I beg to move,
That this House has considered Thameslink passenger services.
A recent customer satisfaction survey on commuter trains by Which? ranked Thameslink third from bottom. Thameslink registered an approval rating of just 32%; it was ranked above only the beleaguered Southern and Southeastern. I want to make the Minister aware of that passenger dissatisfaction today and suggest some improvements.
My constituents report cancellations and delays almost every day on the network. Over the last twelve months, trains have been plagued with technical problems. One constituent told me that last year alone he counted 15 broken-down trains on his journeys, including two on the same day, 14 August. Cancellations are often made at short notice. They cause later trains to be extremely busy, which makes it difficult for passengers to get on or off, giving rise to what have been called cattle-truck conditions and meaning that trains often cannot stop at their planned stations. Constituents tell me that on a bad day, which is not unusual, it takes them about two hours to get from London to St Albans, despite the 19 to 22 minutes timetabled for peak-time journeys. I have been told of constituents who have given up their jobs because they cannot afford the extra childcare—some nurseries charge an extra £50 per hour’s delay—or are unable to see their children in the evening. Many are consistently late for work despite leaving home earlier and earlier.
The Train Suffragettes are 500 mostly female parents in my constituency who were so fed up with the poor service they receive that they set up a group to show their collective unhappiness. They have shared with me their terrible experiences trying to balance work in London with family life in St Albans. They have missed school plays and parents’ meetings and rarely get to put their children to bed. Persistent delays have driven many of them to quit their jobs, and some have even moved away from the Thameslink line altogether. One mum told me:
“After calling in favours too many times from too many people and being late for nursery pick-ups three times in one week alone (once where I was actually stuck on the train for an hour with no phone signal and so unable to call anyone at the nursery), I quit my job in the city in October. Financially a difficult decision but I’d had a skinful of the stress of the commute, wondering if my train home would be on time or if I would have to sprint from the office to get the earlier train, which was often cancelled too.”
A lot of technical problems have been reported with the new Siemens 700 trains, mainly with electrics, software and heating. The doors often fail to open, especially at St Pancras, because they are now controlled by the driver; one day a train sat at the station for about 20 minutes because the driver could not open the doors. I know that Thameslink is aware of those problems. There has been some welcome recent progress, including an increase in Govia Thameslink’s public performance measurement from 60% to 83%, but that is still well below the national average of 88.95%.
Over the last year, Network Rail was responsible for 54% of delays, Thameslink for 42%, and other causes for 4%. We appreciate that ongoing Network Rail works have an impact on the line, but that is no excuse for rail services not to provide a reliable timetabled service or to try to deliver improvements to it. My constituents not only suffer a poor service but get far less generous compensation than Southern Rail passengers when incidents occur. That cannot be acceptable. Network Rail should have better lines of communication with Govia and passengers. People need to know as quickly as possible why they have been delayed and what they can do to avoid disruption.
In the 2016-17 financial year, one in 11 trains run by GTR was cancelled or more than 30 minutes late—the worst performance of all the rail operators in the country. In period 3 of 2016-17, GTR had a cancellation and significant lateness percentage of 15.7%, compared with a 5.7% national average. In period 3 of 2017-18, GTR had a considerably reduced failure rate of 6.6%, but that is still nearly double the national average of 3.7%.
In my first debate on this matter in 2012, I said that First Capital Connect, which then held the franchise—it has now been replaced by Govia—was ranked
“lowest in the country, including value for money, punctuality, sufficient room on trains, satisfaction with the stations and how the train operating companies…dealt with the delays.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2012; Vol. 539, c. 342WH.]
Five years on, despite the change of franchise, nothing has changed. GTR still consistently ranks among the operators with the lowest customer satisfaction public performance measures.
The failings that other hon. Members and I raised five years ago remain failings today. Something must be done to improve Govia passenger services for all those who rely on them. It is a simple premise that to deliver an efficient, mobile workforce, we need a decent, well run and affordable rail transport service. People of all ages expect a rail service fit for the 21st century. The travelling public are being asked to pay ever more for their rail fares, and we in Parliament must ask serious questions about the services they are experiencing up and down the country.
I could not speak in a debate on commuter train services in my constituency without referring to the shadow being cast by the Radlett rail freight proposal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and I believe may have a catastrophic impact on the already hugely inadequate commuter service. The application for this strategic rail freight site started in in 2006. In December 2016—10 years after assurances were given that access would be granted—Network Rail said that it would be in a position to confirm an “efficient scheduling strategy” once the capability and capacity analysis team completed its evaluation. However, it responded only last week, and its response, which was about essential works disruption and pathing, raises far more questions than it answers.
The Government’s national policy statement on national networks in 2014 identified London and the south-east as the areas with busiest passenger services, with passenger carriage set to increase by 46.1% by 2033. Moreover, the Department for Transport’s 2016 rail freight strategy said:
“Rail freight services operate in response to customer and supply chain demands, making it more challenging to plan for freight services than passenger services, which tend to run to a regular timetable and route.”
