[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of Govia Thameslink rail service.
I had wanted to title the debate “The Woeful Performance of the GTR Service”, but the Table Office would not allow me to do so. Here we are—déjà vu all over again. It is no surprise to see on both sides of the Chamber so many hon. Members from south London and Sussex who have a close interest in this appalling state of affairs, which is continuing to deteriorate.
Southern Thameslink goes from bad to worse. It cancels more trains than the whole of the rest of the network put together. Our constituents are losing their jobs, parents are unable to see their children because they get home so late at night and students are missing lessons at schools and colleges, and in some cases missing exams, as a result of the woeful incompetence of this train company, and there is no end in sight. This is embarrassing, pathetic, unsustainable and a national disgrace for Britain’s largest rail passenger carrier. The management, the unions and, frankly, the Department for Transport should all be thoroughly ashamed that we are in this state of affairs. I would guess that it is the single biggest issue at the moment for most colleagues in the Chamber—it will be even bigger than the issue of Europe in some cases. We continue to be inundated by correspondence from frustrated, demoralised and understandably angry constituents.
Last Thursday, by way of example, I was going home in the late afternoon on the Brighton line. I arrived a little early for a train. I actually got a seat on a Gatwick Express train—several other trains had been cancelled. Within minutes, that train became absolutely cram-packed. There were people who had missed other trains going to Gatwick airport. They were going on holiday, going travelling. Before the train left, it was so congested that someone in front of me had a panic attack and had to be helped out of the carriage. I gave up my seat to a pregnant lady, and we had to look after her for the rest of the journey. Passengers were swapping stories: “What time does your plane go? You’re more likely to miss it than this other person.” The situation was absolutely horrific. It was unsafe, unacceptable and a real joke—but a very dangerous joke.
The hon. Gentleman may find this experience familiar. My constituent Lucy Cooper emailed me on behalf of her daughter, Ellie, who is a Govia Thameslink Railway customer—I use that word advisedly. Ellie described being so packed on a train that the person next to her fainted. The woman was fortunately not hurt, because there were so many people crowded around her that she could not even fall down. Is that not shocking in terms of the level of unsafe practices that are now arising?
I completely agree. I am sure all of us in the Chamber have similar stories and have had similar emails and letters. Gatwick airport is the gateway to the United Kingdom. Some 40 million people come to Gatwick airport currently, let alone if a second runway is positioned there. What an impression they get of the infrastructure in this country when they have to get on a train in those conditions!
I have with me many emails. One says:
“Yesterday I saw one unfortunate gentleman who became very poorly and distressed after having stood, squashed, for over an hour and a half in full city attire, an older American woman in tears and several hugely upset elderly people and little children who became panicked about the heat and crush.”
There are other people who do not get home until after 9.30 at night, having left the City at 5 o’clock. Someone missed his wedding anniversary. He ended his email to Southern by saying that
“frankly guys it’s not good enough.
Please, give up the franchise.
Please, don’t spend £6m on taxis for execs—please spend it on me.
Please, don’t keep blaming staff shortages—they are equally blaming you and it’s me (and my fellow commuters) sitting in the middle.
Please, remember—until you give up/lose the franchise—you are a TRANSPORT company. So please—transport people!”
It goes on and on. Another email says:
“At the end of the day it would seem to me that Southern and the RMT”—
the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—
“are acting like two spoiled children. Both have their positions and both are refusing to move at all, neither gives a damn about customers. It is the customer that is suffering in all this—it would not be so bad if we had any choice about the train operator that we use (in which case Southern trains would be empty I’m sure)—the fact is Southern have a monopoly and we have no other options.”
Time and again, we are getting emails like that, with no sign of the situation getting any better at all.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the current dispute has made matters markedly worse, in truth the reason why Southern should relinquish the franchise is that its performance has been lamentable over many years, not just recently?
Well, the franchise has not been going for that many years and of course we had all the problems supposedly attributable to London Bridge at the beginning of the year, when the situation was bad enough, but it has got hugely worse since then. I will come on to that in a moment—I know that many other hon. Members want to speak.
On Monday, to deal with the crisis, GTR introduced its emergency timetable. That came on the back of the increasing number of planned cancellations, presumably because it reduces the penalties that the company has to pay. It came on top of the loosening of the franchise agreement, which I read about in the newspaper. Hon. Members were given no notice by the Department for Transport or, indeed, the company itself. Given all the interest that had been shown by colleagues here today, one would at least have expected to have been forewarned about that by the Minister. That was, frankly, discourteous and disgraceful and has only compounded our anger with the way the whole dispute has been handled.
When the new emergency timetable came in, what was the result? Last night, I got the figures for the public performance measure for 12 July. With the emergency timetable and 341 planned cancellations—341 fewer trains running—the PPM was 77%; it was barely three quarters on the second day of the emergency timetable. The position was that 2,800 trains ran, 2,172 were more or less on time, 620 were late and 122 were cancelled or very late. The result of the emergency timetable is that there is less choice for customers and more overcrowding, but presumably fewer fines. Extraordinarily, Charles Horton, the chief executive, in his appearance before the Select Committee on Transport the other day, said:
“We expect to see crowding levels evening out because of more regular intervals between trains”
as a result of the emergency timetable.
What sort of weird logic is that? There will be the same number of passengers battling to get a train to or from work, but more inconvenience because of the timings and surely more overcrowding because there are fewer trains to convey them. The extraordinary complacency of that attitude is absolutely baffling.
Specific problems have been caused by the change in the timetable. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) will mention the suspension of the Lewes to Seaford line in other than peak times—there is a replacement bus service—which includes the cross-channel port of Newhaven, which does not now have a regular daytime train service. It includes one of my local schools. We actually had the platform extended because, with the number of girls from Davison High School in Worthing using that station to go to and from school, it had become dangerous. Now, the only train in the morning arrives at East Worthing station at 5.35 or 7.16, with no further trains getting there until 18:24, and there is a similar lack of trains going home. Therefore, a station that Southern rail expanded to cater for the increasing number of pupils using it cannot be used as a stop for those girls to go to and from school. The crisis that this is causing is absolutely crazy.
The company cancelled 341 trains as part of the emergency timetable. We are told in the briefing note from GTR:
“The number of trains cancelled in the revised timetable is 341 which is broadly similar to the number”
that were cancelled on an ad hoc basis to date.
That is fine: the company is just making it official that it is rubbish—that now it is part of the official timetable that it is officially very rubbish. It is extraordinary logic, and apparently the company has done that without even having to get the permission of the Department for Transport, or so the chief executive claimed at the Select Committee the other day. We would like to know from the Minister how this works. How is it allowed to do this and get away with it, and still have its franchise as the largest passenger conveyer in the country? What are we going to have next? Why does it not reduce the timetable to zero trains and then it would have 100% competence in completing its timetable? That is the logic of where this is going, such is the ridiculousness of the situation.
This is at the heart of the problem. I do not believe that there is sufficient deterrent or incentive on either side, for the management or the unions who are party to these problems, to find a resolution with any sense of urgency. All this time, it is the passengers—our constituents —who are suffering and losing out. We listened to Mick Cash from the RMT in front of the Select Committee going on about how, “We couldn’t possibly, for safety reasons, have driver-only operated trains,” despite the fact those already operate on 60% of Govia Thameslink services and 30% of trains on the whole of the network, and have done since 1985. It is not prepared to sit down and discuss that, and it is not prepared to acknowledge independent studies that have shown that there is not a major safety consideration.
