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Govia Thameslink/Rail Electrification

Volume 644: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport to update the House on Govia Thameslink Railway and his plans for rail electrification.

The shadow Transport Secretary has asked about the current situation on Govia Thameslink Railway and electrification, and I will answer each in turn.

Performance by GTR has been unacceptable since the timetable change on 20 May. GTR is working to increase the predictability and reliability of journeys on its network, including reducing the number of on-the-day cancellations. On 15 July, it will implement an interim timetable, which will allow GTR to slowly build up services to the originally planned May timetable.

We have said that passengers affected by severe disruption on GTR will receive special compensation; an announcement will follow shortly. We have also commissioned the independent Glaister review to make sure that we learn lessons and that this does not happen again. We have started a formal review of the franchise to establish whether GTR has met its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable. We will not hesitate to take tough action against it if it is found to have been negligent.

On electrification, the Government are clear that passengers expect high-quality rail services. We are committed to electrification where it delivers passenger benefits and value for money. We will also take advantage of state-of-the-art new technology to improve rail journeys.

Over recent days, there has been speculation over the trans-Pennine route upgrade. I can clarify for colleagues that the upgrade will account for one third of our anticipated expenditure for rail enhancements nationwide in the next spending period. It will be the biggest single investment we will make during this period, demonstrating our commitment to improving passenger journeys in the north.

The Department is currently awaiting Network Rail’s final project plan. We have instructed it to prioritise the elements that bring the quickest passenger benefits. We will update the House in due course.

Reports over the weekend said that a decision had been taken to cancel the electrification of the trans-Pennine route between Manchester and Leeds. If true, much needed investment will be slashed, despite the north lagging far behind the south-east in terms of transport spending. It will kill any notion of a northern powerhouse. The Government should be matching Labour’s commitment of £10 billion-plus to build a Crossrail for the north, not threatening already promised investment. As the National Audit Office report revealed, the technology that the Minister says makes electrification unnecessary does not exist. As the Transport Committee last week showed, rail electrification is necessary to deliver the improvements the Minister has promised. Will he take this opportunity to confirm that the electrification will go ahead as promised?

We also hear that GTR is being stripped of its franchise unless performance on its services in the south-east of England rapidly improves, and that the process could start within a matter of weeks. If that is so, when will the decision be made?

The Secretary of State says that he does not run the railway. I can tell him that we have noticed. But if not him, who does?

It is reported that the compensation package for passengers impacted by timetabling disruption will be the equivalent of one month’s travel. Can the Minister explain who will pay for this?

We on the Labour Benches would welcome this incompetent train operator being stripped of its franchise, with services returning to public ownership. We have been calling for this for years, as GTR has repeatedly breached its obligations. Passengers have suffered needlessly because of the Secretary of State’s refusal to do so. Will he now do the right thing and terminate this franchise?

On the points made with respect to the railways in the north of England, I remind the House that the Government will have spent £13 billion by 2020 on transport in the north of England, the biggest programme of investment in decades. Specifically with regard to the trans-Pennine route, we will be spending £2.9 billion in the next control period, control period 6, between 2019 and 2024. We are looking carefully at the options Network Rail has presented to the Department and we will make a statement later in the year, ensuring that we deliver the highest possible value for taxpayers and significant benefits for passengers in the north of England.

On GTR, as I said, we have put in place a hard review of its performance in the run-up to the implementation of the May 2020 timetable. No options are off the table, should it be found to have been negligent in any respect.

The shadow Secretary of State asked about compensation. As he knows, we have already announced compensation for passengers affected by the timetabling debacle in the north of England on Northern. We will be coming forward with a similar rail industry-funded scheme for Thameslink and Great Northern passengers.

There was absolute chaos again on GTR-Great Northern yesterday for my constituents. The situation is not getting better. How long does this have to go on before they lose their franchises?

My right hon. Friend is understandably exceptionally frustrated and angry on behalf of her constituents. I completely understand that. GTR is putting in place a new interim timetable on 15 July. It is vital that this timetable makes real progress in stabilising services on Thameslink and Great Northern, on which her constituents and those of other Members’ depend.

We are constantly told by the Secretary of State that we should not believe everything we read in the newspapers, but it seems to be the only way we can actually get some information we trust. The Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and says there will be a full statement on the electrification project later on in the year. That does not engender confidence.

