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Southern Rail

Volume 618: debated on Monday 5 December 2016

Performance on the Southern network has been affected by a combination of factors over the previous months. Those have included trade union action, infrastructure reliability and operator issues. The unions have stepped up their industrial action in the run-up to Christmas, additionally co-ordinating it with action on the underground network.

Let me be clear: this strike action is politically motivated and has affected passengers for far too long. Union leaders have even described the action as “carrying on Fidel’s work.” That will be of no comfort to passengers who just want to get to work.

I have a letter in my folder to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) from the director of railway safety at the Office of Rail and Road. Responding to the safety concern from the unions, Ian Prosser says “DOO is safe.” The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and ASLEF should not be misleading the public about their dispute with Govia Thameslink Railway. Once again I can assure the hard-working staff of the GTR franchise that no train staff are losing pay and no one is losing their job.

Passengers want and deserve improvements, which is why in September the Secretary of State appointed Chris Gibb, a leading railway professional, to work with the operator and with Network Rail to identify areas in which performance on the network can be improved quickly. Some of these £20 million interventions are under way and would be making a significant difference by now, were it not for the fact that owing to continued industrial action by the RMT and now planned action by ASLEF, Southern rail services are to be subject to further delays and alterations now and over the coming weeks.

In recognition of the disruption to services this year, the Secretary of State announced on 2 December a refund package that will compensate season ticket holders with a package equivalent to one free month in acknowledgment of the exceptional issues experienced this year. He also announced that GTR will be the first franchise to introduce Delay Repay 15, starting on 11 December. Compensation alone is not enough, however. We have to restore a timely, reliable and predictable train service. That is why the work of Mr Gibb is focusing on reducing the network rail faults, and why we have new safe driver-only operation trains that can cope with the volume of people wanting to use them. It is why I will continue to ensure that the management of the train operating company is doing everything in its power to run improved services. But we also need the union leaders to stop their needless, unreasonable, disproportionate and politically motivated strikes.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am putting this question today with the support of Members from right across the House. On Friday, we heard that Southern rail services were to be severely disrupted every day from tomorrow until further notice. However, that grim warning of imminent service collapse comes after more than two years of rail chaos, which started long before any strike action began. Back in May 2015, the then rail Minister said that our services were “flashing red” in her Department. Eighteen months on, my constituents are regularly in tears of anger and frustration, jobs are being lost, relationships are being broken up and the economy is being seriously damaged. This situation is intolerable, and the Government cannot simply wash their hands of any involvement. Will the Minister roll up his sleeves and get stuck into resolving the crisis? The Transport Select Committee has called for all parties involved to sit down together and resolve the dispute, so will he convene a meeting with the unions and GTR to work this out and restore reliability to this vital public service? In so doing, he would be showing that he is not prepared to allow this crucial piece of infrastructure simply to collapse.

To end the stalemate, will the Department take charge of this contract in the open and strip GTR of the franchise and bring it back in house? That would at least increase the transparency around what is going on. When, for example, will a concrete timetable for GTR to publicly report its performance be revealed? Will performance data be published daily or weekly, and where will they be published? This contract and information about it are shrouded in secrecy, and it is time to make it accountable. Will the Minister answer the outstanding questions on the force majeure application from GTR? Will he provide urgent clarity about whether GTR is in default? The Transport Committee called for a decision on whether GTR was in default by early November 2016. It is now December. Why has the Minister not answered on time?

I do not think the Minister has any idea of the pain that passengers and businesses in Brighton and beyond are suffering. If he did, he would be doing more about it. We have a catastrophic stalemate. What exactly is he going to do about it? My constituents in Brighton want to hear that he is going to get involved. Anything else is not enough.

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s urgent question. The best thing she can do on behalf of her constituents is to go and speak to her close friends in the RMT and tell them to call off their disproportionate and unreasonable industrial action. That is the best contribution she can make.

