Skip to main content

Guards on Merseyrail Trains

Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Andrew Stephenson.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the Chamber the important issue of the future of safety-critical guards on Merseyrail trains.

All of us value the work of the people who keep our country moving, be they guards, drivers, signal workers, track workers, ticket office workers, cleaners or station staff. I represent my home city in this place, and it is a privilege to be able to speak up for my constituents and working people. It is worth remembering that when workers want to raise issues as important as public safety and protecting decent jobs, they too often have to take industrial action, putting their livelihoods at risk—something I do not have to do by making this speech.

My hon. Friend makes the point that nobody wants this to happen. He will have seen the letter from the city region of 16 November, which is signed by its six council leaders. It calls for

“both parties in the dispute…to agree to engage in a process of independent conciliation, starting with no pre-conditions, with the intent of seeking to find a negotiated settlement”.

Does he not think that that is a reasonable suggestion?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I will lay out my arguments, including my comments about that issue, in my speech.

I will use this debate to outline why guards are so important for safety, security, service and accessibility, and to highlight the level of public support for retaining guards on trains. I will discuss their safety-critical function and their valued role in protecting the personal safety of all passengers.

Over the past 30 years, there has been a creeping introduction of driver-only operation. DOO is opposed by the rail unions and unpopular with the public. Since January 2011, there have been at least 10 serious incidents at the passenger-train interface, eight of which involved DOO services operating without a safety-critical member of staff on board the train.

Merseyrail, a private company co-owned by Serco and the Dutch state-owned Abellio, proposes to remove all its 207 guards. That decision comes after Merseytravel, our transport authority, has signed a 30-year contract for new rolling stock worth £460 million.

Does my hon. Friend welcome the new rolling stock, which will have the best accessibility for disabled people in the whole of the country? Does he think that negotiations to resolve the industrial issue are a matter of urgency so that the people of Merseyside can enjoy the new trains when they arrive?

Negotiations are of course critical to resolving the dispute, and I absolutely welcome the new trains. They are long overdue and something the unions have campaigned for. They will be publicly owned by the people of the Liverpool city region and are forecast to be 30% cheaper for the taxpayer than using the failed model of rolling stock leasing companies. ROSCOs are like the loan sharks of the railway, and it is right that they are rejected in Liverpool. The Minister might like to say a few words about why his Department persists in using them across the rest of the rail network.

There is not, however, a binary choice between having our new trains and keeping a fully staffed service. The two are not mutually exclusive. The new carriageless trains, with their more open structure, allow a guard to pass more easily through the length of a train. In fact, Merseytravel originally said it wanted both, because when the new train contract was first announced, Liam Robinson, the chair of Merseytravel, said:

“In an ideal world we’d like to have a second member of staff on every train, but there aren’t the resources to do that.”

I am grateful to Liam for his assistance in the lead-up to this debate.

Local politicians rightly speak up about the pitiful investment in public infrastructure in the north. Tory cuts in revenue support grants to local councils of the city region mean that the local transport levy has been cut by £32 million in real terms, which represents a third of the annual local transport budget being lost. Faced with those cuts, we must defend and maintain the standards we have, protect jobs and passenger safety, and expose unjustifiable profiteering from the travelling public. I will return to the role of local representatives, the transport authority and government later in my remarks, but first let me set out why I believe the first step to resolving the dispute is to agree the principle that keeping the guard on the train is essential, so that we can move to a more constructive debate that looks at solutions.

There are four railway stations in my constituency. The loss of 1,000 police officers and £100 million from Merseyside police’s budget since 2010 has had a devastating impact on our communities and the ability of the police to protect the public. Data released by the British Transport police shows that the number of violent attacks on mainline and underground trains has increased by 12.5% in the past year, with a spike in hate crime. Reported sexual offences on trains have more than doubled in the past five years. Figures obtained under a freedom of information request submitted by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers showed that in the past five years there were more than 1,200 on-train crimes on Merseyrail. The figures also show that almost 900 crimes, or 72%, took place before 8 pm, which was the time at which Merseyrail indicated that it would seek to keep a second, non-safety-critical person on the train. That begs the question that if Merseyrail acknowledges the need for a second person on the train after 8 pm, why not before? Just as the public are more vulnerable to crime when police numbers are cut, when frontline rail staff are removed passenger safety is jeopardised.

