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Southern Rail Services

Volume 777: debated on Monday 5 December 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given earlier today by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport to an Urgent Question on Southern Rail services. The Statement is as follows.

“Performance on the Southern network has been affected by a combination of factors over the previous months. These have included trade union action, infrastructure reliability and operator issues. The unions have stepped up their industrial action in the run-up to Christmas, additionally co-ordinating it with action on the Underground network. Let me be clear: this strike action is politically motivated and has affected passengers for far too long. Union leaders have even described the action as ‘carrying on Fidel’s work’. This will be of no comfort to passengers who just want to get to work.

I have a letter here to the Member for Bexhill and Battle from the Director of Railway Safety at the Office of Rail and Road. Responding to the safety concern from the unions, Ian Prosser says, ‘DOO is safe’. So the RMT and ASLEF should not be misleading the public about their dispute with GTR. Once again I can assure the hard-working staff on the GTR franchise. No train staff are losing pay and no one is losing their job.

Passengers want and deserve improvements which is why, in September, the Secretary of State appointed Chris Gibb, a leading railways professional, to work with the operator and Network Rail to identify areas where performance on the network can be improved quickly. Some of these £20 million of interventions are already under way and will be making a significant difference now. However, owing to continued industrial action by RMT, and now the planned action by ASLEF, Southern Rail services are to be subject to delays and alterations now and over the coming weeks.

In recognition of the disruption to services this year, the Secretary of State announced on 2 December a refund package that will compensate season ticket holders with a package equivalent to one free month in acknowledgement of the exceptional issues experienced this year. He also announced that GTR will be the first franchise to introduce Delay Repay 15, starting on 11 December. But compensation is not enough—we have to restore timely, predictable and punctual rail services. That is why the work of Mr Gibb is focusing on reducing the Network Rail faults. It is why we have new safe DOO trains that can cope with the volume of people wanting to use them. It is why I will continue to ensure that the management of the train operating company is doing everything in its power to run improved services. But we also need the union leaders to stop their needless, unreliable and disproportionate politically motivated strike”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question that was asked earlier today in the other place. Southern’s poor service record stretches back to mid-2015, so it is not simply related to any current dispute with its staff. Yet passengers face government-sanctioned above-inflation fare increases in just a few weeks.

I have two questions. First, is it the Government’s view that the actions and decisions of both sides have contributed to the current dispute, or do the Government fully support Southern in everything it has done over the last 18 months on quality of service and industrial relations issues? Secondly, what is the total amount of financial support the Government have so far provided or announced that they will provide, as a consequence of the dispute, to GTR, Southern’s owner, either directly or indirectly? Alternatively, will the owner have to bear the full costs of any loss of its revenue, payment of compensation or penalties for any breaches of contract as a result of the impact of the dispute on the level of service being provided and the numbers of passengers travelling? I imagine that the House will take a dim view if the Minister prays in aid commercial confidentiality for not responding to my question about the extent or otherwise of financial support.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his questions. He asked whether the Government are supporting one side over the other. The Government support the need to get this service back on track to get it running for the benefit of those long-suffering passengers. Therefore the short answer is that of course actions and improvements are required from both sides on this dispute. The noble Lord also asked about issues relating to the compensation that has been paid. I will write to him with the specific details.

My Lords, as, I suspect, the only former railway guard who is a Member of your Lordships’ House, I point out that the Government bear some responsibility for this dispute. They insist, to a supposedly privatised railway, that new rolling stock is geared for driver-only operation. They insist, to a supposedly privatised railway, that driver-only operation is perfectly safe. They refuse to listen to ASLEF, the drivers’ union, which points out that on a 12-coach commuter train, the driver—who might stop at 50 different stations during the course of an eight-hour shift—has six television screens to look at each time. Understandably, that union feels that the driver’s concentration is not what it should be at the end of an eight-hour shift. The Government and the train operating companies refuse to acknowledge the fact that the second person on the train does not just collect tickets and check revenue, which is all the train operating companies care about, but help passengers on and off the train, particularly those with disabilities who cannot get on and off it themselves. Finally, will the Minister finally accept that it ill serves all of us to have to listen to the sort of claptrap about Cuba and Fidel that he has just subjected us to?