Then we had the management of GTR saying, “We have tried to sit down with them but they are being unreasonable and they are all going off sick deliberately.” There may be some truth in that; they may be cancelling trains deliberately in order to worsen the situation. Frankly, my constituents do not care whose fault it is; they just wanted it sorted. There is, “He said this”, “She said that”, “He did this”, “They did that”—it is absolutely ridiculous. Somebody—frankly, it should be the Government—should get the two parties together and metaphorically if not physically bang some heads together and tell them to sort it or else.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way that he is dealing with this debate. It is clear from the statistics, which he will have seen, that the company is suffering from a very high level of real sickness. Clearly, there is something very wrong, or else it has a very sickly workforce. Does he agree that there are ways that sophisticated companies manage things like sickness? Would it not be better if the management of GTR took a great deal more trouble and were more proactive in dealing with the sickness problem?
My right hon. Friend is right. As somebody who has been even angrier than me in the face of GTR on occasions, he knows that there are solutions to this problem that have not been properly pursued. We are told by GTR that before the dispute happened approximately 21 conductors were off sick at any one time. Overnight, when this dispute came in, that almost doubled to 40, with spikes at three particular depots. Something is clearly up but there are things that GTR could do, whether genuine sickness needs sorting out or it is a form of unofficial working to rule.
I have been trying to get to the bottom of the finances in this whole crisis. In the Select Committee last week, Charles Horton said that GTR’s turnover amounts to some £1.3 billion, with just over 90% of that coming from the fee, paid by the Department for Transport, for running the franchise. The amount of fine—it is really difficult to drill down into exactly how much fine it has paid—seems to be about £2 million. Less than 0.2% of its annual revenue is having to be paid in fines as a result of the incompetent way in which it has run this service. Is that a real disincentive or penalty? I just cannot see how it is.
This is an unconventional franchise. I have tried looking at the franchise: all 668 pages of it. It is the only one in the country where the rail company is paid a fee by the Department and where all the revenue from passengers’ tickets goes directly to the Government. It is difficult to see who loses out when it goes wrong. When the network fails, there is a points problem, a London Bridge problem or whatever, Network Rail pays a penalty to GTR as the operator. That penalty is only paid on to the customer if they actually get round to the complicated process of the compensation payments, so GTR makes a profit, potentially, from problems on the network.
We read in The Times a few months ago—as I said, we were not notified by the Department—that GTR had been in breach of its licence and could have lost its franchise, but instead the Department agreed simply to loosen the targets for GTR, allowing an additional 9,000 trains to be cancelled a year without it being in breach of the reconfigured franchise agreement. These are my questions to the Minister. Exactly how much is GTR losing and what is the financial impact on Government revenue? How much compensation is Network Rail paying to GTR that is not then paid out to customers? What is the impact of the planned cancellations on penalties payable? My understanding is that when there are planned cancellations it does not have to pay the ad hoc penalties when trains do not turn up, do not start or skip stations or whatever. Are there financial implications for the loosening of the franchise and the introduction of this emergency timetable? What this boils down to is how much GTR and the Government have to feel financially pained before they do something urgently to resolve this crisis—and this is a crisis of great magnitude.
The Minister has the power to intervene on behalf of passengers and has made various statements. In yesterday’s Evening Standard she was quoted as saying that
“the real solution is for the RMT to end this dispute and the high levels of sickness amongst its members…we are working with TfL and issued a prospectus earlier in the year for new ways to improve services in the capital.”
That comes after the Mayor asked for GTR to be stripped of its franchise. The Minister has also said:
“Historically the Government doesn’t intervene in industrial disputes.”
But we are now told that a letter has been sent by the Minister to the unions offering some sort of deal. Perhaps she will comment on that and whether it is true, whether she is going to intervene, whether she can intervene and whether she is prepared to intervene. She has said:
“The union is holding commuters to ransom. Again if there was a legitimate safety concern or genuine job losses I would understand but this is a growing industry…This is not about job losses. This is about politics...What do you want me to do, get them in for beer and sandwiches?”
Frankly, that is not good enough and those sorts of sloganising headlines do nothing to get this problem resolved for our constituents. She has really got to get a grip.
There are many other problems as well. Back in January we had a summit in Westminster Hall. It was a very useful meeting. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) was greatly aerated. We enjoyed his interventions at the expense of the GTR management greatly; they were heartfelt and passionate and we all agreed with him. At that summit we had GTR, Network Rail, Department for Transport officials, MPs, Transport Focus and others—there were about 22 or so hon. Members, many of whom are in this room at the moment. We made it clear at that stage that this could not go on. At that stage we were primarily looking at the fallout from the problems with London Bridge, well before these additional problems came along. We were promised a follow-up summit six months on in order to assess the situation. Where has that gone? We have one week to go before the recess and there is no follow-up summit to get everybody together and hold their feet to the fire—in my right hon. Friend’s favourite phrase.
What really struck everybody at that summit was that the head official from the Department for Transport, when asked about taking back the franchise, got up and said, “Well basically, if GTR were not running this franchise—a very large franchise, a complex franchise—I would be the one responsible for it in the Department for Transport, and you don’t want that.” In effect, GTR was told it faced little prospect of us taking back the franchise because we cannot really run it ourselves. What sort of incentive was that for GTR to get its act together if it knows it can get even worse and even then the Government will not intervene and do something about it? I am really angry about this on behalf of my constituents.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I absolutely 100% agree with him on behalf of my constituents that use East Dulwich, Peckham Rye and Queens Road. They will identify completely with the level of total exasperation and frustration. He has diligently gone through all this and has done all the right things, but his constituents’ situations are simply getting worse and are set to get worse still, with disruption to family and working life and downright safety issues. I simply lend him my support and say that my constituents are every bit as desperate as his. We have no tube and we have congested roads, so they cannot go by bus. People cannot lead their lives like this. I agree with him that GTR should be stripped of the franchise.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that short intervention. She echoes the words of so many of our other colleagues who could not be here, including my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who texted me to tell me that he was stuck on a train somewhere, otherwise he would have joined our deliberations.
Many other problems affect this railway; it is not just the unreliability of when the trains actually run. There is overcrowding, safety is an issue and, at the same time, Southern is trying to close down all our ticket offices. It has only given a temporary moratorium on that—what a stupid thing to do. When the company cannot even run the service, it tries to threaten the easiest way of selling tickets for it. We have the antiquated rolling stock on the west coastway line—the class 313 rolling stock is 40 years old, and has no loos or any other basics. Female constituents have real problems when stranded late at night in stations far from home because a station has been skipped or the last train has been cancelled. It is not just inconvenient; there is danger attached as well.
I see that just two of us are here from the northern side of the Thameslink line. Is my hon. Friend aware that yesterday, the 7.34 am Brighton train from St Albans, which was a brand-new train—one of the class 700 stock—broke down, so this is not just about old rolling stock, but about new rolling stock?
I fear that that is right. Again, we were promised that everything would be so much better because of the investment in rolling stock—that it is all coming in and it is all going to be fine.
