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Southern Rail

Volume 778: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to nationalise the Southern railway franchise.

My Lords, there are no plans to strip Govia Thameslink Railway of its franchise. The speculation in the media is just that: speculation. DfT of course continues to monitor the operational and contractual performance of all franchises.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but there was a lot of press speculation last week that Ministers were considering taking direct control of rail franchises, including Southern rail. I cite the Guardian:

“Options ranging from splitting off Southern from Govia … to a complete ‘managed exit’ to take direct control of the entire franchise”.

It might be odd that none of that came from anywhere near government. I am pleased that the Minister is saying that there is no plan to nationalise, because on the same day the Secretary of State repeated that there is no better alternative to GTR—I hope that noble Lords would agree with that. Of course, three years ago, the Government got rid of the nationalised east coast main line franchise, because Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the then Secretary of State, said:

“I do not believe that it would be in the public interest for us to have a nationalised train operating company”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/13; col 449.]

I hope that in his response the Minister can clarify what the Government’s policy is.

The noble Lord has perhaps answered his own question. He cited two sources: one was the Guardian, and the other was my right honourable friend, the then Secretary of State. I would rely on the response of my right honourable friend.

My Lords, would the nationalisation of the franchise really make much difference? Does not the current government control mechanism and the performance measures that they have in place for the Southern franchise suggest that they are already running it?

I do not agree with the noble Lord. There is a particular mechanism in place by which the Government can hold GTR to account on performance. We are doing just that, but it applies across the rail network.

If Her Majesty’s Government are monitoring all the franchises, I draw my noble friend’s attention to the performance of the Great Northern over the past three years, where the timekeeping has got considerably worse from when it started out. Should not Her Majesty’s Government be doing something to ensure that all the train companies stick to the contracts that they were given?

I agree with my noble friend, and that is why my department monitors the operational and contractual performances of all franchises. If a franchisee does not meet its contractual commitments, the Secretary of State will make a decision on next steps.

What benefits have current Southern rail passengers gained from a private operator running their railway service under the present franchise agreement, in view of the extent of the widely recognised poor performance from that train operator over the past two years not related to industrial action?

We are acutely aware of the challenges which everyone who uses that franchise currently faces. The noble Lord tries to distinguish the effect of the industrial dispute, which, as I have always said from this Dispatch Box, has compounded the challenges that Network Rail is facing. The Government have committed an extra £300 million to investment on the Brighton main line. Let us contextualise the industrial dispute, as I have done before. RMT is out on dispute on a new contract. Every train supervisor, as they are now called, has signed that contract—every one; not one is exempted. They are working on the new contract. There are no job losses on the new contract. There is no pay cut on the new contract. What is more, they are guaranteed a job until 2021—even I cannot lay claim to that.

Has the Minister seen the promotional poster for Southern railways, the strapline for which is, “Stay longer, see more”? Is that where we have been going wrong—we have not understood its mission statement?

I have to declare that I have not seen that particular poster, but I am sure that the company will look at its mission statement quite carefully to ensure that it delivers what it seeks to do.

Considering the question asked earlier, will my noble friend identify how many working days in this country have been lost over the last six months, and what proportion of those working days arise from disputes with the RMT on one line or another, including in Greater London, where the Mayor said that there would be no disputes?

My noble friend is right to raise the important issue of days lost. On the Southern dispute, 27 days have been lost and we are looking at a cost of circa £38 million. My noble friend asked specifically about the ongoing dispute in London with RMT, which we hope will be resolved shortly. I do not have the particular figures to hand but I will write to him in that respect.

My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that Southern trains operates with a management contract set out by the Government, operates trains specified by the Government for driver-only operation, and that its own director of financing said at a public meeting only last year that, on DOO, 2016 was the year that the department would break the unions, what is the difference between the situation with Southern and a nationalised industry anyway?

What is happening on Southern, as I have said before, is that various issues have come to the fore. Yes, there is non-performance on the part of GTR, and it is seeking to address those matters. The Government are holding it to account, but the continued industrial dispute on that network compounds the challenges that commuters—passengers— face, and it is about time that industrial dispute came to an end.