[Dr William McCrea in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for what I believe is the first time, Dr McCrea. I am delighted to see so many colleagues here. I think that we have all linked up on the First Capital Connect line, which shows how integrated we are, and how integrated we would like our transport to be.
Many of us in this place often focus, understandably, on the important political policy shifts that often divide us, despite the fact that sometimes we have common goals and desired outcomes. Those political policy shifts understandably dominate the political agenda, and of course have a significant impact on our constituents, but although they may capture our imaginations and dominate most of our time, this debate is, I suggest, on one of the most pressing issues facing hard-working constituents who commute to work.
It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that a typical commuter from Gordon Hill in my constituency to Moorgate will spend approximately 230 hours a year on a First Capital Connect train, if all runs well.
My hon. Friend anticipates me neatly. That 230 hours a year is equivalent to about 10 days—or, if we are more realistic, 20 daylight days—which, over a working life of 40 years, is a year spent on a train. A commuter from my constituency will pay £1,560 annually for the privilege. Is it any wonder that our constituents rightly consider it a major issue? After all, it is a question not of how much of their time is spent travelling to and from work, but of their quality of life. If the daily commute does not go well, it can affect the whole working day—our punctuality, our reputation at work and, let us face it, our mood and our whole working environment for the day.
The odds are not good of having a pleasant experience, even if punctuality is not an issue. At average peak times, commuters on most suburban lines face tired rolling stock with precarious heating systems or, in summer, carriages that feel like mobile greenhouses. They have a one in three, possibly a one in four, chance of getting a seat, yet they pay the same fare as their luckier neighbours. Often, to pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), my constituents are undertaking only the first part of a two-part journey, as they will then embark on the tube.
That year of our lives spent commuting is probably, in reality, more like two, which is why the quality and reliability of our franchise operators, and Network Rail’s maintenance of, and investment in, infrastructure, is one of the big issues facing my constituents. That is reflected to me on Twitter and Facebook in characteristically blunt terms.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the brief put out by First Capital Connect, which is almost beyond parody. It includes 10 tweets from customers congratulating the rail service on its wonderful performance. I know that FCC has many fabulous staff members—Sue and Jim in the ticket office in Cuffley are two of the most fabulous public servants I know of—but frankly, my inbox for the past six months has been full of complaint after complaint about service that has been substandard too often, for too long.
My hon. Friend’s point would be well backed up if we added up the number of tweets that are, shall we say, less generous. In fairness—I will come to this later—FCC does at least try to confront some of the issues raised on Twitter during some peak times.
Let me set out for the Minister what the problem is, the responses from FCC and Network Rail, and my analysis and that of some of my constituents. I will not be able to cover all the issues, but I know that colleagues will mention problems common to all of us, and certainly to my constituents. I will conclude by sharing views on how the future franchise should secure commitments from operators, and why public satisfaction should be a consideration when awarding or extending franchises—a measure for which my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) was an early champion.
For clarity, what is the Hertford loop? It is a line that leaves the east coast main line at Langley South junction, just south of Stevenage—why it is called the Langley junction baffles me—and passes through the stations of Watton-at-Stone and Hertford North, represented here by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk); Cuffley, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne; Crews Hill, Gordon Hill and Enfield Chase in my constituency; and Grange Park, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park in the constituency of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). However, what is most significant in this debate and draws wider interest, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, is the fact that the Hertford loop is also a diversion route for the main line when necessary. Thereby hangs a tale.
Turning to the operational shortcomings, my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, and I have had considerable representations from constituents served by FCC; he will, I am sure, speak for his constituents and their experiences further down the line. There has been a severe and sudden drop in service levels, most noticeably since late August 2013. The situation remains unchanged. In particular, the pre- and post-Christmas periods proved utterly unacceptable. At that point, I pressed FCC for a meeting to represent my constituents’ views and to try to learn what plans were afoot to mitigate the operational failings. Unfortunately, it took until 6 January to get a meeting with FCC, along with my hon. Friends the Members for Stevenage and for Enfield, Southgate. I am pleased to say that Network Rail also attended.
My hon. Friend is making a strong case for his constituents. I understand from FCC that during the three-month period leading up to Christmas, on 83% of occasions, it did not meet its target for punctuality. He is someone with great experience in business. What would happen to him if he did not meet his core business target on 83% of occasions?
I would have faced the prospect of going out of business. My hon. Friend touches on accountability, which I will discuss. One cannot miss targets of such gravity and expect no consequences. In the case of business, it is quite likely that those consequences would be lasting and permanent.
After the meeting with FCC, the level of service degenerated to a point when on a particularly wet and windy day, constituents were faced with a choice between walking to Enfield Town station or, as some let me know, returning home to grab bicycles to get to work, because the prospect of the FCC service getting them there was nil. The Minister might appreciate the situation better if I record the fact that between 2 December and 21 December 2013, the following peak-time issues arose.
On 2 December, there was an 85-minute delay between Enfield Chase and Essex Road as a result of signalling problems. On 5 and 6 December—two consecutive days—tracks contaminated by leaves, which I accept is a serious problem, and signalling faults left the track unusable for considerable amounts of time during peak hours while FCC tried to clean the tracks. On 12 December, there were no trains whatever during the morning rush hour due to a power supply problem. The very next day, 13 December, urgent track repairs at Finsbury Park caused evening peak-time delays and cancellations, followed by late arrivals on 16 December.
On the very next day, 17 December, signal failure on the east coast main line resulted in diversions through the Hertford loop, resulting in cancelled trains for my constituents, period. That is when they resorted to bicycles. On 21 December, staff shortages meant that there were cancellations and delays, because with the Christmas holidays approaching, there was insufficient cover available to maintain the train service.
The passenger headline surveys show one story, but if we dig into the responses on commuter services in the Passenger Focus survey, they show that for punctuality and reliability the figure once peaked at 80% and then reached a new low of 58%, with a rise in autumn 2013 to 68%—still a one in three failure rate.
On top of all that, there is evidence of poor communication with passengers at a time when information is the most valuable currency to a commuter. One constituent summed up what many felt when he wrote to FCC after abandoning any attempts to get to central London:
“Another FCC communications disaster
I have just returned home after an abortive attempt to travel by train from Gordon Hill to central London. Apparently a signal failure had disrupted services, but why, oh why”,
he pleaded to First Capital Connect,
“is no information forthcoming? What I want to know is: why, in this age of technology, do the computerised departure boards on the platform state that trains are ‘on time’ when it is patently not the case?”
Can hon. Members think of anything more irritating as people are going to work? My constituent continues:
“Station staff have to resort to bits of paper sellotaped to the Oyster card reader to let people know that there are delays.
“do announcements over the public address system stating that the signal failure is ‘now fixed’ give no indication of when there might be a train?