Commuters in my constituency certainly wish passenger services would run to a regular timetable and route.
Will the Minister guarantee that the proposed strategic rail freight interchange will not add further delays and cancellations for my constituents, who are already at breaking point? Will he undertake to scrutinise any plans to deliver the site link tunnel, and will he test those plans against the potential disruption to services? I am concerned that the significant rail works necessary to deliver the site will mean a protracted period of disruption that cannot be justified by the site’s limitations. In case the Minister is not aware, the site is in a village with no motorway access. It has a life span of 30 years and is constrained from expansion, unlike the expansion forecast for passenger services. This inadequate proposal cannot be allowed to interfere with the exciting prospect of better and more frequent passenger services for my constituents.
What can be done to improve the current situation? Commuter groups such as the Train Suffragettes in St Albans have suggested changes that would go a long way towards improving the overall service that passengers receive. The first is a consistent and user-friendly refund system to allow passengers to reclaim expenditure, including taxi costs incurred because of delays and cancellations. The second is opening station ticket barriers when there have been delays, in order to ease platform congestion, which is often described as being at a dangerous level.
The third suggestion, which is vital, is to improve communication at all levels. Passengers are fed up with being in the dark when trains have been delayed or cancelled. They have suggested following the model of the London underground, where—as I am sure the Minister is aware—when a tube is held in a tunnel, the driver immediately makes an announcement to let passengers know the reason for delay and how long a wait is anticipated. When a tube station is closed, the driver will helpfully suggest alternative connecting routes for passengers.
The fourth suggestion, which is regularly raised, relates to communication between drivers and staff at stations—St Albans station in my case. Passengers need to be able to speak to station staff to find out exactly what is going on and what has caused the delay or cancellation.
Finally, passengers demand that fares be reduced, or at least frozen, until Thameslink vastly improves the service on the line. I called for the same thing in 2012, but five years later the catastrophic situation that my constituents are experiencing is exactly the same. We also face the impact of the strategic rail freight interchange’s disruptions being put into the mix. I suggest that we are on our knees in St Albans, and the Minister needs to take drastic action now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing the debate; it is a welcome opportunity to raise the misery being caused to my constituents as a consequence of the failures of our rail services.
It is hard to overstate the cumulative impact of failing rail services on my constituents in Dulwich and West Norwood over the past two years. The hon. Lady mentioned the bottom three franchises for customer satisfaction being Southern, Southeastern and Thameslink. Those are the only franchises that operate in my constituency, so we have, on different parts of the route, different combinations of misery. Commuting by rail from my constituency is a universally difficult and miserable experience.
The debate is focused on Thameslink passenger services, which I will return to in a moment, but it would be remiss of me to contribute to a debate on one part of the GTR franchise without putting on the record the utter misery caused to my constituents who travel on Southern Rail services, which are also run by GTR. I have heard from almost 2,000 constituents over the past 18 months about the catastrophic impact that the collapse in Southern rail services has had on their employment, family life and wellbeing.
The Government’s response to Southern Rail’s problems has been, frankly, too little, too late. While everyone understands that many of the problems can only be resolved through infrastructure investment, there is much more that can and should be done in the short term to provide passengers with timely information about delays and cancellations, and to re-establish effective negotiations with the trade unions to address the safety concerns that have been raised and to resolve the industrial dispute. The fact that the chief executive of GTR, who has responsibility for the Southern Rail franchise as well as Thameslink services, received a pay package of almost half a million pounds last year simply adds insult to injury for my constituents.
Thameslink services run through Tulse Hill, Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction stations in my constituency, in addition to peak-time services through Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich. Those services are vital for people who work in areas of central London, including Blackfriars, Farringdon and the City of London, or areas of intensifying employment, such as King’s Cross and Old Street, or those who need to access the tube network from Elephant and Castle. I was a Thameslink commuter to Farringdon, and then to Blackfriars, for the best part of 20 years prior to being elected to Parliament.
Thameslink services have been becoming more overcrowded and less reliable for many years. Passengers who use stations in my constituency have suffered the consequences of residential densification further down the line, meaning that it is now often impossible to get a seat or even to stand comfortably on trains that were not previously so full. With the exception of Herne Hill station, which has lifts, the stations in my constituency are not accessible. Loughborough Junction is a particularly challenging station to use, with very steep steps and narrow, windswept platforms. At peak times, passengers at Loughborough Junction are often unable to board trains at all because they are so overcrowded. The Loughborough Junction area is currently subject to considerable new residential development, increasing the number of homes in the area. New homes are badly needed, but they must be supported by investment in transport infrastructure to ensure that everyone in the community can continue to get to and from work and to access the services they need.
The current services are also desperately unreliable. There are delays and cancellations every day, and my constituents are forced to organise their lives in order to mitigate the impact of services they should be able to rely on. New rolling stock is slowly being introduced, and while to some extent those trains provide a more comfortable environment with more standing space, they are often just as overcrowded as the old ones. There is a view among many passengers that they should have been designed like Overground trains, with seating at the sides, to allow much more space for passengers who have to stand. We need 12-car trains across the network and investment to ensure that they can be accommodated at every station to maximise capacity for passengers.
