the franchise. I would like to know if those are empty words, and whether, if that were done, it would provide a better option for commuters in my constituency. I am not interested in punishing train companies. I am interested in commuters in my constituency having the service they have paid for and getting to work on time. Ultimately, that is what they want. They do not want bits and pieces of compensation or empty words, threats and promises. They want the commuter services that they have paid for and that First Capital Connect undertook to deliver. I will come to that in a moment, but the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) is right. The Minister needs to discuss the matter in this forum so that people know what is going on.
The bad weather caused faults in trains that were already in need of work and replacement by newer units. I do not have time to add this issue to the debate, but the delivery of the newer units from Bombardier was subject to delays that were apparently due to the recession and the laying-off of workers. Four-car trains were operating when there should have been eight-car trains, which increased the problems along the route, and at some points, people were unable even to get on the trains.
Answers to my parliamentary questions have revealed that the Secretary of State for Transport knew about the action by drivers on the route as early as 26 October 2009. However, the news did not reach the public domain or Parliament. I was not informed about the change of timetable until my conversation that fateful evening of 11 November with the manager of First Capital Connect.
Between 26 October and 11 November, my constituents were thinking that the problems might have been due to swine flu or that there was some other reason why the drivers were unavailable to work. However, Ministers knew about it. I lodged an urgent question to the Under-Secretary and raised the issue of the First Capital Connect service in the House the next day, 12 November. It is rare for a Back Bencher to get an urgent question—I do not know whether the public are aware of that—and I am pleased that the Minister came before us. However, the response was that the Department was “monitoring the situation daily”. I must say that watching the situation did not do any good. It was chaotic.
The Secretary of State for Transport, who has since been criticised for not intervening earlier, did not give a statement on the matter in another place until after my urgent question. Even then, he only repeated the answer that had been given by the Under-Secretary—needless to say, “looking” at the situation.
I, too, offer an apology as I need to leave before the end of the debate. Before my hon. Friend leaves the incidents of 11 and 12 November, does she recall that on the Great Northern line there were no trains on the Sunday, so my constituents who wanted to attend Remembrance day services in London were unable to do so? Notwithstanding the fact that the trade union supported a yes vote on the ballot, is there not a joint responsibility during the drivers dispute? Drivers also played their part, and if the service is to work in the future, unions and management must co-operate in the interests of the public to provide a better service.
I concur completely with those sentiments, and I want to touch on my hon. Friend’s point. We are only too well aware that drivers unions have been pressing for full nationalisation. If we are to think of doing that, we must discuss what the possible reaction would be.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that rather rosy view of life on the continent, but I must say that one of the few rail services that have been repatriated to state control has actually got worse. That is why I am nervous about even suggesting that Ministers get their hands on another rail service.
I wrote to the Under-Secretary on 16 November, after the statement, to urge him to do more than just “monitor” the situation and to ask him to meet the company urgently to discuss its apparent failure to meet its franchise obligations. On 26 November, at business questions, I requested a debate in the House of Commons from the Leader of the House to discuss the problems. In response to a parliamentary question, I was told that the Secretary of State met management in mid-November, but I have no idea what was said. If he has any recall of that meeting, I would quite like to hear about it today. The Under-Secretary did not agree to my request and no debate was granted. This is the first time that we have had a chance to debate the matter in the House.
The overwhelming impression was that the Government were unwilling to take action about the catastrophic delivery of services, which were deteriorating daily. On 9 December, I called a meeting with Mary Grant, the group rail manager at FirstGroup, and all hon. Members affected, so that our concerns about the ongoing problems could be discussed. At that meeting, I urged Mrs. Grant to act swiftly to implement a lasting resolution to the ongoing problems and, importantly, to compensate adequately all passengers affected.
However, commuters experienced even more extreme disruption over the Christmas period, which was very taxing for families, given all that was going on with the weather. Because of the deterioration in services during the period of poor weather and the apparent lack of progress on the reinstatement of a full timetable, I raised the issue again in the House of Commons on 11 January with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, who promised to look at ongoing problems. Looking, monitoring, watching and thinking seem to be all the Government have been doing on this matter. My constituents and thousands of others along the route had completely lost patience with First Capital Connect by that stage.
The list of the many things that the hon. Lady has done shows that I was right to say at the beginning just how much she has been working on behalf of all of us. Does she think that if the Government decide no longer to be asleep at the wheel, an alternative approach might be for them to allow other franchises to provide other services? Perhaps there could be additional stops. The Gatwick express is often very empty on the southern part of the route that we are discussing. Perhaps it could be allowed to stop at East Croydon station. That might be a way of at least trying to put some additional competitive pressure on First Capital Connect.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates the later part of my speech. I thank him for his warm words. He is absolutely right. It does not have to be an either/or option. We can have alternative models, and I should like to raise that later.
I wrote again to the Under-Secretary on 11 January and asked him for a meeting
“as a matter of urgency”
to discuss the way forward. I have a copy of that letter with me. I am staggered to say that despite all the chaos, I still have not received a response nearly a month later, so despite the supposedly stiff words uttered to the media by Lord Adonis and harsh pronouncements in the Chamber, it appears that all that is only bluster. The reality is that precious little has been done to avoid the situation or even to deal with it. According to the Minister’s own officials, his response to my letter is overdue according to the Department’s guidelines, yet there is no sense of urgency.
I hope that the commuters who use this beleaguered service take on board the fact that the present Government did not even care enough to try to bring about a satisfactory and early resolution when I gave them numerous opportunities to do so. It appears that they were waiting for the train drivers to make up their minds.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her vigorous and energetic campaign on behalf of all our constituents, which is much appreciated. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and I met the management of First Capital Connect on Monday to complain about this wholly unacceptable service, about which she is so eloquently expounding. Does she agree that one of the most important things is not just punctuality and all the rest of it, but the flow of information to the poor commuters who spend enormous sums of money trying to get from A to B and are then stranded without any information? In the age of the mobile telephone, that is unforgiveable. Will my hon. Friend add that grotesque lack of information to the litany of very effective charges she has laid against the company’s door?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That litany of charges has come through my post box and those of other hon. Members. There has been a lack of communication. As I said, it was through a happenstance phone call that I found out on 11 November that the timetable was to be cut by 50 per cent. The Minister knew and he still cannot be bothered to communicate with me and my office, so I do not think that there is any better communication coming from the Government on the matter. My hon. Friend is right to say that passengers have been treated appallingly. I can only say that through the “Meet the Managers” sessions—I am having one in St. Albans on Friday—managers are becoming fully aware of how absolutely fed-up the travelling public are. I encourage residents in St. Albans and commuters to go along and give their 10 penn’orth, because the managers certainly deserve to hear it.
