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Railways: Train Timetables

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2018

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made on establishing the new train timetables around the country.

My Lords, while many of the new timetables have been delivered around the country, that is certainly not the case in all areas. Following the continued disruption faced by GTR and Northern passengers, both operators are introducing an interim timetable designed to provide a more predictable service for passengers. GTR’s interim timetable was published on 6 July and will come into effect on Sunday. Northern’s interim timetable, introduced on 4 June, has already helped to restore stability. Further changes to add in additional Northern services are planned for the end of July.

My Lords, misleading claims are made about the eventual benefits of these new timetables. Commuters from Harpenden now have 15 fewer rush-hour trains and fewer carriages. Hitchin used to have 29 rush-hour trains to and from London; that has now halved to 16. They are among the busiest stations on the route and, even when the trains run as scheduled, which is rare, they are now so full that commuters cannot physically squeeze themselves on. Will the Minister ask Thameslink what the good people of Hitchin and Harpenden have done to deserve such an appalling new service?

My Lords, with the delivery of the new timetable, we have had to cancel services, and services in Hertfordshire have been particularly badly affected, with consistently poor performance. Once all the services are in place, passengers from Hitchin and Welwyn will be able to take direct services through the Thameslink core to several London stations. I appreciate that that is little comfort for the coming weeks, but from Sunday the interim timetable will improve reliability, prioritise peak-time services and aim to reduce the long gaps in services.

My Lords, the Northern rail service and the Lakes line is only 50% of the previous service. Does the Minister realise that those trains run only because crews have been transferred from the other Cumbrian line to Barrow and west Cumbria? What is she going to do to ensure that Northern has enough train drivers to run the timetable that it says it is going to? Why does not she take the franchise away from it?

My Lords, I am aware of the 50% service, which was also only just recently reintroduced. It is supplemented by buses, but I am aware that that is not acceptable. By the end of July, we will see the restoration of services that were temporarily withdrawn to restore stability, but we are working closely with Northern to ensure that it is able to deliver the provision that it has promised.

My Lords, I concur with the two previous questioners. Gareth Edwards, stakeholder manager of Govia Thameslink Railway, has admitted that there have been none of the promised improvements to our service from King’s Lynn to King’s Cross, but assures me very politely that it is doing all it can. This was a reliable, comfortable service and the situation, as you have heard, is dire. Millions of regular travellers have suffered constantly from endless delays and cancellations since the introduction of the new timetable. I have been in touch with the Secretary of State and the local MP, but what solution are they going to provide?

My Lords, the new timetable was planned to deliver hundreds more services up and down the country to benefit passengers, but I think that we can all agree that it has not been successfully delivered. As I say, we are working closely with the train operating companies to ensure that the interim timetables provide the reliable services that passengers expect and deserve. We are conducting a review into whether GTR has met its contractual obligations, which will report in the coming weeks. Once completed, we will follow the advice.

An industry readiness board was set up to review and direct,

“industry programmes for Thameslink 2018 operational readiness to minimise all risks associated with entry into service and ongoing sustained operations”.

The Department for Transport sat on that readiness board, with its “operational readiness” remit. How can the Secretary of State for Transport maintain that he has no responsibility or accountability for the operational effectiveness and performance of the railway network—including the present shambles—when his own department was represented on the Thameslink 2018 industry readiness board with its clear operational readiness remit?

My Lords, the rail industry has collectively failed to deliver for its customers. It is right that it apologise, and the Department for Transport has apologised too. As I have said, we are prioritising the reliability of the service, but I take the noble Lord’s point. That is why we have set up an independent inquiry —to understand what went wrong. We are eagerly awaiting its recommendations because we must learn these lessons, and we will.

My Lords, I know that the Minister is sympathetic to those of us who have to rely upon Thameslink to get us here. It is not only that the company ignores its own timetable; it fails to inform its own staff and to keep its own website up to date. Everything at the present time is just a myth. Can the Minister do whatever she can to help Thameslink get just some of the fundamentals in place?

My Lords, I entirely agree that the information on what services are available is absolutely key, so that passengers can plan their journeys and buy their tickets. There have obviously been failures—big failures—in this but, with the introduction of the interim timetable on Sunday, we expect there to be more reliable services so that people can plan their journeys effectively.

I wonder whether the Minister would reconsider the advice that has gone out from the rail delivery group, no doubt with the support of the department, that there will be no further timetable changes until December or next May. Essentially, it has to be got right now. Will she ensure that any incremental improvements are rolled out to help people who are suffering such distress?

My Lords, we are working to re-establish the May timetable across all franchises and we will continue to do so until we reach the promised level of services. On the December timetable change that was announced on Monday, there will still be new services, but other services will be introduced gradually over the next few timetable changes in order to avoid the situation we are facing now. Planners will absolutely try to make the small adjustments that they can, listening to what passengers actually need in order to try to improve the service.