Why was the booking office clerk, who was as frustrated as the would-be passengers, unable to obtain any service information despite numerous ’phone calls to the operations dept?”
One of the great frustrations at Cuffley is that the train timetable board will say that the train is delayed by two minutes, four minutes, six minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes, back to 10 minutes, and then up to 14 minutes, and finally it will say that it is cancelled. It is absolute nonsense if the company cannot even indicate to passengers when their train will arrive, and how late it will be.
My hon. Friend strikes the right tone and makes a good point. Even in dire circumstances, passengers accept that things go wrong, but not knowing what is happening and what can be expected drives the frustration that they feel. Is it any wonder that the Passenger Focus survey reports said that only 43% were happy with how the company dealt with delays? That, incidentally, was an increase from a new low the previous year of 33%. It is not acceptable. Tragically—that is overstating it; poignantly, perhaps—the gentleman who wrote that e-mail of complaint is still waiting for a reply.
I hope that the record will show that the patience and good humour of my constituents was tested beyond all reasonable limits. As a regular commuter, I share their frustration, but I have the privilege of being able to come to the House to express that deep sense of frustration to both First Capital Connect and Network Rail on their behalf. I also promised many of them that I would share their experience with Ministers at the highest possible level.
What do these fare-paying passengers want? Above all, they want a service operator that is fit for purpose, that represents reliability and safety. Passengers do understand that problems arise and that sometimes delays and even cancellations are unavoidable, but delays and cancellations at this level and over a long and sustained period rightly prompt the question: are FCC and its parent company fit for purpose and deserving of a new franchise?
In fairness to FCC, in its letter to me of 24 January, it acknowledges the following:
“Over the past year the performance has dropped significantly and is far below what we aim to achieve for our customers on this route.”
FCC rightly points to the combined responsibility for the service failures between FCC and Network Rail, citing a split of 23% and 64% respectively. Other operators on the route are responsible for the remainder of the delays.
I am sure that my constituents will be pleased to learn the following:
“Major programmes of track, power supply, signalling and overhead line works are underway”
to address the majority of problems. In addition, extensive vegetation removal is taking place near the tracks to mitigate the effects of leaf falls and prevent them bringing the system to a halt again. However, passengers feel that there is a distinct lack of accountability to passengers for FCC. It accepts that it is accountable to passengers, but in its letter to me, it confuses accountability with communication of service difficulties, citing its Twitter service as an example of accountability. It is true that passengers are quick to let FCC know what they think of the service on social media, and in fairness I pay tribute to FCC’s Twitter team, who always seem responsive and provide information when they have it, but that is no replacement for accountability.
I am a free marketeer. I believe that my record will bear testimony to that and will stand scrutiny. I believe that choice lies at the heart of successful free market principles. My constituents’ belief that there is a lack of accountability for First Capital Connect’s service is underpinned by the lack of real choice in how to get to work, and their lack of real influence over, or say in, who should be awarded the franchise. Is it not time to introduce an obligation for passenger satisfaction to be included in any new franchise agreements, so that the passenger experience becomes a priority and not an afterthought?
I raised this issue in a debate back in 2011, and the then Transport Minister said that it was under consideration, so it would be interesting if this Minister was able to give us an update on what has happened in those two years.
I am hopeful that that is exactly the sort of point that we will be able to explore with the Minister in this debate.
Is it not fair that, as in any commercial arrangement, if standards fall during the lifetime of what will ultimately be a very long franchise, passenger power should allow a review of the franchise, with the possibility of notice being given if service levels fall to a predetermined unacceptable level? I have signed many contracts in a lifetime of business and I know fundamentally that all those contracts will survive only if we maintain the right level of service for the customer for whom we are fulfilling the contract. The length of a contract should never be seen as an opportunity to have a blank cheque, but the only way to ensure that is to introduce greater accountability.
In all this, where is the voice of the customer? The voice of the customer does not seem to register significantly on the train operator’s radar. That is why we are here today acting on behalf of—giving voice to—the customer.
My hon. Friend has been very generous. When a train is delayed at Cuffley, customers can fill out forms and get their money back. I think that is nonsense, because people are busy. What should happen is that if people have a season ticket or a monthly travelcard, when they renew it at the end of the month or the end of the year, they should receive a discount for the following month or the following year—perhaps a 5% or 10% discount. That is true accountability and recognition that the rail company is a service provider to our constituents.
My hon. Friend again makes a point brilliantly and superbly. Let us face it: technology should not bar that. I have often seen, much to my surprise, a refund on my Oyster card. I am often not sure why the Mayor of London is being so generous in giving me that money back, but I have seen it. It is a technology transfer; it works. With thousands of commuters travelling every day, the introduction of a system like that would, for the first time, truly represent the value of the considerable buying power that these passengers should have. It is interesting to note that on every pound spent by the fare-paying passenger, FCC sees a net return of 3%—a 3% net profit. That would not be unreasonable if service standards were maintained at the highest level. Fares have increased substantially, but customers are not benefiting from real choice. Let us at least give them real influence.
The question of accountability is not only one for FCC and its customers. What of the relationship between FCC and Network Rail, from which FCC purchases track access? That accounts for 48p in every pound that the customer spends. Network Rail does not have accountability to passengers, but it acts as a supplier to rail operating companies such as FCC. What compensation do operators receive from Network Rail for service failure, and if such an arrangement exists, what are the criteria for receiving such compensation, and how is it accounted for? If such an arrangement does not exist, surely it should. Without such a system, I suggest that there is no accountability—perhaps not even commercial accountability—between the provider and the customer. Why should not compensation be passed down to passengers through the excellent system that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has advocated?
Today has been about not politics but fairness to long-suffering commuters. The previous Government had a record of failing to invest in our local rail infrastructure, and we are having to catch up quickly. The patience of my constituents is being sorely tested, and notwithstanding the work that is taking place, I see no immediate relief to the problems that my constituents face this winter and spring. Will the Minister impress on FCC and Network Rail that the service must improve, and quickly? Will he respond to the idea, set out earlier in this Parliament by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage, that new franchise agreements should include passenger satisfaction, so that passenger experience might finally become the priority?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) on securing this valuable debate on a subject that is incredibly important to our constituents.
The Hertford loop line effectively starts at Stevenage, a station with 4.2 million passenger movements a year on a line running through prime commuter belt. To put that in context, Leeds station has some 4 million passenger movements a year. We are talking about incredibly busy stations, and lines that deal with millions of people. My hon. Friend spoke of a day on which his constituents were forced to get on their bikes, which meant that tens of thousands of people had no way of getting to work.
