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Govia: Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City Railway

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 18 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the performance of Govia on the Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City railway line.

It is a pleasure to start this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss an issue that, although I suspect it will not fill this second Chamber, is none the less of enormous concern to my constituents and thousands, perhaps even millions, of people along the line from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City. I should say that, although the title of the debate is the train service from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City, there is also an impact from other services that run along the same line, specifically and in particular the King’s Cross service toward Cambridge and through my constituency.

Unfortunately, although the problems are in no small part to do with changes that were made, rather infamously, to the timetabling in May this year, that is not the whole story. I see that I first raised my concerns about the quality of this service all the way back in December 2016, when I called for a much improved service from Govia. It is most certainly the case, however, that since the May timetable change services have gone from pretty bad to disastrously awful. I will take a few moments to highlight some of the things that have gone wrong.

It cannot be right, in a timetable change intended to add 6,000 additional carriages to the train network and the services enjoyed by everybody, that in my constituency the service provided went backwards, in terms of not just the number of trains, but the speed of those trains. In a café that I am sure is frequented by many of my constituents, I came across a poster from the 1930s about coming to live in Welwyn Garden City—the second and, I should say, the best garden city in the country—boasting that people can get from Welwyn Garden City to King’s Cross in just 23 minutes. Here we are in 2018, about to go into 2019, and we can no longer make the journey at that kind of speed. It now takes seven minutes longer to get into London from that station, Welwyn Garden City. The speed of service is certainly a problem, but the problem is not just the speed of service.

We also now have fewer trains, particularly off peak, such that some stations—for example Welham Green and Brookmans Park, stations that I use regularly—have gone from having three trains an hour off peak to only two. The service has become less frequent. In other places in my constituency, particularly Welwyn North and particularly at the weekend, that drops back to one train an hour—a completely unacceptable level of service.

The problem is not only slower trains and those missing trains, but a poorer service all round, particularly from the larger stations, Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City, which are suffering. I have been inundated—and I mean inundated—with correspondence from my constituents, who are upset and concerned. At the height of the timetabling problems in the summer, some even had to give up their jobs as a result of this appalling level of service. While I accept that the Minister— who by the way I consider entirely blameless in all this, since he has only been in the job for a few weeks—will get to his feet and reassure me that things are improving, I must say that my patience has already given way and I have been looking for a suitable alternative.

Fortunately, there is an example of an alternative that could be put in place to resolve many of the problems. I have been in continuous discussion with Transport for London, which is keen to take over the service. I know that TfL has been in contact with the Minister’s predecessor, if not the Minister as yet, and certainly with the Secretary of State for discussion, and has written a detailed note in which it points out that if it were to run the service from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City as a London Overground service, it could offer us better integration into the railway network, faster trains, more trains, cleaner platforms and a service integrated across the entire information system—in other words, when we are looking at information for the reliability of services, we are looking at the entire TfL system in one go.

I think that would make a significant impact on the quality and level of services to my constituency. It is of course the case that to get to my constituency, those services must run through several other stations along the line that are outside my patch, so I have been in active conversation with and writing to Members of Parliament across parties and right down the track from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City, to seek their opinions. It is probably true to say that the concerns that have been raised in the past have been about where the Transport for London services would run outside London boroughs. That actually occurs in only two constituencies—that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) and mine. The concern is effectively that TfL would be in charge of services over which our constituents would have no democratic control.

Would it be the case that TfL running that line would somehow remove from my constituents the ability to hold both the franchiser and the franchisee—the organising department, in the case of TfL—to account? Not in my view. We are more than happy to take on the small risk that, because we are not Greater London taxpayers, the Mayor’s office might attempt to totally ignore our views. I simply do not accept that that would be the case, and I bring evidence.

London Overground lines run by TfL and Arriva Rail London already go into my county of Hertfordshire and elsewhere. I have taken the time and trouble to speak to Members for and residents of those areas, and none have said that they somehow feel ignored because they happen to be just outside London. Many report a quite dramatic increase in service quality as a result of the lines switching to TfL. I have some figures that back that up.

The lines that TfL has taken over and changed to London Overground lines have seen an increased frequency of trains, from 400 per day in 2007 to 1,500 per day 10 years later. Ridership has increased by 650%, delays have decreased by 30% and customer satisfaction has increased by 18%. In other words, I am more than convinced that switching the distinct Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City line to London Overground would increase customer satisfaction, improve the quality of our services and make our services far more integrated.

