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Govia Thameslink

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 3 July 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Transport to an Urgent Question in the other place. The Statement is as follows:

“The Shadow Transport Secretary has asked about the current situation on GTR and about electrification. I will answer each in turn.

Performance on GTR has been unacceptable since the timetable change on 20 May. GTR is working to increase the predictability and reliability of journeys on its network, including reducing the number of on-the-day cancellations. On 15 July, it will implement an interim timetable. This will allow GTR to slowly build up services to the originally planned May timetable. We have announced that passengers affected by severe disruption on GTR will receive special compensation; an announcement will follow shortly.

We have also commissioned the independent Glaister review to make sure we learn lessons and so that this does not happen again. We have started a formal review of the franchise to establish whether GTR has met its contractual obligations in the planning and delivery of the May timetable. We will not hesitate to take tough action against it if it is found to have been negligent.

On electrification, the Government are clear that passengers expect high-quality rail services and we are committed to electrification where it delivers passenger benefits and value for money. We will also take advantage of state-of-the-art, new technology to improve rail journeys.

Over recent days, there has been speculation over the trans-Pennine route upgrade. I can clarify for colleagues that the trans-Pennine route upgrade will account for one-third of our anticipated expenditure for rail enhancements nationwide for the next spending period. It will be the biggest single investment we will make during this period, demonstrating our commitment to improving passenger journeys in the north.

The department is currently awaiting Network Rail’s final project plan. We have instructed it to prioritise those elements which bring the quickest passenger benefits. We will update the House on this in due course”.

An industry readiness board was set up to review and direct “industry programmes for Thameslink 2018 operational readiness to minimise all risks associated with entry into service and ongoing sustained operations”. The Department for Transport sat on that board. Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State for Transport claims that he has no responsibility for the current new timetable shambles, why was the Department for Transport on that readiness board with its operational readiness remit?

Secondly, the Secretary of State has set up an inquiry into the causes of the current new timetable problems under the chair of the Office of Rail and Road. Some think that the ORR, which also sat on the readiness board, is one of the causes of the current problems through its cost-reduction demands on Network Rail and their impact on train planning costs and manpower. Who, then, will be considering the role of the ORR in respect of the current Thameslink timetable problems, since clearly that person cannot credibly be the chair of the ORR?

My Lords, on the operational readiness board, the timetable was planned to introduce major changes and rail companies communicated these changes extensively to their passengers. However, the level of disruption caused by the introduction of the timetable was obviously not anticipated. We are working closely with GTR to put this right. One issue was that the operational readiness board did not anticipate the disruption, so the review will cover that.

On the review itself, Professor Stephen Glaister, who is chairing it, is from the independent rail regulator, the ORR. The inquiry will consider why the industry as a whole failed to produce and implement an effective timetable. There are various independent people on that review and they will consider the role of the ORR, train operating companies and, indeed, the Department for Transport.

My Lords, I am interested in why the Government are suddenly so concerned about the appalling service from GTR when Southern, for instance, has been in a state of prolonged crisis for years and passengers have been left to suffer. Can the Minister explain the Government’s sudden change of heart?

Given the information from the operational readiness board, why did the Government not take the sensible step of deferring the new timetables? The Minister said in a Written Answer to me that the Secretary of State had not seen the minutes that warned of this impending chaos. Why was the Secretary of State not informed of the situation? When will the terms of compensation be precisely known?

Turning to electrification, the Government are very coy about the whole issue but we have rumbled the Secretary of State: when he skirts around a subject, it always means bad news. What is the Minister’s reaction to today’s ORR report, which warns that Network Rail has deferred £441 million of renewals this year, adding further to the backlog of work it needs to catch up on in CP6? Why do the Government want to phase out diesel cars while promoting diesel railways?

My Lords, on GTR and Southern, obviously there has been awful disruption on Southern in recent years. The franchise was designed to deliver the Thameslink programme and the department has been keeping a close eye on that. However, with the introduction of the new timetable, services have further failed.