I want the Minister to explain to me and my constituents why he had no sense of urgency about the matter. What did the Secretary of State agree with First Capital Connect at the meeting he held in November? Why did he not anticipate that the work to rule would cause enormous disruption to the travelling public, and why did he not insist that the message was delivered to commuters, so that they did not labour on, completely in the dark about why train services were so disrupted? When the franchise was agreed with First Capital Connect, were the Ministers aware that FCC was reliant on such a business model? It appears that they were, according to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond). Why did they agree to it?
Were Ministers not concerned that pay negotiations were coming to a head and that a similar pattern of disruption had been experienced by FirstGroup bus services in Aberdeen in July 2009, which meant that its bus services were massively affected by a reduced timetable and lack of reliability? Again, the chaos was due to drivers working to rule in a pay dispute. It was reasonable to conclude that that model might repeat itself in the coming months for the train services of my commuters. At that point, the Minister should have had urgent talks. Ten months of talks was our understanding. He should have had urgent talks to prevent that crash from happening for the train commuters as it happened with the bus services in Aberdeen.
On 13 January, 70 per cent. of drivers who were members of ASLEF voted in favour of accepting the company’s pay offer. There have been siren calls about stripping the company of its franchise, including calls from the RMT to put this and all other train services back into public ownership. I intend to flesh out those arguments, but I am sure that other hon. Members will want to come in on them.
On 13 January, First Capital Connect announced that it intended to operate the full timetable on the Thameslink route from Monday 18 January. However, the “full timetable” included short-form trains, which had less passenger capacity than usual services. When I approached the company, I was told that they were due to end today, 3 February. However, today, there are short-form trains operating. I am now told that will cease by Friday. I can only hope that it is not another false dawn. I hope that the Minister will have had talks with First Capital Connect to see whether he could do anything to get Bombardier to deliver on time, because that is part of the problem.
We must not lose sight of the fact that this situation has been not only hugely disruptive, but costly.
It is not just that trains have been delivered late; they are not delivering the service they are meant to deliver. I gather that at the moment, First Capital Connect trains, the 377s, are breaking down after every 6,000 miles, compared with Southern, which runs the same trains and seems to keep them running for 22,000 miles before they break down. Surely that is another example of how incompetent the company is.
I am not sure whether it is the incompetence of the company or the people building the trains. I am not an expert on technical matters. I am not sure whether it has something to do with the amount of maintenance or the time for which the trains are taken off the rails to be put into maintenance. I cannot comment on that, other than to say that it is yet another unacceptable situation.
The situation that we are discussing has been hugely disruptive and costly to many people in terms of hours wasted and opportunities lost. On 26 January—I am sorry, but there is a great list of things that I have asked the Minister that I do not have answers to—I asked the Minister what estimate he had made of the cost to commuters of the disruption. As he has not yet responded to that question, will he answer it today, please?
I also want to ask the Minister’s opinion about the level of compensation being offered to my constituents, who pay large amounts to travel on such a poor service. Will he discuss that with management at First Capital Connect to ensure that all passengers are adequately compensated? Many passengers currently feel that what is on offer is not adequate compensation. It has been improved, after pressure, but it is still not much, relative to the huge amounts that people pay not to have a service or to have a service that, when they get on it, is so claustrophobically stuffed with other passengers that some people feel it is unsafe.
It has been three weeks since the pay deal was accepted and more than 100 days since the industrial action began, yet passengers are being offered compensation of only 5 per cent. or a maximum of two weeks’ travel if they have a season ticket. If they buy daily tickets, they are being asked to provide proof of which particular train they caught on the day and the delays they suffered, when the company knows only too well that those delays have been crippling. If it has any doubts, it need only look at my postbag or one of the many websites and Facebook groups where passengers pass on their frustrations. First Capital Connect has agreed to pay regular travellers compensation worth 5 per cent. of the value of a season ticket or 10 free days of travel, but a first-class season ticket from St. Albans to London Bridge—a journey of about 40 minutes on a good day—costs more than £5,000 a year, and passengers were disrupted for much longer than the compensation package indicates.
Larry Heyman, partnership and integration manager at First Capital Connect, telephoned me this morning. I know that other hon. Members have been quickly sent a little missive about how much things have improved—and they have improved; things are not perfect, but they have improved. However, as the websites and correspondence show, passengers have yet to be convinced, short-form trains are still operating, some delays are still happening and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out, the communication about all this is still poor.
Short-forming trains should cease from next week. However, we have had 107 days of industrial action, which resulted in overcrowding and frustration. Should the Secretary of State consider stripping FCC of its franchise? The Minister acknowledged in a letter of 27 January that the work-to-rule was a force majeure event. Was there anything, other than that force majeure event, that the company did or did not do that rendered it in breach of the franchise? I would welcome the Minister’s views.
The franchisee is obliged by the franchise to inform the Secretary of State about what steps it is taking to mitigate the effects of industrial action. At what point was the Secretary of State informed? At what point did the action become classified as force majeure? Will the Minister confirm that it was from the first notification of 26 October? Will he confirm what mitigating actions were agreed with FCC? Will he say whether the cold weather that affected services last month was considered a force majeure event?
The franchise agreement also obliges the franchisee to use and continue to use
“all reasonable endeavours to avert or prevent the occurrence of the relevant event and/or to mitigate and minimise the effects of such event”.
Does the Minister think that the franchisee took reasonable action to prevent the strike and to minimise its effects, given that another part of its group had a similar situation with its bus services? Does he consider more than 100 days of disruption to be restoration
“as soon as reasonably practicable”?
Given the intense failings of First Capital Connect on more than one front, many constituents have called on me to join them in seeking the nationalisation of the franchise. Indeed, I understand that in the past few days First Capital Connect management have been summoned to see the Secretary of State. We are told that the Government could nationalise the company as early as April under a break clause that allows the Department for Transport to remove a company for poor performance after four years. An early-day motion has been tabled calling for the franchise to be nationalised, and 5,000 commuters have signed a petition calling for nationalisation. Public anger abounds on the internet, with 2,291 people having joined a Facebook protest page.
I am concerned that punishing FCC may well lead to something worse. I have no confidence that the Government will make a better job of it. In my dealings with them, they have shown a complete lack of urgency, and there is a poor level of communication.
The hon. Lady talks about punishing First Capital Connect. Given all that she has said, it strikes me that the company is squeezing every last pound of profit that it can out of railway commuters and the Government in order to pay last year’s £1 million salary for FirstGroup’s chief executive and generate last year’s £800 million profit. That is where the money has gone.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should talk to those of his colleagues who helped set the contract. I am not in government, and I was not privy to these franchise agreements. The company paid heavily for that franchise; the Government wanted their shilling. He must bear that in mind when throwing those figures at me. I did not agree the pay contracts, and I did not make the franchise agreements. They were agreed by the Minister’s corner.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Cambridge and Peterborough part of the line has not been quite so bad, but even there people have been telling me that they are thinking of moving home because they cannot rely on the service. Is it right for Ministers simply to brush things aside as if everything was the fault of First Capital Connect? Ministers wrote the contracts, or at least supervised them. Should they not also take the responsibility?