On the performance of GTR, for once I agree with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who said it was an absolute disaster. For once, I agree with the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), who said that this is a crisis. Does the Minister agree with his colleagues?

According to a Library briefing, in 2016-17, Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern received a subsidy of nearly £100 million. Does that really reflect value for money or does it not reflect the reality of franchising economics? When will the Government admit that the franchising system is broken and do something constructive about it? The Minister says that the travel compensation scheme will be funded by industry. What measures will be put in place to make sure that the industry does not claw that money back from the Government in one way or another?

The Secretary of State has blamed the unions and Network Rail, even though he is the one responsible for Network Rail. He blames anybody but himself. Charles Horton resigned as chair of Govia Thameslink. Does the Minister agree that it is time that the Secretary of State looks in the mirror, admits his culpability and does the right thing and resigns as well?

With respect to the speculation in the newspapers over the weekend, I clarify for the House that we are reviewing the options that have been presented to the Department by Network Rail on how we can make the most of the £2.9 billion that the Department and the Government have set aside for this important scheme. It represents one third of the entire enhancement budget across the entire railway network for the five-year period starting in 2019, and it is entirely right that the Government ensure that we get good value for money from it and deliver passenger benefits to the greatest extent that we possibly can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about GTR. A new chief executive is coming into post. I am due to speak to him later today. He has the vital task of ensuring that the new timetable that it is putting in place on 15 July stabilises services as rapidly as possible.

The Minister will know, because unfortunately for him I keep WhatsApping him every time my angry constituents tweet or email me, of the utterly unacceptable three-hour gaps that remain between trains at peak times in commuter villages. Four-carriage trains are turning up rather than 12-carriage trains; this is becoming an issue of safety, not just reliability. I understand that franchise removal could be the ultimate conclusion but, when he does his hard review, will he look at the commuter villages as well as the main hub stations in making that decision? Can he just give us a clue: what would the alternative be, are the risks worth it and will the service be better?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am in contact with her on a regular basis about the situation affecting her constituents using stations such as Royston and St Neots—

Stations near my hon. Friend’s constituency—Letchworth as well. Obviously, we see the pattern of services there as having been unacceptable in recent days and we have been pressing GTR to work tirelessly to ensure that it improves performance as rapidly as possible. As the Secretary of State has made clear, all options are on the table for the outcome of the review should it be found to have been negligent in any way in implementing this timetable.

Coming off the back of all the turmoil that we have seen on Northern and elsewhere recently, is not this equivocation on the electrification of the Manchester-to-Leeds line just another really serious blow for people in the north, who now feel overwhelmingly, time and again, that they are getting a second-class service from this Government? Will the Minister please offer some political leadership on this issue and say, “This line and its electrification is of such strategic importance that we will make it happen come what may”?

The Government are signalling their political commitment to the north of England by spending £13 billion on transport in the north in the years to 2020 and by allocating £2.9 billion to the trans-Pennine route upgrade alone. As I have already said, that represents a third of the entire rail enhancement budget for that five-year period. The trans-Pennine upgrade will be a phased project. It will be a rolling programme of enhancements, including major civil engineering projects and electrification.

Customers on Govia Thameslink Railway have only 28 days to submit a claim under delay repay, yet this disruption has gone on for the last 44 days. The amount of time required to submit those claims is extensive. Will the Minister ensure that everyone who has had a valid claim since 20 May receives compensation?

Yes, we are working very carefully with GTR and the rest of the industry to ensure that proper compensation is made available to everybody who has suffered on the most severely affected routes. We have already done so for passengers on Northern and other bits of the north of England. We will make an announcement about compensation for passengers on severely affected GTR routes, Thameslink and Great Northern shortly.

I attended an event last week at which many senior members of the railway industry were present. Clearly, it was well known that these problems would exist if the new timetable were introduced. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the industry advises him and his colleagues of any problems that may exist in the future?

The Secretary of State has set up an independent review chaired by Professor Stephen Glaister, who is the chair of the Office of Rail and Road. He is looking at all the lessons that need to be learnt from the May timetable changes to ensure that we do not repeat the same mistakes in December 2018 and with subsequent timetable changes of that scale.

My constituents are still experiencing delays, overcrowding and cancellations. In every meeting I have attended with TransPennine, Northern and the Secretary of State, I have been reassured that everything will be okay once we get electrification going. The Secretary of State is saying that we do not need to electrify all of every route, so will the Minister reassure the House now that, when electrification goes ahead, it will be the whole route and there will not be cherry-picking of what is most financially viable?