I am also concerned about the potential loss of the direct service from my constituency to Luton airport. My constituents will now only be able to access that really important service by changing at Elephant and Castle, where trains are even more overcrowded. I am concerned that fewer trains will stop at Tulse Hill, Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction overall as a consequence of the timetable changes, in a situation where we need capacity to be increased, to cope with both current and future demand.
I am concerned that services currently run by Thameslink through Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich stations and not included in the current consultation may be lost if, in the Southeastern franchise renewal process, they are not considered to be sufficiently profitable. Those services are small in number but provide a vital route to work for many of my constituents. We need much more ambitious investment in rail infrastructure than is currently proposed to meet the transport needs of my constituents, as both our local population and the population further out of London on the same commuter lines continue to grow.
I have the following asks of the Minister today. The experience of the failure of the temporary timetable on the Southern network into London Bridge tells us that the robustness of the timetable in relation to the capacity of the network is a paramount consideration for reliability. When will the Minister confirm the capacity of the Thameslink core in relation to the proposed new timetable? Will he commit to exploring the reopening of Camberwell station between Loughborough Junction and Elephant and Castle stations, to provide extra capacity and a modern, fully accessible station environment to serve local residents, staff and patients travelling to King’s College Hospital and students travelling to the University of the Arts London sites in Camberwell and Elephant and Castle?
Will the Minister commit to ensuring there is no drop in the number of services through Loughborough Junction, Tulse Hill and Herne Hill stations following the consultations on the new timetable? Will he commit to securing the future of services to Blackfriars from Sydenham Hill and West Dulwich? Will he commit to exploring the reopening of the eastern platforms at Loughborough Junction station, to enable trains to stop there between Denmark Hill and Elephant and Castle? That would double capacity at Loughborough Junction station. Will he commit to working with Transport for London to open an Overground station at Brixton East, between Denmark Hill and Clapham High Street stations, to relieve pressure on the Thameslink network?
Will the Minister work to persuade the Secretary of State, who has not previously been inclined to do so, to work in a cross-party way with the Mayor of London to transfer all suburban rail services in south London to Transport for London to run, so that profits can be reinvested in the improvements we so urgently need, rather than being used to reward the poor performance of senior leaders in the private sector? Finally, can the Minister tell my constituents when they will be able to rely on rail services to run to the agreed timetable, without delays and cancellations, and when they can stop having to organise their lives around the failures of the GTR franchise, including the Southern railway?
May I begin by thanking you for your chairmanship, Mr Bailey? I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main). I know what a doughty campaigner she has been on this topic. My remarks are only intended to echo some of the points she has made, and indeed some of the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).
I should begin by declaring an interest: I commute, for my sins, on this line every day, so I have first-hand experience of it, but also a desire to improve it, as do many of my constituents. Literally thousands of my constituents commute every day from Radlett and Elstree and Borehamwood on that line into central London. They, like other hon. Members’ constituents, have sorry tales to tell of the poor performance of the line.
I will give a few statistics. At times last year, less than two thirds of Thameslink trains ran on time. Almost one in five trains were cancelled or significantly late. The level of frustration and volume of correspondence that I received in relation to that poor performance led me eventually to compile a dossier of more than 100 complaints from constituents, which I was able to present to the Transport Secretary. They were very similar to the complaints outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans. The most distressing cases were those of people who felt they had to give up their jobs because they could not rely on the service, and of younger mums and dads struggling with childcare. We know what it is like with childcare—we think we are going to pick our kids up at a certain time, so we allow, say, an hour for the train journey, but it takes two hours. The nursery is closing, and the level of stress involved if family or friends cannot pick our children up is enormous.
Commuters in my constituency are seeking a number of reassurances. I know that many of these do not fall within the direct purview of the Minister—they fall within the purview of the franchisee—but I hope he will be able to bring some pressure to bear on the franchisee in relation to them. Specific points that constituents have asked me to raise include the problem of trains switching at the last minute. I have seen that: people get on a train thinking it is an all-stopper or a semi-fast train, and literally moments before it is about to depart, they suddenly discover that it is either not going to stop where they thought or stopping at every stop. Communicating that effectively to commuters is very important. My hon. Friend drew the comparison with London Underground. Thameslink has been improving a little in this respect, but there is still a lot more it could do to keep passengers up to date with what is going on as it happens. If people know what is happening, it makes things that bit easier. Even if it just involves sending someone a text to say they will be late, it makes it a little easier.
There is also tremendous variability in the length of trains. There can be a full platform waiting for an eight-car train and suddenly there is a four-car train that not everybody can get on. A perennial bugbear for my constituents—although I admit it probably runs contrary to the interests of my hon. Friend’s constituents—is that too few trains stop at Elstree and Borehamwood and Radlett, instead running directly to St Albans. When there are delays on the line, my constituents are just looking to get home, and in those circumstances they would look for trains stopping every time. I would be grateful for an update on anything the Minister can do to raise the pressure on that.