Two train operating companies serve Stevenage: First Capital Connect and East Coast. Stevenage is the junction between the east coast main line and FCC services. One of the worst moments for a passenger is when they are told that they are being diverted via the Hertford loop line, because it adds 25 minutes to the journey. Everybody’s heart sinks, because they know that there will be a queue of East Coast trains in front of the FCC trains. In addition to the delay caused by the diversion, all those trains will arrive at Finsbury Park and King’s Cross at exactly the same time. This morning, for instance, there was a problem at Hitchin—the points failed, I believe—and I was delayed for about 35 minutes. When we got to King’s Cross, we all sat outside the station as East Coast trains came firing in and took all the berths. After passengers have been delayed for more than 30 minutes, they are entitled to receive compensation, and my constituents often wonder whether there is a conspiracy to give the long-distance trains priority so that the operating companies do not have to pay passengers large amounts of money.
Perhaps I can add to the sense of misery. My constituents stand in Hertford station and watch the trains that my hon. Friend is talking about sail past while their local trains have been cancelled. I understand the misery, and I would like to top it, if I may.
My hon. Friend is welcome to top the misery, because in the most recent Eureka timetable, I was lucky enough to secure an extra 58 East Coast train stops for Stevenage station, so my constituents are often the ones sailing past his. It is also interesting to see how my constituents use the Hertford loop. We often get a fast train at Stevenage, so that we do not have to go on the Hertford loop line, and then we change at Finsbury Park and continue on the Hertford loop line to Liverpool Street. My constituents often get off the train at Finsbury Park only to be told that there are problems, so they have to wait for the next east coast main line or FCC main line service to take them to King’s Cross, where they take the tube to Liverpool Street. That adds a huge amount of time, frustration, anger, bicycles—you name it—to my constituents’ journeys.
There is a real lack of communication. My hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) have said that some station staff do an amazing job of keeping constituents informed, but sometimes things simply collapse. When my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and I attended a meeting with National Rail and FCC, I raised the issue of ticket inspectors. The fastest journey from Stevenage to King’s Cross takes 26 minutes, so a delay of 35 or 40 minutes is considerable.
The situation can often be terribly unfair on staff. For example, on the third day of delays to services, station staff still have to face angry commuters and bear the full brunt of their anger and frustration in as good a humour as possible. The higher-ups—the suits —remain squirreled away in the train company’s headquarters, rather than coming out to meet their disappointed customers. We need to see greater leadership from the directors of the company; they must not leave it to the poor staff to bear the brunt of commuters’ frustrations.
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and my hon. Friends and I made the same point in the meeting that I have just mentioned. I was pleased that both companies apologised for the service that our constituents received and tried to explain some of the reasons for it. In fairness to FCC staff, many of them do a very good job. I understand that during the recent delays, some of the higher-ups went out to stations—they could not get to work either—and tried to placate customers. We need to see more of that. I often tweet about how good some of the FCC staff are on my journey to work.
One thing that particularly irritates my constituents is when their train is delayed and they ask the ticket inspector what is causing the delay, but the inspector—or payment protection officer, as they are called—does not know. That poor member of staff may get grief along the 12 carriages of the train as he checks tickets. That creates dysfunctionality and reduces the quality of the passenger experience a great deal. FCC needs to do a lot more work on getting information down to staff, to ensure that those on the front line can communicate with passengers.
I commute to Parliament every day, so I use the FCC service at all hours of the day. On a Monday evening, I am often using it at half-past 11, and if I see bus replacement services I begin to cry, because I know that that will add about two hours to my journey home. These issues affect a huge variety of people, including shift workers.
I do not want to be left out of this. I, too, travel in from Cuffley, which is down the line from Stevenage, and I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. Before we are too mean to our rail provider, however, let us remember that Network Rail is responsible for many of the delays. I do not think that Network Rail has been entirely up front in its communications with my constituents. I endorse the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) that Network Rail should pay some compensation to our rail companies, so that they in turn can compensate our constituents.
I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne and for Enfield North. I believe that Network Rail is responsible for about 67% of the delays on the line, while other train operating companies are responsible for some 9%, and FCC about 24%. That is right—they add up to 100%. It is important that Network Rail takes a huge amount of the responsibility.
I know about repayments from my own experience. I buy what is called a carnet that allows travel from Stevenage to King’s Cross via a variety of routes. I could be reimbursed for my journey today, but I will be perfectly honest: I cannot be bothered to fill in the paperwork on a daily basis. I know that thousands of people in Stevenage will not even bother to try to reclaim the cost for today from their season ticket, because it is pointless. It is a waste of a huge amount of energy and time; it would cost more than it is worth. Repayments should be automatic. During some of the worst of the winter storms, First Capital Connect said that tickets would be valid for use the following day. That was a great improvement for some in my constituency, but not for the majority who have season tickets.
The railway system is broken. The previous Government did not invest and co-ordinate in the way we would have hoped, but some problems that we have seen on the line are actually the result of new investment. We understand that one huge delay was the result of a new signalling system being installed and the circuit breaker burning out. The company is trying to improve the signalling system, which must be fully replaced in 18 months, but the amalgamation of the two systems is causing great problems. I raise that issue because the whole line is 40 years old and must be replaced completely in the next five years. One can imagine the horror felt by MPs and constituents who live along the line at the thought of what is coming down the track towards us, or possibly not coming down the track at all. There are huge concerns.
When I met Network Rail and First Capital Connect with my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate, and for Enfield North, we asked them what the root causes of the problems were. What really depressed the three of us was the simple fact that there did not seem to be a root cause. There was a variety of problems, one after the other. As they fixed one, they moved on to another. I do not want to bore Members too much, but on the Hertford loop line, they use class 313 carriages, which are old-fashioned London Underground and Overground carriages. As a result, the Hertford loop line is turned off of an evening. One morning, when they tried to turn the electricity on the line back on, it did not work. Perhaps someone had not paid the energy bill. No service was available on the line.
I would like to move on to some of the positives regarding First Capital Connect, because I feel that it is getting a bit of a kicking from Members, even though a lot of the problems—at least two thirds—are the responsibility of Network Rail and are due to how it integrates with First Capital Connect. During the First Capital Connect franchise, more trains have been stopping at Stevenage, so we have gained thousands more seats, many of which I have secured over my past two or three years as an MP. We have had huge improvements to bicycle racks, which have almost doubled in number. That is a big issue in Stevenage. We are the only town in the country with an integrated cycle network. Tens of thousands of us cycle everywhere in town. We have had the platforms resurfaced and we now have 12-carriage trains stopping at the town; the station is secure and we have better waiting rooms; and both the signage and the customer information system have improved.