However, there is yet another reason why I believe that the Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City line should be run by London Overground—the heritage of the line itself. As I am sure only railway geeks will be aware, a section of the line actually operated as part of the London Underground until the 1970s. That section was from Moorgate to, I think, Drayton Park, where observers will find that the lights on the Govia Great Northern trains still flicker as they switch from the different electrics that were used on the London Underground. We already have the heritage of being a London Underground line. I argue that it is high time to convert the whole line to a London Overground line, which has only been available since the 2007 innovation.

The case is convincing indeed, but the question is how we get to that situation. I have met the deputy Mayor, the Secretary of State and the former Rail Minister; indeed, I have met every former Rail Minister from before the former Rail Minister. The Secretary of State has already said that this part of the Govia franchise needs splitting out, which, as hon. Members will imagine, I am very keen to see happen. In any case, the franchise is up for renewal in 2021.

I do not think that there is any principled objection to TfL managing that line, which I argue should be along the same basis as the other London Overground lines, with TfL procuring a service from Arriva Rail London. However, in order for that to happen, I need ministerial action almost immediately, and it is for that reason in particular that I secured the debate. As the Minister will know from his limited time in the job, these things do not happen overnight; the procurement process takes a couple of years.

Specifically, TfL now needs research and data that only Govia can provide in order to fully model this replacement service, with a deadline of February 2019. In other words, we have only a couple of months for that information to be passed across. How does that happen, in practical terms? It is straightforward: the Secretary of State needs to request that Govia shares that information.

At the risk of boring the Minister with details of woe and appalling service and the heartbreak of the problems over the summer, I put on the record my thanks to the Department for Transport for responding to my calls for additional compensation for commuters who were unable to travel during that period of enormous disruption. It was always the case, particularly for Southern, that compensation was offered if services completely fell apart, and in this case I think a month’s free travel was offered to season ticket holders.

However, the problem for my constituents was that many travel slightly less frequently. They do not know what time of day they might travel—perhaps after dropping the kids at school—and some days they might work at home. I came to a deal, after being very insistent with the Secretary of State in a meeting very early during the disruption post May, that additional compensation should apply not only to those who had season tickets but to everybody else who used the line on a regular basis. We agreed in the end that commuters who could demonstrate that they travelled on three days or more per week should be compensated.

I have to say that there was a bit of an internal, behind-the-scenes battle involving the Treasury. A couple of times it said it could not do it, which I said was unacceptable. I am pleased and grateful that the Minister’s Department ensured that compensation was offered. Constituents now regularly come up to me and tell me that they have had back £200 or £300 of compensation in addition to the delay repay scheme, which is far too fiddly to use and which I know the Minister has plans for.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a compelling case on behalf of his constituents for looking at the management of the service. Does he agree with the Transport Committee that season ticket holders and others who were so badly affected by the timetable changes on Great Northern should receive a discount on their 2019 season tickets, in order to protect them from the fare increase due in January? That might provide some more immediate relief than the longer term changes that he seeks.

Yes, I agree. Commuters on our line from Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City have suffered unbelievable disruption. It would be right for the Minister and the Department to look at how they could compensate those commuters, which could perhaps be with a discount on the fare increase that has been mentioned for the new year.

I support that call, although I accept at the same time that, while being given £200 or £300 does not in any way compensate for the appalling disruption, it is at least a recognition of it, since it comes on top of the delay repay scheme. I put on the record that commuters should not be put off if they have already gone online and claimed their £3 back for a late train using the delay repay scheme. I am assured by Govia that they can now also claim compensation, whether they are a season ticket holder or not, using whatever means of proof they can provide. That can be a bank or credit card statement or tickets. I know some people will have bought carnets rather than tickets. Govia is prepared to be very flexible.