Thank you for calling me during this urgent question, Mr Speaker, which is important because it is about not only the Brighton main line, but communities in my area. Students trying to get to school from Edenbridge on the Redhill to Tonbridge line and people trying to get to work on the Uckfield line have endured misery. This is about the unions, but the nationalised Network Rail has also failed us again and again. Will the Minister please get on with sorting out that organisation, too?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out the impact on his constituents in Kent. I travelled to Sevenoaks today through London Bridge and saw some delays. The only long-term solution for this overburdened part of the network is for both Network Rail and the train operating companies to align the incentives and work together to fix the underlying problems that plague the network.

That this House is still having to address the abysmal service provided by Southern after a year and a half of sub-standard service is testimony to both Southern’s incompetence and the extent to which the Government are committed to privatised rail, even when franchises have become so deeply dysfunctional that they are unable to provide a decent public service. GTR should have been stripped of its franchise long ago for failing to plan properly to take on the franchise, as it has admitted, and for providing what is by far the country’s worst rail service. Hon. Members whose constituents rely on Southern will be well aware of stories of passengers fainting on overcrowded trains, jobs being jeopardised by repeated lateness and parents having to say goodnight to their children from a delayed train.

The Government have defended Southern to the hilt, excusing all its failings as the consequences of an easily avoidable, resolvable industrial dispute, allowing the cancellation of hundreds of services a week and repeatedly throwing taxpayers’ money at the problem as a sticking plaster on an irredeemably dysfunctional concession franchise. The Minister mentioned Mr Gibb, but why did we not hear about Mr Wilkinson, who stood up in Croydon and said that he wants dust-ups with the RMT and to starve staff back to work and to get them out of his railway industry? He is the sort of person the Minister ought to be talking about.

On Friday, it was announced that Southern season ticket holders would be eligible to receive compensation equivalent to one month’s travel. Yet more taxpayers’ money is being spent on the service following the £20 million committed to Southern just a few months ago. The compensation will apply to some 84,000 passengers, but Southern is responsible for 620,000 passenger journeys a day. While any amount of compensation for passengers is welcome, will the Minister take this opportunity to acknowledge that the measures announced on Friday will not come close to compensating the majority of passengers who have suffered from Southern’s abysmal services for the past year and a half? Considering the 1.8% fare rise scheduled for the start of next year, the few commuters who receive compensation will see it wiped out by inflation-busting fares. Sadly, a decent rail service—

Order. I know how to deal with such matters. Members are taking too long. The Minister finished just in time, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman exceeded his time. We must establish a discipline that if it is two minutes, that means two minutes or under, not two minutes, two and half minutes or three minutes. I am sorry, but we have to stick to those procedures.

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to the idea of compensating Southern’s passengers, but he is right about one thing: the dispute is entirely resolvable. It is resolvable because the RMT should recognise that the current mode of operation is safe and call off the strikes. ASLEF can also call off the strikes. We could then get on with improving the network.

I am pleased to hear the Minister say that no GTR staff will lose their jobs, but that is not the case for my constituents, some of whom have been sacked for being late. The balance of rights and responsibilities in our society is somewhat off if some people trying to improve their terms and conditions is costing other citizens their jobs.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to point out the grossly disproportionate nature of this industrial action and that communities across the GTR network are experiencing a poorer quality of life because of this unwarranted industrial action.

Order. The shadow Secretary of State must take some sort of soothing medicament, which will have the effect of calming him. He will be aware that I suggested to one of his north-east colleagues some time ago that it might be advisable to take up yoga, because it would have a therapeutic effect.

The overall situation for passengers, caused by a variety of reasons, is intolerable, yet GTR is receiving £1 billion a year in fees and the Department is exposed to £38 million of lost revenue. What can the Department do to resolve this situation?

Some months ago, as the hon. Lady will be aware, we asked Chris Gibb to look into the operation of the network, the infrastructure and the train operating company. We look forward to receiving his report by the end of the year, which will guide us in the decisions we take in the new year as to how to make rapid, noticeable, identifiable improvements in this network.

The RMT members who are adding to the disruption for all our constituents are also the employees. May we be told how much they earn, how many of them have signed up to the new operating arrangements and quite what issue is preventing the RMT and the operators from reaching agreement and allowing other workers to get to work reliably? I am talking about how students and teachers can get to work, and how old people can visit their friends.