Finally, there is the issue of compensation. We are constantly told by GTR, “We have this compensation scheme, which is not easy to administer,” but the amount of compensation that people are getting back for the huge amount of aggro that they face is paltry. Frankly, my constituents are not primarily interested in compensation. They just want a reliable service with a better than evens chance of them being able to turn up at the station and get on a train at about the time they want to catch it, to arrive at their destination within about five minutes or so of the published times, and go about their work or education as normal. That is what they want.
Given the extended, prolonged, intense aggravation there has been, season-ticket holders in particular should get serious discounts. When they renew their season tickets, whether or not they have put in for individual compensation, they should get a serious discount and a very large apology to go with it.
On compensation, I had an email from a constituent who is losing earnings day in, day out. They noted
“I was unable to travel…due to no trains running between Polegate and Haywards Heath. I was compensated £19 for my daily loss of earnings of £350.”
My hon. Friend also mentioned the situation being dangerous, and I point out that this is not only about people’s jobs being on the line. A constituent of mine said to me that they are so late picking up their child from nursery that they are worried because:
“It is standard procedure that most nurseries contact social services when parents are late.”
The situation is damaging people’s lives.
That is just another example of the extraordinary strength of the impact on our constituents.
In summing up, I really think, with the greatest respect—and I understand that the situation is complex and challenging—that enough is enough. The Minister has got to get a grip on this. If this has not been sorted by the beginning of September, after the impact of the emergency timetable—and we have had no clear indication of when it will be sorted—GTR should lose its franchise by the end of the year. There have been enough warnings and pathetic excuses about one thing or another going wrong—goodness knows what it will be by the time we get to September—and this has gone on for far too long.
I hope that in response to this debate, the Minister can give a clear indication of what it will take for the company to lose its franchise, if it does not get its act together. At the very least, our constituents deserve a proper and honest answer from her about how she will achieve this and when. We are fed up on behalf of our constituents, who have to take this flak day in, day out. It is not fair, it is not right, and she needs to do something about it—and tell us what—now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) not only on securing the debate, but on a very powerful speech; I agree with almost every single word. The fact that we see hon. Members from both sides of the House talking on a cross-party basis, along the same lines, illustrates the strength of feeling among our constituents about the joke of a service that they have been getting from GTR on Southern and Thameslink lines. I also take this opportunity to thank the 10 hon. Members—I think most are here—who have signed my early-day motion 298 calling for GTR to be stripped of the franchise.
I have to say that I laughed yesterday, when at about 5 o’clock, GTR tweeted:
“Don’t forget to plan your journey home this evening as there may have been a change to your usual train”.
There is nothing usual about the services that GTR provides. It has the worst record on cancellation and significant lateness, by some margin, of any operator, and it performs worst on the public performance measure.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we have had meeting after meeting and several debates on this issue. We get excuse after excuse, and our constituents have all reached the end of the line in their patience with what is going on—[Laughter.] See what I did there? The bottom line is that the company has not trained enough drivers. It is true that Network Rail has contributed to the situation and that GTR has to operate on an ageing infrastructure, but frankly, so do all the other train-operating companies. The delay figures show that Network Rail has caused more delays for the other train operators than for GTR, but the other train operators outperform GTR. There has been poor planning on a gargantuan scale and frankly, the management of GTR are absolutely appalling. We still have problems with basic things like information being provided when there is lateness.
The impact on constituents is absolutely unbearable. People have lost their jobs, which is a disgrace, as a result of the company’s poor performance. People who are still in their jobs arrive at work stressed and do not have the right mindset to start work, which will of course have an impact on productivity. Students and pupils have told me about the impact of the stress of getting to school to do their exams recently, as a result of the performance of that train operator.
So what do we want? I will probably not take up my whole five minutes, because I want to ensure that everyone else can get in. This franchise needs to end, and it needs to end now, or as soon as possible. I do not see why we should have to wait until 2020 or 2021 when it is up for renewal. I just cannot understand—I say this as somebody who professionally, as a lawyer, worked on a franchise agreement—how the company is not in breach of this franchise, such that it can be taken away from it. I understand absolutely that this is a big franchise. It is probably too big and, ultimately, I would like to see the parts of this franchise that cover London suburban routes transferred to Transport for London, which I believe could do a much better job of providing services to my constituents.
Turning to the longer term, in Streatham, we have Streatham Hill, Streatham and Streatham Common stations, as well as Tulse Hill and Balham stations just outside, and our stations have been over capacity for some time. Our population is growing and we are not in any Government programme to upgrade our local transport to be fit for the future. That is why ultimately, what we would like to see—I think this may provide a long-term solution to our problems with GTR and this particular franchise—is Crossrail 2 routed through Streatham. That would alleviate congestion on the Northern and Victoria lines, which are nearby, because large numbers of people to the east and south of those lines would therefore not have to travel to Tooting Bec, Tooting Broadway, Balham and Brixton and could use a Streatham Crossrail station. It would relieve congestion at Streatham Common, which is the sixth busiest station in the Southern network, and at Streatham station. It would cut congestion on our roads, too. Also, Streatham Action, a local group, and our local council have been clear that it would also provide an opportunity for growth and regeneration in our area.
I want to come back to where the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham finished. What we want from the Minister today is action. We do not want the warm words that say, “Yes, I agree with you about how awful they have been.” We want action, and we certainly do not want the Minister acting as an apologist for this company.
We have been here before. There have been at least two debates in this Chamber, one secured by me and one by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), in which we heavily criticised Southern and also Network Rail for failing to deliver a satisfactory performance for their customers. We welcomed the introduction of a performance improvement plan, then a year later got very annoyed that the self-set targets, already low in that performance improvement plan, had not been adhered to; and before Christmas I said that unless there was a significant and rapid improvement in the performance of the company, removal of the franchise should certainly be considered.
Let us be clear. The current performance, which is measurably worse than it was a year ago and has deteriorated rapidly, is due to new and different reasons, and we have to understand what they are. Before the strikes that were called by the rail unions, 26 train cancellations a day were due to train crew unavailability. Clearly, it is a major failure on the part of GTR Southern not to have recruited sufficient staff to be able to run the service. Nobody should resile from criticising the company for that.
After the strikes began, in the period 29 March to 25 June, 148 trains were cancelled a day—a remarkable increase. The figures produced by GTR tell us, assuming that they are reliable, that driver sickness since the start of the strikes has increased by about a third and the willingness to work overtime has reduced by about a third. It is that remarkable loss of labour that is causing the real disruption that so annoys our constituents at the moment.
The dispute turns on whether it is safe to introduce trains with driver-operated doors. The question for hon. Members of all parties, including all of us who rail about the performance of the franchise holder, is whether it is safe to introduce such trains. Do we think the unions have a case in mounting their industrial action or not? It is hard to argue that there is a safety issue when 60% of the trains currently operated by GTR already have driver-only operation of doors, 40% of them Southern trains. Are we all saying that those trains are unsafe? Are the unions saying that those trains are unsafe? That is the kernel of the issue at the moment, so let us confront it.
We have to decide whether the unions have a point. If we do not think they have a point—I do not think they do, because there will be no job losses, no reductions in pay, and there will still be staff on almost all the trains, including the drivers that currently have guards who operate the doors—why are we blaming Southern entirely for this dispute?
