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House of Commons Hansard
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20 January 2017
Volume 619

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

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Today, the world is watching political speeches of historic significance, and I hope my Adjournment debate does not disappoint.

I thank the House for once again allowing the issue of Southern rail to be debated in the Chamber. While many of my constituents—in fact, many people in the south-east region—were pleased to hear that next week’s strikes by the ASLEF union have been halted and that a normal Southern rail service should start again on Tuesday, the fear of a “normal” Southern experience is filling some people with trepidation.

The normal service in the Southern region for the last 18 months to two years has been extremely poor. At times, performance has gone down to a level where fewer than 40% of trains have turned up on time, and the average is around 66%. That compares with over 90% for other operators, so we in the Southern region certainly suffer more than most. It is not just late trains and cancellations. Trains are often short-formed, going from 12 carriages down to 10 or eight. There is also poor customer service, and we have even had our trolley service removed from our trains, to add insult to injury.

Many constituents have been to see me, whether that is individuals who have shared their experience of getting to work late, getting home late and being at risk of losing their jobs, or businesses, and I recently attended the local chamber of commerce breakfast meeting in Seaford, where businesses told me that trade was down because no one could get to them to use their services. In my four towns of Lewes, Seaford, Polegate and Newhaven, the experience is exactly the same.

My constituency has suffered more than most. We are a Southern-only constituency, and we do not have Thameslink or Gatwick Express. We are a very rural constituency, so there are few other forms of transport available. Not all our little villages have a GP, a post office or a school, so people use the trains to get to the main towns or the neighbouring villages to use the services there. When there is no train, people are literally cut off from the rest of the world.

When people come to see me, I say that there are three reasons why the rail service has not been great in our Southern region. The first, of course, is the dispute. As I said at the beginning, that is hopefully on the way to being resolved. We are glad about that, and we praise all those involved in getting people back round the table.

The second issue is Network Rail. Over 50% of delays on the Southern rail network have been down to rail infrastructure issues. We have an old line in the constituency and across Surrey and London. It has lacked investment for 10 to 20 years, leading to recurring signal problems, point failures and track failures. I was pleased that one of the first tasks the Secretary of State undertook when he came into post was to outline some of the initial investment in the track.

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My hon. Friend is making a typically powerful case, as a diligent constituency MP. Does she agree that, while passengers understand that there will be service outages, what frustrates them is the lack of information? What we need is proper co-ordination between the train operating companies and Network Rail in real time so that people can make alternative arrangements.

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I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is as if he is psychic, because that was going to be my very next point. As well as the investment, the Secretary of State has asked the Rail Delivery Group to bring together Network Rail and the rail operator so that when there are problems on the tracks, passengers have a better experience through better customer service and information about alternative routes. We have all felt frustrated on a Monday morning when engineering works have overrun and trains have been cancelled because of poor communication between Network Rail and the rail operator. Those two points, however, do not take away from Southern rail’s poor performance. As we move from the dispute to a normal rail service, my constituency wants a good rail service.

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I thank the hon. Lady for bringing the issue to the House. Her constituents and mine suffer the daily misery of the failure of Southern rail. Does she agree that Southern’s performance has been so bad over the past two years that it should have been stripped of its franchise, and that it is because of a problem with the structure of the franchise that that has not been contractually possible? Will she join me in calling on the Secretary of State to look as a matter of urgency at ways in which the franchise can be stripped from the operator and handed to Transport for London or another part of the public sector, such as the Department for Transport, to run in the interim while the service is sorted out?

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The Secretary of State is on record as saying that once the dispute is resolved, the performance of Southern rail will have to be tackled. I can only speak for myself when I say that I would look at all the options. It is not acceptable to my constituents and others across the country that only 66% of train services run on time. I know of people who are losing, or who have lost, their jobs and who are moving home because of that poor performance. People miss flights from Gatwick airport, which is on the rail line; I even know of a young couple who missed their honeymoon because of Southern rail. Getting to and from work is also an issue. I have been contacted by many parents who have had to arrange extra childcare because they have been unable to get home in time to collect their children from school.

I agree with the hon. Lady. I want the Minister to outline the timescale within which we expect performance to improve. We cannot go on for months with poor performance. Before the dispute, Southern was fined £2 million for its poor performance, but given how much it earns from the contract, that is a drop in the ocean. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline the timescale within which he will measure Southern rail’s performance and the sanctions that will be imposed on it if it does not improve the service.