I agree with my hon. Friend. If the cold weather was a force majeure, which is allowable under the franchise agreement, and if the strike—or work-to-rule; call it what you like—was a force majeure, what is left that would allow the Minister to strip the franchise; or is it all simply bluster, words being uttered for the sake of the angry public? That is the nub of my argument. If poor communication can strip the franchise, I would say that the Government should look to themselves; it is no better for them.
No company has ever been stripped of a franchise for poor performance since the privatisation of the rail industry in the 1990s. Connex and National Express East Coast both surrendered their contracts, but that was for financial reasons rather than industrial action. First Capital Connect carries 200,000 commuters a day, a large number of whom are from my constituency. It is vital that we get the very best result for commuters. I am not convinced about the few recent examples of nationalisation; they do not give me any confidence that that is the answer. I would welcome the Minister’s views on the matter. Lord Adonis may speak of stripping the franchise, but how can we be sure that anything else would be better, given that existing franchises have not improved?
The East Coast rail franchise, which is owned by the Department for Transport, began operations on 14 November 2009. There has been a deterioration in punctuality since the Government took it over. Although trains running on time averaged 89 per cent. for most of 2009, punctuality fell to 85.2 per cent. in the first four weeks of ownership by the state-owned franchise, which represents worse performance than First Capital Connect’s. In the following four weeks, 13 December to 9 January, punctuality fell to 67.2 per cent.
Perhaps the Minister would compare that with First Capital Connect before the company starts lobbing bricks about losing its franchise. Although these figures cover only eight weeks, it is the same period during which we suffered disruptions on our train services. We must ensure that that does not happen again. Does the Minister honestly believe that if the franchise was stripped it would not happen again?
In answer to a parliamentary question on 21 January, the Minister stated that the First Capital Connect franchise can run until 31 March 2015, but that the Secretary of State may exercise an option to serve notice. The franchise also contains services that pass through St. Albans which had previously been allowed to stop at City station, to resume stopping there, allowing passengers to vote with their feet. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Ms Walley, but I have missed a page in my notes. However, it will make sense when I get there. Does the Minister believe that the events of the last 100 days indicate that the company should be stripped of the franchise?
One question asked by my constituents is why we cannot have competition on the line, a point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), as it would allow commuters to choose which company they travelled with. Many have mentioned the possibility of using East Midland Trains, a company whose services pass through St. Albans. It had previously been allowed to stop at City station; if it resumed stopping there, passengers could vote with their feet and use services provided by other companies if the usual services had failed.
I have no idea whether that is possible, but has the Minister considered other models? Will the Minister agree to examine other workable possibilities, if he believes that First Capital Connect should not have the franchise? I am unaware of exactly what discussions the Secretary of State has had about removing the franchise or the possibility of retendering. I hope that the Minister will update us today.
It is unclear whether the Government are better placed than the current franchisee to run a reliable train service, especially given the deterioration in services on East Coast trains. However, it is possible that another franchisee would be better placed to run these services. Will the Minister give us his thoughts on that matter? It is clear that the current franchisee has failed to deliver the service that my constituents have a right to expect.
If it is to be allowed to continue running these services, First Capital Connect must be held to account—held to the franchise agreement—and kept on a tight rein. Will the Minister give an undertaking to do that and give some indication of how he can make it happen? The company must demonstrate that it has put systems in place so that such disruptions will not be allowed to recur. The improvements in service that we have been promised since the company took over the franchise must be truly forthcoming. Will the Minister come to the House, within a month, to update us on whether he is convinced that FCC is the company to continue delivering commuter services and that it has in place robust measures to ensure that services are improved?
What is the Minister’s view on the negotiated contracts with drivers? I am totally unaware of what contracts are being negotiated with the new drivers being taken on by the company. If the situation is similar, the problems will happen all over again with the next round of pay bargaining—they will down tools and work to rule. Has the Minister had any discussions with First Capital Connect and other franchises to say that such actions should not be allowed in future franchises and should be stopped as soon as possible?
I continue to meet the management of First Capital Connect to discuss their part in this sorry saga, and to find out what measures have been put in place to ensure that we do not find ourselves in the same position again. Indeed, as I said, FCC management are coming to St. Albans on Friday to face my commuters. Despite the improvements of recent days, they are angry about the chaos that they have suffered and the lack of compensation. It will take a long time before their trust is won back.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing it and on speaking so trenchantly. There may be shades of difference between our views on this matter, but we are both concerned about our constituents—and not only them; many thousands travel every day from Luton to London with First Capital Connect, and so do I. I know that other Members travel from time to time on FCC, but I use it every day unless there are no FCC trains, in which case I use East Midlands. I intimately know the line and how it has performed over the past 41 years, during which time I have commuted daily.
I am a lover of the railways, and a passionate believer in them. Given that we live in an era of global warming and want to prevent climate change, they are the transport mode of the future. I could regale hon. Members with dozens of stories—some of them amusing—about my own experiences on First Capital Connect, but I shall avoid that because it would take too long. None the less, I shall relate one short story.
One night, I was travelling home late and went for the 11.15 East Midlands train. The first stop was Luton and the destination was Nottingham. I thought that there would be no problem with the East Midlands service, but when I got to the station, I had to wait on the platform for a long time, way after the train was due to leave. Then we were told that the driver was not available. He did not have a problem with driving his train, but he could not get to work because he was relying on First Capital Connect to get him from his home to St. Pancras. There was no train, so he could not get to work and drive the East Midlands train, so even then there was a problem. I have many long stories about my experiences with the service. Even in recent times, day after day after day, I have had problems. Trains are indicated on the board and then suddenly disappear, for example.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s union leanings, which I find very interesting, but will he condemn the Government’s lack of urgency? The early-day motion was tabled yesterday and the Government have had since October—and perhaps even earlier—to do something about the problem. Does he agree that this has been a woeful performance by the Government, who may well be the ones who will be nationalising what he wants?
I am sure that the Government would be rather worried if I started to speak on their behalf. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will speak for himself in time. Clearly, the logical answer is to take back the franchise, bring it in house and start to run it as a publicly run, publicly accountable public service. That is how railways operate on the continent of Europe; the track and train are integrated into one system. I will continue to argue that case until such time as common sense prevails and we get an integrated railway system in the future.