I have absolutely no compunction about criticising Southern. No hon. Member has criticised Southern more firmly than I have over the past year. I have been very clear about the failings of the company and its management. No hon. Member has criticised Southern more firmly—the record shows that—but I am sure that the current disruption is being caused by the industrial action. What I question is why we collectively—hon. Members of all parties—have been so reticent to attribute proper blame to the unions for what is happening. In my judgment, the unions are being very clever. They know that this dispute is effectively a work to rule.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate all those who have taken part in the debate. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it helped or hindered when Peter Wilkinson, the managing director of passenger services, said earlier this year:
“We have got to break them...They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place...They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry”?
I agree about the need for good industrial relations, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that that was constructive?
We did not get an answer to the question, and therein lies the problem: the current disruption that is causing massive inconvenience to our constituents is principally—not entirely—caused by the industrial action, which is official on strike days but unofficial when it clearly amounts to a work to rule. The problem is being caused by the unions, but hon. Members are not willing to criticise the unions for that. Undoubtedly, all sections of the rail industry have a case to answer for the poor performance in the franchise. Some 60% of the delays up until we had the strike were caused by the failures of infrastructure of Network Rail, not Southern, although that is partly being caused by the upgrade at London Bridge.
There is a real question about whether the franchise should have been awarded and about the scale of it. The franchise is too big. All parties have a case to answer; I am sure there is a case to answer on the part of GTR and Southern’s management, too. For a start, they kicked off with insufficient drivers and staff. That is poor planning, but I go back to the central point that I was seeking to make: I have found it surprising in this debate that so little attention has focused on what the unions are doing.
Before the hon. Lady intervened, I was making the point that the unions have been very clever, because all the blame has been attributed to Southern, and what happens? We now have a pantomime villain to whom it is very easy for us all to say, “Boo! Take the franchise away.” I joined in on this pantomime cry: “Take the franchise away and all the problems will be over.” That is the easy thing for us all to say, but the question will remain: is it safe to have these new trains with driver-only operation of doors? The new franchisee will have to answer that question, and hon. Members are doing themselves no service at all by failing to address the key reason why the dispute arose in the first place.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the very first time, Ms Ryan, and I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate. He and I sometimes sit together on the train—we come from neighbouring constituencies—so we suffer alongside the people we serve and see the problems at first hand.
I want to do the unusual thing of thanking the Minister because in the short time that I have been an MP, she has never refused to meet me to discuss the issues. It has often turned into weekly discussions where the anger that has been expressed to me by the people I represent has been expressed in forceful terms to her, which she has always accepted at face value, and I am grateful for that.
In the year and a half that I have been a Member of Parliament, it has been made clear that representing a constituency served by Southern is like having toothache: you wake up in the morning and feel the pain of people who are trying, and failing, to get to work on time; you feel the pain of people who get home late in the evening. It is constant and absolutely unavoidable.
I never expected, when I became an MP, that I would become such an expert on the train system serving my constituency. I now know the timetable, even though it changes so readily. I know the rolling stock. I have spent time training and doing work shadowing on the line, including shadowing several drivers to enable me to understand the pressures they are under. I have visited London Bridge to see the construction site, and have made a visit to see the new rolling stock, to try to understand the pressures on the system. I understand the scale of the problem. There is historical underfunding; new rolling stock is coming on line; there is the London Bridge upgrade, as well as routine track maintenance; there is an industrial dispute; and very bad planning by the rail franchisee has led to the poor number of drivers and conductors that underpins all the problems.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem—apart from what was highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert)—is that the franchisee never planned ahead sufficiently for the right number of drivers and continued to give us thoroughly wrong information about how quickly the increase in driver numbers would improve the service?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, because that is an incredibly important point. As I have said, bad management planning has underpinned all that is happening. It takes 18 months to train a new driver, and the driver shortages of the past six months to a year were absolutely predictable. GTR should have been on the case far earlier, and the fact that there is such a shortage of expertise on the line, including the shortage of drivers and conductors, has underpinned a shambles and turned it into a crisis. I have absolute sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
It is inexplicable to me that, even with all the challenges on the line, things have so quickly descended into crisis. At the moment, in the midst of an industrial dispute, there is what I can only describe as a dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the network—between Government and the franchise holder, and the franchise holder and the unions, with Railtrack involved as well underneath it all. It means that no one involved wakes up in the morning thinking, “How do I make passengers’ lives better today? How can I make passengers’ journey home better than the journey they took to work?” The impact is that there is damage to the economy. People arrive at work late and get written warnings. They get home late, which damages communities and family life, because they are not home to see their kids before they go to bed. It is quite heartbreaking.
Someone who got in touch with me said that she had aspired for most of her working life to live in Hove, by the seaside. That is a community that I chose to live in because I absolutely love it. She has been there for five or six years, but things have now got to the point where she must pack her bags and leave—go back to London—because she can no longer cope with the shambles that is the rail franchise. The service is letting down communities and people.
The Minister will know that not only do I come to her to whinge, like everyone else, but I also try to present solutions. Many hon. Members here are like me, and want to help to turn things around and be supportive. I hosted a public meeting last week. The chief operating officer for Govia kindly came down and faced the full force of the anger in my constituency, so I am very grateful to Dyan Crowther. She left the meeting having learned in no uncertain terms how strong the sentiment is at this time. I have also co-founded and co-chair, with the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), an all-party group that will provide an opportunity for all MPs in the area to come together for scrutiny of the issue, and enable them to support the change that is needed. I hope my actions will prove constructive.
Campaigners handed me a petition on the way in, and there are some sensible questions that I want to put directly to the Minister on their behalf. They want a sustainable compensation scheme that will be much more aggressive, assertive and responsive than the present one. They want first class to be declassified permanently, while the temporary timetable is in operation. I have written to the Minister about that; it is eminently sensible. The campaigners want the Minister to announce the duration of the present temporary timetable. I hope she will take all those points into consideration and give direct answers to the campaigners who want action so much.
I was going to start my remarks with a comment about déjà vu until I remembered that I started my previous remarks in this Chamber, on the same subject, with a comment about déjà vu. We are getting continuous repetition.
I held a public meeting on this subject in Horsham on Saturday, and 300 of my constituents turned up—all very angry. At least one of them, I dare say, is still angry, having come up by train to sit in the Public Gallery today. I will not repeat the remarks that other Members have so eloquently made about all the problems the situation is causing—the way jobs, health and family life are being put at risk. That has been expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), among others. Every Member of Parliament attending the debate knows about that, the unions know about it, and the management knows about it.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who is also my constituency neighbour, I have been forthright in attacking GTR for poor performance, including in a debate that I obtained in this place three months ago. I am afraid that GTR entered the dispute when its reputation among its customers was at a low ebb. Notwithstanding that, however, I have no doubt that, as my right hon. Friend said, the immediate cause of the problems on the trains in recent months has been the dispute between the conductors and GTR.
I welcome the £2.5 billion investment in new trains. The independent Rail Safety and Standards Board has confirmed that the train doors can be operated safely by the driver. If that is so, it should be implemented. It does not mean that trains should be denuded of a second professional. I am totally in favour of having a second member of staff, trained in all safety precautions and techniques, on board the train in all but exceptional circumstances. I endorse the comment of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), who pointed out that management should have a sufficiency of trained personnel to ensure that trains can run appropriately. However, on those occasions, which should be rare, when a second staff member is not available, I want the train to be able to run, if it can do so safely, and get my constituents home in the evening from London Bridge or Victoria. I know that my constituents who are undergoing the current nightmare would appreciate knowing how many trains have been cancelled in the past because a conductor was not available.
