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Govia Thameslink Franchise

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to update the House on the performance of the Govia Thameslink franchise.

The shadow Transport Secretary has requested an update on the Govia Thameslink franchise. The Secretary of State and I have been clear that the way in which the timetable was implemented by GTR and Network Rail from 20 May provided an unacceptable level of service for passengers. The industry as a whole has apologised to passengers for the disruption suffered on Thameslink and Great Northern services.

I can inform the House that, on Sunday 15 July, GTR implemented an interim timetable, a planned step that aims to improve the reliability and performance of services for passengers. The Department is, of course, watching performance carefully. Some of the benefits that passengers are now seeing include: more trains—around 150 to 200 extra services each day; on-the-day cancellations, which are extremely frustrating for passengers, have been significantly reduced; passengers no longer need to check journey planners before they travel; and the public performance measure has improved on Thameslink, closing yesterday at 84% and at 86% on Great Northern. However, as I said, the Department is closely monitoring for sustained performance improvements by GTR, and we will be holding it and its new chief executive officer to account. At the same time, the Department has been working hard to make sure that passengers receive compensation and an explanation for the disruption that they have suffered.

The worst affected Thameslink and Great Northern season ticket passengers will be able to claim compensation equivalent to one month of their season ticket from GTR for the disruption that they have suffered. Compensation will cover the period from 20 May to 28 July 2018. GTR will contact registered qualifying passengers by the end of August before a claims portal is opened for other passengers. That is identical to the system used for the Southern industrial action disruption compensation. This is in addition to the standard Delay Repay compensation to which GTR passengers are entitled after any 15-minute delay. Full details of eligible stations and more information can be found on the Thameslink and Great Northern websites.

The Department has commissioned two reviews of what went wrong with the implementation of the May timetable. First, the independent Glaister review is under way and seeks to understand the factors that led to the disruption. Our aim is to make sure that we learn lessons so that this does not happen again. Within the Department, we have also started a hard review of this franchise to establish whether GTR has met and continues to meet its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable. As part of that process, we are looking at whether GTR has breached its contracts and we will not hesitate to take tough action against it if it is found to have been at fault.

We are still in the first days of the interim timetable on GTR and all timetables require time to bed in. My Department is watching GTR’s progress carefully and we want to see a continued increase in performance for passengers.

It is disappointing that the Secretary of State has had to be summoned here to update the House on the ongoing calamity that is the GTR rail contract, and it just a shame that he has not turned up—yet again.

For four years, Govia’s appalling service and performance have wreaked havoc and misery in the lives of millions of people. What have the Government done to hold the company to account? Precisely nothing. What does this disgraceful company have to do to be stripped of its contact?

GTR’s new interim timetable introduced on Sunday—its third in two months—was supposed to provide more certainty for the public, yet the disruption, delays and disaster are worse than ever. We learned this morning from ITV News that GTR underestimated the scale of the disruption caused by the timetable change by a factor of 10. This failure is totally unacceptable. Labour says that enough is enough. The Government must stop pussyfooting around and strip Govia of its contract without delay. There is no need to wait for Stephen Glaister’s review of the timetabling chaos, to which the Minister refers, as it will not tell us what we do not know today. The Government and the rail industry have failed passengers both on GTR and across the north of England.

The Government’s threats to GTR mean nothing. Members of this House and the public are not reassured. Can the Minister tell the House whether GTR is in breach of its contractual obligations with the Department for Transport? If it is, will he remove the contract from the company?

The Government have already done a sweetheart deal with GTR over compensation. Can the Minister confirm who will pay for the compensation promised to passengers? Will it be the company or taxpayers?

Almost a year ago, the Government announced major rail investment cancellations on the last sitting day before recess thereby avoiding parliamentary scrutiny of the decisions. Perhaps the Minister could give the House some notice today of any cuts to transport investment that he plans to sneak out on the sly before or during this year’s summer recess?

The Secretary of State would have been here had he not been at the Farnborough air show, which is a long-standing commitment that has been in his diary for a considerable time. I understand that he was on an aeroplane at the time the request came in, and it was simply not practical for him to make arrangements to be back in the Chamber to answer this urgent question.