There is also a broader question about the infrastructure. A great number of my constituents drive to and park at the station. In both Elstree and Borehamwood and Radlett there are single-tier carparks. I simply do not understand why another level or two cannot be put on those carparks. Given the incredibly high parking fees charged by Thameslink, it would be in its interests to construct other levels. I am interested in the Minister’s perspective on that. As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) said, as the level of densification in these areas of the south-east inevitably continues to rise, the demand for the station will only continue to grow. Equally, there is the issue of capacity at the station. I am grateful for the Government’s progress on Borehamwood station—they have announced some additional funding, which is very gratefully received—but that money needs to continue to flow so that we can keep up with the ever-rising demand.
I echo the concerns about the pricing of the railway line. By many measures, this is the most expensive railway line per kilometre travelled not only in the United Kingdom but in the whole of Europe. If passengers are being forced to pay that much, the service really does need to improve to match it. I know that anything the Minister can do to keep pressure on the company to find further efficiency savings to keep the cost of commuting down would be very gratefully received by constituents.
It is also important to look at what happens when things go wrong. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans alluded to, the compensation scheme is still not simple and transparent enough, and does not cover a lot of the on-costs. For example, if the line is down, my constituents living in Radlett or Borehamwood often have no alternative than to go to the very end of the Jubilee line and then take a taxi from Stanmore. That is in no way covered in the compensation scheme. It is a completely unavoidable cost for my constituents, and that should be considered.
It is also important to look not just at the franchisee but at Network Rail. Too often, we concentrate on the failures of the franchisee, not those of Network Rail. It is to the Government’s great credit that when faced with a dire financial situation in 2010 they decided not to cut back on railway investment. They kept the investment going for Crossrail and for the rather unfortunately named Thameslink 2000 programme. We are hopeful that Thameslink 2000 will be delivered by 2020, but that process has necessitated considerable upgrades at London Bridge. That was clearly necessary, but it has had a bad knock-on effect on commuter services, because capacity has been significantly reduced around the station. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister about progress on that upgrade. When can we expect London Bridge to be completed, and when can we expect trains to start fully running through there?
An issue has been flagged to me that I would be grateful if the Minister took very seriously. Capacity in the London core of Thameslink will be effectively doubled overnight when trains go up the northern stretch—on which my hon. Friend’s and my stations lie—not just towards Bedford, but to Hitchin and Harpenden. That will mean huge pressure through the central core. At times, there could be trains every minute or two minutes. I know the system will be computerised, but I would be grateful if departmental officials stress-tested the system before roll-out so that we do not face a cliff edge. After all the pain, the moment the system at St Pancras is not working—my hon. Friend alluded to this—we would not want to go back to square one again and have a complete failure of the service.
I would be grateful if the Minister updated me on plans to integrate between franchisees and Network Rail, as announced by the Secretary of State. That is important. One of the problems of privatisation was the artificial distinction, and it is important that we close that distinction. An update would help us understand how that can be addressed in the longer run.
Let me quickly turn to two final issues. There is a desperate need for the Oyster card system to be extended to Radlett. I know the Minister is on the case, but an assurance from him to my constituents that that will be delivered by 2018 would be gratefully received—and the same goes for Potters Bar, which is not on Thameslink but is served by Govia Thameslink, the wider holding company.
We cannot discuss rail freight without looking at the rail freight terminal: the disastrous development that is entirely unsuited to our part of Hertfordshire. My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans and I continue to campaign against it, but if it is to go ahead, we must look at its impact on the railway line. At the meeting we both had with Network Rail, it updated us that the development will involve putting a line under the existing line to access the rail freight terminal. When we think about the infrastructure involved in building one railway line under another, it is difficult to conceive that that will not involve significant delays. I would be grateful for an update on that and, in particular, an assurance that the full cost will rightly be borne by the developer, and that means minimising disruption to passengers, even if that means a higher development cost. Given all that we have heard, it is simply not fair for commuters to bear the cost in terms of delayed journeys for the developer to get a cheaper deal.
Equally, I would be grateful for some reassurance on timetabling. I know Network Rail’s argument is that there are already allocated slots, but those slots are not being used by freight trains at the moment. I fear we will lose capacity once they are being used continuously by the rail freight terminal. Some reassurances would be gratefully received.
I thank the Minister for coming here. I was on the radio just now talking about this, and the interviewer said, “This is the last day of term. You will all be watching videos, relaxing.” I trust that the Minister will completely disprove that and demonstrate that he will address this issue with vigour.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey, in this crucial debate. We have seen the passion presented by all hon. Members on the challenges that their constituents face not just day by day, but week by week, month by month and year by year. The sheer dissatisfaction, frustration and misery that commuters have had to put up with for such a long time shows that resolution is crucial. The passenger must be listened to. We have obviously heard about the disruption brought not only to the commute, but to family life. I give all credit to parents who try to arrange childcare under the best of circumstances, but when they face an unreliable train service as well, the pressures are immense. All hon. Members have articulated that well this afternoon.