The Department wants to get the best value for passengers and taxpayers out of the £2.9 billion that has been set aside for the trans-Pennine route upgrade. All Members of the House should be able to understand that objective. The Department is currently awaiting Network Rail’s final project plan and we have instructed it to prioritise those elements that bring the quickest passenger benefits.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the misery of the constant delays and cancellations on the line from North East Hertfordshire into London, and we are told that 15 July is the great hope. Can he say whether any programme is being put forward or any measures taken for an operator of last resort, in case the promises are broken again?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right, and of course that is exactly what the Department is doing. We have a so-called hard review team in with GTR at the moment getting ready for exactly the eventuality that we need to put in the operator of last resort, should the review conclude that Network Rail has been negligent and does not have the managerial—[Interruption.] GTR, I beg your pardon, has been negligent and does not have the managerial strengths to deal with the challenges that that bit of the network faces.

The Minister is being far too measured in his response. He should stop pussyfooting about and put the boot in. He should sack Southern and GTR, boost compensation for passengers and hand over responsibility for rail services in London to Transport for London.

The Secretary of State has been clear that he is leaving all options on the table should GTR be found to have been negligent. He is clear that the operator of last resort will be ready to step in, should that turn out to be the case, but of course the Department wants to follow all the correct processes in this matter.

We are now into week seven of this Thameslink timetable shambles, and there is no sign of the service getting better. Never mind electrification—frankly, trains were more reliable 100 years ago in the age of steam. Will the Minister confirm that the compensation package that he is to announce will be generous and that specifically, it will be funded by GTR, because its shareholders, not the taxpayer, should bear the pain for this appalling performance?

I sympathise with my right hon. Friend’s concerns. His constituents, including those who use Hassocks station, which we have discussed on a number of occasions, have endured an unacceptable level of service, and he has been a strong champion for them. They will receive compensation and we will be setting out details of that compensation plan in coming days. It will be comparable, as the Secretary of State has indicated, with the compensation that was given to passengers on Southern about a year and a half ago.

With trains cancelled and delayed and journey times between Leeds and Manchester airport in my constituency up by 12 minutes, how does the Minister think the northern rail project is going, especially given the news at the weekend that he is reneging on the commitment to electrify the line between those two cities?

I have already addressed the issue of the trans-Pennine route upgrade. We await Network Rail’s final project plan for how to make the best use of the £2.9 billion the Government have set aside for it. It is a significant investment, and it is entirely right that the Government seek to secure the best value for money, both for passengers and for taxpayers.

I get no sense of urgency from the Minister about the devastating impact this is having on my constituents. The timetable changes will see a reduction in services for passengers in Plumpton, Lewes, Seaford, Berwick, Polegate and Wivelsfield, and since the disaster of the timetable roll-out, we are constantly seeing short-formed trains—which are severely overcrowded, station-skipping in rural areas, where there is no other form of public transport, leaving vulnerable passengers, young people and people with a disability stranded—and late-night cancellations. It took three hours to travel 50 miles home last night, and three out of the first seven trains were cancelled this morning. This is unacceptable. The franchise must go.

My hon. Friend speaks powerfully on behalf of her constituents, and has done consistently. We are looking at this as a matter of urgency. It is the Department’s top priority to ensure that the unacceptable level of service comes to an end and that passengers get the standard of rail they have every right to expect. The Secretary of State has been absolutely clear that all options are available to him should GTR be found to have been negligent with respect to its contractual obligations.

Seat bookings issued for carriages that do not actually exist; new 10-carriage trains where only five are available because passengers cannot walk from one end of the train to the other; trains cancelled because the companies do not have enough staff to run both parts of the train; endless cancellations; toilets that either do not work or where passengers get locked in, but where they do at least end up with a seat—this is complete and utter chaos. My constituents would dearly love to see the Government gripping this and making sure it gets sorted now, not in some distant future.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case on behalf of his constituents, and I understand his concerns on their behalf. We are improving the Great Western main line. There is a substantial investment programme, and, yes, there is considerable room for improvement, but it is good that more than 100 million rail journeys will improve next year as a result of the significant investment the Government are undertaking.