A report produced for Merseytravel by Passenger Focus in April 2014, titled “Future Merseyrail rolling stock—what passengers want”, was clear. It emerged that the most important factor identified by passengers was personal security on the train. The report showed that passenger satisfaction with personal security while on the train was high, at 86%, and said:

“this aspect is a strength upon which it is important to maintain focus and development.”

It went on to state that:

“the importance of this measure to passengers suggests that if satisfaction with personal security were to decrease in future, this would likely have a severe negative effect on overall satisfaction with the service as a whole.”

Subsequent polling by Opinium found that 84% of women passengers said that they would feel less safe without a guard, and the figure for people over 55 was 85%. Perhaps the best demonstration of how our guards are valued on Merseyside was the fact that a recent petition gained almost 25,000 signatures. It was started by Merseyrail passenger, Ellie Ward, who was assisted by a guard while in a vulnerable position. The guard took extra steps to make her and other female passengers feel secure.

Too much of the debate so far has focused on issues such as who will operate the doors and whether DOO can safely dispatch a train. I am afraid that these arguments are disingenuous and completely miss the point. Neither the Government nor the train company-financed rail regulators have made any assessment of the additional risk to passengers once the train has left the platform, with or without a guard on board. How can any decision on extending DOO claim to take passenger safety seriously before such an assessment has been made?

Train guards’ safety-critical duties include protecting the train, safely securing the doors, and dealing with emergencies such as derailments, evacuations, fires, driver incapacity and failures of train safety systems. On Merseyrail, following a collision between a train and road vehicle at the Crescent Road level crossing in Southport in August 2016, the guard placed isolating equipment on the track, isolated the electric rail and evacuated passengers to safety, while the driver remained in his cab, leading the communications with signallers. Without a guard on the train, such emergencies would be dealt with by controllers up to 20 miles away speaking to passengers via intercom. It cannot conceivably be argued that that is as safe or safer. There are many more such stories, but as I am pushed for time, I will move on.

Disabled passengers, people with visual or hearing impairments, and people who suffer from anxiety rely on the reassuring presence and practical assistance of staff on platforms and guards during their journey. Merseyrail’s current disabled people’s protection policy states that:

“our on-train staff are trained in the procedures to advise and help you”.

The vital role of the guards is also acknowledged in the Rail Delivery Group’s 2017 report “On Track for 2020? The Future of Accessible Rail Travel”. Moreover, it is worth fighting to keep good jobs for the future. Losing more than 200 secure skilled jobs from essential services is in no way progressive.

Despite several days of strike action, the public still overwhelmingly back the guards. Recent polling shows that 78% of regular passengers oppose the removal of guards from Merseyrail. The entire trade union movement and the north-west TUC support the guards, and the Labour party’s policy is clear: to oppose any extension of DOO. The Welsh Government have now guaranteed a guard on every train for future franchises, and Scotland has made similar long-term arrangements. The shadow Secretary of State wrote to train operators last week to tell them that a Labour Government would halt any plans to extend DOO. Merseytravel’s former chairman, Mark Dowd, remains fully opposed to removing the guards, saying that “common sense should prevail”.

It has never been clearer that we need a new structure for our railways. Labour would take back control by bringing our rail network into public ownership. By reinvesting the revenues that are currently disappearing into shareholders’ pockets, a Labour Government would ensure that we have affordable fares, state-of-the-art trains, safe staffing levels and an end to DOO. We would embrace technology while preserving good, skilled jobs.

This Government, on the other hand, do not have a plan for our rail network. They are writing job cuts into rail contracts, and they stand by as private rail companies mismanage services while making eye-watering profits. Almost a quarter of Merseyrail’s income from passengers is swallowed up in profit. Merseyrail’s owners, Serco and Dutch state-owned Abellio, can expect to pay out average dividends of £6.7 million each. It cannot be fair that profits can be extracted from the travelling public to fund Dutch public railways while our own rail network pays the price by losing guards. Is it too much to ask that they take a smaller slice of the profit so that passengers—who fund their profits, let us remember—might continue to have a safe and secure service?

Is my hon. Friend aware that the state-owned operator puts guards on its trains in Holland, but proposes to run a service without them on its Mersey franchise?

I find that incredible. It is not good enough for the people of Merseyside to go without guards when companies that profit from the revenue from those people’s tickets provide guards in other countries.

Instead of pushing DOO, the Government could make passenger safety and the provision of safety-critical guards non-negotiable, before profits, at the top of contracts for all rail franchises. Better still would be to scrap the legislation under which only the private sector can run passenger train services. If the Minister wants to argue that this is a devolved issue and he cannot interfere, he must explain why Merseytravel is prohibited from running its trains in the public sector.