My hon. Friend is right to point out why this is such a grossly disproportionate action the RMT is taking. More than 220 of the 223 staff involved have signed up to the new contracts to carry out the role of on-board supervisors, so they are striking against a role that they have already agreed to take up. That is both unreasonable and disproportionate.

Part of the problem is that every promise made from that Dispatch Box has not improved the service one iota in the past 18 months, including today, a non-strike day, when the service from Brighton to London was a complete shambles. Will the Minister get to his feet to say he will do whatever it takes to improve this service?

I entirely recognise that the service today has been disappointing, because of a broken rail between East Croydon and Gatwick, but, as the hon. Gentleman points out, this is happening far too often on non-strike days. I expect both GTR and Network Rail to address these underlying performance issues, but they can do that only if they are not also faced with unwarranted, unjustifiable industrial action.

My constituents who commute regularly look at the Southern rail situation with horror. What assurances can the Minister give them that such action by the unions could not spread to other areas, particularly given that we are renegotiating the South West Trains contract?

I recognise my right hon. Friend’s concern. All I can say to her is that I expect all train operating companies across the country to do their utmost to ensure that they run a timely, efficient, reliable and punctual service. I hope that will be the case with whoever emerges from the franchise competition for South West Trains.

I have here analysis of the feedback from the 1,000 constituents who have been in touch with me about the performance of Southern rail, and it is a catalogue of misery. The failure of Southern rail is affecting my constituents’ work, family life, health and wellbeing, and they have had enough. When will the Minister confirm rail devolution for London, so that Transport for London, which has a proven track record and high levels of customer satisfaction, can run these services? When will my constituents’ Southern rail misery end?

I recognise the picture that the hon. Lady paints of the problems her constituents are facing. I hope she will join me in urging all sides in this dispute to return to the negotiating table and reach an agreement that puts the needs of passengers first, not the interests of the rail unions.

I apologise for my interjection earlier, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) was absolutely right to say that the price for the RMT’s self-indulgent, politically motivated strike action is being paid in jobs by people, particularly young people, who are trying to get to work. This action is neanderthal, its day has well gone and that strike must end. Will the Minister confirm that the train operating companies will be able to take greater control of the works of Network Rail in the future, so that we can solve some of the structural problems?

I thank the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for his great courtesy. May I gently tell him that I now realise why, 20 years ago, he was affectionately described to me by a very near constituency neighbour of his as “peppery”.

My hon. Friend has clearly been paying attention to the weekend press. I should perhaps observe that the Secretary of State will make a speech on this issue tomorrow evening. He may therefore wish to pay close attention to the following day’s papers as well to learn more about what might be announced.

I know that it suits some to blame all the current problems with this line on the rail unions, but let us be clear: my constituents have been putting up with a disgraceful and shabby service for the best part of two years now. My hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) asked about TfL, which has better satisfaction rates and provides better services. We want this company, GTR, to be stripped of the franchise and the franchise to be transferred to TfL as soon as possible. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government still intend to facilitate that? We do not want to wait until 2021: get on and do it now.

The hon. Gentleman is certainly right to identify the problems on the network, but they can be solved only if we are not facing industrial action on the network, day in, day out, which makes it impossible for those who wish to deal with Network Rail, GTR and other train operating companies to address the problems.

Can the Minister clarify whether, in his view, the intolerable conditions for commuters in my constituency are caused more by a firm that has not been well run for some time, or by the unacceptable union practices, which have been rendered all the more disgraceful at Christmas time?

That is an important point. It was noticeable that the RMT adjusted its strike days because of the public outrage over the strikes that were occurring in the immediate run-up to Christmas. I urge it to go one step further and call off its strike altogether and get back round the negotiating table.

Coincidentally, I delivered a petition to No. 10 Downing Street this morning, calling for Southern to be sacked. Will the Minister acknowledge that it is not just the unacceptable and pointless union action that is causing chaos on the network, but repeated Network Rail equipment failure, repeated train failures, which are Southern’s fault, and a shortage of drivers, which is Southern’s fault. When will the Minister step in and take control away from the failing company, pass responsibility to Transport for London, which the Liberal Democrats called for as far back as 1999, and ensure that passengers are provided with much more generous compensation?