When passengers turn into activists and take action against what should be a normal part of their routine and daily life—such as the Train Suffragettes and others I know as well—it really shows that the whole rail system is in meltdown and has to be addressed. As we have heard, it is not just about train operating companies, because this has been a sustained problem across the network for such a long time. However, Thameslink particularly stands out. It has the second-lowest level of passenger satisfaction, at 73%—only Southern, at 65%, is behind—and has issues with punctuality and reliability, as we have heard. Southeastern trains are also not delivering for passengers, which is now spreading to Northern as well. With regard to Thameslink, things have not improved for several years now. When a staggering 23% are satisfied with how the company has dealt with delays, it really shows that it is left wanting, as has the whole situation.
What we have really picked up on today are the consequences of that unreliability, the infrastructure problems, the desperate need for investment and the massive overcrowding issues. The overcapacity issue will not going away, as more housing developments will put further strain on the network. We have also heard about challenges with the choice of destination, the obvious need for improvements right across the network and the impact that late or cancelled trains have on commuters.
It is important that we listen to these real frustrations. We cannot allow the situation to continue in which the Government point fingers but do not lift one to sort out what is happening. We know that there is real chaos in the way the franchise was set up, as was rightly highlighted when the Gibb report was debated in the main Chamber on 4 July. We know that there needs to be effective governance over the whole structure, which has been lacking, to ensure that issues are addressed expediently and that proper dispute resolution mechanisms are put in also. At the forefront of everything, we need to make sure that passengers’ concerns are addressed and that their safety is safeguarded. We also heard about access needs, and the fact that some train journeys are simply impossible for passengers with disabilities.
Another point that was rightly raised was the financial cost to passengers. We have seen rail prices go up by 27% since 2010 on this rail network, which is the most expensive not only in the UK but in the whole of Europe, meaning that passengers are having to pick up the cost of this failed network. We are expecting further price increases in August, and we have heard the figure of 4%—perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on that. We need certainty on pricing; all passengers, whether on Thameslink or other networks, really want to know what is happening on pricing. The Opposition believe that price rises should be capped in line with the consumer prices index. We have heard different answers from different Ministers from the Department: we have heard that price rises will continue to be capped in line with the retail prices index; we have heard twice from the Minister that pricing is under review; and we have also heard that things will be kept as they are this year—but that does not say what will happen next year. Passengers need clarity on pricing.
We need to make sure that we move forward with smart ticketing, which we heard several contributions on. Where are we at with part-time smart ticketing, which will impact on many of those parents? It is an equality issue and we need to move forward on it. We also need to make sure that we see greater flexibility in smart ticketing, including the extension of the Oyster card. With the technology that is in place, how is delay repay being rolled out on the Oyster card? There are opportunities there. Of the amount of money that the network gains, only a minimal amount reaches the customer. The process of trying to reclaim after a delay is difficult.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Many of my passengers say that they do not want to have to claim; they simply want the service they have paid for. Delay repay is better, but on the other hand the service needs to improve, because otherwise they just get money back for a bad service. That is not what they want; they want the journey they were guaranteed.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. However, we also need to ensure that, where there has been a delay, passengers are properly compensated, given that they have paid so much for the privilege of travelling on that network. Between 2010 and 2015, the train operating company generated £575 million from Network Rail for infrastructure delays, yet only £73 million went to passengers, so we have to question who benefits. Again, it comes back to governance over the system, which is poor. That comes up many times. It is a theme that is repeated in every aspect of how the franchise works. The franchise has failed passengers. We need to see delay repay extended so that the customer can be compensated automatically, as opposed to trying to seek out that compensation.
We also need to look at what has happened with the Thameslink programme. It was first put in place in 2006, so those years are moving forward. We need to see that the objectives now being met are not at the inconvenience of passengers—such as major track work, signalling and station remodelling, improvements to the lines approaching London Bridge and the overhead lines north of St Pancras. The programme was very ambitious, but without proper governance it has not been realised. On the issue of capacity, as 24 trains an hour move through the core of central London, the risks increase. We cannot even get the service moving right at the moment. We need to hear from the Minister what mitigation is being put in place to reduce risk and ensure that trains run on time and that passengers reach their destinations on time. About 14,500 additional passengers will use that network.
The Gibb report goes further on the issues that need to be addressed across the networks. It also addresses GTR’s responsibilities and Network Rail. The issues it identified include rail renewal, switching and sleeper renewal. The list goes on to talk about telecoms and cable signalling and dealing with things such as vegetation, earthworks and fencing—it is comprehensive. We need to ensure that the improvement programme is put in place and delivered by 2018. We do not want the stop-start approach to maintenance and development. We want to see the investment running into the CP6 funding round from 2019. What exactly is the Minister doing to make sure there is ongoing investment in the railway?