I have talked about my own experiences, but there are three problems with the system of separating track and train. It is almost as if there are three parallel universes. First, there are the train operations run from West Hampstead and controlled by Network Rail. Secondly, there is an entirely separate universe called train indicators, which bear no relation whatever to what is happening in the real world. It might say, “11.14: on time” but by 11.25 there is still no train. All of a sudden, the indicator says, “Train 1 terminates here” but there is still no train. Then the second train is half an hour later, so I miss Question Time in Parliament. That happens constantly.
There is then the separate universe of the automated announcements that bear no relation to the trains or the indicators, and seem to have a life of their own. Just occasionally, a real human being makes an announcement at the last minute, but, by and large, the announcements say one thing, the indicators say another and the train operations are in another universe again. The system is complete nonsense because of the fragmentation of the railway industry following privatisation. The idea is that we run a competitive arrangement in which one part of the system has to pay fines to another if there is a failure in the service. In other words, one part punishes another.
Moreover, we have a delay attribution system. If a First Capital Connect train is late there may be a delay in its connection with an East Midlands train, which then might have a problem connecting with a cross-country route in, say, Sheffield, and people will miss their connections. If the fault is traced back to First Capital Connect, it can be fined. So First Capital Connect goes out of its way to ensure that it is not blamed, because it does not want to be fined, but someone has to pay somewhere.
Again, if Network Rail has a problem, it will not want to pay the train operating company, so it goes out of its way not to concede any guilt in things that go wrong. All these independent operating elements of our railway system avoid speaking to each other because they do not want to be blamed or be forced to pay fines to each other. The whole system is a complete nonsense. If it was run as one system by a railway industry, we would not have this problem.
It is all because of a mad economic theory, which was explained to me on one occasion by a supposed transport economist—he was quite a nice man. He said the idea was that all the different components of the industry would compete in a market. Market forces would operate and we would have lower costs, lower fares and a better service, because that is what competition does, does it not? In fact, we now have the highest fares in Europe, the least efficient railway network and the highest level of costs, particularly for railway maintenance and laying new track. The opposite is true. I pointed that out to my friend the transport economist. I said, “Your theory does not work because we have had the opposite on every occasion.” He said, “Yes, I am afraid that the theory doesn’t work.”
We have ruined a major economy’s railway system by basing it on a barking mad theory that does not work. I suggest that the way forward is to take back all the franchises, put them in house, build an integrated railway system again and have a sensible railway, as they do in continental Europe. Costs and fares would be reduced, and we would have a much more reliable service.
The hon. Gentleman keeps harping on about the continent of Europe. Perhaps he might cast his mind back to the rail services that we had in the 1970s and 1980s.That is a better comparison. He could even look at the rail services that have been repatriated and are operating now. Let us forget elsewhere and talk about here, because my commuters care about the services and not what is happening in France.
I am very happy to talk about British Rail. The former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, said in this building, in my hearing, that “when BR handed over the railways to the privateers, they were handed over” in good order.” He is not a dyed in the wool socialist like me; he is an objective observer who was a regulator. He also said that British Rail “worked miracles on a pittance”. It was desperately underfunded, but it still managed to run a railway.
A report was produced by the organisation Catalyst, of which I was an active member. It discovered—amazingly—that the highest level of productivity for any railway in Europe happened under BR. BR had to be efficient because it had to work miracles on a pittance and because of the way in which it operated. The problem was that we did not invest enough in the railways and they became backward. We had Government after Government after Government who thought that the railways were dying, were in the past and riddled with trade unions; they did not like the railways. Even so, Mrs. Thatcher refused to privatise the railways. It was John Major who privatised them because he wanted to demonstrate his right wing machismo and that he was harder than Maggie.
This is the second debate in two days in which I have been fortunate enough to listen to the hon. Gentleman extolling the virtues of a past that not all of us recognise. If that is his view of the past, why has there been such a rise in ridership and passengers on the railways post-privatisation and why was patronage declining when it was nationalised?
We have seen a rapid growth in the economy with vast numbers of new jobs, particularly in the south-east of England. The roads are now so crowded that people are forced on to the railways because there is no serious alternative. None the less, people want to travel by rail, but they want decent fares. Public subsidy has multiplied three times since privatisation, so the amount of public money going into the railway system, as well as the private money from fares, has massively increased in that time.
However, people have demonstrated that they believe in railways, which has come as a shock to many of our leaders and particularly to the Department for Transport. People want to travel on the railways, but they want a decent, reliable service, they want to pay acceptable fares and, if they are taxpayers, they want to minimise the subsidy.
I have the hugest respect for the hon. Gentleman, and we frequently travelled home together on the train at night until I was forced into my car by the recent debacle over First Capital Connect. He paints a lovely picture, and we talked about these issues often on the train journey home, but his proposal would take such huge reorganisation and such capital expenditure that it is unrealistic. Our commuters want to know what can be done quickly—in the short term—to make things better, and nationalising the national railway will not answer their problems.
I much enjoyed my train journeys and conversations with the hon. Lady, although we did not talk about railways at the time. Nationalising the railways would save vast amounts of public and private money; all the money that is being shovelled into the maintenance and construction side and the train-operating side, and the £1 million profit that goes to the chief executive, would become part of a nationalised system. There would not be those operations. British Rail ran cash-limited operations, and it saved vast sums of public money.
I would like to speak for much longer, but I have taken more than my time, and many other hon. Members want to speak. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister seriously to consider taking not only First Capital Connect’s franchise, but all the franchises back into the public sector to recreate a national railway system that we can all be proud of and which we can all use every day.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is a regular commuter on the line. I will not follow him down every branch line or get involved in the debate about nationalisation and privatisation, but I recognise much of what he said about the reliability of the First Capital Connect service.
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on her stalwart work on behalf of St. Albans commuters and on her general defence of the interests of the people of St. Albans. On this issue, in particular, she has done a tremendous amount of work, not least in securing the debate, and she deserves all our congratulations. To save time, I shall speak about First Capital Connect as it affects my constituents. I endorse all my hon. Friend’s comments, which chime with the experience of the thousands of my constituents who want answers to the same questions.
First Capital Connect serves two lines through my constituency. One is the Great Northern line, which runs through Potters Bar, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) referred to it. My constituents and others on the line were saddened when they lost the service on Remembrance Sunday, and I know that veterans wanted to use the line on that day.
However, it is my constituents on the other line operated by First Capital Connect—the former Thameslink line—who have borne the brunt of the disruption since 10 November. The line serves the stations at Radlett and at Elstree and Borehamwood in my constituency. Those stations are at the southern end of the line, so commuters there are used to trains already being packed when they arrive. It was therefore a tremendous blow when the service was reduced overnight on 10 November from a 100 per cent. service to a 50 per cent. service. Like them, I know from my experience as a regular commuter—I recognise other regular commuters here today, including the hon. Member for Luton, North—that even when a so-called 100 per cent. service operates, the trains are very overcrowded, particularly at peak times.