This is not just about the number of trains that are cancelled or delayed. A huge number of constituents contact me when trains fail to stop at stations. If people in rural constituencies such as mine miss their stop because the train keeps going, the next stop is often 10 miles away, which can mean a taxi ride home. They might even be dropped off at an unmanned station without any lighting or a taxi service. The situation is heart-breaking. There are more issues than the sheer number of cancellations and delays. My Lewes constituents often find that their train will terminate at Haywards Heath for no reason. It usually divides, but if there is no driver or guard it just terminates and they are left to their own devices to try to get home. Short trains are also causing severe overcrowding. There should be no reason for suddenly cutting a 12-carriage train to eight carriages. There are also huge concerns about the timetable for 2018. Residents are deeply concerned about the proposals to cut the only direct services from the town of Seaford to London.

Although I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of a refund equivalent to the cost of a month’s travel for season ticket holders, it is not working. Not one of my constituents has heard from Southern rail, and I would be surprised if anyone else has, either. They were supposed to be contacted in January and told how they would get the rebate, but not one of them has heard anything. That goes hand in hand with the everyday experience of the delay repay scheme. The Government have tried to reduce the length of the delay for which people can claim from 30 minutes to 15 minutes, but time and again I hear from constituents who say that the system is not working. Passengers have to apply online or by post, and they often find that their forms are lost or their claims are challenged by Southern rail. Most of us do not bother using Delay Repay, so the train operator is getting off scot-free. Our constituents do not receive compensation for the taxis that they have to take when their train does not turn up or when it terminates early, or for the extra childcare that they have to pay out for. Simply compensating people for the rail fare that they have paid is not enough.

Part of the issue is the key card system. Unlike in the TfL system in the zones around London, passengers have no opportunity to use a contactless card; they have to use a Southern rail key card. It must be pre-loaded before a journey, which means that passengers cannot spontaneously get on a train without pre-loading their card first. If they have not left enough time and the IT system is not coping, the ticket will not have loaded on to the key card in time, and they will not be able to get through the barrier. It is a cumbersome, clunky ticketless system, and it is part of the reason why people cannot claim their refunds.

We were promised flexible season tickets for people who travel, as I do, two or three times a week. With more people working at home, the traditional season ticket is rapidly becoming outdated. Southern is still consulting on the flexible season ticket that we were promised and has not delivered on it. I would be interested to hear an update on that from the Minister.

Another key issue that I want to outline is the experience of disabled passengers. Particularly in the towns of Seaford and Newhaven, an appalling bus replacement service has been provided, using buses that are not wheelchair accessible. Many disabled passengers have been turned away over the last few months, because they have been unable to get on to those buses. Taxis have been ordered, but disabled passengers have experienced long waits. That is unacceptable, in my belief. Even when the rail service is working, disabled passengers have to pre-book and hope that their booking will result in station staff being there to help them. Many disabled passengers have contacted me to say that the assistance that they have booked has not been available at the station and they have been unable to get on to their train.

A final point on the experience of disabled passengers concerns toilets. There are no “Changing Places” toilets in my constituency. Haywards Heath, which is a big junction for my constituents, has had a huge upgrade. It has a new car park and a fantastic system that allows wheelchair users to take a lift directly to the platform, but there are no suitable toilet facilities. That led to one of my young constituents, who goes to Chailey Heritage School, having to be changed on the platform because there was nowhere among the new all-singing, all-dancing facilities for her to be changed. In this day and age, that is completely unacceptable.

I welcome this week’s announcement, and it is a huge relief to us all that the dispute seems to be coming to an end. For us, it is the first step in getting an improved rail service. The experience over the last 18 months has been absolutely dreadful. We dread returning to a normal Southern timetable. We want a good Southern timetable with trains that turn up on time; that are not cancelled or delayed; that do not terminate early; and that are accessible for all passengers. If that does not happen, we want the reassurance that Southern will be taken to task and dealt with by means of financial penalties or, if it comes to it, a change in the franchise.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on securing the debate. I know that this subject is close to her and her constituents’ hearts, and we have had much ministerial correspondence on the matter. She has, as ever, spoken up for her area with a strong voice, whether it has been about services for Lewes’s famous bonfire night celebrations or about replacement bus services.