On the information provided to the Secretary of State and around the wider timetable changes, I fully acknowledge that the correct information was not given to the Secretary of State. That is why we have set up this inquiry: to ensure that we learn lessons for the future and investigate what went wrong.

On compensation, we are working hard with the train operating companies and Network Rail on the exact details, which will be announced in the coming days.

My Lords, on 4 June the Secretary of State told the House of Commons, in relation to GTR:

“Let me be absolutely clear: passengers on these franchises are facing totally unsatisfactory levels of service”.—[Official Report, 4/6/18; col. 1190.]

He added that,

“my immediate priority is to ensure that the industry improves train services to an acceptable level as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 4/6/18; col. 1194.]

As a commuter on the Thameslink route from Radlett to City Thameslink, may I tell the Minister that the service has not improved over the last month? Indeed, it is getting worse. Will the Minister please tell me and the House why the Secretary of State has not done what he promised to do a month ago?

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for the experience he has had on his commute, and to all passengers. Resolution of this issue remains an absolute priority. GTR is currently working towards implementing a temporary timetable on 15 July, with the aim of bringing stability and performance improvements for passengers. Like many passengers on Thameslink and Great Northern, I am frustrated that the service is not stabilising sooner. GTR has a new CEO, who starts on Monday. He has been given a clear mandate to improve stability, and we expect the timetable change to start delivering improved reliability and stability to the service.

My Lords, given the chaos that is now reigning nationwide on the railway network, I think it is generally admitted that the time has surely come to scrap the ridiculous HS2 project and spend the billions of pounds saved on putting the rest of the network right.

My Lords, my noble friend never fails to disappoint me by raising HS2 in rail questions. The Government remain firmly committed to HS2. One of the reasons for the introduction of the new timetable was to ensure that we have more capacity, since passenger demand has doubled in recent years. HS2 will help deliver that much-needed capacity.

My Lords, yesterday the Secretary of State tried to reassure the people of the north that the trans-Pennine electrification schemes would go ahead. Does that apply to all the electrification schemes in the north, such as the Lakes Line, which was refused recently? On the subject of the Lakes Line, will the Government look seriously at the way in which Northern Rail stopped running trains on a whole railway line, with no trains at all for four weeks, and is now only running half the trains? The Government seem to be endorsing this as a great success.

My Lords, I certainly would not call that a great success. I am pleased that it started the restoration of the service yesterday, albeit a lesser service, helped by replacement buses. Trans-Pennine is our biggest planned investment project on the existing railway and is due to start next spring. It will be a rolling programme of enhancements, including both major civil engineering and electrification. On the Lakes Line in particular, we want to deliver additional direct services between Windermere and Manchester. These will first be delivered using a bi-mode train, adapted from a former electric-only train. Subject to the business case, there will also be brand new trains on the route with more seats and better on-board facilities. I know that Northern is exploring the possibility of introducing an alternatively fuelled train on the route.

My Lords, the House will appreciate the concern that the Minister has for those of us who travel on Govia Thameslink Railway. It introduced a novel piece of advice for those of us trying to get to London this morning: that we should get on a train going north, in the hope that we stood a better chance of getting on a train going south further up the line. At the weekend, we were excited at the news that Govia might lose the franchise. Will the Minister assure the House that that is a serious possibility? Seven weeks later, the trains are still in a dreadful mess and there is no communication with passengers, and there seems to be no concern from the management.

My Lords, I have heard the terrible first-hand experiences of family and friends, and many Members of this House. I entirely agree that GTR needs to get much better in the provision of information, so that passengers could at least attempt to plan their commute. On the hard review, announced by the Secretary of State, the department has begun an external audit of GTR by professionals with decades of experience in the rail industry. This will be a thorough examination of the performance and management of the franchise. The initial audit will take a number of weeks and will provide the department with evidence on which to base our next steps. Once complete, the audit could lead to the introduction of a remedial plan, a significant fine for GTR or, as a last resort—and if it best serves the interests of the passengers—the removal of the franchise from the operator.