We must thank Chris Gibb for his report, but we must also note the responsibility to move forward on many of the problems experienced across the Thameslink network. We also need to address the issues raised by the Transport Select Committee, which has identified how poorly the franchise has been established. The relationships do not work between the train operator, Network Rail and the passenger. That must be put right. Changing an operator does not change the environment, which is so important. It is right that the Committee highlighted the problems with the initial structuring of the franchise, the inadequate planning that was put in place, weaknesses in the franchising handover period, infrastructure and rolling stock failures, mismanagement, and poor industrial relations.
I want to talk about industrial relations, because it is so important that these issues are addressed. We have people working on the rail network who are seriously concerned about passenger safety and access. We have heard about the overcrowding, which increases risk, and the real challenges on the network. More commuters will be using the line and it is vital that public safety comes first. The unions have been clear that this is not a dispute about money; their concern is about public safety.
I have spoken to train drivers in the last couple of days, and they say it is vital that they have a second pair of eyes. If they miss something, the other person can help pick it up. They say it is vital that there is someone there to deal with incidents, whatever they may be, because it is unpredictable. It could be a driver falling ill, a fatality on the rails, a terrorist attack, derailment or a crash, women’s safety at night or antisocial behaviour disturbing other customers. Of course, guards play a much wider role in maximising revenue collection and providing passengers with a wider service. We have heard today how important that service is, particularly with the line of communication, which a number of hon. Members have mentioned. They can let passengers know information, be the first port of call and be the passengers’ champion when needed.
I urge the Minister to address those vital issues. We must get the rostering right to ensure that the trains run on time and address the issues in this dispute. This is not rocket science; the dispute is simple to resolve. I know, as a negotiator, that the Minister just needs to sit down and make sure the guards are in place and can continue with their role. It is incumbent on him to sort this out. I know it is not beyond his wit, and I trust he will do so.
In conclusion, we have heard about the painful experiences of commuters. We must remember that the whole rail network is there as a service—a public service—to help passengers continue with their employment opportunities and their daily lives. It is absolutely right that focus is now brought on the way the franchises and relationships are not operating and that that is worked through, to bring the service back to customers. That is why the Labour party believes that public services now need to be a public accountability, in public ownership. For far too long, decisions have been made away from the passenger. We want to see the passenger at the heart of those decisions, putting safety and service needs at the forefront and building the structures around the passenger.
I have heard all the frustrations, and Labour will take those on board and work with passengers to make sure that we can provide the service needed in the future. We will keep the pressure on the Government, as the passengers’ voice throughout this process.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) on securing this debate and presenting her case, as she always does, with great vigour and force; I expect no less from her. She is right to hold Ministers to account for the service on her railway.
Passengers expect a timely, punctual and reliable service, and when they do not get it, they are right to want to understand why, and what Ministers and the train operators intend to do about it. This has been a helpful debate on what is occurring with Thameslink, and I am grateful to both the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) for their contributions. There was also a sensible contribution from the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell). We may not agree on the final paragraphs of her speech, but I thought that much of what she said made great sense.
I am aware of how important it is that we deal with this issue. As I said, passengers want a service that they can rely upon, and if they cannot, that should be a concern for us all. The Thameslink service is vital for our country, not least because our capital city depends upon it. Reliability of services through central London is critical. It is one of Europe’s busiest rail routes, so it is right that passengers will see new stations—and better stations, in fact—new trains, new infrastructure and new systems to increase capacity, reduce crowding and provide better connections for passengers across London and the wider south-east.
A number of points have been made in the debate, but I want to focus first and foremost on answering the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans. I often find that these one-hour debates are neither fish nor fowl, and I want to give proper attention to the points made by the Member who secured the debate without ignoring the other points made. Normally I run out of time in that ambition, so if I do not manage to respond to all the points now, I ask Members to make sure that I reply to them all subsequently.
The first point made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans was about the impact of the new trains. Of course, people want new trains. It is right to point out that the new Thameslink trains have advanced technology; they are more spacious and modern by their very definition. We have contracted Siemens to deliver 115 of them overall. We have 37 currently in service, between Bedford and Brighton, on the Wimbledon loop and on services in Kent. We expect all Thameslink services to be served by Class 700 trains by October 2017.
Train performance on the brand-new trains is improving bit by bit every period, but I recognise that it has not been good enough. I have spoken to Siemens myself to urge improvement. I know that it is working very closely with GTR. With every software improvement we see a significant improvement, but it is worth bearing it in mind that this platform is a step beyond what Siemens has produced before with its Desiro platform. There will always be slightly more challenges with such a new piece of rolling stock, but we are seeing significant improvement over time, and I fully expect to see significant improvement in reliability over the coming weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans gave a number of examples of where her constituents were not getting the service they desire. I have been hearing those tales about this GTR network since I started in this role last July, and that is what has inspired me to focus on trying to deliver the rail ombudsman that we had in our manifesto as rapidly as I can. That is making good progress. I want to ensure that passengers can get binding arbitration at the end of the day where they cannot secure the right outcome from their appeals. We do not want these situations to occur—far from it—but where they do, I want the passenger to feel empowered. That is why I wanted to ensure that we had passenger representation on the Gibb report panel, for example—to ensure that their voice was being heard.