I understand the frustration that my hon. Friend and her constituents have experienced with the service that they have had. I expect Govia Thameslink Railway to be able to run a reliable and predictable service for passengers—that is an entirely reasonable expectation—so I can only imagine what it must be like to be dependent on such an unpredictable service not just as a commuter, but as someone who needs to travel regularly. There are two elements to improving the service: the industrial relations issues; and the long-standing, underlying service problem areas. I will go through each in turn.

As hon. Members will be aware, trade unions and Southern rail have been in dispute since mid-April last year. The dispute has centred on driver-operated doors, and it has caused significant disruption to passengers. However, moving to a way of working in which the driver controls the train doors and the second person on the train focuses on customer service will be much more passenger-friendly and will allow a higher performing and more resilient rail service. The unjust industrial action arising from the dispute has held back GTR from delivering a modern, safe and passenger-focused railway. We want a railway that is fit for the future, but the dispute is getting in the way.

Although the dispute is a matter for the union and the train operator to resolve, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), have been doing everything they can to limit the impact of the strikes on passengers. On strike days and to cope with the overtime ban, additional measures have been put in place to help people to get to work.

A huge amount of work is taking place behind the scenes to try to get a resolution to the dispute. That is why I welcome ASLEF’s offer to suspend industrial action, allowing for a new round of intensive talks towards the end of this week. Indeed, those talks might be happening right now. I hope the talks end in success, which would allow us to get on with improving services and, most importantly, ending the misery that industrial action has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of passengers.

The travelling public are still subject to strikes by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, however. I assure hon. Members that the train operator has contingency plans in place. On RMT strike days—such as next Monday, on 23 January—tickets are accepted on alternative GTR routes and other operator’s services, while bus replacement services are in place where there is no alternative rail option. In the meantime, GTR has trained a large number of office staff as contingency conductors to provide cover on non-driver-only operation Southern routes, and additional GTR and agency staff have been deployed to stations to help passengers.

Let me turn to the issue on which the dispute centres: the driver-controlled operation of the doors. Essentially, DCO involves someone driving and also controlling the doors without the need for a guard. Drivers on Southern have been striking against what others in GTR have been doing for years. This way of working is perfectly safe. DCO services have been operating effectively at very busy stations on a third of the UK network for more than 30 years. In fact, more than half the trains running in Britain, including all trains on London Underground, operate with drivers in full control of the doors. Indeed, more than 60% of GTR’s current services operate without conductors.

We are investing about £2 billion of public money in providing longer modern trains across the GTR network, which is all about delivering extra capacity for the travelling public and coping with increased demand for services. These trains are fully equipped with the latest technology that allows the driver fully to operate the train from the cab, in line with modern practice. When Ian Prosser, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of railways, published his GTR DCO inspection report recently, he confirmed that driver-controlled operation on Southern is safe. The Office of Rail and Road has concluded that the proposal fully meets legal requirements for safe operation.

Given that such a significant voice has assessed the practice as safe, as well as the safe record of operating such services, I hope that the unions will now acknowledge that they have no credible argument for saying that DCO is an unsafe method of operation. GTR has publicly stated that there will be no compulsory job losses until the end of its franchise in 2021 as a result of this modernisation, and affected conductor staff will have their pay protected.

Our railways are a success. Passenger numbers are growing. In fact, they have more than doubled since privatisation—from 735 million journeys a year in 1994-95 to 1.7 billion in 2015-16. That is a fantastic record. We will obviously need more people, not fewer, to help passengers in the future. The changes are about freeing up staff time so that they can focus on providing customer service and helping the travelling public on board the trains. If the unions insist on retaining outdated ways of working, it will be impossible to deliver the benefits, including improved reliability, that the new technologies can bring.

GTR has always been clear that there will be more staff on board trains in the future than there are today. They will be there to help passengers, including by giving customer assistance to individuals at unstaffed stations. Some 99% of on-board supervisor contracts have now been signed, and more than 80% of the additional 100 on-board supervisors who have been recruited have started their role. We hope that the new talks will end the months of misery and hardship faced by the travelling public, and the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes articulated so powerfully today.