GTR’s performance has been abysmal not just for the past few weeks but for a number of years, with constituents unable to get home to see loved ones and some having even lost their jobs as a result of train lateness and cancellations. The timetable fiasco is simply the latest instalment in that record of failure. On Saturday morning, I tried to get from Coulsdon South to the centre of London and ended up having to drive because the trains were cancelled. This company is incompetent and the time has come for it to lose the franchise. I urge the Minister to act.

That is the exactly why the Secretary of State has put in place the hard review. If GTR is found to have been negligent, he will have the full gamut of options available to him, including the removal of the franchise.

I can catalogue similar misery endured by passengers from Cambridge, but the key question is: how did this happen? The conclusion I came to, listening to evidence to the Transport Committee, was that at the key time no one was in place to make the call. So let me ask: who is in charge of our railways?

We have a lot to learn as an industry from what went wrong, which is why the Secretary of State has set up the Glaister review, an independent review chaired by the Office of Rail and Road. It is important that we learn all the lessons from what happened in the run-up to May to ensure that mistakes are not made again in December and May 2019.

The Government’s strategy is to combine track and train. How does the Minister think this will improve the lot of passengers?

My hon. Friend refers to the Secretary of State’s strategic vision for rail, published last November, which seeks more integration between train operating companies and Network Rail to ensure less buck passing and less of the blame game in the future. A foretaste of how that will work can be seen in the new west coast partnership and the east coast partnership publications.

The Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway has calculated that the cost of electrifying the main line between Swansea and Cardiff at today’s prices is only £150 million, which is considerably cheaper than the Department’s estimation. Electrification has been rolled out across Europe, and indeed in Scotland, at a cost of about £1 million per mile, while High Speed 2 will cost more than £400 million. Will the Minister look again at the CEBR figures and finish the job of electrifying the main line all the way to the west of my country?

Our focus in the Department is on securing the greatest passenger benefits in a tax-efficient and value-for-money way. It was found that electrifying the route between Cardiff and Swansea would provide poor value for money and little by way of incremental time savings to passengers. It would not bring the significant journey time savings we would expect for such an expenditure and would result in significant disruption for passengers on the line.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment on compensation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), which will benefit our constituents. May I draw his attention to the problem of short-formed trains? Too often, fewer trains are coming into crowded platforms and they are short-formed, which forces passengers to pack themselves into trains that are far too small and in sweltering conditions. If GTR gets nothing else right, can it please sort that out in the coming weeks?

Indeed, that is one element we will look at as we assess whether GTR has managed to stabilise services following the introduction of the new interim timetable on 15 July.

People in Enfield who aspire to get on a train are running up and down the platform in the mornings, but the trains are full by the time they reach us, because of the delays and cancellations. Yesterday, almost half of all trains were either delayed or cancelled, and on 15 July we get our third timetable in two months. This cannot be acceptable. The Minister is a sight too relaxed for my liking about this matter. Does he realise that people in Enfield and further afield have completely lost faith in the Government’s ability to manage the railways? And the Government do manage the railways!

We are working urgently on improving GTR’s performance. It has a new chief executive coming in as we speak whose task is clear with respect to the instructions he has received from the Department, which are to get performance back to where it should be as rapidly as possible.

Bedford rail users are facing misery, delays and cancellations almost every hour. It is complete chaos. It is clear that GTR has breached the terms of the franchise and that it should be taken back into public ownership. When will the Minister stop making excuses, get a reliable timetable in place and commit to reinstating east midlands peak services for Bedford?

As I have said, GTR is introducing a new timetable on 15 July, and it will be held to account for the success of that new timetable. We want services to Bedford to improve as part of that.

Following the answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), can the Minister confirm that it is no longer the Government’s commitment to fully electrify the route between Manchester and Leeds, and will he tell us where the Secretary of State is today—has he missed his train?

As I said, we await Network Rail’s final options plan for how to make the best use of the £2.9 billion allocated to the trans-Pennine route upgrade. As all Members will understand, that is an important part of how government makes use of taxpayer resources. We want it to deliver the best value for money. That will include major civil engineering projects and electrification.

Govia is also responsible for Southeastern. As the Minister will know from just a glance at Twitter this morning, our constituents were telling us yet again that they were suffering delays. Why do the Government consistently put the shareholders of Govia above the interests of our constituents? It is time for both franchises to be taken away from Govia.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern for passengers in his constituency. We want them to receive the services that they have every right to expect. As I have said, we are looking at GTR’s performance with that franchise, and we will not hesitate to take the appropriate actions should they be necessary.