I will not, because I am pushed for time.

For the reasons that I have outlined, I believe that the basis of any resolution must be agreement on the principle of keeping the guard on the train. Last week Merseyrail appointed a new managing director, and that might provide an opportunity for fresh thinking. Similar issues have been resolved elsewhere. The RMT has agreed new deals with a number of companies, including TransPennine Express, Great Western and East Coast, and also ScotRail, which, like Merseyrail, is owned by Abellio. If Abellio in Scotland can agree to keep the guard on the train, why cannot Abellio do so on Merseyside?

I commend the RMT’s work in defence of its members and passenger safety. I want this dispute to be resolved as quickly as possible, and the basis of that must be agreement in principle to keep the guard on the train. I hope that Labour’s representatives in the Liverpool city region will appreciate the points that have been made this evening but, in the face of the Government’s cuts to funding for our transport authority, private profiteering that is out of control and the failed Tory ideology that runs right through our rail network, it is inevitable that we shall end up being given false choices between embracing new technology, and protecting secure jobs and public safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) on securing the debate, and also on delivering his thoughts in such a cogent and well-balanced way. I am pleased to see that so many Members from both sides of the Mersey and, indeed, slightly beyond it are present this evening: I think that that demonstrates the importance that so many in the Mersey area attach to the issue. I suspect that I am not the hon. Gentleman’s whole intended audience, and I am sure that many more will pay attention to it in the area of the city region.

As I am sure all Members know, Adjournment debates give Members worthwhile opportunities to raise important constituency matters, and the hon. Gentleman has certainly done that this evening, but he will probably not be surprised to hear me say that their value can be weakened when the issue under discussion falls not just without the jurisdiction of the responding Minister, but without that of—in this instance—my Department.

Since 2003, matters concerning Merseyrail have been entirely devolved, and have been the responsibility of the transport authority, Merseytravel, and the train operator itself. Although that prevents me from commenting directly on many of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, I will do my best to give him a worthwhile response that deals with the broader issues that he has raised. Sadly, tempted though I am to try to engage with his wider points about Labour party policy, time probably does permit me to explain fully why I think that the idea of a state monopoly should fill every single passenger with nothing but dread.

Given the lack of available time, it is only fair that if there are interventions, I should devote my responses to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton. He can choose the moment at which to launch his salvo in my direction, but I suspect that divergence will increase as my speech proceeds.

Merseyside in particular has experienced the value of the public-private partnership that has driven the renaissance in passenger rail services since 1996, but before I say more about Merseyrail in particular, I want to take a minute to look at the bigger picture.

Just a few weeks ago, we published our rail spending commitments for the period up to 2024: £34.7 billion of public investment in our railway plus £13.2 billion from private sources including network charges and fares. This carries into another decade the greatest investment in our railways since the time of Queen Victoria. It will deliver improvements in punctuality and reliability for passengers, as well as supporting thousands of jobs in the supply chain and the wider economy. Why are we making this money available? It is for quite a simple reason—because the privatisation of our railways has succeeded. I will never apologise for repeating the statistics. Passenger journeys have more than doubled since 1995. We now have the most improved railway in Europe, and the safest major railway.

As Merseyrail is a devolved concession, key strategic decisions are made at a local level by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. Merseyrail holds a 25-year concession, which commenced in July 2003, with the efficient operator reviews undertaken every five years. Merseytravel lets the concession for the Merseyrail network, setting the specification for service provision and the terms and conditions of contract under powers devolved from the Department for Transport back in 2003. The Merseyrail concession is different from most train franchise contracts, which are awarded by the Department for Transport. The only other franchise that is even remotely similar is that of the London Overground network. This local concession agreement has allowed both Merseytravel and Merseyrail to work closely together to respond to local demands and needs. Ultimately, the greatest beneficiaries are the passengers.

The length of the concession—25 years—distinguishes Merseyrail from many other train operating companies, whose contracts average between seven and 10 years. For this reason, Merseyrail and Merseytravel are in the enviable position of being able to take a long-term perspective on the investment and development of their rail services. This arrangement means that control of the concession rests wholly within the city region, ensuring strategic direction and leadership with a strong local focus and ensuring that developments fit with the city region’s prioritised requirements embedded within the wider long-term rail strategy that it has developed itself. The nature of the concession sees Merseytravel working in close collaboration with Merseyrail, directly addressing local demands for the ultimate benefit of passengers.