In another transport debate earlier in this Parliament, I was very pleased to secure more than £578,000 from the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), so if the current Minister is listening, there are a number of things that I would like. That money is being used to upgrade the goods lifts to fully automated passenger lifts. The station has 4.2 million passenger movements, but it was built in the ’60s—we still do not have fully automated passenger lifts, and it is 2014. Thankfully, the work on that is now ongoing. First Capital Connect is doing a good job—its mobility teams help passengers with mobility difficulties up and down the stairs—but the lifts will be a lifeline for the disabled and the most vulnerable in our community. The station is also being refurbished, and bits of it will, I hope, open in the next few months.
There has been a huge range of improvements, but one of the main concerns of my constituents remains the simple fact that we pay only for our journeys. No matter how long the journey takes, the ticket does not entitle us to a seat on the train. It just entitles us to go from Stevenage to London, or to Hertford, Watton-at-Stone, Cuffley or Enfield. We pay for the journey only. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North said, it feels like there are very few ways in which constituents and passengers can get their points heard by the train operating companies because the franchises last for so long. The debate is opportune because the franchise is due for renewal in September this year. Like my hon. Friend, I would dearly love to see a Minister introduce to the franchise a passenger satisfaction obligation to ensure that passengers’ voices are heard, so that if there are problems, they can take direct action.
I am the chairman and co-founder of the Stevenage and Knebworth rail user group, which is why I know so much about class 365 and 313 carriages. I must add that that is not through choice, but because I have had to learn about what happens in our area. Only a week or so ago, First Capital Connect put 40 newly refurbished class 365 trains on our line. The trains are cleaner and have improved. There is a balance between the passenger experience and what happens going forward.
I am pleased to hear about the investment in carriages, but I feel it is worth making the point that the 313s that we use on the Hertford loop are not being replaced. It seems like we will always have to use them. We have tired rolling stock, so although I am pleased for my hon. Friend, I hope that he spares a thought for others.
I do spare a thought for my hon. Friend’s constituents. Many of my constituents travel to Hertford and use those carriages when they get to Finsbury Park and other places. The point I was trying to make is that there has been some progress. I think that First Capital Connect is doing a relatively sound job.
I promise that this will be my final intervention. As my hon. Friend knows, First Capital Connect is full of civilised, approachable people. That is why I am so disappointed that it has tolerated a failing train service for too long. Its people are better than that. I hope that this debate is a call to arms to our rail company to up its game and deliver to its potential.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Since just before Christmas, the service has become intolerable. Although it improves on some days, on others it does not. I would like First Capital Connect to see the meetings that we have had and this debate as a means of moving forward, getting to grips with Network Rail and delivering on some of the improvements that it has told Members it will deliver. The way to move the issue forward is to insert into the franchise a passenger satisfaction obligation. That would allow us all to hold train operating companies and Network Rail to account.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland). He is a champion of both his constituents and commuters, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois). Enfield Chase, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park stations are all in my constituency. This debate is of particular concern to my constituents who, like me, travel along that line. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North said, our constituents spend thousands of pounds a year for, essentially, a poor service, although there are some exceptions.
I am not sure whether any of my constituents are present—I noticed that some members of the public arrived late—but if any of them had tried to attend this debate, they would have struggled to get here on time had they taken the trains at 11.3 am and 11.31 am. They would have been greeted by the news that there were delays of between 14 and 18 minutes at Enfield. They would have heard not only about delays, but that the train was no longer going to call at Enfield Chase, Grange Park, Winchmore Hill, Palmers Green and Bowes Park, owing to an earlier broken down train. Sadly, that is typical. There are not only delays, but complete cancellations. People’s travel plans are thrown into disarray by the fact that no trains will be stopping at certain times. Commuters in particular must get to work on time. When they pay out thousands of pounds, they have a basic expectation that they will reach their destination in a reasonable time. That does not happen too often.
Sadly, my constituents have had to get used to tolerating the intolerable in many ways—to the overcrowding and overheating of carriages, as well as the delays. As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North carefully outlined, the past three months have been totally unacceptable. Passengers have been left literally stranded. They have had to take a bike or find some way to get a bus—when it arrives—to take them to tube stations. That is not straightforward; it is not a good, easy, efficient transfer. First Capital Connect must take much more immediate action to deal with problems when there is a good reason for things going wrong—for example, for reasons of safety.
We heard on Monday, sadly, that somebody had fallen on the line. Such things happen, and then there are delays. It is important that ameliorative action takes place, not least to give people proper transfers, so that they do not have to wait and find ways themselves—through getting a bike or by doing something else—to get a better service.
First Capital Connect, as we have heard, said in a letter that it is ultimately accountable to our constituents. Is it really? It hides behind saying that it is responsible for only about a quarter, or 24%, of delays—yes, some responsibility and accountability lies with Network Rail, particularly, and others—and it hides behind its specific contractual responsibility, saying that it is not responsible for overall performance. I say to the Minister that we must be able to do better than that when we consider the franchise agreement. It cannot simply compartmentalise its responsibilities and rely on its specific contractual delays, as it were.
That is a very good point, and it has already been said that there are particular problems on the Hertford loop line. I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to look at properly ingraining customer satisfaction in the franchise agreement.
First Capital Connect also relies on the national passenger survey, saying, on the question of how train companies deal with delays—again, this is across the line and not only for the Hertford loop; the figure for that may well be very different—“There is a 43% satisfaction rate; you should be pleased with that.” It boasts that there has been a 10% improvement on the previous year, and that the figure is 5% greater than the average for London and the south-east. I hope the Minister realises that those rates are not acceptable. Whether or not they are the average, and whether or not there has been a 10% improvement, our constituents, who pay thousands of pounds, have to put up with what the majority of passengers say is unsatisfactory. That is not acceptable.
When the franchise agreement is agreed, our expectations must be so much higher. In the private sector and elsewhere, that satisfaction rate would not be accepted. Those sectors would have to bring about serious changes to provide a better service, and we must see that happen. The Which? survey in 2013, based on historical data, found that First Capital Connect had the worst customer ratings of all operators. There is a long way to go to ensure proper customer satisfaction and confidence.
As I and others have said, statistics for the past three months show that 83% of trains did not meet their punctuality targets. First Capital Connect’s core business is to get passengers—our constituents—to their destination on time, and it is failing at that great rate. It talks about issues of accountability, but it is not truly accountable for failing to deliver that core part of its contract. We need to see how we can ensure that it does better. It is not good enough, as my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North mentioned, to say, “We have improved the Twitter service; we have 50,000 followers.” I could refer to Facebook groups; some parody the name First Capital Connect, which suggests that a whole group of people on social media have different views.