The right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of the multiple causes is correct, but what he does not fully appreciate is that the need to focus on Network Rail as a source of many of the delays means that we must have full, rapid and ready access to the track day in, day out. We cannot do that against a backdrop of continual industrial action, which makes it harder to maintain the railways.

I have long campaigned for compensation, so may I thank the Minister for the welcome step towards it today? On the Horsham line, we have a huge number of trains being cancelled or delayed as a result of failures with onboard cameras—cameras that seem to work well elsewhere. May I urge him to get GTR to get a grip on this? Either there is a technical fault, or some other issue is causing interference.

My hon. Friend deserves particular credit for the assiduous nature of his campaign for improved compensation for Southern passengers. I am glad to hear that he welcomed last Friday’s announcement. I understand that the level of faults on the driver-only operation trains to Horsham are running at almost double what is usually expected on the route. GTR is looking into the matter further. I am hoping to hear more from it in due course, and I will write to him with the outcome of that investigation.

I started commuting—both regularly and frequently—from Forest Hill to London Bridge and Waterloo East in 1963. In all those 53 years, the service has never been as unreliable and as chaotic as it is today. I now no longer use Southern to go to London Bridge, as I use the overground service. Unfortunately, large parts of my constituency, and just about every other constituency of Members concerned about this matter, do not have that option. Many of my constituents blame the management for what is going on, and an equal number blame the unions. Another set blames Network Rail and the infrastructure. We have heard from the Minister today about track failures causing chaos on the Brighton line. When will he and the Government do something to reassure my constituents, and those of everybody in this Chamber, that the Government are actually trying to do the best they can for commuters, rather than leaving commuters to the fate of the most incompetent organisation in the entire UK rail industry?

The hon. Gentleman has given new meaning to the description “delayed journey” and we are deeply grateful to him.

As Members will be aware, Chris Gibb is an experienced railwayman with a deep understanding of the industry and of that network. His report will look at all the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. We look forward to receiving it and deciding the most appropriate action we can take to deliver the improvements that not only he but all of us in the Chamber are impatient to see.

Given that from tomorrow two of my towns, Seaford and Newhaven, will see their rail service cease to exist once again and instead have bus replacement services, and that from next week 14 of the stations in my constituency will see no rail service at all for nine days out of 14, the Government response is just not good enough. They need to intervene between the unions and Southern rail and get this sorted.

My hon. Friend has never been anything less than assiduous in campaigning on behalf of Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven and their rail services, but the diminution in service to her constituency is due to an ASLEF threat of strike action against something that its members have been doing for many, many months—30% of our commuter network is driver-controlled operation. ASLEF has been operating this system for many, many months on the new class 700s, yet its members are now striking against precisely what they have been doing. That, also, is disproportionate and unreasonable.

Commuters in Croydon and elsewhere have suffered enough, and after two years of rail chaos they certainly should not be expected to pay any more for the services they use, so will the Minister now show that he recognises the extent of the failure and rule out any fare rises on Southern rail services next year?

We have been very clear that we are going to cap rail fare increases on regulated fares at retail prices index plus zero, but to recognise the impact on Southern passengers we announced last Friday a compensation package that equates to one month’s free travel for annual season ticket holders. In addition, as I said earlier, we will be introducing Delay Repay 15 early on the GTR network from 11 December.

Our constituents in Sussex are at their wits’ end. We are at our wits’ end. Notwithstanding the chaos being caused by these completely unjustified strikes, last week’s announcement on compensation was a good start, but only a start, and it was taken away with the other hand by the price rises that went with it. When can we have a proper, transparent penalty system where GTR pays penalties every time its trains are late, cancelled or delayed, and that is set against the price rises without the commuters having to go through a bureaucratic claim process? GTR needs to sort this out urgently.

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern to make sure that automatic compensation for Delay Repay is broadened as fast as it can be. We need to ensure that the system works, and works well. We need to ensure that passengers are on the trains that they say they were on that were delayed, so we need a technological solution. I am keen to improve the operation of Delay Repay 15 and GTR will be the first rail company that we try it out on.