I always seek to respond to all. The noble Lord obviously speaks from personal experience of the industry, which is always respected in this House. He raised the issue of the dispute. I remind noble Lords that 230 of the 232 who are concerned or involved with this dispute have already signed new contracts for the DOO system. The noble Lord raises, and is right to raise, important issues of health and safety. I assure him that, as I mentioned in the Statement I repeated, Ian Prosser of the ORR specifically wrote to my honourable friend in the other place, the Member for Bexhill and Battle, having looked at all the issues, including those raised by the noble Lord on health and safety, and after all the checks had been conducted he concluded that this service is safe and continues to be safe. In response to the noble Lord’s specific questions, I am happy to share the details of that letter with him. The health and safety issues that he has rightly raised in this House have been addressed by the Government and we have also had discussions about them with the ORR.

My Lords, it seems that the regular Christmas rail chaos will be even worse on Southern. We have already had more than 18 months of rail chaos, and in many cases passengers in that area have no alternative but to travel on those trains. Some of them have lost their jobs and some have certainly missed vital appointments. There seems to be stalemate in this dispute, with the economy of the south-east being very seriously damaged by it. The Government appear to be determined to beat the union and the union is equally determined to beat the Government. The Secretary of State said that it was his priority when he came into post, and I ask the Minister whether that remains the case. If so, I dread to think what happens to the things further down his list. He seems to have made no progress on this.

Will the Government consider cancelling the fare rise due to come in at the beginning of next year? It seems greatly unfair for passengers on this line to face higher fares for a lower and lower standard of service. Finally, has the Minister made any progress on the issue that I raised with him earlier—that is, accepting claims for compensation via apps?

The noble Baroness raises some important points. On the fares increase, the Government have recently announced a substantial compensation package, which reflects the priority that the Secretary of State is giving this issue. The compensation will reflect the challenges—the delays and cancellations—that have impacted on the people using the service.

I have taken back to the department the noble Baroness’s point about the apps. We are looking at what measures can be put in place to ensure that claims for compensation are dealt with effectively and efficiently.

On the question of prioritising this issue, the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Rail Minister, whose Statement I have repeated, are both dealing directly with this matter. The noble Baroness will be aware that the Rail Minister meets Network Rail and GTR weekly and that I recently held a briefing session for all Peers on this important issue. During that meeting I gave an assurance that the Rail Minister and I will continue to have formal quarterly updates to ensure that the challenges facing commuters, including Members of your Lordships’ House, are prioritised appropriately and that the relevant issues are brought to bear on the railway operator.

My Lords, I declare my interest as someone who has attempted to use this service. I thank my noble friend for arranging that extremely helpful briefing meeting with his colleague, the Rail Minister.

Do my noble friend and the Government have confidence in Southern’s ability to deliver an effective rail service? When does he think that this appalling and unacceptable situation, in which a very large area of the country is no longer served by a predictable rail service, will be resolved? Has not the time come for stronger action by the Government? Perhaps my noble friend can also help me and other people who use the railway to understand why the RMT is still on strike when the majority of the conductors have agreed to the new contract.

I assure my noble friend that the Government are looking for this long-standing dispute to be resolved as quickly as possible and have repeatedly called on all sides to come back to the negotiating table. I acknowledge that there are three elements to this issue, as set out in the Statement. First, there is the industrial action, which needs to be resolved. Secondly, why the strike persists when the substantial majority of those impacted—230 out of 232—have signed new contracts is a question for the unions to answer. The third element in the equation is, of course, the issue with Network Rail, which is responsible for the infrastructure. In that regard, the appointment of Chris Gibb to work specifically with both the franchise operator and Network Rail will ensure that we can identify the issues and, more importantly, address them as quickly and efficiently as possible. His report is due with the Secretary of State at the end of this year.