There is an infrastructure issue and a recognition that Network Rail has a lot to answer for, and indeed there is now increased investment in the line. Reference has been made to the trains and tracks being 40 years old—looking at the ages of Members present today, I think we all recognise that when one gets to 40 and beyond, there are issues—and there are problems with leaves, storms and winds, and even when new circuits get burned out. The reality is that progress has been made. There has also been progress from First Capital Connect, with additional trains coming through at peak hours, and that has all been welcome. However, now is an opportune time to ensure that First Capital Connect, or whoever takes over, does a better job.
As First Capital Connect states, decisions about future rolling stock will be made as part of the franchising process. This is a really important opportunity for us to make it crystal clear to the Minister that getting future investment soon is key to delivering a better service to our long-suffering constituents. They are long-suffering, not least because a lot of maintenance has been going on. Every Sunday, ever since I can remember, Winchmore Hill and services to Moorgate have been shut down, with a replacement bus service—a big coach trundling along our roads. People have seen that there is investment, but they are impatient to see it result in actual service improvements. They are also impatient for the franchise agreement to deliver what we are all talking about, which is true and proper accountability, meaning an improved service and improved performance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) not only on securing this timely debate, but on raising issues affecting hon. Members and hon. Friends from along the whole line. Clearly, the significance of the fact that every Member on the entire Hertford loop is present will be understood by the Minister.
Ever since last September, commuters using both Hertford North and Bayford stations have endured what can only be described as a third-rate service from First Capital Connect. Admittedly, during the same period, Greater Anglia has hardly covered itself in glory, but those on the Hertford loop have suffered the most. As we have heard, for more than four months, there have not simply been occasional problems, but daily delays and frequent cancellations. When customer information has been provided, as my hon. Friend accurately described, it has been inconsistent, confusing and very often wrong, leading to our constituents not getting to work, or not getting home.
We accept that last autumn the weather was appalling. I understand, as do my constituents, that the type of problems one has in a storm can be very destructive for a rail service, but we do not understand why First Capital Connect’s service was hit far worse and for far longer than the service on comparable lines; nor do we understand why, three or four months later, the problems have persisted through Christmas and into the new year, and apparently will go on for weeks to come. Many of my commuters have had to file claims for compensation—three to four a week at the moment—for the lengthy delays that they are enduring on almost every journey. Three to four claims a week is an appalling indictment of what is meant to be a service.
When things go wrong, what I discover from my constituents’ complaints is that, very often, however well-intentioned and genuinely motivated and hard-working the front-line staff are—which they are—the company’s contingency plans singularly fail to get people where they need to be, whether that is London for work or back home at Hertford or Bayford. As somebody put it to me, “We often feel with this service that we are simply being abandoned.” That demonstrates the strength of feeling on the issue.
I have to say to the Chamber and to my hon. Friends that this autumn’s problems are not unusual for the line. In 2009 and 2010, passengers from my constituency went through month after month of delays and cancellations. We were told, first of all, that it was because of the lack of drivers; that seemed to persist for several months. We then had my favourite, which was “the wrong kind of snow”—a novel explanation that the communications department would clearly have been proud of. We then had signalling failure at a certain point—it was never quite clear where that was, but it was always at some stage along the line. What it meant in reality was that for almost 12 consecutive months, we had a service that was, frankly, lamentable.
Much has rightly been made of punctuality and service. I looked at where the company lies among its competitors; that would be grounds for a reasonable judgment. The official statistics showed that in the year 2012-13—after the problems I have just described, when apparently things were settled—it achieved just 82.8% punctuality, when the industry average was up to 88%. One might reasonably assume that it would try to improve its game the following year and get ahead of that, but not at all. In fact, the following year it fell from that point down to 76%, which was among the worst in the entire rail sector.
What I described as a third-rate service is not new on this line. My constituents have endured it for years. One only has to look at the different passenger satisfaction surveys, rightly mentioned by my hon. Friends, to see where the root of the problem is. When one looks at surveys on punctuality, value for money, or overall satisfaction, time and again, First Capital Connect is rooted at the bottom of the list.
The point about passenger power and its inclusion in the franchise process is powerful. The Minister takes these matters seriously, and I know that he will want to talk about that today, and consider it when the franchise is let in the autumn.
First Capital Connect of course relies on Network Rail and has cited it as a regular cause of its failure. It is true that the state of the 40-year-old infrastructure on the loop is—let us be polite—below par. The condition of the tracks and other infrastructure has been the cause of many delays. There are frustrating comparisons to be made, because commuters are told that their line needs repairs, but other lines to the west, east and north have been repaired and are back in service. They wait day after day for their line to be repaired. I will try to find out in the next few weeks from Network Rail why the rail lines and other infrastructure on the Hertford loop continually fail. That is a particular issue in comparison with the main line. Does Network Rail not maintain the loop to the same standard as the main line? If not, why not? That raises an interesting safety question for the Minister.
Another area of concern for my constituents has been raised by several hon. Members. I hear many complaints not just about delays and cancellations, but about the state of the rolling stock. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) pointed out that the carriages in question go back to the 1970s. I am not as expert on carriage numbers as he is; I bow to his knowledge on that. The carriages can only be described—again, I am using the sort of polite language that seems not to appear in the social media—as not fit for purpose. They are ageing and increasingly dilapidated. They boil in the summer and are unheated in the winter.
Clearly, my hon. Friend has aged better than the carriages, he said carefully, tiptoeing away. The carriages seem to be in need of replacement; I shall take things no further than that, given the age comparison that has been alluded to.
In 2011 there was some hope among the passengers on the loop in my constituency that First Capital Connect could be replaced as the franchise neared its end. However, the contract was renewed, and we were told that that was necessary to allow Thameslink investment to proceed. I want to make it clear that I agree about the need for that investment, but we on the Hertford loop do not benefit from it—either from the main line improvement or the new rolling stock. Those to our west and to the north will benefit, certainly, but those on the loop will not.
That underscores a theme that has emerged in the debate—a wider concern about the Hertford loop and the way in which the rail sector and policy makers regard it. All too often, it seems that the service on the Hertford loop is just an afterthought for the railway sector. Thus, when there are problems on the main line, inter-city trains are redirected along the loop and our local trains are cancelled. If there is congestion, the Hertford service is told to wait. As to rolling stock, we find that it is provided for the main line but not for us.
Commuters in my constituency feel that they have been neglected by the rail service for which they pay: by First Capital Connect, certainly by Network Rail, and by a national strategy that seems routinely to put inter-city and long-distance passengers’ needs ahead of theirs. We understand the need for balance, but commuters find it difficult to accept its being continually tilted against them. That is why I want to tell the Minister that we are not satisfied with First Capital Connect’s service; I could not support the extension of its franchise without radical changes, and I am doubtful that those can be achieved.