Moments before we came into the debate, we received an almost self-congratulatory e-mail from First Capital Connect, which announced that there were only 135 cancellations in the week from 25 to 31 January. It is almost as if those cancellations were the only issue, but as my hon. Friend says, they force more people on to fewer trains, making people late and making their journeys incredibly uncomfortable.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She, too, has defended her constituents’ interests and she is right that our constituents and commuters should not have to put up with low standards, overcrowding, cancelled trains, trains that are not in a particularly good condition and a service that is generally unreliable.
What is more to the point—the hon. Member for Luton, North was absolutely correct about this, as I can testify from my own experience—the trains were unreliable even when a 50 per cent. service was running and the trains were overcrowded. There were still cancellations. A commuter standing on the platform at St. Pancras station, St. Albans station or Radlett station when a train arrived had the feeling that a miracle had occurred. Many of my constituents were much less fortunate than me and would often simply be unable to get on a train at all at Radlett or Borehamwood.
As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans rightly said, our constituents pay substantial amounts for this service, and there are no alternative lines and no, or only inferior, alternative modes of transport. Like my hon. Friend, my constituents are aware that the model operated by the company behind the service is not sustainable and is likely to result in the consequences that I have described. They are absolutely fed up with their nightmare commuting experience, the overcrowded trains, the cancellations and the lack of reliability. Every day, commuting is a nightmare for them.
My constituents are therefore looking for answers from the debate. As my hon. Friend said, they would like to see a more generous compensation scheme than the one that has been put in place. I accept that the current scheme has been improved, but my constituents need to see further improvements. They also want to hear that they will receive a much-improved, reliable service that is commensurate with the considerable amounts that they pay.
I am grateful to Mr. Neal Lawson of First Capital Connect for accepting my invitation to come to Borehamwood railway station next Wednesday evening, and I am sure that my constituents will have many questions to put to him. I am also grateful for the opportunity to meet Mary Grant beforehand. However, the service as it stands is not acceptable, and the company must face up to that.
My constituents would like to know a little more from Ministers, and I certainly echo the questions that my hon. Friend raised. As the people in charge of the franchises, Ministers have responsibility for these issues. I therefore have some specific questions for the Minister, and I would be grateful if he could reply to them, because my constituents want some answers.
When exactly did Ministers learn that there would be problems on the line? When did they know, for example, that there would be a 50 per cent. reduction in the service? When they did know, what did they do about it? What steps did they take subsequently? Given their current responsibilities, what is their attitude to the service going forward? What improvements do they expect to see?
One improvement, in particular, that my constituents want to see, and which has been mentioned today, is the introduction of sufficiently long trains—eight-carriage trains, rather than four-carriage trains. It is not acceptable for a service with a so-called 100 per cent. timetable to operate with short-form trains, because that continues the problem of overcrowding.
My constituents want to know what improvements Ministers expect in the service and what they are doing to bring about those improvements. They want to know what Ministers are doing to make the quality of people’s lives better, to make their commute less of a nightmare and to give them value for money. My constituents have had a nightmare, which is quite unacceptable, and Ministers must face up to their share of the responsibility for what has happened.
I wish to make a short contribution to the debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main). Yesterday, I was pleased to initiate an Adjournment debate in this Chamber about the Thameslink programme and I made a number of comments about the considerable inconvenience suffered by many of my constituents day after day between the middle of November and the end of January.
Now, however, I want to concentrate on four issues: driver numbers, communications, compensation and the future of the franchise. On driver numbers, the Bedford depot is the biggest in the FCC franchise, and I am informed by FCC management and ASLEF that there should be 186 mainline drivers there. A few weeks ago, there were 179 and recruitment was already under way to address the shortfall. However, although the establishment is designed to cover the full timetable, holidays and normal sickness, it does not accommodate training, which is an integral feature of railway operations on the Thameslink network, and therefore of FCC’s business.
Driver training is required for the operation of the Bedford-Sevenoaks franchise that FCC took over, and the 23 new class 377 trains, which have now at last been delivered, and it is also required to cover changes in track, signalling and so on, brought about by the Thameslink programme’s engineering works. Because of that considerable training requirement, ASLEF agreed that its members would work rest days to enable the overall package to be met, but working rest days is voluntary. While there is good will and co-operation, everything is fine, but in the light of what has happened in the past two and a half months, which has been an awful experience for so many thousands of people, it is clear that the voluntary arrangement is vulnerable. There is too much at stake for things to be left as they are. Therefore, there is an urgent need to review the overall number of drivers, as well as other working arrangements.
Both management and unions are fully signed up to the Thameslink programme, and all the improvements in capacity and service for the passenger that it will bring about. Therefore, a more secure means of maintaining normal train operation is needed, as the engineering and other works unfold. Given the understandable lack of public confidence in FCC at the moment, both the company and the unions should look to inform the public about how driver numbers and working arrangements will provide a robust and reliable service in the years ahead. It is also the duty of the Department for Transport to ensure that that is done, if necessary as a condition of franchise.
I want to touch quickly on communications, to passengers at stations and to FCC staff, who can in turn inform passengers and answer questions. Communication has been a disaster in the past several weeks. I am reliably informed that the current passenger information system is a manual one. It is user-unfriendly and it does not function in real time. It is okay if nothing goes wrong on the railway, but the minute something happens it is completely inadequate. It just cannot cope and is now being demonstrated to be, to put it politely, a pretty useless system. FCC has recently agreed to spend money on improving it—a process that will, I understand, take another 40 weeks.
However, there are other, industry-wide issues about communication with passengers. I understand that the Department for Transport has taken the initiative, together with Network Rail and train operators, to address that. I raised that yesterday with my hon. Friend the Minister, and I look forward to receiving his response, if not today, certainly in writing, on what is being planned—not just on Thameslink, but nationally—and when changes will happen.
On the package of compensation to passengers, I have received some e-mails from constituents complaining about the inadequacy of the offer. However, FCC responded very recently to concerns that had been widely expressed about its operations as a whole, as well as the compensation, and it has boosted the offer, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone on such issues, but now some people who know about the latest improvements have told me that they consider the discount to be generous. That is not my word, but theirs. I understand that the system for applying for compensation has been discussed in detail with the Bedford Commuters Association and the Association of Public Transport Users and has been adjusted accordingly. We shall see how that unfolds.
Finally, I note the calls for FCC to have its franchise terminated, and it is a perfectly legitimate issue to raise, given the scale of the disruption and public dissatisfaction. However, I have come to the conclusion, partly as a result of discussions with FCC management, but also after discussions with ASLEF and the Bedford Commuters Association—and after thinking about the matter myself—that such a measure now would not solve the problem, and would introduce uncertainty when we need recovery of the service. In my view, FCC management has got the message.