Let me turn to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. We will establish during the hard review whether GTR has been in breach of its contractual obligations. That process is under way. It is important that the Department follows due process in all these matters. He asked who will pay compensation. The compensation that I described—a month’s cash compensation for passengers on the most severely affected lines—will be predominantly funded by Govia Thameslink Railway. That is important, as it is the private sector operator of this train company and it will be providing the predominant amount of compensation.

Against the background of a truly deplorable few months for my constituents in East Grinstead, Haywards Heath and Wivelsfield, the new timetable is beginning to bed down and provide a far more reliable and sustainable service, which is quite the opposite of what has been portrayed by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and greatly welcomed by my constituents. Will the Minister please continue to impress on the operator that the short-formed trains are really unacceptable and that we need to get back to the full-length trains as soon as we possibly can?

I thank my right hon. Friend for recognising that there has been some progress and that that has started to benefit his constituents. Obviously, we want that to continue and that improvement to accelerate. We recognise that ensuring that there are fewer short formations, indeed no short formations, will be a very important part of that process.

Quite simply, the Secretary of State’s handling of the rail franchise and the rail operations makes Brexit seem like an organised process. It really is a disgrace. What needs to happen before a company is stripped of a franchise? It is certainly not poor performance. Owing the taxpayer £2 billion and the Government cannot wait to step in and take it off the private operator’s hands, but for poor performance, no; they just stand back and do nothing. What action has the Government actually been taking to sort out this mess with Govia Thameslink? As the shadow Secretary of State said, we are now on the third timetable. There have been 420-odd cancellations when it had anticipated 40, which shows what lack of a grip Govia has on this matter. Can the Minister confirm whether Govia is still in the running for the Southeastern franchise, and if so, why? How much compensation has been set aside by Network Rail, which is owned by taxpayers and is not a private company? I would like to ask when the Secretary of State will lead in these matters, but the true question is when will the Secretary of State resign because of these matters?

The Department’s top priority is to ensure that passenger services across GTR get back to the standard where they need to be. The hon. Gentleman asked about compensation; it is being predominantly funded by GTR, which will not receive payments that it would otherwise have received for delivering the timetable. Network Rail will make a contribution towards the cost of compensation, recognising that it too played a part in the disruption experienced by passengers. Our rail industry is in both public and private hands, so it is appropriate that both parts contribute to the important compensation that passengers will receive.

My hon. Friend will recall the assurance given to me by the Prime Minister that

“nothing is off the table”—[Official Report, 4 July 2018; Vol. 644, c. 313]

if the interim timetable fails. He is monitoring GTR’s performance carefully, but so far this week it has been less good on the Cambridge line than in some other parts. Will he continue to put pressure on GTR for a proper service for my constituents, who have suffered so badly over recent weeks? Will he also look into compensation for carnet holders as well as season-ticket holders?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for recognising that there has been improvement, even if it has not been consistent across all parts of the GTR network. We particularly want to see an even higher standard of service on Great Northern, which serves his constituency, than there has been. Performance overall has been improving: as I said, yesterday the PPMs on Thameslink were at 84% and at 86% on Great Northern. There have been some operational difficulties today due to a signalling failure, which is a Network Rail responsibility. As part of our work with GTR, we are ensuring that it pays particular attention to areas such as that of my right hon. and learned Friend where there has been poorer performance than that across the rest of the GTR franchise as a whole.

GTR’s third attempt since May to implement a more robust and reliable timetable has been met with understandable incredulity by those passengers who are still experiencing more cancelled services, more confusion and dangerously overcrowded stations and platforms. How long is the DFT prepared to prolong the ridiculous situation in which the only available option to stabilise things is to cancel more trains, causing more pain for passengers who are paying handsomely for GTR’s so-called service? If the Minister will not step in to take direct and effective action to put things right, is not the franchise in effect unfit for purpose? Does that not demonstrate the Department’s total inability to act in the best interests of passengers?

Things are improving, although they are not yet back at the level they need to be. More services are running today—150 to 200 each day—than before 15 July, as a result of the interim timetable that GTR has just implemented, and the number of on-the-day cancellations has been dramatically reduced, so the Chair of the Select Committee could give some credit to GTR for the kind of progress that we have seen since the introduction of the interim timetable on Sunday, while recognising that there is significant work still to be done.