We are not happy with Network Rail’s performance, either. The Minister will know, because he studies such matters closely, how bad the service delays on the loop have been. I want his assurance, if he can give it today, that he will challenge Network Rail’s senior management on the issue. I intend to do so, but the Minister will know how important it is for them to hear it from him. Lastly, it is very important that he should explain that passengers on the loop should not be treated as secondary to those who travel on the main line.
In particular—this is perhaps the most tangible thing from the point of view of my constituents—a vital principle in future franchise negotiations should be the sharing of new rolling stock for the benefit of all passengers on the main line and the loop. There are different ways to do that. It would not mean that everyone would get an equal share, but all passengers should feel that they benefit from the changes in part, and are not excluded simply because they are served by only part of the franchisee’s overall business. That is an important principle, which can and should be knitted into the franchise arrangements for the coming period, in the autumn and afterwards. I should like the Minister’s response to it, and I hope he will support it. I look forward to his response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) on securing this important debate. Many of the concerns that he raised—overcrowded, uncomfortable trains, frequent cancellations and inadequate customer services—will be familiar to commuters throughout the country, but there are clearly particular challenges on the Hertford loop line. I listened carefully to the examples that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members gave of recent disruption on the line. Passengers undoubtedly expect better, and it is clear that action by Network Rail and First Capital Connect is needed.
Network Rail is responsible for maintaining and improving the line, but train operators also have an important role in managing disruption, providing public information and passing compensation on to passengers. Today’s debate has raised concerns over how well that relationship functions. Several hon. Members have highlighted the vital importance of the way in which operators deal with delays, especially when infrastructure leads to unavoidable disruption. The disruption on the line has affected passengers acutely, because by London standards people in the borough of Enfield are unusually dependent on national rail services. The unacceptable performances of recent months have thrown the quality of those services into sharp focus, and we can all understand commuters’ anger at the frequent disruption, especially against a backdrop of rising fares.
Regulated fares have risen by 20% since the election, and there have been much higher rises in some unregulated fares, but commuters on the First Capital Connect franchise have had to endure some of the worst punctuality figures in the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, passengers report some of the lowest satisfaction rates. Between 8 December and 4 January just 74% of trains on the Great Northern routes arrived on time. The hon. Member for Enfield North highlighted periods of even lower punctuality. That is not to underestimate the challenges that Network Rail and operators face in running busy London commuter services, or the pressures on the local infrastructure and the rolling stock, some of which, as has been mentioned, is decades old; but as hon. Members have made clear today, passengers have, over the past three months in particular, had to endure an unacceptable standard of service.
Given the level of investment that is due to go into the part of the commuter network in question, it is easy to understand why the Government have opted for a management-style contract for the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise. However, that means that Ministers must take a greater degree of responsibility. Perhaps the Minister will outline how he expects that new approach to contracting to work in practice. How will the reclassification of Network Rail affect things? Will the reclassification make it possible to get more co-ordination between the infrastructure manager and passenger operators with a management-style contract? There are opportunities to deliver more frequent or otherwise improved timetables as part of the new franchise; that will be made possible by the infrastructure improvements.
A peculiar feature of the line is the southbound destination: most services terminate at Moorgate during the week, but there are exceptions, such as evening and very early trains, which are diverted to King’s Cross.
I hope that the Minister acknowledges that there are issues that will not be resolved by the franchising process, including the rolling stock used on the line. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) mentioned the class 313s, which are among the oldest trains still in regular commercial use. If they are still in use when the new contract ends in 2021, some of those units will be 45 years old. I understand that there are particular challenges, as trains on that route have to operate with both overhead and third rail electrification systems, but even in the light of that restraint we need to know what the Department is planning for the future. What assessment has the Minister made of the long-term viability of these trains?
It would also be good to have the Minister’s comments on the record about the long-term management of the lines. The West Anglia lines, including the route to Enfield Town, mentioned earlier, are due to transfer from the Greater Anglia franchise next year. I am sure that passengers hope that London Overground will deliver the same benefits it brought to other areas that were previously managed by Silverlink, namely investment in the trains, improvements to stations and increased staff presence. That approach has resulted in much improved passenger satisfaction, delivered integration with other Transport for London services and increased revenue.
The Campaign for Better Transport has said that passenger services have
“improved significantly since the previous arrangements”
and station standards have
“sharply improved…from the Silverlink days.”
Even the most significant customer service improvement in recent years—the introduction of Oyster cards on suburban rail routes—was driven by Transport for London, although rail operators have been the main beneficiary of the additional revenue that has been generated.
Transport for London previously expressed an interest in running the Hertford loop line, which in theory could happen when the combined Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise expires in 2021. Given the success of London Overground, any such proposals deserve to be taken seriously. What discussions has the Minister had with TfL on the possibility of any future devolution of the Hertford loop line, either in whole or in part? Although that is a long-term question, which will surely be revisited, the point it underlines is that there are alternative models for operating services, which we should consider.
As the Member for Hertford and Stortford, I caution the hon. Lady slightly. I wonder whether she is aware that there is a danger that services could be improved for those within the M25, with money being spent on carriages there, not for my constituents. Does she agree that, where improvements are made and provision is offered, all the passengers along that line should benefit, not just some?
I agree that that danger could present itself, if there is devolution of only part of the route. It is important that we understand whether the Minister is considering devolution and, if so, how protection would be put in place in respect of such issues. I understand why the hon. Gentleman expresses concerns on behalf of his constituents.
The Hertford loop is a branch of the east coast main line. Of course, hon. Members’ constituents have the option of catching a direct train to Stevenage, unless they are already there, where they can change on to InterCity East Coast services. As a key transport artery, we have to look at the east coast main line’s inter-city services and how they relate to First Capital Connect’s commuter provision, just as we look at improvements to the Hertford loop in the context of the wider Thameslink programme. In recent years, the quality gap between inter-city and commuter services on the east coast main line has widened, but instead of concentrating on bringing the local trains up to standard, the Government are committed to abolishing the successful long-distance operator.
East Coast has gone from strength to strength since the last private operator failed in 2009. Record passenger satisfaction and punctuality ratings have been achieved and all profits are reinvested in the service. However, if the Government’s privatisation goes ahead, that money would be split with shareholders instead. By the time the Government expect the new franchise to start, almost £1 billion will have been returned to the Treasury in premium payments.
This year, East Coast has raised fares by an average of 1.2%, a real-terms cut, at a time when commuters across the country are having to budget for fare rises of more than double the rate of inflation. This decision was a welcome relief for passengers up and down the line, including those who change on to East Coast services from north London and Hertfordshire, but it underlined the absurdity of the Government’s drive towards privatisation, which seems born out of a desire to end this successful alternative to franchising before the election. It certainly does not seem to relate to the passenger power that the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford wants.