Echoing what other hon. Members have said, I ask the Government to intervene directly to ensure that the dispute will be resolved. I have heard the Minister’s comments on guaranteeing jobs beyond the current franchise. My constituents are incredulous at the fact that no agreement has been possible to date, and I hope that the Minister’s proposal may result in a breakthrough in discussions. The dispute must not be allowed to continue. While the temporary timetable persists, may I ask the Minister four things? I make no apology for reiterating some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle).
First, why are trains not being declassified to ease the congestion on the reduced number of services? I appreciate that that may imply compensating first-class ticket holders; well, we should do so. Secondly, when will there be a complete overhaul of compensation? The Prime Minister—he remains that currently—promised a couple of weeks ago that we would hear news on that, but we still have not. It was in response to a question of mine in the main Chamber, at column 294 on 29 June. Let us be clear: delay repay does not do it. Many season ticket holders have given up on the trains because of their lack of reliability. They bought their season ticket for use with a timetable that has proved to be fictitious. I want a significant refund to be made to passengers.
Thirdly, GTR has shown a lack of foresight in the planning around the dispute. The dumping ground that is Three Bridges station is renowned. Why could alternative means to get passengers home from there reliably, without the colossal expense of taxis, not have been put in place by now? Lastly, in addition to explaining to customers the rationale for the dispute, I hope the management will give a granular explanation of the cause of the continuing disruption. Can we have, for example, regular publication of sickness statistics? GTR owes its customers, whose trust in the operator is low, proper explanations of why their lives are being made so miserable.
I appreciate that the franchise is huge and there were good reasons, connected with going through London, why it was put together in its present form. In our previous debate I asked the Minister to be brave, if she felt that she needed to and if the franchise had become too large and out of control. I should love to hear her comments on how she feels the debate has gone, and whether the franchise is still operable on its current basis.
I will try not to use even those three minutes, Ms Ryan. I want to echo what others have said and to congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) not just on securing the debate, but on the passion and comprehensive nature of his arguments, reflecting the concerns of his constituents and everybody in this room.
The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made some points about the safety of trains without conductors. In the inner London part of the franchise, which GTR laughingly calls the metro zone, there are no conductors. If I thought for one moment that running driver-only trains was dangerous, I would be kicking up a fuss on behalf of my constituents who are expected to use trains without conductors. I do not believe that that issue is the key to the problem.
The difficulty is that Southern has provided lamentable services consistently throughout the time it has had the franchise. It worries me that the same company has the Southeastern franchise. The company will say that there is a Chinese wall between the franchises but I fear the contagion may spread. Just yesterday, one of my constituents said:
“On the new ‘emergency timetable’, peak time services, including the 802 from Anerley, have been cancelled meaning that passengers are forced to travel in overcrowded conditions on services that are often short formed and subject to delays and last minute cancellations. There is nothing particularly new here. Southern have always provided a sub-par service. This most recent disaster, however, seems to be a lot worse than the usual chaos.”
People have had to get used to “the usual chaos” when the service is provided by Southern.
I was standing on Forest Hill station the other day, fortunately waiting for an Overground service to Canada Water to come here. While I was there, the first train listed was the Southern service into London Bridge. As I stood there, it went from “on time”, to “delayed”, to “cancelled” within the space of four minutes. The short-running of trains is compounding the problem. People get on trains such as those on the Victoria to London Bridge line, which is supposed to go all the way, but they often get to Crystal Palace and are told that the train is terminating there, going both ways—to Victoria or to London Bridge.
The other day, a constituent told me that he had spent £700 on a season ticket for the service between Beckenham Junction and Victoria. That service has now been completely cancelled. I have been on to GTR to try to find out what the compensation arrangements are but, as the service no longer exists, my constituent believes that he now has little or no chance of being able to sustain his current job.
The situation is damaging lives. The sheer unpredictability of it all, from day to day, adds to people’s stress and the difficulties that they face. I know that the Minister has tried valiantly, over a long time, to deal with the situation, but if Southern is not up to running the service, somebody else has to.
It is not just the new timetable that is the issue. My constituents have faced delays for many weeks and months. Last month, more than 1,350 trains were delayed each and every week. My constituents are fed up. I will not go over the impact it is having on many of them, but their experiences reflect much of what has been said.
My constituency is rural, so the train service is the only form of public transport available to many people. I share Wivelsfield station with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames). Plumpton, Cooksbridge, Glynde, Berwick and Polegate are also in my area, and are all facing significant delays. Cooksbridge has only ever had peak-time services. One of my campaigns during the election was to get an off-peak and weekend service for Cooksbridge, but I was told by Southern that it could not do that because it would add two minutes to the timetable.
My main concern for my residents is the new timetable, which was introduced on Monday with less than a week’s notice. Services on the branch line have been cut by 80%, and are being run by a replacement bus service. Those service cuts affect the stations of Southease, Newhaven Town, Newhaven Harbour, Bishopstone and Seaford.
Seaford is the largest town in my constituency, with 27,000 people who can no longer get to work and who have to travel to Brighton or Eastbourne, which they can no longer access by train to get to a hospital. There are young people who want to go to the University of Brighton or the University of Sussex, as there is only a sixth-form in the town, but they cannot access higher or further education because they have no train service. It is a tourist town, which depends on people not just leaving the town for work, but coming into the town to spend money.
Newhaven is a town that we are trying desperately to regenerate. I went over to France to try to save the ferry that goes from Newhaven to Dieppe only a few weeks ago. The French put £20 million a year into that ferry, and I am ashamed to say to them, “There is no longer any train service to Newhaven.”
I have five asks of the Minister. First, each and every train ticket, whether it is a single ticket or a season ticket, needs a fare reduction of 25%. Secondly, we need the urgent reintroduction of the branch line for the reasons I mentioned. Thirdly, we need new management to take over Southern. If we are not going to remove the franchise, let us get people in who can run it. No other rail operator has experienced such a level of delays when introducing driver-only trains.
Fourthly, the trolley service needs to be reintroduced. Passengers cannot be on a train for three hours and not be able to buy a bottle of water or a sandwich. The Two Ronnies made a career of making jokes out of British Rail sandwiches; we can laugh no longer because there is no trolley service available at all on my trains. Fifthly, first class needs to be declassified. I have been on a train when an elderly woman had nowhere to sit and was fined by Southern because she used first class. That is disgraceful. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), enough is enough.
I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing the debate and on his excellent contribution. I echo and agree with much of what has been said. My constituents use Southern services into London Bridge and Victoria from stations such as East Dulwich, Peckham Rye and North Dulwich, and they use Thameslink services from Sydenham Hill, Herne Hill and Loughborough Junction. It is fair to say that, before the current crisis, services were already unacceptably poor. The works at London Bridge were entirely mismanaged. Southern produced a timetable that was entirely unsustainable, had no resilience and was understaffed. Satisfaction with GTR services is among the lowest in the country and, within that, the lowest levels of satisfaction are within the metro part of the service and among commuters.