Residents in Croydon have been suffering from the terrible service for many months now. Does the Minister agree that this is partly due to track and infrastructure failings, partly due to GTR’s incompetence, and partly due to the intransigence of the RMT? Will he commit to spending money on fixing the points and signals and, if the RMT cannot be prevailed upon to call off this needless strike, will he consider legislating to ban such strike action on critical public infrastructure?

My hon. Friend is right to identify the fact that the line will need investment, not just the £20 million that we have already put in, which will support the work of Chris Gibb, but the money to ensure that one of the most overburdened parts of our network is able to properly meet the needs of those who rely on it to get to work, to school and to all the other activities that life depends on in the south-east.

I, too, thank the Minister for the start in terms of compensation for all those who suffer this intolerable situation across the network every day, including all those using the route across to Southampton airport, often travelling to Gatwick airport from Swanwick. Will the Minister confirm that he is looking at the broad-ranging harm caused by these disproportionate, political strikes, which are affecting regional airports as well as local businesses?

I always recognise the importance of Southampton Airport Parkway in the overall network, both for South West Trains and on the Southern network too. I am always happy to meet individual colleagues with particular concerns, and I will be more than happy to discuss Southampton airport’s needs with my hon. Friend further.

I have the misfortune of having the misery line run through my constituency of Wealden. I welcome the Government’s move to one-month compensation. It is now time for the unions to show similar boldness and call off the strikes. However, the timetable is not worth the paper it is written on. What more can the Minister do to get GTR management to get a grip and start running a service that does not require compensation from the Government because it is so appalling?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s involvement over recent weeks; she has been a staunch advocate for the people of Uckfield, who indeed suffer from an inadequate railway line. The most important thing at this stage is for the unions to call off their industrial action and for both GTR and Network Rail to be allowed to focus on what really matters: ensuring that we have a reliable, timely and punctual railway network.

Residents in Sutton want to get rid of this horrendous performance, which has been exacerbated by the unions, so that they can get back to merely poor performance and so that the underlying issues of rail, rolling stock and more drivers can start to be tackled. I welcome the compensation, but what about the passengers who pay-as-you-go using the Oyster card? What can they expect in return?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that even in inner suburban London, people are equally reliant on Southern rail. They will also be eligible for season ticket reductions, should they have annual, quarterly or weekly tickets, as well as Delay Repay 15 compensation from 11 December. That, to me, underlines the importance of ensuring that the network functions well for everybody, wherever they live on the Southern network.

The Minister has rightly referred to a letter that I received from the director of rail safety, specifying that this form of technology is not only safe but has been properly tested by Southern as safe. Given that the unions continue to use safety as the cloak for this dispute, will the Minister consider using legislation to stop unions striking on grounds of safety when the industry regulator has deemed the relevant issue to be safe?

My hon. Friend has done the country a great service during his time on the Transport Committee in trying to nail the myth that DOO is in some way an unsafe means of driving trains. The language from the director of rail safety at the Office of Rail and Road was abundantly clear and it was examined closely at the most recent Transport Committee meeting. He could not have been clearer. It is now for ASLEF and the RMT to pay heed to his words and call off their unreasonable and disproportionate strikes.

State-owned Network Rail is clearly not fit for purpose; the private sector train operating companies have weak and ineffectual management; and the rail unions are organising politically motivated strikes. If that were happening in local government, the Government would have sent in their own commissioners to sort out the organisation. Why do they not do so in this case?

My hon. Friend is right to point out the importance of getting track and train operators to align their incentives and work together to ensure that they deliver a better service for passengers. The Secretary of State has made no secret of the fact that he regards joint working and alliance working as being at the root of what will bring a better level of service on the Southern network.

We look forward to making further announcements on that in due course and to delivering the improved service that all passengers want, whatever political party they support and whatever their views on how the railways should be structured. They want a timely, reliable and punctual rail service. The RMT and ASLEF are in the way of that, with their disproportionate and unreasonable industrial action.