It is nonsense that the current successful operator has been barred from bidding for ideological reasons, but Eurostar East Coast, which is ultimately owned by the French and British Governments, has been shortlisted. The refranchising budget runs to £6 million. In the light of today’s discussions, it is disgraceful that Ministers are wasting Government time and taxpayers’ money on this unneeded, unwanted and wasteful privatisation, instead of getting to grips with the cost of living crisis and addressing problems on routes such as the Hertford loop.
Is the hon. Lady considering taking other services back into the public sector when the franchises run out, should her party win the next election?
The Minister is aware that we are committed to maintaining East Coast as a public sector comparator, if we are in a position to do that, if he has not already privatised it. Certainly, given the amount of taxpayer and fare-payer money going into our rail system, we are right to be open-minded about considering possible rail reform, in the interests of passengers and taxpayers.
Investment in the Hertford loop line must lead to improved services in the short term and long-term strategic questions need to be dealt with, including about the trains used on the line. I urge the Minister to concentrate on securing those improvements, on this line and on other commuter lines, instead of pursuing a costly and wasteful privatisation that will not benefit passengers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and congratulate him on securing this debate on an important subject, not only for his constituents in north London, but for rail passengers throughout the country.
I have to say that I feel rather guilty, because although I travel down from Yorkshire as a weekly commuter I suspect that I have had fewer problems in the past year than some commuters from north London, and further afield, experienced during just one week before Christmas. Although some of that could be down to the St Jude’s storm and other inclement weather, and the need to clear tracks of fallen trees before services could resume, I appreciate that the service has, on many occasions, fallen below the standard that people would expect. I am very much in the picture, having heard a number of contributions on this subject. I will ensure that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who deals with rail franchise policy, is also in the picture, and that Network Rail and First Capital Connect are aware of what has been said during this debate.
It is clear that if we are to continue the strong growth in rail travel over recent years, passengers must be confident that the service that they receive is reliable, quick and comfortable. That is why this Government have invested billions of pounds in railway infrastructure improvements during this Parliament and have set out their plans to continue doing so in the years to come.
My hon. Friend mentioned specifically the services provided by First Capital Connect in his constituency. As one would expect, the Department monitors rail performance closely. I should like to spend a moment providing a little more detail on some of the recent performance trends. I will also explain some of the issues involved, but I stress that it is not my job to make excuses on behalf of the operator; my job is to understand why things go wrong and what can be done to alleviate problems.
The key headline indicator for rail performance is the public performance measure, which measures the percentage of services that arrive on time. Data from the start of the financial year up to 4 January, the most recent period for which data are available, show a total PPM score for the Great Northern route, of which the Hertford loop is a part, of 85.16%. That is 6.07 percentage points short of the target agreed by the operator and Network Rail. My hon. Friend has already alluded to the inconvenience that that has caused to his constituents and to other passengers on the line. Only about a fifth of the total delay minutes over the year to date are attributable to a fault of the train operator. Some three quarters of all such delays were the responsibility of Network Rail, with the remainder being attributable to the knock-on effect of actions by other operators on the network.
My officials regularly discuss performance with First Capital Connect, and I am reassured that a number of key measures are in hand to ensure that the situation improves over the coming months. The two main causes of delays within the operator’s control are issues with drivers and issues with the train fleet. On the former, regular passengers will be aware that there have been some isolated cancellations due to train crew. Passengers will naturally be frustrated by those cancellations, which have occurred for a number of reasons. Passengers should, however, also note that First Capital Connect has been steadily recruiting and training new drivers across a number of key routes. The latest cohort of drivers will be out on the network, ready to drive trains, from this month. That rolling programme of recruitment and training will continue for the remainder of the franchise and beyond.
The level of delays on the First Capital Connect network due to fleet-related problems has also been increasing, despite expected improvements over the course of this year. We have challenged First Capital Connect on that matter, too, and we are aware that First Capital Connect has considered ways to improve its response to incidents, thereby reducing the level of delays that result from problems with the train fleet.
I have mentioned that the majority of delays on the Great Northern route over the year to date have been attributed to Network Rail. Such delays, however, include significant and, to a large extent, unavoidable delays due to the severe weather over recent months. The St Jude’s day storm, for example, caused widespread disruption, as did severe weather just before Christmas and since. In such severe weather it is inevitable that some disruption will occur. On a number of occasions, Network Rail has been forced to order the suspension of rail services until full route inspections have taken place, which has caused major disruptions.
The Minister is right to point to the weather, which played a significant part, but I remind him that the incidents raised today are also related to infrastructure. There have been signal failures and power failures with Network Rail, as well as operating issues with First Capital Connect.
I am well aware of those issues, and the weather was only one part of it. Coupled with the other problems to which my hon. Friend alludes, weather was probably in some cases the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused annoyance and anger among passengers. When we have such weather situations, safety must remain the highest priority, and it is in no small part due to Network Rail’s performance on safety that the UK now has one of the safest, if not the safest, railways in Europe.
Will the Minister respond to the point made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk)? Why did our line seem to perform so much worse as a result of the storms? Yes, storms happened across the line, but the Hertford loop seemed to come off worst.
I was involved in conference calls following the St Jude’s day storm, and the main issue was fallen trees. A decision was taken that, before services could commence, proving trains would be put through the routes so that large numbers of commuters were not stranded, possibly with trains backed up on the line behind a number of fallen trees. Where the embankments or the margins of a rail line are wooded, there are likely to be more fallen trees on the line. That was a particular problem north of London and in the south-east during the St Jude’s day storm. From a safety perspective, the right decision was taken. I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Transport stating that, before trains carrying commuters could use a line, proving trains ran to ensure that the lines were clear so that the trains could reach their destination.
On the Hertford loop, the safety issue was not so much fallen trees as compacted leaves. The equipment necessary to unpack those leaves took a long time to get down the lines. The delays getting to us to ensure the safety of the line was a particular operational issue, and I understand that that problem has been repeated over the years. As we see continued poor weather coming down the line, as it were, we need to ensure that the problem is not repeated.
I realise that the Minister cannot chase every element of every line, but there is a clear differential in the standard to which the loop is administered by Network Rail. It would be helpful if he could confirm that he will take that point away, challenge Network Rail’s management and come back to us in writing in due course on the standard to which the Hertford loop is kept. Is that standard directly comparable to the main line? If so, why have we found our delays to be longer? There is a clear difference either in the way Network Rail responds to the loop or in the standard of the loop in the first place.
Network Rail’s performance on the route has not been a glorious success. In fact, it has been among the worst in the country, and it is vital that Network Rail’s performance improves. It has been highlighted, for example, that vegetation management has been an issue on the Great Northern route. Although “leaves on the line” has become the stuff of satire, the fact is that autumn brings significant challenges for train operators, particularly in respect of the adhesion between train and track, which in some cases results in increased journey times and knock-on delays for passengers.