I turn to some of the underlying service problems. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is acutely aware that performance has not been good enough in the past and has deteriorated again in recent weeks. We need to be clear about what is causing that, because some of it has been more about the failure of infrastructure operated by Network Rail than failures by GTR. The instruction to drivers not to work non-contractual overtime on rest days has also had a significant impact on services.

None the less, I assure the House that the Department is determined to resolve the issues that exist as quickly as possible. Some of them should be addressed by the work that Chris Gibb has done as head of a new project board, working with GTR, the Department for Transport and Network Rail to explore how to achieve a rapid improvement in services. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes asked specifically about the timing of improvements. I will check on that work and write to her with further information.

It is appropriate that GTR is held to account for the quality of its product, and the Government continue to do that. GTR must work with Network Rail to deliver better passenger services as soon as possible. We monitor closely the performance of all rail franchises, and the franchise agreement contains clear penalties and incentives so that operators are penalised for repeated poor performance in the areas for which they take direct responsibility.

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It is straightforwardly the case that the measures in the franchise agreement covering Southern rail have not provided sufficiently significant incentives or deterrents to improve performance—they have not worked. Will the Minister comment further on that?

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We know that there have been significant problems on the line, but the biggest single blockage to progress is the gun that is being held to everybody’s head by the industrial action. The huge investment in new rolling stock will deliver a vastly improved service, with improved capacity and comfort on the trains. All we need is for that £2 billion investment to reach customers as fast as possible.

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I agree that the industrial dispute needs to be resolved, but the fact remains that Southern rail was failing long before that dispute even began.

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I agree that there have been operational challenges which, as I said, have resulted in poor performance and predate the strike. That is clearly correct, but the strike has taken those challenges much further and compounded the underlying problems.

As I said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has brought in a team to head a new project board, bringing together all the different parties to explore how we can make a rapid improvement in services. However, it is hard to do that when such huge day-to-day operational challenges are caused by the strike action. I am happy to agree with the hon. Lady’s point about the underlying problems that predate the strike—that is without any doubt. Under the regime of performance monitoring for the franchise, penalties have been levied against GTR for cancellations and short formations, and they will continue to be so levied.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned compensation, which is important, given the cost of rail travel and the level of disruption. Last month, the Government announced a multimillion pound compensation package for season ticket passengers in recognition of the hardship experienced by those who have suffered long delays, cancellations and disruption in recent months. She said that no one in her constituency had heard about the scheme, but they should have been hearing about it this week, so I am grateful for her feedback, which I will take back to the Department. I ask her to make sure that such practical, on-the-ground experience is continually fed back to me and my ministerial colleagues. The Delay Repay 15 scheme has been introduced to make it easier for Southern passengers to claim compensation.

It was appalling to hear my hon. Friend’s points about disabled services. We are dealing with Victorian infrastructure and trying retrospectively to install accessible and friendly services. This urgent work has been undertaken by successive Governments of all parties. Progress has been made, but there is a long way to go, and the experience she mentioned of someone having to be changed on a platform is obviously utterly unacceptable. The task of improving our public transport system for people with disabilities is important to the Department and one of my personal priorities. We will shortly be publishing an action plan for how to improve accessibility for people with disabilities on all our public transport, and for the first time we will include cognitive impairment and dementia in that.

This stretch of the network is one of the most intensively used in our country, having seen a dramatic increase in journey numbers over the past few years. I mentioned the dramatic passenger growth across the network as a whole, but the growth on this stretch is right at the top end of that spectrum. We need to increase capacity and update and modernise the service.

I fully recognise that strikes have caused disruption for passengers and that the current performance is far from satisfactory. It is utterly not good enough. ASLEF’s offer to suspend industrial action is a step in the right direction, and I hope that with these latest talks we can get on with improving services and, most importantly, ending the misery that this industrial action has inflicted on hundreds of thousands of passengers. We need to resolve this matter so that we can get back to the important task of improving the line and delivering the service that my hon. Friend and others across the House are rightly demanding for their constituents.

Rail is a critical and successful industry. It has been a success by all measures—growing passenger numbers, its safety record, and levels of investment from the public and private sectors—but when it fails, it highlights just how critical it is and how much people depend upon it. We need to work together to make the improvements that my hon. Friend is right to demand for her constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.