My constituents have shown immense patience and forbearance with their rail services while dealing with entirely unacceptable consequences to their quality of life. The impact on family life includes people being unable to see their children at bedtime, being consistently late picking up their children, being unable to meet caring responsibilities, losing jobs, having to move jobs and just simply dealing with the additional stress within lives that are already busy and stretched. That is simply unacceptable.
Much has been said about the industrial dispute. The responsibility for good industrial relations rests with all parties. The seeds of the dispute go back a long way, and are about understaffing. GTR started the franchise with fewer drivers than the previous franchisee reported having in post. How was that even allowed to happen? GTR has been too slow to recruit and too slow to train.
On top of all that is the introduction of the emergency timetable. I was grateful to the Minister for meeting me a few weeks ago to discuss the issue, as Southern presented a sort of plan for getting through the industrial dispute. Then, with no warning and no briefing at all, the emergency timetable was introduced. In my constituency, that involved pretty much the wholesale withdrawal of commuter rail services on the Southern part of the network. Only one train out of four or five an hour run, and my constituents simply cannot get on to those trains because they are too full.
The franchise needs to be withdrawn. Enough is enough. Patience has run out. The franchise needs to be passed to Transport for London, which has a track record of running decent Overground rail services in the capital. That is what passengers want and there are huge levels of support for it. I accept that TfL cannot do that in a single step but we are in a crisis, and I call on the Minister to take action to allow the Department for Transport to take over in the interim while arrangements can be made to transfer the franchise to TfL.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for securing this debate. I speak on behalf of both myself and my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd). We share the two worst-performing rail operators—Southern and Southeastern—and we bear our crosses as best we can.
I am also a daily commuter, mostly on Southern. I spend about three-and-a-half hours on my commute, so I experience the same frustration, anger and stories that many right hon. and hon. Members have detailed today. In Bexhill and Hastings we have suffered the emergency timetable, which has affected our two-carriage train. The train does not perform that regularly, and it is now even worse. The timetable is causing real misery for our constituents in both towns.
I am a member of the Select Committee on Transport, and I can perhaps bring a little optimism to the room. It was a delight to have the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the chief executive of Southern and the rail Minister at our inquiry into Southern’s performance. The session made it clear that there is some common ground. The key now is to get everyone around the table. With respect to the RMT, we finally got it to agree that, really, this just comes down to jobs. The union could call it safety, and I could call it union subs, but it comes down to a guarantee that there will be a second member of staff on the trains. The Committee was reassured to hear from the chief executive of Southern that that guarantee will be in place not only now but for the entirety of the franchise. Southern cannot give any more than that because it cannot go beyond its franchise terms. We then asked the rail Minister what can be done beyond that, and I hope that I am not misquoting her when I say that she was able to confirm that the guarantee will be in place for the next franchise, too.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said so forcibly, it is right for us to call out behaviour that we consider unreasonable. Who else is guaranteed a job for up to 10 years? Certainly not Members of Parliament. It is down to the unions to show a little more willingness. They have now responded by letter to say that they will call for a cessation of industrial action for a three-month period, which is a good start, but they must operate the rolling stock for which we have all been waiting for so long. If it turns out that a conductor cannot join a train but that the driver can close the doors, I would rather have that train run. The unions have to be reasonable.
The unions also have to be reasonable in helping to end the sickness issues. There is undoubtedly an issue that has to be ended, and the unions have the biggest responsibility for doing so. Those are my asks of the unions—they wrote back yesterday telling the rail Minister that they are willing to sit down and give talks a try. I urge her, and all concerned, to take up that offer.
I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this debate. It is no exaggeration to describe the situation on Southern railway as of crisis proportions. The impact on residents’ day-to-day lives is deep and profound. Lee Fenton, one of my neighbours in Coulsdon, lost his job because he was so persistently late for work. I have talked to people who have had to quit their jobs, to self-employed people who are losing earnings and whose businesses are no longer viable, and to parents who are not getting home in time to put their children to bed. These problems are profoundly affecting the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands of people.
Although industrial relations are, in the first instance, GTR’s responsibility, it is time for the Government to take a more active role in the industrial dispute and in matters of the railway’s performance, because this is more than just an industrial dispute on a railway, and it is about more than just how the railway operates. The dispute is profoundly affecting the lives of very many people. I share the view of the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that problems on Southern railway and GTR go back at least two years, and a fresh start with a new franchise is needed. Southern’s public performance measure has been very low for well over a year.
I also agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) that performance, which has been very poor for a year, has become abysmal as a result of the industrial dispute. I am firmly of the view that the concerns expressed about safety are wholly without merit. As we have heard, 60% of GTR trains already run perfectly safely with driver-operated doors. Every single London underground train, where platform crowding is significantly worse than on Southern railway, works with driver-operated doors with no safety concerns at all.
I urge Labour Members to use their influence with the RMT, which I suspect is slightly more significant than mine, to urge an immediate cessation of this groundless dispute. Jobs have been guaranteed beyond the lifetime of the franchise, which is a generous offer, and pay and the number of people employed have been guaranteed. There are no reasonable grounds for the dispute. This is an urgent matter, and I urge the Minister to take control of the franchise and to get involved in resolving the industrial dispute, because our constituents, neighbours and residents cannot take this any longer. It simply must end.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this important debate on the performance, and frankly the failure, of Govia Thameslink. I am sitting next to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), and I must point out that this sickness has spread to Hampshire. Indeed, Southern has a toe in my constituency, and it must not be forgotten that services up from Swanwick in her patch—there is a bridge between our constituencies —to Gatwick airport have left travellers stranded and abandoned, with embarrassing and derisory compensation offered.
On unsafe practices, the duty of care is not about closing doors; it is about not abandoning and stranding people on the side of a railway, with trains being cancelled or changed at short notice. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said, people are simply being left in the middle of nowhere with no options.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem extends across the whole network? Many people using our stations in southern Hampshire on the mainline west coastway route—Swanwick, Portchester and Fareham—are travelling to Crawley or Gatwick for work, and they are putting their jobs at risk.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I have travellers from Netley and Hamble going to Bursledon and onward to Southampton Central. Those people avoid the A27 and the grind through Chichester, or the M27 heading to Littlehampton, Worthing, Hove or Brighton and the perils of the Chichester roundabout, in the hope of getting to work safe and sound. The safety considerations are, of course, off the trains. Yes, the unions might have a point, and perhaps we have not quite gotten to the bottom of that, but for me the safety considerations are about vulnerable people being left on the side of the railway.
We are a Government who stand up for working people, and it is time for us to stand up for passengers, workers, students, visitors and vulnerable people with children. There is an economic case for action on Southern trains, and I have previously asked the Minister a question on that in the Chamber. We have heard that the issue is blighting people’s lives day in, day out. It is not good enough.
I am also concerned about the safety of guards on trains. There is dangerous overcrowding late at night, with upset and angry people. Having seen the pictures of overcrowding at Victoria station, I am frankly surprised that there has not been a riot. The situation is dangerous. I do not want to over-egg or overhype it, but I have received feedback that people are frightened and concerned.
There is an economic case for us to support our businesses. We talk about Brexit and the problems that could affect our businesses, but the reality is that problems are happening now due to this franchise. I ask the Minister for a kind response and to think about all the families, workers and businesses who depend on the Government to make a substantial case for doing something. The time is now.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on securing this crucial debate and on his tour de force. We were all impressed by what he had to say.