Perhaps we could move forward with the franchises. Will the Minister consider publishing delays and timetables separately for the Great Northern route so that we can see how the delays on the Hertford loop compare with delays on the main line? There is a suspicion among hon. Members that the main line gets cleared first.
I will see whether that information is available. If my hon. Friend tables a written question, he will probably get an answer more quickly than if he writes me a letter. Written questions seem to be an effective way to get officials to work as quickly as they can.
We have already told First Capital Connect that it must continue to challenge Network Rail to improve its performance on the line, and we are seeing some positive signs, including better plans for clearing trackside vegetation and for reducing minor defects in overhead line equipment. Network Rail has also started a programme of measures to reduce fatalities at stations. I welcome the programme, and I am aware that Network Rail has looked in some depth at how those tragic incidents can be reduced. Not only are fatalities still a significant cause of delays on the network, but of course each and every incident is a tragedy for the families of those involved.
First Capital Connect’s franchise agreement, as with all franchise agreements, contains benchmark measures. It should be stressed that although passengers have seen some significant delays, particularly in the recent extreme weather, the operator’s overall performance is well within its contractual requirements, which are measured as moving annual averages. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, and we will be quick to act in the event of any breach of the operator’s contract.
What discussions has the Minister had with First Capital Connect on how it deals with delays? The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) said that delays are often unavoidable, such as in periods of inclement weather, but it is how the operator deals with those delays and informs passengers of the cause and of how long the delay will last that causes the most inconvenience and upset.
The hon. Lady is right. One of the problems, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland), is with the information provided to passengers. We have discussed inaccurate information on the live update boards with First Capital Connect, and my hon. Friends the Members for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and for Enfield North, who also mentioned the problem, may be interested to know that First Capital Connect is already considering the implementation of a live countdown system at a number of stations. Although I cannot promise that the system will be installed at every station for the time being, it is definitely a step in the right direction.
This month Passenger Focus, the statutory representative body for rail passengers, published the autumn results of its national passenger survey, which contained some positive signals for First Capital Connect passengers, so it is not all bad news. For example, First Capital Connect showed an annual 10% increase in satisfaction with the way it deals with delays and a 5% increase in satisfaction with the helpfulness of staff. Good results were also seen in improvements to the train and station environment; passengers report that trains and stations are cleaner and better maintained.
The heart of the problem is that, notwithstanding the fact that the operator improved by 10% from a very low, appalling 33% to 43%, if the data are not available and there is no scope within the contract to drill down to key lines and commuter routes, the chances are that a franchise operator will always hit his target, but there will always be a poor relation, and in this case that is our constituents.
I am not saying that everything in the garden is beautiful. I am saying that there are a few more blooms around this year than in the past. The pressure is now on First Capital Connect to improve performance on punctuality and reliability, in which the survey showed an annual decline.
As my hon. Friend will know, we are planning to re-let the franchise in September, and the Department is currently assessing bids from several operators and looking at their plans for the future. I am sure he will understand that I cannot say more about the details of those bids at the moment, but I assure him that the new franchise will contain a regime of financial penalties and rewards to improve passenger satisfaction.
The extent to which bidders meet or exceed the Department’s requirement to improve the quality of services and to increase customer satisfaction will form an important part of the evaluation of bids, as my hon. Friend suggested. The winning bidder will be required to publish a regular customer report, setting out how it is engaging with passengers and taking account of their views, and how it is meeting its commitments and targets. It will also have to monitor and publish its performance against a new passenger experience metric, which combines a national passenger survey of satisfaction run by Passenger Focus, an independent body, and an objective assessment of service quality. We will, of course, make further announcements in due course.
If my hon. Friend is interested, extensive information on the new TSGN franchise is available publicly on the gov.uk website and includes the draft franchise agreement and the invitation to tender. Between them, those two documents set out the Department’s detailed expectations of all bidders hoping to be the next operator of train services in my hon. Friend’s constituency. In particular, they provide a full explanation of how the operator will be challenged to improve services throughout the entire spectrum of passenger experience, and detail how it will be rewarded if it exceeds passenger expectations, or held to account if it falls short. They also explain how the operator will be measured against the targets, including by reference to the national passenger survey independently undertaken by Passenger Focus.
On compensation for passengers, Network Rail pays compensation under schedule 8 of its track access agreement to train operating companies for unscheduled delays. A proportion of that will find its way to passengers via delay repayment refunds, but I accept that it is sometimes a hassle to fill in the paperwork and get the refund.
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North praising some of First Capital Connect’s front-line staff. I hope that passengers will take advantage of its facility to nominate staff who go an extra mile for passengers.
I want to take the Minister back to the new franchise, which is a management-style contract. How will he ensure, or what action has he taken to ensure, that there is better integration between Network Rail and the successful operator under the new contract? I am thinking of experience elsewhere, such as the alliance with South West Trains.
There is often criticism of such franchises and questions are asked about what incentive there is for the operators to provide a decent quality of service as they do not keep the revenue. We are very mindful of that.
The winning bidder’s performance in key areas will be subject to a performance regime with financial incentives and penalties used to drive the quality of service, protect passengers’ interests and, therefore, increase revenue. The winning bidder will focus on reducing delays, cancellations and short trains and improving customers’ experience of the railways in the franchise area, not just on minimising costs.
The Minister is being generous in giving way and I am conscious of time. Will he tell us now or write to us later to say whether Network Rail pays compensation to operators if it has let them down, and should there be scope to pass that on to passengers?
I will write to my hon. Friend about that. When a train breaks down, for example, it may cause delays for other services. It is not always Network Rail’s fault when such a problem happens.
Questions were asked about rolling stock, some of which is 37 years old. Decisions on the rolling stock in the new TSGN franchise are for the bidders, and we do not intend to mandate them. However, the strict service standards that operators will be held to should help to drive up services for passengers. We will be interested to see the bids that come forward.
Will that mean that all passengers should benefit? Is that the expectation of Ministers, even if it will not be the same degree of benefit? And will it mean that no classification—for example, those on the Hertford loop—will be excluded from enjoying new carriages when that is happening on the main line? That is an important principle that Ministers can establish.
The decisions on rolling stock are a matter for the bidders, but I am sure that when the Government look at the bids, the points that have been made in this debate will be at the forefront of their mind when considering the quality of service and ensuring best value for taxpayers.
In conclusion, we are aware of the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North has raised, and I assure him that we will maintain pressure on the operator and Network Rail to improve their performance on this important commuter route. There are signs of improvement, notwithstanding the recent severe weather problems, and we will watch the situation closely to ensure that those improvements are built on in the existing franchise and the next. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House.