I will mention one other matter before I sit down. I have for a long time called for Oyster cards to be accepted along the distance of the line. I think it is currently accepted only from Moorgate to Hadley Wood, which means that ticketing is a complicated business. A person has to get an overground ticket. Then, at some point when they come off the train—at Finsbury Park or Highbury & Islington—they have to switch to paying by Oyster. The position at the moment is very unsatisfactory, so I am really delighted, on behalf of my constituents, that the Government and the Minister have announced that Oyster will come into play next year—I understand that that will be at some point in the autumn—meaning that the Oyster network will extend right out to Welwyn Garden City, along the length of that line. I would like to push it further—of course everyone will say that—because Welwyn North is also in my constituency and I must make reference to that. However, I will be very pleased to see this innovation. It will help tremendously: it will speed up ticketing times at the station dramatically. The innovation of not just Oyster but contactless payment—the ability to use phones and credit cards—makes travelling a lot easier.

Therefore I really have two specific requests: one simple and one on which I hope that the Minister will equally be able to reassure me, either today or very soon—ideally before Christmas. It will be his Christmas present to my commuters and, I suspect, commuters right the way along the line if he can provide clarification on the first point, and a yes on the second. The clarification is on the date on which the Oyster card will actually be introduced in our area. I very much hope that the Minister has available the date of its introduction next year. If not, I just seek clarification that it will certainly be introduced next year.

If my second point is not resolved as we go into the new year, the Minister will find me, rather annoyingly, on his shoulders about it. I am talking about the provision of data from Govia to TfL so that we can start the process of matching a London Qverground service to the line and not miss the 2021 deadline. I am reliably informed that that must be done by the end of February next year to meet the deadline. I invite the Minister to make my constituents’ Christmas.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) and congratulate him on securing the debate. I recognise that he is a very long-standing campaigner on rail for his constituents; he detailed some of the things that he has achieved. I think that his constituents are incredibly well represented and I hope that they fully show their appreciation of that to him, because he has delivered improvements for them.

My right hon. Friend has focused today on the quality and quantity of the rail service and particularly how that has faltered in the course of this year. The timetable change on 20 May caused an unacceptable level of delays and cancellations on Great Northern services through the Welwyn Hatfield constituency. That was not the only constituency affected; the May timetable change was a very major fail from the industry as a whole, and there were multiple causes of it. I hope that the amount of investigation and change to procedure that we have seen from that—people trying to learn the lessons—will have been noted as well.

First, Mr Hollobone, I apologise for being a minute or two late. Given the debate’s very prompt early start, I missed the first part of the speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is vital that both Govia Thameslink Railway and Network Rail learn lessons from what went wrong in May and ensure that they very significantly improve the quality of service that constituents receive on this rail line? I say that because what commuters have had to put up with over the last few months has been totally unacceptable, and the responsibility lies with both GTR and Network Rail. They both have to do a great deal better in the future if they are to provide an acceptable service for my constituents.

My right hon. Friend is as wise and experienced in this matter as we would expect, and she is right to say that there was not a single cause of the failure from the timetable change in May. Everybody should be taking some responsibility for that, and my right hon. Friend is correct to highlight the franchise operator and Network Rail.

We have of course had the Glaister review, which looked at the underlying causes. I will come on to some of the things that have changed as a result of that. The key point was to ensure that lessons were learned and that we do not have a repetition of what was a complete failure. It was very frustrating because across the country as a whole, some really impressive things have been delivered—things that were started and taken forward, indeed, by my right hon. Friend. I am thinking of such things as, in the north, the Ordsall Chord and work at Liverpool Lime Street. The timetable change was to bring some of the new interventions and upgrades into service for passengers, but that has not happened yet, so it did not just cause disruption; it was a real missed opportunity as well. I will come on to that in a moment.

Since the interim timetable was introduced on 15 July, we have seen improved performance on the Great Northern line. In the most recent figures, the public performance measure for these services was around 83%. I completely understand that that is not good enough; we are obviously aiming for vast improvement, but it is still an improvement compared with 74%, which was the equivalent last year. Yes, there clearly remains room for improvement, and we continue to push GTR to improve reliability across its network.

I just caution the Minister on quoting statistics, because the trouble is that it is 80-whatever per cent. of fewer trains. The timetable has left my constituents with fewer options, and that means that the percentages, even if the timetable runs perfectly, are actually rather meaningless.

I will come on to that point. I would not go so far as to say that the statistics are meaningless, because they are part of the measures that we use to measure the performance of train operating companies. They are regularly scrutinised; indeed, I have found myself looking daily at the PPM by individual franchise, which is a habit I must get out of. This is monitored by the regulator and by officials in the Department. I will come on to the quantity of trains, but it does matter. We want to ensure that train operating companies and Network Rail are held to account for a failure to improve.