After little more than two years, GTR’s operation of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise has been an unmitigated disaster, with the targets on punctuality and reducing delays breached long ago and followed by a series of inadequate compromises between the Department for Transport and GTR. The views of passengers, and their intense dissatisfaction with GTR’s performance, are being managed rather than met by the Government. There is insufficient protection of the passenger and public interest in the reliable operation of these vital rail services, which are essential to both the national economy and the millions of passengers who rely on them.
GTR’s tenure has led to the worst punctuality ratings of any train operator in the country; a doubling in the percentage of trains that were cancelled or delayed by more than half an hour, from 3.9% to 7.4% of services which, again, is worse than any other operator in the last reporting period; an average of 50.9% of trains on time, one of the worst ratings in the country; and one in three Gatwick Express trains running late. The list goes on.
The latest Transport Focus statistics make for dire reading for GTR and the Government, with passenger satisfaction in decline to an unacceptably low level. Only 35% of passengers on the Southern metro and Sussex coastway lines regard the service as value for money, following the introduction of the remedial plan.
Will the hon. Gentleman forgive me if I do not? I want to give the Minister time to respond, and she has little enough.
As Members who represent constituencies on these lines know only too well, all these performance failures were visible on Southern GTR services well before any dispute with the rail unions over driver-only operation and prior to Southern services entering the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern super-franchise in July 2015. We have also seen the operator of last resort, Directly Operated Railways, scaled back within DFT and removed from the Rail Delivery Group.
GTR is widely recognised as the worst train operator in the country, following a sustained period of cancellations, lateness, worsening industrial relations and failed planning that makes a mockery of the Government’s regular sermons on the benefits of rail privatisation. There is cross-party consensus on the need for GTR to be stripped of the franchise: my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna), the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) and for Croydon South (Chris Philp), the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and many others have all called for that. Even GTR acknowledges that it could have the franchise removed if it fails to deliver on targets in the franchise agreement. In this increasingly fractious affair, why is it only the Government who are not contemplating removing the franchise or even retaining the threat as a means of improving performance?
The Opposition would like to see our rail services back in public operation, but to ignore the clear evidence of the essential service protection that the public sector provides through the operator of last resort is entirely reckless. Perhaps GTR’s accounts shed more helpful light on the extent of its relationship with DFT and the purpose it serves. Under a section entitled “Political Risks”, GTR states:
“It is not anticipated that any significant political change in direction would affect the existing contract. The company’s senior management continue to work closely with the DFT to ensure consistency of messaging to try to manage stakeholder expectations.”
That may be standard language to reassure shareholders and investors, but it also strikes me as evidence of an unhealthy relationship in which the Government are committed to preserving the GTR franchise, whatever the cost to passengers, staff or the taxpayer. The taxpayer is paying GTR an estimated £1.17 billion every year in management fees for this dysfunctional service, and that does not include the huge levels of investment in track and stations through publicly owned Network Rail every year, including the redevelopment of London Bridge.
Neither sickness levels nor industrial action are responsible for the misery that Southern commuters in particular have contended with for more than a year now. The decline in industrial relations is a direct result of the close relationship between the Government and GTR. When senior civil servants are quoted at public meetings stating to passengers that they “have got to break” rail unions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) said, the problem is entirely of the Government’s making.
Labour is clear that the Government’s failure to include meaningful penalties in the franchise is at the root of GTR’s declining performance. We call on the Government to strip GTR of the franchise. That is the only way in which sustainable improvements in performance can be achieved. The breach and default levels for service cancellations under the original franchise agreement with Govia have been consistently exceeded, and what we have seen in response is the imposition of a remedial plan cooked up between GTR and the DFT in February this year and kept away from prying eyes for three months. That raised breach and default levels for service cancellation, meaning that passengers would have to cope with up to 31,000 fewer services.
The Minister was absolutely right when she said in a debate on Southern in this Chamber almost exactly a year ago that high levels of delay and cancellation were
“an unacceptable burden on working families.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2015; Vol. 598, c. 105WH.]
That burden is worse today, and it is the direct result of the Government’s handling of this franchise—indulging GTR and failing to respond to consistent failure with removal of the franchise.
Let me turn quickly to the current dispute. Even the industry-funded Rail Safety and Standards Board has acknowledged that driver-only operated services
“may increase the likelihood of an event occurring or increase the severity of its consequence.”
The issue is whether risks to passengers increase when things go wrong if passengers no longer have a binding safety guarantee from a second member of on-board staff who is fully trained in safety-critical procedures. GTR’s proposed new role of an on-board supervisor will not be that of a guard or a conductor; it will lack critical safety training in carriage and passenger protection in the event of an emergency incident.
GTR and the Government have also claimed that there will be no deskilling or dumbing down as a result of the GTR proposals to extend DOO on Southern services, yet the Minister told members of the Transport Committee on Monday that no train that currently has a second person on board would lose that person, and that she would ensure that the safety-critical role is maintained. We hope she will confirm today that that safety-critical role will be maintained over the life of this and future franchises. Central to that is retaining the 12-week training requirement for the second member of train crew—whether that is a guard, a conductor or an on-board supervisor.
I note that the RMT offered last week to suspend its industrial action for three months, as long as GTR suspends the DOO extension plans for a similar length of time. It surely makes sense now for the Minister to invite the RMT to meet her at the earliest opportunity to discuss the terms of a settlement with GTR that would also apply to future franchises. That should allow both parties time to reach a conclusion to this dispute, if not to the performance problems that have dogged GTR since its inception, which we believe can only be remedied by removal of the franchise.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I thank right hon. and hon. Members on both sides for their contributions to this important debate. Before I look forwards, I want to take a couple of minutes to look back.
One of my first jobs on becoming rail Minister in 2014 was to go up the Shard and welcome this new franchise, and to celebrate the fact that the franchise had been awarded to an operator who, by all accounts, was well qualified to take it on. It had operated trains during the Olympics, when everything ran swimmingly, and it was appraised of the extent of the Thameslink disruption. It had an investment plan and a plan to redress the shortage of drivers—an issue that had bedevilled the previous franchise. Things seemed to be set fair.
In the summer of that year we saw the major blockades at London Bridge which caused massive disruption for people—not during the blockade but at points afterwards. Afterwards, we ran into weeks and weeks of problems. I got involved and we had a weekly quadrant meeting. My friend the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) said that we all now know far more about trains and franchising than we ever thought we would have to know.
In fairness, things were starting to work. Despite the lack of joined-up thinking about the impact of the London Bridge works on existing commuters, the major problems with Network Rail’s infrastructure reliability, which were not being addressed properly, and the series of changes, including Sir Peter Hendy coming in from TfL and taking direct control of all the infrastructure work in that area, everyone was pulling together, with the massive involvement of my officials, and in April the public performance measure got back to 83.6%.
It was not nearly good enough, but that was 10 percentage points up over the last six months. There was every view that performance was returning to the place where we needed it to be.
Since then—I will come to the issue of the industrial action—all bets are off. When people simply do not know how many staff are rostering in a particular depot, particularly the Brighton depot, where so many trains start and finish, it is impossible to run a reliable service. I have been to London Bridge and Victoria stations many times and travelled on the trains and I have been ashamed to be the rail Minister. I suggest that successive rail Ministers over many years in many Governments should share that sense of shame.