I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. I should prefer the franchise to be withdrawn and the service to be brought back into public ownership, but there is a middle route, which the Government took with First Great Western: to issue a remedial plan, which would be monitored by the Minister directly, almost on a weekly basis, to ensure that performance was being improved and set to target.
That is a very sensible suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will respond accordingly, perhaps to confirm that that will happen.
On public ownership, I support public ownership of the entire network. I am not convinced that using the opportunity of the failure of the past two and a half months is the way to approach the issue. The Government should present measures for the renationalisation of the entire system. I think that I shall wait a long time for that, but it would be a better way to go about it than a piecemeal approach.
Despite what people have gone through in the past two and a half months, the time for anger is over. We need to move into a more measured process of delivering for the passenger. Therefore, FCC must address the serious issues that I, and others, have raised, and demonstrate to the Department for Transport and the public that it is on top of the challenge.
I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing the debate. Given the energy and assiduousness with which she has represented her constituents and dealt with the issue, I cannot but point out that if the Government and the Minister had been half as energetic and attentive, and if there had been a little more pressure on First Capital Connect, some of the problems might have abated a little sooner.
The e-mail that I mentioned in an intervention, which referred to 135 cancellations in the last week in January, included a note stating:
“This is the best …performance…since May 2009.”
That highlights the poor service that not only has been provided on the line in the past few months but to which we are repeatedly subjected. The past few months have been bad, but personally the past five years have not been particularly good. The result may have been a very unsatisfactory situation, but for some of us that has been going on for some time.
I want to name-check Larry Heyman, the customer services manager, who has been between a rock and a hard place, and who has done a fantastic job in trying to communicate with as many people as possible about what was happening. However, communication was, of course, the main problem. People in my constituency would wait for a train for an hour, on the platform where they had been told it would arrive; then, as it pulled into the station, the platform announcement would change, giving them insufficient time to get to the other platform, and the train would go. It is hard to put oneself in another person’s position, but if someone who is late for work and in trouble with their managers and bosses has been standing for an hour on a freezing cold platform, and a platform change is suddenly made without notification, that person will be pretty angry.
That is something that I want to communicate: how angry my constituents have been. My e-mail account has been full. I have been given information via Twitter, e-mail and blogs, on the platform, and in letters. People have been furious. I have heard of people unable to complete training courses, and others who have been threatened by their managers that they would lose their jobs if they continued to be late. Those people have no other way to get to their employment.
The human heartache that was suffered because of how First Capital Connect behaved will not be recompensed by a mere 5 per cent. of the price of a season ticket. That will not give people back their jobs or save their face in front of their employers. It will not put right what they have been through. It will just give them a small amount of financial compensation. That, again, highlights the fact that the Government had no sense of urgency about how the catastrophe affected people’s daily lives. It is a shame on the Government that they did not act more quickly—that they did not find a way to bring in drivers from other providers or other parts of the country, and do something to break the three-month deadlock.
I know that I need to be brief, Ms Walley, so I will make a final point. Regarding the financial punishment, or the loss of the franchise, whatever happens needs to happen not only from a need to punish FCC for what has gone on but as a deterrent across the country to any other rail providers that might think, even for one moment, that they can get away with treating their commuters as FCC treated our constituents. Every rail provider out there needs to know that, if that is how they treat their commuters, this is what will happen. Therefore, something very severe needs to happen to FCC. I do not know what form that action will take, but it needs to happen soon.
I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate. The issue is clearly of enormous concern to her constituents and I suspect that it is also enormously important to the constituents of all the Members of Parliament who are here today, including me, although I am more of a Southern user than a First Capital Connect user.
All Members who are here today are very familiar with the history of this disaster, or debacle, which began with the issue of driver training and the voluntary arrangement that was apparently in place to provide cover. Shortly afterwards, that was followed by the bad weather, which had a serious effect on FCC and on all the other train operating companies.
FCC has been very unfortunate in that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), who is no longer in his place, said, it has the 377 rolling stock. That stock has a very poor record, with only 6,000 miles between each breakdown. In that respect, I wonder if FCC was sold a pup, because that is a very poor reliability record. Of course, FCC then had the 319 fleet, which was very badly affected by the snow, which is, as it were, the Eurostar defence when it comes to cancelling trains, as it put many Eurostar trains out of operation.
It was those two factors—first, the issue of drivers and the voluntary arrangement to deal with that issue, and secondly, the disastrous performance during the snow—that prompted my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam to table early-day motion 623, which I supported him in. That called for:
“Termination of rail franchise of First Capital Connect”.
He tabled that early-day motion because he and many other commuters believe that FCC has gone beyond the point of no return in relation to providing this service. That early-day motion:
“calls on the Secretary of State for Transport to serve immediate notice to terminate the franchise agreement with First Capital Connect and to offer the franchise to a more capable organisation.”
In my view, that “more capable organisation” could be either another train operating company, if one is interested, or alternatively the state could run the service, to provide a comparator with the private sector, to enable us to see which of the two sectors can deliver rail services most cost-effectively.
Ms Walley, I know that you will not allow me to stray too much beyond the subject of this debate, particularly given the time that I have available, but Members may have been following what has happened with Tube Lines, which runs the tube services, and the disaster that is about to occur in terms of the cost of the services that it is providing. I believe that Transport for London could provide those services much more effectively, much more efficiently and at a lower cost.
The experience that commuters have had on FCC is reflected in my inbox; all Members here today will have had similar messages from constituents. For example, I received the following Facebook message:
“They hike our tickets up, and then give us an appalling service. It is an utter disgrace—either they hire and retain enough train drivers or they hand the franchise over.”
We hope that that issue of drivers has now been addressed. However, when the Minister answers the very long list of questions that have been put in this debate—I will add a few to it myself—he may want to confirm whether he thinks that FCC is now, roughly speaking, dependent to the same extent as the other train operating companies on drivers being willing to work at the weekends, for instance. Alternatively, does he believe that FCC is still in a position where it is more vulnerable than those other companies?
I received another complaint about FCC by e-mail:
“Having lived in Sutton for the past 5 years”—
so, these problems have not just happened in the past six months—
“I have had the misfortune of having to travel on the above route…south London is not best served by public transport…I am sick and tired of the appalling service of FCC.”
Importantly, as other Members have already mentioned, the issue of dealing with employers is raised:
“My employers are getting fed up with explanations of ‘late/cancelled trains’.”
The e-mail goes on to talk about the issue of compensation and how FCC had offered:
“wild and wonderful suggestions of how I should rearrange my journey in order that they are not eligible to pay me £2.”