When the previous franchise ended back in 2003, local politicians quite clearly wanted to respond to the needs of the rail users much better, and to implement changes that would improve the network for the benefit of customers and support the growth of the city region economy. They wanted a longer-term partnership approach with the operator to enable ongoing investment programmes to continue with risk being shared. This led to a highly demanding specification based on customer requirements and the needs of the local economy. Following a robust procurement process, 2003 saw the transfer of responsibility for the Merseyrail Electrics heavy rail franchise from the then Strategic Rail Authority to Merseytravel.

In my speech, I congratulated Merseytravel on the ability to secure provision of these trains in the public sector, which means that they will be 30% cheaper than if they were bought through private means and private loans. But the one thing we cannot do is have a publicly run rail network across Merseyside because of the legislation of the UK Government. It is okay for Dutch public railways and public railways from other countries to come and run our railways; does the Minister not think that his Government might like to run a railway system sometime?

I heard the hon. Gentleman’s point earlier. My response is that that is not Government policy and nor do I ever see it being Government policy while my party remains in power. The opportunity to have a public monopoly on our railways may be in the interest of the Labour party, but it is not in the interests of passengers.

The agreement with Merseytravel is worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Indeed, the grant for 2017-18 alone is close to £82 million. This framework gives the transport authority the confidence necessary to plan major long-term investments. That is why the quality of train services, stations and the whole experience of travelling on the Merseyrail network have been transformed since 2003. Indeed, Merseyrail has to be seen as an exemplar for the value of devolution and for local decision making where that is appropriate and practical.

On the day of devolution, Merseytravel rightly stated that its ambition was to shed the label “Miseryrail” by putting passengers first. Within a year, the first results of this transformation were apparent. Passenger satisfaction was up, particularly in relation to punctuality and the way in which passenger requests were handled. By autumn 2004, Merseyrail was top of the national customer satisfaction league for the first time in its history, and since 2008, satisfaction has never dropped below 90%.

A major contributor to this success story has been the collaborative partnership between the operator and Merseytravel within a concession agreement that also sets out a demanding service specification. The flexibility of local control has allowed both parties to develop a stream of initiatives to increase capacity, to tailor fares and services to local markets, to enhance trains and stations—such as Liverpool South Parkway, which I know well—and to improve punctuality.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) about the £32 million cut in central Government funding for Merseytravel, which is forcing it to make decisions that it would not want to make if it had the funds available.

As I have said, we have committed £82 million in this calendar year, which will give Merseytravel the confidence to make investments in rolling stock. It can choose how to invest that money. I think that Labour Members would be deeply disappointed, or indeed apoplectic, if I were to start questioning the decisions of the elected city Mayor of Liverpool or of the city region Mayor. The point of devolution is that local people have to take these decisions, through their representatives, and that is what they are doing.

The investment that we have made facilitated the operation of longer trains in 2008 and the doubling of Liverpool to Chester services in 2010. In 2014, Merseyrail also invested £3 million to make a second fleet refurbishment possible. Those are all examples of investment occurring in Merseyrail. Indeed, Merseytravel and Merseyrail have regularly jointly funded extra late-night trains during special events and trains on Boxing day, and this approach has been a great success. Passenger demand has consistently exceed targets. It has grown over 30%, from 27 million passengers a year to well over 35 million now, and it is approaching the point where the current train fleet, one of the oldest in the UK, will need the £460 million investment in new trains that will be rolled out for passengers by 2020.

In closing, I hope that I have been able to demonstrate how the public-private partnership between Merseytravel and Merseyrail has helped to transform rail services in Liverpool over the past 14 years, and that there is no reason to suspect that local politicians in Liverpool are unable to take decisions in the interests of their city region.

The Minister is not addressing the issue of having a second safety-critical person on the train. This applies not only to Merseyrail but to franchises around the country. He should have a clear position on the presence of a second safety-critical person on the train.

The topic of our discussion tonight is the presence of guards on Merseyrail trains. As Labour Members will know, they have a multiplicity of local Labour politicians to discuss this matter with, including the chair of Merseytravel, the elected city Mayor in Liverpool and the elected city region Mayor, all of whom have stood behind this decision. If we truly believe in devolving transport powers, we have to respect the decisions that are taken.

Let me restate my congratulations to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton on securing the debate. I am sure that he has had a ready audience across Merseyside for his comments—as I have said, I am sure that I was not the intended audience for those comments—and I am sure that the discussion will continue among his colleagues around Merseyside. We will monitor with interest what occurs.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.