My Lords, Chris Gibb’s independent report into Southern Rail makes a number of recommendations for the network that we have already been working with industry to deliver. In early January we committed an extra £300 million to improve infrastructure resilience, and we have established a new board to tackle issues ahead of the huge upgrades Thameslink will bring in 2018. However, Chris Gibb found that the main cause of widespread disruption for passengers was trade union action and unusually high levels of sick leave.
My Lords, as the Minister says, the report is now six months old. That is six months of misery for Southern’s passengers. Can the Minister tell us why the Government did not publish this report before the election? He is right to say that there were criticisms of the trade unions. There was also criticism of the Government for accepting a bid with the fewest drivers and a driver shortage from the start. Is the Minister able to assure us that in future there will be sufficient numbers of staff and there will be no further attempts to run this on the cheap?
There have certainly been no attempts to run the service on the cheap and I do not agree with the noble Baroness that performance over the past six months has been poor. In fact, since strike action has been reduced, Southern Rail’s performance has significantly improved in the past six months. Its public performance measure, which measures performance across train operators, is up by 23 percentage points—from 62% in early December to 85% now. We want and expect that figure to improve further but, as Chris Gibb’s report makes clear, that can happen only if industrial action by the trade unions stops.
In his report, Mr Gibb recommended that the Government should “urgently consider” transferring the East Croydon to Milton Keynes and Great Northern metro services from the problem-ridden GTR franchise to Transport for London in 2018. Mr Gibb also indicated that similar consideration might be given to transferring the inner-London Southern metro services in time for franchise renewal in 2021. The current Secretary of State for Transport previously made it clear that he would not transfer any further rail services to TfL, as that would mean giving control over more routes to a Labour mayor. The Government have now had six months to consider Mr Gibb’s recommendations on transferring more routes to TfL. What is the Government’s response to those recommendations—particularly those relating to 2018—and what are the reasons for the conclusions that the Government have reached on transferring more rail routes to TfL in the light of Mr Gibb’s recommendations?
Chris Gibb’s report sets out several reasons why Southern Rail faced problems last year, including disruption from infrastructure works, the process of introducing new trains and insufficient numbers of drivers at the start of the franchise. The Secretary of State has now ordered the operator to reduce reliance on overtime, which means that it has started to increase the number of drivers, although that has an 18-month lead time. We decided to proceed with 34 of Chris Gibb’s 38 recommendations, but the transfer of additional lines to TfL was not one that we proceeded with.
My Lords, will my noble friend refrain from giving TfL any more responsibilities until it has cleared up the mess of the roadworks around the Palace of Westminster, which are being conducted in an inconceivably incompetent manner? Will he also consider whether it is really sensible to have the ownership and management of the track and of the trains in separate hands? It did not work in that way in the great days of the LNER, the GWR and the Southern Railway before the Second World War. It would be better to put those aspects back together again; then, we might have sensible management.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that London Councils has been negotiating on behalf of the London boroughs to address the impact of the Southern Rail disputes and their implications for the Freedom Pass, which the boroughs contribute to? No information is available about how London councils are to be reimbursed and when the decision will be made. What action is the state taking to ensure that ratepayers are not short-changed? I declare an interest as a Freedom Pass holder.
It was taken, as my noble friend reminds me, by the John Major Government. But I see no evidence that the Labour Party policy of renationalising the railways and handing even more power to their friends in ASLEF and the RMT will bring any improvement for passengers whatever. It will enable them to hold the whole country to ransom, rather than just the poor miserable passengers on Southern rail.
My Lords, how optimistic is my noble friend the Minister that passengers on the Southern Rail franchise, even miserable ones such as myself, can expect a decent service over the summer months when, as I understand it, industrial action is planned for later this week and for 10 July by both the RMT and ASLEF?
I am afraid that the noble Viscount is correct. The unions have announced further industrial action starting from Thursday, so I can give him no consolation. We can spend as much as we like on upgrading infrastructure, providing new trains and taking action over management failings—but if the drivers and conductors fail to turn up for work, there is very little we can do about it.
If I give the House a little information on what offers have been made to ASLEF, perhaps your Lordships might have a little more sympathy. The operator has held 32 days of meetings with ASLEF to try to resolve the dispute since it began in March last year. Three formal offers were made; two deals have been accepted by the ASLEF executive, only to be voted down by the membership. ASLEF has turned down a 23.8% pay rise offer over four years that would have increased a Southern train driver’s basic salary by £12,000 to £60,000 for a four-day, 35-hour week. This would rise to £70,000 with overtime on a fifth day. That is an extremely generous offer. They are being well paid to provide a service to the public; I wish they would get on and deliver that service.