That issue of compensation is one that FCC could do a lot more to simplify and make straightforward. In other debates, other Members have discussed other methods of compensation. In Berlin, for example, there was an issue with the train service and it was resolved simply by extending everyone’s ticket by a month. That was very straightforward and it required no action on the part of commuters.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Berlin. Two years ago, I was with the Rail Freight Group in Berlin and I talked to the head of German railways. He was railing against the possibility that German railways could be privatised, on the basis of the British experience of privatisation, because it would be a total disaster.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I think that he has made his position on this issue very clear.
I hope that FCC has learned the lessons from these problems, although I am a little worried about a statement by Mary Grant of FCC. She was asked about the lessons that had been learned and she stated, “You don’t plan for what you expect to happen, you plan for what you don’t expect to happen.” Any business makes contingency arrangements so that it has a fall-back position when what it plans for does not happen.
The communications system is another issue. Due diligence would have highlighted to the company a number of years ago that it could not cope with a significant weather incident. It should have made its investment plans earlier.
Finally, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. First, in a debate on 28 January, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the right hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) said:
“My noble friend the Secretary of State and I are considering all options open to the Government to require radical improvements.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 928.]
At the end of this debate, we need to know what that means, the time scale involved and what options are being considered. Do they include the possibility of curtailing the franchise by 2012? We also need to know if the remedial plan option, for example, is being considered. Finally, if the Government are considering withdrawing the franchise from FCC, what are the trigger points that would initiate that process?
To conclude, I will quote another FCC commuter:
“I do not think that First Capital Connect should be allowed to continue to hold their franchise as their service has never been reliable and the trains are in poor condition.”
At the end of this debate, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he agrees with that commuter and, if he does not agree, what does he propose doing as an alternative to removing the franchise from FCC?
It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate today, as it was to contribute to a debate on rail in Westminster Hall yesterday, because I have a dual role in relation to rail; I am both a frustrated constituency MP and the shadow Minister with responsibility for my party in this area.
A number of my colleagues have eloquently described a number of problems that they have experienced with First Capital Connect. So far, most of them have come from the northern end of the FCC lines, but a number of the commuters on the Wimbledon loop have experienced exactly the same problems with the poor service from November onwards and indeed with the total shutdown of the service due to snow.
Therefore, I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this very timely debate. The number of Members who have made time today to make either speeches or interventions in this debate is a tribute to her. That is a sign of how important this issue is to our constituents. It is to her credit that she has been such a consistent defender of her constituents.
We have had some very thoughtful speeches and interventions. I want to pick up on the point that was made earlier, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in an intervention and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) in her contribution to the debate, about the poor information that was being provided by FCC. FCC should seek to address that immediately. It can be rectified easily. It is a differentiating factor between its service and the services that are provided elsewhere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) both made the point that it is all very well for FCC to offer some compensation, but we are talking about the inconvenience suffered by commuters and the need to get to a service that is regular and reliable, which our constituents have a right to expect. That is why this has been such an important debate.
Several hon. Members have said that today they received e-mails from First Capital Connect stating that the daily public performance measurement has dropped below 90 per cent. only once since 18 January. However, we are here to discuss the unacceptable standard over the past few months, not the fact that FCC has returned to an almost acceptable one.
Whichever way we look at it, there are three protagonists in this sorry debacle, but it is the travelling public who have been forced to live at the will and whim of the incidents. Although the drivers’ actions were not technically a strike, it is hard to believe that they were not motivated by the pay talks under way, and passengers became the victims of irresponsible game-playing. The walk-outs on previously rostered agreements hurt the travelling public.
The question for many people—I think that the Minister will want to answer this—is whether it is responsible to let franchises, knowing that those franchises rely on the rostering of overtime and that there is all too often no provision in the franchise to cover Sundays. That is certainly true of FCC, and it is true of others.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the franchises are let on the basis that the Government expect the output specified in the franchise to be delivered by whatever means, not on the basis of what rostering might be proposed by the franchisee.
The Minister is admitting to everybody that he accepts that the Government are prepared to let franchises without full coverage of driver services. I was somewhat surprised when he confirmed to me that the majority of train operating companies rely on rest days and overtime working to deliver not exceptional services but normal services.
If the Minister cares to write to me again to clarify his letter, I will be able to answer that question. It was his own letter that told me that it was a majority of companies. If he wishes to clarify the letter, I will be delighted to receive that clarification.
Understandably, there has been clamour for First Capital Connect to be stripped of its franchise. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started to get to the nub of the matter. Stripping a franchise might be possible if the franchisee has broken its franchise arrangements. Will the Minister tell us whether FCC, even under the revised timetable, has come close to incurring performance improvement plans, breach or default? If it had not agreed the revised timetable, would its lack of performance have led to such measures? There are important questions about the performance of the franchise.
The other thing that a lot of our constituents rightly want to know is why they face a poorer service even though the problems that they have experienced have not shown up as particularly bad performance in FCC’s initial numbers, due to force majeure and the revised timetable. Will the Minister indicate exactly what criteria he uses for force majeure and what provisions allow a TOC to introduce a revised timetable? Although events outside the company’s control were involved, making the necessity of such measures understandable, surely the point is that although the revised timetable is in place, our constituents are not getting the service that they expect and should therefore be entitled to compensation anyway. Will he address that point? What consideration have the Government given it?
I am conscious of the time, and I know that Ms Walley wants to call the Minister at a quarter to 4, but I have a couple of questions about the First Capital Connect fleet. Yesterday I asked the Minister some detailed questions about the First Thameslink fleet and he kindly agreed to write to me, but today I have what I hope are some slightly easier questions.
It is clear that First Capital Connect has operated under a considerable burden, partly because of delays in the delivery of rolling stock. Hon. Members have rightly described some of the rolling stock cascaded to FCC as being of lower maintenance provision than previously. Does the Minister accept that the cascade of poorer rolling stock has played a huge part? If the Government had met their side of the bargain and delivered to First Capital Connect 32 non-defective trains, as opposed to the 32 that they actually delivered, what consequences do they believe that would have had during the bad weather?
I am conscious of the time, as I know that the Minister will want to respond in depth, but it is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans that she secured this debate and allowed many of us to speak on behalf of our constituents, express concerns to the Minister and understand what remedies the Government intend to take.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) on securing this debate, which I know is of great importance to her constituents, and indeed to many thousands of other rail users across the south-east affected by the severe disruption to First Capital Connect Thameslink services over the past few months.
The hon. Lady mentioned two items submitted to me. On the first item, my office is not aware of the letter of 11 January to which she referred; it appears not to have arrived. On the parliamentary question, I believe that I signed the response this morning.