I was fascinated to hear about the train suffragettes to whom my hon. Friend referred. I would be delighted if she could send me more of their ideas about how the service could be improved, and I would be happy to take on board as many of them as possible.
I should also highlight Thamestink, which is the campaign group in my constituency. I would be grateful if the Minister could extend the invitation to that group as well.
I always risk creating extra work for my private office in inviting all submissions, wherever they are from, but I am more than happy to receive them and give them my full attention.
A number of hon. Members mentioned what is referred to in the industry as passenger information during disruption. It has been a major concern of mine that passengers may, at the breakfast table, consult their mobile phone, get one piece of information that their train is running, beetle down to the station to get the train and then discover that for some reason it has been cancelled. There are too many sources of information across the industry. The Office of Rail and Road has two key obligations under law. One is improving passenger information during disruption. I have asked it to look closely at how that is working across the south-east quadrant as a whole, because I have concerns about both GTR and Southeastern ensuring that we have consistent information. I accept that that is a key point, and it is one that I am taking up.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans has raised concerns both with me and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the Radlett freight interchange. Those representations were augmented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden). I genuinely recognise those concerns; that is why I want to ensure that the timetable is protected from the impact of the works. Network Rail has reassured my Department, just as it has reassured both my hon. Friends, that the work at Park Street has been planned to have minimum impact on passengers, as freight trains will run only outside peak times and overnight, but I recognise that the concerns remain and that there is a wish to have greater oversight of the detail of what is being planned. I suspect the best thing I can offer is to broker a meeting with Network Rail, with me present as well, and perhaps we can test some of those assumptions against what my officials and the Department are also aware of. That might be of assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans, so we will co-operate as best we can to try to find that reassurance.
My hon. Friend also mentioned overcrowding at St Albans station. We are extending the platform to accommodate 12-carriage trains as part of the Thameslink programme. GTR is working to deliver extended automatic ticket gates at platform 4, which I believe is called the Ridgmont entrance, by 2019. The main station building will also receive an enhanced retail offering, a larger concourse area to accommodate peak periods and associated platform furniture and shelter facilities to improve the station environment. I recognise that there remain capacity concerns at St Albans station. We are thinking through the implications of that for future rail control periods.
In terms of future Thameslink services and how they will benefit St Albans, it is a matter of improved peak frequency and more capacity between central London, St Albans and Bedford, with more peak services, new cross-London routes, and Thameslink services reinstated to serve London Bridge. I expect passengers to see more comfort benefits, with more than 3,000 standard-class seats into London St Pancras, which is 15% extra from today, particularly through using the 12-carriage trains.
Essentially, Thameslink is all about expanding capacity on a key commuter route. We are trying to deliver the trains and the infrastructure to enable that, with 24 trains an hour in the peak through the Thameslink core between Blackfriars and St Pancras, which is an additional nine trains in each direction.
Part of our focus is on making sure that we have the right infrastructure—not just track but signalling. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere is right to identify that we need to make sure that signalling and timetabling are robust. We have a planning board, chaired by Chris Gibb, of Gibb report fame, and an assurance panel, chaired by another industry expert, Chris Green, double-checking the work that is going on to make sure it is reliable and will deliver the outputs that we seek.
To date, the Thameslink programme has delivered a new Blackfriars station connecting both side of the Thames. We have seen major enhancements at Farringdon, platform extensions on midland main line stations to allow longer trains and, as I said, 37 of the new class 700 trains. There are new maintenance depots at Three Bridges in Crawley and Hornsey in north London, and many hon. Members will be familiar with the new London Bridge station, two thirds of the concourse of which has been open since August 2016.
What else can passengers expect? The rest of London Bridge station will be open for business in early 2018. The new class 700 trains will start operating on Great Northern routes and on services in Kent and Sussex. Entire new journeys, such as Cambridge to Gatwick, will open up new journey options and connections for customers, including an interchange with the Elizabeth line services at Farringdon, which I think will transform how people approach travel options within London. Most importantly, from 2018 there will be services every two to three minutes through the central London core between Blackfriars and St Pancras International.
I recognise concerns about performance. We have seen performance steadily improving since the start of the year. When we are able to focus on improving the network, rather than just on industrial relations, we can deliver a real improvement in performance, working together with the drivers. The jump in public performance from 62% last December to a high of 85% this year reinforces that point, but I recognise that we need to do better—85% is still not good enough. We continue to have an immense amount of pressure on the network.
We are also looking carefully at the future Thameslink timetable. Journeys will be improved with better travel across the network, but modern track will make journeys more reliable and new trains will provide additional capacity. GTR has been actively seeking feedback from any interested parties on the timetable changes to make sure that they best match passenger need. The second stage of the consultation has just closed and we are looking carefully at what people are saying.