I have to say to the Minister that on the lines in my area, which also run through Royston and St Neots stations in the constituencies of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) and my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), the new timetable did not go live, to all intents and purposes—most certainly not on Sunday, and we still had lots of cancellations on our lines on Monday.

I have two specific questions. First, like a lot of people I remain deeply dissatisfied that compensation is only for season-ticket holders, with other people having to use Delay Repay. What about my constituents who are having to drive to main commuter stations that they would not normally use and sometimes having to pay £9 or £10 a day to park there? They would normally be able to walk to their own village station. We need to do better on compensation, and there are a lot of us who will not let that drop. Secondly, how long is this hard review actually going to take? We are two months in and the service is still nowhere near acceptable.

There are a number of elements to that. I recognise that services in my hon. Friend’s constituency have not been running perfectly, by any means. Some technical operational difficulties that were Network Rail’s responsibility have been at fault. There was a signal fault between Cambridge and Royston, which was a Network Rail issue, and there was a double track-circuit failure at Foxton, which was also a Network Rail issue and which has played a particular part in the difficulties that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been experiencing today.

On her point about compensation, the package has been designed to compensate the worst-affected passengers who travel every day on season tickets bought in advance. As I said, it is similar to the compensation that was offered to Southern ticket holders following the industrial action last year. Passengers who travel less frequently can claim Delay Repay compensation for the disruption that they experience, and we encourage them to do so.

The hon. Lady’s question, although comprehensive, was notably shorter than the delays about which she complained.

I have said to the Minister in the House several times that Govia runs not only GTR but Southeastern. This morning, services were again delayed because of a broken-down train. That is not infrastructure; it is the rail operating company. Why do the Government turn a blind eye to Govia? It is not fit and proper and should have its franchises taken away.

The Department’s hard review, which is under way, is looking into GTR’s preparedness for the timetable change and will leave the Secretary of State with the full range of options, should GTR be found not to have the managerial strength or capability to be a train operating company. All options will be available to the Secretary of State at the review’s conclusion, which we hope will come by the end of this month.

First, when it comes to compensation, does my hon. Friend agree that the priority should be to improve the compensation on offer and accelerate it, so that people actually get the repayment that is being talked about? Secondly, will he tell the House how many route train drivers we are short of on the Thameslink service and when we expect to have a full complement?

GTR will be proactively contacting my right hon. Friend’s constituents when they are in the group of severely affected passengers who hold season tickets. GTR will actively get in touch with them to ensure that they get the compensation to which they are entitled. GTR has been making significant progress with driver training, which is part of the underlying problems with the disruption, and we are pleased with that progress. That plays a part in ensuring that services are getting back to where they need to be.

I listened to what the Minister said about reviewing the contract to see whether the terms had been adhered to; surely the contract is to run a rail service and surely GTR has not done that. What other business would possibly stay in business if it had to compensate its customers on a daily basis? What will it take for this contract to be withdrawn?

The important questions that the hon. Lady raises will be answered by the Glaister review and the departmental hard review. We need to establish what responsibility GTR had for the disruption that passengers have experienced, while recognising that other actors are involved that also have a share in what has happened, including Network Rail.

As the Opposition spokesman implied, Mr Speaker, you probably could have granted this urgent question on any day in the past four years, since the London Bridge investment work began and the timetable fell over after new year 2015. Will my hon. Friend the Minister warn the Opposition, who focus simply on the GTR franchise, that there is a complex set of overlapping responsibilities in this area that mean that a simple solution is almost certainly the wrong one? Will he and his team address the complexity of the structure that started with the privatisation of this service back in 1993? Will he do what is within his power and address the grotesque unfairnesses in some of the fare structures and significantly improve the compensation deal, so that people who access the Thameslink service get compensation as well as those who are lucky enough to go on to a Thameslink train straight away?

My hon. Friend raised the issue of the fare structure. He has been a tireless campaigner on this question on behalf of his constituents in Reigate and Redhill, and we take his concerns extremely seriously. He also made the important point that we should not leap to simplistic solutions, as the Labour party has done by thinking that there is a quick-fix answer to this in nationalisation. We have to remember that there are many actors in what has gone wrong, including Network Rail, which is, of course, in the public sector.