At times the service has been atrocious, involving delays, cancellations and poor customer care. Passengers have been let down badly—particularly on the Thameslink route, but also, as hon. Members have said, on the Great Northern route—and it is easy to see why so many are angry and frustrated. They deserve better. I want to make it clear that unless things improve radically, the Government will take the necessary robust and rapid steps to ensure that passengers receive the standard of service that they deserve.
The problems at First Capital Connect started in the autumn. As the hon. Lady will be aware, some train operating companies rely on overtime and rest day working to deliver their train services, and First Capital Connect is no different. The current difficulties began when drivers chose not to undertake overtime and rest day working in response to a two-year pay award deal offered by the operator. Such concerted unofficial action by the drivers was highly regrettable, given that talks with unions were ongoing. At a challenging time for the economy, the pay award offered was similar to that proposed by another rail operator—and, indeed, was better than pay deals in some other industries in the UK where workers are accepting zero growth or even pay reductions to secure their longer-term employment future.
As part of the franchise agreement, the franchisee is tasked with using all reasonable endeavours to keep services running and minimise disruption to passengers when rail services are disrupted by staff action. In the first working week in which amended timetables were introduced on the Thameslink route, the operator cancelled 126 trains out of its normal 380 trains, leaving 67 per cent. of trains in service.
As the disruption continued, First Capital Connect was progressively able to reduce the planned number of cancellations so that by 11 January this year, 80 per cent. of services were planned to run. The Department agreed the amended timetables to ensure that First Capital Connect could give passengers accurate information on the minimum level of service that would be provided. That was designed to reduce the passenger disruption and confusion caused by short-notice cancellations, and to provide passengers with a timetable—albeit a reduced one—that allowed them to plan their journeys.
In giving that approval, the Department required First Capital Connect to introduce specific mitigation steps to provide the best possible service, including protecting first and last services for all routes; balanced services throughout the day; replacement bus services where appropriate; reinstatement of services where resources were available; and making First Capital Connect tickets acceptable on other routes and transport modes.
I am sorry if it is the last time, because there is an awful lot of detail. It is crucial that we know when the Minister was advised that the situation was becoming untenable. We know that a reduced timetable was agreed to, but on exactly what date did he become aware of how bad the negotiations had become?
The Minister is talking about the reduced train service. The major problem beyond that was that the automated indicator system often bore no relation to the service, the automated voice system bore no relation to the indicator system and, just occasionally, there would be a live voice trying to sort out the mess. Will the Minister address that problem?
My hon. Friend intervened at exactly the right point because I was about to say that First Capital Connect acknowledges that its provision of information to customers, including on customer information systems, has not been good enough. The company is in discussion with my officials on how it intends to improve information provision to passengers.
At the beginning of December 2009, First Capital Connect and ASLEF confirmed that a pay settlement had been negotiated and they gave a joint communication to that effect to staff. The proposed pay settlement was considered by the ASLEF executive committee on 8 December 2009, which recommended its acceptance to members. The official deadline for members to accept or reject the offer was 13 January 2010. First Capital Connect and ASLEF undertook engagements jointly and separately with the train drivers to encourage them to return to overtime and rest day working. Although that strategy paid some dividends with a reduction in the number of cancellations, FCC was unable to operate its full timetable until 18 January 2010.
As if the drivers’ action had not caused passengers enough disruption, severe weather early last month conspired to make a bad situation worse. The snow had a significant impact on the Thameslink route. Network Rail required emergency timetables to operate and there were additional infrastructure and rolling stock problems. At perhaps the worst point, on 7 January, FCC had only 25 units available out of 107 units, which severely hampered services. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department for Transport wrote to the hon. Member for St. Albans on that matter recently. I confirm that all repairs to the damaged rolling stock are expected to be completed by 10 February 2010.
First Capital Connect was not the only train operator to have problems in the snow. The rail industry is conducting a review of how it delivered services to passengers during the bad weather, including the provision of customer information, to ensure that lessons are learned.
I think I just heard the Minister say that the problem was with 173 trains. I believe that in the rolling stock plan of January 2008, First Capital Connect was promised 255 new carriages. How many of those carriages have been ordered? Will that figure change in the next rolling stock plan?
The Minister mentioned that the industry is about to carry out a review into the problems caused by the snow. Presumably, the industry carried out a review after the problems during the bad weather last year. Have any lessons been learned from that review, which must have been carried out about 12 months ago?
That is another interesting question and I will write to the hon. Gentleman in response.
We are clear about the impact of the bad weather on train services and we are equally clear on the performance of the franchise as a result of the drivers’ action.
Throughout this period, the Department has remained in regular dialogue with FCC and we continue to monitor its performance on a daily basis. Indeed, the Secretary of State met with the company this week. Although the services since 18 January are an obvious improvement on those delivered to passengers since the disruption began in October last year, the Secretary of State has made it clear that performance has remained unacceptable in terms of punctuality, cancellations and passenger service. Equally, the compensation package offered by FCC to Thameslink passengers is, in our view, inadequate recompense for the three months of chronic disruption. That has only exacerbated discontent.
We recognise that FCC is introducing new drivers; six started last month and five more are due to begin soon. Further new drivers will become qualified throughout the year and existing drivers will be trained on a wider range of trains. I think that goes some way to answering the question of the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) about the resilience of FCC.
The Minister is talking about driver recruitment and numbers. I notice that no one has said that they will force drivers to work on their rest days. The situation is clearly vulnerable and uncertain. I suggest that the Minister, train operators and Network Rail consider how all these issues can be changed so that we no longer rely on such a clearly unstable situation.
That is not for me to judge. That is a matter for the train operating company to consider as part of establishing a relationship with its customers.
I reiterate that, on current performance, FCC could very soon miss the benchmark levels in the franchise agreement. We have advised the company that we are considering all options open to us under the franchise agreement. Where other franchises have breached franchise agreement performance benchmarks, we have taken firm action to secure improvements in services to passengers. In the case of First Great Western, the remedial plan and the associated £29 million passenger benefits package delivered significant improvements to services.
Will the Minister clarify that he said what I think he said, which is that the company is close to breaching the conditions? My understanding from First Capital Connect is that since 18 January, it is well above the performance improvement plans, well above breach and well above default. There is no possible way in which the Government can act unless they ignore the contract. Will he clarify what he said?
The hon. Gentleman is clearly aware of the generalities of the framework and of the monitoring of cancellation, capacity and service delivery benchmarks under the franchise. A number of thresholds can trigger different types of intervention. We are looking at the numbers that FCC has given us for the period when the revised timetables were in place and for the subsequent period. We will look closely at whether those numbers lead to any need for intervention.
Recently, a remedial plan was agreed with London Midland to secure improvements to its services. We will continue to put customer interests first. I remind hon. Members of our debate yesterday, which was about the improvements that Thameslink passengers will see as a result of the Government’s £5.5 billion investment in the development of the Thameslink service.