As I mentioned earlier, our Thameslink industry readiness board, chaired by Chris Gibb, is doing important work. Thameslink brings many other franchises on to its network, and the board is looking at making sure we maximise the potential for all aspects of the train network.
My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans mentioned delay repay, as did the shadow Minister. We have brought “delay repay 15” specifically into GTR as the first franchise to trial it, because we recognise the impact that the disturbances across the network as a whole have had. I share the concern that we need to explain more carefully that the impact of Thameslink is not just felt south of London. It is often hard to envisage how Thameslink is a regional service. What occurs north of London has an impact south of London and vice versa. It is worth highlighting, for example, that right-time presentation, as we call it—in other words, the right-time arrival of the train at the station—is rarely higher than 50% on services from the north of London going south through to Brighton. That indicates that problems in Brighton on trains going northwards also impact on punctuality and reliability, so investment in both sides of the central core is absolutely crucial.
We have improved delay repay, although I take on board the point about improving its delivery. We have to be careful about our terminology, as I have learned. Automated compensation is about improving the behind-the-scenes progress of individual train operating companies. It is about someone getting their compensation without doing anything to achieve it. That requires them to demonstrate that they have been on the train in question. They can either nominate their usual commuter train, in which case it can be automatic compensation, or, where they have not specified a train, they must prove that they were on the delayed train. There is sadly a risk of fraud, and we are talking about considerable sums of money from regular commuters, so there has to be that element of assurance.
I share the ambition of the hon. Member for York Central, which is why I have been pushing for delay repay to be rolled out as much as possible. Passengers have a right to expect it. We need to be much better at making people aware of it and confident about using it. I would rather, as the hon. Member for St Albans said, that there were no delays at all; then we would have a better service in the first place.
As I often mention, there is a £300 million investment in improvement across the Thameslink network. Not all of that is occurring south of London. Hon. Members may think this an issue just on the Brighton main line, but it is not. We are investing in additional land sheriff shifts to reduce trespass and railway crime across the entire length of the line, and there will be more use of predict and prevent condition-monitoring software and processes on the infrastructure. There will be additional incident response teams and embankment works at New Barnet. All of that is occurring north of London on the stretch that covers St Albans. Because of the point I made earlier about interaction, service delays, either north or south, inevitably have an impact on St Albans at some point.
We will continue to deliver that £300 million until December 2018, when we cease the current control period. We will need to invest further in control period 6, and we will be making future announcements about how that spending will be allocated. We are committed to doing what is needed to bring this stretch of track up to the standards required to deliver timely and punctual rail services.
I will try to make a bit of progress, because I recognise that I have not covered any of the points made by the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. I am not sure whether the shadow Minister had time to be briefed on this before she arrived here, but there will be talks tomorrow at the Department involving GTR, ASLEF and, I think, the RMT—I am not sure whether that is precisely correct. Hopefully, that will be an opportunity to have the discussion the hon. Lady is aiming for.
I do not think anyone disagrees that having a second person on board is a bad thing. We have been able to have a second person on board across the network where GTR is in operation. That is a good thing in my view. The issue will be the circumstances in which a train may depart if someone is not available. That is the narrow point that was in dispute in the past, and perhaps tomorrow will be the chance to resolve that—we will have to wait and see.
The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood made a number of perfectly relevant suggestions. I am not sure I can do them justice in two minutes, but if it would be helpful to her I would like her to come to see me and my officials to go through them in more detail. I am aware of schemes such as the expansion of Loughborough Junction and Camberwell, and she deserves a better response than me saying, “We will look at it.” If she gets in touch, I will be more than happy to meet her. I know the Secretary of State met the Mayor yesterday and had constructive discussions.
On the hon. Lady’s point about resilience, we are already seeing greater resilience through a re-diagramming of services. Part of the problem is drivers joining and leaving a service as it passes through the GTR network. By simplifying the diagrams with the agreement of the drivers, we can make for a more resilient service by ensuring that that interruption is reduced.
I noted the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere. We should not overlook the fact that GTR was criticised in the Gibb report—as was the Department. We saw penalties imposed on GTR last week, which will go towards improving the network. This is not just about trade unions, GTR or the Department; it is about an entire ecosystem, as some have pointed out. I heard my hon. Friend’s point about car parking, and I know the rail delivery group is looking at that. The passenger’s experience begins when they decide to make a journey, and that includes car parking.
Vertical integration is moving according to plan. We have already seen some of the benefits for this franchise of getting Network Rail and GTR to work more closely together and of continuing to work with TfL on the Oyster zone, which should help my hon. Friend’s constituents in particular. One highlight of the last week was the rail delivery group’s announcement of new statistics on right-time arrivals at stations, which I urge all hon. Members to have a look at.
If there is anything I have missed, I ask Members to get in touch. We will keep Members informed—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).