Many commuters and campaign organisations, such as the St Albans commuter action group, will be watching this debate. They will want to know what role the Secretary of State had in choosing 15 July as the date for implementing the interim timetable. They will also want to know why, in response to a letter from the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones)—I thank her for writing that letter on behalf of MPs—the Secretary of State hid the fact that the DFT is on the industry readiness board, which has been responsible for the last two years for overseeing the introduction of the timetable. Is it not time for a performance monitoring system for Ministers, so that they can be sacked when they do not perform?

The chair of the Office of Rail and Road, Professor Stephen Glaister, is looking into what went wrong with the introduction of the timetable so that we can learn lessons from it for December and subsequent changes. The terms of reference of the review allow him to examine DFT’s role in all decisions leading up to the introduction of the May timetable. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Secretary of State’s role in choosing 15 July for the introduction of the interim timetable. That was a decision of the operator, as I have already explained to the right hon. Gentleman in answer to a written question.

As a direct consequence of the third emergency timetable, which came in on Sunday, schools in East Worthing have had to bring forward the closing of their day by an hour because there are no longer any trains for their pupils. The punctuality rate will indeed improve, because with 100% of those trains no longer running, they are 100% punctual. What exactly will it take from the Glaister review—in addition to what thousands of our constituents tell us every single day about this shambles—to get this franchise removed once and for all, and as soon as possible? What will it take to get a proper compensation scheme that properly reflects the daily agony that our constituents are going through?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful case on behalf of his constituents, who have suffered unacceptably as a result of the disruption that they have experienced. It is right that the industry and the Government have apologised for everything that constituents have experienced. We are working hard to ensure that the disruption comes to an end as soon as possible, and we are ensuring that there is compensation and a proper explanation so that lessons can be learned for the future.

In May, GTR issued guidance to its staff instructing them to ignore the needs of disabled passengers if not doing so would cause a delay to trains. We know that that was discrimination against disabled passengers. Does the Minister agree that no rail operator should be discriminating against disabled passengers? In future, will all rail franchises ensure that all disabled passengers are treated equally?

It is entirely right that the train operating company in question apologised for that incident. No disabled passenger should be treated in such a way. We must have a fully accessible transport system. The Department will shortly launch an inclusive transport strategy, which will ensure that that is the case.

I welcome the hard review into GTR, which still has a tin ear when it comes to constituents who complain about their travel on the Sutton to Wimbledon loop. I also welcome the Glaister review, which is looking at the relationship between Network Rail, GTR and the train operating companies. What more can the Minister do to bring track and train back together in smooth operation?

I refer my hon. Friend to the strategic vision for rail that the Secretary of State published in November last year. It builds on work to bring track and train closer together, so that we get the best out of the public and private sectors in a sense of partnership. That will address many of the dysfunctionalities in our present system, in which there is too much of a blame game between train operating companies and Network Rail. There is too much buck-passing, and we want to bring that to an end.

“Not functioning properly” is a woeful understatement of the continuing misery that passengers from Cambridge are enduring. It started with the cancellation of peak-time services on Monday morning, when people who wanted to go to Kings Cross were told that they would be better off going to Liverpool Street. The previous evening I read in the Cambridge News that people who went to see Paul Simon found themselves left in London and had to pay £150 for a cab home. GTR will forever be remembered as the great train robbery. Has the Minister got a target for GTR to meet by next week? If it does not meet the target, will he finally strip it of the franchise?

The hard review, which we have discussed this afternoon, is under way. It got going on 21 June, and it is looking carefully at the performance of the new timetable. This is early days—we are on day four of the new timetable—and it is important that we give it a bit of time to bed in before we leap to conclusions. We want to make sure that we get the processes right. Performance yesterday was significantly better than it had been prior to the introduction of the interim timetable, with public performance measures in the 80s. The PPM for Great Northern, which I believe is relevant to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, was 86%. Some issues this morning with Network Rail performance have affected services out of Cambridge, but they are not GTR’s responsibility.

My constituency is a Southern-only constituency, and I have seven stations. Although they are not high-volume stations like nearby Haywards Heath or Brighton, they provide people’s only public transport for getting to work and school, and visiting our coastal tourist regions. Although the PPM figures are improving, Southern passengers are still experiencing short formation, complete removal of trains from the timetable and station skipping. Why are they not getting the same compensation as Thameslink passengers?