There seem to have been four fundamental failures in the industry that mean that when things go wrong, it is really hard to recover. It is the customers—the passengers who rely on the train services—who suffer. First, I submit to the House that there has been a disdain for people—for passengers—at the heart of the railway for decades. I have shared this anecdote with the House previously: a former very senior member of Network Rail said to me that the problem with the timetable is that the customers mess it up. Think about what that implies about what that person’s view of their job was: to run a system, not to move people.
Crowding is not really costed in any of the economic measures that successive Governments have used. There has just been an assumption that people will continue to cram on. It is more valuable to put a train on a long-distance service, where there is a discretionary choice of travel, than to relieve crowding on an overground service around London. That seems to me to be perverse.
Investment has been entirely focused on engineering improvements and almost never on reduction in delay. Why do we still have this “leaves on the line” problem every year? By the way, no one has ever calculated the economic consequences of leaves on the line. Surely it is not beyond the wit of our finest metallurgists to solve that problem, yet we just accept it. We plough on and look to shave five minutes off long-distance journeys.
Thameslink will deliver some significant benefits for people travelling through London. There are brand new trains and wonderful new stations such as Blackfriars, which nobody ever talks about. It is a wonderful station delivered without a trace. Nevertheless, the human cost of the Thameslink work on the travelling public was almost forgotten. I was not the Minister at the time and I do not even know under which Government it was planned, but a man came up to me at London Bridge station in tears and said, “You’re doing this so people can get from Cambridge to Brighton without disruption. That’s great, but I just want to get home to see my kids.” There is something flawed with the industry, because it does not value those people’s experiences.
The second failure is that, as Members know, the industry has a highly complicated structure. We have Network Rail, which is in a much better place now, post the Hendy review and Shaw changes. It has made some amazing hires. We have a franchising system that in some cases delivers huge benefits but in other cases does not. The problem with franchising is that if it is a very short-term franchise, nobody has an incentive to invest in industrial or passenger relations. Why would the staff care when the name on the nameplate changes every seven years?
No, I am going to continue.
Thirdly, we have an investment structure that is broken. The Government step in over and over again to fill the gaps and to buy rolling stock. By the way, the profits in the rail industry mostly accrue to the rolling stock leasing companies—the ROSCOs. If Members look at the shareholder structures to see where the profits are, they will see that they are with the rolling stock companies, not the franchise operators. GTR’s margin this year is going to be around 1.5% on this franchise. There is something structurally wrong with the financial structure of the industry.
The fourth and final problem is that the contractual levers are really poor. I have been asked repeatedly, “Why don’t you just take the franchise back?” The reason is that I cannot. GTR is not in breach of its franchise contract right now.
The hon. Gentleman knows—he has been involved in contracting—that we have a contractual structure and there are a series of inputs and outputs. The company is not in breach of them. People ask what happened with Directly Operated Railways. The franchise was handed back to the Government by East Coast. In such circumstances we can take it back in-house and do something with it, but at the moment I do not have the levers to pull to take the franchise back.
No. If I may, I will continue, because I want to try to address some action points. I will try to finish quickly.
If I thought it would help for me to fall on my sword, I would. I have thought about it repeatedly. I do not like failure. I do not fail at stuff in my life. This feels like a failure. Could I do something contractually to force the franchise to end early? Would the problems actually go away? Would the industrial action and staffing problems stop? No. Would the investment programme create anything more certain for passengers? No. In my view, it would do almost nothing. It feels like that scene in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”, when the test pilot is “augering in”—into the ground—shouting:
“I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!”
I take issue with the view that nobody cares. Charles Horton and Dyan Crowther really care. They have done so much work. They have been out there, briefing and working tirelessly. The emergency timetable was not just some fantasy; it was an attempt to try to deliver a reliable service that would actually work, by compressing staff and trains into the areas of greatest need and making sure that the services that were withdrawn were ones for which there were alternative routes. The front-line staff really care. Day after day, they are there, holding the line, dealing with angry customers and trying to cheer up passengers. Right hon. and hon. Members really care. We have all been on this journey for many years now. My Department cares passionately. Nobody is enjoying this process.
On industrial relations, it is true that doors operated by drivers are safe—61% of GTR trains are already operated using the technology. It is incredible what can be done through industrial action. Is it politically motivated? I do not know. Yesterday, the 8.36 service from London Victoria to Sutton was cancelled because an unknown person had been smoking in the driver’s cab and the driver was not happy to drive the train. The driver’s cab had to be aired and cleaned before it could be utilised, so the service was cancelled, causing knock-on delays throughout the day. To me, that does not feel like everybody pulling together to deliver a battle plan for customers who want to get home, which is what I think they should be doing.
What are we going to do? The one-month emergency timetable was today—at least as of 12 noon—delivering a 90.3% PPM on Southern. Everything could go wrong later in the day, but it looks like it is starting to work. That timetable will be in place for one month, and we need to monitor it closely. I want to bring forward compensation plans. That will involve negotiation with other parts of the Government, given that we are talking about revenue that is coming into the Government coffers, but I am very keen to deliver compensation. I have written to the next Prime Minister about this. She has a proposal to get customers and unions more closely involved in the management structure of companies, and GTR would be a perfect example of involving them. I do want to meet the unions and the management. I have been advised repeatedly to stay out of it—hell no! I want to sit people around the table and say, “What the hell is going on? Let’s try to sort this out.”
Over the medium term, I want to accelerate the plan for the devolution of rail services to London. It is absolutely right to do that and it will deliver capacity on inner-London and suburban routes. I do not care about the politics and I do not care that there is a Labour Mayor; I just want the trains to run better. I also want to look at a new structure. In the Shaw report, we gave ourselves permission to look at new ways of running the railway. Could we put rolling stock and infrastructure together in a way that delivers a better service for passengers?
Although GTR is a highly complicated franchise—it is the busiest, most complicated thing in the country—it could be the perfect way to try to get everyone to focus on delivering a service. Would it not be great to be proud of the services that were bringing people into the greatest city in the UK, rather than ashamed? That is what I want, and I know it is what we all want. I may not be the Minister to deliver it, but as sure as hell I will keep trying until I am kicked out.
From Streatham to Horsham, from Fareham to Bexhill, from Dulwich to Lewes, our constituents are angry, for all the reasons that have been laid out very passionately by the more than 20 Members present for the debate. With respect to the Minister, I did not want a history of the railways. I did not mention leaves on the line. I certainly would not hold up an 83% PPM as a badge of honour, because that means that almost one in five trains are still running very, very late. She said that the company was not in breach. When on earth will it technically be in breach? We need to know that.
I asked about the financial implications for the company and the Government, but answer came there none. Will the Minister please write to us so that we can understand at what point this nightmare will come to an end? The hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) described it as toothache, but the pain that our constituents are suffering is more like serious root canal surgery. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said that we need to blame the unions. We do, but we also need to blame the non-21st century management practices of GTR for their not getting around the table and doing something about it.
In none of the vocabulary I heard from the Minister were the passengers the most important part for the solutions we need to achieve. I say to her: I know it is difficult to take back the franchise, but please, please set down some parameters for when such action might be triggered, or tell us what else you are going to do about it.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).