The Government gave my constituents a solemn pledge to electrify the midland main line, only to renege on their promises. The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) about the trans-Pennine route seemed to indicate that they will not proceed with the electrification of that route either. Does the Minister not realise that reneging on solemn pledges of this kind brings the political process into disrepute? Will he now say from the Dispatch Box that he will reverse those cuts in much-needed upgrades?

Announcements relating to the hon. Gentleman’s questions were made in July 2017. Passengers on the midland main line will benefit from a brand-new fleet of trains from 2022, but we have made clear since July last year that we do not need to electrify the whole route—every last mile of it—to deliver improved long-distance journeys, including more seats and faster journeys in peak hours. That will mean less disruption for passengers. We will, however, electrify the route from Bedford to the Market Harborough area and Corby, and, later, the route from Clay Cross to Sheffield to support HS2. We are also delivering upgrades along the route to improve journey times.

Will the Glaister review panel be able to look into the functioning and involvement of the Minister’s Department in the setting of the new timetable, the timetabling itself, the amount of influence that the Department had in signing off the timetable and the amount of time that it took to sign it off? Will the panel be able to look into his Department as well as the franchises?

The answer is yes, and the terms of reference of the Glaister review, which are public, allow for that.

As we have been talking about the north, I want to ask a question about it. I believe that the Rail Minister is also the Minister for London; it is a shame that the Secretary of State, who has the whole country on his watch, is not here today. If it is true that the Department has not yet signed off the trans-Pennine money, why can we not transfer the power to decide what is best for the north from the Department to Transport for the North, which is what the One North campaign has been asking for?

Transport for the North exists as a statutory body and has the ability to ensure that all transport investment decisions are informed by its transport strategy. We await with interest and excitement the publication of that strategy later in the year, so that northern transport authorities can prioritise appropriately what they see as the needs of passengers in the north.

The electrification work in the Severn tunnel have been a big failure. Rusting kit has led to the closure of the tunnel for three weeks and caused disruption to passengers, and it is very poor value for money. What is the financial cost of this electrification fault?

Cost overruns on that project have been a feature over the course of its life. We are looking carefully into the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and we will follow that up with him directly.

Does the Minister understand the depth of anger and dismay in the north at the shadow that has now been cast over the full electrification of the trans-Pennine route? What assessment is he making of the impact on our economy and on future inward investment?

The Government are making a massive investment in transport in the north of England, but Labour Members seem to be intent on downplaying its scale. It is worth reminding the House that £13 billion is being invested in northern transport in the years to 2020, and £2.9 billion is being invested in the trans-Pennine route upgrade alone. It is entirely right for the Government to seek the maximum value for both passengers and taxpayers when it comes to how that money is spent.

It feels almost like groundhog day. Last night, again, it took me three hours to travel back to Brighton. What does the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the union that represents staff—and I refer to my registered interest in that regard—say? It says that 95% of staff now face aggression from passengers whom they are unable to give any information, because the management does not give them any information, and 82% say that they have no trust in the management of the franchise any more. When will the Minister agree with passengers—and, now, with staff—and get rid of GTR?

Obviously, no staff in GTR or any other train operating company should accept, or should expect to suffer, abuse of any sort from passengers in these circumstances. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a hard review of GTR’s performance is now under way, and all options will be on the table following that review.

Since the timetable changes, travelling on Southern from Eastbourne and Hampden Park has been horrific for my constituents. I was told this morning that a journey that should have taken an hour and a half had taken three and a half hours. The Minister has talked about substantial additional compensation for people travelling on Northern. May I urge him also to make a commitment to those long-standing passengers on Southern?

The Government are committed to compensating passengers on the routes that have been most severely disrupted since the timetable change. We have already arranged compensation for passengers on Northern and other parts of the network in the north of England, and we will shortly announce details of schemes for passengers on the most disrupted parts of the GTR network. Southern’s performance, while not perfect, has not been as severely disruptive as those of the other two operators.

I will, exceptionally, take the point of order now, because I believe that it appertains to earlier exchanges during Question Time. Let us hear from the hon. Gentleman.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

In my question to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I mentioned EU payments to farmers. I should like to set the record straight and declare an interest, in that I am a recipient of the EU single farm payment. My farming interest is recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.