GTR is working on a range of ongoing schemes designed to improve the underlying performance. There are more fully trained drivers on this route than ever before, and service performance is improving as a result of revised operational plans that make best use of those additional resources. Network Rail continues to deliver improvements designed to combat some of the underlying infrastructure issues on this part of the network. GTR and Network Rail are collaborating more closely to reduce the frequency and impact of trespass, which has been a type of incident affecting this route. The rail industry is implementing new solutions to reduce that risk, including by focusing, through social media channels, on the target demographic.

One question raised repeatedly by colleagues across the House has been this: what is being done to hold the operators to account? We have seen some improvement in performance. We have always been clear that GTR would be held to account for its role in the disruption earlier this year. It will make no profit in this financial year, and we have capped the profit that the operator can make for the remaining years of the franchise. It will contribute £15 million towards tangible improvements for passengers and work with local rail user groups representing the passengers most affected by the disruption in determining where the money is spent. That is in addition to the £15 million that the operator has already contributed towards compensation for passengers since the May timetable disruption. I am pleased that those steps will hold GTR to account appropriately and will directly benefit the passengers who were most affected during the disruption.

There was a timetable change last week. The December 2018 timetable change was a scaled-back one, but it was nevertheless significant because it was implemented using changed procedures, in the light of the learnings from May. Compared with the 15 July interim timetable, this new timetable, which has landed well, brings an increase in services for Welwyn Hatfield, focused mainly on the off-peak periods. Compared with before May ’18, passengers in my right hon. Friend’s constituency now see an extra service in each off-peak hour from Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield to Moorgate, additional peak services between Welwyn North and King’s Cross, and additional peak services between Brookmans Park, Welham Green and Moorgate.

Briefly, I do not want the House to be misled in any way by those numbers. It is certainly true and very welcome that the additional service is being laid on. The Minister mentions Welwyn Garden and Hatfield. It would be unreasonable to expect the Minister and others to know the full layout of stations, but there are other stations along this line in my constituency. Curiously, two of the smaller stations have been removed from the daytime off-peak stops entirely, whereas nearly everywhere else along the line to Moorgate is included. That is an unacceptable position.

I have been working with some of the rail user groups, which point out that it is possible to stop those trains at those stations and—particularly using the new 717 trains with the faster speed-up and slow-down times—still meet the timetable, without preventing other trains from running along the line. I would be grateful if the Minister would check back on that with his Department, to see whether we can get those other stations included.

Of course, I will take a number of points back from this debate, as I do with any debate, and take action to help colleagues to improve their services. I undertake right away to do just that.

We now have a timetable that appears robust and has landed well. We are continuing to monitor performance on a daily basis. My right hon. Friend has expressed concerns that Brookmans Park and Welham Green stations are seeing a reduction in services compared with the level of performance pre the May ’18 timetable, from three trains per hour during off peak to two trains per hour. Officials in the Department have discussed the issue with the operator. GTR has been using loading data and passenger count data to check whether that decision was correct. It found that very few passengers boarded at those stations during the day, and there was not the level of demand to justify three trains per hour.

The operator has to provide the timetable that most effectively balances the often competing demands of different passengers at different stations. In the latest station usage figures published only last week by the Office of Rail and Road, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield both have more than 10 times as many entries and exits than Brookmans Park and Welham Green. In that context, it seems reasonable for GTR to provide a half-hourly off-peak service at Brookmans Park and Welham Green, and a service every 15 minutes at Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield.

I know the Minister has several remarks to make, but I need to challenge him on those figures. At Brookmans Park and Welham Green, passenger numbers have been increasing over a period of time. I have the numbers here, and I will leave them with the Minister. I do not accept that we should accept a worse service than pre May, when the overall purpose of the timetable is to improve the service across the network. I have now spoken to Govia, subsequent to the data that the Minister has, and suggested a system to allow trains to stop there without disrupting the rest of the timetable. If that can be done, I would appreciate the Minister taking a close interest in achieving it, as long as it does not destroy any of the rest of the network.