We have focused compensation, as we did with the Southern compensation that resulted from the industrial action 18 months or so ago, on passengers who have been most severely affected. Although Southern passengers have experienced certain knock-on effects, they have not been as affected by disruption as those on the main Thameslink services and Great Northern services following the introduction of the timetable on 20 May.

My constituents stand in strong solidarity with, and have great sympathy for, the passengers of Govia Thameslink. Will the Minister make a statement on Arriva Northern Rail’s now tedious and predictable ongoing failure to serve Cumbria, in particular? Having cancelled every single train in June, four days ago Arriva Northern cancelled 33 trains on the Furness, lakes and coastal lines on one day. Given that the chaos predates the new timetable, the company cannot blame it. Will the Minister help us out by explaining precisely how dreadful Arriva Northern needs to be before he will get his act together, remove its franchise and give us back our trains? [Interruption.]

Order. Somebody says, “Irrelevant.” Well, I exercised latitude. I think that there may be a diversionary route. The link between Cumbria and Thameslink—if it exists—is tangential, but the hon. Gentleman has deployed such intellectual dexterity as he possesses, which I am sure is very considerable, to render his question orderly, in a manner of speaking.

One link that joins these issues is the Glaister review, which is now under way. It will examine what went wrong in the run-up to the introduction of the timetable, and how it affected the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in Cumbria.

Some 2,400 trains have been cancelled at Hassocks, in my constituency, since the introduction of the new timetable. The interim timetable this week seems to have resulted in fewer cancellations, so it is an improvement, but trains are still being delayed. What it has not done is to restore the direct service from Hassocks to Clapham Junction, and Hassocks is unique among commuting stations in no longer having such a service. Will my hon. Friend undertake to look at the matter again and ask GTR to review that omission, with a view to putting it right in future timetable changes?

I thank my right hon. Friend for recognising that there has been some improvement since the introduction of the interim timetable on Sunday. He has been a strong champion of his constituents and their rail services in Hassocks. He and I have discussed how we can restore the direct services that he has mentioned on several occasions, and we have had debates on them in the House. I assure him that I will continue to raise the matter with GTR.

The Minister is saying that there is no quick fix, but I suggest to him that there is a quick fix for Bedford rail users—reinstating the East Midlands Trains service for rail users. They are struggling with Govia Thameslink, which has breached its contract with the DFT twice since 2015 and has surely done so again. The major cause of the failure was insufficient and under-qualified drivers, and it is the same cause this time. Will the Government publish the remedial plan from the second breach so that we can determine the extent of Thameslink’s unprecedented and repeated failings?

The hon. Gentleman has been a strong voice for his constituents. We have met on a number of occasions to discuss EMT’s services and the withdrawal of services to Bedford in the peak. As he knows, we are working hard with EMT to see what can be done. There is no easy solution, given the constraints, and I would caution him against thinking that there is a quick fix. If there were, the amount of effort that the Department and the train operators have been putting into finding a solution would have produced one by now.

Despite the interim timetable from Govia Thameslink, my constituents continue to get a woeful service, as they have done for years, on the Great Northern route in and out of Moorgate. Does the Minister agree that it is about time that Govia was stripped of this franchise and the line given to the Mayor of London to run?

The Secretary of State has indicated that he is open to looking at the shape of the franchise in future. Discussions have been held with the Mayor of London about perhaps including some elements of the current franchise within the orbit of Transport for London’s Overground service. We are totally open-minded to solutions that work in the passenger interest.

Following on from the final question asked by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, and in the light of speculation in the Railway Gazette, will the Minister give an undertaking that he will be coming before the House in the next few days, leading up to when we finish on 24 July, to announce that the electrification of the TransPennine route has been cancelled?

I am here at the pleasure of Mr Speaker, and I cannot predict when I will be called. The TransPennine upgrade is a massive programme of investment. It is the flagship enhancement programme of the next control period for our railways. We will spend £2.9 billion on the TransPennine route in the course of the years 2019 to 2024. It is a phased programme that will include major civil engineering work, and it will also include electrification.