I have been looking through the usage data, so I will look at his data with some interest, because it is not entirely consistent with the picture that I have been considering. Perhaps we are looking at different timescales, but I would be grateful if he would give me the data, so that I can compare and contrast. As it stands, I know that GTR has been in discussion with local rail users and has made some changes. Previously, the two services were at 19 and 37 minutes past the hour. That meant that if a passenger missed the train at 37 minutes past, they had a long wait of 40 minutes for the next train. Now the services are at 19 and 49 minutes past the hour. Therefore, it is a half-hourly service.

My right hon. Friend mentioned weekend services, and I recognise that they remain a significant issue. I understand that the situation will be much improved as part of the next timetable change in May. That is still being worked on, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend and colleagues along the line are kept informed of the change. In May, when there will be a bigger timetable change, more services will come online and more of the planned enhancements will become available for passengers.

Bringing Transport for London services to Welwyn Garden City was a key part of my right hon. Friend’s speech, and I know that he has campaigned for services between Welwyn and Moorgate to be transferred to TfL. I am very glad that the announcement of the Oyster and contactless extension has landed well. I am afraid I cannot give him exactly the Christmas present he asked for—the date when it will land—but I can confirm that it will happen next year. At the moment, our target date is no more specific than the autumn. If it can be brought forward, I will do that, because I recognise that it is of benefit, but it has taken a significant amount of work to get to this point. Again, I will keep him posted on progress. I know that this has been a long piece of work that he has focused on, but it is coming good for his constituents. It will allow commuters and other passengers to have seamless journeys into the capital. It is an early step in the Department’s commitment to expanding the availability of pay-as-you-go ticketing. Customers like it, it boosts usage and it makes it easier to manage peak-time flows through busy stations, so this is an important positive.

On the transfer of services to TfL, the Department is actively considering the future of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchises. We are working closely with the Williams Rail Review, which is examining the most appropriate organisational and commercial models for the future of the rail industry. This work is at an early stage, but it is fair to say that nothing is off the table. It is a very wide-ranging review. It is an important review, because although our current system of privatisation has led to a fantastic burst of investment and passenger growth across our network, and has taken us from A to B with 1 billion more passenger journeys per year, are we really set up to take the rail industry from B to the future? How do we cater for future growth, and what is the right kind of structure for achieving that? That is what Keith Williams’s review is about, and nothing is off the table. It is a very big piece of work, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend’s concerns and questions are fed into it.

I must mention that we will see some new trains on this route—brand new trains will enter passenger service on the Moorgate route. The class 313s that currently operate on the Great Northern line were built in the 1970s, but passenger numbers have increased substantially in the decades since, so there is a need for new trains that can meet current capacity demands. The new trains have been designed to provide much more capacity to meet the demand on the busy suburban Moorgate line. The new trains carry 943 passengers, compared with 640 for the old trains. That is automatically a significant increase in capacity.

However, it is a question not just of capacity, but of quality—a point made by my right hon. Friend. The quality of the new trains is much higher. They come with air conditioning, plug sockets, wi-fi and real-time passenger information screens. They are also designed for the improved modern safety and accessibility standards. I believe these trains will substantially improve the quality of service on the line, while addressing the core underlying need to put more capacity into the network, to serve his constituents.

I will follow up with the Department on my right hon. Friend’s point about data, and I will keep him posted. I am aware of the pressing nature of it, which he has highlighted. I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this debate.

I notice that the Minister is wrapping up a minute early, so I just want to press him on this point. I did not hear a commitment there, but I heard about a long, wide-ranging review with nothing off the table. However, as I pointed out, we need a decision on data provided by Govia to TfL by the end of February next year. Therefore, a long and wide-ranging review does not sound entirely hopeful. I would like to press him, if I may, a little bit harder on that. Is he saying that a long-winded review would miss that timetable?

The Williams review is a bigger piece of work, but I also said that I would take back the points about Govia and TfL and keep my right hon. Friend informed. That is what I was referring to, so I have not missed it. Let me just finish by saying that the performance on Great Northern after May was unacceptable. Action has been taken against GTR in respect of that, and we continue to monitor performance closely. Additional Moorgate services were introduced last week, providing additional capacity in Welwyn Hatfield. I hope that 2019 will see further improvements, including the very popular introduction of pay-as-you-go ticketing. I will follow up all the points raised by my right hon. Friend and keep him posted.

I am pleased to say that this debate does not qualify for delay and repay, and we have arrived at our destination on time.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the performance of Govia on the Moorgate to Welwyn Garden City railway line.

Sitting suspended.